- Swinden, Greg
- History - general, Ship histories and stories
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Childers (HMVS), HMAS Countess of Hopetoun (HMVS)
- June 2000 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Dangers of Service at Sea
The fire onboard HMAS Westralia in May 1998 in which four members of the RAN were killed and the loss of six yachtsman in the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, brought home to many the inherent dangers of service at sea.
Unfortunately the perils of ‘rock, tempest, and fire’ can be at times more dangerous than the foe. The RAN has had several incidents in its long and varied career. In February 1945, for example, ten men from HMAS Nizam were washed overboard and drowned in heavy seas off Cape Leeuwin, Western Australia. A month later a similar fate befell two men from HMAS Napier who were lost overboard during a storm in Bass Strait.
Five junior officers from HMAS Sydney were drowned in a sailing incident off North Queensland in 1963 and more recently, in 1987, two sailors from HMAS Otama drowned when the submarine submerged while they were still outside the pressure hull. The sea can be a dangerous medium in which to operate and those who ‘go down to the sea in ships’ need to be especially careful and vigilant in what they do.
Countess of Hopetoun and Childers
One of the earliest incidents at sea involving the RAN was the loss of a Signalman from the Torpedo Boat HMAS Countess of Hopetoun in December 1915. This incident almost saw the ship itself founder and it was fortunate that only one life was lost. This is that story.
Countess of Hopetoun (commanded by Boatswain Samuel Waugh, RN), a 23-year-old Torpedo Boat of some 75 tons, and her sister ship HMAS Childers (commanded by Gunner (T) Hamilton Woods, RAN) departed Williamstown Naval Depot on the evening of 13 December 1915. They proceeded south to Sorrento where, due to adverse weather conditions, they spent the night.
At 0445 on 14 December the two vessels, under the overall command of Lieutenant Commander George Inner, RANR (who was embarked in the Countess) got underway again and proceeded through The Rip. They passed Point Lonsdale at 0530 and proceeded out into Bass Strait.
As well as her normal crew, the Countess had onboard Engineer Lieutenant Frank Gillispie Cresswell (the Fleet Wireless Telegraphy Officer and no relation to Rear Admiral Creswell) and Signalman S.P. Baker of the RANR who was a qualified Wireless Telegraphy Operator. They were onboard to install a wireless set in the ship and it was planned that once the set was installed they would test it by calling up the Naval Lookout Station at King Island.
A heavy swell came up as the ships were crossing Bass Strait and at 1230 the Chief Engine Room Artificer in Countess reported that a boiler tube had burst and that the ship was losing pressure in her boiler. Innes ordered Childers to take the Countess in tow, but after several attempts, in which both the port and starboard towing bollards in the Countess were ripped out of the deck, the tow was abandoned.
At 1500 Innes ordered a sea anchor to be streamed and dispatched Childers, at speed, to Queenscliff with a request for assistance. As a result of the Countess’s predicament the tug Nyora was dispatched from Williamstown at 2045 on 14 December. As well as her usual civilian crew the tug had onboard ten Naval personnel, under the command of Sub Lieutenant T.C.A. Black RANR, to assist with the towing of the Countess. Nyora rendezvoused with Childers at 0200 on 15 December and passed through the heads into very heavy seas.
Nyora sighted the Countess at 0730, after the torpedo boat had fired its three pounder gun to attract the tug’s attention, and after passing a towline began to tow the stricken vessel at 0910. As the slack in the towline was being taken up the tug began to tow the torpedo boat beam on.
As a result of the towing bollards being ripped out of the deck, the towline had been placed around the torpedo boat’s small ‘conning tower’ type bridge. Thus the tug began to pull the Countess sideways and at one point her port navigation light was under water. As the Countess was pulled over, the heavy seas swept her deck and washed Signalman Sydney Percy Baker over the side.