- Periodical, Semaphore
- History - Between the wars
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Fantome, HMAS Brisbane I, HMAS Encounter
- September 2010 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in Issue 6 of Semaphore, the publication produced by The Sea Power Centre Australia in March 2006. We are indebted to them for their permission to reproduce the article.
Between April 1918 and May 1919, influenza, or its secondary complications, caused up to 50 million deaths, far more than had been killed in four years of war. Many died within the first few days of infection, and nearly half of these were young, healthy adults. The speed with which it spread has been described as ‘…perhaps the most extraordinary feature of this extraordinary pandemic…‘, for the easy transfer, from shore to ship and ship to shore, meant that even communities isolated by sea were vulnerable. A rigorous maritime quarantine policy reduced the immediate impact in Australia, but by the end of 1919 the nation had still suffered more than 11,500 deaths.
The ships of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), dispersed as they were around the world, were certainly not spared. The pandemic occurred in waves and the cruisers operating with the British Grand Fleet suffered several outbreaks in 1918, with up to 157 cases in a single ship. Outbreaks in the Mediterranean were even more severe with the cruiser HMAS Brisbane recording 183 cases between November and December 1918, of whom two died of pneumonia. In all, the RAN lost some 26 men to the disease. When the cramped mess decks and poorly ventilated living spaces of early 20th century warships are recalled, it is perhaps remarkable that the toll was not greater. The saving factor was largely the ready availability of professional medical treatment.
Some of the most virulent outbreaks occurred in the islands of the South Pacific, where few among the indigenous populations escaped infection. The disease arrived on the regular cargo vessel SS Talune, which had sailed from Auckland on 30 October 1918, knowingly carrying sick passengers. Successively calling at ports in Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Nauru, the steamer’s visits were marked by the first cases of influenza appearing ashore a few days after her departure. With local authorities generally unprepared, the infection spread uncontrollably, a situation aggravated both by the shortage of suitable drugs and the fact that local health workers were among the first to fall.
Hardest hit was the former German territory of Samoa, where inept New Zealand administration resulted in no attempts at patient isolation and the rejection of medical assistance offered from nearby American Samoa. With the forced closure of government institutions and stores, few people being in a fit state to assist with the distribution of food and medicines, and a growing number of uninterred dead, the Samoan situation rapidly became critical. On 19 November the military governor in the capital of Apia telegraphed Wellington for help, but had his request turned down on the grounds that all doctors were needed in New Zealand. Australia offered the only alternative source of aid.
The Commonwealth Naval Board was already aware of the developing regional crisis. The sloop HMAS Fantome, stationed at Suva in Fiji for police duties, had reported her first cases of influenza on 11 November, and soon had more than half her ship’s company incapacitated. More importantly in terms of an effective Australian response, of all government departments only the RAN had suitable assets at immediate readiness. On 20 November, the Board began gathering a joint relief expedition from among the available naval and military medical personnel, placing it under the command of Surgeon Temple Grey, RAN. The commanding officer of HMAS Encounter, Captain Hugh Thring, RAN, was then ordered to embark the expedition at Sydney and proceed at the earliest possible date to Samoa.
Even today the speed of Encounter’s response must be admired. Her sailing orders were telegraphed from Melbourne on Friday, 22 November, and throughout the next day and night the ship’s company worked tirelessly to get in relief stores. Without any information from Samoa as to specific requirements, Thring loaded almost 150 tons of cargo ranging from blankets and tents through to drugs and dry provisions, expecting that these would meet any emergency. The weekend created further difficulties as shops were shut and some items not in stock had to be purchased. Nevertheless, on Sunday forenoon the medical teams embarked, the last of the stores were in by 1550, and ten minutes later Encounter sailed from Sydney.