- Editorial Staff
- Biographies and personal histories, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Ballarat I, HMAS Kapunda, HMAS Bungaree
- March 2019 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Sixteen-year-old New Zealander, Frank Derek Simon, came to Australia in 1936 to take up an apprenticeship with a local shipping company. He stayed with his aunt and uncle in Sydney who became his guardians and he grew up with his young cousins. One of these, Alison Lavick nee Paykel, provided the Naval Historical Society with three volumes of his memoirs extending from his apprenticeship, to his service in the RAN throughout WWII and later as a Torres Strait pilot.
Going to Sea
Frank Derek Simon hailed from Christchurch and on completion of school decided upon a seafaring career. To family and friends, he was always known as Derek. In May 1936, following an interview in the Sydney offices of the Australasian United Steam Navigation Company (AUSNC), he was accepted as an apprentice. His indentures called for a premium of £50 lodged with the shipping company and in return the company guaranteed their servant a monthly salary of £1 for the first year of his apprenticeship, £1/10 the second year, £2 the third year and £3 the fourth and final year. In addition, the Master agreed to provide sufficient food, drink, lodgings and medical assistance, but all working apparel and necessities provided by the Apprentice.
The AUSNC was one of a number of long established shipping companies trading on the Australian coast and throughout the South Pacific. After consolidating sea training the AUSNC encouraged apprentices to undertake six months training as Midshipmen in the RAN.
‘On 18 October 1937 I joined the gleaming flagship HMAS Canberraoff Man-o’-War steps. My uniform and other necessities were provided by theNavy and I was paid 6 shillings a day or £9 per month, but out of this I had to pay 2/6 per day for messing.’
Derek was billeted in the Gunroom with three other Reserve ‘middies’ and four RAN Cadet Midshipmen; later the Gunroom would fill to overflowing with a further 10 cadets joining from the Naval College. There was a busy program laden with training and social commitments, including the Empire Games held in Sydney in February 1938, and visits were made to Jervis Bay, Melbourne and Hobart. After a final week of examinations all three Probationers were confirmed as Midshipmen RANR(S). It was then back to the AUSNC and off with fine uniforms to don working togs for chipping, souggeeing, painting, cleaning and maintenance aboard small low-powered cargo vessels.
A few months later in September 1938 there was a national seamen’s strike, resulting in all coastal shipping being laid-up and crews paid off. The AUSNC apprentices were appointed as ship-keepers, living on board and attending to cleaning, routine maintenance and security of each vessel. As the ships were dead there was no electricity which meant working under oil lamps, and to ensure regular rounds were conducted, an apprentice had to ‘bundy off’ every hour during a 24-hour cycle.
The E&A Line and off to war
In their final year apprentices were selected to serve in the three passenger-cargo liners of the sister Eastern & Australian Shipping Company. On 12 June 1939 Derek was posted to SS Nellorewhere he was treated as a junior watch-keeping officer during her voyage to Rabaul, Manila, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Japanese ports. In Melbourne on 2 September 1939, together with the ship’s Second Officer who had been a cadet at the Naval College but was made redundant in the Depression, they visited Navy Office and volunteered for military service. Both were immediately accepted and the next day, on which war was declared, Derek was sent to HMAS Cerberusjoining a course of 27 merchant navy apprentices, all entered as Midshipmen.
The Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Kanimbla
After a month’s initial training they were posted to various seagoing billets. Derek was amongst four sent to HMS Kanimbla.This 11,000-ton passenger motor ship, requisitioned by the Admiralty, was being converted to an Armed Merchant Cruiser (AMC) at Sydney’s Garden Island Dockyard.
Kanimbla,built by Harland & Wolff at Belfast, was amongst 70 first rate ships strengthened for potential war service. British Government funding involved in this additional building gave the Admiralty first call upon their services in emergencies, she was therefore commissioned into the Royal Navy. With minimum additional work Kanimbla was ready for the 7 x 6-inch main armament, 2 x 3-inch high angle AA guns, 2 x 0.303-inch machine guns and 2 x depth charge launchers to be fitted.
With a complement of 30 officers and 300 ratings, Kanimblawas commissioned on 6 October 1939 under the command of Captain Frank Getting RAN. Other than the Captain and Commander and one Warrant Officer, all other officers and the vast majority of ratings were ex-Australian merchant service.
On 13 December they were bound for Hong Kong checking various small islands and reefs which might be used by enemy raiders. In Hong Kong they were joined by two familiar ships, the recently converted AMCs HM Ships Arawa(ex-Esperance Bay) and Moreton Bay.Although commissioned into the Royal Navy these ships were predominately Australian manned. These AMCs relieved the RN cruisers HM Ships Birminghamand Sheffieldfrom their patrols.
Now winter in the northern hemisphere, Kanimbla’s crew experienced snow and ice during patrols through Russian waters. Suspect vessels were stopped and boarded ensuring they were not carrying cargo bound for Axis use. Any German nationals were apprehended and taken to neutral Japan for repatriation. A number of German merchant ships sheltered in Japanese ports, unable to break through the AMCs blockade.
From April to June 1940 Kanimbla was dry-docked in Hong Kong and on completion, with a deteriorating situation, she embarked the Commander-in-Chief China Station, Admiral Sir Percy Noble and his staff, taking them to the safety of Singapore. They called at Saigon en routein a vain attempt to persuade Vichy French ships to join the Allied cause.
Kanimbla,now transferred to the East Indies Station, patrolled between Singapore and Hong Kong where they inspected a number of Italian merchantmen anchored in neutral Thai waters. Escort duties were performed with troopships coming from Australia to Singapore. Then across to Colombo searching for suspected German raiders before making for Durban.
The author mentions that at night when passing through a heavy rain squall they were surprised by a darkened unidentified merchantman at a range of about 3000 yards. The Captain ordered illumination by searchlight proving her to be the friendly City of London. Many were critical of this order as their ship was not fully prepared for action.
September 1940 saw Kanimblain company with HMS Shropshire(not yet transferred to the RAN) escorting a convoy of South African troops bound for the Middle East. To give some idea of the problems in maintaining convoy formations before the advent of radar, after experiencing a pitch black night, at first light one morning they had no convoy. The high speed convoy steamed past their escorts without either party being aware. Radio silence had to be broken to regain their formations.
A familiar pattern emerged crisscrossing the Indian Ocean between Singapore, Bombay, Aden, Mauritius and Durban mainly escorting convoys and searching suspect vessels. During refit in Bombay on 25 March 1941 Captain Getting was relieved by A/Captain William Adams RN who had previously served as Executive Officer of HMAS Perth. Adams had three destroyer commands under his belt before accepting an exchange posting to Perth, leaving her one month before she was sunk in Sunda Strait.
Change of Command and Operation BISHOP
Captain Getting and his second-in-command, Commander Geoffrey Branson RN, possibly displayed a lack of tolerance for reservists, as a result they were not universally liked. The change in command to Captain Adams and his leadership style made for a much happier ship. The new captain liked Burmese cats with two of these moggies having freedom of the ship.
Kanimblawas next ordered to the Persian Gulf to investigate German and Italian ships sheltering in the neutral ports of Bandar Shahpur and Bandar Abbas. By now it was mid-summer and very hot with the supply of fresh water at a premium. Disguised as a harmless merchantman flying a Dutch ensign, Kanimbla made for an anchorage where the waters of the great rivers Tigris and Euphrates enter the Gulf some 30 miles south of Abadan. As well as being a major oil terminal, Abadan was at the southern end of the strategically important trans-continental railway which ran through Iran and Turkey to Russia.
Over the next few days they were joined by the RIN sloop Lawrencewhich transferred 300 Indian troops to Kanimbla,together with 30 days of provisions including live sheep. They were then joined by numerous small craft.
Many consider Operation BISHOP one of the finest of its type conducted during WWII. With minimum resources it was well planned, brilliantly executed and the results were of immense importance to the war effort in guaranteeing vital oil supplies to Britain and her allies.
On the night of 24 August Kanimbla,accompanied by her flotilla of light vessels, stole up the river Khar Musa, and, by surprise attack, captured the railway port of Bandar Shahpur. They also captured eight enemy merchant ships with valuable cargo, two gunboats and a floating dock. The Indian-led troops captured the Abadan Oil Refinery and the Iranian Naval Base, suffering many casualties.
Being in charge of No 5 Boarding Party Derek Simon had first-hand experience of this operation which he records in detail. These parties did invaluable work in preventing the Axis crews from scuttling their ships and thereby losing valuable cargoes, and the captured ships were taken as prizes.
Persia had remained neutral and with the influence of a considerable German and Italian population was sympathetic to the Axis cause. However, largely resulting from Operation BISHOP the Shah of Persia signed an armistice and the threat of Iran falling into enemy hands was averted. Sub-Lieutenant Simon received an official commendation for his part as a boarding officer in this operation.
With the success of this operation in early October Kanimbla sailed for Bombay before docking at Colombo. When Japan entered the war on 8 December it was back to Singapore escorting a convoy through the Sunda Strait and then sailing directly for Melbourne, where they arrived on Christmas Day after an absence of more than two years. The ship’s company was granted general leave to 30 December and married men to 5 January. A few days later they departed with a convoy of reinforcement and supplies for the Netherland East Indies and Singapore.
In February 1942 Kanimbla dry-docked at Cockatoo Island for much needed maintenance. During this period CMDR Branson was relieved by A/CMDR Frederick James RAN. On the evening of 10 March there was an emergency recall and the ship sailed at midnight with 41 absentees, who caught up with the ship at Brisbane. Here they found the city overrun by Americans. Kanimbla was tasked with escorting the passenger ship Monterey, full of US troops, to Melbourne.
They next made for a Tongan anchorage where US Task Force 17, which had so successfully turned back the Japanese at the Battle of the Coral Sea, was at anchor. After a short interlude in New Zealand they returned to Sydney. A few days later on Sunday 31 May the harbor city was subject to a Japanese midget submarine attack. Moored in Neutral Bay, Kanimblahad a grandstand view and added to the confusion by opening up with her 3-inch AA guns. After further convoy duty it was now time for SBLT Simon to leave Kanimbla.
Merchant Navy Certificates and HMAS Kapunda
In the Merchant Service, after completion of indentures an apprentice sits professional examinations to become a certified watchkeeping officer and eventually a Master Mariner. Like a number of his colleagues caught up in wartime service, Derek Simon could not be spared to prepare for, and sit these exams, so their professional life outside the RAN suffered.
When Kanimbla reached Fremantle in October 1942 Derek was granted two months’ leave to sit for his Second Mate’s Certificate, however by this time he had accumulated sufficient sea time to sit for his First Mate’s Certificate. In Sydney Captain Ditchburn, an understanding examiner of Masters and Mates, agreed that in the circumstances Derek could sit for both examinations.
Derek enrolled at Captain Bayldon’s Navigational School at Circular Quay and Mrs. Mackenzie’s Signals School in Clarence Street, living at a nearby guesthouse. (In 1939 Mrs. Mackenzie established the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps, the forerunner of the WRANS). Derek was the first candidate in Australasia to pass both Second and First Mates examinations simultaneously. In early December 1942 with his shiny new certificate he was promoted Lieutenant.
Coming back down to earth Derek was posted to the ex-Cam & Co coal-fired trawler, and now minesweeper, HMAS Goonambie. This step down did not last long and on 24 December 1942 he was reassigned as First Lieutenant of HMAS Kapunda. Ships of this class were officially Australian Minesweeping Ships (AMS) but performed numerous roles and were known as corvettes.
This was a time of considerable enemy activity off the east coast of NSW. Kapundapicked up 33 survivors from the torpedoed US tanker Mobilubeon 18 January 1943; with 12 crew remaining onboard the ship was saved and towed into Sydney. A lifeboat with survivors from the Union Steamship Company vessel Kalingawhich had been torpedoed made a landing in Sydney. The US tanker Henry Burnett was torpedoed off Port Stephens on 22 January.
Next month Kapundawas escorting convoys to PNG and who should Derek stumble across but his old commander Geoffrey Branson, now NOIC Milne Bay. Further north at Oro Bay the ship received her baptism of fire when bombed by Japanese aircraft; two Dutch merchant ships in the convoy were sunk and another damaged. After helping put out fires on the ship Gorgonshe was towed by the small Kapundaall the way to Cairns for repairs. In May 1943 Kapundatook five USAAF officers plus an Australian Army liaison officer from Townsville to Palm Island to investigate a possible landing site for an amphibious aircraft base. Their report must have been favourable as Seabees were soon at work constructing a seaplane base.
On 31 July the Assault Landing Ships HMA Ships Manooraand Westralia arrived at Cairns to embark the AIF 9thDivision. Next day they proceeded in company with Kapunda,and her sisters HMA Ships Wilcanniaand Bowenand rendezvoused with a large convoy of 19 ships and five escorts, which included HMAS Swanand USS Henley. The convoy later split up with five ships detached for Port Moresby and the remainder for Milne Bay. By the end of the year there were over 80 vessels at Milne Bay including the cruisers HMA Ships Australiaand Shropshire.
Hydrographic Surveying in HMAS Bungaree
In February 1944 LEUT Simon joined the Hydrographic Branch and was appointed First Lieutenant and Assistant Surveyor 4th Class of the minelayer HMAS Bungaree. This 3,000-ton coal burner, under command of CMDR Norman Calder RAN with a complement of 200, had laid defensive minefields around the Barrier Reef.
Using Bowen and Townsville as bases for coal and stores their task was now to resurvey the Torres Strait passages in readiness for the arrival of the British Pacific Fleet (BPF). They were joined at Thursday Island by the ex-fishery research vessel HMAS Polaris and ML 820.The work was demanding in areas of treacherous tides but it taught Derek much about surveying. In July 1944 Bungaree was sent south for refit.
Back in Sydney Derek was granted two months leave to sit his Masters Certificate. Here there was a slight hiccup when surprisingly the examiner, Captain Brand, failed Derek in his signals examination. After going back to Mrs. Mackenzie’s Signals School he was reexamined, this time by Captain Ditchburn and passed with flying colours. Some-time later it became common knowledge that Captain Brand’s failures of signals candidates had caused a stir, resulting in the examiner himself having to undergo revision in this subject with the formidable Mrs. Mackenzie.
HMAS Ballarat and the 21st Minesweeping Flotilla
In December 1944 Derek Simon was appointed Navigator of the 21st Minesweeping Flotilla under CMDR Franklyn Morris RAN, serving in HMAS Ballarat. The flotilla comprised: Ballarat, HMA Ships Goulburn, Burnie, Whyalla, Maryborough, Kalgoorie, Bendigo and Toowomba. Their initial task was minesweeping off the approaches to Sydney prior to the arrival of the BPF and then in February 1945 to escort the first echelon of the Fleet Train to the forward base at Manus Island.
Eventually a British Fleet, augmented by Australian ships numbering about 60 vessels, was assembled at Seeadler Harbour and after a hasty workup departed for Leyte Gulf on 18 March 1945. A few days later at San Pedro Bay between the islands of Leyte and Samar there were ships as far as the eye could see. An airstrip to the west fascinated the small Australian minesweepers with planes constantly arriving or departing – counting more than 100 movements an hour.
Time was now spent operating between Leyte and north to Formosa and back to Manus, and the US forward base, in the Marshall Islands. On 14 August 1945 Japan accepted surrender terms and two weeks later the Minesweeping Flotilla entered Tokyo Bay where they met colleagues in Shropshire, HMA Ships Hobart, Warramunga, Bataan, Nizam and Napier. Before arrival in Japan Ballarat had spent 36 days continuously at sea steaming 8,196 nm at an average speed of 9.4 knots. During this period at sea she had refueled five times and taken on stores four times. There were no major defects and the ship’s company was in good health.
All the assembled ships listened to the broadcast surrender ceremony on Sunday 2 September 1945. The next day Ballarat took a working party from the flagship HMS King George V to the Japanese naval base at Yokosuka to find rope and paint. On arrival they were bailed up by half-a-dozen Australian war correspondents informing them that all Japanese had fled many miles inland. Ashore they were amazed at the lack of damage to the well-constructed buildings, many built under protective hills with inter-connecting tunnels. While most of the stores were empty they found enough supplies to satisfy the flagship which was thereafter coated with Japanese paint.
On 5 September they departed via Subic Bay to Hong Kong. The city was in a pitiful state mainly due to Allied bombing.Ballarat, joined by Burnie and Mildura, took over minesweeping duties and recovered and detonated over 80 mines. They next proceeded to the Chinese territory of Amoy and on arrival found a fully manned Japanese destroyer, surrendered to the Chinese. Outside the port two large minefields were discovered which took six days to sweep. This gallant ship’s active role as a minesweeper suddenly ended on 6 November when a magnetic mine exploded about 20 feet from her stern. It is ironic that these mines were dropped by RAAF Lancaster bombers prior to the Japanese surrender.
After emergency repairs Ballarat proceeded independently to Hong Kong for docking. After refit she gathered up her charges and slowly made the return journey home leading the 21st Minesweeping Flotilla into Sydney Harbour on 9 December 1945. The next day Rear Admiral James Rivett-Carnac DSC RN, representing the BPF Commander, made an official call and paid tribute to the part the flotilla had played in the war.
Demobilisation and starting all over again
Demobilisation commenced on 11 December with great jubilation. Derek Simon proceeded by train to Melbourne and embarked in MV Stirling Castle bound for Lyttleton with a shipload of New Zealand servicemen returning home. There was a huge welcome and he was to enjoy Christmas with his family, the first in ten years.
This was the start of complete freedom from war-time restrictions with a three-month holiday. But after a while the call of the sea returns and Derek applied for a position with the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand. The Union Company dominated trade on the New Zealand coast with a fleet of over sixty vessels. Although possessing a Masters’ Certificate Derek had to start at the bottom as Third Mate of Waipihi, a small 1800-ton coastal steamer, joining her in Wellington on 31 March 1946. After one voyage he was promoted Second Mate and could then have looked forward to a promising career.
The Eastern & Australian Steamship Company (E&A) where Derek had originally served was no more, having lost all the ships of its small fleet to wartime action. But in 1946 a consortium of shippers decided to reform the old company. Accordingly, Derek retraced his steps to Sydney and on 16 July 1946 became Third Mate of the new 10,000-ton SS Eastern. Back to his second home, they were trading from the Australian east coast to the Pacific Islands, Philippines, China and Japan. This was an exciting time with a booming trade which included bringing American war surplus material from the Pacific to Australia where it was highly prized by the construction industry.
Marriage and the RANR
During some home leave Derek decided on a bus tour to the Franz Josef Glacier. The party included a young lady who stumbled and fell into a stream and Derek rescued her; family members say this fall may have been engineered. Whatever the circumstances, Derek and Lorna Gibbs, a country girl from Cootamundra NSW, fell in love.
In Sydney on 21 July 1949 Lorna and Derek married and were eventually blessed with two daughters. A few days later Derek received a War Gratuity of £323/13/9 which came in handy setting up home in West Pymble. However it took another two years (December 1951) to receive prize money of £8/6/0 for his part in the capture of German and Italian ships at Bandur Shahpur when serving in Kanimblain 1941. Prize money was possibly not what it was in Nelson’s day, when an officer might live comfortably on the proceeds.
When Naval Reserve training was reinstated, in August 1952 Derek volunteered for posting to the frigate HMAS Murchisonfor 28 days continuous training. In the same year he was awarded the Reserve Decoration (RD). In October 1956 a further 28 days training was spent at the shore establishment HMAS Watson. Having reached 45 years of age on 4 June 1964 Lieutenant Commander Frank Derek Simon RD RANR(S) officially retired from the seagoing list of the RANR.
Command at last
The E&A Line was mainly run with Australian officers and Chinese crews, as it had been for many years. Because of its small number of ships, it became more of a family concern where they all knew one another and long-term relationships flourished. With few vacancies progress was slow and Derek was nearly forty years of age before, in May 1958, he received his first command of SS Nankin and he was to remain with her for five years.
Later in the same year when loading lumber in the North Borneo port of Sandakan he learned that the tug Pedang, towing rafts of logs, was none other than the famous ex-HMAS Krait. This humble fishing boat (then Kofoku Maru) had helped evacuate civilians from Singapore to Sumatra before being used by Australian commandos on a daring raid of Singapore. Later when a public appeal arranged for the purchase of this vessel the E&A Company shipped her to Sydney free of charge.
There were two more commands, the first of the beautiful and almost yacht like MV Arawattataking bulk cargo to Japan and returning with the first imports of Nissan and Toyota cars. Next came another new ship and final command of SS Arafura.
Torres Strait & Queensland Coast Pilot Service
As E&A Line ships constantly traversed the inner route of the Great Barrier Reef a number of their masters became Reef Pilots. Accordingly, in December 1966 Derek applied and was accepted into the Torres Strait Pilotage Service.
The Pilot Service is an association of experienced master mariners, originally licensed in 1884 by the Queensland Maritime Board to pilot vessels along the length of the Queensland coast, including the Great Barrier Reef. In 1991 the Federal Government enacted the Great Barrier Reef Maritime Amendment Bill requiring compulsory pilotage of all commercial vessels over 100 metres in length; and all oil, chemical and liquid gas carriers when navigating within designated areas of the Great Barrier Reef. Two years later the Queensland Maritime Board was disbanded with regulatory responsibility handed to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.
The piloting service was based on Thursday Island where pilots had a residence and launches to meet incoming and departing vessels. Near here, where the seas from the Indian and Pacific meet, there are five different tidal systems with varying heights of navigable water allowing very little clearance for larger vessels. Nowadays pilots join and leave ships all around the Australian coast and take helicopters to join and disembark from huge bulk carriers more than 100 miles offshore.
In later life Derek required a hip operation but this did not keep him from his piloting duties as he was allowed to cut back his workload. On 25 May 1989, just short of his 70th birthday, Derek disembarked from the 43,000-ton MV Howard Smith ,his last pilotage completed after safely navigating hundreds of ships through these dangerous waters, and with 53 years of service at sea behind him.
Derek continued his maritime interests as a Warden of the Company of Master Mariners, a volunteer with the restoration ofJames Craig, and a foundation member of the Australian National Maritime Museum. Here he became a volunteer guide in Cook’s replica Endeavour, possibly one of the few guides who had traversed the same waters and stepped ashore on the same east coast landing places as the great navigator. Derek later joined the RAN Corvettes Association for many reunions with his shipmates from Kapunda.Derek marched proudly on Anzac Day and was honoured in 1997, leading the Merchant Navy contingent through Sydney.
Captain Frank Derek Simon RD passed over the bar on 6 October 2004 in his 85th year. Fittingly his ashes were scattered by the Reverend Ian Porter of the Sydney Mission to Seamen as Derek was a keen supporter of this institution. Without her beloved husband, Lorna passed away nearly two years later. They are survived by married daughters Christine and Margaret and four grandsons.
It was a privilege to record this summary of the life of a gallant master mariner and valued member of the Royal Australian Naval Reserve. We should pause for a moment and think where we might find his likeness again should the need arise in a future long-term conflict.