4 March 1942, saw the crew of Yarra stand to for the routine dawn action stations. At 0630, as the men were proceeding to breakfast, the dreaded sound of the action alarm called them to actions stations for the last time.
A force of five Japanese vessels (the heavy cruisers Atago, Maya and Takao each carrying ten x 8-inch guns and two destroyers Arisha and Nowaki each equipped with six x 5-inch guns) was bearing down on the convoy at speed. Yarra’s men knew well the fate that awaited them – yet ran to their actions stations. Rankin directed that an enemy report be sent by wireless message, ordered the convoy to scatter and then with Yarra making smoke turned his small ship towards the approaching enemy and gave the order to open fire.
There was, however, to be now escape for Yarra or her convoy. Within an hour the three ships of the convoy had been sunk, by the Japanese warships superior firepower, and Yarra was drifting disabled with her engine room destroyed and two of three guns out of action. Rankin gave the order to abandon ship and a few moments later a shell struck the bridge killing all on duty there; Leading Signalman Geoffrey Bromilow, who was on the bridge ladder, was blown to the deck below and badly wounded.
The first lieutenant, Lieutenant Commander Francis Smith RANR, passed the order to abandon ship and an estimated 34 men of Yarra’s crew of 151 entered the water on two Carley floats. One man however refused to abandon ship. Leading Seaman Ron Taylor heard the order, and directed his two surviving guns crew to the rafts, but remained at No. 2 gun firing slowly, but defiantly, at the enemy until he was killed shortly before the ship sank at about 1000.
A Royal Navy officer from HMS Stronghold who was a prisoner of the Japanese wrote later recalling what he saw of Yarra.
We were taken on deck and shown, as they tried to impress us, the might of the Japanese Navy. The Yarra was the only ship left and we could see flames and a great deal of smoke. The two destroyers were circling Yarra which appeared stationary and were pouring fire into her. She was still firing back as we could see the odd gun flashes.
The three cruisers then formed a line ahead and steamed away from the scene.
The last we saw of Yarra was a high column of smoke – but we were all vividly impressed by her fight.
Over the next five days Yarra’s survivors drifted helplessly on two life-rafts and wreckage with wounds, exposure, thirst and sharks taking their toll. On the morning of 9 March the Dutch submarine K 11 surfaced to recharge her batteries and quite by accident found the rafts with the pitiful 13 survivors of Yarra’s last action. Amongst them was leading Signalman Bromilow who had stoically held on despite serious wounds and had constantly refused to take an extra ration of water when offered. None of the Yarra’s officers survived the action .
Collective gallantry is the most prized achievement in the Navy. A ship’s crew are all of one company and regardless of rank or rate they all go into battle together. Each member of the crew plays an important role in fighting the ship and Yarra’s men knew that.
On 4 March 2014, the then Governor General, Her Excellency the Honourable Quentin Bryce AC, CVO presented a retrospective Unit Citation for Gallantry to HMAS Yarra (II). The investiture took place in Melbourne in the presence of family and friends of the crew of HMAS Yarra (II) and the ships company of HMAS Yarra (IV). This is one of only four Unit Citations for Gallantry awarded to the ADF and the only one to the Navy.