1 July 1942 Montevideo Maru: 1054 PoWs killed

On this day RANVR Sub Lieutenant Mitchell and CPO Lamont and four Navy coast watchers were drowned when Montevideo Maru was sunk.

On 22 June 1942, some weeks after the fall of Rabaul to the Japanese, a large number of Australian prisoners were embarked from Rabaul’s on the SS Montevideo Maru. Unmarked as a POW ship, she was proceeding without escort to the Chinese island of Hainan, when she was sighted by the American submarine USS Sturgeon near the northern Philippine coast on 30 June.

The Sturgeon pursued, but was unable to fire, as the target was traveling at 17 knots. However, it slowed to about 12 knots at midnight. Unaware that it was carrying Allied prisoners of war and civilians, the Sturgeon fired four torpedoes at the Montevideo Maru before dawn of 1 July, causing the vessel to sink in only 11 minutes. According to a Japanese survivor Australians sang “Auld Lang Syne” to their trapped mates as the ship sank beneath the waves.[3]

A nominal list made available by the Japanese government in 2012 revealed that a total of 1054 prisoners (178 non-commissioned officers, 667 other ranks and 209 civilians) died. Not a single POW survived the sinking, and this became Australia’s worst loss of life at sea.

20 June 1940. George Medal for bravery

On this Day the George Medal was awarded to LCDR Alan Wedell Ramsay McNicoll, RAN. The award for bravery was for disarming eight torpedoes inside the captured Italian submarine Galileo Galelei, off Aden when he was serving in HMS Kandahar.

The submarine had been forced to surrender by the trawler HMS Moonstone. LEUT G. F. E. Knox, RAN, also served in Kandahar. He was appointed prize captain of the submarine for the passage into Aden.

LCDR McNicoll joined the RAN in 1922 as a Cadet Midshipman and rose to be was Deputy Secretary of Department of Defence, 1958-1959; Second Naval Member of the Naval Board, 1960-1961; Flag Officer Commanding H.M. Australian Fleet 1962-1964; as Vice Admiral Sir Alan McNicoll he became First Naval Member of the Naval Board, , 1965-1968 – the position which is now Chief of Navy.

15 June 1942 – HMAS Nestor attacked

On This Day in 1942 the RAN’s destroyer HMAS Nestor sank SW of Crete after towing the flooded vessel by HMS Javelin proved impossible.

Operation Vigorous was a convoy of 11 Merchant ships from Haifa to Malta. Two RN cruisers and 12 destroyers escorted the merchant ships. N Class Destroyers Norman and Nestor were there. The convoy was attacked from the air by the Luftwaffe, by U boats and by E boats.

Nestor had three bombs near miss her and one of them tore a hole in her side which killed 4 stokers and flooded both her engine rooms.

Nestor’s doctor Surgeon Lieutenant Shane Watson RANR was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, DSC for repeatedly diving in the boiler room to recover the bodies of the four stokers killed and search for survivors. His citation observed that he displayed: …… outstanding bravery in entering the flooded boiler room in complete darkness in order to rescue crew he knew must be either killed or seriously injured. He dived repeatedly till all bodies were recovered.

Petty Officer Stoker Thomas Ellston from Sydney received a Distinguished Service Medal for his work in ensuring that the ship’s hand pumps continued to work all through the long night. Mentions in Dispatches (MID) were awarded to those who worked to shore up bulkheads and patch holes in the ships sides through the night in flooded compartments.

Nestor’s Executive officer Lieutenant George Crowley, RN, was awarded a DSC for his leadership in keeping the ship’s company working together to try to save their ship and then supervising their evacuation.

28 Apr 1941 – RAN volunteer killed in de-mining

28 April 1941. On this day in 1941 LEUT James Henry Kessack, RANVR lost his life trying to defuse a German land mine in London. He was awarded a posthumous George Medal for gallantry and undaunted devotion to duty.

James Kessack was born in Glasgow in 1903 and volunteered for the RANVR Yachtsman’s Scheme in Sydney as a probationary sub Lieutenant in 1940 at an age, 37, when he could have easily have been excused active service. The so called yachtsmen, very few of whom had ever done any sailing, were a group of over 500 Australian and New Zealand new entry volunteer officers asked for by the Admiralty to provide the numbers needed for the wartime RN convoy escorts.

Kessack trained with mine disposal officers at HMS Vernon before becoming operational. He succeeded in defusing 10 mines before the 11th one killed him. The Germans adapted their mines to ensure that de fusing them by hand became increasingly more hazardous. The procedure that had been learned on one mine to make it safe was certain to trigger it when tried on a later model.

Former Yachtsmen Scheme officers considered that post war Australia under rated their service as by 1945 their 1939 decision to volunteer to serve in the UK was not well understood or appreciated by the public who had been focussed on war in New Guinea and the Pacific.

22 April 1916 – HMAS Australia HMS New Zealand collision

ON THIS day in 1916 the battle cruisers HMAS Australia and HMS New Zealand collided in a fog off the Horns Reef in the North Sea. They were both following synchronised anti submarine zig zag courses. Responsibility can be equally apportioned but the damage was not. HMAS Australia had to be sent to Plymouth for repairs. She returned to the 5th Battle cruiser squadron the day after the Battle of Jutland, 31 May much to her chagrin. HMS New Zealand was in the Battle and was hit on a gun turret but without result.

Three RN Battle Cruisers, Indefatigable, Invincible, and Queen Mary succumbed to the combination of lack of armour and accurate German gunnery and erupted in flame within two hours, taking the lives of over three thousand sailors. Had HMAS Australia been at Jutland in May that might have been her fate. Churchill post war admitted that the RN’s battle cruisers were: ‘eggshells armed with hammers’.

It is not impossible that the collision between Australia and New Zealand on 22 April in 1916 spared the RAN from a disaster which would still be seared into the national memory a century later.

RAN helps in British raid to block Belgian canal

On the night of 22-23 April 1918 Artificer Engineer W. H. V Edgar, RAN, and 10 ratings from HMAS Australia, loaned to a variety of British ships participated in the raid to block the canal at Zeebrugge, Belgium.

The object of the raid was to deny the use of the canal to German submarines and destroyers operating in the North Sea. Despite very heavy casualties suffered by RN and Royal Marines during the raid, none of the Australians were killed or wounded.

Subsequent awards for gallantry were made to 7 of the RAN participants:

15 April 1944 – LEUT Max Shean – X Craft

On this day in in 1944 Lieutenant Maxwell Henry Shean, RAN, commanded the midget submarine X-24 in a solo raid on an important floating dock in Bergen Harbour, Norway, codenamed Operation GUIDANCE. X-24 was towed to the drop-off point by HMS Sceptre, commanded by another Australian, Lieutenant (later Vice Admiral, Sir) Ian McIntosh RN. The final approach required X-24 to negotiate a passage of some 40 nautical miles through patrolled waterways protected by two minefields and torpedo nets.

After successfully entering the busy basin, Shean and his crew set 24-hour time-delayed charges on their target and made their way back out to the rendezvous with Sceptre. Upon their return to Scotland they discovered that difficult photo intelligence and incorrect charts had led them so set their charges on an enemy ammunition ship instead of the floating dock. This did not, however, diminish X-24’s remarkable feat. The attack was deemed a success and Shean was awarded the DSO for his leadership.

Later on the war he was awarded a bar to his DSO for his success in cutting Japanese cables in the Mekong Delta forcing the enemy to use wireless links which were being regularly decrypted by the Allies.

10 April 1941, the Siege of Tobruk began.

HMAS Waterhen sinking
Over the next 242 days, Australian, British, Indian and Polish troops, supported by RN and RAN and merchant ships defended the Fortress of Tobruk against German and Italian forces attempting to overrun the strategically important port. Access to it would provide a much more direct re supply of Axis forces aiming to take Egypt and seize the Suez Canal. Continue reading