[Oil on artist board with some scratching in, 50.6 x 35.6cm. AWM ART22476]
[Supplied by his daughter, Jill Green]
Lieutenant William (known as ‘Bill’ or ‘Scrub’) Langford must have posted his wife’s letter as soon as he wrote it because his ship, HMAS Parramatta, sailed from Alexandria on 25 November 1941.
Two days later, on 27 November, HMAS Parramatta was lost in the Mediterranean off the North African coast, the third Australian warship lost to enemy action in World War II.
Since Marjorie Findlay, Bill’s fiancee, was from Tasmania and he was based in Sydney they selected Melbourne for their wedding on 19 December 1939. Bill was only permitted 12 hours leave so he arrived from Sydney at 11.40 am that morning. Their wedding ceremony was at 1.45 pm and the newly married couple flew back to Sydney at 3.00 pm the same day.
Early in 1940, Bill Langford was appointed First Lieutenant to the newly commissioned HMAS Parramatta and sometime during the next few months the newly married couple did manage to have a few days’ honeymoon at Manly Beach.
However, on 11 June 1940, the day after Italy declared war, Australia proposed to send additional naval assistance to Britain by releasing HMA Ships Westralia and Parramatta for service in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. Marjorie and Bill had been married for only six months when his ship, HMAS Parramatta, left Australia for escort and minesweeping duties in the Red Sea Force.
In April 1941, Parramatta took part in the successful campaign to capture the Italian naval base at Massawas in Eritrea in north-east Africa and later she towed the torpedoed British cruiser HMS Capetown from Eritrea to Port Sudan further north on the Red Sea coast of Sudan. On 14 April 1941, Parramatta’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Commander Jefferson Walker, wrote of how he had he sent the ship’s motor boat through the mine-swept channel into the port of Massawa with some of his staff officers on board:
Thus … the first British naval officer to reach Massawa by sea was Lieutenant G W A Langford, RAN, in charge of my boat.
[G Hermon Gill, The Royal Australian Navy 1939-1942, Canberra, 1957, p.372]
On 3 June 1941, when Parramatta returned to Alexandria from the East Indies Station, she had spent nearly 40 unbroken weeks in the Red Sea. In the Mediterranean she sailed back and forth with the Tobruk Ferry Service. Men, ammunition and stores were shuttled to the Australian and British troops in the garrison there and Parramatta escorted the slower merchant ships in and out of the port.
During July and August 1941, Bill Langford was Acting Captain of the Parramatta while Lieutenant-Commander Walker recovered from injuries he had received in a traffic accident ashore in Alexandria.
On 25 November, just after Lieutenant Langford wrote his last letter to his wife, Parramatta, in company with a British escort destroyer, took an ammunition ship, SS Hanne, westwards towards Tobruk. Early on the morning of 27 November, as she was escorting the SS Hanne with emergency supplies of ammunition, Parramatta was torpedoed by German submarine U-559 at a range of about 1500 metres. Another almost simultaneous explosion occurred and the ship rolled over and sank within minutes. Her commanding officer, Lieutenant-Commander Walker, gave the order to abandon ship but few of the men managed to get away. Only 23 of the ship’s company of 161 were saved. Lieutenant Langford and all of Parramatta’s officers were amongst those lost together with eight members of the Royal Navy travelling in the ship. The Hanne reached Tobruk safely.
[NAA A1608 S51/1/6]
Jill Green, Bill Langford’s daughter, was born after her father left Australia in 1940. He would have seen his daughter for the first time had he returned to Australia.
According to Jill:
News of my birth arrived while the ship was in Bombay. The Parramatta was being overhauled and given a new camouflage and the crew enjoyed shore leave after very trying convoy duty in the Red Sea. I have a rather suspect piece of tissue paper from the Berkeley Hotel on which is written, amongst other things: ‘Baby’s head has been well and truly wet. Good luck’ Signed ‘Jono’.
On 17 June 2004, almost 59 years after her father’s death, Mrs Jill Green launched the new Anzac frigate HMAS Parramatta, the third ship to bear the name, at the Williamstown Dockyard in Victoria. In her speech she spoke of meeting some of the survivors from her father’s ship and of the collection of her father’s letters to her mother,
a very touching and remarkable record of life on board the Parramatta … which have helped me to appreciate the character and personality of the father I never knew.
There is another letter in Jill’s collection. The man who was to be Jill’s godfather, Commander Syd Dalton DSO, wrote to her mother Marjorie from HMAS Sydney on 9 February 1941, just as the cruiser was returning to Australia. Syd Dalton, the Engineering Officer in HMAS Sydney, was one of the 645 men lost when Sydney disappeared off the coast of Western Australia on 19 November 1941.
9th February 1941
Eight days after Syd Dalton was lost in the Sydney, Jill lost her father in HMAS Parramatta on the other side of the world – just a week before her first birthday.