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Australia's War 1939 - 1945
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Overview
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The Ceremonial Sunset reflects the worldwide naval tradition of saluting the lowering of the ensign at sunset each day both in ships in harbour and shore establishments. At sunset the bugle sounds the Alert, the guard presents arms and the band commences the harmonised version of the bugle call Sunset as the Australian white ensign is lowered slowly.
[Played by the Royal Australian Navy band conducted by Lieutenant Commander Phillip Anderson]
Able Seaman Cocks on board the frigate HMAS Sydney (IV) reads the lesson during the commemoration of the loss of the light cruiser HMAS Sydney (II) off Geraldton, Western Australia. The frigate HMAS Sydney (IV) was returning to Australia after serving in the Gulf in 2002.
[Image supplied by HMAS Sydney, reproduced in Navy News, 13 May 2002]

Lost at Sea
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The RAN lost more than 25 ships between 1939 and 1945.
Cruisers, destroyers, frigates, sloops, auxiliary vessels
and stores ships were lost in battle, sunk in accidents,
caught fire or simply disappeared at sea. During the
same period more than 1800 naval personnel died in
action, drowned or died as prisoners of war.
These are just some of those losses.

Not only direct enemy action but also floating mines, fire, sudden squalls, treacherous seas, being washed overboard and drowning were some of the perils faced by those at sea in the Royal Australian Navy during World War II.

There were no casualties when the RAN lost its first ship to enemy action, HMAS Waterhen, on 30 June 1941, attacked by enemy aircraft off Tobruk, Libya. But, five months later on 19 November 1941, all 645 men on board HMAS Sydney were lost when she was sunk by the German raider Kormoran off the coast of Western Australia. On 27 November, only eight days after the Sydney was lost, 138 officers and men died when HMAS Parramatta was sunk off Tobruk.

In 1941, there were also two RAN casualties as a result of enemy action in Australia. On 13 July 1941, just two weeks after the sinking of the Waterhen, two sailors, Able Seaman William Leonard Edward Danswan and Able Seaman Thomas William Todd, died on a beach in South Australia, possibly the first naval casualties of enemy action in Australian waters.

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Able Seaman William Leonard
Edward Danswan, who with
Able Seaman Thomas William
Todd was killed by an
exploding German mine at
Beachport, South Australia,
on 12 July 1941
[AWM P00805.002]

In late 1940, the German raider Pinguin together with a German minelayer Passat mined the sea approaches to Newcastle, Sydney, Hobart, Port Phillip and Adelaide, subsequently causing damage to numerous Allied vessels. On 12 July 1941, a South Australian fisherman found one of the German mines floating in Rivoli Bay near Beachport, South Australia, and towed it to shore near the town. Naval Headquarters in South Australia were advised of the discovery and a Rendering Mines Safe (REMS) party of one officer and two ratings arrived at Beachport the next day. Both Able Seamen Thomas William Todd and William Leonard Edward Danswan were killed when a wave lifted the mine and caused it to explode on the beach.

The RAN lost five major ships and a number of smaller vessels in 1942. HMA Ships Perth and Yarra, which had survived the actions in the Mediterranean in 1940 and 1941, as well as HMAS Canberra, which had patrolled the Indian Ocean trade routes, were among the Australian warships that returned to fight in the Pacific. The Japanese sank all three ships in the early months of the war against Japan. HMA Ships Vampire, Kuttabul, Voyager and Armidale were also lost in 1942. Although other vessels were sunk or damaged and many lives were lost during the remaining years of World War II, 1942 was the ‘blackest’ period for the RAN.

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The auxiliary minesweeper HMAS Goorangai
at Williamstown, Victoria, in 1939, the year
before it was sunk in a collision with a
merchant ship. The ship, which was declared
an ‘historic shipwreck’ in 1995, now lies in
pieces on the seabed off Queenscliff,
Victoria, where it is a popular divesite.
[AWM 300698]

A floating British mine was responsible for the last naval casualties relating to wartime operations in Australian waters. In 1947, HMAS Warrnambool, part of the 20th Minesweeping Flotilla, was sunk by a floating mine at Cockburn Reef in Queensland. Four of the crew lost their lives after the vessel hit a mine in the defensive minefield laid by HMAS Bungaree during World War II.

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An article in The Herald
reports the controversy
over censorship.
[The Herald, 22 November 1940 p. 5]

The first Australian warship to be lost during World War II was lost in local waters in Port Phillip Bay, Victoria, on 20 November 1940. The auxiliary minesweeper HMAS Goorangai, crewed mainly by members of the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RANVR), was one of the fleet of eight vessels requisitioned for the RAN from Cam & Sons at Pyrmont in Sydney. The Goorangai was one of three minesweepers ordered into Bass Strait to locate and destroy minefields after two merchant ships (Cambridge and City of Rayville) had been lost off the Victorian coast early in November. At about 8.30 pm on 20 November 1940, the little minesweeper (223 tons) collided with the coastal liner Duntroon (10,364 tons) which was travelling to Sydney laden with troops. The Goorangai was cut in half and foundered immediately. Although the Duntroon lowered lifeboats and fired rockets to alert the nearby town of Queenscliff, the captain was unable to break wartime security regulations and stop or switch on searchlights. The Goorangai lost her entire crew of 24 officers and men that night. Only six of their bodies were recovered, the others went down with the ship or were swept away in the ‘Rip’ current at Port Phillip Heads.

When news of the accident broke, the RAN rushed to control the publicity. The Naval Board secured a censorship ban until the next-of-kin of the crew could be notified. Subsequently, on 10 December 1940, the War Cabinet confirmed supplementary censorship instructions which stated that in the case of Service accidents in Australia or Australian waters

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Marksmanship practice on board the
minesweeper HMAS Goorangai. Mooring cables
could be severed by the ship’s paravanes and
then the floating mines would be detonated
or sunk by marksmen.
[AWM P00444.076]

relatives of those who have lost their lives should receive prior notification of death, and immediate action should be taken by the Services concerned to advise the next-of-kin by urgent telegram.

This problem of suppression of news both to families and the general public was to haunt both the Commonwealth Government and the RAN as ships and personnel were lost throughout the war.

 

 

Australia at war 3 September 1939
Libya and the Siege of Tobruk 1941
Greece and Crete April-May 1941
Syria and Lebanon June 1941
Malaya December 1941 to Moresby May 1942
Australia under attack 1940-1945
Coral Sea, Kokoda, Milne Bay May-September 1942
El Alamein October-November 1942
The Home Front 1939-1945
The Coastwatchers 1941-1945
Australian prisoners of war 1940-1945
Little-known operations 1939-1945
Papua 1942-1943
The Japanese retreat March 1943-January 1944
War at sea 1939-1945
Air war Europe 1939-1945
Bougainville, Borneo, New Britain, New Guinea 1944-1945
8 May 1945/15 August 1945
Australia at war 3 September 1939
Libya and the Siege of Tobruk 1941
Greece and Crete April-May 1941
Syria and Lebanon June 1941
Malaya December 1941 to Moresby May 1942
Australia under attack 1940-1945
Coral Sea, Kokoda, Milne Bay May-September 1942
El Alamein October-November 1942
The Home Front 1939-1945
The Coastwatchers 1941-1945
Australian prisoners of war 1940-1945
Little-known operations 1939-1945
Papua 1942-1943
The Japanese retreat March 1943-January 1944
War at sea 1939-1945
Air war Europe 1939-1945
Bougainville, Borneo, New Britain, New Guinea 1944-1945
8 May 1945/15 August 1945
Able Seaman Cocks on board the frigate HMAS Sydney (IV) reads the lesson during the commemoration of the loss of the light cruiser HMAS Sydney (II) off Geraldton, Western Australia. The frigate HMAS Sydney (IV) was returning to Australia after serving in the Gulf in 2002.
[Image supplied by HMAS Sydney, reproduced in Navy News, 13 May 2002]