Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Remembering HMAS SYDNEY, sunk 67 years ago today.

On 5 November 1941 at Albany, Western Australia, HMAS Sydney began escorting the troopship Zealandia, which was bound for Singapore. HMAS Sydney and Zealandia arrived at Fremantle on 9 November. They were delayed by a labour dispute on board Zealandia, but left Fremantle on 11 November. On 17 November, HMAS Sydney handed over escort duties of Zealandia to HMS Durban at Sunda Strait, then turned around to head back to Fremantle.

HMAS Sydney was scheduled to arrive back in Fremantle in the afternoon or evening of 20 November. Axis submarines and surface raiders had already been active in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and it was expected that any Australian naval vessel on such a voyage might have to investigate reported sightings or suspicious vessels.

At about 4pm on 19 November, somewhere west of Shark Bay, Western Australia, HMAS Sydney sighted what she believed to be a merchant ship about 11 nautical miles away and challenged her. The other ship identified herself as the Dutch ship Straat Malakka. She was, in fact, the German merchant raider Kormoran, disguised and sailing under a false flag. According to survivors from Kormoran, the ill-prepared HMAS Sydney closed to within 1,000 metres (1,100 yd), and was surprised and overwhelmed when the crew of the heavily armed raider opened fire at nearly point-blank range with concealed artillery and torpedoes.

Kormoran was also badly damaged in the ensuing battle and had to be abandoned and scuttled due to engine failure and a fire that was burning out of control. Survivors from Kormoran were rescued by the ships Koolinda, the Cunard liner Aquitania, Trocas and HMAS Yandra, while a further 103 reached Carnarvon by lifeboat. The Germans reported that Sydney was last seen down by the bow and on fire as she disappeared over the horizon.

HMAS Sydney was sunk by the German raider Kormoran 67 years ago today.

She was lost with all hands.

COLLISION IN FOG! The sinking of the SS Mendi.

SS Mendi was a steamship of the Elder Dempster Line, chartered by the British government as a troopship, which sank off the Isle of Wight in 1917 with the loss of 646 lives. The Mendi sinking is considered one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the South African military, and was one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century in British waters.

On 21 February 1917, during World War I, the Mendi was transporting 823 members of the 5th Battalion, South African Native Labour Corps to France. She had sailed from Cape Town via Lagos, where a gun was fitted to her stern, to Plymouth, before proceeding towards Le Havre. At 5am, while under escort of the destroyer HMS Brisk, she was struck amidships and cut almost in half by the, SS Darro (11,000 BRT), an empty meat ship that was bound for Argentina. SS Mendi sank within twenty minutes.

616 South Africans (607 of them black troops) plus 30 British crew members died in the disaster.

An excellent BBC description of the Sinking and it's resonance to this day, can be listened to HERE.

Oral history records that the men met their fate with great dignity. Their chaplain, Reverend Isaac Dyobha, is reported to have calmed the panicked men by raising his arms aloft and crying out in a loud voice:-
"Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers...Swazis, Pondos, let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war-cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies."

An investigation into the accident found the captain of the Darro to be at fault for "having travelled at a dangerously high speed in thick fog, and of having failed to ensure that his ship emitted the necessary fog sound signals."

The incident remains a largely forgotten aspect of World War I, both in terms of the loss of life and in relation to the role of African labourers in the war.

The wreck was located 11.3 nautical miles from Saint Catherine's Light in 1945, but was not positively identified until 1974.

The ship is sitting upright on the ocean floor, but has started to break up, exposing her boilers. In 2006, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission launched an education resource called "Let us die like brothers" to highlight the role played by black South Africans during the World War I. Although they were treated as inferior while alive, in death they are afforded the same level of commemoration as all other Commonwealth war dead.

In December 2006, English Heritage commissioned Wessex Archaeology to undertake an initial desk-based appraisal of the wreck. The project will identify a range of areas for potential future research and serve as the basis for a possible non-intrusive survey of the wreck itself in the near future.

SS DARRO, commanded by Captain Henry Winchester Stump, which plowed into SS Mendi at high speed whilst steaming in thick fog.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

The Remorseful Day.

It is the season of remembrance here in Europe, and soon to be the season of Thanks Giving in the United States. I offer this marvellous reflection on the going down of the sun. For things lost; for things that never were; in the memory of all those who have fallen under the spell of that Siren call that continues to draw men to the lure of a furious sea.

Watch and Listen from minute one onwards.

USS IOWA, Kendall Truitt, Clayton Hartwig and Firepower of a bygone era.

Captain Fred Moosally, USN presenting Seaman Clayton Hartwig with a Duty Award at Norfolk in the summer of 1988.

USS Iowa (BB-61) ("The Big Stick") was the lead ship of her class of battleship, and was the fourth ship of in the United States Navy to be named in honour of the 29th state. USS Iowa is the only ship of the class to have served a combat tour in the Atlantic Ocean during World War II.

During World War II, Iowa served in the Atlantic fleet as a countermeasure against the German battleship Tirpitz. When transferred to the Pacific fleet in 1944, Iowa shelled beachheads at Kwajalein and Eniwetok in advance of Allied amphibious landings and screened aircraft carriers operating in the Marshall Islands. During the Korean War, Iowa was involved in raids up and down the North Korean coast, after which she was decommissioned into the United States Navy reserve fleets, better known as the "mothball fleet". She was reactivated in 1984 as part of the 600-ship Navy plan, and operated in both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets to counter the recently expanded Soviet Navy.

In April 1989 an explosion of undetermined origin wrecked her #2 gun turret, killing 47 sailors.

Iowa was decommissioned for the last time in 1990, and was initially struck from the Naval Vessel Register in 1995; however, she was reinstated in 1999 to allow her sister ship New Jersey to be donated to her namesake state for use as a museum. Iowa is currently berthed with the National Defense Reserve Fleet at Suisun Bay, near San Francisco, California, and is awaiting donation to a not-for-profit entity for use as a museum ship.

At present, Iowa is the only member of her class not open to the public.

At 9:55 AM on 19 April 1989, an explosion ripped through the Number Two 16 inch gun turret, killing 47 crewmen. A sailor in the powder magazine room quickly flooded it, thereby preventing catastrophic damage to the ship. At first, the NCIS investigators theorized that one of the dead crewman, Clayton Hartwig, had detonated an explosive device in a suicide attempt after the end of an alleged homosexual affair with another sailor.

To support this claim naval officials pointed to several different factors, including Hartwig's life insurance policy, which named Kendall Truitt as the sole beneficiary in the event of his death, the presence of certain unexplained materials inside Turret II, and his mental state, which was alleged to be unstable. Although the Navy was satisfied with the investigation and its results, others were unimpressed with the NCIS investigation, and in October 1991, amid increasing criticism over what was seen as a very poor investigation with little or no real forensic proof, Congress relented and forced the Navy to reopen the investigation.

This second investigation, handled by independent investigators, was hampered by the fact that most of original debris from Iowa had been cleaned up or otherwise disposed of by the Navy before and after the first investigation, but the investigation did manage to uncover evidence pointing to an accidental powder explosion rather than an intentional act of sabotage by sailors, homosexual or otherwise.

While Iowa was undergoing modernization, sister ship USS New Jersey (BB-62) had been dispatched to Lebanon to aid the peacekeeping forces by providing offshore fire support. Unfortunately, New Jersey was at the time the only commissioned battleship anywhere in the world, and in an effort to get another battleship commissioned to relieve New Jersey, the modernization of Iowa was stepped up, leaving her in poor condition when she recommissioned in 1984. In May 1988, Captain Fred Mosally, USN replaced Captain Larry Seaquist, USN as captain of the Iowa. Unlike Captain Seaquist, who had placed emphasis on the training and manning of guns, Captain Mosally was more concerned with the maintenance of the missiles on Iowa.

It transpires the Navy had improperly stored the gunpowder used aboard the battleship; it had been placed aboard a barge where sunlight and other elemental factors contributed to its degradation. Powder from the same lot as the one under investigation was tested at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division. Spontaneous combustion was achieved with the powder, which had been originally milled in the 1930s and improperly stored in a barge at the Navy's Yorktown, Virginia Naval Weapons Station during a 1988 dry-docking of the Iowa.

Gun powder gives off ether gas as it degrades; the ether is highly flammable, and could be ignited by a spark. This revelation resulted in a shift in the Navy's position on the incident, and Admiral Frank Kelso, the Chief of Naval Operations at the time, publicly apologized to the Hartwig family, concluding that there was no real evidence to support the claim that he had intentionally killed the other sailors. The captain of the Iowa, Captain Fred Moosally, was severely criticized for his handling of the matter, and as a result of the incident the Navy changed the powder-handling procedures for its battleships.

The incident remains the surface Navy's worst loss of life during peace time operations, surpassing the loss of life incurred from the attack of an Iraqi Air Force jet on the Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided missile frigate USS Stark (FFG-31).

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

My personal pictures of the Grand Old Queen in June of this year.

Click HERE to see the bridgecam of her final voyage from Southampton to Dubai.

All but the last of these were taken from the 11 deck Observation area in Queen Mary 2 as she left Southampton for New York, the day of the Queen's final visit to the ship she named forty years earlier. Isn't she lovely?

QE 2 Runs Aground on her final day.

Two and a half million passengers, 800 Atlantic crossings, five and a half million miles and this beloved old girl of the sea reminded us she's not going easily.
Queen Elizabeth 2 ran aground this morning as she was coming into Southampton Water. She has departed for Dubai to a tumultuous farewell from her home port of forty years.

So long, old gal.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

HEARTBREAK of the last Scottish Ship. The retirement of the Cunard Liner Queen Elizabeth 2.

Where do I begin with such a glorious Ocean Liner?

Perhaps here, with her whistle, one of the most sonorous in the history of maritime navigation.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Oceans, a ROYAL QUEEN is about to retire.

Look at her bows; look at her pennant; look at her!!!

And a fitting farewell from the NEW Cunard Flagship.

There are few ocean liners left in the world, and fewer still with the reputation and sheer glory of the Queen Elizabeth 2. For those not in the know of such things, including (perhaps ?) the Sovereign who named her, the QE2 was intended to be named after the Cunard Liner Queen Elizabeth, and not after the present QUEEN of England. In her naming of the ship on the Clyde in 1968, Her Majesty named the ship "Queen Elizabeth the second", and so she is. It was the purpose of Cunard that she be named as the second of the stable in the name Queen Elizabeth, an ocean liner named after Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon; later to become Queen Elizabeth, the mother of the present Queen. If you pay attention to sailors, though, her REAL name is the name she was given by the Sovereign at her christening, regardless of what Cunard, or anyone else for that matter, would have you believe.

No matter, either of Queen Elizabeth 2, or Queen Elizabeth the second; whether she be named after a ship, a Monarch, a Monarch's mother or all three, one thing is for certain. QE2, built of Scottish sweat, tears and blood at the John Brown Shipyard on Clydeside, is a glorious Ocean Liner not likely to be seen again in a very long time.

RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2) is a Cunard Line ocean liner named after the earlier Cunard liner RMS Queen Elizabeth, which in turn was named after Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the Queen consort of George VI; the Queen Mother . She was the flagship of the Cunard line from 1969 until succeeded by RMS Queen Mary 2 in 2004. Built in Clydebank, Scotland, she was considered the last of the great transatlantic ocean liners prior to the construction of the QM2. Before she was refitted with a diesel power plant in 1986, she was also the last oil-fired passenger steamship to cross the Atlantic in scheduled liner service. During almost 40 years of service, the QE2 has travelled the world and now operates predominantly as a cruise ship, sailing out of Southampton, England.

She will be retired from active service in late 2008, to become a floating hotel at Palm Jumeirah, Dubai.


As Queen Elizabeth 2 approached her 40th anniversary with Cunard, questions begun to circulate as to how much longer the ship could stay in service. Cunard had to consider the economics of maintaining a 40-year-old liner in operation, particularly with regard to new SOLAS safety regulations that would apply from 2010 onward.

Both Southampton and Clydebank had offered to take over QE2 after her retirement, but on 18 June 2007 it was announced that the ship has been purchased by the Dubai investment company Istithmar for $100 million. Her final voyage will be from Southampton to Dubai, leaving on 11 November 2008.

After arrival, she will be refurbished and berthed permanently at the Palm Jumeirah from 2009 as a "a luxury floating hotel, retail, museum and entertainment destination", or in other words, a painted harlot. What an ignominious end for so glorious a ship. I'd sooner see her sunk.

Farewell, QE2. Your forty years upon the oceans of the world will not soon be forgotten.

The sinking of the Montevideo Maru

On July 1st, 1942 the Montevideo Maru, a passenger ship accutomed to Asian waters, was sunk off the northern coast of Luzon by an American submarine, the USS Sturgeon, under the command of Lt. Cdr Wright, USN.

1,050 Australians were lost in the greatest single maritime tragedy in Australia's history. I don't mean by this to apportion blame to the Americans, nor to the brave crew of the submarine USS Sturgeon who sank her in slack waters with four torpedoes, but I do wish to draw attention to the loss of this ship, and the death of her mainly Australian passengers.

There is a bleak brotherhood among those who have died upon the sea, and those of you familiar with my little blog here will know that I spend a bit of extra time with those nautical losses and sunken ships that help in some way to define a nation in its greatest, most terrible hour, and those scurilous combatants who seek since to obscure the truth, long after the war has ended. There are few nations who define these parameters so perfectly as the Australians and the Japanese, as extant upon their relationship during the 2nd World War.

An excellent description of the sinking and its aftermath can be listened to here.

On 22 June 1942, some weeks after the fall of Rabaul to the Japanese, 1,053 Australians, including 845 prisoners of war and 208 civilian internees, were embarked from that port onto the 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; according to crewman Yosiaki Yamaji, it was to rendezvous with an escort of two destroyers. Unaware that it was carrying Allied prisoners of war and civilians, the Sturgeon then fired four torpedoes at the Montevideo Maru, sinking it before dawn of 1 July. According to Yamaji, Australians in the water sang "Auld Lang Syne" to their trapped mates as the ship sank beneath the waves.

The sinking is the worst maritime disaster in Australia's history. Of the ship's total complement of about 1,140 (including 88 crew), there were reportedly only 18 survivors (all crewmen), one of whom died soon afterwards. Among the missing was Reverend Syd Beazley of the Methodist Mission, the uncle of former ALP opposition leader Kim Beazley. Another was grandfather of former Midnight Oil lead singer and current Rudd government minister Peter Garrett. The story is retold in the Midnight Oil song "In the Valley".