HMAS YARRA:
RETROSPECTIVE GALLANTRY AWARD CLAIMS:

PREAMBLE

What follows is an adaptation of an article (plus some extra discussion) that first appeared in the March '98 issue of the Australian Naval Historical Review.

TIMELINE

February 5, 1942: The sloop, HMAS Yarra escorts the last convoy into Singapore. Shortly before reaching its destination, the convoy comes under heavy air attack. In what proves to be Yarra's final 'Report of Proceedings' (ROP) covering the period February 1-10, 1942, her captain, CMDR Wifred H. Harrington, RAN, praises the performance of one of the gun crews during the raid:

The sloop HMAS Yarra

'No. 3 Gun shot down one aircraft in barrage fire. This came down 2000x on starboard quarter. Two others are believed to have come down but I have been unable to obtain evidence which would enable me to report they were destroyed. Lieutenant Commander F.E. Smith, RANR - the O-O-Q of 3 Gun - Able Seaman George Joseph Frederick LLoyd, O.N 18037 - Captain of Gun and Able Seaman John Roland Oliver, O.N. 6/2284, RANR, and Geoffrey George Kimmers, O.N. 22898, the layer and trainer respectively are thought to have shown merit in bringing down this aircraft and it is submitted that consideration might be given to their receiving some recognition of their conduct....'

Harrington continues:

'In the organisation of this embarkation I was much assisted by Lieutenant Commander Robert William Rankin, RAN, who had embarked in HMAS Yarra for passage prior to relieving me on return to Batavia...'

'My officers and men performed their various tasks with that coordination and cooperation which they are accustomed to show in unforeseen circumstances.



'Acting Leading Seaman Ronald Taylor O.N. 20863, the Captain of Gun of No. 2 Gun deserves commendation in that, on this occasion, as on many others, he controlled his Gun with judgment and determination. This rating's keenness and courage are a good example to all those in his vicinity...'

'11th February. At 0130Z/11 I relinquished command of HMAS Yarra'.

March 4 1942: Yarra is attacked and sunk by an overwhelming Japanese force of three cruisers and two destroyers while escorting a small convoy of three ships in the Indian Ocean, south of Java. All ships are lost and of Yarra's crew of 151 officers and men, only 13 survive. The action is witnessed from the deck of the Japanese cruiser, Maia, by approximately 50 survivors from the destroyer, HMS Stronghold. Stronghold had been sunk two days earlier by the same force. (They were not to know that the gun they could see being fired spasmodically was being operated single-handedly by Taylor.)

March 14, 1942: Loss announced of Yarra and the cruiser, HMAS Perth.

March 25, 1942: With the 13 survivors safe in Australia and some details of Yarra's loss now made available to the public, 'The Age' quotes Prime Minister, John Curtin as stating:

'Yarra established for herself and her ship's company, a place in naval history alongside ships such as HMS Jervis Bay and other ships which have written the epic stories that star our naval history.'

May 1942: A detailed account of Yarra's action and aftermath is provided to the Naval Board by O/S Jack R. Archibald, one of Yarra's 13 survivors. Archibald's account appeared in Peter Firkin's 1983 book, 'Of Nautilus and Eagles'. No reference is provided for this account and it is not listed in the National Archive database. Its current whereabouts are not known.

November 30, 1943: Minute from the CO HMAS Penguin, CAPT. Harry L. Howden, RAN, to the Naval Board, whose 1st Naval Member and Chief of Naval Staff at that time was VADM. Sir Guy C.C. Royle, RN . This correspondence is entered in the Honours and Awards Ledger book as

'Naval Operations South China and Java Sea early 1942; drawing attention to Naval Board's lack of awards to personnel serving in the Java Seas.'

Howden was serving in these waters as CO of the cruiser, HMAS Hobart, at the time of the disastrous Java Sea campaign.

Once again, the correspondence between Howden and the Naval Board appears not to have survived, so one can only presume its contents. The underlining of the final 's' in 'Seas' above (author's emphasis), suggests Howden's enquiries could have been directed as much towards Yarra, and the other RAN ships serving in that region in the early months of 1942, as Perth - especially so since nothing was known of Perth's fate until September 1944.

1944: A book, 'The Silent Service' by T. M. Jones and I. L. Idris is published. It contains eyewitness accounts by two of Yarra's survivors: Ldg Signalman G. Bromilow and Ldg Supply Rating 'Shorty 'Latham. In the same year, A. F. Parry's, 'HMAS Yarra - the History of a gallant Ship' is published.

September 1945: Immediately following their release from Japanese POW camps, two survivors, PO (Cook) Morgan (HMS Anking) and AB Mills (RFA Francol), provide further testimony of Yarra's final moments. Both men were insistent on the magnificent fight put up by Yarra, and Mills claims:

'She was still firing her forward gun with the whole ship on fire and sinking. The gun was still in action when the stern was already under water.'

In an 'Action record' relating to a 'Reported Loss of Ships - 1942' file, the following members of the Naval Board write in respect of possible recognition for members of Yarra's crew:

November 16, 1945: Deputy Chief of Naval Staff (DCNS), (CAPT. Herbert J. Buchanan, DSO, RAN), asks:

'Has sufficient recognition been given to the gallant action of HMAS Yarra? On a smaller scale the incident is comparable with HMS Jervis Bay. DNI please comment.' (But Director Naval Intelligence, (CMDR. Rupert B.M. Long, RAN), chose not to comment.)

November 24, 1945: Second Naval Member - (CDRE. Henry A. Showers, RAN), comments

'I do not know of aany recognition of the work done by HMAS Yarra either when rescuing survivors from HMT Empress of Asia,or at her final action.'

November 28, 1945: First Naval Member - Chief of Naval Staff (VADM. Sir Louis H.K. Hamilton, DSO, RN), replies:

'I can only conclude that my predecessor examined this question fully in 1942.'

Buchanan's suggestion that Yarra's action bore comparison with that of the Jervis Bay, suggests there was a body of opinion within the RAN believing that here, perhaps, was an action worthy of seeing the RAN awarded its first VC.

Had Showers followed-through his query by contacting Harrington at this time, it's possible recommendations for gallantry awards could have been made for members of the No. 3 guncrew and Taylor. By now Taylor's futile, yet inspirational, 'last stand', would have become common knowledge.

Hamilton's indifferent response to the queries of Buchanan and Showers effectively sealed any likelihood of awards being granted to any of Yarra's crew for the actions of February 5 and March 4. There is no record of Harrington ever having approached the Naval Board in the immediate postwar period over the issue of Yarra's guncrews receiving recognition - or vice-versa.

September 21, 1946: An account of Yarra's final moments by AB John F. Murphy of the RNZN appears in 'Smith's Weekly'. Murphy, one of Stronghold's survivors, writes:

'Silently we stood and watched the little sloop, White Ensign flying and guns blazing against the hopeless odds.... Hers was a gallant death and one of which Australians should be proud.'

(John Murphy was one of three New Zealand sailors serving in Stronghold. Sadly, he died in 1994 so did not live to see the launching of the sixth Collins-class submarine, HMAS Rankin. However, Aub Kenny, his lifelong friend and fellow witness to the sinking of the Yarra-escorted convoy, was able to come from Nelson, in South Island, for the launch. Here he met-up with three survivors of Yarra; Geoff Bromilow, O/S Keith Buckley and O/S Reg Manthey.)

March 4, 1947: An article appears in 'Column 8' on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH). It reads:

'Five years ago today HMAS Yarra died.

'She was sunk off Java while trying to protect a convoy from a Japanese squadron. The Yarra was just a sloop - an absurd little ship with 134 (sic) men aboard, with which LCDR. Rankin engaged the Japanese squadron while the convoy sped for their lives.

'Rankin died with 121(sic) of his comrades. The Minister for the Australian Navy said his action paralleled that of the Commander (sic) of the Jervis Bay, which blazed defiant guns at the Scheer.

'Commander of the Jervis Bay got a posthumous Victoria Cross.

'But for reasons best known to the authorities, Rankin didn't. As far as I know, not even the thirteen survivors got danger money.'

March 11, 1947: Naval Men's Association of Victoria (NMAV) writes to the Minister for the Navy, Mr W.J. F. Riordan re- the SMH article. This correspondence is forwarded to the Naval Board by the Minister.

March 25, 1947: 1st Naval Member Hamilton responds to the Minister, in turn the NMAV receive their reply from the Minister in early April.

Nothing is known of the contents of any of this correspondence.

1948:In Margaret McGuire's 'The Royal Australian Navy'(see Postscript), John Murphy writes:

'About twenty minutes or half an hour (after the commencement of the action) we were taken on deck and shown, as they tried to impress us, the might of Japan's navy. The Yarra was the only ship left afloat 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 odd gun flashes. The three cruisers formed line ahead and steamed away from the scene. The last we saw of Yarra was a high column of smoke, but we were vividly impressed by her fight.'

This account by Murphy later appeared, in 1957, in the first volume of G. Hermon Gill's official history of the RAN.

1949: F. B. Eldridge's 'History of the RANC' published. In the Conclusion section of his book, Eldridge writes of Yarra's action:

'On March 4,1942 was fought an engagement which will stand for all time among the great heroic fights of British seamen, an engagement which ranks with Richard Grenville's famous last fight of the Revenge and that of Fogarty Fegen's Jervis Bay.'

He concludes:

'Perhaps one day an Australian Tennyson will make of this hero of the RANC (Rankin), a national Australian hero.'

February 1979: The magazine, 'Parade', features an article 'Life and death of the Yarra' describing the epic wartime service of the sloop. Of her final action, the article concludes:

'One mystery remains - why was not one officer or man .. ever decorated for his part in what most Australians regard as a feat of extraordinary heroism?'

Moving forward to the early-nineties, in his book '100 days' - an account of the Falklands campaign of 1982 - Admiral Sandy Woodward has this to say about the importance of 'tradition' in the Royal Navy.

'Whatever else may be said about the traditions of the RN, their appropriateness to today and their value, there is one at least I hold to be fundamental to all the rest. I call it the 'Jervis Bay syndrome.'

Woodward then goes on to describe the Jervis Bay action, and has this to say this about the significance of Fegen's decision to engage a far superior force:

'His was the moment we all know we may have to face ourselves. We are indoctrinated from the earliest days in the Navy with stories of great bravery such as this and many others like it, from Sir Richard Grenville on the Resolution (sic) to LCDR Roope VC of the Glowworm who, in desperation, turned and rammed the big German cruiser, Hipper, with his dying destroyer sinking beneath him.' (He could, for good measure, have included the extraordinary heroism of the crew of HMS Li Wo in the days around the fall of Singapore, for which LEUT T. Wilkinson later received a posthumous VC.) We had all been taught the same - each and every one of us who sailed with me down the Atlantic towards the Falklands in the late April of 1982 - that we will fight, if necessary to the death, just as our predecessors have traditionally done. And it our luck should run out, and we should be required to fight a superior enemy we will still go forward, fighting until our ship is lost.'

What is to be made of all this? In truth, the mystery (as Parade magazine called it), was not so much why no one from Yarra received recognition as a result of the actions of February 5 and March 4, but rather, why no one in authority ever thought their actions were worthy of recognition. Royle and Hamilton, who between them headed-up the administrative side of the RAN over the period 1941-1948, have to bear the major brunt of criticism for this. They had failed to acknowledge that here were actions meriting recognition of a high order. For reasons best known only to themselves, they had demonstrably chosen to ignore all the mounting evidence, and advice, that Rankin and others fully merited being recommended for posthumous recognition.

These are not hindsight comments. In 1942, they might have been aware that one of their peers, the Second Sea Lord, VADM. Sir W. J. Whitworth, DSO, RN, had drawn attention to the:

'Satisfaction which the serving man derives from the fact that the gallantry and heroism of his lost pal and shipmate have been recognised. The practice of posthumous mentions I think well meets this requirement, but I feel that recommendations for such recognition are not put forward as frequently as they might be and it is for consideration whether the attention of the C-in-C should be drawn to this matter.'

The sentiments expressed by Woodward fifty years later would doubtless have been imbued into Royle and Hamilton at an early stage of their naval careers; clearly they had singularly failed to put them into practice when the opportunity arose.

They, above all others, should have noted the self-evident parallels between the actions of Jervis Bay and Yarra, the only difference in the military sense being that Jervis Bay's sacrifice had resulted in 33 ships reaching safety whereas Yarra's had been in vain. The Admiralty, understandably enough, had seen Jervis Bay's action as 'a considerable military achievement' and this fact alone was sufficient enough to justify awarding Fegen a posthumous VC. On the other hand, Yarra's action had taken place in the early hours of an equatorial morning, not the late afternoon twilight of a northern winter, making any prospect of the convoy escaping hopeless.

The only plausible explanation for the apparent disinterest of the two Admirals may have had something to do with the fact that since no officer survived Yarra's final action, no recommendations for decorations or awards could be countenanced. Certainly, many WWII RAN veterans believe this was the case.

Yet for three or four years after the war, the Naval Board did have the opportunity of advancing Yarra's claims for recognition via the end-of-war list of outstanding claims for decorations and awards. As an Admiralty Minute noted:

'It is desired that so far as possible consideration should be given to the records of Officers and Ratings throughout the (European) war, and that the claims of ships that for one reason or another have not figured in previous periodic lists should be duly weighed...'

Coming to the present day, the Australian Government's position with respect to retrospective awards is that they would find it very difficult to review a particular WWII incident and reverse a decision taken by a commander at that time. They maintain commanders who were on the spot certainly had a better knowledge of the totality of the circumstances and were far better equipped to make an informed decision than those who conduct a review many years later. They further maintain that if decisions were reversed, it would create a precedent for unwanted and perhaps divisive comparisons to be drawn between the 'hindsight award' and those recommended and granted at the time. Furthermore, with Collins-class submarines now named after three of the RAN's greatest heroes: Waller, Sheean and Rankin, the government sees this as a unique honour, having far greater significance than any upgraded award could possibly be expected to achieve.

These are compelling arguments and would certainly carry considerable weight were Sheean or Waller (say) to be the subject of campaigns to receive present-day Australian gallantry awards. It's worth noting there were only two classes of posthumous awards for gallantry in the presence of the enemy in WWII: the VC and Mention in Despatches (MID). As far as naval awards were concerned, this meant that unless a Flag Officer felt strongly enough to 'go into bat' on behalf of a VC recommendation to the Admiralty, chances were an MID would automatically follow.

There were certainly instances in WWII where missing-out on receiving the VC (the highest award) meant receiving the MID (the lowest award in a four-tier system of awards) instead. Sheean (1942, under Royle) and Waller (1945, under Hamilton) were not recommended for VCs and though both received posthumous MIDs, they certainly did not receive the full level of recognition that was due to them for their gallant actions. However, under the honours and awards system that applied at that time, Sheean and Waller would not have been alone in this respect, and this would make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for any Australian government to consider making higher awards in isolation to these men.

However, Rankin - and Taylor - are special cases, and one would now seriously call into question whether Royle or Hamilton 'had a better knowledge of the totality of the circumstances.....'. Since neither Rankin nor Taylor ever received any recognition it should be possible - even 60 years on - for these men to receive the honour and recognition they so thoroughly deserved.

POSTSCRIPT

At the keel-laying ceremony for the submarine Rankin held in May 1995at the Australian Submarine Corporation facility at Osborne, South Australia, a meeting took place of two women who had had the deepest of personal and emotionalties with the two RAN sloops lost to enemy action in WWII: HMAS Parramatta and Yarra.

Parramatta had been torpedoed by U-559 off Tobruk on the night of November 7 1941,with the loss of 138 of her crew of 162 officers and men. Her CO, CMDR Jefferson H. Walker, RAN, was not among the survivors.

The two ladies, who had never met before, were LCDR Rankin's widow, Mrs Mary (Molly) McLean, and Mrs F. MargaretMcGuire, whose sister, Mrs Mary A. Walker, was the widow of Parramatta's CO.

Molly McLean (nee Broughton) was born in Townsville, Queensland, in 1912, and had mether naval-officer husband in 1936 while completing her nursing course on Thursday Island. They married in 1937 and soon after left for England, where Rankin had been postedto the survey vessel, HMS Gleaner. The couple were in Plymouth at the outbreak of war but by the time their daughter, Patricia Mary (Trish), was born during the heavy bombing of that city in July 1940, Rankin had already transferred to the Middle East to take command of the repair ship, HMS Resource. Molly and Trish returned to Australia in the late (southern) winter of 1941, the Rankin family being briefly united when LCDR Rankin returned to Australia en route to assume command of Yarra. Molly had re-married in 1949.

Like her sister, Margaret McGuire was also married to a naval officer, the late CMDR D. Paul McGuire, RAN, who, during WWII, had played a major role in Australian naval intelligence. Margaret had worked at the Commonwealth Naval Board in Melbourne, and it was hereon hearing the news of the loss of Yarra - so soon after the loss of Parramatta - that the inspiration came for her to write the poem, Victory for Yarra. First broadcast on ABC radio in 1962 the poem was later published as a book by Wakefield Press, Adelaide, in 1995 - just months before her death in August of that year.

In 1944, Margaret collaborated with her husband to write The Price of Admiralty (Oxford University Press), a tribute to the life of CMDR Walker and the wartime service of Parramatta. In 1948, her officially-commissioned book The Royal Australian Navy was published, again by Oxford University Press.

Earlier in the year, Margaret had been on centre stage with the publication of her book, to be followed soon after with the award of the AM in the Queen's Birthday Honours list.Though 'in the wings' for what was to prove her final outing - she died some three months later, aged 95. I know she regarded her meeting as 'special' and was absolutely thrilled to be united with her beloved Navy once more.



Mrs Molly McLean and Mrs Margaret McGuireat the keel laying ceremony for the submarine Rankin, May 1995.





Submarine Rankin was launched on 7 November, 2001, and this occasion provided an opportunity for a handful of men who had close associations with Yarra to meet, in all likelihood, for one last time. Present were three survivors from Yarra. Ldg Seaman Geoff Bromilow, Ordinary Seaman Keith Buckley and Ordinary Seaman Reg Manthey together with a former crew member, Frank Glover. Also present were Andres Bruinhout who was serving in the Dutch submarine, K11, and which rescued the 13 men who survived Yarra's sinking, Aub Kenny from New Zealand who, as noted previously, had witnessed Yarra's final action from the deck of a Japanese cruiser and Albert Bate from Adelaide. Bate, a Merchant Navy seaman serving in Empress of Asia,was one of those rescued by Yarra on the approach to Singapore and subsequently became a prisoner of war of the Japanese.



Launch ceremony for the submarine Rankin, 7 November 2001.Left to right:Andries Bruinhout, Reg Manthey, Miss Trish Rankin, (daughter of LCDR Rankin), Keith Buckley, Aub Kenny and Geoff Bromilow.





Launch ceremony for the submarine Rankin, 7 November 2001.
Left to right:Geoff Bromilow, Reg Manthey (obscured),Andries Bruinhout, Keith Buckley, Frank Glover,, Aub Kenny, and Albert Bate.



Sadly, in August 2004 - and literally within days of each other - the last two of Yarra's original 13 survivors, Reg Manthey and Geoff Bromilow, passed away. Keith Buckley had died the previous year. After almost 60 years they had lived long enough to see their captain honoured, but not their gallant shipmate, Ron Taylor.

With regrets, it just remains to say, Albert Bate died in July 2007, Aub Kenny in 2008 and Andries Bruinhout in July 2011.

Last updated: November 2012




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