Truimph and Tragedy – HMAS Yarra at War

With the tattered fragments of the white ensign still flying, the YARRA slid beneath the waves at 8 am. Rankin’s defiant gesture, which cost the lives of 117 of the ships personnel, did not save the other vessels in the Allied convoy; all three were sunk even before YARRA met its end.  Another 21 of the 34 survivors of the unequal battle were to die on rafts before a Dutch submarine came to their rescue five days later, so that ultimately just thirteen men lived to recall what many regard as the finest action in Australian naval history.

Chris Coulthard-Clark


The history of the Royal Australian Navy in World War II is one of triumph and tragedy.   Sydney’s destruction of the Bartolomeo Colleoni in 1940 and her subsequent final battle with Kormoran the next year, the actions of the Scrap Iron Flotilla on the Tobruk Ferry run and evacuation of Crete, the loss of Perth in the Battle of the Sunda Strait and Australias steadfast service under Kamikaze attack at Leyte Gulf all resonate with the sound of the action alarm, the fluttering of battles ensigns and the whiff of cordite and salt spray.
Yet amongst all these victories and defeats, both great and small, one action alone stands out above all others.  It is a minor action fought by one RAN warship against an overwhelming enemy force.  An action that perhaps should not have been fought but could not have been avoided.  An action which resulted in a tactical defeat for the RAN, the loss of the ship and the death of almost all her ships company.  Yet this action continues to capture the imagination and admiration of all who hear about it.   This action is the loss of HMAS Yarra on 4 March 1942, while defending a convoy south of Java, in what is now regarded by many as the finest action ever fought in Australian naval history.

Triumph in the Middle East

Yarra was a 1060 ton Grimsby class sloop constructed at Cockatoo Dockyard in 1936-37.  When war came in 1939 she was under the command of Lieutenant Commander W.H. Harrington, RAN.  Known affectionately by his crew as the ‘Black Prince’ he was later to reach the rank of Vice Admiral and was Chief of Naval Staff from 1962-1965.  For the first 12 months of hostilities Yarra was employed as a convoy escort in Australian waters, but in August 1940 she was dispatched to the Middle East.

She arrived at Aden in September 1940 and for the next seven months operated in the Red Sea and around the Horn of Africa.  Yarra was mainly employed on convoy escort duties protecting British vessels from attacks from the Italian forces based in nearby Italian Somaliland.   On a number of occasions Yarra was attacked by Italian aircraft and on 21 October 1940, in company with three British warships, she successfully beat off an attack on a convoy made by three Italian destroyers.   In March 1941 the sloop proceeded to Bombay (Mumbai) for a short refit.
In April 1941, Yarra returned to the Middle East and was allocated to the British forces in the Persian Gulf which were then preparing to neutralise the pro-German nation of Iraq (in order to secure this nation’s valuable oil resources).  On 2 May, British forces invaded Iraq and Yarra provided naval gunfire support for the advancing troops, acted as a convoy escort and also patrolled the wide Shatt-el-Arab River.

Following the successful subjugation of Iraq the British turned their attention towards Iran (formally Persia). This nation was also pro-German in outlook and many German ‘technicians’ resided in the country assisting the Iranian Government.   Additionally a number of German and Italian merchant ships were anchored in Bandur Shapur Harbour and unable to leave due to the British blockade.  Ultimately though it was secure the valuable oil resources in the area that prompted the action against Iran.

Yarra’s role in this campaign was to neutralise the Iranian naval vessels at Khorramshahr (some 40 miles upstream from the head of the Persian Gulf).  At 0400 on 25 August 1941, Harrington gave the order to open fire on the Iranian sloop Babr which was alongside the wharf at Khorramshahr.  Number 2 gun, controlled by Leading Seaman Ron Taylor, was the first to open fire and soon the Iranian ship was on fire and sinking.

Once Babr had sunk Harrington dispatched assault parties, under the command of his Executive Officer (Lieutenant Commander Francis Smith), to capture two Iranian gunboats which were also alongside and this was achieved without loss to the attackers.  Thus within three days Iran was brought under British control and Yarra had the honour of sinking or capturing three Iranian vessels with only one of her crew wounded as a result.
The Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Kanimbla (manned by RAN personnel) also took part in the Iraq Campaign and provided men for boarding parties which captured several of the enemy merchant ships at Bandar Shapur.  Yarra later towed one of these captured vessels to Karachi before proceeding to Bombay for a short refit.
In November 1941, Harrington was directed to take Yarra to the Mediterranean and the sloop arrived in Alexandria on 15 November.  Three days later, in company with her sister ship, HMAS Parramatta, she undertook her first re-supply run to Tobruk.  The now famous Tobruk Ferry Run saw warships escort supply ships into the besieged port of Tobruk.  Supplies and reinforcements for the Australian 9th Division, which provided the bulk of the defenders of Tobruk, were taken in and wounded personnel and prisoners were brought out.   Over the next few weeks Yarra made a total of four voyages to Tobruk and she was frequently attacked by German Stuka dive bombers.
Following her third run into Tobruk, Yarra was alongside at Alexandria when news was received that Parramatta had been sunk by a U-Boat on her run into Tobruk.  Only 24 men survived from Parramattas crew and amongst those lost was Lieutenant Commander Harrington’s brother who was the ship’s Medical Officer.   More bad news came in a matter of days when the loss of Sydney, with her entire crew, was formally announced and this was followed soon after by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and South East Asia.  Then on 10 December 1941 the British capital ships HM Ships Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk by Japanese air attack off the east coast of Malaya.
The Australian Government requested the return of a number of her warships to Australian waters to counter this new threat and on 16 December 1941, Yarra departed Alexandria and proceeded eastwards.  Christmas Day was spent quietly at sea before she conducted a short port visit to Colombo.

Tragedy in the Far East

Yarra arrived at the Netherlands East Indies port of Tanjong Priok, Java on 11 January 1942 and was immediately put to work escorting convoys into Singapore.  On 5 February she was in Singapore when Japanese dive bombers attacked and set fire to the troopship Empress of Asia. Harrington skillfully took the sloop alongside the stern of the burning troopship and rescued over 1800 British troops.    Ordinary Seaman Jack Archibald later recalled, as they approached the burning ship, that Harrington called to the crew ‘Stand by anchors and fenders – I don’t want my paint work scratched’.

The ships were repeatedly attacked by Japanese aircraft during this evolution and one enemy aircraft was shot down and another two were claimed as ‘probable’ kills.  Harrington later reported the following ‘No. 3 Gun shot down one aircraft in barrage fire and Lieutenant Commander F.E. Smith, RANR, Able Seaman G.J.F. Lloyd, Able Seaman J.R. Oliver and Able Seaman G.G. Kimmins 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 also reported ‘Acting Leading Seaman Ronald Taylor, the Captain 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’.
On 11 February 1942, Yarra was back alongside at Tanjong Priok where Lieutenant Commander R.W. Rankin, RAN assumed command of the ship.  Lieutenant Commander Harrington, who had been in command for nearly two and half years, and six other men from Yarra had received their draft back to Australia and left that evening in the troopship Troilus which reached Fremantle a week later.
Meanwhile Yarra continued her vital convoy escort work. She escorted a convoy from Sumatra to Tanjong Priok and then escorted the Australian destroyer HMAS Vendetta, which had been undergoing a refit in Singapore and was being towed southwards by the ferry Ping Wo. Yarra escorted these two ships to a position some two hundred miles south of Christmas Island where she handed over the escort to the cruiser HMAS Adelaide. The sloop then returned to Tanjong Priok.
Yarra reached Tanjong Priok on 24 February where preparations were being made to defend Java against the inevitable Japanese invasion.  Singapore had fallen only the week before and Darwin had been bombed on the 19th with over 240 people killed and eight ships sunk. The relentless southward Japanese advance seemed unstoppable and as a result all non essential warships and merchant ships were directed to leave and head for Australia or Ceylon.
On 27 February, Rankin was ordered to escort a small convoy of three ships to the port of Tjilatjap (Cilicap) on Java’s southern coast.  Yarra’s convoy consisted of the tanker Francol, Depot Ship Anking, which had a number of RAN personnel onboard, and the minesweeper MMS.51. The convoy reached Tjilatjap on 2 March where, following the report of the Allied defeat at the Battle of the Java Sea, Rankin was directed to take his convoy south to Fremantle
The next day Yarra sighted two life boats under sail and stopped to pick up 35 survivors from the Dutch merchant ship Parigi which had been sunk a few days before by a Japanese submarine.   Australia was now less then four days steaming away and the hopes of all onboard were high; many were looking forward to returning to a country that they had left some 18 months before.  At 0540 on 4 March 1942 the crew of Yarra closed up for Dawn Action Stations as part of their daily routine.  At 0630 the crew fell out from Action Stations and were proceeding to breakfast when the dreaded sound of the action alarm called them back to Actions Stations for what was to be the last time.   Yarra’s lookouts had spotted several Japanese warships astern of the convoy and within minutes the Allied ships were receiving heavy and accurate enemy fire.

The Final Battle

Yarra and her small convoy had been spotted by Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo’s 2nd Fleet consisting of three cruisers and two destroyers; there was to be no escape.   Yarra and her charges had been spotted at dawn on a brilliant sunlit day and could not hope to out run the Japanese warships which could steam at over 30 knots; compared to the best speed of the convoy of 14 knots.

Rankin ordered the convoy to scatter, had a report sent by wireless and then had Yarra alter course towards the enemy vessels.   Rankin also had Yarra make smoke in the vain hope that this would help obscure the merchant ships from enemy fire.   Yarra’s 4 inch guns commenced firing but the enemy warships remained out of range and commenced to pick off the ships one by one.
Within a few minutes the depot ship Anking sank under heavy gunfire taking with her most of her crew and passengers (including 26 RAN personnel). MMS.51 followed soon after and the tanker Francol was set ablaze and sank at 0730.  By 0700 Yarra was still afloat but listing to port and drifting without power.  Her sickbay and the engine room had been destroyed and two of her three guns were out of action.
Lieutenant Commander Rankin realised that the situation was now hopeless and gave the order to abandon ship. A minute or so later a Japanese shell struck the bridge killing all on duty there.  Leading Signalman Geoffrey Bromilow, who later confirmed it was Rankin who had given the order to abandon ship, was on the bridge ladder when the shell hit and was blown on to the deck below and badly wounded.
Lieutenant Commander Smith began to verbally pass the order to abandon ship around the upper deck and at about 0730 some 34 survivors from Yarra, and a few men from Parigi, launched two Carley Floats and began to move away from the blackened hulk that was Yarra.    Able Seaman James Oakes, from No.2 Gun, later told Ordinary Seaman Archibald that Leading Seaman Ronald ‘Buck’ Taylor had definitely heard the order to abandon ship but had refused to leave and said that he would fire the gun on his own. Taylor continued firing No.2 Gun at the enemy ships from an inferno of smoke, noise and flame until death silenced him shortly before the ship sank some time around 0900. (Able Seaman Oakes later died before Yarra’s survivors were rescued on 9 March but Ordinary Seaman Archibald survived and made a detailed statement on 28 May 1942 describing Yarra’s last action.)
Onboard the Japanese cruiser Maya were a number of survivors from the destroyer HMS Stronghold, which had been sunk on 2 March, and one of these men later recalled;

We were taken on deck and shown, as they tried to impress us, the might of the Japanese Navy. The YARRA was the only ship left 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 the odd gun flashes.  The three cruisers then formed a line ahead and steamed away from the scene.  The last we saw of YARRA was a high column of smoke, but we were all vividly impressed by her fight.

Yarra survivors recalled that the Japanese float planes, from the cruisers, were also used to bomb Yarra in her final stages afloat and that it took close range shelling by the destroyers and bombing by the Japanese to finally sink the sloop. The actual time of sinking is obscure with some survivors claiming it was 0800 and others stating it was closer to 1000.

For the next five days the survivors from Yarra and Parigi floated on two small Carley Floats through scorching days and chilling nights.  Wounds, exposure and sharks began to take their toll and some men went mad with thirst and drank sea water which only hastened their end.  Yet others were determined to live.  Ordinary Seaman Archibald recalled;
…the courage and determination of Leading Signalman G. Bromilow who though badly wounded in the right leg and from shoulder to shoulder stuck out the five days on the raft without a whimper, and would not take an extra ration of water when offered to him.

Finally on the morning of 9 March 1942 there were only 13 survivors from Yarra still alive; and none from Parigi.  The Dutch submarine K11 surfaced nearby to charge her batteries and almost by chance spotted the men on their rafts.  None of Yarra’s officers (or any of the crew of Parigi) had survived.  On 22 March 1942 K11 arrived in Colombo and the Yarra survivors were drafted onboard the destroyer HMAS Napier for return to Australia.
The 13 men who survived Yarra’s last action were:
Ordinary Seaman Jack Archibald  (B 3142)
Stoker Petty Officer Victor Brazier (12772)
Leading Signalman Geoffrey Bromilow (20869)
Ordinary Seaman Keith Buckley (24473)
Leading Stoker Francis Cairncross (21620)
Ordinary Seaman William Clark (H 1518)
Leading Supply Assistant Edwin Latham (21747)
Ordinary Seaman Reginald Manthey (B 2966)
Able Seaman Alfred Orton (F 2951)
Engine Room Artificer 3rd Class Ernest Ramsden (PM 1964)
Acting Leading Stoker Duncan Stevenson (23369)
Leading Cook Howard Wagland (20156)
Ordinary Seaman William Witheriff (S 4478)
Requiem for a ship

Yarra and her gallant crew are gone but their memory lives on in the current HMAS Yarra, a Mine Hunter Coastal (MHC) and the submarine HMAS Rankin. Many books and articles concerning the ship, her crew and their last action continue to be written, but most importantly in 2011 the Australian Government announced a review of Honours and Awards for several naval personnel.  Amongst those to be considered are Lieutenant Commander Robert Rankin, Lieutenant Commander Francis Smith and Leading Seaman Ronald Taylor.   Perhaps now the final chapter in this ships remarkable history is about to be written and a long overdue wrong set right.
In defeat as in victory the men of Yarra had kept faith with their country and her allies.  Their devotion shines through the horror and obscenity of war like sunlight between dark clouds, in silent reproof of the greed, ignorance and stupidity from which wars spring. (K.A. Austin, Yarra in Battle, 1974).

This article on HMAS YARRA is now slightly out of date following the outcomes of the Defence Honours and Awards Tribunal that was announced in early March.
On 3 March 2012, as a result of the review into unrecognised acts of gallantry by the Defence Honours and Awards Tribunal , the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence (Senator David Feeney) announced that the sloop HMAS YARRA will be awarded the Unit Citation for Gallantry based on her actions off Singapore on 5 February (the rescue of 1804 men from the burning troopship Empress of Asia) and in the Indian Ocean on 4 March 1942 when YARRA was sunk while protecting her convoy from a vastly superior Japanese force.  This is only the fourth Unit Citation for Gallantry every awarded to a unit of the ADF and the first to the RAN.
This unit citation is a fitting reward for the men of HMAS YARRA and recognises the group bravery of all the men who served in YARRA in February and March 1942.
Greg Swinden
Commander, RAN

Contact Greg Swinden about this article.

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