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- December 2019 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The naval service of Temporary Lieutenant Ernest Joseph Huson Christmas RANVR was for a relatively short time and this was mostly overseas. His story is historically interesting but misfortune follows and it ends in tragedy.
Leonora, Western Australia
In 1895 rich finds of gold were discovered at Leonora and a town was established in this remote and arid district, about 150 miles (240 km) north of Kalgoorlie. Nearby is the ‘Sons of Gwalia’ mine; an early manager was Hubert Hoover, later to become President of the United States. Hoover’s father (Huber) was a German blacksmith who migrated to the United States. The younger Hoover encouraged the engagement of German and Italian workers in Australian mines. He made the beginnings of his fortune here and termed the region ‘A land of Black Flies, Red Dust and White Heat’.
This recruitment most likely attracted Huson Christman and his wife Louisa Henrietta Charlotte, nee Stahl (Smith). After anglicizing their name, a son born on 3 September 1908 was named Ernest Joseph Huson Christmas. His infant brother Jack Christmas died aged two months on 23 April 1910 and is buried at Leonora. The birth date of a sister, Lilith Stahl Christmas, is unknown.
Huson quickly established himself, as his occupation is listed as Commission Agent and the family must have continued to prosper as they moved to the comfortable middle class suburb of Kew in Melbourne. By 1940 Huson may have died as we know that at that time family then comprised Mrs. Louisa Christmas, her son Ernest and a married daughter, Mrs. Lilith Clarke.
The Dominion Yachtsmen Scheme
On 7 October 1940 Ernest Christmas enlisted at Brisbane under the Dominion Yachtsmen Scheme which operated in both Australia and New Zealand. We do not know why he was in Brisbane but it may have been associated with business as Ernest followed his father and became a ‘gentleman of the road’ as commercial travelers were then known. However, he must have had some demonstrable nautical experience.
From his service record we know Ernest was a Methodist, had fair hair, grey eyes, a dark complexion and was only 5 foot 6½ inches (169 cm) in height.
The Dominion Yachtsmen Scheme was established in July 1940, inviting men who were between 30 and 40 years of age and possessing knowledge of navigation equivalent to the Yachtmaster’s Coastal Certificate to apply for service in the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RANVR). Candidates with suitable academic and social backgrounds would be appointed as Temporary Probationary Sub-Lieutenants. Those under this age could apply for entry as Ordinary Seamen with the opportunity for appointment as officers following a training period.
After an initial three-week boot-camp at HMAS Cerberus candidates were shipped to the United Kingdom for further training and posting, usually to small ships in the Royal Navy. Temporary Probationary SBLT Christmas completed training at Cerberus in early November 1940 and was amongst a large second intake of ‘Yachties’ embarked in SS Themistocles on 19 November bound for England via Durban and Freetown to Liverpool. Here they took the train south, ratings going to HMS Collingwood at Portsmouth and officers to HMS King Alfred.
On 2 February 1941 an intensive ten-week training course commenced at HMS King Alfred, the Royal Naval Reserve Officers Training School, situated near the coastal resort town of Hove. Graduates then expected postings to the fleet, and if unlucky, as first lieutenants of coal burning steam trawlers then making up a high percentage of minesweepers. In Ernest’s case he was bound for Fairmile Motor Launches then being built for coastal patrol duties.
Fairmile Motor Launches – built in hundreds
Fairmile Motor Launches (MLs) were versatile small craft, built in their hundreds, that served in most theatres during WWII. They displaced 85 tons and were 112 feet in length, with a top speed of 20 knots. They were armed with a single 3 pounder gun and twin machine guns, plus depth charges, and had a crew of 15. A smaller version was the Harbour Defence Motor Launch (HDML).
Those selected were sent from the mild south coast to HMS St Christopher, the coastal forces training establishment at bracing Fort William in Scotland. Among the instructors was the well-known Australian mariner, author and adventurer, LEUT Alan Villiers RNVR. Further consolidation training was carried out in MLs at operational east coast bases at Lowestoft and Hull, with one further month at St Christopher where Ernest met another ‘Yachtie’, SBLT Malcolm Henderson RANVR, and his future boss, LCDR Harry Campey RANVR.
Harry Campey had joined the RANR as a Midshipman in 1925 and completed many training cruises and instructional courses, progressing to Lieutenant. In civilian life he was a textile representative but also a keen yachtsman. In 1939 he transferred to the RANVR and in February 1940 took passage to England in SS Oronsay. He undertook coastal forces training and received two ML commands before promotion to Lieutenant Commander in September 1940.
Singapore – ‘an atmosphere of fear’
A flotilla of MLs was being assembled from vessels being completed at Thornycroft’s Singapore yard. A decision was made to place these under command of ‘Colonials’ with eight officers chosen from the RANVR and RNZVNR plus forty-four ratings from the RN (some came from the RNZN). This contingent, under the command of the designated flotilla leader LCDR Campey, departed from Liverpool on 13 November 1941 in the troopship Capetown Castle.
This handsome new liner, now troopship, was part of the large convoy WS 12Z comprising 16 ships and four escorts taking 20,000 servicemen plus stores and provisions, including 51 cased Hawker Hurricane aircraft which were vitally needed for the defence of Malaya. With access through the Mediterranean being denied the convoy, with reinforcements bound for the Middle East, India and the Far East, was routed around southern Africa. They reached Durban safely on 18 December 1941, and here the ships were divided up, some going to Aden, others to Bombay, and a newly named convoy DM 1 sailed for Singapore on 24 December.
In Durban LCDR Campey and his contingent transshipped to the liner Aorangi which with Narkunda, Sussex, the Dutch ship Abbekerk and USN Mount Vernon comprised convoy DM 1. They were escorted to the Maldives by the cruiser HMS Emerald and later joined by HMS Exeter and three destroyers, including HMAS Vampire, plus the sloop HMINS Juma. As direct passage to Singapore was considered hazardous they were routed through the Sunda and Banka Straits where they were watched over by the Dutch cruisers De Ruyter and Tromp plus two destroyers. With this impressive cover DM 1 arrived safely in Singapore on 13 January 1942. In his diary Campey notes, ‘we berthed alongside an almost deserted wharf with enemy planes bombing the airport: I sensed an atmosphere of fear’.
A number of MLs and HDMLs had just completed building at Singapore. These were MLs 432 and 433 and HDMLs 1062 and 1063. Three other HDMLs for the Straits Settlement Volunteer Reserve (SSVR) were given names in lieu of numbers, Panglima, Penghambat and Penyengat. To avoid them falling into enemy hands the last two named HDMLs were scuttled just before the final evacuation from Singapore.
The officers allocated to these vessels were:
|LEUT J.H. Bull RNZNVR
|SBLT M. (Aussie) Henderson RANVR
|LEUT Ernest Christmas RANVR
|LEUT E. (Ted) Staples RNZNVR
|LEUT L.H. Herd RNZNVR
|LEUT W. (Bill) Bourke RNZNVR
|LCDR Harry Campey RANVR
|LEUT R. (Bob) Arkley RNZNVR
|LEUT Colin MacMillan RNZNVR
|LEUT George Stein RMNVR
|LEUT Maxwell Innes RNVR
|LEUT Arthur Martin RNZNVR
|LEUT Henry Moray-Smith RNZNVR
ML 310 – LEUT Bull survived captivity and was awarded the DSC. SBLT Henderson died on Tjebia Island in March 1942 and was MID.
ML 311 – LEUT Richard Ward RANVR, the original CO, was replaced by LEUT Christmas. Ward later took passage in ML 433 and was killed in action on 15 February 1942.
ML 311 – LCDR Victor Clark, DSC, RN a survivor from HMS Repulse and now without a billet joined to assist the inexperienced LEUT Christmas. LCDR Clark was awarded a Bar to his DSC for his part in this action.
ML 432 – LEUT Herd and LEUT Bourke both survived captivity, with the former MID.
ML 433 – LCDR Campey and LEUT Arkley both survived captivity.
HDML 1062 – LEUT MacMillan was killed in action and MID. LEUT Stein survived captivity.
HDML 1063 – After loss of his ship LEUT Innes died of wounds on 02 March 42.
Pulo Soegi – LEUT Martin was killed in action 16 February 1942 and LEUT Moray-Smith died ashore 16 February 1942.
They were based at HMS Sultan, an important shore establishment which had shrunk as the large Far East Command moved to Java, joining with Dutch and American forces.
MLs 310 and 311 were already in commission. MLs 432 and 433 were launched but were awaiting completion of fitout. While in this state ML 432 together with Penghambat was involved in the successful rescue of survivors from the Empress of Asia which had been bombed and was aground off the entrance to Singapore. ML 311 under command of LEUT Christmas was credited with the rescue of over 300 survivors from the stricken liner.
The flotilla had been selected to take senior officers from the three services, plus a large number of skilled ordnance technicians, to Java. These were spread across MLs 310, 311, 432, 433, HDMLs 1062, 1063 and Pulo Soegi. The vessels left harbour after dark on 13 February being led out to sea by ML 311.
At first light ML 311 in company with ML 433 approached some small islands where a party was sent ashore to cut vegetation to camouflage their ships. A similar island-hopping procedure was observed over the next day/night. As dawn approached on 15 February ML 311 sighted a warship ahead about three miles distant. LEUT Christmas called for action stations and maximum speed to close the superior enemy and get within effective gun range. The destroyer opened fire and with her first salvo scored two hits taking out the 3‑pounder and its crew. With the ship in dire straits and the helmsman dead LEUT Christmas took the helm in attempting a zig-zag to avoid incoming fire and handed over the con to LCDR Clark. The action was witnessed by the captain of Mata Hari (LEUT Carston RNR) who says the Japanese destroyer fired fourteen six-gun salvos with four, possibly five, being direct hits. With the ship ablaze and not responding to steerage and no guns operational, the situation was hopeless so the order was given to abandon ship. Shortly afterwards, with her ensign still flying, she sank beneath the waves. The results of accurate Japanese heavy guns fired against wooden-hulled, petrol-engined MLs produced a horrendous toll with the majority of passengers and crew killed within moments.
The Japanese destroyer ceased fire but did not attempt to rescue survivors. LEUT Christmas was badly wounded when he entered the water and was not seen again. It is estimated that six of her crew and 17 Army personnel survived, some wounded. Once in the water those who were able made for a nearby island. Here luck was on their side as in the mangroves they discovered an abandoned Dutch lifeboat with mast and sails and provisions. They sailed her for the next 13 days through Banka Strait but within sight of Batavia their luck ran out. Here they were apprehended by a Japanese patrol and taken into custody as POWs. Most of this information comes from the post war commentary of LCDR Clark after his release from internment.
Other survivors from prison camps were LEUT J.H. Bull RNZNVR ex ML 310, LEUT Richard Arkley RNZNVR and LCDR Harry Campey RANVR, ex ML 433 and LEUT L. Herd RNZNVR ex ML 432.
Summary: brave men who selflessly gave their lives
Of the original squadron of four MLs, five HDMLs and one Patrol Boat, two HDMLs were scuttled before departure, and of the remainder all were lost to enemy action excepting ML 432 which was captured. From the contingent of eight ‘Colonial’ officers and forty-four RN ratings that were sent to establish the squadron, three officers were killed in action and the remainder were captured, and it is assumed a similar percentage of casualties occurred amongst the rest of their ships’ companies. In terms of losses of ships and casualties to a particular action this was one of the worst to occur to the Royal and Dominion Navies during WWII.
Lieutenant Ernest Christmas spent less than 16 months in the RAN; during this time he underwent initial training in Australia, and took passage to England where he received extensive small ship experience. He again took passage in a mighty convoy bound for Singapore where he gained the distinction of an early but brief command. Tragically, Ernest Christmas was amongst those brave men who selflessly gave their lives in an uneven contest, sailing directly to face a vastly superior enemy force.
LEST WE FORGET
There was a relatively large number of New Zealand Naval Reservist in Singapore as under semi-official arrangements a number of ‘Yachties’ were dispatched from New Zealand to Singapore before the Dominion Yachtsmen Scheme was established. Thirty-two New Zealand ‘Yachties’ saw service in Malaysian waters, most without the benefit of overseas training. Of these 14 died and seven were captured, becoming POWs.