- Editorial Staff
- Biographies and personal histories, Ship histories and stories, Naval history, WWII operations, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Kanimbla I
- December 2014 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Brian Luttrell entered the RANVR in September 1939; a short while later he was off to war as an Ordinary Signalman in HMS Kanimbla. More than two years elapsed before his ship returned home. Amongst his memorabilia of these times are the first two editions (from 1941) of the ship’s magazine Cry Havoc which has kindly been shared with us by his daughter Mrs Dawn Binnings. Her father died in 1982.
The motor vessel Kanimbla was an interstate passenger liner built by Harland & Wolf at Belfast in 1935 for the well known Melbourne shipping company McIlwraith & McEacharn of Scottish ancestry. Kanimbla is named after a remote but pretty district in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales with the derivation coming from an aboriginal word meaning fighting ground.
The ship was requisitioned in 1939 and converted in Sydney as the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Kanimbla with a largely Australian crew under the command of Captain Frank Getting, RAN. Initially she was involved in patrol work on the China and East Indies stations. In 1943 she had a further conversion in Sydney as a Landing Ship Infantry and was transferred to the RAN. She operated in the Pacific until the end of the war and was not handed back to her original owners until 1950. With changing trade conditions in 1961 this fine ship was sold to the former enemy, the Japanese Toyo Yusen Line, and renamed Oriental Queen, operating as a cruise ship until sold for breaking up in 1973.
The following pieces of general interest are taken from the ship’s magazine.
Editorial – first edition
McIlwraith and McEacharn Ltd. presented the Ship’s Company with £A20, from this the Canteen Committee, which administers the fund, has decided to present each member of the Ship’s Company with a copy of our first issue. Our thanks to McIIwraith and McEacharn.
A poem with apologies to John Masefield:
Must I go down to the seas again
To that endless war routine?
To the rains that pelt and the winds that howl
And the waves of rolling green?
To the calls of the pipe and the bugle’s blast
Disturbing our restless sleep?
For to do the job ‘till the danger’s past’
Means an endless watch to keep.
I must go down to the seas again
For there’s more than sea that draws,
There’s a job to be done and a war to be won,
I must fight for so just a cause.
But there’s still one thought that we all retain,
As o’er the seas we roam
Though the world is wide and there’s much to be seen
There’s still no place like home.
Kanimbla’s Motto – second edition
In the very early days of the War when Kanimbla had only just been taken over and there was still a lot of China furniture in the cabins, the Master of the vessel and her temporary Commander were discussing over an excellent lunch (not taken up on repayment) the question of a suitable crest and motto for the ship.
Various more or less ribald suggestions were made by the Mate and some sweetly romantic ideas were put forward by the Providor’s pretty secretary who used to honour us at lunch and keep the young officers in clean tunics. Presently the Master said it would be a pity if the old hungry dog was not included in the crest (referring to the lion rampant in the house flag of McIlwraith, McEacharn). This brought sparks from the Providor as it was intended to, and a hot argument ensued on the evergreen subject of a ‘ha’porth of tar’.
But the word dog had started an idea germinating in the Commander’s brain. Twenty-five or more years ago in most Gunrooms in the Navy, the ‘Dogs of War’ were an established institution. In those days when a midshipman’s pay was 1/9 a day and a sub-lieutenant’s 5/- everyone dined on board six nights a week out of sheer necessity, apart from leave restrictions during wartime.
Under these circumstances it was not unusual for the ‘young gentlemen’ to get a bit obstreperous at times. When the Sub of the Mess wished to remove any particularly riotous member he would usually cry, ‘Dogs of War, out Mr. So and So’, at which order the most powerful snotties would seize Mr. So and So and eject him forcibly by the nearest exit. Sometimes in particular noisy Gunrooms Duty Dogs of War were told off for the week by the Sub of the Mess.
And thus when the Commander heard that the McIlwraith lion was nicknamed ‘the hungry dog’ on the coast (this had no connection with McIlwraith’s food – we were eating roast duck at the time) the suggestion was put forward that the hungry dog should become the dog of war under the White Ensign, for her job as an AMC would be to fall upon the King’s enemies and banish them from the seas.
William Shakespeare’s ‘Cry Havoc and let loose the dogs of war’ was an obvious apt way of expressing the thought in our midst and so ‘Cry Havoc’ was carried for the ship’s motto by general acclamation. The crest is the same as that on the boat’s badges, i.e., the lion rampant encircled by a rope grommet.
Note by Editor NHR: Some expressions used above are no longer in common usage such as:
Providor = see also Provedore a ship’s agent proving provisions, usually fresh food.
Ha’porth of Tar = unjustified savings usually made against ships’ provisions – the lowest value being a ha’porth or half a penny worth (less than one cent).
Monetary values of 1/9 and 5/- refer to 1 shilling and 9 pence and 5 shillings – about 17 cents and 50 cents respectively.
HMS KANIMBLA and HMAS KANIMBLA
MV Kanimbla was launched by Harland and Wolf in December 1935 and arrived in Sydney the following June. With war clouds on the distant horizon this 10,985 ton twin screw motor ship with a maximum speed of 19 knots had been specially strengthened for potential military use. She was a smaller version of the Union Castle liner Stirling Castle which was being built concurrently by the same yard. As a passenger liner in her new home environment Kanimbla was an instant success acclaimed as the most beautiful and luxurious ship on the Australian coast.
Immediately following the declaration of war against Germany on 3 September 1939 she was requisitioned by the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board and taken to Garden Island Dockyard for conversion to an Armed Merchant Cruiser (AMC). Armour plating and armament was provided mainly through the addition of 7 x 6-inch guns and 2 x 3-inch HA anti-aircraft guns plus 2 x Lewis guns. While this armament appears formidable it was mostly taken from obsolete Royal Naval WW I ships and for many years had been stockpiled at Spectacle Island.
On 6 September HMS Kanimbla was formally commissioned by LCDR Geoffrey Branson, a retired Royal Naval gunnery officer residing in Australia who joined the RAN Emergency List at the commencement of hostilities and was placed in temporary command. The designated commanding officer CMDR Frank Getting, RAN was Executive Officer of HMAS Canberra at this time and did not join until 4 October when promoted to Acting Captain. At the same time Acting Commander Branson became her Executive Officer. Captain Getting was later mortally wounded while in command of Canberra. Other than the captain and executive officer, the remainder of the officers were from the RANR as were most of her crew. Many of her peacetime crew including the entire engineering department elected to remain with the ship and transferred to RANR, this was particularly important as at that stage the RAN had no experience with diesel powered vessels. Kanimbla was owned by a company with its head office in Melbourne and the ship was registered at that port but in Lloyd’s Register she was listed as being British owned. In those days Dominion status was often regarded as British and owing to this rather grey legal status she was commissioned into the Royal Navy.
On 13 December 1939 Kanimbla, after a conversion of only eleven weeks, sailed for Hong Kong being allocated to the China Squadron for patrol duties between China and Japan. At this stage it should be remembered that most of South East Asia was neutral. Kanimbla, still surprisingly yet to adorn wartime livery, attempted to pass herself off as a neutral merchantman, at times wearing Dutch and American colours – when she had approached close enough to her quarry she would hoist the White Ensign, fire warning shots and order them to stop and be searched. In this guise she lived up to her motto and gained notoriety being involved with HMS Liverpoolin stopping the Japanese passenger liner Asama Maru and taking off 26 German passengers suspected of being seamen from merchant ships stranded in America – they were taken to Hong Kong for interrogation but owing to international uproar Kanimbla was later obliged to return a number of these men to Yokohama. However this seemed to have the desired effect of dissuading German nationals from using this route in trying to regain their homeland. In another incident she apprehended a Russian steamer Vladimer Mayakovsky thought to be bringing valuable cargo from Mexico bound for Russia but eventually destined for Germany – this ship was taken to Hong Kong and was the only Russian ship captured by the Allies. After the fall of France the Commander of the China Station, Admiral Sir Percy Noble, was embarked for Saigon where he tried unsuccessfully to persuade the colonial forces to side with the Free French.
Perhaps wearing out her welcome, after stopping and searching a large number of non-belligerent ships and sending many to Hong Kong Kanimbla was transferred to Colombo and undertook patrol duties in the Indian Ocean. Nothing much happened until August 1941 when she was sent to the Persian Gulf; at this stage Persia with its valuable oil reserves was neutral and a number of Axis ships were known to be stranded in its ports. On 24 August Kanimbla led a squadron of eight smaller naval vessels on an assault on the port of Bandar Shapur, bombarding the town before sending armed parties including Indian and Ghurkha troops ashore. Here they captured this strategically important town and its small naval base plus eight German and three Italian merchant ships which were taken as prizes and sailed to Allied controlled ports. Two Persian gunboats and a floating dock were also captured. Shortly afterwards the Persian Government which had German sympathies was replaced by a new regime more amenable to the Allies. For his part in helping to salve the large German merchant ship Hohenfels, which had detonated scuttling charges, Petty Officer John Humphries, RANR was awarded the George Medal.
Kanimbla next made for Singapore escorting the first convoy out of that port after the Japanese onslaught on Malaya. After more than two years absence this most capable AMC returned to Sydney where after leave and maintenance she was again involved in patrol and escort duties from the Australian coast into the Pacific and Indian theatres.
In April 1943 she paid off and for conversion again at Garden Island Dockyard to an Assault Landing Ship Infantry (ALSI) and recommissioned as HMAS Kanimbla in June 1943. Those who had sailed in her before groaned audibly as the last of her attractive fittings were stripped from her and forever lost. At this time her main armament was removed in favour of lighter anti aircraft weapons and to make way for 16 to 24 embarked landing craft; she was reconfigured with more spartan accommodation for 1,200 fully equipped troops, with many more carried in an emergency. From then until the end of the war she carried many thousands of American and Australian troops safely to most of the beachhead landings in the Pacific campaign. When hostilities ceased another 18 months was spent returning troops and POWs home from various embarkation points in the Pacific.
In June 1948 a new role was undertaken when the designated crew of the new aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney was transported plus equipment from Sydney to Plymouth. On the return voyage she brought 330 ex-Royal Navy personnel to join the RAN on six year commissions and also called at Genoa to embark 430 displaced young male persons for a voyage to their new homeland. When this eclectic mix of now more than one thousand men was unleashed ashore they lived up to their motto. Havoc a-plenty was created in Genoa when a small altercation flared out of control with one sailor fatally shot and 20 others wounded. Armed Carabinieri arrested about 100 sailors and for a while the Captain and two officers were also under arrest. The ship quickly sailed with an inquiry later held in Melbourne.
After a further voyage to Japan she finally paid-off from military service in November 1948. She underwent a lengthy and expensive refit at Cockatoo interrupted by industrial disputes and shortages of materials. It was not until December 1950, exactly 11 years from the time she first sailed to the China Station, that she was handed back to her owners. Her return to the coastal trade was welcome but with the advent of air travel she became uneconomical and was sold to new owners in February 1961. Many eyebrows were raised when she ended up in the hands of the old enemy and returned to Australia as the cruise ship Oriental Queen flying a Japanese ensign. After 38 years of dedicated service this fine old lady, who had survived mines, bombs and torpedos and played an important part in our maritime and naval history, made her way to Indian shipbreakers in 1973. Her remarkable wartime service had possibly covered more miles and captured more ships than any other ship flying the White Ensign, proceeding over 470,000 miles the equivalent of going to the moon and back. Wherever she went, with her strange blend of Scottish and aboriginal fighting spirit, she did ‘cry havoc’ and helped create a history of which we can all be proud.
So great was the attachment to this ship that several men remained with her from the very beginning of her career as a merchant ship until completion of her naval service. Most notable among these were Engineer CMDR James McGuffog, OBE, RANR(S) (Commander McGuffog was twice mentioned in dispatches and awarded the OBE for his services in Kanimbla) and Engineer LCDR George Milne, RANR (S), the senior engineering officers who had stood by the ship during her building in Belfast and remained with her until the completion of her naval service. Two other engineer officers, LCDR Colin Clark, RANR(S) and LCDR Herbert Gerrard, RANR(S) also remained with the ship during the whole of her naval service. The contribution of such men was remarkable as the RAN with very limited experience in operating large diesel plants would have been hard pressed to maintain the vessel in such excellent condition throughout her successful life. Are there lessons to be learned here?