- Newspaper, The West Australian
- RAN operations, Ship histories and stories, WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Gascoyne I
- June 2007 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Further investigation showed that an explosion of some sort, not particularly violent, had been seen by officers and men on Gascoyne’s bridge in the direction of merchant ships anchored off Guian Pier.
As no other signal was issued, it was assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that the explosion had been caused by blasting on land. No aircraft could be sighted or heard, and the signal ‘Condition White’ or, in other words ‘All Clear’, was soon passed by the shore signal station.
They had hardly settled down again, however, when a signal was received from the Sommelsdijk, informing Gascoyne that she was on fire and asking for help.
There was an immediate rush to the deck from the wardroom and Lieutenant Peel took up his station on the bridge. Gascoyne was, in naval parlance, at four hours’ notice, which means that normally, it would have been four hours before she could have raised steam.
Peel, however, ordered that steam be provided with all despatch. So readily did the engine room respond, that twelve minutes after the signal had been received from the Sommelsdijk, sufficient steam had been raised on one boiler for moderate speed.
The anchor was weighed, and in the torrential rain Gascoyne started to cover the one and a half miles between herself and the Dutch vessel. To help find his way through the mostly uncharted but numerous reefs and shoals that separated the two ships, Peel ordered a harbour defence motor launch to precede Gascoyne, but the launch soon ran onto a shoal, thus proving the wisdom of the precaution Peel had taken to save his ship from a similar fate.
Altering course swiftly, he found an open passage to Sommelsdijk, which was now burning fiercely, and approached her from leeward, only to observe that a large number of small craft were clustered about her, preventing Gascoyne from getting alongside.
He hailed loudly to Sommelsdijk, and, as he did so, the rain increased in intensity. Fierce red and yellow flames and huge clouds of smoke were now issuing from the holds in the forward part of the ship, and as the deluge became heavier, the smoke grew in density and went spiralling upwards in great rolling billows.
It was at this stage that the Engineer Officer reported to the bridge that the second boiler, which had been flashed up from cold, was ready for use. Peel ordered full speed ahead and dashed alongside, manoeuvring his ship so skilfully that it stopped exactly where he wanted it to.
Led by the Engineer Officer as Damage Control Officer, ratings from Gascoyne jumped aboard Sommelsdijk, and after they had secured the two vessels to each other, dashed towards the forward holds. They were clad in asbestos fire-fighting suits and breathing apparatus, and were dragging hoses from their own ship after them.
They learned that the Dutch steamer had been struck by an aerial torpedo abreast of No. 1 hatch which was filled with general cargo and jeeps, and was burning furiously.
The double bottoms of the hold were filled with diesel fuel. The port side of the watertight bulkhead between No. 1 and No. 2 holds had become white hot and had conducted the fire into No. 2 hold which was now well alight. Seven men had been killed and 82 other wounded, most of them by covers and beams from No. 1 hatch which had been blown into the air by the explosion of the torpedo and had fallen back on them.
Among the first rescued from the fiercely burning ship were more than 1200 members of the U.S. Naval Construction Battalion who were to work on the aerodrome they had built.
They were taken aboard Gascoyne and guided below, but, even so, the upper deck of the small vessel soon became acutely overcrowded. A signal was sent to the American ship Buttonwood, also attached to the hydrographic group, which was standing by under orders, and she came alongside on the starboard side, cleared the upper deck congestion, and landed the troops she had taken off.
Meanwhile, Gascoyne’s ratings were pouring thousands of gallons of water into the burning holds, part of which had collapsed and added to the flames. Buttonwood returned and played her hoses on the port side of the Sommelsdijk, which was glowing fiercely, changing alternately from white to cherry red, and buckling badly.