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- Ship histories and stories, History - WW2
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- June 2017 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Wooden Ships and Iron Men – unofficial motto of RAN HDMLs1
The March 2017 edition of this magazine contained an article HDML 1321 and what she represents which states that after war service she was lent to the Northern Territory Administration until 1951, when she returned to Sydney attached to HMAS Rushcutter. Further investigation indicates this is likely to be in error and is corrected below.
HDML Design and Construction
The HDML was designed in early 1939 by William John Holt (2), of the Royal Corps of Constructors and head of design at the boat section of the Admiralty. In total 464 of these versatile craft were constructed, mainly by yacht builders in the United Kingdom and a number of allied countries, including Australia. The mass construction of so many wooden vessels, over such a short period, was a unique feature in ship construction.
A major design characteristic was they were not to exceed 72 feet in length so as to be capable of being transported to areas of operation as deck cargo in large merchant ships. However Australian built boats, not intended for transhipment, were 80 feet and 3 inches in length. In a confusing array of names and acronyms these vessels were also designated as Seaward Defence Motor Launches (SDMLs) and later as Seaward Defence Boats (SDBs).
A total of 28 HDMLs saw wartime service with the RAN and, a further two, HDMLs 1344 and 1345,were never commissioned and placed into reserve on 26 October 1945. The first three (3) HDMLs to enter the RAN, 1074, 1129 and 1161 were constructed in the UK and saw brief service with the RN prior to their transfer to the RAN in late 1942/early 1943. They were followed by another nine hulls built in Australian yards and sixteen from the United States. Those from the US were sometimes known as ‘Q’ boats as many wore that prefix to their pennant numbers.
The locally built boats were numbered from 1321 to 1329. Purdon & Featherstone of Hobart built 1321, 1322 and 1327; McFarlane & Sons of Birkenhead, SA built 1323, 1324 and 1328and E. Jack of Launceston built 1325, 1326 and 1329.
Following war service a large number of HDMLs were declared surplus and some were advertised for disposal. These were divided between Brisbane and Sydney with both HMAS Kuttabul and HMAS Moreton having specifically designed officers for ship disposal. There may however have been a policy to retain locally built craft, as these were slightly larger and better seaboats, and to first release those built overseas. Eight ships were sold, but the largest number of 14 ships were returned to the USN under the terms of a Lend-Lease agreement. While our records are incomplete most of these ships seem to have disposed of by early 1948.
The task of sweeping hundred of mines from Australian and PNG waters began in December 1945. SDMLs 1323, 1326, 1328 and 1329 formed part of the 20th Minesweeping Flotilla, which mainly operated from Townsville and Cairns, with the senior officer carried in HMAS Swan. From 1950 until 1958 this group of SDMLs was lent to the RN, which employed them on the Far East station. Upon return these boats were thought to be well worn and due for retirement.
Despite her Far East adventures HDML 1328 had a reprieve, as in September/October 1949, she is reported as being sent on a recruiting drive to the Richmond and Clarence Rivers calling at a number of ports including Lismore and Grafton.
In 1958 four boats 1323, 1326, 1328 and 1329 were transferred to the Philippines Navy.
SDML 1324 had a variety of post war tasks. In 1953 she became a tender to HMAS Tarangau at Manus, and in 1957 she was delivered to Hobart becoming SDB Huon. Finally in 1967 she sailed to Melbourne to be attached to HMAS Lonsdale as a reserve for the training vessel Nepean.
SDML 1325 became a tender to HMAS Melville in Darwin in 1953, where she remained until 1956, and was then transferred as a tender to HMAS Leeuwin in Fremantle.
In April 1952 SDML 1327 became a tender to HMAS Tarangau in PNG.
While none of this class of ship was lost in wartime service one, HDML 1322 had an untimely end, being wrecked off Sydney’s North Head on 5 August 1952. At the time she under tow by the naval tug HMAS Reserve on passage to Manus Island, PNG. There was no loss of life.
Of the locally built boats this leaves 1321 built by Purdon & Featherstone to be brought to account. On 7 June 1946 SDML 1321 was placed in ‘F’ class reserve in Brisbane, where she remained until October 1947 and is then deleted, without explanation, from the Navy List. She next reappears as a tender to HMAS Rushcutter in January 1953.
We have recently uncovered a letter from the late LCDR Ron Bagley, RANR to the commercial owners of 1321. This informs that LCDR Bagley commissioned HDML 1321as HMAS Rushcutter at 0800 Saturday 17 November 1956. She sailed from Sydney under his command the next day in company with HMAS Cootamundra. Both ships were en route to Melbourne to participate in the Olympic sailing events held on Port Phillip Bay from 26 November to 05 December 1956. After a successful visit both ships returned to Sydney on Monday 10 December 1956.
As mentioned at the introduction to this article we had stated that post war HDML 1321 was lent to the Northern Territory Administration and this nicely fits in with her mysterious disappearance from naval records between late 1947 and early 1953. Our information came from Royal Australian Navy A – Z Ships, Aircraft & Shore Establishmentsby J.H. Straczek, published by Navy Public Affairs in 1996. This says the vessel was: Loaned to Northern Territory Administration from shortly after WWII till 1951. Served as a patrol boat. Designation changed to SDML 1321 and then SDB 1321. Sent as named ship to HMAS Rushcutter, 1953. Sold 2 August 1971.
Unfortunately we have yet to find any collaborative evidence of her later service in the Northern Territory. It seems likely that this was an intended course of action which may not have transpired.
The New Zealand Connection
Across the Tasman the fledgling Royal New Zealand Navy had been allocated twenty-two HDMLs for the defence of its coast and those of the Pacific islands coming under its jurisdiction. The first ten were to be from Britain with another twelve coming from the United States.
The first boat, HDML 1090, embarked as deck cargo in SS Port Hunter, was lost when the parent ship was sunk by U-582 in the Atlantic on 12 July 1942; this resulted in the supply of the remaining boats from Britain being abandoned. Port Hunterwas carrying ammunition which exploded when hit by torpedos, with all 82 crew and DMS gunners lost, excepting three, who had been sleeping on deck and were found in the wreckage of HDML 1090.
Sixteen HDMLs arrived in New Zealand, as opportunity deck cargo, from the US between January 1943 and March 1944. In September 1943 a decision was made that the RNZN requirement could be satisfied by 16 boats and the final 6 of this Lend-Lease allocation was reassigned to the RAN.
- The first verse of the poem Clipper Ships and Captains,by Rosemary & Stephen Vincent Benet, provides eloquent imagery:
There was a time before our time,
It will not come again,
When the best ships were wooden ships
But the men were iron men.
- The remarkable William John Holt was also responsible for the design of the Fairmile Type ‘B’ Motor Launch used widely by the RAN.
- The Madusa Trust from Portsmouth in the UK, which holds a fount of HDML information, states that a further HDML 1325came to Australia in 1943 and was transferred to the Royal Indian Navy in 1944. We are unable to find any record of this vessel entering or leaving Australia but she appears as a commissioned vessel in the RIN serving with the 120th HDML Flotilla.