- Swinden, Greg
- History - Between the wars
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Adelaide I, RAFA Biloela
- June 1994 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
On 10 October ADELAIDE (under the command of Captain G.C. Harrison RN) was ordered to proceed with all dispatch to Tulagi. Extra ammunition, arms, tents, groundsheets, a large consignment of Mills bombs (grenades) and victuals were loaded. An additional Medical Officer, a Dr Courtney, was assigned to the ship and one newspaper of the day even fancifully stated that ADELAIDE had medical stores which included antidotes for tropical poisons.
The Sydney Morning Herald informed its readers that the ship’s company of ADELAIDE “were looking forward to a trip of adventure“. Another, the Sun News Pictorial stated that “trouble in the islands finds the Navy ready” and carried a picture of ADELAIDE “rushing to the Solomons in response to appeals for assistance following a native uprising“.
ADELAIDE sailed at 1900 on the 10th and steamed for three days at 20 knots and with all scuttles closed made conditions below deck most uncomfortable. On 12 October speed was reduced to 16 knots and this made conditions a little more bearable.
In Australia the question of sending ADELAIDE to assist in the Solomons was raised in the Federal Parliament. Prime Minister Stanley Bruce stated that ADELAIDE would remain firmly under Australian control. The Labor opposition took an anti colonial stance and tried to infer that the government was toadying to the British. Bruce disposed of the argument stating that “every community under the British flag is administered fairly and impartially, and it is not for us to criticise the administration of the Solomon Islands”. The government also had popular support with the public and the bulk of the press for the dispatch of ADELAIDE to the Solomons.
ADELAIDE passed Guadalcanal, scene of intense fighting during World War II, and arrived at Tulagi during an intense rain storm at 1800 on the 14th. Captain Harrison met with the Resident Commissioner, Captain R.R. Kane, to discuss the ship’s role in this punitive expedition.
Eleven of ADELAIDE’S men, under a Petty Officer Smith, were left in Tulagi to assist with providing communications with the expedition. ADELAIDE sailed from Tulagi and arrived at Sinalagu at 1300 on 16 October, some twelve days after the massacre. Ashore at the village of Gwee’abe was found the scene of the fight.
Surrounding the tax hut were several broken spears, arrows and a number of empty .303 shells. On the verandah of the hut lay some torn mats, two empty revolver holsters, a broken typewriter (used to type out the receipts for the payment of taxes) and a number of brass tallies that the natives wore to identify themselves when paying taxes. These tallies were collected for use as evidence in any future trial.
The bodies of the butchered native police had been hastily buried in shallow graves and after several days in the tropical sun had begun to putrefy. The first task allocated to ADELAIDE’S men was to rebury the dead in deeper graves with liberal layers of quick lime. Following this, all huts at the site, including the tax hut, were burned and bell tents were erected to shelter the landing force. Onboard ADELAIDE preparations were made to prevent an attack on the ship by natives in canoes.
The camp at the site of the massacre became known as Beach Base, and on the 17th five officers and seventy ratings from ADELAIDE were landed. Provisions and water in barricoes was also landed.
Men were allotted eight to a tent and sentries were set for the night. One ADELAIDE sailor recalled that first night ashore;
“The occupants of each tent slept on ground sheets with their feet to the centre pole. In most cases the arms of each other overlapped on the chest of the person on either side.” Strategically, the camp was badly situated but it would have been so anywhere along the beach strip with towering hills on three sides, but the moral effect of camping at the scene of the crime was considered great as the natives of those parts feared ‘debil debils’. The eerie feeling was increased when one was aware that there were nine bodies buried close by.
Shortly after midnight when the middle watch sentries had been relieved, a blood curdling screech was heard and pandemonium broke loose. First thoughts were that Bassiana and his bush boys had attacked the camp. In an endeavour to grab rifles and bayonets, matelots were pinning one another down trying to get out of their tents in the pitch blackness. In one tent was a Leading Signalman who had his boots on the wrong feet; others slid under the flaps of their tents without boots on, and some with rifles but with no bayonets or ammunition. Outside the whole camp was astir and it was quite some time before it was realised that the cause of it all was some jittery sailor yelling out during a nightmare. This episode on the first night in camp, although humorous, served as a lesson to know what to do and what not to do should the real thing occur. At this stage Bassiana and his followers were several miles from the massacre site having taken refuge in the mountainous central region of Malaita.