- Thomson, Max
- Ship histories and stories, WWII operations, History - post WWII
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Hawkesbury I
- June 2004 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
With the unveiling by CDF General Cosgrove at Ballarat on 6 February 2004 of the memorial dedicated to 35,000 Australians who became prisoners-of-war in all conflicts, journalist and Navy veteran Max Thomson describes . . .
BANDS PLAYED ON THE CAPITAL SHIPS and cruisers, bugle calls rang out over the harbour, signal lamps hammered out messages of goodwill and ships of the British Eastern Fleet were dressed overall for the historic occasion. It was an incredible scene in Singapore on that September day in 1945 when the first of the transports formed up in convoy and the 8th Div. AIF finally departed ‘for home’.
As the convoy got under way and Singapore skyline began to fade with all its dreadful memories for Changi and Burma Railway men who had been incarcerated for three and a half years, the frigate HMAS Hawkesbury made this momentous signal to the CO of troops aboard the transports in its convoy:
‘And so we say farewell to this shining jewel of the Orient, famed for its luxury, good living and beautiful women. Onward to Aussie, land of the blessed‘
CO, Officers and Ship’s Company HMAS Hawkesbury. The irony of the message was not lost on those who had endured so much, for back came the reply by signal lamp:
‘The boys appreciate your message. The little Chinese girls in their immaculate slacks will remain always in their memories . . . as will the kindness of the local people to the prisoners. Luxury is all here but bankrupt.’ HMAS Hawkesbury was the sole Australian warship which raced to Singapore with the Australian Government relief liner Duntroon at war’s end. She was present on the day Japan surrendered Singapore to Admiral Mountbatten at an historic ceremony.
The renowned Australian ‘Bush Telegraph’ worked well for the Changi men. Somehow, they knew an RAN warship and a relief liner were arriving. Even before the frigate had dropped anchor, Changi prisoners were alongside in bumboats, skiffs and anything that floated. HMAS Hawkesbury had about 200 Changi men aboard each day. Dressed in rags and tatters, they were given the best meal a warship could provide and a cherished glass of Australian beer as they yearned for knowledge on what had gone on back in Australia. Just as the frigate’s crew yearned for the full first-hand prisoner-of-war saga.
Probably unknown to them to this day, HMAS Hawkesbury‘s CO (Lt. Cdr., later Commodore I.K. Purvis OBE, RAN) requested permission from the British authorities to have HMAS Perth men who had survived the Sunda Strait sinking, only to become prisoners of war, travel back home to Australia aboard the RAN frigate. Authorities readily agreed – but only if Hawkesbury could guarantee to land them in Australia – which she could not do and, as events unfolded, was not to be anyhow.
Uppermost in the minds of all on HMAS Hawkesbury was the task of leading the transports through 52 miles of minefields along a channel swept by Royal Navy minesweepers, but with the knowledge that so many of the mines were years old, that wires may have parted and mines could have drifted into the swept channel. The French battleship Richelieu, present in Singapore with HMS Nelson, had indeed hit a mine but with its massive bulk and armour-plating, was undamaged.
HMAS Hawkesbury escorted Duntroon and Arawa back to within safety of Darwin, then after exchanging mail and bidding the 8th Division men a salute, returned to give escort to another POW transport Highland Chieftain, passing the British destroyer HMS Paladin at one stage escorting Esperance Bay and Largs Bay carrying more POWs and released civilian internees.
The historic signals exchanged when departing Singapore are now preserved in the RAN Museum at HMAS Cerberus as a tribute to Commodore Purvis, who went on to become NOIC Victoria and CO of HMAS Cerberus.