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- September 2010 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
It was only three years after the close of WW I that Gerard, as we knew her, was built by the famous Krupp Company in, of all places, Kiel in Germany,. She was a three masted schooner with an auxiliary engine (a Vickers Petters 4-cylinder diesel, of 195 bhp, with a single screw). She was also probably one of the last ships to have the old sailing style of steering – the helmsman having to stand before the wheel. The hull was built of the special steel used in WW I U-boats. Perhaps that is why she lasted so long.
She was named Antilope, changed to Therese, back to Antilope, and then to Palanga, all in the space of four years. We have no information of her life in Europe but she came to Australia in July 1925 and was registered as Gerard by the Franco-Australian Trading Co., and sold in 1932 to an Adelaide company, R. Fricker and Co.
Gerard operated in the wheat trade in Spencers Gulf until she was requisitioned by the RAN on 5 April 1941, and fitted out in Melbourne as an examination ship. Alterations included converting the forward hold to a messdeck, with a galley above. It was commissioned on 1 July 1941 under the command of Lt. Archibald Simmons and left for Port Kembla on her first mission as an examination ship. She operated there until 1 July 1943 then went to Sydney where some armament was fitted.
She received 1 x 12 pounder, 1 x 20 mm Oerlikon and 2 x Vickers .303 machine guns. The 12 pounder was mounted above the galley. I wonder how many times Harry Lord had his cooking destroyed when the gun was fired without notice. It has been said that Harry didn’t need the help of a gun to achieve that!
Records quote her top speed as 8.5 knots. I question that because the only time I recall she may have achieved that speed were the occasions when we were towed into Milne Bay. Later information confirms that her maximum speed was 6.5 knots, with a range of 2000 miles, using 5 gallons of fuel per hour.
Gerard left Sydney on 18 July 1943 on the first of her two voyages to Thursday Island, calling at Queensland ports en route. On completion of her second trip, she returned to Sydney, where the Navy removed two masts and the bowsprit.
First trip to New Guinea
Jack Cardinal, who joined the ship in March 1942, says the wharfies were offering 20 to 1 that the ship would not make it on the first trip to TI. Surely the odds were even longer on the first trip to New Guinea, when we only had our 22 year old auxiliary engine. Gerard left Sydney on her first New Guinea trip in November 1943 – first stop Brisbane.
How could we win a war with a ship like that, but off we went in December 1943, with Skipper Lieutenant Hall, and headed north. Navy Office had such faith in her that we had to hug the coast all the way to TI and then on to Moresby. We made it. However, another small ship, the Matafele, a supply ship, left Brisbane the same day on a direct route to Moresby and was never seen again.
We were not sure what our role was to be but we had a full cargo of boxes addressed to the Port Director, Madang. The fact that Madang was still firmly in Japanese hands did not seem to worry Navy Office. But we finally delivered the goods to Madang about Anzac Day 1944, and Gerard was the first Allied ship to enter Madang Harbour.
The old ship carried all sorts of cargo, we visited nearly every port in New Guinea and we did all sorts of jobs, but our major task was being attached to the US Navy based at Kana Kope, near the entrance to Milne Bay. We supplied the US MTB squadron with engines and torpedoes. It was the most famous squadron of MTBs and received a Presidential Recognition. One of the skippers was the late John F. Kennedy. Our small but important task contributed to the success of this squadron. Those at home writing to us thought we were having a great time in San Francisco because all our mail had to be directed through the US Mail system. Unfortunately, we never made it to the States.