HMAS
Perth
(I)

HMAS Perth (I)
Class
Modified Leander Class
Type
Light Cruiser
Pennant
D29
Builder
Portsmouth Naval Dockyard, England
Laid Down
26 June 1933
Launched
26 July 1934
Launched by
Marchioness of Titchfield
Commissioned
15 June 1936
Decommissioned
1 March 1942
Fate
Lost in action on 1 March 1942
Dimensions & Displacement
Displacement 6,830 tons
Length 555 feet
Beam 56 feet 8 inches
Draught 15 feet 8 inches
Performance
Speed 32.5 knots
Propulsion
Machinery 4 Parsons geared turbines
Horsepower 72,000
Armament
Guns
  • 8 x 6-inch guns
  • 8 x 4-inch guns
  • 4 x 3-pounder guns
  • 4 x 2-pounder guns
Torpedoes 8 x 21 inch torpedo tubes
Other Aircraft Walrus amphibian (of 9 Squadron, RAAF)
Awards
Battle Honours

HMS Amphion commissioned at Portsmouth on 15 June 1936. After trials she left Portsmouth on 18 July to join the 6th Cruiser Squadron with two Hawker Osprey aircraft embarked.

The cruiser arrived at Simonstown, South Africa on 3 October 1936 and spent the next two years as Flagship on the Africa station, based on the Cape of Good Hope and cruising as far north as Dakar on the west coast and Beira on the east. Her mid-commission refit was undertaken at Simonstown in the late autumn of 1937.

The Marchioness of Titchfield launches HMAS Perth on 26 July 1934
The Marchioness of Titchfield launches HMAS Perth on 26 July 1934

Amphion departed Simonstown early in October 1938 and arrived at Spithead on 14 December, proceeding to Portsmouth the following day to pay off for a refit. Her Commanding Officer throughout the commission had been Captain R.L Burnett OBE RN.

The refit at Portsmouth Dockyard involved, among other modifications, the addition of a 'heavy' catapult to accommodate a Seagull V amphibion and the installation of modern twin 4-inch anti-aircraft mountings in place of the original old single guns.

Following agreement between the British and Australian Governments for the purchase or Amphion for the RAN it was decided to transfer the ship in 1939. Subsequently the cruiser HMAS Adelaide (I) paid off and her crew, who were to man the new addition to the RAN, left Australia for the United Kingdom on 15 May 1939 in SS Autolycus.

On 29 June 1939 the cruiser commissioned in the RAN at Portsmouth as HMAS Perth under the command of CAPT Harold B. Farncomb MVO RAN. A highlight of the short period of peacetime service the ship was to enjoy under the Australian flag was a visit to New York to represent Australia at the World's Fair. Perth's stay at New York lasted from 4 to 16 August 1939.

Before the outbreak of war, it had been intended that Perth would be sailed to Australia before the end of 1939. When war appeared imminent at the end of August the ship was in the West Indies. Pending the arrival of RN ships, she was ordered to protect oil tankers operating between Trinidad and Venezuela. For the next two and a half months Perth carried out escort and patrol duties in the West Indies and Western Atlantic.

 

HMAS Perth in Culbra Cut Panama Canal 29 November 1939
HMAS Perth in Culbra Cut Panama Canal 29 November 1939

Late in November 1939 the ship passed through the Panama Canal and proceeded to Cocos Island with orders to fuel the Royal Canadian Navy destroyers Ottawa and Restigouche. At the end of the month Perth returned to the Atlantic and proceeded for Kingston, Jamaica. Escort and patrol duties continued until early March 1940. The ship again passed through the Canal on 2 March 1940 and sailed for Sydney the following day. She secured alongside at Garden Island on 31 March.

Most of April was taken up by a refit followed by engine trials. On 5 May 1940, Perth escorted the troopship Queen Mary which was joining Convoy US 3, the third convoy of Australian troops going to the Middle East. After briefly escorting the convoy in company with HMAS Australia (II), Perth returned to Sydney. Patrols and practice firings on the Australian east coast followed. On 6 June 1940 at Garden Island, Captain Sir Phillip Bowyer-Smyth, RN assumed command from CAPT Farncomb. The following day the flag of the Rear Admiral Commanding the Australian Squadron (RACAS), Rear Admiral John G. Crace, was struck in HMAS Canberra (I) and hoisted in Perth, which was to be the Flagship of the Squadron for almost six months.

Until almost the end of November 1940 Perth was engaged in patrols and escort work around Australia. On 27 November, at Fremantle, RACAS transferred his flag from Perth to Canberra (I). On 28 November Perth left Fremantle as an escort for the seventh Middle East convoy, US 7. At different times ships of the Royal Australian Navy, Royal Navy and Royal Indian Navy were in company as escorts during the voyage. Aden was reached on 12 December and the ship's Walrus aircraft was landed to work from shore. Two days later the ship left Convoy US 7 to assume duty as escort to a southbound convoy.

HMAS Perth avoiding aerial bombing off crete in 1941
HMAS Perth avoiding aerial bombing off crete in 1941

On 16 December Perth arrived at Aden where she re-embarked her aircraft the following morning and then proceeded to take over as escort of a northbound convoy. The cruiser and the vessels under her charge (some having detached and gone ahead) arrived at Suez on 23 December.

The ship proceeded through the Suez Canal and after a short stay at Alexandria she took up duty in the Mediterranean as a unit of the 7th Cruiser Squadron (Perth and RN ships). During a visit to Suda Bay, Crete, on 1 January 1941, Perth's aircraft was landed and subsequently employed as courier and on other base duties.

Signalmen 'Slim' Roper and Joe Harris keeping a visual lookout in Alexandria Harbour, Egypt, 1941
Signalmen 'Slim' Roper and Joe Harris keeping a visual lookout in Alexandria Harbour, Egypt, 1941

The month of January was occupied mainly with patrols and also included transport of troops to Crete and Malta. Whilst in port at Malta, Perth was strained by a near miss in an air raid. In February the ship's work was again principally patrolling. From 9 to 20 February Perth was in dock at Alexandria for partial repair of the damage sustained at Malta the previous month.

In the first half of March the ship took part in the reinforcement of forces in Greece by taking two trips with troops from Alexandria to Piraeus. She resumed patrol duties on 19 March. During the night of 28-29 March, Perth played a minor role in the Battle of Matapan, in which the Italian Navy lost three cruisers and two destroyers as against the British losses of five Fleet Air Arm aircraft.

Patrol work was resumed after the Battle of Matapan and continued into April. Late in the month Perth participated in the evacuation of troops from Greece to Crete.

On 29 April 1941, Perth's aircraft was shot down off Suda Bay, but its crew of three was rescued by destroyer.

Patrols and convoy escort duties occupied the ship during May. Since being damaged at Malta, Perth had several times escaped damage in attacks by German aircraft, but on 22 May enemy aircraft succeeded in damaging the ship by a near miss.

During a stay at Alexandria from 24 to 28 May urgent repairs were carried out. On 28 May, Perth sailed for Crete to assist in the evacuation, being attacked en route by a German aircraft but fortunately escaping damage. During the return from Crete with 1188 passengers aboard Perth, the convoy was attacked five times and on 30 May the ship was hit by a bomb in a boiler room. Two cooks, two sailors and nine passengers were killed and the boiler room was put out of action. The ship was later badly shaken by several very near misses. Alexandria was reached on 31 May and Perth remained there until 25 June undergoing repairs.

Late in June, Perth was engaged in operations off Syria against Vichy French forces. These included bombardments of shore positions and patrol work. On 15 July the ship, which was to be relieved by HMAS Hobart (I), proceeded to Alexandria for return to Australia. She sailed from Alexandria for Australia on 18 July.

HMAS Perth's ship's company in Fremantle 6 August 1941
HMAS Perth's ship's company in Fremantle 6 August 1941

On 12 August 1941, Perth arrived at Sydney and the following day moved to Cockatoo Dockyard for an extensive refit. Acting CMDR Charles R. Reid RAN, assumed command on 1 September 1941 and was relieved by CAPT Hector M.L. Waller DSO and Bar RAN on 24 October 1941. After completion of her refit on 22 November Perth was engaged in exercises from 24 to 30 November and then sailed for Auckland. She carried out patrols, escort duties, exercises and manoeuvres during December 1941 and January 1942, visiting New Caledonia and New Guinea.

Captain H.M.L Waller, DSO & Bar, RAN who was lost in Perth during the Battle of the Sunda Strait
Captain H.M.L Waller, DSO & Bar, RAN who was lost in Perth during the Battle of the Sunda Strait

On 14 February 1942, Perth sailed for the Java Theatre. She arrived on 24 February at Batavia, where she was attacked by Japanese aircraft during that day and the next, without sustaining damage. Perth sailed on 25 February for Surabaja in company with four Royal Navy ships. On 26 February the ship departed Surabaja in company with the Dutch cruisers De Ruyter and Java, the cruisers USS Houston and HMS Exeter, two Dutch destroyers, four US destroyers and HM Ships Jupiter, Electra and Encounter and proceeded along the north coast or Madura Island.

During the night of 27 - 28 February a fourteen ship ABDA (American, British, Dutch and Australian) force engaged Japanese naval forces in the disastrous Battle of the Java Sea. Five Allied ships were lost during that action and Perth and USS Houston were lucky to survive.

HMAS Perth and USS Houston arrived at Tandjung Priok on 28 February after the day and night actions off Surabaja. Unfortunately stocks of fuel were low and Perth could only receive 50% of full stowage.

Preparations were being made to destroy all warehouses and harbour installations, so the opportunity was taken to embark any stores that might prove useful.

Orders were received to sail in company with Houston and the Dutch destroyer Evertson through Sunda Strait to Tjilatjap. Perth and Houston cast off at 1900 hours making a signal at the same time to Evertson to precede them out of harbour. Not having received the orders to sail, she was told to obtain the necessary orders and follow as soon as possible. The harbour entrance was passed at 1900 hours and a course set for Sunda Strait. Houston was stationed five cables astern of Perth.

 

HMAS Perth wearing her distinctive disruptive camouflage paint scheme.
HMAS Perth wearing her distinctive disruptive camouflage paint scheme.

At 2306, a vessel was sighted about five miles close to St Nicholas Point. When challenged she proved to be a Japanese destroyer and was immediately engaged. Shortly afterwards, other destroyers were sighted to the north and the armament split so as to engage more than one target.

During the action a large number of enemy destroyers attacked from all directions, and, due to the large number of enemy ships attacking, it was impossible to engage all targets at once and some were eventually able to close to a very short range. The Japanese warships were protecting an invasion convoy of approximately 50 ships which effected a landing in Banten Bay, Java.

Original signal requesting Perth to report her position. She had already been sunk in the Battle of Sunda Strait.
Original signal requesting Perth to report her position. She had already been sunk in the Battle of Sunda Strait.

Little damage was caused to Perth until the very end of the action. At about midnight it was reported that very little 6" ammunition was left, so CAPT Waller decided to attempt to force a passage through Sunda Strait. He ordered full speed and altered course for Toppers Island. Perth had barely steadied on course when she was struck on the starboard side by a torpedo. CAPT Waller gave the order to prepare to abandon ship. A few moments later another torpedo struck just ahead of the first hit, and the Captain gave the order to abandon ship. After five or ten minutes a third torpedo struck well aft on the starboard side. This was followed shortly afterwards by a fourth torpedo, which hit on the port side; the ship then righted herself, heeled over to port and sank about 0025 on 1 March 1942.

USS Houston was still fighting although badly on fire. She was hit by torpedoes and sank shortly afterwards rather closer inshore. A Japanese report gave the Japanese losses as 'one mine-sweeper and one transport of convoy sunk and several vessels seriously damaged'.

Most of Perth's crew abandoned ship between the second and third torpedoes, but it is doubtful if any of the boats were successfully launched. Many Carley rafts and wooden life rafts were launched. During the abandon ship operation Perth was under fire from several destroyers at close range and many hits were scored and casualties caused. Many were killed or wounded in the water by the explosion of the last two torpedoes and by shells exploding in the water.

At the time of her loss Perth's ship's company totalled 681, comprising 671 naval personnel, six RAAF personnel (for operating and servicing the aircraft) and four civilians (canteen staff) Three hundred and fifty naval personnel (including CAPT Waller) and three civilians did not survive the sinking. Those who did numbered 328 (324 naval, three RAAF and one civilian).

Four naval personnel died ashore without having been taken prisoner. A further 106 men died in captivity (105 naval, one RAAF). Four sailors were recovered from captivity in September 1944 when they were among prisoners of war rescued after the sinking of a Japanese transport. After the end of hostilities 214 men (211 naval, two RAAF and one civilian) were repatriated to Australia.

Further Reading

  1. A Cook's Tour: HMAS Perth's Mediterranean War 1941 by Roy Norris - published by The Naval Historical Society of Australia Inc. , Garden Island 2005
  2. H.M.A.S. Perth: The Story of the 6 inch Cruiser: 1936 - 1942 by Alan Payne - published by The Naval Historical Society of Australia, Garden Island 1978
  3. The Australian Cruiser Perth: 1939 - 1942 by Ian Pfennigwerth - published by Rosenberg Publishing Dural 2007
  4. Ship of Courage: The Epic Story of HMAS Perth and Her Crew by Brendan Whiting - published by Allen & Unwin St Leonards 1994
Perth's wreck lies in approximately 35 meters of water. In 1967 her binnacle, bridge voice pipe and ship's bell were retrieved by divers
Perth's wreck lies in approximately 35 meters of water. In 1967 her binnacle, bridge voice pipe and ship's bell were retrieved by divers
They are currently on display in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
They are currently on display in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.