HMAS
Yarra
(II)

HMAS Yarra (II)
Class
Grimsby Class
Type
Sloop
Pennant
U77
Builder
Cockatoo Docks and Engineering Co Ltd, Sydney
Laid Down
28 May 1934
Launched
28 March 1935
Launched by
Mrs Parkhill, wife of the Minister for Defence
Commissioned
21 January 1936
Decommissioned
4 March 1942
Fate
Lost in action 4 March 1942
Dimensions & Displacement
Displacement
  • 1,060 tons (standard)
  • 1,500 tons (full load)
Length 266 feet
Beam 36 feet
Draught 10 feet
Performance
Speed 16.5 knots
Propulsion
Machinery Parsons geared turbines, twin screws
Horsepower 2,000
Armament
Guns
  • 3 x 4-inch guns
  • 4 x 3-pounder guns
Awards
Inherited Battle Honours
Battle Honours
HMAS Yarra (II) Badge

HMAS Yarra (II) was laid down on 24 May 1934 by Cockatoo Docks and Engineering Co. Ltd, Sydney. She was launched by Mrs Florence Parkhill, the wife of the Honourable, Sir Robert Archdale Parkhill, KCMG, the then Minister for Defence on 28 March 1935.

The design of Yarra was based entirely on the second batch of the successful Royal Navy Grimsby class minesweeping sloops. These vessels were also designed for convoy escort duties displaying fine sea-keeping qualities. The armament of Yarra differed from that of the Grimsby's having three 4-inch high angle guns.

HMAS Yarra being launched by Mrs Florence Parkhill, wife of the Honourable, Sir Robert Archdale Parkhill, Minister for Defence
HMAS Yarra being launched by Mrs Florence Parkhill, wife of the Honourable, Sir Robert Archdale Parkhill, Minister for Defence

HMAS Yarra (II) commissioned at Sydney on 21 January 1936 under the command of Captain George D. Moore RAN.

From the time of her commissioning, up to the end of the first twelve months of World War II, Yarra (II) was employed on the Australian coast on patrol and escort duties and as a unit of the 20th Minesweeping Flotilla.

On 28 August 1940 Yarra (II) left Australia under the command of LCDR W.H. Harrington RAN (later to become VADM Sir Hastings Harrington KBE CB DSO, First Naval Member of the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board and Chief of Naval Staff 1962-65), to join the Red Sea Force of the Royal Navy. En route via Colombo she spent a few hours at the Cocos Islands and the ship's company landed on tiny Direction Island, where twenty-six years before, the German cruiser Emden had landed a party to destroy the wireless station a few hours before she was driven ashore on North Keeling Island by HMAS Sydney (II).
 

HMAS Yarra
HMAS Yarra dressed overall. Note her two forward high angle 4-inch guns.

At Aden Yarra (II) experienced her first taste of enemy action in two air raids on the night of her arrival. Thereafter she quickly entered the routine life of a Red Sea Force sloop; on patrol, escorting convoys up and down the Red Sea and maintaining a tight blockade between Africa and the Arabian coast.

In October 1940 her crew caught their only glimpse of the enemy afloat during Yarra (II)'s Red Sea service. On 18 October she sailed from Aden as part of the escort of a north bound convoy. The evening of 20 October found Yarra (II) zigzagging over a flat, calm sea in brilliant moonlight to starboard of the convoy. About 11:00 pm, a few miles east of Massawa, two ships were sighted approaching from ahead at high speed. Yarra (II) challenged, seconds before the flash of a discharged torpedo was seen and immediately following, gunfire was heard. HMS Auckland, a Royal Navy sloop, opened fire, followed after her first salvo by Yarra (II). The Italians turned away, chased at high speed by the cruiser HMS Leander and the destroyer HMS Kimberley. Leander lost touch but the destroyer hot on the fleeing Italian's heels drove the enemy destroyer Francesco Nullo ashore on a small island off Massawa and there destroyed her with a well aimed torpedo.

Except for this unexpected diversion the work of the Red Sea Force was a monotonous round of escort and patrol duty carried out in one of the world's worst torrid zones. Nevertheless, in spite of the conditions, morale in the Australian sloop remained high, bolstered perhaps by the awareness made evident by the stream of shipping that their efforts were not wasted.

In mid March 1941 Yarra (II) left the Red Sea for Bombay where she docked and refitted until 9 April, the day after the British capture of Massawa had brought Italian control in Eritrea to an end and resulted in the Red Sea being declared a 'non combat zone'.

At this period, German intrigue had succeeded in establishing a pro Axis Government in Iraq. For Britain this was an intolerable threat to her interests in the Persian Gulf and she wasted no time in sending troops in a convoy sailing from Karachi for Basra on 12 April, escorted by Yarra (II). More troops followed until at last prodded by his German sponsors the pro Axis Prime Minister Rashid Ali declared war by opening fire on British establishments on 2 May. But promised Axis aid was slow and inadequate and by the close of the month the British were approaching the capital Baghdad. On 30 May Rashid Ali and all his senior officers fled to Persia. The following day a pro British government took over, an armistice was signed and British troops occupied all important points. The Iraqi War was over.

LCDR Harrington
HMAS Yarra's commanding officer LCDR W.H. Harrington closed up on the bridge

Yarra (II)'s service in the war with Iraq, carried out under the orders of the Senior Naval Officer, Persian Gulf, was in the narrow waters of the Shatt-el-Arab, the meeting place of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. For the first three weeks of May she gave support to the land forces occupying Basra and its port of Ashar, securing a bridge over the Qarmat Ali River above Ashar to prevent enemy reinforcements crossing and occupying a point at the mouth of the Shatt-el-Arab. On 2 May when hostilities began, the Iraqis attempted to detonate charges attached to the Qarmat Ali Bridge. They misfired and Yarra (II) landed her gunner to render them harmless. They, CMDR Harrington recorded, 'were found to consist of wet guncotton manufactured at Waltham Abbey in 1937, misfire due to most inefficient fitting of primer.'

Late in May Harrington commanded the naval force in the combined operation charged with the task of dispersing all the enemy found on the right bank of the Shatt-el-Arab in an area some seven miles upstream from Ashar. The naval task force, led by Yarra (II), was to bombard and land Indian troops and subsequently re-embark the force landed and cover the withdrawal.

The operation was preceded on the night of 22/23 May by a reconnaissance of the landing position when six ratings from Yarra (II) in native craft and disguised as Arabs, took soundings. The following night Harrington's flotilla, which consisted of Yarra (II), two tugs and two native craft, set out for the landing point. By 4:00 am on 24 May all vessels were in position and Yarra (II) began bombarding preselected targets and laying a smoke screen to cover the troop landings. By 8:00 am the operation was over and Yarra (II) was on her way downstream. It had been, her proceedings recorded, 'successfully completed, and Big House and the South Village being left in flames. Expenditure of ammunition 43 rounds 4-inch, 216 rounds 0.5-inch and 550 rounds .303-inch.'

The campaign in Iraq had been barely brought to a successful conclusion than a new Middle East problem raised its head. At dawn on 22 June 1941 Hitler's armies had swept over the Russian border on a long front. Using the familiar blitzkrieg technique they had, in one swift drive, bitten deep into the heart of Russia. By mid August the Germans were hammering on the gates of Leningrad in the north, had taken the city of Smolensk in the centre and were sweeping rapidly eastward in the south towards the Crimea and the Caucasus.

The southern drive posed special problems for England since it represented a threat to Iran (Persia), an area not only essential to the defence of India but a vital source of oil. The Persian Government in spite of constant pressure had long tolerated and continued to encourage the swarms of German agents infesting the country. Britain and Russia decided to act and agreed to invade Iran in a joint operation; Russia from the northern border and Britain from the southern regions lying on the Persian Gulf. The invasion was fixed for 25 August 1941.

The British plan involved three simultaneous operations; the capture of Abadan, site of the great oil refineries fed by wells in the Persian hinterland; the seizure of the Iranian naval base at Khorramshahr; and the capture of the port of Banda Shapur, together with enemy shipping found in harbour. The naval force available to carry out these tasks was to say the least meagre. It consisted of three sloops including Yarra (II), a small gunboat, a corvette, two armed yachts, two armed river steamers, a trawler and last but not least the Australian Armed Merchant Cruiser Kanimbla (I).

Members of HMAS Yarra's Engineering Faculty
Members of HMAS Yarra's Engineering Faculty

Yarra (II), the sloop HMS Falmouth, a tug and a launch were assigned the task of overwhelming the Persian naval base where it was known that a sloop and two gunboats lay, while ashore under the able leadership of the Iranian Admiral Bayendor were approximately 1,000 men.

At about 1:00 am on 25 August, Yarra (II), carrying a platoon of Indian infantry, sailed from her anchorage in the Shatt-el-Arab near Basra. She was to be followed by Falmouth carrying two platoons of infantry but she, in turning, ran aground compelling CMDR Harrington to proceed alone to prevent interference by the Khorramshahr based forces with the Abadan operations, 'hoping that the rising tide would set Falmouth off in time to overtake me.'

The night was dark, hot and so deathly still that 'every sound seemed like a thunderclap', as the blacked-out ships moved quietly downstream. No challenge came from the Persian strong posts on the banks of the Shatt-el-Arab.

Ship's Company of HMAS Yarra c.1941
Lieutenant Commander Harrington, RAN,  with his ship's company c.1941

Yarra (II) arrived off the Persian naval base at 4:08 am, and there CMDR Harrington, who had made up his mind to sink the sloop Babr, quietly concealed his ship behind an anchored merchant ship a few minutes before the sound of gunfire downstream announced the beginning of operations at Abadan.

He then took Yarra (II) into the stream, past the northern point of the Karun River mouth, switched on his searchlight and opened fire. No answering fire came from the Babr, and after ten salvos she was ablaze from stem to stern. Soon the explosion of her after magazine blew a hole in the stricken sloop and she subsequently sank.

Yarra (II) then entered the Karun River to deal with the Persian gunboats. As she swung into the river a few bursts of fire came from the naval barracks, but machine gun fire and one round of a 3-pounder soon silenced the opposition. As she approached the gunboats, half hearted rifle fire broke out but this too quickly died away when their decks were swept by Yarra (II)'s machine guns.

The Australian sloop drew alongside, hindered only by 'a few stray rifle bullets' and sent her boarding parties, made up of gunners, cooks and stewards, over the side. The Persian crews hiding below were in no mood to fight and after a few shots fired down the hatches they emerged to surrender.

Meanwhile CMDR Harrington, learning that Falmouth had freed herself, decided to await her arrival before landing his single platoon of troops. All was quiet as Yarra (II) waited with ninety Persian and Italian prisoners on board. At 5:30 am Falmouth arrived in the Karun River and secured alongside the Persian depot ship IVY and all troops were then landed.

By 7:30 am Yarra (II) had washed down decks and cleaned ship before the coming heat of the Persian day made itself felt. Ashore, fighting was still in progress but the situation was well in hand. At 10:00 am, by which time the entire barracks area was in British hands, Yarra (II) transferred her prisoners to IVY, except for some Italian engineers who were put to work on the gunboats' engines.

Thereafter, Persian resistance was confined to an area on the northern bank of the Karun River in the vicinity of the wireless station. But this too collapsed when the Persian Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Bayendor, was killed. By nightfall, after a long hot day, all Khorramshahr was occupied and Yarra (II), her mission completed, was on her way to Banda Abbas.

HMAS Yarra in heavy sea state
HMAS Yarra in her pre-war configuration.

Meanwhile at Banda Shapur and Abadan, operations had been equally successful. At Banda Shapur Kanimbla (I), assisted by a motley collection of small ships, had seized seven enemy steamers totalling nearly 50,000 tons, but there still remained one Axis ship in Persian waters, the Italian 5,000 ton Hilda lying at Banda Abbas on the Strait of Hormuz.

Yarra (II), sent to capture her, arrived off the port in the misty darkness of the evening of 27 August to find her burning and too hot to approach. CMDR Harrington decided to withdraw and attempt salvage, if it were possible, the next day. At sea that night in the Strait of Hormuz, hoses were prepared and placed in readiness.

The next evening CMDR Harrington took Yarra (II) alongside the still burning Hilda. Water was poured over her hot decks until cool enough for a boarding party to move about - ventilators were stuffed and hatch covers battened down to stifle the glowing internal fires. This done, Yarra (II) took her in tow while the fire parties remained on board to fight and slowly bring the fires under control until they were able to get below and estimate the damage. Forward and around the bridge, the flames had done their work, but aft the superstructure was undamaged.

Surviving and unharmed, Yarra (II)'s crew found a kitten, two pigeons and what CMDR Harrington termed 'an animal of unattractive appearance and surly disposition, thought to be a Barbary ram.' The kitten was taken on board and the pigeons freed, but as the ram had 'made an entirely unprovoked attack on my 1st Lieutenant, I forbade its entry into HMA Ship under my command.'

For two days Yarra (II) made steady progress towards the Persian - Indian boundary but when Hilda began to settle by the stern, CMDR Harrington decided to beach her at Chahbar Bay, a few miles west of the border, to await the assistance of a tug. The tug Sydney Thubron arrived on 5 September and took over salvage operations and two days later Yarra (II) sailed for Kuwait, at the head of the Persian Gulf.

Relenting, CMDR Harrington took on board the troublesome animal which had been identified as a Sind Gazelle. Thus ended Australia's part in an operation which successfully secured a vital area of the Middle East. The seizure of the ports and refineries of the Gulf area and the rapid elimination of Persian naval forces played no small part in convincing the Shah of the futility of resistance.

On 27 August, only two days after operations began, the fighting ended and on 2 September the Persian Government accepted British - Russian terms. On 16 September 1941 the pro German Shah abdicated in favour of his son and the following day British and Russian troops entered Teheran.

For their part in frustrating German aims in Persia, CMDR Harrington of Yarra (II) and CAPT Adams of Kanimbla (I) were decorated with the Distinguished Service Order.

On 9 September 1941 Yarra (II) returned to Chahbar where she took over the tow of the captured Italian ship Barbara from HMS Snapdragon and after an uneventful passage brought her safely to Karachi four days later. From Karachi the Australian sloop proceeded to Bombay for refit and a well earned rest ashore for her ship's company.

HMAS Yarra in the Persian Gulf, August 1941. Note her wartime disruptive pattern camouflage paint
HMAS Yarra in the Persian Gulf, August 1941. Note her wartime disruptive pattern camouflage paint

In mid October Yarra (II) returned to the Persian Gulf until ordered on 26 October to proceed to the Mediterranean Station which the previous month had been extended to include the Red Sea. She reached Suez on 5 November and after some local escort duty passed through the Suez Canal. On 14 November she sailed from Port Said in company with her sister ship HMAS Parramatta (II) for Alexandria to take up duty as an escort vessel on the 'Tobruk Ferry'.

For three weeks, until Tobruk was relieved on 8 December by the British 8th Army after a siege of 242 days, Yarra (II) was almost constantly at sea between Alexandria and the beleaguered port. The weather was often wild and the enemy always active. For the first time her crew, used to the ineffective high level Italian bombing, experienced the savage low level attack of the German Luftwaffe. Parramatta (II), victim of a U-boat was lost in the dark first hour of 27 November and Yarra (II), herself attacked by 35 aircraft including dive bombers on 7 December, was fortunate to escape with only minor damage from the hot breath of several near misses. The British sloop HMS Flamingo was not so lucky. Holed and with engines out of action she had to call on Yarra (II) to tow her into Tobruk.

At Alexandria on 9 December Yarra (II)'s Mediterranean service came to an end. War had broken out in the Pacific. A few days later she sailed for Colombo and thence to Batavia. In January 1942 she began escort duties from Sunda Strait to Singapore as a unit of the China Force representing the British naval forces in the Malaya - Java theatre under the command of CAPT John A. Collins RAN, Commodore Commanding China Force.

At this period the 'debacle of Singapore' lay in the future. Troops and supplies were still reinforcing Britain's Far East bastion in the face of a rapid Japanese advance and an ever increasing volume of attack from the air. By the end of January the Japanese Army was threatening Singapore and during the night of 30/31 January the British withdrew from Malaya, breached the causeway connecting the Island of Singapore and retired into their supposedly impregnable fortress.

On 3 February a large convoy of nine ships entered Sunda Strait escorted by two British cruisers and a destroyer, a Dutch cruiser, an Indian sloop and the Australian ships HMAS Vampire (I) and Yarra (II). After clearing the Strait the convoy split, five ships escorted by the cruiser HMS Danae, HMIS Sutlej and Yarra (II) for Singapore, the remainder for Batavia. All ships were crammed with troops and equipment.

Hitherto no convoy had attempted to enter Singapore during daylight hours but this one in two groups arrived off its destination in the forenoon of 5 February. So far, in spite of some sporadic attacks en route, the ships were undamaged but now the Japanese struck fiercely in a series of dive bombing and machine gunning attacks. The 17,000 ton transports Felix Roussel and Empress of Asia were both hit and set on fire. Felix Roussel quickly got the flames under control, but Empress of Asia was soon blazing amidships with her load of troops crowded at either end of the stricken ship. Yarra (II), though repeatedly attacked, fought the enemy off and in exchange for minor damage shot down one aircraft for certain with two 'probables'.

CMDR Harrington, aware of the makings of a great disaster on board the burning troopship, and while the attacks were still continuing, nudged Yarra (II) to the doomed ship's stern and lowering boats, floats and rafts began the work of rescue. In all Yarra (II) took 1,804 men from the after part of the liner, which was cut off by flames from the fore part, before casting off. By then recorded Harrington 'I was becoming a little dubious of the stability of Yarra (II) and on getting clear gave orders for all hands to sit.' Meanwhile the Indian ship Sutlej and the Australian corvettes HMAS Bendigo (I) and HMAS Wollongong (I) had been busy rescuing smaller numbers, Wollongong (I) going alongside the bow to take off the last survivors, the Master and his Chief Engineer. The ship and all her stores were a total loss. It was the last convoy into Singapore.

From 8 to 10 February Yarra (II) was engaged in towing HMAS (Vendetta) from Palembang in Sumatra to Batavia, having taken over the tow from HMT St Just. Vendetta (I), immobilised in Singapore dock when war in the Pacific broke out, was towed to Melbourne. When Vendetta (I) left Batavia on 17 February under tow of the Ping Wo, Yarra (II), as escort, accompanied her until 24 February when she was relieved by HMAS Adelaide (I).

Lieutenant Commander Robert W. Rankin, RAN, took command of HMAS Yarra on 11 February 1942
Lieutenant Commander Robert W. Rankin, RAN, was appointed in command of HMAS Yarra on 11 February 1942, He is depicted here wearing the rank of a lieutenant.

On 11 February 1942, at Batavia, CMDR Harrington handed over command of Yarra (II) to LCDR Robert W. Rankin RAN. From then onwards the Australian sloop continued her escort duties as the allied campaign in Java drew towards its inevitable end, out matched in the air and at sea, it was a lost cause from the outset and when the Battle of the Java Sea on 27/28 February 1942 finally ended all hope of stemming the Japanese tide of victory, there was nothing left to do except withdraw the remnants of the Allied naval forces to safety.

On 27 February 1942 orders were issued to clear all remaining British auxiliary craft from Batavia. About midnight Yarra (II) and the Indian sloop HMIS Jumna sailed escorting a convoy for Tjilatjap. There was an early mishap when the tanker War Sirdar ran aground and had to be abandoned. Later, after Yarra (II) had brought her remaining charges safely through Sunda Strait, another tanker, British Judge, was torpedoed but remained afloat and was able to make slow progress some distance astern, escorted by Wollongong (I).

At 11:00 am on 2 March, Yarra (II) and Jumna with their convoy, now consisting of the depot ship Aanking, the tanker Francol and a Motor Minesweeper, hove to off Tjilatjap. A signal from CDRE Collins ashore warned them not to enter harbour and ordered Yarra (II) to make for Fremantle escorting the convoy and Jumna to proceed to Colombo. Time was short and already powerful Japanese naval forces were abroad in the Indian Ocean south of Sunda Strait.

Yarra (II) and her convoy made steady progress throughout the night of 2/3 March. Except for a faintly discerned shadowing aircraft sighted in the evening, there was no sign of the enemy. On the morning of the 3rd, two lifeboats were sighted from which Yarra (II) took a number of exhausted survivors of the Dutch ship Parigi, sunk by the Japanese two days earlier. For the remainder of the day, however, the surrounding ocean was empty of friend or foe. But it was a deceptive emptiness, for away to the south west over the concealing horizon a powerful enemy cruiser force was sweeping the Indian Ocean seeking the remnants of Allied naval power in the Dutch East Indies. Already several ships, including the British destroyer HMS Stronghold, had fallen victim.

At 6:30 am on 4 March 1942, as the sun rose in a 'glorious splash of colour', the lookout in Yarra (II) sighted the topmasts of Admiral Kondo's heavy cruisers Atago, Takao and Maya to the north north east. The Australian sloop's luck had failed and the clanging alarm rattles echoing through the ship sounded a harsh death knell to all hope of reaching Australia.

Immediately LCDR Rankin made an enemy report, ordered the ships of the convoy to scatter and placing his ship between them and the enemy, laid smoke while preparing to engage ships mounting each ten 8-inch guns with his three 4-inch guns. Against such fire power, superior range and speed the task was hopeless, yet Yarra (II) fought and kept on fighting as one by one the four ships were smashed and sunk.

Painting courtesy of David Marshall
The gallant last stand of HMAS Yarra(II) - Painting courtesy of artist David Marshall. Oil on canvas, 2012. Original on display in HMAS Creswell's Gunroom.

Anking, carrying many Royal Australian Navy personnel, was first to go. Overwhelmed by many hits she sank in less than ten minutes. Yarra (II) was then on fire and listing heavily to port but still shooting. The Motor Minesweeper was on fire and not long afterwards sank under a hail of close range pom-pom fire from one of the cruisers. The tanker Francol took more punishment and still remained afloat but at last about 7:30 am she could take no more and sank in a welter of flame and great billowing clouds of smoke.

Leading Seaman Ron 'Buck' Taylor
Leading Seaman Ron 'Buck' Taylor
Memorial window, Garden Island Chapel
Memorial window, Garden Island Chapel

Yarra (II), shattered by numerous hits, was last to go. Soon after 8:00 am, Rankin ordered 'Abandon Ship' minutes before he was killed when an 8-inch salvo hit the bridge. LS Taylor manning the last remaining gun kept on firing until he too was killed and Yarra (II), except for the crackling flames and the shouts of men, at last fell silent. Her end after close range shelling by two destroyers was watched by 34 survivors on two rafts. All except the Dutch captain of the Parigi were ratings.

When Yarra (II) sank, the Japanese made off to the north north east after picking up one boat load of survivors from Francol. Left scattered over a wide area of sea were a collection of boats, rafts and floats. Towards evening a passing Dutch vessel, the Tawali, rescued 57 officers and men from Anking but failed to sight in spite of their frantic signals fourteen men on two Carley floats from Motor Minesweeper No 51.

For the next two and a half days more of these men drifted about on their flimsy craft, scorched by day and frozen by night until at 2:00 pm on 7 March 1942 they were picked up by the Dutch steamer Tjimanoek.

Meanwhile Yarra (II)'s survivors, sadly reduced by wounds, exposure and thirst, continued to drift helplessly whither the ocean currents willed. On 9 March 1942 thirteen of the sloop's ratings were picked up by the Dutch submarine K11. The rest, including a large boat load from Francol, were never heard of again. Of Yarra (II)'s total complement of 151, 138 including the Captain and all officers were killed in the action or died subsequently on the rafts.

Further Reading

  1. HMAS Yarra 1936-1942: The Story of a Gallant Ship by Parry A. F., The Naval Historical Society of Australia, Garden Island 1980.