HMAS
Geranium

HMAS Geranium
Class
Flower Class
Type
Sloop
Nickname
Gerger
Motto
Pelargonium Nil Desperandum – Geraniums Never Despair
Builder
Greenock and Grangemouth Company
Launched
8 November 1915
Commissioned
14 February 1920
Decommissioned
10 November 1927
Fate
Sunk off Sydney Heads on 16 April 1935
Dimensions & Displacement
Displacement 1250 tonnes
Length 267 feet 9 inches
Beam 33 feet 6 inches
Draught 11 feet
Performance
Speed 16.5 knots
Armament
Guns
  • 1 x 4.7 inch gun
  • 2 x 3-pounder gun

HMS Geranium was a Flower Class (Arabis Type) sloop laid down in August 1915 at the Greenock & Grangemouth Dockyard Company, Scotland. She was launched on 8 November 1915 and commissioned on 6 March 1916 under the command of Lieutenant Commander James Forest Dewar, RN. Geranium served mainly as a minesweeper and convoy escort in the Mediterranean during 1916-1919.

In mid-1919 Geranium, now under the command of Acting Commander Geoffrey Philip Russell, RN, and her two sister ships Mallow and Marguerite, were sent to New Zealand and Australia to clear mines laid in 1917 by the German auxiliary cruiser SMS Wolf. After clearing the minefields in New Zealand waters the three Royal Navy vessels conducted mine-sweeping operations off Cape Everard (now Point Hicks), Victoria in September 1919 and one mine was swept and destroyed. The three ships were decommissioned at Sydney on 18 October 1919, and subsequently gifted to the RAN as minesweeping training vessels.

1920

On 17 January 1920 Geranium was re-activated, under the command of Lieutenant Arthur Smith, RN in preparation for minesweeping training duties. She was commissioned as HMAS Geranium on 14 February 1920 under the command of Lieutenant Frederick Arthur Pearce, RN and operated briefly in Tasmanian waters in March. She returned to Sydney on 22 March and was alongside for the next two months. Lieutenant Commander William Mervyn Vaughan-Lewis, RN took command of Geranium on 27 April 1920 and the vessel supported Admiral Jellicoe's visit to Australia during May-June 1920. She was decommissioned at Sydney on 30 June 1920.

Prior to 1920 the charting of Australia's coastal waters had been the responsibility of the Royal Navy. Following the end of the war this responsibility was transferred to the RAN and the Australian Hydrographic Service was formed on 1 October 1920. The Royal Navy agreed to assist with survey work until the RAN could take over full responsibility and HMS Fantome operated in Australia waters during 1920-23 and HMS Herald during 1924-26.

HMAS Geranium was commissioned, as a survey vessel on 1 July 1920 at Sydney, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Vaughan-Lewis. Her ship's company as a minesweeper was 77 but as a survey vessel it increased to 113 personnel including up to six seaman officers, an engineer lieutenant, a surgeon lieutenant and a paymaster officer. The ship's minesweeper design made it suitable for handling survey equipment, but she was to prove to be less than suitable for surveying duties in tropical Australian waters as she had been designed for operations in the northern hemisphere.

HMAS Geranium.
The minesweeper HMAS Geranium shortly after being commissioned in the RAN in 1920.
HMAS Geranium in Sydney Harbour.
HMAS Geranium in Sydney Harbour after being converted to a survey vessel.

Her hull was painted white overall, the standard colour for survey vessels in the Royal Navy, with a blue/green band painted along the upper portion. Additionally her guns (1 x 4.7-inch and 2 x 3-pounders) were removed. Geranium could steam 2000 nautical miles at 15 knots but with only one propeller she was limited in her manoeuvrability in confined waters. On occasions a sail was rigged on the forward mast to increase speed and reduce coal consumption. At some stage in her career the ship earned herself the nickname 'Gerger' which remained with her for the rest of her days. How she obtained the name is unknown. She was equipped with two 28-foot survey motor boats (later named Endeavour and Fantome), two 27-foot whalers, two dinghies and a 16-foot skiff.

The ship's first survey task was to conduct a reconnaissance of Napier Broome Bay on the north-west coast of Western Australia. She sailed from Sydney on 17 August 1920 steaming via Townsville, Cairns and Darwin to arrive at Napier Broome Bay in mid-September to conduct a survey of the area for its possible use as a naval anchorage.

On 26 September 1920 a survey party was landed at Napier Broome Bay and during the day Warrant Officer (Gunner) John Henry Davies went missing. A search was conducted over the next five days, including the use of Aboriginal trackers from a nearby mission station, but no sign of the unfortunate officer was found. Some weeks later Gunner Davies' badly mauled body was located in mangroves some distance from the bay. His remains were buried at Pago Mission Cemetery and his death attributed to being killed by a crocodile; however rumours persisted that he had been killed by local Aboriginals but no definitive proof of this was found.

Left: Warrant Officer (Gunner) John Henry Davies' grave at Pago Mission Cemetery in 1920. Right: Image of the grave, taken circa early 2000s.
Left: Warrant Officer (Gunner) John Henry Davies' grave at Pago Mission Cemetery in 1920. Right: Image of the grave, taken circa early 2000s.

Geranium departed Napier Broome Bay in early October and headed south, via Darwin, Thursday Island, Cairns and Townsville before arriving in Sydney on 23 October. She spent two months back alongside at Garden Island until Boxing Day 1920 when she sailed for Fremantle via Melbourne and Adelaide.

1921

Lieutenant Commander Kenneth Harry Litton MacKenzie, RN took command of Geranium, in Melbourne, on 3 January 1921. On arrival in Fremantle on 11 January 1921 she conducted two and half months of survey work in the port approaches before continuing north to Geraldton and Broome before arriving at Napier Broome Bay again in mid-April 1921 for more survey tasks. Operations in northern Australian waters did not generally take place during December-March due the risk of cyclones in the region.

Surveying was hard exacting work with thousands of soundings conducted to safely plot depths and identify reefs and rocks to be marked on new charts. This was done mainly by the ships Kelvite Mk IV sounding machine but in shallow waters it was more often than not done in one of the ship's boats using the traditional lead line to calculate the depth of water. The lead weight would be 'armed' by placing tallow in a groove, at the bottom of the weight, which upon landing on the seabed might have mud, sand, broken coral or shell adhere to the tallow thus indicating the consistency of the seabed and identifying better anchorages.

The sounding machine was designed for use while the ship was under way. The basic principle was the same as that of a lead line; lowering a heavy weight until it hit the seabed. These machines used a 24-pound (11 kilogram) lead weight attached to wire wound onto a drum. The machine was fitted with winding handles and a brake. The wire and weight were normally attached to a wooden boom that projected horizontally out from the side of the ship.

The Kelvite Mark IV could be used with chemical tubes or by directly reading from the dial on top of the machine. In the first method, a glass tube lined with a chemical that changed colour on contact with water was tied just above the lead weight. As it was lowered, increasing pressure pushed water up inside the tube. Once the tube was brought back to the ship, the depth was read off against a wooden depth scale. Alternatively, a measure of depth could be obtained from the dial on top of the machine showing the amount of wire paid out. By using a calculation table this converted the reading and the ship's speed into the true vertical depth. Depths down to 300 fathoms (550 metres) could be accurately calculated using this method.

To conduct an accurate survey the ship was required to steam along a pre-determined track taking soundings at regular intervals. In uncharted waters this could be dangerous due to the presence of unknown rocks, reefs and coral outcrops. A good lookout all round was required and in uncharted water the ship would anchor for the night rather than risk grounding. Triangulation or 'trig' stations were built ashore from local timber and the location of these accurately plotted. Their known location was then used to confirm the actual location of the depth soundings taken to ensure they were plotted correctly on the charts.

Shore parties were also required to correctly identify the locations of islands, headlands and rivers to assist with chart production. This often involved teams climbing to the top of rugged terrain to take 'fixes' with a theodolite. Additionally tide pole parties operated in the shallow areas along the coast erecting the poles which had depths marked on them. Every 30 minutes for several days the depths were measured thus recording the rise and fall of the tide. This monotonous work was done in several locations and at different times of the year to create the 'tide tables' issued to mariners to enable them to accurately calculate high and low tides anywhere within Australia. This then enabled ship's masters to make better decisions on their arrival and departure times into shallow water ports.

Geranium in Darwin.
HMAS Geranium alongside in the port of Darwin.

Geranium proceeded to Darwin for resupply in early May before returning to Napier Broome Bay on 15 May. During her visit to Darwin there was an alleged mutiny on board when members of the ship's company held a 'stop work meeting' on the 11th, to complain about the long hours worked to coal ship in hot weather. The Melbourne Argus reported that "The Captain quelled the mutiny, but it is not known what measures were used". Coaling ship was one of the most laborious tasks for the ship's company, and required many hours of back breaking work to bring the coal on board (often in wicker baskets or hessian bags) and 'strike it down' into the ship' s coal bunkers where stokers with shovels would spread the coal out evenly so that ship remained on an even keel. The men would wear their oldest clothing and on completion would be covered in coal dust from head to foot which would take days to wash off in Geranium's very basic washing facilities. All ranks, except the Captain, took part in coaling ship so it was an egalitarian experience in what was normally a rigid hierarchical system.

The ship transited westward to Vansittart Bay for surveying work during 23 May-4 June. During June and July more survey work was done in Bynoe Harbour, to the west of Darwin. Bynoe Harbour had been recommended by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, RN in his report on the future naval defence of Australia, as a suitable anchorage for RAN ships to conduct refuelling and embarkation of stores during time of war. He foresaw that the RAN would need to operate extensively in its northern waters and that fuel, stores and provisions, carried in support vessels, would be required to keep the fleet at sea.

On 1 July 1921 deteriorating weather conditions forced Geranium to move to a more sheltered anchorage. The ship was steaming through Thring Channel with her steam cutter (No. 410) under tow when the vessel foundered. The cutter's coxswain escaped the sinking vessel but 20-year old Stoker Frederick William Lenthall went down with the cutter. Diving operations were hampered by bad weather and equipment failure and his body was never recovered.

Geranium was in Darwin in mid-July when the Minister for Home and Territories, Alexander Poynton, visited the town. Geranium's engineer (Lieutenant George Hutcheson, RAN) later recalled that as Poynton disembarked from his ship, several wharf labourers began to sing the communist anthem 'The Internationale'. In response the local dignitaries responded with repeated renditions of 'God Save the King' to drown out the other song. Geranium's crew and guard stood at attention and the salute in the midday sun for over half an hour while this farce took place.

The ship departed Darwin on 22 July and headed home, via the east coast, reaching Sydney on 3 September 1921 having circumnavigated the continent. She remained in port for the next three months to undertake maintenance and for the hydrographers to process the data gathered and turn this in to functional navigational charts. This was done both on board the ship and in a building at Garden Island.

Initially Royal Navy officers undertook survey duties in Geranium but as more young officers graduated from the Royal Australian Naval College a number chose to specialise in surveying duties, such Sydney Bolton, Alfred Conder, Jefferson Walker and Ross Wheatley. Not all went on to long term careers in the hydrographic service but Geranium played her part as a training ship for future survey officers and survey recorders.


HMAS Geranium in Port Melbourne.

She departed Sydney for her 1922 surveying cruise on 14 January and steamed south to Western Port, Victoria and then on to Hobart. Geranium spent two months in Tasmanian waters surveying Port Davey and Bathurst Harbour before returning to Sydney in April. She then headed north again in early June to survey the approaches to Arnhem Bay (Northern Territory) in June-July, and Roebuck Bay and Broome (Western Australia) during early August. She returned to the Darwin/Bynoe Harbour survey grounds in mid-August before heading back to Broome where she arrived on 25 August. She operated in this vicinity for the next month. When not engaged in surveying work the men would often go fishing to supplement their issued rations; with sharks a popular catch. The officers would also go ashore on 'shooting parties 'to add the occasional kangaroo to the wardroom menu. Geranium, like many ships of that era, had a ships cat whose job was to kill rats and mice that would help themselves to rations in the ship's storerooms.

HMAS Geranium in Hobart, Tas.
HMAS Geranium in Hobart, Tasmania. Members of the ship's company can be seen painting the ship's side.

During 25-27 September Geranium operated off 80 Mile Beach near Wallal Downs Station, Western Australia. This remote location, 150 kilometres south of Broome, was the site of a significant scientific observation, during August-September, of a solar eclipse to test Einstein's theory of relativity concerning the prediction of light retention and if it was accurate - which it was! The RAN provided a shore party of ten personnel, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Harold Leopold Quick, RAN, to set up the camp and provide the necessary logistics support to the various scientific teams who had travelled from England, Canada, India and New Zealand to join with Australian scientists to observe the event.

With the scientific observations complete the camp was demobilised, packed up and the substantial amount of equipment moved to the nearby beach by a donkey team. The personnel and equipment were then taken out to the schooner Gwendoline at anchor of 80 Mile Beach. Once the schooner was loaded Geranium towed her back to Broome; arriving there late on the 27th. With this task complete the ship headed back to Darwin arriving on 1 October.

While in Darwin her men were required to assist with disembarking coal, into bunkers ashore, from the fleet auxiliary collier Biloela on the 5th. Biloela's civilian crew had gone on strike and refused to work with members of the Northern Territory Workers Union who conducted wharf operations. Geranium provided men as guards on the wharf and her stokers operated the colliers boilers to provide steam to power Biloela's winches; and this allowed the unloading of coal to go ahead. Biloela's crew did not interfere with the unloading and stated they had no grievance with naval men taking their places as "it was the King's coal and the crew of Geranium were the King's men." (Brisbane Courier 6 October 1922).

The matter however did not rest their as 30 of Biloela's seamen and stokers (known as fireman) were dismissed from the ship and Commander MacKenzie was required to supply some of his men to take the collier back to Sydney. Biloela's deck and engineer officers remained on board but the colliers cooks refused to feed the Geranium sailors forcing MacKenzie to provide cooks as well as seamen and stokers to the hapless ship. Biloela departed Darwin on 9 October and arrived back in Sydney on the 20th. Geranium sailed from Darwin on 15 October and steamed south via Thursday Island, Cairns and Lady Elliott Island arriving in home port on 21 November 1922.

1923

Geranium sailed for the 1923 surveying year on 26 January conducting work in Tasmanian waters during February-March before returning to Sydney. Acting Commander Harry Thring Bennett, DSO, RN took command on 7 April 1923 and he would remain Geranium's Commanding Officer for the rest of her RAN service.

The ship steamed north in late April to survey the McArthur River and the Sir Edward Pellew Group of Islands in the Gulf of Carpentaria. This year's survey cruise was to prove a difficult and dramatic period in Geranium's service. The ship arrived in Cairns on 6 May and leave was granted. That night Commander Bennett and the First Lieutenant, Lieutenant Geoffrey Dixon, RN encountered some of the crew ashore who were reported to have used foul language in front of the officers. Later that night when Dixon returned on board he found his cabin littered with oily rags and peanuts shells. Bennett 'cleared lower deck' and spoke to the men about the incident and their lack of discipline. Geranium arrived at Thursday Island on 11 May and after a brief stop for coal and water proceeded on to Darwin.

Top left: Crew of HMAS Geranium, circa 1923. Top right: Crew aboard Geranium, circa 1923. Bottom left: Shore recreation party from Geranium, on North West Island with hunting rifles and supplies, off Broome, WA, circa 1923. Bottom right: Ship's company of Geranium with the ship’s cat, circa 1923.
Top left: Crew of HMAS Geranium, circa 1923. Top right: Crew aboard Geranium, circa 1923. Bottom left: Shore recreation party from Geranium, on North West Island with hunting rifles and supplies, off Broome, WA, circa 1923. Bottom right: Ship's company of Geranium with the ship's cat, circa 1923.

She arrived in Darwin on the 14th and stayed until the 20th. On the last day of her visit a memorial to pioneering Australian aviators Ross Smith, his brother Keith Smith, James Mallett and Wally Shiers was dedicated at Fannie Bay by the Minister of State for Home and Territories (Senator George Pearce). Geranium provided a guard of honour while the town band provided the musical portion of the ceremony which was attended by most of the citizens of Darwin. The memorial commemorated the four men who flew a Vickers Vimy bomber from London to Australia over a period of 28 days; arriving in Darwin on 10 December 1919 thus completing the first aerial flight from England to Australia. The ceremony was tinged with sadness as Ross Smith had recently been killed in a flying accident, in England, on 13 April 1922.

Geranium sailed later on the 20th with Vice Admiral Sir William Clarkson, KBE, RAN embarked and proceeding to the McArthur River and the adjacent Sir Edward Pellew Island Group. The ship arrived in the area on the 23rd and remained there until the end of the month enabling Clarkson, who was soon to become the Chairman of the Commonwealth Shipping Board, to gather information on the area and its potential use as a port for the export of meat from nearby cattle stations.

Another incident occurred during this period when one evening, as Clarkson and Bennett dined in the captain's cabin, all lighting to the ship failed and several men began to sing "Oh I don't want to die - I want to go home" on the upper deck outside the Bennett's cabin. Bennett mustered the ship's senior sailors and directed them to take control of the men to prevent a repeat of this insolence. Geranium returned to Darwin on 4 June 1923 where Clarkson disembarked and returned to Sydney in the steamer Montoro, interestingly Stoker John David Armstrong, who was the sailor that was alleged to have sworn at the officers in Cairns, was also on board Montoro heading south for discharge as Services No Longer Required.

Aboriginal labourers were recruited while Geranium operated in northern Australian waters. They wore naval uniform but were not formally recruited into the RAN.

During this visit to Darwin six Aboriginals, from Bathurst Island, were embarked to undertake additional labouring duties. These men wore naval uniform, with a cap bearing an HMAS Geranium tally band, and were paid a daily wage that was the equivalent of the cost of a glass of beer while the senior Aboriginal was paid a daily wage equivalent to a glass of whiskey. While they wore naval uniform and were paid they were not enlisted in the RAN. They also slept on the upper deck in an area separate to the ship's company. It was common place in the Royal Navy to take on board local labour in Asia, India and Africa for mundane work such as cleaning but was rare for the RAN; especially in Australian waters. Some of Geranium's sailors were less than happy to have these men on board and made their displeasure well known.

Geranium departed Darwin on 15 June and returned to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Not long after arriving back in the survey area a group of officers, while visiting one of the small islands, found an ochre painted log that had been hollowed out and containing the remains of a long deceased Aboriginal. The log had originally been plugged with clay at each end. Surgeon Lieutenant William Edward Paradice, RAN, a noted collector of marine animals and insects for the Australian Museum, thought the item would make an excellent addition to the museum and decided to bring it back on board the ship.

When this log coffin was brought on board the Aboriginal sailors went into immediate panic calling out that the log "contained a devil" and that it should be taken ashore immediately or bad luck would befall the ship. The log coffin remained on board and the Aboriginal sailors refused to go near where it was stored and this only added to the morose feelings of those on board.

On 27 June the ship was operating near Vanderlin Island. That afternoon Commander Bennett decided to anchor the ship for the night. Able Seaman Alick 'Chook' Fowler recalled the events that followed - "The skipper told the bridge personnel that the ship would go to anchor. At about 1530 I asked the skipper if he required the sounding recorder and he said, "No Fowler, we've been in this area before". I was the sounding recorder and I could not remember being there before, but then who was to have a better memory than an officer. The Captain then told me "Go aft and tell No.1 (the First Lieutenant) we will be anchoring in five minutes". So I left the bridge and made my way along the boat deck and down the ladder to the quarterdeck and found the First Lieutenant (Lieutenant Dixon). Just as I said "Sir, compliments of the Captain we are going to anchor in five minutes", we hit a reef. The ship rolled to starboard then to port, straightened up with her snout up in the air and her stern partly submerged. The First Lieutenant then said to me "Fowler, I think we are bloody well and truly anchored now". Well after that it was all hands to the pumps and whatever could be spared had to be moved aft. All the heavy gear from the mining room amidships below the mess-deck was manhandled off the ship into its boats".

Geranium had struck an uncharted reef and was in serious trouble. Bennett put out two of the ship's anchors astern of the stricken vessel - these had to be taken out by the ship's boats and dropped overboard by hand. Her engines were then put to full astern to pull Geranium off the reef. One of the anchor cables parted under the strain but the other held. The ship's company were also mustered aft to 'whip-jump' the ship (jump and down to set up a resonance that could help shake the ship free of the reef).

At around midnight Geranium finally slid off reef but then began to settle by the bow. Engineer Lieutenant George Arnold Hutchison (who had served in the Navy since 1910 and had been on board HMAS Sydney when she had sunk the Emden in 1914) took charge of the damage control efforts. Trees from nearby islands were cut down for use as shoring while the pumps used to remove the ingress of water. The ship was then moved to a nearby bay and settled onto the mud flat, at low tide, for repairs to continue. A collision mat and coal bags, filled with cement, were used to pack the damaged hull areas.

She was re-floated the next day at high tide, but her keel was badly buckled and holed in places. On 1 July the Royal Navy survey vessel HMS Fantome, also operating in northern Australian waters, supplied an extra collision mat and cement to plug the leaks and escorted the ship to Thursday Island. It was here that the Aboriginal coffin was taken ashore but the ship's bad luck was not yet over as the cutter conveying the coffin collided with a pearling lugger en route. The six Aboriginal labourers were also put ashore at Thursday Island as they could not be taken to Sydney. The reef that Geranium struck (south of Wheatley Islet) was subsequently named Disaster Reef and bay she stopped at for repairs was named Geranium Bay.

Geranium at Cockatoo Island Dockyard undergoing repairs after her grounding in northern Australian waters in 1923.

Once temporary repairs were made Geranium sailed for Sydney, arriving in late July. She was placed in Fitzroy Dock, at Cockatoo Island Dockyard, during 30 July-28 August 1923 for extensive hull repairs. Commander Bennett also took this opportunity in port to rid the ship of several of the troublemakers who had plagued Geranium's most recent service. Prophetically Lieutenant Dixon's two years of loan service also ceased in August 1923 and he returned to England.

On completion of this work she sailed from Sydney, on 24 September, heading north again arriving at Thursday Island on 6 October. During the voyage north she escorted the collier Biloela that was towing the coal hulk Hankow to Thursday Island for use by the RAN's light cruisers and survey ships when operating in northern waters. Geranium was preparing to head back into the Gulf of Carpentaria when word was received, on the 11th, that the passenger steamer Montoro had run aground on Young Reef some 280 kilometres south east of Thursday Island. She sailed and reached the stricken vessel on the 12th where she assisted in towing the Montoro off the reef. Burns Philp and Company, who owned the vessel, later presented a brass plaque to Geranium in recognition of the effort in assisting the Montoro. This plaque is now on display in the RAN's Hydrographic Office in Wollongong.

SS Montoro
SS Montoro being towed off Young Reef by HMAS Geranium in October 1923.

The brass plaque presented by Burns Philp Pty Ltd to the ship's company of HMAS Geranium for towing the SS Montoro off Young Reef on 12 October 1923.

On 16 October she returned to the Sir Edward Pellew Group of islands to finish her survey work in that area. One of the tasks conducted was erecting a 15-foot high sandstone and concrete obelisk on the 72-foot summit of Observation Island to commemorate the visit to the site by Lieutenant Matthew Flinders, RN in HMS Investigator on 16 December 1802. The obelisk also became a suitable navigational reference point.


Left: The concrete and stone obelisk erected on Observation Island. Centre: Plaque on the obelisk commemorating the visit to the island in 1802 by Matthew Flinders. Right: Commander Bennett standing next to the obelisk in 1923.
Concrete and sandstone cairn on Observation Island built by crew of HMAS Geranium 1923. Image taken in the 1990s.
Concrete and sandstone cairn on Observation Island built by crew of HMAS Geranium 1923. Image taken in the 1990s.

Visits to Darwin were made for resupply of coal and provisions during November before heading south again via Thursday Island, Cairns, Urangan and Brisbane and berthing at Garden Island on 8 December 1923 after a particularly demanding period of surveying in northern Australian waters. Geranium remained in port until mid-March 1924. Of note is Surgeon Lieutenant Paradice brought back more biological samples and also a large rock fossil, of a portion of an Ichthyosaurus Australis (a dolphin-like marine reptile), that had been found by the Director of the Botanical Gardens in Darwin.

HMAS Geranium part 2

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