HMAS
Lolita

Type
Channel Patrol Boat
Role Harbour Defence
Pennant
14
Builder
W.L Holmes & Co, Sydney NSW
Commissioned
22 November 1941
Decommissioned
13 June 1945
Fate
Wrecked off Alexishafen, Papua New Guinea after engine room fire
Dimensions & Displacement
Displacement 18 tonnes
Length 54 feet
Beam 13.5 feet
Draught 3.2 feet
Performance
Speed 13 knots
Armament
Guns 2 x .303 Vickers machine guns
Other Armament Mk VII depth charges

With much of the Royal Australian Navy fleet deployed to foreign waters in the early years of World War II, the defence of Australia’s coastlines became a primary concern for the Naval Board. The Naval Auxiliary Patrol (NAP) was a war-raised unit approved on 25 June 1941, charged with patrolling and safeguarding Australia's inner harbours, ports, rivers and estuaries against enemy sabotage or attack. The NAP fleet was comprised primarily of former pleasure craft, offered freely by their owners, and crewed by their owners and volunteers enlisted, from May 1942, into the Royal Australian Navy Volunteer Reserve.

In addition to the NAP were a number of requisitioned small pleasure craft known as Channel Patrol Boats (CPB). They were lightly armed with a Vickers gun and a few depth charges, and crewed by a mix of experienced RAN sailors, possibly back in Australia following a period of service overseas, and fresh recruits serving a stint in a CPB before moving on to a larger unit. The Commanding Officer was normally a junior officer straight out of Flinders Naval Depot. One such vessel which served variously as an air sea rescue vessel, CPB and in the NAP was HMAS Lolita.

Lolita was a 54-foot motor cruiser built in 1937 by WL Holmes & Co of Sydney. She was requisitioned for naval service on 26 September 1941 and commissioned as a tender to HMAS Penguin in Sydney on 22 November 1941, under the command of Temp Warrant Officer Herbert Anderson, RANR(S). She was subsequently purchased outright by the Navy on 25 June 1942.

Lolita spent the first months of her commission forming part of the harbour defences in Sydney. Sydney was, theoretically, the best defended port in Australia. There were shore-based gun and anti-aircraft batteries scattered about the harbour, NAP and CPBs in the water, searchlight teams ashore and a small force of fighter aircraft based at Bankstown. Outside the harbour entrance, lying on the sea bed in deep water, six indicator loops arced out to sea between Dover Heights in the south to Curl Curl in the north. The loops could detect a large metal object, such as a ship or submarine, passing above. Two more indicator loops were placed inside the harbour; one stretching across the mouth of the harbour between North Head and South Head; the other just inside South Head at Lady Bay across to Middle Head. Additionally, on South Head, was the Port War Signal Station which checked every ship approaching the harbour and, if necessary, ordered any strange or unknown ships to stop until it could be cleared by an examination vessel. Finally, a boom net stretched across the inner harbour between Laings Point on the eastern shore and Georges Head on the western shore.

On the night of 31 May 1942, however, the boom net was still incomplete. At either end, where two large gates were still to be constructed, were two gaps some 275 and 293 metres in length respectively. Every night, two patrol boats were stationed to guard the net, one at either end where the gates would eventually be. On this particular night the duty vessels were HMAS Yarroma at the western end, and Lolita at the eastern end.

HMAS Lolita was a pleasure cruiser purchased by the Navy to undertake harbour patrol duties and made up part of the 'Hollywood Fleet.'
HMAS Lolita was a pleasure cruiser purchased by the Navy to undertake harbour patrol duties and made up part of the 'Hollywood Fleet.'

Two of the indicator loops outside the harbour had failed so on this night, all six were left unmanned. Additionally, the first of the two inner harbour loops was also inoperable; the one stretching between Lady Bay and Middle Head was the only indicator loop in operation that evening. Just after 8:00pm, a small, unexplained blip was detected; however, no action was taken. About 15 minutes later what was thought to be a fishing vessel was observed near the boom net. A Marine Services Board nightwatchman by the name of Jimmy Cargill rowed out in his 14-foot skiff to investigate. Unsure of what it was he was seeing in the water, Cargill rowed over to Yarroma for assistance. With a Stoker embarked, he returned to the object where the Stoker positively identified it as a submarine.

The vessel was a Japanese midget submarine, M-27, the first of three midget submarines to launch an attack in Sydney Harbour that night. Lolita would play a significant role in the defence of the harbour over the next 12 hours.

HMAS Lolita was one of several small patrol craft in Sydney Harbour when three Japanese midget submarines penetrated harbour defences on the night of 31 May 1942.
HMAS Lolita was one of several small patrol craft in Sydney Harbour when three Japanese midget submarines penetrated harbour defences on the night of 31 May 1942.

M-27 had apparently gotten itself entangled in the boom net after passing through the gap at the western end and then colliding with the Western Channel Pile Light. The submarine then reversed into the net in an attempt to avoid the obstruction. After unsuccessfully attempting to signal the Port War Signal Station, Yarroma eventually made contact directly with Garden Island to report the suspicious object. Garden Island in turn ordered the patrol boat to close on the object and investigate. Yarroma’s Commanding Officer Sub Lieutenant Harold Eyers, RANVR, however, was reluctant to investigate what he still thought may possibly be a mine with a top secret ASDIC installed in his vessel. He instead ordered WO Anderson in Lolita to investigate.

Lolita raced to the scene with Anderson later reporting:

Stood off about 20 feet with stern towards object and machine gun covering same. Inspected object by flashing Aldis Lamp on it, which proved to be a submarine. The bow was pointed approximately south east. She was inside the net, her bow being approximately two feet above water, periscope showing about a foot, and stern entirely submerged. She appeared to be struggling to extricate herself. I realised at once the necessity for immediate action and gave the order to stand by depth charges.

Lolita subsequently commenced her depth charge attack on the stricken submarine, however, the depth charges aboard the CPBs were typically set to detonate at a depth of 100 feet, or about 30 metres. The depth of the water at that location was about 81 feet, or 24 metres. Lolita’s attack did little more than leave two unexploded depth charges lying at the bottom of Sydney Harbour.

As Lolita returned to attempt her third attack, she was met by a massive explosion which sent a column of water and flames towering above her. The midget’s two-man crew, realising the hopelessness of their position, had set off one of the submarine’s 135kg scuttling charges, killing themselves in the process. By this time it was 10:37pm, and the other two midgets had already made their way into the harbour.

Confusion reigned over the following hours as communications among the Allied defenders failed and the Naval Flag Officer in Charge, Sydney, Rear Admiral Gerard Muirhead-Gould, DSC, RN, apparently did not believe that an attack was underway and declined to order a stop to sea-borne traffic in the harbour.

Shortly before 11:00pm, the CPB, HMAS Yandra, under the command of 14-year naval veteran Lieutenant James Taplin, RANR(S), spotted the midget M-22 and, determining that there were too many surface vessels in the immediate vicinity to carry out a depth charge attack, set course to ram her. The patrol boat landed a glancing blow and came around to launch a depth charge attack which, ironically, caused more damage to Yandra herself than to the submarine. It did, however, force M-22 to settle on the sea bed and wait for a safer opportunity to attack.

Meanwhile, the third midget, M-24, had been spotted by the American cruiser USS Chicago, which began firing wildly at the enemy, joined later by the corvette, HMAS Geelong. The submarine subsequently submerged and lay in wait somewhere near Sydney Harbour Bridge.

By 11:15pm shipping on the harbour had been ordered to be darkened and the shooting had stopped, though there was still confusion as to what had actually happened and, indeed, was still happening. Shortly after 11:30pm, with a paucity of information at his disposal, RADM Muirhead-Gould, still believing that harbour was not under attack, set out in his admiral’s barge to find out what was going on himself, heading toward the boom net where Lolita was still stationed.

He boarded Lolita at around midnight spending half an hour with WO Anderson and his crew to ascertain what was going on. As Muirhead-Gould was about to re-embark in his barge at 12:30am, a massive explosion rocked the harbour. M-24 had emerged from her hiding spot and fired both of her torpedos at Chicago. Both missed their target. One became entangled in some ropes at Garden Island having failed to explode. The other struck the sea bed beneath the accommodation ship, HMAS Kuttabul. The explosion lifted Kuttabul out of the water and broke her back. 21 Australian and British sailors were killed. Muirhead-Gould returned to Garden Island in his barge, with no doubt that an attack was taking place.

Pandemonium returned to the harbour in the wake of the explosion with wild shooting at every piece of flotsam that could be seen in the water. It had no effect on the two submarines as M-24 attempted to escape the harbour and M-22 remained on the sea bed in wait.

With the larger fleet units proceeding to sea, Lolita, along with five other CPBs, remained on patrol near the boom net. M-22 got underway at around 3:00am to re-commence her attack. There were numerous unconfirmed sightings over the next few hours, and HMAS Kanimbla opened fire on what was believed to be, and indeed may have been, a submarine. At some point, M-22 had attempted to fire her torpedos but the submarine had sustained some damage to her bow and they had jammed in the tubes. She was eventually spotted by the CPB, HMAS Sea Mist, in Taylors Bay. Sea Mist launched a successful depth charge attack, crippling M-22 at around 5:15am.

The fate of M-24 remained a mystery until the discovery of her wreck off Sydney’s northern beaches in 2006. She had apparently made good her escape from Sydney Harbour but examination of her hull revealed machine gun damage, probably inflicted when Chicago had opened fire on her.

Lolita continued to operate as a CPB in and around Sydney until 1944 when she proceeded north to New Guinea as a unit of the NAP based at Ladava. She operated in New Guinea and northern Australian waters until tragedy struck on 13 June 1945.

Lolita was alongside the wharf at Alexishafen at HMAS Madang outboard of three motor launches with the air/sea rescue launch, HMAS Martindale, out board of her when a massive explosion completely destroyed her engine room and wheelhouse.Lolita was quickly aflame as the vessels nearest her, Martindale and HDML 1327, immediately turned their fire hoses on her. It was soon apparent, however, that the situation was irretrievable and, with live ammunition embarked in Lolita, posed a considerable threat to both the wharf and neighbouring ships.

Martindale cast off and, with her crew evacuated, Lolita was set adrift allowing the strong breeze to ground her on the reef, her ammunition exploding as she drifted clear of the wharf. HMAS Potrero, which had been at anchor at the time, fired a drum of 20mm ammunition into Lolita at the waterline to ensure that she remained hard and fast on reef. The little patrol boat continued smouldering until 10:00pm, when there was very little left of her.

It was later determined that the explosion was caused by a back-flash from the carburettor at the moment that the starter button was pressed, which in turn ignited an explosive mixture of petrol vapour which had accumulated in the engine room bilges.

At least two members of Lolita’s crew, including her Commanding Officer Lieutenant John Trim, RANR, suffered serious injuries. Two members of the base staff, Motor Mechanics William Bertalli and Alfred Smith, engaged in maintenance work aboard Lolita at the time, suffered severe burns and, tragically, later passed away in hospital.

This diagram of Alexishafen Harbour was created for the board of inquiry into the incident that saw HMAS Lolita wrecked off Papua New Guinea. Lolita is the fourth of the five vessels alongside the wharf. The dashed line depicts the path she took while burning until she was grounded on the reef.
This diagram of Alexishafen Harbour was created for the board of inquiry into the incident that saw HMAS Lolita wrecked off Papua New Guinea. Lolita is the fourth of the five vessels alongside the wharf. The dashed line depicts the path she took while burning until she was grounded on the reef.
A memorial plaque was dedicated to HMAS Lolita at the Royal Australian Navy Memorial at bradley's Head, Mosman on Saturday, 13th June, attended by the Directory of Navy Heritage Collections, Captain Damien Allan, RAN. The dedication coincided with the 75th anniversary of the loss of HMAS Lolita.
A memorial plaque was dedicated to HMAS Lolita at the Royal Australian Navy Memorial at Bradleys Head, Mosman on 13 June 2020. The dedication coincided with the 75th anniversary of the loss of HMAS Lolita.