HMAS Yarra Memorial Service
The Strand, Newport, Victoria
3 March 2013
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for the opportunity to speak to you all on the eve of the 71st anniversary of the sinking of HMAS Yarra in waters to the north of Australia during the darkest days of the Second World War.
Before doing so, I would like to acknowledge the hard work of the volunteers who gave up their time to build this wonderful memorial to HMAS Yarra, including Mr Angus Walsh OAM and volunteers from the Rotary Club of Williamstown. I would also like to acknowledge that many of you have travelled from all around Australia to be here today to commemorate the loss of a fine Australian warship. And of course, Ms Christine Hirschfield, who I understand has organized so much of today with Mr Gary Taylor. Thank you both.
While the loss of so many lives on that bright and clear morning in March 1942 was tragic, as you all know, the story of the gallantry of those who served in HMAS Yarra has since been remembered as one of the proudest chapters in our naval history.
As many of you are aware, at the direction of Government, the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal has recently undertaken an inquiry into unresolved recognition for past acts of naval and military gallantry and valour. As part of this inquiry, the Tribunal examined in detail the actions of 13 former servicemen, including three men who served in HMAS Yarra.
These were the Captain, Lieutenant Commander Robert William Rankin, her First Lieutenant, Lieutenant Commander Francis Edward Smith, and the Captain of her number two gun, Leading Seaman Ronald Taylor, better known to his mates as ‘Buck’.
Lieutenant Commander Rankin had only joined Yarra in late January 1942, and a matter of weeks later assumed command. Lieutenant Commander Smith and Leading Seaman Taylor had both served in Yarra during an eventful 14 months of operations in the Mediterranean and Middle East Theatres.
There Yarra served in the Red Sea, the Mediterranean and North Arabian seas; for the most part as a convoy escort, often seeing action against German and Italian forces. Yarra also served with distinction in the Persian Gulf, where in part due to the gunnery skills of Leading Seaman Taylor, she sank the Iranian sloop Babr.
With the Navy’s resources thinly stretched over the globe, the outbreak of war with Japan in December 1941 meant that Yarra was immediately required for duty closer to home.
On 11 January 1942, Yarra reached Batavia – now Jakarta – on the island of Java, part of the resource rich archipelago that lay at the southern flank of the American-British-Dutch-Australian – or ABDA – area of operations, hurriedly set up in an attempt to curb the rapid Japanese advance into south-east Asia.
After a busy few weeks of convoy duty in the ABDA area, on the morning of 5 February, Yarra, under the command of Commander Wilfred Hastings Harrington, found herself escorting a convoy of men and materiel into the approaches of Singapore harbour.
From Japan’s entry into the war until that day, no convoy had entered Singapore during daylight hours. That morning, the convoy was attacked by a large force of Japanese aircraft and subjected to intensive dive bombing.
The old transport Empress of Asia, crowded with troops, was set ablaze while moving at low speed into the anchorage. Despite the increased risk of aerial bombing, or of Empress of Asia exploding due to the already raging fires, Harrington took Yarra alongside and rescued 1334 men, who managed to jump onto Yarra’s forecastle Another 470 were rescued by Yarra from boats and floats.
It was later reported that two other merchant ships were saved, in part, due to the effective gunfire of Yarra.
On 11 February, in his final Report of Proceedings written in Batavia on passing command to Lieutenant Commander Rankin, Commander Harrington chose to mention the good work of Rankin, Smith, Taylor and a few others during this eventful rescue. Regrettably, none of these men received any further recognition for their gallantry and meritorious service.
While the Empress of Asia story is not as well known as Yarra’s final action, it still stands today as one of the Navy’s most remarkable wartime achievements.
In the following weeks, as the Japanese continued to push closer to home, Yarra continued her increasingly dangerous role as a convoy escort in the ABDA area.
By 2 March, the situation had become dire. The Allied navies had been resoundingly defeated at the Battle of the Java Sea, the cruisers HMAS Perth and USS Houston had been sunk at the Battle of the Sunda Strait, and the Japanese had landed in Java and were quickly taking control of the island.
A decision was taken to evacuate all British and Australian ships to Colombo and Fremantle. Yarra was to be the sole escort of three slow and nearly defenceless British auxiliary ships travelling south to Fremantle.
On the morning of 4 March, when the immensely superior Japanese force of three cruisers and two destroyers appeared over the horizon, there was little that Lieutenant Commander Rankin could have done. But we do know that he made the most gallant and defiant action available to him under the circumstances.
He quickly made smoke in order to screen the convoy, and turned towards the Japanese in order to bravely take the fight to them. It is possible that after Rankin was killed when a shell from one of the Japanese ships destroyed the bridge, it was Lieutenant Commander Smith who gave the order to abandon ship. We do know that Smith did not survive. Neither did Buck Taylor, who instead of making for the relative safety of the rafts, chose to stay at his gun and keep firing at the Japanese.
Only 13 men of Yarra made it to Colombo to tell their story of Yarra’s final days, after an amazing turn of fate led to their rescue by a Dutch submarine. During and after the war, more accounts of the gallantry of Yarra and many of those on board in her final hours became known but sadly, little was done to recognise their gallantry until the naming of HMAS Rankin in 2001.
The Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Ray Griggs, who is of course with us today, said at this very memorial service last year said of Yarra’s actions “Rankin, Smith and Buck Taylor and the rest of the crew, have been, are, and will forever be heroes to me as I am sure they are to you. They are worthy of our profound respect, of our deepest gratitude and our enduring remembrance.”
It is this sentiment precisely which I hope you will see in the awarding of a Unit Citation for Gallantry to the crews of HMAS Yarra on 5 February and 4 March 1942.
This was a rare privilege of mine and I hope you find it the appropriate recognition for all those aboard HMAS Yarra.
I believe this award is a fitting way to recognise not just Lieutenant Commander Rankin, Lieutenant Commander Smith and Leading Seaman Taylor, but the gallantry of those who served in two of the proudest chapters in Australian Naval history.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I thank you again for the privilege of speaking to you today. I am sure that you, and generations to come will continue to gather every year to remember HMAS Yarra, a truly gallant ship.