HMAS PERTH (1)   (ex HMS AMPHION)

Details:

Type:

Light Cruiser  (Modified 'Leander' Class)

Displacement:

6,830 tons (standard)

Length:

555 feet (water-line)
530 feet (between perpendiculars)

Beam:

56 feet 8 inches

Draught:

15 feet 8 inches

Speed:

32.5 knots

Propulsion:

4 Parsons geared turbines - SHP 72000

Laid Down:

26 June 1933

Launched:

26 July 1934
(Marchioness of Titehfield)

Armament:

8x6 inch guns
8x4 inch guns
4x3 pdr guns
8x21 inch torpedo tubes

Builders:

Portsmouth Naval Dockyard

Completed:

July 1936

Aircraft:

Walrus amphibian (of 9 Squadron, RAAF)

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.

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 4 inch guns.

Following agreement between the British and Australian Governments for the purchase of AMPHION for the RAN, it was decided to transfer the ship in 1939. Subsequently the cruiser HMAS ADELAIDE 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 Captain Harold B Farncomb MVO RAN.  A highlight of the short period of peacetime service the ship was to envoy 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.

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, 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 Captain Farncomb.  The following day the flag of the Rear Admiral Commanding the Australian Squadron (RACAS), Rear Admiral John G. Grace, was struck in HMAS CANBERRA 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.  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 south-bound convoy.

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 north-bound 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 deployed as courier and on other base duties.

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 damaged 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 m 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, proceeded to Alexandria for return to Australia.  She sailed from Alexandria for Australia on 18 July.

On 12 August 1941, PERTH arrived at Sydney and the following day moved to Cockatoo Dockyard for an extensive refit.  Acting Commander Charles R. Reid, RAN, assumed command on 1 September 1941 and was relieved by Captain 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.

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 an eleven ship ABDA (American, British, Dutch and Australian) force engaged Japanese forces in the disastrous Battle of the Java Sea, from which only PERTH and HOUSTON survived.

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 EVERTSEN through Sunda Strait to Tjilatjap.  PERTH and HOUSTON cast off at 1900 hours making a signal at the same time to EVERTSEN 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.

At 2306, a vessel was sighted about five miles close in 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 Banteng Bay, Java.

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 Captain 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.  Captain 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 Captain 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.


Source:  Naval Historical Section, Canberra

Re-formatted: 22 February 1999, Darrell Hegarty