HMAS Whyalla: her last long voyage
By John Ellis
Following the outbreak of World War II, the Government asked BHP if they could develop a shipyard for the war effort. In 1940, BHP Newcastle recruited seven shipbuilding personnel from the United Kingdom to establish a shipyard at Whyalla, SA. One was soon dismissed after expressing his dismay with the flies and heat of Whyalla; the others set to and developed a yard that built 63 ships, an oil rig and two barges over the next 38 years.
HMAS Whyalla (J-153, B252), a Bathhurst class Minesweeper Corvette, dressed overall anmd in her wartime paint scheme. Displacement: 1,025 tons (Full load). Length: 57 metres (186 feet), Beam: 9.4 metres (31 feet. Draught 2.6 metres (8.5 feet. Propulsion: Triple expansion, two shafts, 1769 shp, Speed: 15 knots, Complement 70-85. Armament one four-inch gun, two 20 mm Oerlikon cannon, one 40 mm Bofors, Depth charges.
First built: Whyalla
The first was HMAS Whyalla, launched in 1941, with a ten-year planned life. Her proud builders would have thought it inconceivable that more than 60 years later their first ship would still be serving, albeit in a very different role. It would have been just as incredible to suggest that her final resting place would be a mere two kilometres down the road. In Whyalla, the unbelievable happened.
HMAS Whyalla (1941-46), later became the Rip (1947-84) before reverting to Whyalla. The ship was hauled from the sea in February 1987 up the same slipway, now disused, that gave her birth and transported through the BHP plant, across a sea of saltbush and sand to rest on concrete foundations near the city’s northern highway entrance.
Since 1987 the Whyalla has been the focal point of the Whyalla Tourist Centre and Whyalla Maritime Museum. RADM David Holthouse, the Support Commander at that time, represented the RAN at the opening that followed an outlay of $1.3m. Although the ship was purchased for just $5,000, another $560,000 was required to remove her from the sea and set her up for display.
Visitors can tour the ship and explore the museum that displays aspects of wartime service of the corvettes and the achievements of the shipyard. The work of Matthew Flinders in local waters is also covered. Many town sceptics regarded the Mayor’s ideas harebrained in 1984, but the museum is firmly established as an important tourist attraction.
One Saturday in February 1987, Whyalla started her last voyage. Several hundred onlookers, television crews who had flown in from Adelaide, official photographers and other media representatives applauded as the ship edged up the slipway. Dawson Offshore, a WA contractor, planned to have the ship “on site” within two or three weeks but the “Reluctant Lady” took seven weeks of long hours, sleepless nights and many frustrations before the Dawson’s crew could win her over.
HMAS Whyalla Museum, just outside the city of Whyalla.
The ship was positioned on a purpose-built cradle and a new track to allow her to be hauled towards the old slipway. That phase took five days, but the cradle was damaged when it fouled the slipway. Divers worked for the next fortnight clearing damaged sections of the frame and easing the ship up the slipway. Meanwhile, 220 tonnes of trailers with 328 wheels and two prime movers valued at $4 million arrived from Perth to transport the ship overland. Because of the delay and another commitment at Mount Newman, the trailers were diverted and did not return to Whyalla until late March.
By mid-March the ship was at the top of the slipway where she had to be raised another 1.5 metres to allow the trailers to slide under. The big hurdles had been cleared and the Whyalla awaited the Brambles Manford crew and their transport equipment. From then on it was pretty smooth “sailing”. Within five days the ship was secured on the trailers, hauled along the two-kilometre route and settled on her permanent foundations. The move was complete; the contractors and local firms who had worked their hearts out were not about to allow the “Reluctant Lady” to win.
Four corvettes were built in Whyalla under the Commonwealth Government’s wartime shipbuilding program, all launched in 1941 – HMAS Whyalla (12 May), Kalgoorlie (7 August), Gawler (4 October) and Pirie (3 December). Originally allocated the name Glenelg, Whyalla was commissioned 8 January 1942 and her first captain was Temporary Lieutenant L.N. Morrison, RANR (S), who remained in command for most of the war. He was granted acting rank of LCDR from June 1943 and was relieved by LEUT G.L.B. Parry, RANVR in April 1945.
Japanese midget subs
Following commissioning and work up, Whyalla started escort and patrol duties off the east coast of Australia. She was in Sydney Harbour when the Japanese midget submarines attacked and a week later she was escorting coastal convoys off the Australian coast. Whyalla continued convoy escort duties until December 1942, when she reported to New Guinea for minesweeping duties and hydrographic surveys prior to the Japanese withdrawal.
In June 1943, she returned to Australia to refit and resumed convoy duties until February 1944. Whyalla then joined Admiral Fraser’s British Pacific Fleet to serve until the end of the war on escort and anti-submarine patrol duties. During this time she served briefly off China and returned safely to Australia in October 1945, having steamed 111,000 miles on war service.
Whyalla began a new life in February 1947 when sold to the Victorian Department of Public Works and renamed Rip. She was employed in blasting operations to keep clear the approaches to the Rip, the entrance to Port Phillip Bay. She also maintained buoys, moorings and pile lights in Port Phillip Bay and other Victorian ports.
In 1984 the City of Whyalla learnt that Rip was to be sold as scrap and after extensive negotiations the Whyalla City Council purchased her for $5,000. Rip sailed to her birthplace from Williamstown with a crew of volunteers augmented by a few professional seamen.
Sixty Bathurst class minesweepers were built during World War II in eight Australian shipyards. Four were built for the Royal Indian Navy, 36 for the Royal Australian Navy and 20 for the Royal Navy. The latter, however, were commissioned into the RAN and manned by RAN personnel. These minesweepers were the Navy’s “maids of all work”, serving in the roles of convoy escort, anti-submarine patrol, search and rescue, evacuation and shore bombardment. The ships had the endurance to patrol the long coastlines of Australia and New Guinea. The class was designated Australian Minesweeper (AMS) but were generally referred to as corvettes.
Three were lost during the war: Armidale was attacked and sunk by Japanese aircraft 1 December 1942 and Wallaroo and Geelong sank after collisions with American merchant ships. (Wallaroo was hit by Liberty ship Henry Gilbert Costin off Fremantle on the night of 11 June 1943, Geelong sank after a collision with a tanker, York, off New Guinea, 18 October 1944.) Warrnambool sank 13 September 1947 after touching off a mine during minesweeping operations off the north Queensland coast. The Bathursts carried some 280 rounds of four-inch ammunition, 2,500 rounds for the Bofors and up to 40 depth charges. The ships could transport 300 troops in an emergency, 400 troops ship to shore or 100 over a period of four days. The ships were basic. There was no refrigeration, no broadcast and no ventilation; spuds and onions were stowed in a wire mesh locker abaft the funnel.
Following World War II, four ships were sold to the RNZN, five to Turkey, six to the Royal Netherlands Navy and one to China. Of those sold to the RNN, two were passed to Indonesia. The RAN retained six in service until the late 1950s and the remainder were sold.
Five in 1983, now two
By 1983 five of the 60 corvettes survived. Bendigo was with the People’s Republic of China, initially Cheung Hing and later Loyang. Castlemaine was a museum ship alongside at Williamstown. Colac was a tank cleaning vessel at Garden Island Dockyard. Gladstone, aka Akuna, was a refugee ship and Whyalla, aka Rip, was at Geelong. Today, only Whyalla and Castlemaine remain.