stories, photos, anecdotes….. sharing the past
The legacy of Sir Henry Parkes continues beyond the naming of the town and shire known as Parkes. A minesweeper during the Second World War was named after the town – HMAS Parkes sailing under the pennant J361. This post looks at the life of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) warship HMAS Parkes – from beginning to its ending. While the ship was eventually sold for scrap to Hong Kong, the ship’s bell was given to the people of Parkes. The ships were corvettes – technically the smallest class of vessel considered to be a proper warship – but were known as Bathurst-class corvettes due to the Australian designs that were unique to the Australian made corvettes. There were sixty Bathurst-class corvettes built in eight Australian shipyards to an Australian design. Twenty were built on British Admiralty orders (but were manned and commissioned by the RAN), 4 were built for Royal Indian Navy and 36 were constructed for RAN (HMAS Parkes being one of the 36).
According to the Australian Navy website:
HMAS Parkes was one of sixty Australian Minesweepers (commonly known as corvettes) built during World War II in Australian shipyards as part of the Commonwealth Government’s wartime shipbuilding programme. Twenty were built on Admiralty order but manned and commissioned by the Royal Australian Navy. Thirty six (including Parkes) were built for the Royal Australian Navy and four for the Royal Indian Navy.
HMAS Parkes was laid down at Evans Deakin & Co Ltd, Brisbane, Queensland on 16 March 1943. She was launched on 30 October 1943 by Mrs Brown, wife of the President of the Senate and was the first RAN warship to carry the name of the NSW regional city.
With war imminent in 1938 the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board identified the need for “… a general purpose ‘local defence vessel’ capable of both anti-submarine and mine-warfare duties, while easy to construct and operate.” (David Stevens, 2010, cited on wikipedia, 2019). David Stevens, writing in Hindsight Issue 05, May 2010 reports:
The 56 Bathursts were workhorses rather than ‘glamour’ ships. Although some sources claim that the design was a variant of the British Bangor class minesweepers, it was in fact a uniquely Australian development. The staff requirement for large numbers of a relatively simple, anti-submarine (A/S) and minesweeping (M/S) patrol vessel arose in February 1938, but the design actually originated in the need for a tender to be permanently allocated to the RAN’s new A/S School at Rushcutters Bay in Sydney. In July 1938, the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board (ACNB) set the Director of Engineering (Navy), Rear Admiral (E) PE McNeil, to the task, and within a fortnight he had reported back that a 500 ton local defence craft could be built for £100,000. By means of a quite remarkable in-house design effort, within another month McNeil had provided preliminary plans of a ‘very useful little ship’, and by February 1939 had the drawings virtually complete.
The first ship built was HMAS Bathurst, with HMAS Parkes the last one to be built. While the original plan for these ships, later known as “corvettes”, occurred prior to the Second World War it wasn’t until the 1940s that these ships were finally built. Government approval for constructing the first seven corvettes was not obtained until September 1939 – just after the outbreak of the Second World War. Stevens notes that “By June 1940 only five corvettes has been laid down of the first 17 ordered.” The delay was due to a combination of government red tape; Australian government giving preference to making ships for the Royal Navy, and the shortage of resources for shipbuilding during the Second World War.
When placing the orders, the Navy Minister, AG Cameron, predicted an output of two AMS (Australian minesweepers) per month, but planners had underestimated the difficulties, notably delays in equipment delivery caused by the war at sea and the impact of other urgent defence requirements. Notwithstanding RAN pressure
to begin building as early as possible, Cockatoo Dockyard in Sydney did not lay the keel of the first hull, HMAS Bathurst, until February 1940. The decision to share the ship construction work between eight shipyards, spread out across southern and eastern Australia, inevitably slowed down the project. The small team of naval overseers located at Cockatoo were stretched to their limit providing support to
the commercial shipyards. Although the corvettes were nominally built to merchant ship standards, the ACNB soon discovered that each corvette might still take at least ten months to complete. Further slowing RAN deliveries, the Australian Government had soon graciously offered to assist with urgent build orders for the British Admiralty.
By June 1940 only five corvettes had been laid down of the first 17 ordered. The early delivery of future vessels could only be achieved by giving their construction first priority of supply, and a position in advance of the remainder of the Defence program. Although the start of enemy surface raider activity in October 1940 had further highlighted the shortage of ocean escorts, no such adjustment was forthcoming.
One of the reasons to look back on wartime life is to acknowledge the difficulty, at times almost impossibility of victory, for those living through World War II. It is easy to look back on World War 2, knowing that victory was secured by the Allies. However in the lead up to HMAS Parkes‘ official launch, the outcome of the war was still in the balance. Some of the newspaper headlines of the day highlighted how desperate the situation was.
In his personal account of time on HMAS Parkes, Lew Crabtree – sometime signalman – recalls that:
The ship’s company comprised six officers and 77 ratings under the command of Lt. Commander N.O. (Paddy) Vidgen of Brisbane, with Lt. Tulloch as his 1st Lieutenant.
L. Crabtree (1994) page 4
Being the last of the sixty Australian Minesweepers built (4 being built for Royal Indian Navy) HMAS Parkes left the builder’s yard on May 15, 1944 and was quickly put into action:
Following trials in Moreton Bay, the ship sailed for Milne Bay on 3 June. After three weeks in New Guinea waters [HMAS] Parkes returned to Australia, arriving at Thursday Island on 27 June. Most of July was occupied in the escort of convoys between Thursday Island and Darwin. At the end of the month the ship proceeded to the Eilanden River in Netherlands New Guinea [Western Papua] to embark 78 troops for Merauke. With these personnel safely disembarked at their destination Parkes sailed for Thursday Island to resume convoy escort duties on the Darwin run.
This work occupied the ship until September 1944. On 18 September she rescued survivors of the SS Kintore which had been wrecked on Warrimist Reef (near York Island) four days earlier. On 23 September she sailed for Fremantle.
October and early November proved an uneventful period occupied by routine patrols off Fremantle, before Parkes returned to Darwin on 7 November to take up escort and patrol duties in the Arafura Sea. Throughout the rest of November and December Parkes operated in the Darwin area. On 20 December she rescued six Dutch former prisoners of war who had succeeded in escaping from enemy held territory in an outrigger canoe.
From then until the end of hostilities on 15 August 1945 Parkes continued to be based on Darwin. She was principally occupied with local escort and anti-submarine duties. It was a period of mainly routine activity. However, early in August the ship assisted in the successful extraction by HMA HDML 1324 of Services Reconnaissance Department personnel from enemy occupied Timor after a clandestine operation.
On 7 September 1945 the sloop HMAS Moresby, accompanied by ten other Australian warships (including HMAS Parkes) and two Dutch vessels, sailed from Darwin to conduct the ceremony of surrender of all Japanese forces in Timor. Two other RAN vessels joined the convoy, which also included some small craft under tow, on 9 September. The ceremony was conducted at Koepang on 11 September on Moresby‘s quarterdeck. [HMAS] Parkes arrived back at Darwin on 20 September.
Lew Crabtree’s personal accounts on board HMAS Parkes allow us to immerse ourselves in life at sea during wartime. In a time before GPS, the ship’s navigator was an incredibly important job. Sailing into shallow waters required precision – being stuck on a sand bar could mean the difference between life and death!
At 1500 that day [August 2, 1944] we arrived at the mouth of the Eilanden River [Pulau River in Indonesia]. [HMAS] Parkes had been given the job as navigator by [HMAS] Ballarat. Lt Tulloch, Parkes’ Navigator and 1st Lieutenant, was an ex-merchant officer and particularly competent in this regard. On this journey we had to steam away from the coast and well off shore from Fredrik Hendrik Island [now Pulau Dolak in New Guinea]. This was the long way to reach Eilanden River, but a narrow strait between Fredrik Hendrik Island and the mainland was too shallow, particularly at its southern end where there was a bar impeding the entry of all but very shallow draughted vessels.
Lt. Tulloch’s navigation took us well out to sea until he ordered a course alteration to starboard which brought us unerringly into the mouth of the river…….
…..The tide was running out fast and we were rapidly losing depth underneath the keel. In the process of getting underway, the ship ran aground stern first. There was serious concern at this moment. Rudder and propellers were engaged with the mud on the river bed……
…..At this time we did not know if there were Japanese aircraft nearby or not. What was known was that the tide was running out fast and we were threatened with a long and dangerous wait, 360 miles (580 kms) from anywhere, with by now no aircover [sic], if we missed the tide.
Then the skipper decided to shift some weight forward. He ordered the 80 or so new passengers [army officers picked up before getting stuck] up onto the fore peak to help lift the stern out of the river bed. It worked and, at about 1945, we were under way….
L. Crabtree (1994) pages 10 and 11
Apart from close encounters from the enemy, life aboard HMAS Parkes was not easy. Just because men joined the RAN did not mean they were prepared for a life on the seas. Crabtree records this, comparing those who had been on board HMAS Parkes for a few months with Australian soldier who had just been picked up for transportation.
Sailors who had suffered months earlier from sea sickness realised that at last they had their ‘sea legs’ when they saw what was happening to the soldiers on board. Conditions were cramped on corvettes at the best of times. Finding a place to sling a hammock was never easy under normal conditions so that people were sleeping on mess deck tables, on mess deck cushions, on the astick compartment cover in one of the lower messes and so on. There were two ‘slings’ under each wing of the bridge but these were only available and dry when the sea was relatively calm. The addition of 80 more bodies made things almost impossible…..
….After two days of “sea time” the soldiers to a man told us that we were all welcome to our job and they’d be happy to tolerate anything the army offered on dry land. Those of us who had suffered sea sickness earlier on, knew exactly how they felt.
L. Crabtree (1994) pages 11 and 12
Video footage of WW2 Corvettes, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses. While not footage of HMAS Parkes, the corvettes in the video are the same type of ship. The description of “…like a great big bath tub…” matches Crabtree’s memories of being drenched. The Australian corvettes added mine sweeping equipment, which reduced their overall speed. Source: https://youtu.be/iNcdq9QXLoE
Whilst Australia joined in with the rest of the Allied countries in celebrating the end of World War II, this did not result in the end of work carried out by HMAS Parkes. Whilst September 7 saw the official surrender ceremony, the following day HMAS Parkes was required for more service.
The following morning Lieutenant William R Blower RANVR relieved Lieutenant Commander Vidgen in command and three hours later the ship proceeded with her sister ships HMAS Gympie and Katoomba to rendezvous off Dili with two other sister ships, HMAS Gladstone and Warrnambool (ex-Koepang on 22 September). After the rendezvous on 23 September the five ships entered Dili harbour. They were joined by Moresby on 24 September. The Governor of Portuguese Timor was formally advised of the Japanese surrender and in the evening one officer and ten ratings from each ship attended a thanksgiving ceremony at the Portuguese flagstaff. Parkes arrived back at Darwin on 30 September.
In October she again visited Timor and assisted in the evacuation of Dutch prisoners of war. Later in the month and during early November troops and stores were transported in the area. On 8 November the ship arrived at Darwin and three days later departed that port for the last time. On 21 November Parkes arrived at Fremantle.
HMAS Parkes was decommissioned on December 17, 1945. Since being commissioned she had steamed 43,021 miles (approximately 69,236 km). HMAS Parkes remained in Fremantle until May 2, 1957 when she was sold for scrap to Hong Kong Rolling Mills Ltd, of Hong Kong (source Royal Australian Navy website)
On November 18, 1955, Parkes’ new Civic Chambers were opened. As part of the ceremony, Mr J.B. Howse, Member for Calare, presented the ship’s bell of HMAS Parkes to Parkes Municipal Council. For Howse it was an occasion of special significance as he had served on a sister ship, HMAS Whyalla (J153) also a Bathurst-class corvette.
“This is an historic occasion because it will be a constant reminder to the people of Parkes and district, of the part played by the gallant ship HMAS Parkes in the last world war.”
J.B. Howse, Member for Calare quoted in Parkes Champion Post (1955) p.1
It was during his speech at the civic reception that Howse revealed:
“…HMAS Parkes was named after the town in recognition of the notable contribution made by Parkes during the war.
In further recognition the Minister for the Navy decided this ship’s bell should be presented to the town of Parkes for their safe keeping as a token of Australia’s thanks. It therefore gives me great pleasure to formerly [sic] hand this ship’s bell, on behalf of the Minister for the Navy, into your safe keeping. In doing so, I know that the same high tradition of service, sacrifice, and comradeship, that surrounded this ship’s bell in wartime, will continue in its new home in Parkes.”
Parkes Champion Post Monday, November 21, 1955 page 1
Parkes Shire Library would like to thank the following people and organisations for their assistance with this blog post:
If you have stories of HMAS Parkes or the ship’s bell that you are willing to share please contact Parkes Shire Library via firstname.lastname@example.org so that they can be shared and kept for posterity on this blog. Alternatively, you may leave comments on this page.