The loss of HMAS Yarra, 4 March 1942

by Daniel Oakman

'[T]wo enemy transport vessels under escort of two light naval vessels ... were attacked and sunk. None of the Japanese ships suffered any damage': so ran a Japanese report of a naval engagement which took place 500 kilometres off the south coast of Java on 4 March 1942. This rather sparse entry in a Japanese log relates to the fate of the Grimsby class sloop, HMAS Yarra, and the small convoy she was ordered to escort to Australia after the collapse of Allied resistance in Singapore. The first week of March 1942 was disastrous for the British and Australian navies, with the loss of over twenty ships. When we remember the fierce naval battles of late 1941 and 1942, the story of HMAS Yarra is often lost against the destruction of the British capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse and Australia's Perth, Sydney and Vampire. Here we remember Yarra's short but dramatic history in Australia's Second World War.

016263
Grimsby class sloop, HMAS Yarra II, sunk by Japanese naval forces on 4 March 1942. Photograph taken while on operations in the Persian Gulf, August 1941.
AWM 016263

Commissioned in 1936, the lightly armed sloop of 1,080 tons was commanded by Lieutenant Commander W. H. Harrington. Yarra spent the early part of war in Australian waters. But in August 1940 she left for the Middle East where she undertook patrol and escort duties. The following year Yarra escorted a convoy from Bombay to the Persian Gulf and took part in campaigns against Iraq and Iran. While in the Mediterranean as part of the Red Sea Force the Yarra was subject to high-level bombing from Italian aircraft. The bombing proved ineffective and after months of anticipation the sudden excitement bolstered the crews' spirits. Harrington remarked:

The morale of the ship's company is very high, due partly to their interest being maintained by the fairly frequent opportunity of firing the guns ... I fear that some do not land even when they could do so in case they should miss an air raid.

The novelty of battle did not last. While escorting convoys from Alexandria to beleaguered forces at Tobruk, Yarra encountered the more experienced Luftwaffe. On 7 December 1941, 35 aircraft including dive-bombers launched a fierce attack. Although Yarra escaped with minor damage, the deadly intensity of the war was brought home to the crew. Only a week earlier HMAS Parramatta lost 138 of her crew after being torpedoed and sunk by a U-boat while on the Alexandria-Tobruk run.

With the outbreak of war with Japan, hostilities drew close to Australian waters. On 9 December Yarra sailed for duties in the Java Sea, in what was known as the ABDA area - the combined Australian, British, Dutch and American theatre in south-east Asia. Here she carried out escort and patrol duties and on 5 February, while under attack, rescued 1800 men off the burning troopship Empress of Asia. Harrington commended his crew on their performance, but singled out Acting Leading Seaman Ronald 'Buck' Taylor, for special mention. Taylor, he wrote, deserved commendation because 'on this occasion, as on many others, he controlled his gun with judgement and determination. The rating's keenness and courage are a good example to all those in his vicinity'. Following the rescue, 36-year-old Lieutenant Commander Robert W. Rankin took over as captain, replacing Harrington whom went on to achieve the rank of Vice Admiral and later Chief of Naval Staff (1962-65).

P00871.004
Lieutenant Commander Robert William Rankin RAN, lost in the sinking of HMAS Yarra on 4 March 1942.
AWM P00871.004

Japanese success in the Battle of the Java Sea on 27 February dashed any lingering hope that allied forces might stop the invasion of Java. Allied command ordered all remaining British auxiliary craft to leave Batavia. A flotilla of Australian corvettes made the hazardous journey home. By 10 March, HMAS Ballarat, Bendigo, Burnie, Goulburn, Maryborough, Toowoomba, Wollongong were safely moored in Fremantle Harbour. The Yarra would not be so fortunate.

On 2 March Yarra and the Indian sloop HMIS Jumna escorted a convoy to Tjilatjap on Java's south coast. But prowling Japanese forces made the harbour too dangerous to enter. Instead, Jumna was ordered to Colombo; Yarra was ordered to escort the depot ship Anking, the tanker Francol and the motor minesweeper MMS 51 on a longer and more perilous journey to Fremantle. There was not time to lose. Steaming steadily south-east at an economical speed of 8.5 knots, the Yarra and her convoy made good progress during the night of 2-3 March. In the morning she came across survivors from two lifeboats from the Dutch merchant ship Parigi - sunk two days earlier - and took them aboard. During the day there was little sign of the enemy, save for the distant appearance of reconnaissance aircraft in the evening.

The 'glorious sunrise' of 4 March soon revealed the topmasts of a squadron of Japanese heavy cruisers steaming in from the north-east. Led by Admiral Kondo, the squadron consisted of Atago, Takao and Maya, each armed with ten 8-inch guns, and two destroyers, Arashi and Nowaki. As G. Hermon Gill, official historian of the RAN in the Second World War, put it: 'Yarra's clanging alarm rattles struck a chill to the hearts of men who were hoping to be in Australia within four days'. Rankin immediately made a sighting report, ordered the other ships to scatter and laid smoke in a vain attempt to aid the escape of his convoy. He then turned Yarra and prepared to engage.

Yarra's guns, consisting of three 4-inch anti-aircraft guns, four 3-pounder guns, a quadruple .5-inch anti aircraft machine-gun, were no match for three of the most powerful ships in the Japanese fleet. Outgunned and out-ranged, no ship could escape the attack. The cruisers opened fire while remaining outside Yarra's range. Anking sank in less than 10 minutes with the loss of one officer and 25 ratings. The crew of MMS.51 took scuttling action and abandoned ship before close range pom-pom fire finally sent the vessel to the bottom. Francol took heavy punishment from a circling destroyer and remained afloat until 7.30am, almost one hour after the first attack. Yarra continued firing, despite listing heavily to port and drifting helplessly after shells destroyed the engine room and steering. Just minutes after Rankin gave the order to abandon ship he was killed when an 8-inch salvo destroyed the bridge. Blasted beyond recognition by constant shelling and bombing from the cruiser's aircraft, Yarra finally sank at 8.00am following a barrage of close-range fire from the destroyers. In a final act of defiance, Ronald Taylor ignored Rankin's final command, manned a 4-inch mount, and continued firing as the ship sank.

Survivors of HMS Stronghold, sunk two days earlier, looked on from the cruiser Maya. One man reported:

The Yarra was the only ship left afloat ... The two destroyers were circling Yarra which appeared to be stationary, and were pouring fire into her. She was still firing back as we could see odd gun flashes ... The last we saw of Yarra was a high column of smoke, but we were vividly impressed by her fight.

Perhaps the gun flashes they saw came from Taylor, still operating the only functional gun. The scene must have been even more poignant for Yarra's 34 survivors (from a complement of 151), who watched her last moments from two Carley floats. As the Japanese made off to the northeast a destroyer paused to collect one of two boats of survivors from Francol, but left more that 100 men scattered widely over the area. The other group of men was never heard of again.

That evening, in fading light, a passing Dutch vessel, Tawali, rescued 57 officers and ratings from Anking's life-boat, but failed to sight the other floats. Two days later on 7 March, a passing Dutch steamer Tjimanoek picked up the 14 survivors from MMS 51 and took them to Fremantle. Meanwhile, the men of the Yarra faired much worse. With just 9 litres of water and a tin of biscuits to share, the men set a course for Christmas Island, some 500 kilometres away. Of the 34 who survived attack, 21 perished on the rafts from wounds, exposure and thirst. Survivor Bill Witheriff recalled the experience: 'During those five days all except thirteen of us went either mad, died of exhaustion or [the] sharks had a meal ... .Poor old Charlie just couldn't take it and after three days went silly through drinking salt water and finally jumped over the side'.

On 9 March, the Dutch submarine KII, on her way to Ceylon, picked up the sloop's 13 survivors. Australia waited another two weeks before learning if there were any survivors from Yarra, when Admiral Geoffrey Layton of the Royal Navy signalled news of KII's arrival in Colombo. Writing to his family, Witheriff told of the excitement surrounding their arrival:

On arrival at Colombo we were local heroes and so we were well looked after by the authorities who could not do enough for us and after particulars being taken and cables forwarded to you we were sent to the Australian General Hospital to be looked after ... Here we found many friends, and nurses looked after us and waited on us ... and so you can see we are quite contented where we are and really don't want to leave.'

From the moment the crew of HMAS Yarra saw Admiral Kondo's squadron they must have known their ship was doomed. Rankin, all his officers, and most of his crew died defending the convoy they had been ordered to escort. Rankin had few options, but his decision to engage and not attempt to escape or surrender is widely regarded as one of the bravest acts in Australian naval history.

The loss of HMAS Yarra and her convey was certainly not the greatest loss suffered by the RAN during the Second World War, nor was it of great strategic significance. But for the RAN and the Australian public, the dramatic loss of Yarra confirmed the growing perception of the Japanese as a formidable and ruthless enemy. At that moment, Australia seemed more vulnerable and exposed than it did at any other time in the war. Like the bombing of northern Australia, the sinking of HMAS Yarra was one of many events in early 1942 that helped dispel the illusion of Australia's inviolability.

Sources and further reading:

[1] Chris Coulthard-Clark, The encyclopaedia of Australia's battles, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2001.
[2] Peter Dennis et al., The Oxford companion to Australian military history, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1995.
[3] G. Hermon Gill, Royal Australian Navy 1939-1942, Canberra, Australian War Memorial, 1957.
[4] A.F. Parry, HMAS Yarra: the story of a gallant ship, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1944.
[5] Greg Swindon, "Their Finest Hour": the story of Leading Seaman Ron Taylor and the loss of HMAS Yarra, 4 March 1942, Naval Historical Society of Australia, 1996.