The sloop HMAS Yarra was launched at the Cockatoo Dockyard, Sydney, on 28 March 1935 and commissioned on 21 January 1936. Displacing 1,080 tons, she was 81.1 metres long with a beam of 11 metres. She was armed with three 4-inch anti aircraft guns, four 3-pounder guns, a quadruple .5-inch anti aircraft machine-gun, and depth charges. She had a speed of 16.5 knots and a complement of 151.
Yarra's initial war service was in Australian waters, on patrol and escort duties. She was commanded by Lieutenant Commander W. H. Harrington, RAN, who was eventually to become Vice Admiral Sir Hastings Harrington, CBE, DSO, RAN, Chief of Naval Staff, 1962-65. In August 1940 she left for the Middle East where she was used on patrol and escort duties. In April 1941 she escorted a convoy from Bombay to the Persian Gulf where she took part in campaigns against Iraq and Iran. This was followed by service in the Mediterranean in November-December 1941.
With the outbreak of war with Japan, Yarra left the Mediterranean for Javanese waters, arriving in January 1942. She carried out escort and patrol duties and on 5 February performed a particularly fine piece of rescue work when she took 1800 survivors off the burning troopship Empress of Asia. On 11 February Harrington was relieved by Lieutenant Commander R. W. Rankin, RAN.
On 27 February orders were given to clear all remaining British auxiliary craft from Batavia (now Jakarta). About midnight Yarra and the Indian sloop HMIS Jumna sailed escorting a convoy to Tjilatjap. Arriving off Tjilatjap at 11 am on 2 March, the ships were warned not to enter harbour. The Yarra was ordered to take the convoy, which consisted of the depot ship Anking, the tanker Francol and the motor minesweeper MMS 51, to Fremantle while the Jumna sailed for Colombo. No time was to be lost, as powerful Japanese forces were known to be operating in the waters south of Java.
Steaming steadily south east at an average speed of 8.5 knots, the Yarra and her convoy made steady progress during the night of 2-3 March. Except for a faintly discerned shadowing aircraft sighted in the evening, there was no sign of the enemy. On the morning of the third two lifeboats were sighted. From these, Yarra picked up a number of exhausted survivors of the Dutch merchant ship Parigi, sunk by the Japanese two days earlier.
At 6.30 am on 4 March, as the sun rose the lookout in Yarra sighted the unmistakable topmasts of a Japanese heavy cruiser squadron to the north-east. The squadron consisted of Atago, Takao and Maya, each armed with ten 8-inch guns, and two destroyers. Immediately Lieutenant Commander Rankin made a sighting report, ordered the ships of convoy to scatter and, placing his ship between them and the enemy, laid smoke and prepared to engage. Yarra was outgunned and out-ranged, and the enemy ships were faster. Against such odds her task was hopeless, yet she kept fighting even as her convoy was overwhelmed and sunk, ship by ship.
Anking, which was carrying many RAN personnel was sunk first. Overwhelmed by many hits she was despatched in ten minutes. By then Yarra was on fire and listing heavily to port but still shooting. MMS 51 was on fire and was put down shortly after by a hail of close range automatic gunfire from one of the cruisers. The Francol took more punishment and still remained afloat, finally succumbing at about 7.30. Yarra, shattered by numerous hits, was the last to go. Soon after 8.00 am, Rankin ordered that the ship be abandoned. Minutes later he was killed when an 8-inch salvo hit the bridge. Leading Seaman R. Taylor, manning the last remaining gun, kept on firing until he too was killed, and the Yarra's guns fell silent. Her end, which came after close-range shelling by the two Japanese destroyers, was witnessed by 34 survivors on two rafts. All, except the Dutch captain of Parigi, were naval ratings.
When Yarra sank, the Japanese made off to the north-east after picking up one boatload of survivors from Francol. A collection of boats, rafts and floats was left scattered over a wide area of sea. Towards evening, a passing Dutch vessel, Tawali, rescued 57 officers and men from Anking. However, in spite of frantic signals, she failed to sight two Carley floats, which held 14 men from MMS 51. For the next two and a half days they drifted about until picked up by the Dutch steamer Tjimanjoek on 7 March. Meanwhile Yarra's men, their numbers sadly reduced by wounds, exposure, and thirst, continued to drift helplessly. On 9 March 13 of the sloop's ratings were picked up by the Dutch submarine KlL. Of the complement of 151, 138 (including the captain and all officers) were killed in the action or died subsequently on the raft.
G Herman Gill, Royal Australian Navy, 1939–1942, Australia in the Wwr of 1939–1945, Series 2 - Navy, vol. 1, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1957