After being sunk whilst serving in HMAS Canberra on the night of the 9th. of August 1942, I took several weeks to return from the scene of this battle in the Solomon Islands back to Australia.
Two weeks survivor's leave mostly taken up by rekitting my uniforms followed, ( I had leapt off the Canberra's burning upper deck onto the US destroyer Blue, clad only in a pair of overalls, socks and my boots, all my belongings going down with my ship) then I was appointed as a Watch Keeping Sub Lieutenant to the old light cruiser HMAS Adelaide, working in the Indian Ocean on escort work out of Fremantle in Western Australia.
I had not long settled into my new ship, when, on the 23rd. of November 1942, we sailed in company with the Dutch light cruiser Heemskerck, and three Merchant ships, all loaded with oil drilling equipment bound for Abadan.
Two days out, we were joined by the Tanker Goldmouth and HMA Corvettes, Cessnock and Toowoomba.
To further set this scene I need to go back in time to prewar, then onwards to the time under review.
The German motor vessel Ramses of 7,983 tons with a top speed of only 12 knots had been built in 1926, and left Hamburg on the 1st. of July, 1939 for Shanghai, where she arrived on the 25th. of August. With the declaration of war on the 3rd. of September 1939 - Ramses found herself stranded in the Far East, remaining at Shanghai until the 29th. of March 1941 when she sailed for Kobe in Japan.
In May 1941 she left Kobe for Darien where she loaded soya beans and rubber to sail for Valpariso on the 20th. of May. However, on the 27th. of June she was ordered to turn around and make for Yokahama, arriving there on the 30th. of July, to discharge all her cargo.
Ramses now remained at Yokahama, empty of any cargo, but now designated a prison ship for Allied prisoners who had been captured when their various ships had been sunk by German Armed Merchant Raiders prowling the oceans of the world.
At Yokahama, three scuttling charges, each with a time delay mechanism set to trigger in eight minutes were supplied and fitted by the Japanese.
Blockade Runner Cargo
In Japan, 4,200 tons of whale oil, 700tons of fish oil, 700 tons of lard, 50 tons of coconut oil, and 300 tons of tea were loaded in lower holds.
At last, Farewell to Japan. After languishing in the Far East for over three years, at long last Ramses finally cleared Yokahama on the 10th. of October 1942, bound for Batavia, via Kobeand Balikpapen in Borneo. At Balikpapen, the ship off loaded about 1,000tons of mixed cargo, including building materials consisting of fire bricks, timber fabricated for huts, nails, machinery, coal tar, bleaching powder, lubricatingoil, and some very important Beer.
Calling at Batavia was most important - the purpose, to load 4,000 tons of rubber, this product desperately short in Germany was allocated the highest cargo priority, it was to becarried even if other cargo had to be left behind. Finally, 1,500 cases of quinine were placed on board. Destination Bordeaux, France.
Ramses now sailed from Batavia on the 23rd. of November, bound for Bordeaux, the ship hoping to run the Blockade by maintaining a sharp lookout at all times. A constant lookout was set by three soldiers, and three seamen in each watch, thesewere located, one in the crow’s nest, one on each wing of the bridge, one forward, one aft, with the last man kept as a spare. All lookouts were given a powerful pair of binoculars, and there was a telephonic connection to both the crow’s nest and the lookout posted aft in the ship, and the helmsman always wore a telephone headset.
The armament on board was only light, it comprised two 20mm guns either side of the bridge, two machine guns on top of the Charthouse, and two British machine guns mounted aft. On the poop, was a large dummy wooden gun fitted on its wooden platform, this contraption had been added in Japan.
The crew aboard were not Naval, her Captain Falke was a Merchant Seaman, and the ship’s company were mainly German, but there were some Finns onboard. The only Service personnel were the gun crews, made up of fifteen Naval Gunners, one Lieutenant, and two Petty Officers.
Ramses’ orders laid down that she was to proceed from Raider to Raider in the Indian Ocean ( the ship expected to rendezvous with a Raider on either the 29th. or 30th. of November to embark further prisoners ex Merchant ships sunk by various German Armed Merchant Raiders.) On reaching the Atlantic Ocean, Ramses was expected to be passed from U-Boat to U-Boat, then, when approaching the European continent, the large Fulke - Wulf Condor aircraft would fly a protective screen over the Blockade Runner.
The crew had been promised a new Blockade-Running Medal, struck in the form of a chain, with a picture of Bremen breaking through to destroy the chain.
Action Stations aboard Adelaide
At 1416 on the 28th. of November, Adelaide’s masthead lookout reported smoke , 26 degrees on our starboard bow; soon after he reported two masts in view, then the top of a funnel. Two minutes later, the bridge personnel could see the tops of two masts (as a rough guide - one can see the square rootof the viewer’s height in feet above the sea’s surface, eg. if the bridge personnel are 64 feet above sea level - then they will pick up objects 8 miles away with the naked eye.) Adelaide altered course towards this unknown vessel and increased speed. At 1422, the ship turned away, and a few minutes later broadcast a distress message “RRR Taiyang followed by a suspicious vessel.” No trace of a vessel with that name could be found in any shipping publication that we carried on board. At 1450, we went to Action Stations, all guns of our main armament were trained to starboard onto this unknown ship. A further distress message was sent out on commercial wavelength at 1519, it was intercepted in Adelaide, and read: “ RRR Taiyang, still chased.”
By 1528 we were well placed on her beam to carry out a positive identification. Our Captain was ably assisted by Lieutenant J.W. Penney, his Navigating Officer who had served as a Mechant Navy Officer with experience of the construction details of many merchant ships. He quickly produced a photograph of the German ship Ramses from a pack of “ German Armoured Merchant vessels and Merchant vessels.” In all essential details this appeared to be the ship under observation, it was time for decisive action. Adelaide was 12,000 yards from Ramses, who, at this stage was flying a Norwegian Ensign. (Captain Esdaile was not going to be caught approaching this ship too close, as had done Captain Burnett in HMAS Sydney in November of 1941, to be sunk in a close encounter with the German Raider Kormoran, with the loss of Sydney’s entire crew of 635 Officers and Sailors.)
At 1536 Ramses was practically stopped and two boats were lowered on her port side. About eight minutes later an explosion was seen at her stern; the wind quickly blew this smoke so that it covered the whole port side, leaving only the masts and thetop of the funnel visible. Adelaide immediately opened fire, as did Heemskerck, by 1551.5 we ceased firing, and Ramses sank at 1552. The crew had abandoned ship, except for her Captain, the Officer in charge of the gun crews, and the Wireless Officer, all of whom were completing the extensive scuttling arrangements.
However, hits from Adelaide’s third salvo quickly hastened their departure. As Ramses slipped slipped beneath the sea, her main 6 inch armament, the wooden gun, together with its wooden platform gently floated off, and we suddenly realised just why we had not been subjected to fire from this source!
Heemskerck was ordered to rejoin the convoy, whilst we busied ourselves with picking up survivors, seventy eight crew, (now prisoners of war) ten Norwegian Seamen, their ship sunk by a German Armed Merchant Raider, (now free men once more) a pig, and a dog. How ones’ luck may quickly change with the vagries of war!
My most vivid memoryof this action, was the sight of some of our seamen who suddenly stopped hauling in German survivors, to rescue both the pig and the dog before them, indicating their priority in this rescue operation. I became most attached to this dog, but after our arrival at Fremantle, we disembarked both the Norwegians and the Germans, and Australian Quarantine Officers insisted on destroying the dog, to ensure that no disease was imported into the country. I was saddened.
Our sharp lookout had located Ramses - quick identification sealed her fate, the combination of scuttling charges and accurate Allied gun fire prevented a valuable cargo reaching Germany, ten Norwegians were freed to fight again, and for seventy-eight Germans the war had ended.