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Bathurst Class Corvettes

The Bathurst Class Corvettes were general purpose vessels built in Australia, and to an Australian design, during World War II. Sixty corvettes were built in all. Thirty six were constructed for the Royal Australian Navy, 20 were built on British Admiralty orders but manned and commissioned by the RAN, and 4 served in the Royal Indian Navy. Three more were ordered for construction in India, but were later canceled.


Corvettes Remembrance Plaque

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Just before the war, in February 1938, the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board (ACNB) decided that we needed a general purpose 'local defence vessel' that was capable of both anti-submarine and mine-warfare duties, and yet was easy to construct and operate. In July 1938, the RAN's Director of Engineering, Rear Admiral P. E. McNeil, was instructed to prepare plans for such a ship, with a displacement of approximately 500 tons, a speed of at least 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph), and a range of 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 km; 2,300 mi).

McNeil completed his drawings in February 1939; his design was for a 680-ton vessel, with a speed of 15.5 knots (28.7 km/h; 17.8 mph), and a range of 2,850 nautical miles (5,280 km; 3,280 mi). This increase in size and speed meant the design was more versatile than originally envisioned. Each was fitted with a triple expansion steam engine (usually fabricated by railway workshops) to drive two propellers.

The prototype was designed to be armed with a 4-inch gun, be equipped with asdic (underwater active sound detection apparatus, or more simply electronic submarine detection equipment), and either depth charges or minesweeping equipment depending on the nature of the operations they would undertake. While not perfectly suited for any specific role, it had an all-round general capability for minesweeping, anti-submarine warfare, patrol, and escort duties, and was seen as a good short-term solution until better vessels could be requisitioned or constructed.

Designation and pennant numbers

The ships were officially designated "Australian Minesweepers" (AMS) to hide their intended anti-submarine role, although the Bathurst's were popularly referred to as corvettes. The Bathurst Class ships were assigned up to three different pennant numbers during the course of their career. With the exception of HMAS Ararat (K34), all of the Bathurst Class corvettes were given numbers with the 'J' flag superior, designating them as minesweepers. (A flag superior is the letter that precedes the particular ship's number, and identifies the class of vessel.) Ships of the class that served with the British Pacific Fleet, like many other ships serving with the fleet, had their pennant numbers changed to ones with a 'B' flag superior. At the end of World War II, a reorganization of the pennant system saw the Bathurst's given new numbers with 'M' as the flag superior, which was the new designator for minesweepers.


In September 1939, the ACNB approved the first seven to the 60 ships that would eventually be built. Construction of the ships required a significant expansion of the Australian shipbuilding industry. This was achieved by bringing disused dockyards back into production and establishing new facilities. The lead shipyard was Cockatoo Island Dockyard in Sydney, which laid down the first ship, HMAS Bathurst, in February 1940, and went on to produce a further seven vessels. The other seven shipyards involved were Walkers Limited in Maryborough, Queensland, who also built seven, Evans Deakin & Co in Brisbane, eleven ships, Morts Dock & Engineering Co in Sydney, fourteen ships, Poole & Steel in Sydney seven ships, State Dockyard at Newcastle, New South Wales built one ship, HMA Naval Dockyard at Williamstown, Victoria built eight, and Broken Hill Pty Co Ltd at Whyalla, South Australia constructed four. Each ship cost approximately AŁ250,000 to build.

The initial rate of construction was slow due to a variety of factors: prioritization of Admiralty orders, delays in equipment delivery from overseas, industrial problems, a lack of qualified labour, and the difficulty of naval overseers in supporting all eight shipyards at once being primary among them. The initial prediction was that two vessels per month would enter service through 1941, but by June 1940, only five of the seventeen that had been ordered had actually been laid down, and the RAN was advised only seven would be completed by December 1940.

Rate of construction increased by late 1941, although the increasing need of shipbuilding resources for repairs as the war progressed slowed the rate of construction back down again. Armament and equipment.  The most common armament for Bathurst Class was a 12-pounder gun or a 4-inch Mark XIX high-angle gun, three Oerlikon 20 mm cannons, two Lewis .303 machine guns, and two .303 Vickers machine guns. The corvettes carried up to 40 depth charges, which were deployed by 4 throwers and 2 chutes.

Due to the variety of shipyards constructing the corvettes, as well as the varying roles the Bathurst's were pressed into, there was no true standardization of armament. Some ships varied significantly from the common armament profile, while an individual ship's weapons outfit could vary significantly for different periods of her career. HMAS Geraldton initially carried a twelve pounder and three 20 mm Oerlikon cannons, but this was increased to six Oerlikon, and then later reduced to four. By comparison, the outfit of HMAS Junee consisted of a 4-inch gun and a single 40 mm anti-aircraft gun only.

Many of the 12-pounder carrying corvettes were refitted with the heavier 4-inch during their service life, while one of the Oerlikons was often replaced with a Bofors 40 mm gun.

The Bathurst's were equipped with modified Type 128 asdic equipment, redesigned to be used without a gyroscopic stabilizer; however, minesweeping equipment varied across the class: ships equipped with the newer 'LL' minesweeping gear were distributed as evenly as possible throughout major Australian ports.

Those Bathurst's equipped with the 4-inch main gun were primarily allocated to northern waters, because of the increased air threat, and the greater anti-aircraft capabilities of the 4-inch gun when compared to the 12-pounder .

Role in World War II

The two main purposes the ships were intended for were minesweeping and anti-submarine escort, however, the corvettes found themselves performing a wide range of duties, including troop and supply transport, bombardment, assault landings support, survey and hydrography mapping, and providing aid to disabled ships. The Bathurst's were seen as 'maids of all work' by the RAN, even though the design was inappropriate for some roles; being too small, too slow, or inadequately armed or equipped for the tasks they were given. It was not until March 1943 that sufficient ships were available to take the individual variations and capabilities of the Bathurst's into account: prior to this they were the first, and often only vessel available.

The local defence role and that of ocean-going escort are two entirely separate, and often conflicting, roles. To make things worse, Bathurst's based in Australia were under two different controllers for the first part of the Pacific War. Operationally they were under the US Navy's Naval Commander South West Pacific Area Forces (COMSOUWESTPAC), and administratively they were under the Naval Officer In Charge (NOIC) of the ship's homeport.

Following multiple incidents where a ship would be assigned to two different tasks simultaneously. Conflicts between local needs, escort schedules, and maintenance requirements; led to protests from the NOIC's in Fremantle and Darwin, and so the Australian-based corvettes were then placed completely under NOIC control in May 1942. Instead of directly assigning ships to convoys, the American commander would indicate that ships would be needed from a particular port for escort duties, leaving the Australian Naval Officer In Charge of that port free to allocate his available ships.

In the early part of their war service, Bathurst's were involved in the evacuation of several locations which fell to the initial Japanese advance, and in the transportation of supplies and reinforcements to Australian and Dutch guerrilla operations in Timor. HMAS Armidale was the only ship of the class destroyed by enemy action; she was sunk by torpedoes from Japanese aircraft on the afternoon of 1 December 1942 while transporting personnel of the Netherlands East Indies Army to Betano, Timor.

The Bathurst's were involved in several attacks on submarines during the war. On 20 January 1942, Japanese submarine I-124 was sunk outside Darwin. This, the first RAN kill of a full-size submarine, was credited to HMAS Deloraine, with sister ships Katoomba and Lithgow assisting. On 11 September 1943, HMAS Wollongong assisted in the destruction of German submarine U-617. On 11 February 1944, the corvettes Ipswich and Launceston, along with the Indian sloop HMIS Jumna, were responsible for the sinking of Japanese submarine RO-110 in the Bay of Bengal.

In November 1942, an Indian Bathurst, HMIS Bengal, along with the Dutch tanker Ondina that she was escorting, engaged and sank the Japanese commerce raider Hōkoku-Maru, and drove off her sister ship Aikoku Maru.

In early 1943, HMA Ships Benalla and Shepparton were modified to serve as hydrographic survey ships. These corvettes were assigned to Task Group 70.5 of the United States Seventh Fleet, and were used to survey waters prior to several amphibious landings during the war.

Eight corvettes were deployed to the Mediterranean in May 1943. Their anti-aircraft armament made them appropriate for escort duties during the Allied invasion of Sicily.

A month later, four Bathurst's were part of an eight-ship escort for a 40-strong convoy to Gibraltar when it was attacked by 50 German torpedo bombers; the corvettes' air defence destroyed nine aircraft, and only two merchant ships received damage. During their time in the Mediterranean, several corvettes reached the Atlantic Ocean.

In early 1945, eighteen Bathurst Class corvettes were assigned to the British Pacific Fleet (BPF). Eight of these ships cleared Victoria Harbour of mines between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon before the BPF arrived in Hong Kong at the end of the Japanese occupation; and three ships, Ballarat, Cessnock, and Ipswich were present in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese Instrument of Surrender was signed.

Only three Bathurst Class Corvettes were lost during World War II. As well as Armidale that I have mentioned above, two other ships were lost following collisions with United States merchant vessels while on convoy escort duty: the HMAS Wallaroo in June 1943, and HMAS Geelong in October 1944, while a fourth, HMAS Warrnambool, struck a friendly mine while sweeping the Great Barrier Reef after the war in 1947.

Conditions on board

Despite their excellent service record, all was not well on these ships. Over 20,000 personnel served on a Bathurst Class ships during the war. The early ships were primarily manned by reservists, and the majority of the 'Hostilities Only' personnel recruited during the war served on a Bathurst Class vessel at sometime during their career. Each ship's company varied in size: the standard complement was 85[citation needed], including 6 commissioned and 12 to 13 non-commissioned officers.

Sailors were accommodated in ten-man mess-decks, which were small, poorly lit rooms that were perpetually damp from seawater and sweat. In anything but calm weather, hatches and portholes would have to be closed: sunlight and fresh air was a rarity inside the hull. Because of these conditions, high rates of sickness (particularly pneumonia and tuberculosis) were experienced. Officers slept in cabins with bunks (as opposed to hammocks), and ate and relaxed in each ship's wardroom, complete with bar and steward service. The difference in conditions between officers and sailors prompted tensions between these two groups.

The poor working and living conditions aboard the ships, combined with the heavy and often difficult workloads, led to mutinous acts aboard four ships during the war: Toowoomba, Lithgow, Geraldton, and Pirie. The incidents in Gerald ton and Lithgow were minor and resolved without disciplinary charges, while the 'mutiny' aboard Toowoomba was caused by a lack of communication. After a hard day loading supplies, the sailors did not respond to an order to assemble on the quarterdeck as they felt they had laboured enough that day, but changed their mind when informed that the order to assemble was so the captain could thank them for their efforts, and reward them with drinks.

However, the Pirie mutiny was far more serious: the ship's company were unable to respect their commanding officer, who was an ineffective leader but an overly strict disciplinarian with a superiority complex. This lack of respect was compounded while repairs were made to the corvette following an air attack off Oro Bay in April 1943, when the captain forced the rest of the company to live aboard, while he took residence at a hotel. A lack of pay, mail, and shore leave contributed to the sailors' frustration, and in response, 45 junior sailors refused to report for duties on 9 May until they could present their grievances to the commander. In response, he had the ship surrounded by armed guards and disabled the main gun. A Board of Inquiry failed to identify any ringleaders, and the problem was handed back to Pirie's commander to solve as he saw fit: fourteen men were charged with mutiny, with ten sent to prison. Relationships between commander and company did not improve until he was replaced at the end of 1943 for his botched handling of the event.


After the war, the 20 Admiralty-owned vessels were disposed of; five to the Turkish Navy, eight to the Royal Netherlands Navy, and one to China, with the rest converted and sold for civilian use or broken up for scrap, while several RAN-owned vessels were transferred to the Royal New Zealand Navy, temporarily reactivated to facilitate National Service Training, or sold to civilians. Four of the Netherlands Bathurst's were sold onward to the Indonesian Navy, one of these, HMAS Ipswich, renamed KRI Hang Tuah, was bombed and sunk on 28 April 1958 by a CIA-operated Douglas B-26 Invader, operating in support of Permesta rebels opposed to the Guided Democracy in Indonesia established the previous year. The rest of the RAN and Admiralty ships were sold for scrap to help fund other projects. Two vessels are preserved as museum ships.

After the war, of the 33 surviving RAN vessels, twelve were formed into the 20th Minesweeping Flotilla and tasked with clearing minefields deployed during the war in the waters of Australia, New Guinea, and the Solomons. Several ships were also used to transport soldiers and liberated prisoners of war.
The corvettes were then placed in operational reserve, with the intention that they be reactivated for escort work in the event of another war or international crisis. Most were sold off during the 1950's, to help offset the cost of acquiring and operating two aircraft carriers.

Four corvettes Colac, Cowra, Gladstone, and Latrobe were recommissioned in 1951 as training vessels for the National Service Program. Junee was reactivated in 1953 for the same purpose. The RAN component of the program ended in 1957.

The last ship to leave RAN service was HMAS Wagga on 28 October 1960. This gradual loss of minesweeping-capable ships would not rectified until late 1962, when the RAN purchased six Ton-class minesweepers from the Royal Navy.

The 56 corvettes commissioned as Australian vessels travelled a combined total of 6,700,000 nautical miles (12,400,000 km; 7,700,000 mi) during their service with the RAN; and a total of 83 personnel were killed in service across the entire service life of the class. Surviving examples and monuments to the 60 vessels, only two examples remain. HMAS Castlemaine is a museum ship in Williamstown, Victoria and HMAS Whyalla is a land-based tourist attraction in Whyalla, South Australia.

A monument to the 56 Australian-operated corvettes is located at the Royal Australian Navy Heritage Centre, at Garden Island, Sydney. The monument, Corvettes, was unveiled by Rear Admiral Peter Sinclair on 12 November 1995. Also at Garden Island, Sydney, a stained glass window listing the names of the corvettes frames the upper balcony doors of the Naval Chapel.