- Rowell, J and Richmond, C
- Ship histories and stories, WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Cape Leeuwin
- March 1976 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The Cape Leeuwin was built by Cockatoo Docks & Engineering Co. in 1925 for the lighthouse service. Commissioned in 1943 she served in New Guinea and the Philippines. She was paid off in 1963 and acquired by Asiatic owners and renamed Ruby.
UNLESS SOMETHING UNFORESEEN HAPPENS it would appear that the grand old ship SS Cape Leeuwin has completed her last itinerary for this Service. It is therefore most appropriate that at least a brief mention of her most important and dangerous yet least known activities appear in these pages at this time.
Most if not all of our readers know of the part played by the Cape Leeuwin in the preservation and safety of life at sea since the 1920s, but how few realise that during the darkest days of World War II she rose to her greatest heights as HMAS Cape Leeuwin. What you are about to read is by no means the complete story of HMAS Cape Leeuwin, but the following account of a few incidents which are quite authentic has been compiled from ‘Smoko’ recollections heard from members of her crew from time to time.
Her main role was the important mission of the restoration of navigational aids to assist allied warship commanders in the island to island campaign during the general retreat of the enemy forces. For these measures to be fully effective it was necessary for the Cape Leeuwin to operate close to the scene of activities, mostly unescorted. During similar service her American counterpart was severely damaged. In activities of this type it will be realised that the front is fluid and whether the vessels contacted were Allied or enemy was anybody’s guess.
On one such occasion whilst on her way to Mindanao, in the Philippines, after rounding a headland, imagine the excitement when a destroyer was reported approaching at speed from the opposite direction. The Leeuwin was very lightly armed, mainly antiaircraft, but with her crew at action stations and after what seemed to be an eternity, the vessel was identified as an American. The destroyer manoeuvred alongside and her Captain inquired the Leeuwin’s destination. On being informed, he voiced his own opinion of the idea, but our Skipper-Captain Buxton, said those were his orders, so the American vessel turned about and acted as escort.
Later a light was to be re-established on what is understood to be Siargoa Is. and on arrival no definite advice was to hand indicating that the island was actually in Allied hands. After some delay a party proceeded ashore and the job of restoring the light began. To give further indication to the close proximity of enemy forces, whilst the job was in progress the shore party observed Allied aircraft circling and then peeling off and strafing nearby islands. Shortly afterwards, to their surprise the circling aircraft dived and strafed them. It is believed that new records were established in descent and taking to the bush.
A second attempt to work on the light brought about a repetition of the strafing and not until the Allied Forces were contacted and convinced that the shore party was quite friendly was the work able to be completed.
At Manila, after having done considerable work in a bomb-damaged building erecting a navigation aid, the work party was stopped on leaving by a surprised Allied Military Policeman. He demanded to know what was going on and after being informed, it was then the work party’s turn to be surprised when informed that they had been working on top of an unexploded bomb.
Whilst in harbour in the Leyte area the Leeuwin had perhaps her narrowest escape. The harbour was crowded with all types of Allied shipping which were subjected to a heavy bombing attack. A plane actually passed low over the ship and crashed into motor torpedo boats nearby, causing great damage. One bomb landed close to the Leeuwin’s stern and lifted the ship literally out of the water, but to the relief of the crew she came down in one piece.