- Letter Writer
- History - WW2, Letter to the Editor
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Sydney II
- June 1999 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
I have read with great interest the article by IHN in NHR Vol. 19-4 [Dec. 1998] and the letters in Vo1.20-1 [March 1999] re the sad loss of HMAS Sydney. Some Sydney members will remember a talk I gave about three years ago entitled ‘Q Ships in WWII – Service in HMS Botlea which was subsequently published as Monograph No.53. I take the liberty of quoting from that.
For the benefit of the uninitiated. Botlea was a coal burning tramp steamer, 5000 tons, and 7 knots with the wind behind you if you were lucky. When war broke out, she was taken over by the RN and fitted out as a classic ‘Q’ Ship. As well as the old DEMS 4″ gun on the poop, we had a single barrel 2 lb. pompom aft which could be hidden by a boat and 6 x 4″ concealed guns behind flaps in the shelter deck and inside the poop. But her main armament was 4 torpedo tubes located two each side of the ‘tween deck, on the waterline.
The incident which is the point of this letter occurred on the 25th January, 1940, as we approached Freetown. We were cruising as RFA Lambridge when we were challenged by the cruiser HMS Neptune. It went something like this;- “What ship?” – we replied with our call sign – “What is your secret war call sign? (IK)” – we sent it – then the same signals again – then “Not identified. Stop engines, stand by for boarding party.”
Most of the crew were under cover but a couple put a jumping ladder over the side and the Mate (the First Lieutenant) and I lounged around the foredeck in old civilian clothes waiting for them. Unfortunately, he knew the Boarding Officer and the midshipman in charge of the boat had been in the Worcester with me. So we both had to take cover and someone else escorted them to the bridge where the Captain decided to play the RFA role. In due course the boarding party were returned to Neptune, fully satisfied that we were what we pretended to be. In the meantime the Neptune was lying stopped, beam on, a quarter of a mile away with her main armament fore-and-aft and only one secondary gun battery manned. I have two photographs to prove that statement. We could have sunk her with no trouble at all. When we got to port, our Skipper reported this to the Admiral (FOCA?) who, we believe, gave Neptune a hell of a blast without identifying us.
I understand that that incident resulted in a CAFO issued by the Admiralty although I never saw it. But the lesson is clear. Neptune should have approached our stern, bows on and fully closed up until we had been identified. It is my belief that Sydney made the same mistake. I have great difficulty in believing that Kormoran had Straat Malakka‘s secret call sign – but if Sydney was satisfied with her response to the challenge, why would she continue to approach (presumably) to within torpedo range?
A.M. (Mike) Downer LCDR R.A.N.R. (S) (Ret’d)