Birchgrove Park

J. Lewis and Sons Aberdeen, Scotland
22 August 1941
Dimensions & Displacement
Length 46.7 metres
Beam 10.4 metres
Draught 3.2 metres
Speed 10 knots
Crew 35 Officers and Sailors
Machinery Single Screw. Triple expansion steam engine developed 558 IHP
Guns 1 x 12 pounder gun, 2 x Oerlikon 20mm guns, 1 x .303 Vickers machine gun

Birchgrove Park was a 640 ton collier built by J. Lewis and Sons of Aberdeen, Scotland, for Robert W. Miller & Co. Pty Ltd. The company operated a number of colliers, tugs, lighters and punts moving coal, blue metal and other heavy materiel to and from Sydney. The vessel was named after a park in Balmain, NSW. She arrived in Sydney in January 1931 and was soon operating along the coast from Newcastle in the north to Bulli in the south carrying coal to Sydney. On occasions she steamed as far south as Kiama to collect blue metal (gravel) for delivery to Sydney.

On 9 May 1941, she was requisitioned by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) for conversion to an auxiliary minesweeper. HMAS Birchgrove Park was commissioned on 22 August 1941 under the command of Lieutenant John Henry Fewings, RANR (S) and became part of Mine Sweeping Group 50. She was fitted with a 12 pounder gun, two Oerlikon 20mm guns, a .303 Vickers machine gun and depth charges. She carried the identifying letters BP on her bow which helped identify the plethora of ‘ships taken up from trade’ that served in the RAN during World War II. The ex-collier was found to be unsuitable for minesweeping duties and in 1942 was converted to a stores carrier. Her complement consisted of four officers, five senior sailors and 26 ratings.

In August 1943 Birchgrove Park arrived in Port Moresby, under the command of Lieutenant Commander George Henry Roulston, RANR and for the next two years operated in New Guinea waters delivering stores to Australian units in various ports. She suffered her only war time casualty when Engine Room Artificer 4th Class Ian Farquharson died from Malaria, at Madang, on 29 December 1944. He was subsequently buried in Lae War Cemetery. 

In early 1945 Birchgrove Park returned to Sydney and on 4 April 1945 she was decommissioned. She was re-commissioned on 25 July 1945, as a tender to HMAS Madang, and returned to stores carrying duties in New Guinea waters. Lieutenant Commander Roulston was once again in command.

Following the Japanese surrender in September 1945, Birchgrove Park took part in the post war re-occupation of Ambon (Netherlands East Indies). She joined the landing ship infantry HMAS Westralia and the corvette HMAS Glenelg who were embarking Australian prisoners of war which had survived captivity. It was here Birchgrove Park suffered her second fatal casualty when Petty Officer Walter Near was badly burned in an incident on board. He died from his injures on 12 October 1945 and was subsequently buried at Ambon War Cemetery. 

Rare image of Birchgrove Park displaying her unique marking; BP. (Frost Collection)
Rare image of Birchgrove Park displaying her unique pennant letters BP. (Frost Collection)
HMAS Birchgrove park underway while in service with the RAN.
HMAS Birchgrove park underway while in service with the RAN.

In December 1945 Birchgrove Park decommissioned for the last time and on 20 February 1946 was returned to her owners; R.W. Miller & Co. Pty Ltd. Thereafter she resumed her regular Newcastle to Sydney (Sixty Miler) run carrying coal for use in Sydney’s power stations. By early 1956 her condition had deteriorated and she was expected to soon be scrapped. However this was not to be.

At 1.45 pm on 1 August 1956, Birchgrove Park left Newcastle, with a crew of 14, under the command of her master; Laurence Lynch. The vessel had a slight list to port but the weather was fine and sea conditions were calm. No weather change was predicted for more than twelve hours; however soon after leaving Newcastle a southerly buster struck.

Waves began washing over the deck and the cargo holds, covered only by tarpaulins, began to fill with water. Despite efforts by her crew to stop the ingress of water, the holds continued to fill and the list to port became more pronounced. By midnight Birchgrove Park was off Broken Bay and waves were still crashing over her deck. Rather than seek the relative shelter of Broken Bay, Lynch decided to push on to Sydney despite the fact that water was now also entering the ship via corroded steampipes and forecastle vents. At 2 am her engine room crew advised the master that the boiler room was filling with water and that it would soon flood the boilers and disable the ship.

Captain Lynch ordered the crew on deck and began preparing the lifeboats for launching but this was impossible due to the colliers list to port. An SOS was sent by signal lamp to the South Head Signal Station but the collier’s wireless messages were not received. At 2.45 am Birchgrove Park rolled over and sank. The crew were now in the water, at night in bad weather and their prospects for survival were slim. One of the ships lifeboats was found and three men clambered on board although one later died from exhaustion and exposure.

Several vessels, including the corvette HMAS Wagga and the British submarine HMS Thorough (based in Sydney) were soon searching the area off the coast where Birchgrove Park had sunk. Two RAAF Neptune maritime patrol aircraft also joined the search and later spotted wreckage in the water and dropped flares to alert the searching ships. Wagga responded to one of the flares and found Able Seaman Kenneth Fabian barely alive clinging to wreckage. HMS Thorough later found 2nd Engineer Joseph Butler, also clinging to wreckage, and close to death. The lifeboat with its two survivors (Leading Fireman Erl Olsen and Able Seaman Neil Stuart) was washed ashore south of Sydney later in the day. 

Ten of the crew of Birchgrove Park perished as a result of her sinking, but only eight bodies were eventually recovered. In 1965 the wreck of Birchgrove Park was located in 51 metres of water eight kilometres South-East of Barrenjoey Head (Broken Bay).

Birchgrove Park served in the RAN from 1941 to 1945. Tragically, she was lost at sea in 1956.
Birchgrove Park served in the RAN from 1941 to 1945. Tragically, she was lost at sea in 1956.
A cap ribbon of the type worn by ratings serving in HMAS Birchgrove Park
A cap ribbon of the type worn by ratings who served in HMAS Birchgrove Park