HMAS Orara
Auxiliary Minesweeper
Scott of Kinghorn Ltd
9 October 1939
14 May 1945
Sold to the firm of AJ Ellerker, Sydney on 28 June 1946
Dimensions & Displacement
Displacement 1297 tons
Length 240 feet 3 inches
Beam 33 feet 9 inches
Draught 19 feet 9 inches
Speed 14 knots
Crew 6 officers and 76 sailors
  • 1 x 4-in
  • 2 Oerlikons
  • Machine uns

Orara was built in Kinghorn, Scotland by J Key & Son in 1907 as a passenger ship for the North Coast Steam Navigation Company of New South Wales. From January 1908 until 1911 she operated on the shipping route between Byron Bay and Sydney. She could carry up to 150 first class and 50 second class passengers as well as cargo. Orara then traded weekly between Sydney and Coffs Harbour and also conducted weekend day trips to Port Hacking and Broken Bay. The ship was named after the Orara River near Dorrigo, NSW which flows into the Clarence River. The name is derived from the Aboriginal term Urara meaning ‘where the perch live’.

Orara was requisitioned by the RAN on 12 September 1939, and commissioned at Melbourne on 9 October 1939 as an auxiliary minesweeper under the command of Lieutenant John Villiers Waterford Frizelle, RN. She became part of the 20th Minesweeping Flotilla (HMA Ships Yarra, Swan, Doomba and Orara) formed on 10 December 1939 and was based at Port Melbourne. Her crew was made up mainly of young RAN Reserve sailors mobilised for war service and a smattering of RAN senior ratings. Her officers were mainly ex-Merchant Navy officers in the RAN Reserve (Seagoing). Doomba and Orara conducted a sweep of the narrow waters off Wilson’s Promontory, on 11 January 1940, prior to the first convoy of 2nd AIF troops (Convoy US1) passing through on their way to the Middle East.

HMAS Orara continued to operate off the south eastern coast of Australia for the next four years conducting minesweeping operations and was also frequently used as a gunnery training ship for trainees from Flinders Naval Depot. Frizelle handed over command of Orara to Lieutenant Commander Charles John Stephenson, RAN on 1 February 1940. In early April 1940 she took part in a searching sweep, along with HMA Ships Swan and Yarra of the approaches to Hobart to ensure there were no mines there. This was prior to the arrival of the 83,673 ton troopship HMT Queen Elizabeth to embark 2nd AIF soldiers from Tasmania. During May-July 1940 Orara operated from Sydney before returning to Melbourne. Stephenson handed over command of the minesweeper to Lieutenant Commander James Gordon Stewart Fyfe, RANR (S) on 6 September 1940. Fyfe was to command the ship for the next three years.

During late October-early November 1940 the German commerce raider Pinguin, assisted by the captured Norwegian tanker Storstad, laid minefields off the Australian east coast from Newcastle in the north through to Hobart in the south. Pinguin then laid a minefield in the Spencer Gulf off Adelaide before sailing, undetected, into the Indian Ocean. The threat of mines was not discovered until late on 7 November when the steamer Cambridge struck a mine off Wilsons Promontory and sank. The steamer's lifeboats were successfully launched with all but one of her crew of 58 surviving the loss of the vessel.

HMAS Goorangai (foreground) and HMAS Orara (centre) alongside in Port Phillip Bay 1940. (Alan Green Collection)
HMAS Goorangai (foreground) and HMAS Orara (centre) alongside in Port Phillip Bay 1940. (Alan Green Collection)

Orara was first to arrive on the scene at 09:30 on 8 November and rescued the Cambridge survivors before landing them at Port Welshpool, Victoria. She then returned to South East Point, in company with HMAS Durraween, on 9 November and both ships commenced minesweeping operations. Within a few hours two German mines had been swept and destroyed by gunfire. Another merchant ship, the City of Rayville, was lost after striking a mine off Cape Otway on the evening of 8 November. With the discovery of this second minefield the Naval Board closed Bass Strait and advised of danger areas around Wilsons Promontory and Cape Otway. Sweeping operations by the 20th Minesweeping Flotilla continued for the next few months and a total of 10 German mines were located and destroyed. Many of the German mines were washed away by strong currents and either sank in deeper water or exploded when washed ashore.

During mid-December 1940 Orara and Swan were conducting minesweeping operations in South Australian waters to clear the mines laid by Pinguin. On the night of 22 December, off Kangaroo Island, Swan was displaying her coloured mine-sweeping lights from her mast and Fyfe, with the Christmas spirit in mind, signaled to Swan “May I hang my stocking on your Christmas tree?” The rapid response from Swan was “Yes. And I will shortly hang a sprig of mistletoe over my stern”.

Gunnery training on board HMAS Orara. (AWM)
Gunnery training on board HMAS Orara. (AWM)

Early January 1941 saw Orara operating from Hobart, Tasmania conducting searching sweeps for mines laid by Pinguin. She returned to Melbourne on 9 January and operated along the eastern seaboard for the rest of the year including deploying to Sydney in February-March 1941. She operated with HMA Ships Swan, Warrego, Goonambee, Samuel Benbow and Heros, conducting sweeping operations in the vicinity of Norah Head. Seven German mines, laid by Pinguin the year before, were swept, of which Orara was credited with three. This minefield claimed two vessels which were the coastal trader MV Nimbin sunk on 5 December 1940, off Norah Head with the loss of seven of her crew of 22, and the fishing trawler Millimumul sunk of Broken Bay on 26 March 1941. The trawler had snagged a mine in her net and this exploded as the net was hauled in and seven of her crew perished.

Cameraman on board HMAS Orara during minesweeping operations in Bass Strait 1941. (AWM)
Cameraman on board HMAS Orara during minesweeping operations in Bass Strait 1941. (AWM)

Orara also undertook searching sweeps off Port Kembla and Jervis Bay before returning to Hobart in April for more searching sweeps before completing a refit in Sydney during 19 June-12 August 1941. The minesweeper suffered her only wartime casualty on 24 August 1941 when, while returning to Melbourne, Scottish born Engine Room Artificer 4th Class John Gibb died while the ship was alongside at Port Welshpool. Gibb was returning on board when he fell from the gangway and was caught between the ship's side and the pier, dying from asphyxia. He was buried at Carr Villa General Cemetery in Hobart.

On 4 September while conducting sweeping operations in Bass Strait Orara sighted the light cruiser HMAS Sydney steaming westwards escorting the troopships Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth that were en route to Western Australia. In early November she sighted the elderly cruiser HMAS Adelaide escorting the troopship Zealandia to Western Australia as well. Service in Orara was arduous, but often during the war, the first notification of mines being laid by an adversary was when a ship is sunk. Searching sweeps of the main waterways off the east coast of Australia was a repetitive and time consuming task but essential in keeping the sea lines of communication open to trade and troop convoy movements. That thousands of ships sailed safely in Australian waters throughout the war is partly due to the hard work of the minesweepers and Orara played her part in keeping Bass Strait open to shipping.

Orara was involved in the recovery of a RAAF Wirraway training aircraft during 8-9 October, after it crashed into the waters off Swimashore Bay, Wilson’s Promontory. The Wirraway (A20-189) had crashed on 6 October 1941 while conducting a mock low level attack on troops ashore during a training exercise. The pilot, Pilot Officer Frederick Watchorn, was injured but survived, however the observer, Sergeant John Stuart Padman, was killed. Orara and Durraween were sent to recover the wreckage which was craned on board Orara on 8 October and offloaded in Melbourne the next day.

Recovery of the crashed Wirraway aircraft in October 1941. (RAAF)
Recovery of the crashed Wirraway aircraft in October 1941. (RAAF)

Coal fired boilers were Orara’s main source of providing steam to run her engines. This required frequent coaling to take place which was hard and arduous work for her crew. Additionally her engineers worked hard stoking the boilers and maintaining equipment that was over 30 years old. Time in port to conduct boiler cleaning was essential as well as repairs to her riveted hull which leaked constantly. On 13 December 1941 while the ship was in Melbourne a refrigeration pipe burst and Engineer Lieutenant Robert Hall Chambers RANR (S) and Engine Room Artificer 4th Class James Brown Cunningham were badly injured and hospitalised.

The 20th Minesweeping Flotilla concluded operations in late 1941, and despite Japanese submarines operating along Australia’s east coast in 1942-43, no enemy mining took place. Orara continued to operate as a minesweeper, in Victorian waters, throughout 1942-43 and conducted frequent exercises and searching sweeps in the vicinity of Wilsons Promontory. On 11 April 1943 an Anson bomber of No. 67 Squadron RAAF was escorting Convoy OC 86 when the convoy was attacked by the Japanese submarine I-26 off Cape Howe, near the New South Wales/Victorian border. The Yugoslav vessel Recina, carrying iron ore from Whyalla to Newcastle, was sunk. The next day patrolling Ansons sighted HMAS Orara and also sighted what they thought was a Japanese submarine nearby and attacked the target. The result was inconclusive and whether Orara was about to be attacked by a Japanese submarine is a matter of conjecture.

HMAS Orara continued to conduct sweeping operations in Bass Strait and, on 13 August 1943, she was called upon to help search for a man lost overboard from the corvette HMAS Echuca. The missing man, Able Seaman Ronald George Coates, was not found and this was a sobering reminder to Orara’s crew of the dangers and vagaries of the sea.

Orara undertook a refit at Williamstown, during October 1943 to mid-February 1944, for conversion to a mobile anti-submarine warfare (ASW) training ship. This would allow seagoing ASW personnel to undertake refresher training in the New Guinea area where access to training equipment and the latest techniques and procedures was limited. Lieutenant Commander George Frederick Edmund Knox, RAN (an ASW specialist) took command of Orara on 2 November 1943 for her new tasking. She left Melbourne on 18 February 1944 and steamed to Sydney.

HMAS Orara ship's company, circa 1943. (Private collection)

After training and workups for her crew in this new role she sailed from Sydney on 28 March and steamed north, via Cairns, to Milne Bay, New Guinea where she arrived on 13 April 1944. Orara operated in New Guinea waters for the next 8 months, conducting anti-submarine warfare training for Allied warships but also undertaking other duties including engineering support to smaller vessels and transport of stores, mail and personnel. Orara sailed to Port Moresby in late May and towed HDML 1074 part of the way. For her return journey to Milne Bay she was tasked with towing a concrete ammunition lighter carrying 300 depth charges, but the cargo shifted during the voyage and the lighter rolled over and sank en route.

During early July 1944, Orara sailed from Milne Bay to Madang and as well as her ASW training duties her crew assisted with the building of the new naval base there which was named HMAS Madang. Lieutenant Peter Salmon Colclough, DSC, RANVR assumed temporary command of Orara on 31 July 1944 when Lieutenant Commander Knox was detached for other duties. Knox resumed command of the ship on 21 September. The First Naval Member, Admiral Sir Guy Royle, KCB, CMG, RN conducted a visit to the ship on 30 October 1944 as part of his tour of RAN units in New Guinea waters.

In late November and December 1944 Orara transported personnel and stores to Langemak Bay, Finschafen, and Lae before returning to Milne Bay in early January 1945. She also had five changes of command during her last months in New Guinea. On 17 November 1944 Knox handed over command to Lieutenant Commander Douglas Winston Hodges RANR(S) but his time in command was brief, as he was appointed to the cruiser HMAS Shropshire. Hodges relinquished command to Lieutenant Commander George Ewart Vaughan Glyndwr Owen RANR (S) on 21 December and he in turn handed over to Lieutenant Colclough on 28 December. Finally, Colclough handed over command to Acting Lieutenant Commander Gordon Alexander Keith, RANR (S) on 7 January 1945.

HMAS Orara sailed from Milne Bay on 7 January 1945 and, after a brief port visit to Townsville to collect a fuel lighter, she arrived back in Sydney on 19 January 1945. She was not to sail again due to her poor materiel state. In his report of proceedings for November 1944, Lieutenant Commander Hodges had bluntly stated “The general condition of the hull and machinery is precisely that to be anticipated on a 37 years old ship - namely extremely well-worn, or to use the current vernacular she has ‘had’ it”. Orara commenced destoring and was placed in maintenance reserve on 30 April 1945. On 5 May Lieutenant Commander Keith handed over command to Lieutenant Gordon Alfred Ruddock, RANR who decommissioned the ship on 14 May 1945. During her wartime service Orara had steamed 7867 miles.

HMAS Orara, circa 1944.

Orara was to be returned to her owners but her design, age and the effect of her conversion by the RAN made her unsuitable for return to the coastal passenger service. As a result the Commonwealth bought her outright from her owners on 7 December 1945. Orara was sold by the Australian Government on 28 June 1946 to a Chinese shipping company based in Shanghai. Initially renamed Pearl River she became the Hong Shan in 1949 and was then sold in early 1950 to a Greek shipping company and renamed Santos. She remained operating in Chinese waters, during the Chinese Civil War, but ironically on 19 June 1950, while attempting to enter Shanghai, she struck a mine and sank.