Hospital Ship Grantala

Hospital Ship Grantala
Armstrong Whitworth Company
Restored to original configuration and returned to owners early 1915. Later sold to Red Funnel Shipping Company, Figuig. On-sold to Compagnie Générale Transatlantique in 1920 and used on passenger run between Marseilles and Algiers. Broken up for scrap in Italy, 1934.
SS Grantala (State Library of Victoria).
SS Grantala (State Library of Victoria).

Grantala was a hospital ship operated briefly by the Royal Australian Navy during World War I. She was built by Armstrong Whitworth Company at their shipyard in Newcastle upon Tyne for the Adelaide Steamship Company and launched in 1903. She arrived in Sydney, from London, on 10 March 1904 and operated as a passenger steamer on Australian coastal runs, and was capable of carrying 225 passengers.

Wood engravings depicting the Grantala and the badge of the Adelaide Steamship Company (State Library of Victoria).

Grantala (Allan C Green, State Library of Victoria).

She was requisitioned by the RAN on 7 August 1914 at a cost of £1450 per month to become Australia's first hospital ship and the only RAN hospital ship of World War I. She was not commissioned, retained most of her civilian crew of about 80, and remained under the command of her master - Captain RE Brissenden. She was fitted out at Cockatoo Island Dockyard and Garden Island, her conversion to a hospital ship taking 17 days. Grantala was painted white overall with a green horizontal band along her hull and a prominent red cross on each side. She was allocated Hospital Ship number VIII.

Hospital Ship Grantala. Note the white paint scheme and number VIII.

Acting Fleet Surgeon William Horsfall supervised the conversion and, using his knowledge from service in HM Hospital Ship Maine and the US hospital ship Solace, he ensured practical structural alterations were made to allow for the proper functioning of the medical facilities. A large quantity of hospital ship stores had been transferred by the Royal Navy to the RAN in 1913 and stored at Garden Island. This included iron swing cots, blankets, sheets, hospital crockery, drugs, dressings and a complete hospital laundry. This enabled Grantala to be fitted out quite quickly.

The passenger saloons were cleared of all furniture and fitted with iron cots and became the main wards. Cabin doors were removed and the cabins fitted to accommodate two patients each. Another two cabins were padded to hold patients with mental illness while the upper decks were fitted with iron cots and screens for patients with tuberculosis; a common illness in warships at the time. An infectious diseases ward was built on the poop deck and an x-ray room and laundry were also installed.

On completion of the work Grantala had the capacity to carry up to 300 patients. Horsfall also oversaw the recruiting and training of her 60 medical staff. Recruiting commenced on 16 August with the last member of the medical staff joining the ship on the 29th. The staff included seven surgeons, a chaplain (the Reverend Charles Hudson from Williamstown Naval Depot), 23 sick berth stewards (mainly from the NSW Ambulance Brigade in Sydney), a dispenser (pharmacist), radiographer, pathologist, an operating room assistant and a laundryman.

Seven nurses were also recruited from the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital becoming the first women to be enlisted in the RAN and each was allocated a ratings service number. They were:

(4839)  Matron Sarah Melanie De Mestre
(4840)  Sister Florence Elizabeth McMillan
(4841)  Sister Stella Lillian Colless
(4842)  Sister Rachel Clouston
(4843)  Sister Constance Margaret Neale
(4844)  Sister Bertha Ellen Burtinshaw
(4845)  Sister Rosa Angela Kirkcaldie

Nine other men with specialist skills were recruited to augment the ship's crew; a master at arms and two ships corporals (to maintain good order and discipline), two leading carpenters, a staff clerk, a yeoman of signals (for communication with warships) and two able seaman to operate the ship's two recently acquired motor boats.

Grantala departed Sydney on 30 August 1914 and steamed north to Townsville. She sailed from there on 8 September and went directly to Rabaul where she arrived on the 13th, thus missing the fighting on 11 September which resulted in six dead and a dozen wounded amongst the men of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF). Her arrival at Rabaul was somewhat dramatic as she had been spotted by the destroyer HMAS Yarra approaching Blanche Bay (on which Rabaul is situated) and was mistaken for a German vessel. Yarra put a shot across her bow and then, after confirming the ship's identity, allowed her to proceed.

After anchoring off Rabaul, Grantala began treating the wounded, sick and injured from the ANMEF and German forces, the fleet (including 20 sailors from the French warship Montcalm with gastroenteritis) and attached auxiliary vessels. One patient, a young seaman with a badly fractured leg, spent 58 days on board before being returned to his ship. Some of Grantala's crew became patients as well.

Left: The battle cruiser HMAS Australian and light cruiser HMAS (ex HMS) Encounter, the submarine HMAS AE2, Hospital Ship Grantala, French armoured cruiser Montcalm, collier, oilers and store ship Aorangi in Suva harbour (J03240 - Australian War Memorial). Right: Bringing sick on board the Hospital Ship Grantala (C04843 - Australian War Memorial).

By the first week of October the Australian naval forces began to disperse with some ships returning to Australia. Others moved eastwards to Suva, Fiji, where Vice Admiral George Patey (flying his flag in the battle-cruiser HMAS Australia) was positioned to conduct further searches for the German East Asian Fleet. By 4 October 1914, Grantala was alone at Rabaul but sailed soon after for Suva. She arrived there on the 13th and remained in port until after the German East Asian Squadron had been destroyed at the Battle of the Falklands on 8 December 1914.

Grantala arrived in Sydney on 22 December 1914 with only four patients now on board. The majority of her medical and additional staff were de-mobilised the next day. A few sick berth stewards, under the command of Surgeon Horsfall, remained on board for another week to return stores and finalise administration. Of note is that five of Grantala's nurses subsequently enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS), while Sister Kirkcaldie travelled to England and enlisted in Queen Alexandria's Imperial Medical Nursing Service. Sister Burtinshaw was married following her return to Australia and thus became ineligible for further military service.

On 29 December 1914 Grantala, while still under Government charter, sailed in company with the requisitioned vessel Werribee to search for the Australian government trawler Endeavour, reported overdue on a re-supply voyage from Macquarie Island to Hobart. The trawler had been contracted to take supplies and replacement personnel to the meteorological station at Macquarie Island. She arrived there on 29 November and departed on 3 December; but when she failed to arrive at Hobart a search began. Grantala took part in this fruitless search and arrived back at Sydney on 9 February 1915. No trace of Endeavour, or her crew of 20, was ever found and she was deemed lost due to bad weather.

Grantala was restored to her original configuration and returned to her owners in early 1915. She was later sold to the Red Funnel Shipping Company and renamed Figuig. In 1920 she was on-sold to Compagnie Générale Transatlantique and used on the passenger run between Marseilles and Algiers. She was broken up for scrap in Italy in 1934.

Left: Group photograph of the sickbay staff from Grantala, August 1914, Sydney, NSW. Right: Group portrait of the sick bay staff from Grantala. Identified left to right (back row): none identified. Middle row: Dr Alfred John Trinca; unidentified; Chief Petty Officer J Gregg; unidentified; Sister Stella Lillian Colless; unidentified; Chief Petty Officer A Wilson; unknown; unknown; Chaplain Charles Henderson. Front row: Unidentified; Surgeon William Nicholas Horsfall; Sister Rosa Angela Kirkcaldie; Sister Florence Elizabeth McMillan; Matron Sarah Melanie De Mestre; unidentified; Sister Bertha E Burtinshaw; Sister Rachel Clouston; Sister Constance Neale; unidentified. All the nurses were selected from the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (AWM 302802 - Australian War Memorial).