RAFA Bishopdale

Dale Class Freighting Tanker
Dimensions & Displacement
Displacement 17,357 tons
Length 146.8 metres
Beam 18.8 metres
Draught 8.4 metres
Speed 11 knots
Crew 14 officers, 31 ratings plus DEMS gunners
Machinery Doxford Diesel engines developing 4,000 Brake Horse Power on a single shaft
Guns 1 x 4-inch gun, 2 x 12 pounder guns, multiple 20 mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns

Bishopdale was a Royal Australian Fleet Auxiliary Dale class freighting tanker that saw service between 1937 and 1959. As a freighting tanker, her main role was to move large quantities of fuel (up to 11,600 tons of mainly furnace fuel oil) from oil refineries to Royal Navy fuel depots. Between 1942 and 1945 she served on loan to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) with a mixed crew of RAN and Merchant Navy personnel.

She was built by Lithgow’s Ltd of Glasgow and launched on 31 March 1937. After completing her sea trials in June 1937, she conducted her first delivery voyage in July of that year; a run from the West Indies to Gibraltar. Further freighting voyages were conducted during the next two years which involved taking on bulk fuel at the Anglo-Persian Oil Company refinery at Abadan, Persia and delivering the cargo to Royal Navy fuel depots in Gibraltar, Port Said and Singapore. Her crew throughout most of her service were British officers and British Indian ratings.

Following the outbreak of war in September 1939 Bishopdale was allocated to the West Indies station as a tanker for RN ships operating in that area; keeping watch on German merchant ships in neutral ports particularly in the United States of America. It was here that the tanker had her first contact with the RAN when she re-fueled the light cruiser HMAS Perth, at Kingston, on 2 January 1940. Perth was on loan to the Royal Navy during September 1939 – February 1940 and her ships company also took the opportunity to practice their boarding party drills onboard Bishopdale while the cruiser was re-fueled. The tanker remained on the West Indies station conducting the routine but essential fueling of warships until early January 1942.

In mid-January 1942 Bishopdale was ordered to sail via the Panama Canal to the Pacific Ocean and refuel the battleship HMS Warspite in the vicinity of Henderson Island (part of the Pitcairn Island Group). Warspite was transiting from Vancouver to Sydney on her way to join the British Eastern Fleet in Ceylon. Bishopdale arrived in Sydney on 6 April 1942 and was subsequently loaned to the RAN for service in the Pacific Ocean. She maintained her Merchant Navy ships company but RAN personnel (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship - DEMS, gunners) were placed onboard to operate the ships defensive weapons consisting of a 4-inch gun on her quarterdeck, a 12-pounder gun forward and several Oerlikon 20mm anti-aircraft guns. The DEMS gunners were employed as deckhands, when not conducting their naval duties, and this included duties such as lookouts, handling lines when ships came alongside to refuel, upper deck maintenance such as chipping rust and painting and also operating the ships motor boats.

During April-August 1942 Bishopdale was based at Noumea, New Caledonia refueling RAN and US Navy warships operating in the South-West Pacific, including HMA Ships Canberra and Hobart on their way to the Allied landings at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. On 5 August 1942 Bishopdale sailed from Noumea, proceeding to Brisbane to replenish her bunkers. While transiting the Havannah-Boulari passage, east of Noumea, she strayed off course and struck an Allied mine in a defensive minefield protecting the passage. Fortunately there were no casualties but the tanker was forced to return to Noumea. Temporary repairs were made allowing Bishopdale to sail to Sydney for docking and the subsequent repairs took several months to complete.

Repairs were completed in January 1943 and Bishopdale returned to her duties providing fuel to the RAN. She departed Sydney on 3 February 1943, as part of a convoy heading north, and berthed in Darwin in mid-February to replenish the fuel storage depot in that port. After completing this task she returned to Queensland waters in March; via Port Moresby where the fuel depot ashore was replenished.

Bishopdale proved remarkably resilient, surviving a mine strike, a collision, and a kamikaze attack.
Bishopdale proved remarkably resilient, surviving a mine strike, a collision, and a kamikaze attack.

The period March to late June 1943 was spent providing fuel to RAN and US Navy ships in Queensland waters. She then began operating at Milne Bay, New Guinea from July 1943 until March 1944; again refuelling Allied warships. The only interruption to this was the occasional return to Queensland ports to replenish her fuel bunkers. On 11 November 1943, while part of a convoy in Queensland waters, she collided with the merchant ship SS Bunker Hill and suffered some damage to her stern and starboard Oerlikon gun mountings. The Bunker Hill incurred minor scrapes and scratches to her paintwork.

In early March 1944 Bishopdale steamed south to Sydney for maintenance and after completing this headed north again, this time to Humboldt Bay (Dutch New Guinea) which became her new forward refueling location in late April. This was her new ‘home’ for the next eight months providing the essential ‘black oil’ to keep the RAN and US Navy warships in the fight as Japanese forces were driven out of New Guinea and preparations were made for the liberation of the Philippines. Rather than return Bishopdale to Australian waters to refuel, her bunkers were replenished by larger civilian tankers.

In mid-November 1944 Bishopdale departed Humboldt Bay as part of Task Group 77.7 (TG 77.7) supporting the Allied landings at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. Again her task was to supply fuel and lubricating oil to Allied warships and she arrived at San Pedro Bay in late November. The landings at Leyte Gulf were hotly contested by Japanese naval and air forces with the first of the Kamikaze attacks beginning with aircraft deliberately being flown by their pilots into Allied ships.

On 14 December 1944 Bishopdale was in San Pedro Bay when she was struck by a Japanese ‘Val’ dive bomber. The kamikaze aircraft hit the ships forward mast; then crashing into the starboard upper bridge and the No.3 wing tank where it exploded. Bishopdale suffered significant damage and three of her ship’s company died of wounds over the next few days. They were 26 year old Able Seaman Stuart Savage (one of the ship’s Australian DEMS gunners), Pumpmen Umar Abdullah (Omer Abdoola) who died on 15 December 1945 and Coner A Sheik who died on the 16th.

Despite the damage and casualties, the tanker remained at San Pedro Bay providing fuel to Allied ships until the end of the month. On 30 December 1944 she sailed for Hollandia (now Jayapura) in Dutch New Guinea for repairs which took several months. Able Seaman Savage and Pumpman Sheik were originally buried in the US Military Cemetery at Leyte Gulf; but they were later re-interred at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Sai Wan Bay in Hong Kong. Pumpman Abdullah (Abdoola) was buried at sea and his name recorded on the Bombay/Chittagong 1939-1945 War Memorial.

The ships Master Commander Murray William Westlake, RNR was subsequently awarded a Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) and three other crew members (Chief Officer WE Tate, First Pumpman Sheikh Allen St Hassan, and Second Pumpman Omar Abdoola) were mentioned in dispatches. The awards were announced in the London Gazette on 18 December 1945 with the citation for all four men reading:

For courage, efficiency and skill in damage control when a Japanese aircraft struck the RFA Bishopdale, in San Pedro Bay, Leyte Gulf on 14th December 1944. Two compartments were flooded, fire broke out and the ship took a list. By prompt action she was brought back to an even keel and ready to continue fueling within half-an-hour of the attack.

Bishopdale returned to operational duties in mid-May 1945 and arrived at the island of Morotai (Netherlands East Indies) later that month. Allied forces had landed on Morotai in September 1944 and soon had an air base operating for strikes on the Philippines and Borneo. Japanese forces were still present on the island and, while isolated, did not surrender until September 1945. The tanker remained at Morotai until later September 1945.

Following the end of World War II Bishopdale returned to Royal Navy service and proceeded via Subic Bay (The Philippines) to Hong Kong. Her last known fueling of an RAN vessel was the corvette HMAS Ballarat, at Hong Kong, on 15 November 1945. She then operated far and wide delivering fuel from Abadan to Hong Kong and Singapore during 1946.

She occasionally visited Australia, delivering a cargo of fuel to the Chowder Bay Naval Fuel Installation (Sydney) in September 1948 and to Melbourne in November 1949, but Bishopdale mainly operated in the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean, Atlantic Ocean and West Indies for the remainder of her career.

Bishopdale was laid up in Reserve (at Devonport, England) on 8 October 1959 and in mid- January 1970 was sold for scrap. She arrived at Bilbao, Spain on 17 February 1970 for breaking up.

Bishopdale's WWII Warship Movement Card is held within the Naval History Section at the Sea Power Centre - Australia.