VSIS Merkur

Friedrich Krupp AG, Kiel Germany
Dimensions & Displacement
Length 119 Metres
Beam 15.8 Metres
Guns 1 x 4.7 inch gun, 1 x 12 pounder gun, 3 x 20mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns
Other Armament 1 x Pillar Box rocket launcher

The Victualing Stores Issue Ship Merkur was operated by the Royal Australian Navy during 1942 - 1948 with a mixed Merchant Navy and RAN ships company. Merkur was originally built as the Rio Bravo, by Friedrich Krupp AG, at Kiel (Germany), for the Flensberger Dampfer Company. She initially operated on the South American passenger/cargo service until laid up in 1931 due to the Great Depression. In 1933 she was sold to the Nord Deutscher Lloyd shipping company and renamed Merkur. Her sister ship Rio Panuco was also sold to Nord Deutscher Lloyd and renamed Neptun.

Both ships were planned to operate in the Pacific between Australia and Hong Kong, however in 1935 the two vessels were purchased by Burns Philp & Co. Ltd, with financial assistance from the Australian Government, and were soon operating as part of the company’s ‘fleet’ on a monthly service from Melbourne to Darwin and Darwin to Singapore. Neptun was renamed Neptuna and was lost during the bombing of Darwin, on 19 February 1942, when she was hit by Japanese bombs which ignited her cargo of depth charges, causing the ship to explode with catastrophic effects on the nearby wharf and ships.

On 12 December 1941 Merkur was requisitioned by the RAN for use as a Victualling Stores Issue Ship to provide food and clothing to the ships of the RAN operating in Australian and New Guinea waters. She kept her original civilian Merchant Navy crew (mainly British and Australian officers and Malayan seaman and engine room personnel). Additional RAN personnel were drafted to the ship; mainly signallers and supply assistants to oversee the storage and issue provisions and other stores. She even carried an RAN Petty Officer Butcher who would turn sides of beef and mutton into cuts of meat for the smaller RAN ships who had no butcher of their own. 

The ship was also fitted with defensive weapons including a 12 pounder gun forward near the bridge, a 4.7 inch gun aft, three 20mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns and a Pillar Box rocket launcher known to the crew as ‘Flash Gordon’. These weapons were operated by RAN personnel known as DEMS (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship) gunners with assistance by the other RAN personnel on board. 

Merkur was a popular ship throughout the RAN as not only did she provide food and clothing but also supplied ships, where possible, with beer and cigarettes and she was often known as the ‘Beer Ship’. She operated far and wide and despite her weaponry was frequently escorted by a corvette or destroyer. In mid-August 1942 she was in Noumea, along with the ammunition ship Poyang, resupplying Australian ships after the Allied landings in the Solomon Islands. 1943-44 saw her operating in New Guinea waters supporting the RAN in the campaign to clear the north coast of Japanese forces. 

Frequent return voyages were made to Brisbane and Sydney to embark fresh supplies. On one occasion Merkur was heading north, from Sydney, returning to New Guinea waters when a serendipitous moment happened for one of her RAN crew as explained by Lieutenant Marsden Hordern serving in ML 823:

On 8 June 1944 while patrolling towards Smoky Cape (north of Port Macquarie) we sighted the masts of a ship on the horizon and we clapped on speed to investigate. The silhouette of many ships were familiar to us and, as we closed her, the two small funnels close together amidships and masts with cross-trees, identified her as the Navy’s victualling stores issue ship Merkur. She had a special interest for me and, being on watch at the time, I brought the Fairmile up under her bridge and called through a megaphone. ‘Is Supply Assistant John Hordern there? And in a minute my brother appeared. Running up to the signal platform he stood beside the signalman – none other than D’Arcy Kelly, my friend and companion in ML 814. We chatted for a few minutes before ML 823 turned away on her southward patrol, and soon the Merkur was hull down on the northern horizon. It had been one of those chance war-time meetings at sea between brothers and friends.

Merkur continued her quiet but essential duty of delivering food to the many RAN units operating in northern New Guinea waters.

Merkur was a welcome sight at sea, as she carried stores and fresh produce.
Merkur was a welcome sight at sea, as she carried stores and fresh produce.

In October 1944 Merkur became part of Task Group 77.7 (TG 77.7) Service Force Seventh Fleet for the impending operations at Leyte Gulf, which saw the US amphibious landings to liberate the Philippines. As well at Merkur this force contained three other support ships; the tanker Bishopdale, the ammunition ships HMA Ships Poyang and Yunnan. Her role in the Philippines campaign was minor and she did not come under enemy attack. On the morning of 10 November 1944 Merkur was at anchor at Seeadler Harbour, Manus Island (then a major US naval base) when the ammunition ship USS Mount Hood blew up, killing all on board and damaging several ships nearby. Merkur was not to escape damage, as one her officers described:

It was 10th November 1944, a sunny day with only a few high clouds scattered about. I was standing outside my cabin, chatting with the Third Officer, Bill Munro, our arms resting on the taff rail, casually observing other ships and activities on the harbour. There was a light breeze coming in from the east. Suddenly, to our surprise, what appeared to be an American Kittyhawk fighter plane streaked down the harbour from the eastern end, he was at masthead height, passing between the two lines of ships across from us, which included the Liberty Ship and the Victory Ship on the other side of her. We remarked about this “stray”, as no other planes had been seen, nor at that time were visible or could be heard. In the short time that we had been there, we figured that this aircraft was unusual to be amongst the ships like that.

With the roar of the aircraft passing, the Chief Officer, Bill Colquhoun stepped out from his cabin curious to see what was going on. Our attention being drawn across on our beam to where the aircraft had just passed, on the other side of the Liberty Ship with the Victory Ship’s bow just showing beyond. It was only a moment or two later when I saw an enormous cone like vertical flash, surmounted by a brilliant ball of fire above the Victory ship less than half a mile away. The flash was well over two hundred feet high. In the split second that followed I roared “ship blowing up”, and as the words came from my mouth we were doubled up with the enormous explosion, the Chief Officer falling back into his cabin. Grabbing at the taff rail, Bill and I pulled ourselves back up, and tried to take in what had happened. It was the Victory ship, gone, disappeared in that one huge explosion.

The effect on the surrounding ships was brought to us by those visiting Merkur. The Liberty ship which sheltered us from the blast from the Mount Hood was riddled with holes, some you could drive a jeep through, with injuries aboard there too. Most debris was blown up and down the harbour to the east-west, the direction in which she was heading. Some were injured by falling debris on ships a mile up the harbour. Aboard Merkur, the impact forced the fore-and-aft inside bulkhead of the Officers’ Cabins into the mid-ships alleyway and cabin curtains were sucked out through broken windows; but, apart from that there was no other structural damage.

The supply of fresh food to the RAN ships operating in forward areas was always a concern and Merkur was hard worked but could not be everywhere. In October 1944 the commanding officer of the destroyer HMAS Arunta reported the ship's first case of scurvy, due to a lack of fresh vegetables. On the plus side, an officer in HMAS Warramunga, in mid-December 1944, recorded that the Merkur had arrived at Seeadler Harbour and ‘the standard of Christmas fare was excellent and the turkeys in particular were first class quality’. 

In mid-August 1945, the Australian Squadron was at Subic Bay when news of the cessation of hostilities with Japan was received. On the 16th the commanding officer of the cruiser HMAS Shropshire wrote ‘Merkur had made an opportune arrival earlier in the afternoon. The Task Group was stored during the following days’ 

Following the cessation of hostilities Merkur was used to carry relief food supplies to Borneo for use by the civilian population as the Japanese forces had regularly stripped the many villages of all their food. During 1946-48 she carried supplies to Kure to support the Australian forces that were now part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF) in Japan. She also took Army and RAAF personnel, and the wives and children, to and from Japan as well.

Merkur was extensively refitted in 1948, to return her to her pre-war configuration, and in September 1949 she was returned to her owners (Burns Philp & Co. Ltd). Merkur was operated by Burns Philp until 1953 when she was laid up. Merkur was subsequently sold for scrap and arrived in Osaka, Japan in January 1954 for breaking up.