The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Published on the Website of the South African Military History Society in the interest of research into military history


By R.T.B.

Surely when Australia's history for this decade comes to be written, mention will be made of the great ARMADA which sailed across the seas at the call of the Motherland in her distress of the great European War of 1914. As one who was privileged to be in a position of Purser on one of the largest and finest ships of that flotilla, I may perhaps claim that in spite of my lack of journalistic ability I can at least give you facts at first hand, having been "on the spot."

To attempt to describe the original fitting out or rather "conversion" of the S.S. AFRIC to a full-blown Troop-ship would take too long, suffice it to say that accommodation for 328 passengers was in the short space of a fortnight turned into accommodation for 1416 Officers and men. Of course this includes conversion of cargo space as well, to the same purpose, & incidentally meant the piercing of the ship's side with extra ports.

After a six weeks sojourn in Sydney we eventually found ourselves anchored out in the bay under orders to sail. Previous to this false alarms had been frequent, soldiers had embarked and then been withdrawn until we had become sceptical (and sarcastic) as to when we really should move. On Sunday the 18th October, the final embarkation really took place.

Only those who know Sydney Harbour to begin with, could even attempt to imagine the scene. All day long tugs, ferry-boats, launches, etc. - in fact every imaginable craft afloat, was to be seen scurrying across the water, either on the legitimate business of embarking troops or carrying crowds of flag-waving citizens bidding a last farewell to friends. All were shouting and singing patriotic songs, yelling words of farewell to a suddenly recognised unit on board, some even trying to throw final gifts on to the steamer, as of course no one was permitted to visit the troopships unless on the strictest business. Two other transports sailed earlier in the day, before us, and the enthusiasm as they slowly steamed away, baffles description.

At last our turn came and at about 5 P.M. we slowly moved down the Harbour, every point of vantage in the ships' rigging, on the decks & rails etc. being crowded with troops all waving, shouting, cheering, and straining for perchance one more glimpse of their best girl, wife, brother, mother, sister or father who might happen to be on one of the vast mosquito fleet of small craft which followed us.

As if to show the supreme indifference of the Almighty Powers to the affairs of men, even when it meant war & all of its consequences, the weather varied the proceedings by continually bursting into angry squalls of drenching rain, but this could not staunch the Patriotism of Young Australia on such a day. Steaming down the Harbour, one noticed that every point of vantage was crowded with the same enthusiastic crowd. At one point at Watsons Bay I noticed men standing, each one representing a different letter of the International Code and spelling the words "GOOD LUCK." Thus we sailed away, on our voyage of adventure, no one knowing where we were bound.

The sealed orders being divulged, we learnt that we were bound for Albany (Western Australia) arranged by the Authorities as the Port of concentration for the entire fleet, comprising in all (without the escort) - 38 ships.

Arriving at Albany on the 25th Oct. we awaited the assembling of the rest of the fleet. Each day fresh ships took up their alloted [sic] position until one day we were regaled with the fine spectacle of the arrival of the New Zealand contingent. Gradually their smoke appeared above the horizon, each ship keeping station and led into port by their escort, which was composed of the following:

Arriving at the appointed station (outside near the islands at the entrance to the Harbour) New Zealand's contingent came to anchor, & all painted grey as they were, a very fine sight they looked.

It would not be of interest to describe our stay at Albany, as life for all, now consisted of the usual routine of harbour duties (with curtailed leave) and the thousand and one happenings that go to make up a day on board a ship. Personally I enjoyed every minute of it, one had to become conversant with all the new routine of "trooping", learn the mysterious requirements of the all important Transport Officer in charge, (berthed on board the Orvieto ... the flagship ...) & one could not help feeling that the immediate future was more than ever an unknown quantity, but also experienced the thrill that one was one of the necessary units in this portion of the making of history.

Military Routine on board was now getting into full swing and we were all getting used to the incessant noise, to the thump of grounded rifle-butts overhead, to "shoulder", "t-n shunnnn", and the enthusiastic though somewhat discordant "Band Practices". During our stay at Albany the troops all landed one day and stirred the hearts of the inhabitants with a route march through the town and district.

At last all being ready and the fleet assembled, steam was ordered for 05 a.m. on the 1st Nov and the great Armada set out for its unknown destination at the seat of war, bearing no less than 30,000 men fully equipped, besides the crews of the various vessels.

Each vessel had been assigned a certain station with the escort leading and also guarding the flanks. A distance of "three cables" between each ship had to be maintained and all orders as to speed etc were communicated to the ships from the flagship(S.S. ORVIETO) ... which in turn was subject to the authority of the senior warship of the escort. The convoy was in three lines & we were the 4th ship in the 3rd division at the start. The escort (leaving Albany) consisted of : - H.M.S. Minotaur, H.M.S. Melbourne, H.M.S. Sydney, & H.J.M.S Ibouki. In spite of the early hour, cinematograph operators could be seen on two tugs taking pictures as we steamed out of the harbour. This would be any time from say six thirty to eight thirty, and the morning being particularly brilliant they would have plenty of light for the cameras. Many expressed the wish that they will see those same pictures on their return. Without undue sentiment, being human, one could not help wondering at the time, if the very men remarking this , would be amongst those who would fight and live, and return, and that there must inevitably be some who would never see that fair & glorious Albany Harbour again, even in a moving picture.

Space and my journalistic abilities will not permit of an account of the daily routine on board but for a time at least things went on in an almost monotonous regularity of successful and satisfactory routine. Our direction lay across the Indian Ocean bound for COLOMBO and it was while crossing this portion of the map that the memorable incident of the final demolition of the celebrated "EMDEN" took place, and I quote from a verbatim account given to the Officers of the (A.19) by one of the Officers of H.M.S. SYDNEY who visited us while anchored later at Colombo.

Before quoting the Officer of the SYDNEY as to the actual engagement I can give you a few details of what the convoy was allowed to see. On the morning of the 9th November we were contemplating breakfast as usual, when we noticed the "Sydney" who was on our Portside flank as escort, suddenly turn away down to the South and bear away at full speed covered in a dense curtain of smoke indicating very plainly that the stokers were particularly busy down below and that haste was very necessary. Shortly after, the Japanese warship (Ibouki) steamed over from our starboard (right) flank and showed herself to be cleared for action with battle flags streaming in the breeze and guns all working at "Practice aim" as she sailed by. Evidently there was something in the wind. However the Ibouki had to suffer disappointment this time as the "Sydney" was already hot foot after the Emden and refused any assistance. Full accounts of the sinking or rather or rather distruction [sic] of the Emden have now appeared in the press so I do not propose to weary you with a full account as received by us, but it appears to have been a very hot engagement while it lasted and we were told that the scene when the crew of the Sydney eventually got on board the stricken vessel (which had been beached on Cocos Island) absolutely beggared description, and was of the most revolting and terrible kind. The Sydney herself did not come off scatheless and I passed quite close to her a few days later, lying in the harbour of Colombo where could be seen some of the damage done to her after-bridge or conning tower. The Sydney after the engagement, as doubtless explained by the daily papers, proceeded to Colombo for which port the Convoy was then making and it is typical of the chivalry which the victorious English,en always extend to a fallen foe that the order was passed down the lines that in the event of the Sydney passing us in daylight, no cheering was to be indulged in , out of respect to the wounded (the majority those of the Emden) which were on board the Cruiser.

The Emden must have passed within perhaps five mile of the Convoy on the previous night and luckily we were steaming that night with all lights screened or who knows but that she may have ventured a long shot at some of us or even the more deadly torpedo. It also goes to prove the efficiency of the transport precautions taken, that the Emden was unaware of our position, apart from which the fact of England's ability to transport a whole Army across the World by water at the height of the greatest war in History, shows that MISTRESS OF THE SEAS is no idle boast but a very real thing and a fact to be very thankful for.

Even when carried out as a matter of routine as it was with us, steaming without lights some nights and on others with all lights screened, gives one a certain amount of "thrill". The unusual darkness seems to occasion an unusual quiet, and to look out and see the other vessels all keeping station but dimly seen through the hazy moonlight, all silent and purposeful, gives one the subtle feeling that everyone is waiting for something unseen to happen. Probably some of my ship-mates if they read this would dismiss it with an expressive, laconic, and wholely unmeritted [sic]... "WHISKEY".

On the 15th November we arrived at Colombo, where as already stated the Sydney was berthed alongside the quay. Only those vessels oft he Convoy requiring to take in coal or water were permitted to go alongside and as we were not amongst those, we anchored out in the bay. When not on duty, those on board amused themselves by watching the intrepid Cingalee boys diving off their primitive logs (on which they came out to the ship) for pennies thrown over by the watchers. Amongst these boys were to be seen more than one minus an arm or a foot, which had undoubtedly been taken off by a shark on a previous occasion, and I could not help thinking that after having once been "bitten" in such a manner I should be very "shy" to resume such a calling.

The course of my duties took me ashore at Colombo, and after interviewing more than one "Dibash" or "ship's provider" we were assured by each that at least all the Mercantile Marines of the World had been to Colombo, and that supplies were simply unobtainable except at the most outrageous prices. Fortunately the company are well served by their local Agents and a careful diagnosis of market prices and a firm hint to the Vendors that future custom was based on present fair dealing, we managed to get the few stores required at this port without ruining the "Owners". One would never tire of telling of the thousand impressions, delights & wonders greeting the stranger in Colombo, but it is not the purpose of this already overlong script to deal with them.

Leaving Colombo on Novr.17th we proceeded on the voyage en route for Aden. The weather had been fine all along and gradually growing hotter, the troop-decks had already become "warmed-up" and it says much for the tact of the Officers and the endurance of the men that complaints were entirely absent. Undoubtedly one of the great factors contributing to this enviable state of affairs, was the policy adopted, namely that of giving the men a sufficiency of employment mixed with a generous amount of amusement, for when a man is busy drilling or watching a boxing match he has no time to indulge in "petty grumbling". Of course the "habitual grumbler" was in evidence at times, but a firm stand being taken at the outset and a readiness to investigate complaints however trifling, soon produced a good feeling between all on board, and located the "professional" giving them their queitus. On several occasions locusts flew on board the vessel and were promptly captured, also some very fine specimens of butterflies & moths were caught whilst we were at Colombo. Sailors are not supposed to sentimentalise over sunsets but some of those to be witnessed in these parts are truly wonderful and if faithfully reproduced on canvas and brought to England would not find a generous market but be dubbed as "hopelessly exaggerated".

On the 15th November (sic) [25th?] ADEN was reached, where we again joined forces with the rest of the Convoy, whose formation had been somewhat altered since leaving Colombo, some ships having been ordered to go ahead for coal, water, stores etc at Aden. We left the SYDNEY at Colombo, and the MELBOURNE had also by this, bade us farewell. Until the end of our journey we were from Colombo onwards constantly meeting different warships - Russian, French, Japanese, & British. The A.19 with others lay at anchor outside Aden, for the best part of 24 hours, everyone felt more or less idle, the heat was intolerable, but the prospect at least interesting; as we could easily see through the glasses the happenings in the harbour etc., also the old Arab forts as well as the modern British fortifications perched right up on the extreme top of the bare and frowning volcanic hills at the entrance to the port, and one realised the great strategic importance of such a place to the Empire.

Leaving Aden on the 26th Nov: at 6:42 A.M. we passed through the Straits of Babel Mandeb, and so entered the historical RED SEA; as we progressed the heat grew daily more intense and at times the actual temperature reached must have been very great for the time of year. Owing to the intense heat and wishing to rid themselves of any superfluous fat that had accumulated during the voyage, several of the Officers as well as the men, volunteered to take a turn with the firemen below. It may be here recorded that as a fat reducing speculation it was entirely successful. Nothing of any great moment took place during our passage of the Red Sea, and I think all were glad to arrive, perspiring but safe, at SUEZ, which was reached at 11.45 A.M. on Dec. the 1st.

We anchored at Suez awaiting our turn to pass through the canal, amusing ourselves with the persistent vendors of "curios" who flocked out in their handy little dhows with their picturesque lanteen (sic) sails, and ranged themselves alongside, where by means of a rope thrown from the ship, goods were drawn up on to the vessel and the payment lowered by the same means. It was amusing to hear the English Captain of the Water boat, which was also alongside & from which a roaring trade was being done, first tell the "tommies" what the price was for the various articles (mostly cigarettes & oranges) & in the same breath tell them that the "whole d....d lot wasn't worth fourpence."

On the 2nd Dec. at 1.15 p.m. we entered the World-famed Suez Canal, en route for Port Said. Each vessel going through the Canal is provided with a man & a search-light slung over the stern of the vessel, and the passage both by day and night is one of vast interest. We found the Canal on both sides entrenched and heavily manned with guards, in the shape of Indian troops mostly, for the greater part detachments of the celebrated GURKA regiments. The colossal nature of the undertaking from an engineering point of view, in the construction of such a canal can only be appreciated when seen. And to stand on the deck of a 12,000 ton liner and look out on the vast expanse of rolling desert on either hand, the canal itself appearing to be a mere ditch, is especially at night time a most impressive sight. Our passage through was something in the nature of a "triumphal progress" as we were loudly cheered day & night by the troops who were lining the banks, where by the way some very fine specimens of entrenching work could be seen. At one point near Ismalia an armoured train could be seen busily puffing up & down on patrol & casting her blinding rays of searchlight on us and the other ships. One realised more than ever that one was playing in a big game and that game "An Empire's War."

Through the Canal we arrived at Port Said on the 3rd Dec. an also vastly interesting place. An order being received from the H.M.S. "Swiftsure" (who was in charge of affairs) that certain ratings were to be paid off at this port, same necessitated a visit to the town and British Consulate, (we being outside in the bay at the time).

A torpedo boat was sent to fetch the different people required in to the harbour; in due course it arrived and & after a somewhat "rocky" time in one of the ship's boats going out to board the vessel we got on board and sped away for the shore. Business complete we had an hour or two to look around and found the town well policed by Indian Troops and Territorials. Port is very reminiscent of French towns, some streets, except for the highly coloured crowd around, might be within a few miles of Paris. To sip coffee outside a Cafe, and be entertained by native conjurors is very diverting and I saw some immensely clever sleight-of-hand worthy of "Devant" & St. George's Hall. The return journey to the ship was accomplished in a heavy swell on another torpedo boat: should you not be a good sailor I would not advise this as a pastime.

Leaving Port Said on the 4th Dec. we arrived at ALEXANDRIA without incident on the 5th inst. where lying at anchor until a vacancy at the wharf was obtainable we finally landed all troops (1,409) on the 8th & 9th. The disembarkation was accomplished in the most perfect order, and those on board were proud to receive the genuine expressions of regret at leaving us and satisfaction with all the various arrangements of this eventful voyage from the Colonel in Command and others in authority.

Only one untoward incident marred the general good fortune of the enterprise and that was inevitable; one of the soldiers passed to his long rest just at the completion of the voyage at Alexandria on the 6th Dec. after a bad attack of pneumonia, what more or better can be said than that "He died on Active Service?"

Our friends the Officers & Troops have gone and we are now fast homeward bound, to-day passing Malta; the ship seems ghostly quiet and "full of emptiness". I will close with a heartfelt ..


A.1 Hymettus Melbourne A.15 Star of England Melbourne
A.2 Geelong Hobart A.16 Star of Victoria Sydney
A.3 Orvieto Melbourne A.17 Port Lincoln Adelaide
A.4 Pera Melbourne A.18 Wiltshire Melbourne
A.5 Omrah Brisbane A.19 Afric Sydney
A.6 Clan McCorqudale Sydney A.20 Hororata Melbourne
A.7 Medio Adelaide & Freemantle A.21 Marere Melbourne
A.8 Argylshire Sydney A.22 Rangatira Melbourne
A.9 Shropshire Melbourne A.23 Suffolk Sydney
A.10 Karroo Melbourne A.24 Benalla Melbourne
A.11 Ascaneus Adelaide A.25 Anglo Egyptian Melbourne
A.12 Saldanha Adelaide A.26 Armadale Melbourne
A.13 Katura Hobart A.27 Southern Melbourne
A.14 Euripides Sydney A.28 Miltiades Sydney

3 Maunganui 6 Orari
8 Star of India 7 Limerick
4 Tahiti 10 Arawa
11 Athenic 9 Hawkes Bay
5 Ruapehu 12 Waimana

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