Might have been hoist by assorted petards?*
by Marilyn Carr
Instead of the expected mere motor launch to take us across Moreton Bay on that long-ago morning, getting readied for leaving the wharf on the Brisbane River was a real “ship”, the SS Ormiston of the A.U.S.N. Line. We stepped aboard. She had her ship-of-the-line markings on the funnel, maybe three deck levels and an air of consequence, of having sailed across diverse seas – not just up and down the old, slow Brisbane River! That trip, calculated to have been on Thursday, 22nd April, 1943, when I was seven and accompanied by my grandmother and sister, was not a trip soon forgotten and neither was the opportunity it made of, seemingly, taking to the high seas aboard the SS Ormiston.
The Ormiston had been purchased, in 1936, by an Australian shipping company to sail the pre-war coastal routes from Cairns to Melbourne as a freighter and a cruise ship. Built in 1922 in the United Kingdom, and first named the Famaka, the ship was previously owned by an Egyptian steamship company and had sailed from Alexandria and ports around the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Maybe some aura of exotic places, of imagined mysteries of the East and illicit trysts by the ghosts of double agents still clung around its gangways; though, in the ‘thirties, the Ormiston was transporting tripping Australian honeymooners and bags of raw sugar.
That was until the onset of the Second World War. Australian merchant vessels were requisitioned by the government to give priority to war purposes. Passenger cabin accommodation on this steamer was closed down; records show the Ormiston received the “stiffening” of paravanes and degaussing gear for anti-submarine and for mines protection. Japanese submarines were operating and lurked off the waters of the Queensland coast.
For me, that Thursday, the week before Easter, I was excited to go aboard: to watch the sight of the sea between us and the wharf becoming wider and wider, to listen to the ship’s horn hoot, informing of leaving its moorings. Next to hear thick, thick mooring ropes drop, screws start turning faster as our vessel eased out from her berth to head down river.
This, though, was a war-time voyage. An indication that unseen submarines might try to infiltrate and cause havoc on the Brisbane River was the nets that I remember had to be first lowered so that our ship could sail through and out into Moreton Bay.
What, though, made this trip memorable for me?
I have this near-faded recollection of being led along the Ormiston’s companionway. Grandma was taking us to morning tea. I recall a sign painted in gold letters on the bulkhead. Was it really in gold lettering? The word was certainly “saloon” – with its “oo”. It was a word I had not read before. I picture it in my mind’s eye still. We step over into the entrance and into the compartment labelled as the Ormiston’s “saloon”. There are deep, blue-coloured curtains over the portholes with their polished brass rims; the tables have white tablecloths. It is so different from any space I have entered before. There is a stern-looking steward in a white jacket. He need not be concerned. My behaviour will be exemplary. I believe we may have been served scones.
That was my memory of the SS Ormiston of the A.U.S.N. shipping line. It had stayed with me. Really, only this memory lingered.
About twenty years ago, I was at the La Trobe Library in Melbourne and I asked if they had any texts, documents on the SS Ormiston. They held a copy of the history of the A.U.S.N., From Derby Round to Burketown by N.L. McKellar and various company documents were available. That shipping line had been the owner of the SS Ormiston. Among the material on the company was a Voyage Book where there was listed the trips and cargo of the Ormiston. I searched through and found what I felt was the date of our trip to Bribie Island. I checked the date against the cargo. That cargo was ordnance! It made sense as on the ocean side of the island, two big fortification gun batteries had been built. They were part of the major defense against any Japanese invasion of Brisbane. Nana, Rossie and I had sat happily above a goodly quantity of high explosives – all unaware.
The threat of submarine attack with ships, crews and passengers suffering direct assaults was very real. Our trip to Bribie Island was on the 22nd April, 1943, and on the 24th April (two days later) about 150 kilometers north and out from Fraser Island a ship, the Kowarra, was torpedoed and sank with the loss of 21 lives. The Ormiston, too, was later torpedoed on the 12th May, out from Coffs Harbour, NSW. One torpedo pierced near the port bow; water gushing in to hold No. 1 while the bulkhead to hold No.2 buckled, but held. A second torpedo collided with the ship master’s stout iron bathtub in his cabin. An anti-submarine Naval Auxiliary Patrol boat with armaments came to assist the Ormiston which limped to Sydney for repairs. The crew had moved its cargo of sugar and tallow and that had been rammed against the buckling bulkhead. There it held. Evidently it was a perfect strategy. The Ormiston was saved.
However, the worst war-time tragedy occurred on the 24th May, some days later, out from Caloundra (80 kms from Brisbane) when the hospital ship, all brightly lit, painted white and with very visible red crosses, the AHS Centaur, was torpedoed with 332 passengers and crew killed and only 64 rescued. The captain of the naval patrol boat mentioned above wrote in a naval history site that he believed those last two attacks were linked. And there has always been absolutely unsubstantiated hearsay that the Centaur was carrying ordnance.
The waters around Moreton Bay in those months of 1943 were dangerous.
Why was the mundane running of a week-day ferry trip replaced by a freighter handed over to the navy for war purposes if not to send in armaments for the gun emplacements at Ocean Beach, Bribie Island? Anyway, morning tea in the Saloon of the SS Ormiston was a remembered occasion for a little girl who that day had a glimpse that the world held variety and could be an interesting place.
*be hoist by one’s own petard (also be hoist with one’s own petard) have one’s plans to cause trouble for others backfire on one. [from Shakespeare’s Hamlet; hoist is in the sense ‘lifted and removed’,