By 1942 the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbour and crippled the American fleet, they had invaded Hong Kong and captured Singapore from the British and were busily expanding their empire across the Indian Ocean.

On the 27th February 1942 orders had been received to clear all remaining Auxiliary vessels from Batavia in the Dutch East Indies, so around midnight the Australian Sloop HMAS Yarra, along with the Indian Sloop HMIS Jumna sailed from Batavia, escorting a convoy bound for Tjilatjap, on the way an early mishap delayed the convoy, when the ageing RFA Tanker War Sirdar ran aground, because of the situation she was abandoned where she was and the convoy proceeded.

When HMAS Yarra and her convoy arrived safely through the Sunda Straits, another tanker was torpedoed, even though she was damaged she remained afloat, though only able to maintain a very slow speed, she was therefore left astern in the charge of HMAS Wollongong.

On the 2nd March the remains of the convoy arrived at Tjilatjap, and immediately received a signal from the local Commander warning them not to enter harbour, instead HMAS Yarra and her charges turned south for Fremantle, the two sloops were escorting the Troop transport HMAS Anking, filled with Australian troops, RFA Francol and a Motor Minesweeper. Time was running out as it was known that a powerful Japanese fleet was operating in the area.

Yarra and her convoy made steady progress throughout the night of the 2/3rd March, except that is, for an enemy plane far away on the horizon on the evening of the 2nd, there was no sight of the enemy.

On the morning of the 3rd, lifeboats were spotted in the water, and a number of survivors from the Dutch ship Perigi were picked up. The rest of the day passed uneventfully and the convoy steamed slowly toward Fremantle. This was not to continue for long though, at 06:30hrs on the morning of the 4th March, the lookout on HMAS Yarra spotted the mainmast of one of Admiral Kond’s Cruiser force, who were steaming toward the convoy, immediately Yarra sounded action stations and signalled her charges to scatter and proceeded to lay a smoke screen to hide them.

The three Japanese Cruisers, Atago, Takao and Maga opened fire with their main battery of 8 inch guns, Yarra was seen to engage the enemy force as massive shells landed all around her. Anking was the first to succumb, overwhelmed by the sheer number of hits on her, she sank in less than ten minutes, by this time Yarra was on fire and listing heavily to port, but still firing.

The Motor Minesweeper was ablaze and not long afterwards sank beneath the waves, under a hail of close range pom pom fire from the enemy. RFA Francol had also taken an immense amount of damage, but remained afloat, but at about 07:30, she sank in a welter of flame and a great billowing cloud of smoke, HMAS Yarra was the last to sink at about 08:00hrs.
The Japanese Cruisers stopped to pick up a few of the survivors, including one boat load from the Francol, the rest of the survivors from this ship were never heard from again.
The members of the crew of RFA Francol who were killed when the ship was sunk or who died as prisoners of war of the Japanese were: -

Captain John Harris BURMAN
Chief Officer Ythil Charles Lewis BROMLEY
2nd Officer Ralph William FLYNN
Sailor Lee Cheng HING
Chief Engineer Officer Arthur Albert ROBSON
Able Seaman (RN) Frank William WELLER

Each has no known grave but is proudly remembered variously on the Tower Hill Memorial, London, the Plymouth Naval Memorial and the Hong Kong Memorial.

Copyright © 2008 – 2018 Christopher J White

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