CLOSE SHAVE OFF TJILATJAP: Collins and Bell, RN, on HMAS BURNIE. Photostream acquisition.
CLOSE SHAVE OFF TJILATJAP: Collins and Bell, RN, on HMAS BURNIE. Photostream acquisition. by Kookaburra2011
4237. Concluding our three-part extract from the memoirs of the late Vice Admiral Sir John Collins, concerning his escape from Java on HMAS BURNIE, accompanied by Captain Leonard Bell, RN, the former CO of HMS PRINCE OF WALES.
Bell is seen on the left, with Collins centre. One of the two men on the right may by HMAS BURNIE’S commanding officer at the time Lt. T. Christy, RANR.
More from the Collins memoir, ‘As Luck Would Have It’….Senior British Army and Air Force personnel have declined to join the small RAN and Dutch ships fleeing South.
VADM Collins writes: "….By now the fact that three enemy cruisers and four destroyers had been reported south of the port was well known. Both the Army and the Air Force took the view that it was madness to sail and that we were certain to be sunk. Therefore they decided to stay ashore ….I confess to being a bit windy myself, for in truth we knew we were setting out on a rather forlorn hope, but any risk seemed worth taking to avoid capture …
‘…At sunset on the 2nd March TOOWOOMBA and GOULBURN sailed followed at 8pm by VERSPIJCK escorted by MARYBOROUGH. At 8.15 I sailed in with BURNIE with BALLARAT in company. I had decided to scatter the force in the hope that some might get through. Just as we were setting out, a small minesweeper HMS GEMAS appeared with insufficient endurance to reach Australia. BALLARAT was detailed to disembark the crew and sink her in deep water, thus BALLARAT was the last ship to leave the area [the last Allied ship to leave Java. K.] ‘Some of the ships were routed east and some west from the entrance to hug the land and then make a dash to the south. It was a bright moonlight night with extreme visibility.
"As luck would have it all ships got through but we were fortunate indeed. HMAS YARRA, escorting HMS ANKING, the oiler FRANCOL and MMS 51, had passed through the Sunda Strait and…had altered course for Australia when off Tjilatjap only a few hours before we sailed from that port.
‘….At dawn on 4th March the ships that had left Tjilatjap on the evening of the 2nd, and the YARRA’s slower convoy, were all in the same area. It was YARRA’s lookout who sighted ships on the horizon. They turned out to be Admiral Kondo’s cruisers ATAGO, TAKAO and MAYA, three 8-inch cruisers escorted by destroyers, the force we knew was operating south of Java….’ [a description of the destruction of HMAS YARRA and her convoy, covered here previously, is then given].
VADM Collins continues: "Little knowing what was taking place only a few miles over the horizon on 4th March, we in the BURNIE started to breathe more freely. We were sure we had slipped through the blockade and were out of danger…’.
‘…Captain Bell and I were busy on BURNIE’s bridge one morning writing our report when a radio broadcast was received from Navy Office that a Catalina had sighted a Japanese cruiser proceeding south at high speed in a position that put her just 10 miles astern of us. Lt Christy, the captain, wasted no time in sounding the Action Stations alarm, and I wondered how our one small gun on the forecastle would fare against a Mogami Class cruiser.
Then I thouight again and relaxed. From the air a minesweeper looks much like a cruiser, and 10 miles is a small error in the ocean.
I let matters ride for a while and, when nothing showed up astern, told the captain he could revert to cruising stations. He looked surprised until I explained that HMAS BURNIE was the Japanese cruiser.
In due course we reached Australia without incident….’
– From Vice Admiral Sir John Collins’s memoir ‘As Luck Would Have It’ : The Reminiscences of an Australian Sailor’ [Angus and Robertson, Sydney 1965] pp118-122.
Photo: An Unofficial RAN Centenary 1911-2011 Photostream acquisition.