RFA BISHOPDALE enters a minefield

RFA Bishopdale entered into the RFA Service on 6 June 1937 and was one of a number of ships of the 1st DALE class of Freighting tanker.

Bishopdale-02

During the 2nd World War she saw service initially in the Atlantic and the Caribbean but by early 1942 was loaned to the Royal Australian Navy arriving at Sydney, New South Wales on 6 April 1942.

On 5 August 1942 RFA Bishopdale sailed from Noumea, New Caledonia for Brisbane. On leaving Noumea she sailed straight into one of the 33 Allied minefields which had been laid around the harbour and which contained a total of 2,061 mines.

The minefield she entered had been laid by HMAS Bungaree.

HMAS Bungaree

HMAS Bungaree – the Royal Australian Navy’s only Auxiliary Minelayer

Having struck a mine, which exploded, she suffered damage to her hull. No one was injured and the ship later sailed to Sydney, New South Wales under her own power for repairs. These repairs lasted until the following February, 1943.

Bishopdale mined

Item from the COMSOPAC War Diary concerning the mining

A joint RAN/RN Board of Enquiry was subsequently held and this found that the ship had not received Admiralty Notice to Mariners for nearly 18 months and the US Naval Routing Officer (USRO) at Noumea had not warned the ship’s Master or her Navigating Officer of local dangers prior to her sailing. As such they blamed the Master and the Navigating Officer for hazarding their ship. In addition they accused the Master of telling a series of falsehoods in an endeavour to clear himself. The findings by the Board of Enquiry were forwarded onto the Admiralty in London by the Secretary of the Australian Naval Board and Their Lords Commissioners took the view that the findings were open to criticism –

The Admiralty advised the Secretary of the Australian Naval Board that: –

1. The position in which Bishopdale had actually been mined was not ascertained.

2. The Route instructions for the voyage on which the ship had been mined had not been called for. These instructions might have been vital to the case. No enquiry seemed to have been made as to any verbal instructions which may have been given by the USRO Noumea

3. The report implied that the Board members were not aware that it was the duty of Routing Officers to furnish ships with routes Clear of all Danger. Routing Officers were not permitted to reveal to Masters the position of minefields, etc.

4. The report and the general trend of the questions implied that had all relevant Notices to Mariners been on board the Master would have known of the minefield. This was not a fact.

5. The Master’s answer to one question which the Board of Enquiry suggested was fallacious was in fact correct. The Master’s routing instructions to Noumea did in fact incorporate all latest Notices to Mariners but were of no assistance for the passage between Bulair Passage and Noumea, except to instruct the vessel that a pilot should be taken.

On 2 September 1943 the Admiralty Director of Navigation concurred with the reasoning above and he stated the charge of hazarding the ship and the grave accusation against the Master’s veracity were quite unsubstantiated from the information available.

Their Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty found difficulty to come to a decision in the case as certain necessary evidence was lacking. As far as the evidence went however they were of the opinion that the mining occurred at least partly due to the failure of the USRO, Noumea to route RFA Bishopdale out of Noumea on a course which would kept her clear of danger.

The ships 2nd Officer – James R Chase RFA had entered the RFA on 23 September 1937 and left the Service on 15 January 1943.

Commander Murray W Westlake RD, RNR – the ship’s Master joined the RFA in September 1921 and had been Master of various ships since September 1935. He had been the Master of RFA War Sirdar when it was bombed and beached just prior to the Battle of the Java Sea. He had been in command of RFA Bishopdale since 6 July 1942 and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1945 for courage, efficiency and skill in damage control when a Japanese aircraft struck RFA Bishopdale in San Pedro Bay, Leyte Gulf on 14 December 1944. Two of the ships compartments were flooded, fire broke out and the ship took a list. By prompt action the ship was brought back on an even keel and was ready to continuing fuelling within half-an-hour of the attack.