On 13 June 1945, HMAS Lolita was at Alexishafen.  She had moored to HDML 1327 with HMAS Martindale outside.  ML 816 was further inboard with ML808 alongside the wharf.


The work required on Lolita’s engines had been completed and she was to go on trials.


Blunt again takes up the story:


I had been writing in my cabin but was called on deck and was sitting on the rail just outside the wheelhouse door when the engines were about to be started.  Instead of starting however there was a great explosion in the engine room under the wheelhouse and I was enveloped in sheets of flame and the deck collapsed into my cabin where I had been only a moment before.  Fate plays many tricks.  I was helped ashore and promptly lost interest in what was happening as I was quickly taken to hospital with the skipper and two of the shore staff who had been in the wheelhouse at the time.  


Blunt recalled the fire created pandemonium at the base with Lolita’s fuel tanks, explosives and ammunition exploding in all directions.  The fire was so fierce and the explosions so dangerous that personnel could not fight the fire and the boat had to be abandoned - it drifted to a reef on the far shore and was finally burnt to the waterline.  Lolita was a complete write-off.


The two mechanics who had been in the wheelhouse and engine room were very seriously injured.  Alfred Smith was listed as ‘dangerously ill’.  William Bertalli was listed as ‘seriously ill’.  The skipper John Trim suffered severe burns and Blunt was burnt severely on the front of the body, arms and legs.  Blunt’s hair had been burnt off and something heavy had given him a scalp wound which required stitches.   He said, ‘I was literally covered in bandages’.  The injured were transferred to Madang hospital which was staffed by Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) medical personnel and nurses.


By 15 June, Lieutenant Trim was said to have improved slightly, and Blunt’s condition was satisfactory.


But on 17 June, Alfred Smith and William Bertalli died.  


The Acting Engineer at the base, Lieutenant Commander Purves, submitted an initial report on 15 June – just two days after the explosion and loss of Lolita. (164)  He confirmed there had been a violent explosion in the engine room at 4.10 pm.  Other craft had taken immediate action to ‘clear the burning craft of the other ships moored alongside in the basin and on the Floating Dock’.  He wrote in his report, Lolita had been a mass of flames and assisted by the strong wind, had rapidly drifted clear and ‘bought up on the reef about half way between the Floating Dock and the opposite point of land’.  Being in that location and despite not being a danger to the base, HMAS Potrero was directed to ‘fire a drum of 20mm [ammunition] along the water line of the blazing hull in order to admit water to the vessel to keep her fast on the reef’.  Lolita continued to burn till 10 pm that evening when she was ‘completely consumed’.

At the time of writing his report, Purves advised the cause of the explosion had not been determined.  He attached a sketch of the base showing the disposition of the ships during the incident and attached statements from other personnel.


*             *             *


A Board of Inquiry was formed consisting of senior officers from the shore base HMAS Madang: President - Acting Commander Reid, Members - Surgeon Lieutenant-Commander McLean and Acting Lieutenant-Commander Nichol.  The Board formally examined witnesses over several days.  The key task for the Board was to ascertain the cause of the explosion, and identify actions that should be taken on other vessels in the future.


Sketch made by Lieutenant Commander Purves showing the location of Lolita and the other vessels in the harbour at the time of the explosion. (165)


The Board commenced by examining the base personnel.  The first witness was the assistant base engineer – Lieutenant Moore.  Moore had been in his quarters and upon hearing the explosion dashed to the wharf.  Two other base engineers were interviewed.  Neither had been working on Lolita and at the time of the explosion were working on other vessels.


The fourth witness was Lieutenant Trim.  He had been temporarily released from the hospital for the purpose of the Inquiry.  He described sitting on the wheel house seat looking down into the engine bay.  Motor Mechanic Smith was with the engine, and Motor Mechanic Bertalli was in the wheel house at the starting controls.  As Bertalli pressed the starter of the engine, there was a flash up through the carburetor about six inches (150mm) high, and a second later, ‘a large gout of flame came from the inboard side of the engine – about two feet high’.  Trim said, that immediately following, ‘the whole wheel-house filled with flame and there was a terrific explosion’.

Trim was extensively questioned about the work that had been undertaken on the engine, whether there had been any smell of petrol during the day or at the time the engine was to be started, if any work had been done on the wiring system, and his understanding of the engine room and bilge ventilation systems.  Trim was questioned extensively about the clothing worn by the mechanics which he ‘did not notice at the time’, but believed they had been wearing shorts.


Able Seaman Blunt was the next witness.  He described sitting on the starboard side near the door of the wheel house when Bertalli started the engine immediately followed by the explosion.  Blunt then went onboard HDML1327 from where he heard Trim calling for fire extinguishers and observed Trim to be still aboard Lolita.  Blunt was then assisted to the wharf and to the base sick bay.


Ordinary Seaman Peoples was questioned next.  Peoples had been on the wheel house, starboard side, when the explosion lifted him into the air before dropping him on the starboard deck.  Peoples said he had not smelt petrol in the ship at any time.  He said the last time he had seen the Captain before the explosion was when he was standing on the starboard side of the steps leading to the wheel house of Lolita.  After the explosion he saw the Captain calling for extinguishers and hoses.  He confirmed the mechanics along with other members of the crew were in shorts.


The next of the crew to be questioned was Able Seaman Zanoni.  He had been on the deck, port side.  Zanoni said the explosion lifted him ‘over the side into the water’.  He was thrown a rope from the neighbouring HMAS Martindale.  Zanoni also recalled the Captain calling for fire hoses.  Once Martindale came in to tie up, he went up to sick bay suffering burns to his leg and side.


On the third day, Trim was recalled and questioned regarding the instructions and Standing Orders applicable to the vessel and work on the engines.  The questioning was directed to the fire precautions, including clothing to be worn in compartments containing petrol and petrol engines.


A particular question was put to Trim:


Had you any knowledge of the fire which occurred in a Motor launch at Milne Bay about April, 1944, in which several men were burned and some subsequently died?


His answer:


No Sir.  I heard about it after our own, but not before.


Trim was asked if he had seen an Order issued by NOIC New Guinea dated 3 April 1944.  Trim said he had a copy in his list of New Guinea Standing Orders.  He said he received some ‘Standing Orders’ at Thursday Island, some at Milne Bay and others at Madang, and confirmed he had read all such Orders.


Trim confirmed for the Board, he saw a flash from the carburetor on top of the engine and then a flame from the bottom of the engine about the height of the engine itself, followed immediately by an explosion that filled the whole of the engine room with flame.


Stoker Cameron of Lolita who had not been questioned earlier, was called to give evidence.  Cameron had joined the ship at Madang in April but had no experience with internal combustion engines, but as Stoker, he was responsible for the operation of the engines.  He said he had been standing on the deck halfway between the wheel house and the stern when the explosion occurred.  Cameron was questioned about the engine and the engine room – cleanliness, smell of fumes, ventilation systems and if they had been running before the explosion.  He said he could not remember if the fans were running ‘but they could have been running’.


Trim was again recalled.  This time he was questioned about the ventilation fans for the bilges and if he was aware of the Order which required the bilges to be ventilated before petrol engines were to be started.  He said ‘No Sir’, and went on to say he could not remember that Order, but could remember the Order that required ventilation of the bilges after fueling.  Trim said he had previously requested that Cameron be replaced as he had very little knowledge of petrol engines ‘at all’.


He confirmed the number of seamen allowed for Lolita, and confirmed he was not permitted by the Navy to have a mechanic to maintain the engines.


In response to further questioning about the engines, Trim said he believed the engines were fitted when Lolita was refitted in approximately August 1944 at the Sayonara Slip in Sydney.  He confirmed he had read the report from the Base Engineer in Cairns recommending return of Lolita to Sydney, which he said was on the file in the engine room.  Trim considered the report had ‘condemnedLolita because of the engines.


In addition to the crew of Lolita, base personnel were also called to give evidence.


The Board of Inquiry issued their findings on 20 July 1945 confirming the explosion and fire originated in the engine room caused by a ‘back flash from the carburetor at the moment the starter button was pressed’.  The Board said it was the flash that ignited an ‘explosive mixture of petrol vapour’ which from some cause had accumulated in the Engine Room bilges.  It was the view of the Board, the bilges were not adequately ventilated despite ventilating fans being fitted which were considered to have been ‘efficient’.


The Board found that following the explosion and fire, ‘no more effective means than were employed could have been used to extinguish the fire’ and the officers and ratings concerned acted with ‘promptitude’ in casting off Lolita, thereby allowing her to drift clear, reducing the fire risk to other ships alongside.


In addition, they determined that the extensive burns suffered by Bertalli and Smith would have been minimized by wearing overall clothing as had been laid down by the Orders arising from the earlier incident at Milne Bay.  It appeared most probable that the life of Bertalli would have been saved had those orders been complied with.  The Board recommended that to prevent a recurrence of the accident strict compliance was required with the existing Orders.


The Board commended the actions of the Sick Berth Attendant W E Conroy for his correct, ‘promptitude’ and efficient initiative for the comfort and early hospitalization of the casualties.

A copy of the Order arising from the earlier accident at Milne Bay was attached to the report.  The Order was explicit that engine room staff in vessels with petrol engines were to be fully clothed.  The Order confirmed that commanding officers who have the immediate direction of such work would be held ‘personally responsible’.


Given the finding of the Board that Bertalli and Smith were wearing shorts, it is inexplicable that no commanding officer was held responsible.  Neither the commanding officer of the Alexishafen shore base, nor the supervising engineers were held to account.  None were held ‘personally responsible’.


In addition, it is extraordinary that the true extent of the work completed on Lolita was never disclosed to the Board of Inquiry.


Just over a month before the Board of Inquiry, the Naval Officer in Command, New Guinea informed the Naval Board by way of his regular Report of Proceedings, (166) that Lolita was undergoing repairs at Alexishafen and there had been ‘considerable trouble experienced in refittingLolita.  He said the engines showed signs of ‘neglect’ as no stoker/mechanic formed part of the crew, and went on to advise that a new ‘auxiliary engine’ had been fitted.  After just one small operation, Lolita again developed a ‘major engine defect necessitating the removal of the engines’.  New pistons, crank shaft and bearings had been fitted and as no spare parts were available, diving operations were commenced to salvage a ‘worn out American motor’ from a sunken vessel.  The necessary parts he said, had been ‘dismantled and reconditioned’ before being used.  The date of his report was 4 June 1945 – nine days before Lolita was destroyed.


There was no mention of the Report of Proceedings in the Board of Inquiry’s findings.  


His June report dated 7 July, confirmed the loss of Lolita ‘after an explosion whilst reconditioned motors were being installed’. (167)  


There was no reference to ‘reconditioned motors’ during the inquiry, or of salvaging and reconditioning parts from a sunken vessel, before they were used.  Neither report is referred to in the records of the Inquiry


With the benefit of hindsight, those matters may have been material facts for examination by the Board.  Perhaps the cause of the explosion was not from a simple ‘back flash’ from the carburetor, or because the mechanics had pre-primed the carburetor.  Perhaps there had been a catastrophic failure of a ‘reconditioned’ part from the sunken vessel, that caused the engine to explode giving impetus for an explosion of fuel and vapours.


Given two mechanics died and Lolita was destroyed, there was a necessity for all the facts to be examined so the cause of the explosion could be properly determined and blame would not be wrongly attributed.  It appears there were further significant matters that should have been examined.

164 NAA: MP1049/5, 2026/27/197: Loss of “Lolita” due to explosion in engine room

165 NAA: MP1049/5, 2026/27/197: Loss of “Lolita” due to explosion in engine room

166 NAA: AWM78, 387/1: Coastal Craft [ML] Administration, New Guinea: Reports of Proceedings., May Report dated 4 June 1945, p.3

167 NAA: AWM78, 387/1: Coastal Craft [ML] Administration, New Guinea: Reports of Proceedings., June Report dated 7 July 1945, p.2