HMAS Marlean


Marlean, built by J Williams and Sons at their Bayview boatyard in 1938, was launched in 1939.  At the time of requisition, she was owned by Kyalla Investment Co Ltd, represented by W J Stuart of Camperdown.  Stuart was a proprietor of the construction firm Stuart Brothers, Builders and Contractors.  The Navy’s initial survey identified she was 59 feet (17.98m) in length which had been increased by 10 feet to 69 feet (21.03m).  Her beam was 14 feet 6 inches (4.42m).  Keel and frames were of spotted gum with huon pine planking.  She was powered by two six cylinder Gray marine engines each of 105hp.  She was arranged to sleep eight persons in three double and two single berth cabins and included a deck saloon, dining saloon, toilet, shower room, and an annex galley at the aft end of the dining salon which included a built in refrigerator.  


Both the owner and Lloyds surveyor valued her at £4,500.  The Lloyds surveyor confirmed her length at 69 feet – ie with the 10 foot extension.


Formally requisitioned on 17 September 1941, Marlean was commissioned into the Navy on 30 November 1941 under the command of Warrant Officer L P Smith RANR(S).  On 10 January 1942, Acting Sub-Lieutenant John R Coupe assumed command.  He was replaced on 20 February 1942 by Commissioned Officer from Warrant Rank RANR(S) Eric S Macpherson who was to continue in command to 1 June 1942.  Marlean was armed with .303 Vickers machine guns fore and aft and depth charge racks on the stern.


On 8 November 1941, the Naval Board approved the transfer of Marlean, together with Nereus and Winbah, to Darwin.  She was appointed to serve as a tender to HMAS Platypus at Darwin. (338)  For her service in Darwin at the time of the bombing, HMAS Marlean was awarded the ‘Darwin 1942’ Battle Honour, (339) yet there is no record of her arriving at Darwin or serving in Darwin.  It appears the transfer did not occur, because on 27 April 1942, just twelve weeks after the first Japanese bombing raid on Darwin, it is documented that Marlean (together with Steady Hour) returned to Sydney Harbour from patrol duties at Port Kembla (340) and all three vessels – Marlean, Nereus and Winbah, were at anchor in Sydney Harbour on 31 May 1942.  


HMAS Marlean. (341)


In January 1942, Marlean was approved to be fitted with six depth charges and the Director of Engineering (Naval) recommended she be purchased for a sum of £3,500.  The following month, the purchase was handed to the Contract Board for negotiation at or below the maximum price, of £4,000.  The negotiation was placed in the hands of Tennant.


By April 1942, the parties had agreed to a purchase price of £4,000 but the matter remained to be finalised.  


During the Battle of Sydney Harbour, following the first explosions, Marlean proceeded to the western end of the boom net to assist the protection of the harbour.  After the Battle of Sydney Harbour, HMAS Marlean continued patrol duties as part of the Hollywood Fleet at Sydney, Port Kembla, and Newcastle.


The Navy’s purchase of Marlean was finalized in June 1942 for the agreed sum of £4,000.


The following month, she was reported providing ‘screen cover’ off Newcastle for SS Allara, which had been damaged in a Japanese submarine attack. (342)  The Allara was carrying a load of sugar from Cairns to Sydney and had been torpedoed, which blew off her rudder and propeller.  Tugs raced from Newcastle and towed her into port.


In February 1943, Marlean left Sydney on a ‘special duty’.  Three days later she reported sighting a submarine at the entrance to Botany Bay and dropped depth charges.  She reported a large oil patch and bubbles.  The possibility of a submarine was investigated but discounted.


On 14 April 1944, the command of Marlean was transferred to the Naval Auxiliary Patrol (NAP).  At the time of transfer, all RAN personnel were returned to HMAS Penguin for reassignment and replaced with NAP members.


Marlean left her mooring at the NAP base in Rushcutters Bay for patrol duties on Sunday 12 November 1944. (343)  She was never to return.  She was commanded that day by acting commanding officer Munro, as Arnott, the appointed skipper was on sick leave.


Marlean arrived ‘on station’ at her designated patrol location at Obelisk Bay – at the same buoy to which Nereus had been moored when she was consumed by fire in July 1942.  One of the crew lit the stove to make coffee whilst another began to heat water to wash up.  The stove had ‘previously given trouble and was working badly’.  One of the burners was not working and had been partially dismantled.  There was a ‘dull’ explosion and the stove and galley were engulfed in flames.   Both seamen were forced from the galley.  The acting commander ordered all hands to use extinguishers, but the seat of the fire was inaccessible owing to the flames and smoke.


With fire rapidly consuming Marlean, the acting commander ordered all primers to be removed from the depth charges and the life raft to be deployed.  As the fire could not be contained, the acting commander ordered the ship to be abandoned.  The crew climbed into the raft and pulled away.

HMAS HDML 1358 was on patrol nearby and the commander, Lieutenant Swarbrick, observed smoke issuing from Marlean.  He immediately proceeded at maximum speed towards the burning vessel later recounting in his report:


‘Through the binoculars I could not see any one on board but noticed the depth charges still in the chutes on the port side.  I then ordered the dinghy to be made ready with the intention of releasing the depth charges if possible.’


Having already approached the vessel, Swarbrick considered it was unsafe to approach any closer and ordered his Oerlikon gun to be loaded.  He warned four civilians in a nearby private launch, and the captain of the Pilot Steamer Captain Cook which was standing by, to clear the area due to the imminent danger posed by the depth charges.  After drawing ‘150 yards’ (135m) from Marlean, he ordered shots to be fired along Marlean’s waterline in an attempt to sink her.  Some of the shots ricocheted off the water and hit the adjacent beach and hill.  Others found their mark and Marlean was holed in many places, but Marlean refused to sink.


Twenty-five minutes after the fire started there was a massive explosion, as a depth charge on the port side detonated, blowing Marlean to pieces sending burning debris over a wide area including the adjacent hill.  


At the time, Marlean carried a good deal of explosive petrol and arms.  She had been refueled earlier, carried small arms ammunition and also carried six Mark VII and four ‘Midget’ depth charges.


The explosion shattered the evening peace, with the sound being heard from La Perouse in Sydney’s south, to Killara in the north.  The following day’s newspaper reported damage to homes as far as Watsons Bay and Balmoral.  Thick scrub on the foreshore was set alight by the burning debris thrown there by the explosion. (344)


The following morning, the Sydney Morning Herald gave a vivid account of how the commander of the Pilot steamer, Captain Cook, saw the vessel on fire as he was returning to port and had come to the aid of Marlean and her crew.  She quickly launched a motor dinghy to rescue the six sailors in the life raft who were having a hard time escaping from the burning vessel because the tide was forcing them back towards the burning ship.  ‘They were in a very tight spot’ said the Captain.  Two crew in the dinghy from the Captain Cook took them aboard and when they had barely gone ‘100 yards’ (approx. 90m), Marlean exploded.


Fire brigades helped by soldiers and sailors from nearby military barracks rushed to the fires in the bushland which had spread close to valuable properties.  Police attended and moved many small children who had been playing in the bush at the time of the incident, to the safety of nearby houses.  The damage caused by the explosion resulted in claims for repairs for broken windows and chattels, and cracked walls from twenty-two surrounding residents.  The Commonwealth Government settled the claims via the War Damage Commission with the final account being paid by the Navy. (345)


Location of loss of Marlean, Nereus and Silver Cloud. (346)


A Board of Inquiry was assembled.  All members of the crew, acting commander Munro, Skipper Arnot and Swarbrick of HDML 1358 were examined.  In the report to the Naval Board on 18 December 1944, the Board of Inquiry accepted the fire was caused by careless handling of the kerosene fueled ‘Aladdin’ stove, and although the crew was ‘comparatively new’ to Marlean, all should have been aware of earlier Orders relating to the ‘Prevention of Fire in NAP Boats’.  The Board also established that fire drills had not been carried out and determined the acting commander would be informed that he had ‘incurred the displeasure of the Naval Board for his negligence in not regularly exercising the Ships Company at Fire Stations and did fail to carry out the instructions contained in pamphlet ‘Prevention of Fire in NAP Boats’’.  Probably a harsh outcome for Munro given he was merely the acting commander on the day of the fire.


The remaining wreckage of Marlean. (347)

It was observed the ‘potential fire danger associated with the operation of kerosene cooking stoves in Motor Patrol Boats has long been appreciated, and many orders and instructions have been issued on the subject, but it seems to be almost impossible to overcome the human error element in the operation of the stoves’.  It was also recorded that over 3½ months earlier in July 1944, orders had been issued for diesel oil burning stoves to be installed in other vessels, but the order had not been issued for the Channel Patrol Boats including those of the Hollywood Fleet.  It had taken the Navy over two years after the loss of Nereus and the near loss of Lolita in March 1943, to issue the order, and it still didn’t apply to the remaining vessels of the Hollywood Fleet.


By the time of the Inquiry, divers had located the wreck but had been unable to locate any remaining depth charges. (348)  Perhaps the force of the explosion had been exacerbated by the explosion of all the remaining depth charges.


A wag at the Navy Office recorded Marlean’s destruction on the ‘official’ record card (349) with an appropriate sketch including the crew escaping in the life raft.  There is no indication of any remaining wreckage.

The Navy’s list of ship Honours, records Marlean was awarded the ‘Darwin 1942’ Battle Honour, which means she would have been at Darwin during the first or subsequent bombing raids between 19 February 1942 and into 1943.  However, given she was commissioned in Sydney on 30 November 1941 and departed for Wollongong on 24 April 1942 and was in Sydney for the Battle of Sydney Harbour, it seems implausible that she would have travelled to Darwin, and returned to Sydney.  There is no record of her being in Darwin. (350)


HMAS Marlean is not included in the Navy’s ‘Ship Histories’.

338 NAA: MP138/1, 603/246/1785 – Motor cruiser Marlean


340 NAA: AWM 78, 418/1: Sydney Log. Both vessels departed for Wollongong on 24 April 1942.

341 AWM Photograph 301915

342 NAA: AWM78, 437/1: Shore Establishment – NOIC [Naval Officer in Charge], Newcastle (HMAS Maitland): War Diary

343 NAA: MP1049/5, 2026/27/107: Loss of HMAS Marlean  

344 The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 November 1944, p.1 and 4

345 NAA: MP151/1, 438/201/222: Loss of HMAS Marlean

346 Base map by Gill, H., Royal Australian Navy 1942-1945, Vol. 2, p.69

347 The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 November 1944, p.1

348 NAA: MP1049/5, 2026/27/107: Loss of HMAS Marlean

349 Ship Record Cards held by Sea Power Centre – Australia

350 NAA: AWM78, 400/2: RAN Administrative Authority – Darwin Naval Base (HMAS Melville): Reports of Proceedings., Part 4