24. HMAS Nereus

HMAS Nereus


According to the Navy’s survey of February 1942, Nereus was owned by Sydney Arthur Smith Esq. of Wahroonga.  She was 66 feet (20.12m) in length, with a breadth of 16 feet (4.88m) making her one of the larger vessels of the Hollywood Fleet.  She was powered by twin Chryslers eight cylinder marine engines, each of 175hp.  She had six cabins, two forward, two amidships and two aft, toilets port and starboard, lounge, saloon, a fore cabin, pantry/galley complete with refrigerator and gas stove, an engine ‘room’ and a bridge control cabin and cockpit.  She was built of hardwood laminated timbers with oregon stringers and planking.  


Her owner’s value was £6,500.  The formal Lloyds Register of Shipping survey of 5 November 1941 confirmed Nereus had been built by Lars Halvorsen and Sons in 1939.  Lloyds valued her at £6,000. (374)  Nereus was requisitioned on 16 September 1941 and commissioned as HMAS Nereus on 30 December 1941. (375)  Her first commander Second Lieutenant E B Beeham of the RANVR, was replaced on 1942 by Sub-Lieutenant RANVR Harold C Eyres.  He was replaced on 25 May 1942 by Lieutenant RANVR James B Griffin, DSC who was to be her last commander. (376)  Fitout work to suit naval requirements was undertaken by Halvorsens and she was approved to be fitted with six depth charges.


Nereus. (377)


As with Marlean and Winbah, she was recommended by Muirhead-Gould for service at Darwin. (378)  The allocation was approved by the Naval Board on 8 November 1941, but there is no record in the Sydney log of Nereus leaving Sydney nor in the Darwin Log of her arrival.  On 1 May 1942, Nereus is recorded departing for Broken Bay and returning three days later in company with Steady Hour. (379)


HMAS Nereus. (380)


By January 1942, the owner’s solicitor was pursuing the Navy for their position regarding compensation for charter or purchase.  Muirhead-Gould sought advice from the Naval Board.  Despite the Lloyds valuation, by February, the Director of Engineering (Naval) was recommending purchase for a price of £5,000.  In March 1942 approval was given for negotiations with the owner.  At the time, negotiations were also to proceed for Lolita and Marlean.  The parties met in April 1942 and Tennant subsequently recommended to the Contract Board that a price of £4,750, less the value of rental monies paid by the Navy to that date, would ‘represent a satisfactory transaction for the Navy’.  Whilst awaiting a response from the Navy, Smith’s solicitor pressed that rental of £241 already paid to date, should not be deducted but should be in addition to the £4,750.


By mid-May, the Navy agreed with Smith’s position and Nereus was purchased for the sum of £4,991 with the rent of £241 to be deducted resulting in the net purchase sum of £4,750.  


It appears Nereus played no role in the Battle of Sydney Harbour and her whereabouts has not been established.  However, Muirhead-Gould’s 22 June Report, includes that on the night after the Battle, Nereus attacked and claimed to have sunk another submarine in Vaucluse Bay.  At the time of his report, Muirhead-Gould believed the claim was genuine, but later considered the report to be a false sighting. (381)


By mid-June, the purchase of Nereus was finalized. (382)


On 2 July 1942, just over a month after the Battle of Sydney Harbour, HMAS Nereus was destroyed by fire. (383)  She had relieved Yarroma at the buoy in Obelisk Bay, on the western side of the harbour just outside the boom net.


The fire started in the engine room at about 6.00 pm, with a blast of fire through the doorway into the galley.  Lieutenant Griffin, commander at the time was of the view the fire started in the batteries.  He had previously dealt with the explosion of batteries in another vessel.  Griffin described the very dense white smoke which he considered came from such an explosion.


The fumes were that strong you couldn’t see anything.  The lights had failed and you certainly couldn’t breathe there.  The fumes were the worst aspect of it.  They were right through the ship.  I was driven away from the seat of the fire by them and had to go on the open deck.


He ordered the crew off at about 6.15 pm.  Griffin himself was taken off at 6.20 pm by a fishing vessel and he proceeded to HMAS Steady Hour to obtain a gas mask.  He then returned to Nereus at about 6.30 pm with another fire extinguisher.  He told of going on board and into the wheelhouse but having to leave almost immediately as ‘The fumes and heat would not allow [him] to stay’.


The morning’s newspaper (384) described the fire as a ‘spectacular sight for crowds’ with flames burning fiercely before burning through the rope mooring her to the buoy which resulted in Nereus drifting with the tide onto a group of piles where she ‘stuck fast’.


People saw a spectacular display of fireworks when small arms ammunition kept on the launch exploded in the heat and flew into the sky in all directions.  Mauve flames from other burning material mingled with the crimson and yellow of the fire.


Three fire brigades attended at the nearest point but were unable to reach her with their hoses.  The flames were finally extinguished by a fire float, but not before Nereus was burnt to the waterline.  Nereus was later ‘beached’ by Steady Hour.


Three days later, and ten months after she had been requisitioned, the Navy and the owner finalized negotiations and settled the purchase for a sum of £4,991.  The sum included the monthly rental payments already made.  


Under the direction of Muirhead-Gould, a Board of Inquiry was formed of members from the local shore base, HMAS Penguin.  There was no ‘outside’ member to ensure impartiality.  The Board held a ‘full and careful’ investigation into the circumstances surrounding the loss of Nereus, however, Lieutenant Breydon, then commander of the Hollywood Fleet who was present during the hearing, was not called to give evidence, to account for his command of the Hollywood Fleet which included Nereus.


The Board conducted its examination of witnesses over a single day.  There were no reports from expert investigators and no fire experts were called to give evidence.  The Board was unable to ‘definitively’ establish the cause of the fire, but despite the views and evidence of the commander of an ignition caused by the batteries, the members of the Board were of the opinion the fire emanated from an explosion of petrol gases, but the reason for the presence of those gases could not be traced.


The Board considered there was ‘no reason to suspect that the sources of the ignition was due to any form of sabotage, carelessness on the part of any member of the ship’s company, or disobedience of the smoking regulations’.  But the Board considered the commanding officer had failed to take advantage of opportunities to exercise the ship’s company at ‘Fire Stations’ but went on to find that this was not a contributory cause for the loss of the vessel, and found that every effort was made by the ‘ship’s company’ to limit the extent of the fire.  By October 1942, Muirhead-Gould had accepted the findings of the Board and recommended trials of CO2 extinguishers, and that ‘some instruction be given to Motor mechanics before’ their appointment to petrol driven craft.  He also accepted that Channel Patrol Boats had not been attached to any definite naval establishment, and subsequently appointed the fleet to the shore base, HMAS Penguin II.  


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

374 NAA: MP138/1, 603/246/1786 – Motor yacht Nereus

375 NAA: MP138/1, 603/246/1786 – Motor yacht Nereus, AWM 78/418/1 Sydney Log

376 RAN Navy Lists

377 Halvorsen Album held by ANMM

378 NAA: MP138/1, 603/246/1786 – Motor yacht Nereus

379 NAA: AWM 78, 418/1: Sydney Log

380 AWM Photograph 301939

381 NAA: MP1049/5, 2026/21/79: Midget Submarine Attack on Sydney Harbour, p.44,  NAA: SP338/1, 201/37: Midget Submarine Attack on Sydney Harbour, May 31st June 1st 1942, p.145,  NAA: B6121, 162K: Midget Submarine Attack on Sydney Harbour - Signals, p.167

382 NAA: MP138/1, 603/246/1786: Motor yacht Nereus

383 NAA: MP981/1, 603/246/2452: HMAS Nereus – Loss by Fire

384 The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 July 1942, p.5