The Wrecks of Bishop Island
by David Jones, Queensland Maritime Museum
Bishop Island’s days are numbered as the Fisherman Island port development begins.
Image David Jones
Today, when you think of a graveyard for unwanted shipping in Moreton Bay the ‘Tangalooma wrecks’ immediately come to mind. But during the 20th Century there was another graveyard, once popular with visitors but now rapidly fading from memory. This was Bishop Island and it was just outside the Brisbane River mouth.
Bishop Island was created out of a need to straighten the shipping channel across the Brisbane River bar to facilitate access to the city by increasingly larger overseas vessels. Two early channels involved an awkward turn at the river mouth, and it was to eliminate this bend that dredging a new bar cutting was begun in 1909.
Triple propeller shafts are a ghostly reminder of Bingera’s record breaking past.
Image Colin Jones
Leading the work was Captain AG Bishop, master of the cutter suction dredge Hercules. A channel 24ft deep was gouged out of the seabed with the mud being pumped through a long, floating pipe to a bank on the southern side of the cutting. By October 1912 when the work was completed, this bank had been built up into an island around 12 hectares in area. Initially called Hercules Bank, as vegetation took hold it became generally known as Bishop Island after the captain who created it.
The island very soon became a place where unwanted hulks were dumped, and it was often known as Wreck Island. Among the first were two wooden coal hulks, Roderick Dhu and Yosemite. Roderick Dhu sank at her moorings at South Brisbane in February 1914, and after being dragged ashore, was demolished at Bishop Island.Yosemite was beached there in November 1916 and burnt out leaving only a its charred ribs.
Despite their ignominious ends, both vessels had interesting histories. Roderick Dhu had been a ‘blackbirder’. Employed in the so-called ‘labour trade’, she made 40 voyages to the Pacific islands bringing kanakas to Queensland to work in the sub-tropical cane fields of the Wide Bay area.
Yosemite was a fine three masted barque of 1,154 tons built in 1868. After spending many years under the US flag, she was taken over by Chilean owners and traded to South America. On April 1, 1908 she left Newcastle with a full cargo but returned after five days leaking badly and in danger of sinking. She was deemed unseaworthy, sold, and towed to Brisbane for use as a coal barge.
Express liner Bingera departing Brisbane in her heyday.
Image David Jones collection
Another ‘blackbirder’ to end her life on Bishop Island was the Lochiel,as too did the coal barge Maida which had been built as a fine barque in Burma in 1857. The remains of these timber vessels, along with others including the small freighter Civility, the paddle steamer Adonis and the former Sydney pilot vessel Captain Cook, soon rotted away and disappeared below the sand.
Fishing was good at Bishop Island and in 1925 a jetty was built to allow easier access to visitors along with some basic huts and shelter sheds. A rock retaining wall was built facing the shipping channel, but the island’s eastern shore was prone to erosion from wave action induced by the prevailing south-easterly winds. A swampy lagoon developed inland which was a haven for bird life.
Bishop Island became particularly favoured by the Queensland Government Department of Harbours and Marine as a dumping ground for surplus craft. The bucket dredge Groper which had been built in 1876 to improve and maintain shipping access to the Brisbane River and the State’s first steam hopper barge, Schnapper, were beached there to help limit erosion. Dumb barges and pontoons were also scattered on the island’s eastern shore.
Amidst the mundane harbour craft on the island were two truly famous ships, Bingera and Lucinda.
By far the largest vessel on the island, Bingera was completed in 1905 as an express passenger liner running a weekly return service between Brisbane and Townsville co-ordinating with the railway. She was the first vessel in Queensland fitted with steam turbine engines, and with a speed of 16kts and elegant furnishings, berths aboard her were in great demand.
Looking over the stern of Lucinda to Bishop Island’s wrecks in 1956.
Image Mervyn Jones
Unfortunately, when the rail link between Brisbane and Townsville was finally completed in 1923, she was taken out of service and laid up. As no buyer for such a specialised ship came forward Bingera was progressively dismantled and cut down until little more than her bottom plates were left. Her stark remains were towed to Bishop Island in 1929 and beached with only the 91m outline of her hull hinting at her former glory.
The Queensland Government paddle yacht Lucinda gave 35 years of distinguished and faithful service to the State since she first arrived in Brisbane in 1885. A graceful and well-appointed vessel, she performed many roles carrying VIPs as well as school children. Lucinda was also the scene of historic events. The Australian Constitution was drafted in her smoking room in 1891 and she carried the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York, later King George V and Queen Mary, during their visit in 1901 to declare the birth of the Australian nation.
After retirement from Government service in 1921 she became a coal barge and was finally abandoned at Bishop Island in 1937. Lucinda was pushed ashore beside the Moreton, a vessel of similar size which had been beached there three years earlier. Moreton began life in 1878 as the passenger-cargo steamer Gunga, but several changes of ownership and name followed. Her final change came in 1900 when she was renamed Moreton and spent the following decades carrying the city’s night soil out to sea to be dumped.
The suction dredge Hercules working on the Brisbane River bar cutting.
Image Qld Maritime Museum collection
Side by side, Lucinda and Moreton made an odd couple, a swan with graceful curves, and the ugly duckling of lowly service.
As the years progressed more vessels were added to those already present on “Wreck Island”. The former Port Phillip passenger ferry Excelsior was towed there after being used as a workshop during World War Two. The little Miner, built as a minelayer for the Queensland Defence Force in 1886 was placed there in 1953 after a full and varied life of almost 70 years in the State’s service.
At the outer end of the bar cutting stood the Pile Light with a signal station for incoming shipping. In 1949 an errant oil tanker rammed the Pile Light and pushed it into the sea. Its three crewmen swam to safety uninjured, but the Pile Light and its signal station were demolished. To rectify this loss, a small signal station and signalmen’s houses were erected at the seaward end of Bishop Island.
Eroded by rust at the waterline, the former coastal freighter Queensland was broken up later in 1956.
Image Colin Jones
A flow of visitors came to Bishop Island where a kiosk, dance floor, shelter sheds and a toilet block were provided. Sullivan’s launches Luana and Nirvana ran regular excursions to the island, as well as offering charters for clubs and educational cruises for schools. Youngsters enjoyed the adventure of exploring the wrecks, finding ways to board and climb over them.
By the 1950s several hulks were being eaten away by rust and in danger of collapsing. A programme of demolition began with the dual advantage of recovering scrap metal and reducing hazardous wrecks. Nevertheless, many vessels remained to be explored by visitors into the 1970s.
But change was in the wind. An ambitious project had commenced to move the port of Brisbane from the banks of the river to Fisherman Island at its mouth. This involved a vast project of land reclamation which would extend well beyond Bishop Island and continue far out into Moreton Bay. By 2004 the island had disappeared under this vast development.
Former Port Phillip steamer Excelsior with discarded dredge plant.
Image Colin Jones
Such vessels that remained were removed from Bishop Island in the 1990s. Lucinda was among them, her last, sad remains being broken up and carried away in 1993. But relics of her former glory remain at the Queensland Maritime Museum where a wide range of her fine timber furnishings and formal tableware are on display. Most impressive of all the Museum’s Lucinda artefacts is an exact, full-scale replica of her smoking room in which the Australian Constitution was drafted.
Bombing of Darwin
by David Jones, Queensland Maritime Museum
Sunken US transport Meigs after the raid. Image Vic Cassells collection, QMM
Last February marked the 80th anniversary of the first and most powerful enemy assault on the Australian mainland. This was the disastrous air attack on Darwin on Thursday, February 19, 1942.
Japanese forces had been driving through south-east Asia, sweeping all opposition before them. On that day their invasion fleet was ready to land on Timor and this would be followed a few days later by an assault on Java. The attack on Darwin was designed to stifle any opposition from Australia.
The Japanese Navy held nothing back to ensure the success of the Darwin raid. Their four best aircraft carriers were assigned to the task with air groups experienced from the Pearl Harbor attack. That morning, in fine, sunny weather they launched 188 aircraft to attack Darwin about 200 miles away to the south-east.
Despite being reported passing Bathurst Island, the attackers achieved surprise. Their Zero fighters dived down just before 10am to strafe vessels attending the anti-submarine boom around the harbour entrance.
Damaged wharf and buildings after the Darwin raid. Image Vic Cassells collection, QMM
Moments later a formation of high-level bombers crossed the town and harbour releasing their load to devastating effect. Stokes Hill Jetty was wrecked, the Post Office sustained a direct hit which killed 10 people, the hospital, banks, shops and homes were destroyed or badly damaged. Fuel tanks at the port were set on fire sending black, oily smoke into the air.
Two vessels berthed alongside the jetty, the ammunition ship Neptuna and the freighter Barossa, were hit and set on fire. Barossa was towed away to be beached, but the ammunition ship Neptuna could not be saved. Fires on board were uncontrollable, and when they reached her cargo of explosives she blew up, sending a massive fireball into the sky. Altogether 45 crewmen and wharf labourers died in the conflagration.
Dive bombers moved in to pick off shipping lying offshore. Largest ship in port, the 12,500 ton US transport Meigs was hit and sunk along with her compatriot Mauna Loa, both leaving masts and funnels standing above water. The veteran Australian troopship Zealandia, after surviving the First World War and trooping for another 18 months in the second, was struck by two bombs, set on fire and sank.
Few Allied aircraft were available to counter the Japanese flyers. A group of US Army fighters were quickly shot down and other aircraft were destroyed on the ground. It was left to anti-aircraft gunners to defend the port.
First to open fire was the sloop HMAS Warrego with her four-inch high-angle guns. When the bombers came over there were crewmen over the side chipping rust, but they quickly scrambled aboard as she got under way. Other warships put up a fierce resistance which, in some instances, put enemy airmen off their aim and saved further damage.
HMAS Swan was alongside Neptuna transferring ammunition when the bombers arrived. Dave Sporne, a gun-layer on Swan later wrote:
“I realised that we were in trouble lying alongside an ammo. ship, so I hurriedly returned to the Neptuna and cast off the two wire rope springs, and the Swan drew away ... The Neptuna blew up shortly afterwards, but with so much going on I don’t think I actually saw it ...
Swan was attackedseven times. Her upperworks were riddled by machine-gun fire and shrapnel and plates below water were buckled and split which caused flooding in compartments aft.
Dave Sporne again: “We suffered many casualties and I remember when my ‘B’ gun did not fire when aimed, I turned round to yell at the rest of the blokes, “What’s wrong with you b’s”, I found they were covered in blood. The gun captain was dead. Some of the others were dying. Our ‘B’ gun crew was practically wiped out.” Three of Swan’s crew were killed and another 19 wounded.
Lieutenant Commander T Ferris Roberts commanding the patrol vessel HMAS Vigilant recalled “great plumes of water were appearing round the ships anchored at the wharf and nearby. The US warship Peary was already on fire amid a sea of burning oil. It was obviously impossible to get near her, so I headed to the nearest one which I could help.
Transport Mauna Loa with HMAS Swan and HMAS Warrego before the raid. Image US Archives NH43659
USS Peary at sea. Image from Melvin Duke, one of her survivors, QMM
“It was the Portmar, a US troopship of about 4000 tons packed with an artillery regiment. She was badly damaged. Most of the troops and some of the crew started to leave the ship, some being taken off by the HMAS Deloraine as well as the Vigilant. The Vigilant was in danger of overturning by the sheer weight of troops clambering down from the Portmar. She returned to retrieve more and also took some wounded off.”
Ferris Roberts was full of admiration for the American destroyer Peary “which had been literally murdered by the dive bombers and sank stern first in a lake of burning oil, the gunners on the fore deck going down fighting in the tradition of Sir Richard Grenville in the Revenge … HMAS Southern Cross picked up some survivors from the blazing Peary. They had somehow escaped through the burning oil and were put aboard the hospital ship Manunda.” A total of 88 lives were lost with this brave little ship, the largest single loss of life in the attack.
The hospital ship Manunda was anchored in the harbour and her captain, recognising the scale of the disaster unfolding, lowered boats to go quickly to rescue survivors needing medical attention. Despite her red crosses and international recognition as a hospital ship, Manunda was not immune from attack. A near miss peppered her hull with shrapnel, then a direct hit behind her bridge caused considerable damage. Twelve of her people were killed in these two attacks.
Neptuna explodes at the wharf with HMAS Deloraine in the foreground. Image RAN Historical Section via Wikipedia
Amid the noise and smoke of explosions, roaring aircraft engines and gunfire few had any awareness of time. But little more than half an hour after they had come, the attackers were gone. They left six ships sunk in the harbour, another three beached in sinking condition and five more badly damaged.
Darwin and its civil and military facilities suffered serious damage, but there was more to come. After an hour’s lull more Japanese aircraft appeared overhead. They were 54 twin engine bombers from Sulawesi and Ambon. They passed over the city to target Darwin’s two airfields where hangars and facilities were heavily damaged, and aircraft destroyed on the ground.
The surprise and scale of the attack caused chaos on shore. Civilians sought safety inland and military organisation was in disarray. It is estimated 236 people were killed in the raid and around 311 more were wounded. But the fortunes of war would change.
Less than four months later, all four of the aircraft carriers which performed the Darwin attack were sunk in the Battle of Midway. Ships damaged at Darwin were repaired and most returned to the war. Some, like Portmar, were sunk later, but others including HMAS Swan, Barossa and Manunda would continue long and fruitful careers after the war was over.
Darwin suffered 64 wartime air raids before they ceased in November 1943. Forces from Darwin took the war increasingly to the enemy, leading to victory 3½ years later.
The devastating raid on Darwin has gone down in history as the first enemy attack on the Australian mainland and has long been a source of controversy. LtCdr Ferris Roberts speaks as one who was there.
“Contrary to some of the written reports and books by certain authors decrying the behaviour of service personnel during and after the raids, I can only say I saw many acts of extreme bravery and heroism by naval and service personnel, and the behaviour of all I saw far outweighs any suggestions appearing in those books.”
(Dave Sporne and LtCdr T Ferris Roberts written recollections are in the QMM collection)