During the Great War of 1914-1918, six thousand four hundred and seventy one British, Allied and neutral merchant navy vessels were sunk due to acts of war . The vast majority of them were sunk in Northern Hemisphere waters, in the sea-lanes of Europe, the Mediterranean, and in the North Atlantic between the ports of the United Kingdom and North America. 823 of those ships met their fate due to mines. The number of merchant seamen and men, women and children passengers who lost their lives aboard British Merchant ships is recorded as 17322.

Thousands of miles from the northern battlefields on land and ocean the young nations of Australia and New Zealand were relatively free from the direct threat of war, and the tyranny of distance could almost be counted as a blessing. The exploits of the first HMAS Sydney and its engagement with and ultimate destruction of the German cruiser Emden in the Cocos Keeling Islands off the Northwest coast of Western Australia in 1915 was an early encounter and probably the closest to Australia that most Australians might expect the war to come. Despite the call to arms, and shortages that the war brought about, and the propaganda, most Australians could expect to carry on their normal lives without a direct threat or fear from attack in their own backyard – much as we do today.

The “EMDEN” sunk by the “SYDNEY”

Nevertheless, in mid-1917, a converted liner from the German Hansa Line, the Wachtfels, now known as the S.M.S. Wolf, arrived in Southern waters to inflict both direct and indirect damage to our shipping. Over a course of weeks this single vessel laid hundreds of mines and captured and sank several vessels and although the Wolf safely returned to Northern waters and to a hero’s welcome her presence off the coasts of Australia and New Zealand would be felt into the future.

At the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 Huddart Parker Ltd was the third largest shipping company (in value) in Australia. It then had a fleet of 21 vessels worth £ 715,000, ranging from the 36-year old [bay steamer] Excelsior of 340 tons to the 8-year old cargo and passenger steamer S.S. Zealandia of 6660 tons. At that time several new vessels were also either under construction or had been ordered by the Company.

The 1914 Fleet of Huddart Parker & Co.

Passenger Steamers

Zealandia 6660 tons
Ulimaroa 5777 tons
Riverina 4758 tons
Wimmera 3022 tons (for N.Z. trade)
Victoria 2969 tons (N.Z. trade)
Westralia 2884 tons (N.Z. trade)
Burrumbeet 2420 tons (West Australian trade)
Meeinderry 217 tons

Cargo Steamers

Werribee 3871 tons
Barwon 2999 tons Melbourne-Sydney-Newcastle
Moorabool 2996 tons Melbourne-Sydney-Newcastle
Yarra 2140 tons
Corio 2061 tons

Bay Excursion Steamers

Weeroona (Paddle) 1412 tons
Hygeia (Paddle) 987 tons Bay excursions
Coogee 762 tons (Melbourne-Launceston Tasmanian excursions)
Courier 728 tons Bay excursions
Excelsior 340 tons Bay excursions

Ocean-going Tugs

Nyora 306 tons
Eagle 229 tons
Falcon 134 tons

In August 1914 the Wimmera was 10 years old. Since her arrival three newer and larger passenger steamers had been added to the fleet and three older vessels, the Anglian, Despatch and Zealandia had been sold off.
The Admiralty and the Commonwealth Government requisitioned many Australian merchant vessels during the course of the War. They were appropriated for duties that ranged from the transportation of troops, supplies and mails; to serving as hospital ships or armed merchant cruisers. [All of Australia’s major shipping companies,] including Huddart Parker had their fleets reduced through this compulsory acquisition of their vessels in this way. In the case of Huddart Parker, these included the vessels Zealandia and Ulimaroa.
In April 1915, the 3829 ton cargo steamer Hebburn was completed by her builders, at Blyth. She was not delivered to her owners but was commissioned for war duties in the conveyance of cargo and Naval stores. The Hebburn saw service in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, Mediterranean, Dardanelles, Europe, America, New Zealand, Australia and Africa. At one time she was employed as a decoy in an unsuccessful attempt to trap the German raider Moewe. In 1919 she was handed back to Huddart Parker.

Also under construction in 1915, at Dumbarton in Scotland, was the 3042 ton Nairana. Work on the vessel was discontinued for a time until August 1917 when she was converted into a sea-plane carrier and manned by Royal Navy crew. As HMS Nairana she saw service as part of a battle cruiser force and took part in an attack on a Bolshevik fort at Archangel, Russia in August 1918. She was reconstructed as a passenger ship after the war and delivered to her owners in December 1920.

[HMS Nairana in dazzle paint]
[HMS Nairana in dazzle paint]
Detail from Postcard. Author’s Collection.

Of the Huddart Parker vessels already in service in Australasian waters, the first to be withdrawn and requisitioned was the 5777-ton Ulimaroa. She was requested by the New Zealand government in January 1916 and was used to transport New Zealand and Indian troops, and cargo. Under the command of Captain William Johnston Wyllie, a former master of the Wimmera, she carried a crew of Australian officers and men and saw service in the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, Mediterranean, New Zealand, Egypt, Europe and India. Although submarines attacked the Ulimaroa on several occasions, she managed to escape the war unscathed.

Transport S.S. Ulimaroa at Wellington, New Zealand
‘Transport S.S. Ulimaroa’ [at Wellington, New Zealand]
Detail from postcard. Author’s Collection.

Late in the war, in April 1918, the Interstate Central Committee requisitioned a number of the company’s cargo vessels for coal freight. These comprised the Barwon, Corio, Goulburn, Moorabool, Werribee and the Yarra. The Five Islands were also later requisitioned.

The following month, in May of 1918, the 6660-ton Zealandia was requisitioned. Under the command of Huddart Parker’s Captain George Bernard Bates, who was briefly, at one time, a master of the Wimmera, the Zealandia was used primarily for the transportation of American, British and Australian troops. She saw service in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans, Mediterranean, America, Europe and India. She encountered submarines on a couple of occasions, yet both times resulted without incident. She returned to Australia and was reconditioned in Sydney and resumed service with Huddart Parker in December 1919.

S.S. 'Zealandia' Transport, European War, 1914-1919.
S.S. ‘Zealandia’ Transport, European War, 1914-1919.
Detail from postcard. Author’s Collection.

In addition to these larger liners/steamers, the 762-ton Coogee was requisitioned by the Navy Department in 1918 and employed as a patrol vessel off Port Phillip Heads and temporarily as a minesweeper in early 1919.

Unlike her larger sister ships the Wimmera remained in her owners hands and continued to be engaged in her regular trade across the Tasman.

Of the remaining fleet, the Riverina operated between Sydney and New Zealand throughout the war; the Victoria continued on the Tasman run together with the Wimmera until January 1918 at which time she was withdrawn and sold to the China Australia Mail Steamship Line; and the Westralia, which maintained the Sydney-Hobart service throughout the war. The 2999-ton Barwon was also withdrawn from service.

Ironically the only Huddart Parker vessel that operated throughout the war and met its doom as a result of enemy activity was the Wimmera, despite the duties of the other vessels that took them into the appreciatively more dangerous waters of the Atlantic and Mediterranean.

The Wimmera was thus destined to continue to ply between Australian and New Zealand ports with passengers and many tons of cargo, sheep, horses and pigs. Meanwhile, the course of the war saw another merchant ship being requisitioned for naval service on the other side of the world.

© Ralph L. Sanderson 2004-2021