80' Length x 16' Beam
2 x .50 cal MG
2 x Twin machine guns
2 x Vickers 7.7mm MG
AWM April 11, 1945
AWM May 1945
Built by Purdon's Yard in Hobart, Tasmania as a a Harbour Defence Motor Launch (HDML) for use as a patrol boat powered by 2 x two Buda 390hp diesel engines with a maximum speed of 12 knots and a range of 3,000 miles at 9 knots. While under construction, two vessels: HDML 1321 and HDML 1327 were selected for "special service" with the Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB).
HDML 1321 was modified for intelligence service with changes in the configuration and armament. Instead of an after steering position, a four berth deckhouse nicknamed the 'dairy' for the barn appearance was added for extra accommodation. Instead of the standard armament, the depth charges were removed and a small engine for ventilation and ability to carry extra fuel drums, an echo sounder and camouflage netting. The main armament was a single 3 pounder gun but was substituted with a U. S. Army 37mm cannon and a Browning .50 caliber machine gun on each wing of the bridge. A single Bren gun atop the "dairy", Oerlikon 20mm cannon over the wardroom and a twin Browning .50 caliber water cooled machine gun aft.
Commissioned November 11, 1943 with a complement of twelve Royal Australian Navy (RAN) crew. Also known as HMAS HDML 1321 or Motor Launch (ML) 1321.
After outfitting at Brisbane, Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB) took over the vessel and departed January 19, 1944 for Milne Bay.
On April 11, 1945 "Operation Copper" (originally code named "Operation Ash") eight
Australian Army Z Special Unit (Z Force) commandos embarked HDML 1321 in Aitape Harbor. The commando force included: Lt. Alan R. Gubbay, Lt. Thomas J. Barnes, Sgt Malcolm F. M. Weber, L/Cpl Spencer H. Walklate, Sig Michael S. Hagger, Sig John R. Chandler, Pte Ronald E. Eagleton, Spr Edgar T. Dennis.
Their objective was to motor near Muschu Island, then paddle ashore in four folboats. Strong currents pushed them southward and swamped and capsized some of their boats causing them to loose equipment. The force made landfall near Som Point and waited until morning. Ashore, their mission was to capture a Japanese soldier for interrogation and to make a beach
reconnaissance for a perspective landing area. Also, reconnoiter the island's defenses and locate two concealed naval guns, then use their folboats to rendezvous with HDML 1321. Over the next two days, seven of the eight commandos were killed, with the sole survivor Spr Edgar T. Dennis managed to escape and successfully swam back to friendly lines.
During the middle of October 1945 the vessel had a refit at Brisbane. The armament was reduced to 2 x twin browning machine guns and two Vickers machine guns. Removed was a twin water cooled .50 caliber machine gun.
During 1946, HDML 1321 returned to Australia and renamed Seaward Defence Boat 1321 (SDB 1321) and operated in Sydney Harbor. In 1953 renamed and recommissioned as HMAS Rushcutter (ML 1321)
and used as an unarmed training vessel for Royal Australian Navy Reserve cadets until 1970.
During August 1971, sold to a private owner who converted it the vessel into a cruise ship, MV Rushcutter.
During 2006, sold to Tracy Geddes who intended to restore the vessel to her World War II configuration and based at Darwin Harbor.
In 2016, moved from its mooring in Cossack Creek to the Small Boat Anchorage between Stokes Hill Wharf and the East Arm Wharf. During April 2016, offered for sale. Reportedly, one of the potential buyers were Islamic State sympathizers, but the purchase did not happen.
On October 19, 2016 at 7.55am, this vessel sank in six meters of in the Small Boat Anchorage of Darwin Harbor. Afterwards, a fund raiser was started to raise the vessel and restore it.
NAA "HDML [Harbour Defence Motor Launches] 1321 - Alteration in armament" page 2 (NAA: MP981/1, 603/297/646)
NT News "Boat used in WWII sinks in Darwin Harbour" by Phillippa Butt October 22, 2016
GoFundMe.com "Save 1321 - Our Military Heritage"
The Guns of Muschu mentions this vessel
The aim of the mission was covered by this simple statement taken from the original SRD Operation Order:
Intention: To insert a party on Muschu Island to,
a. Capture an enemy prisoner for 6 Div interrogation, and
b. To make a recce of the beach 800 yds NE of Cape Warbu.
The execution of the operation was relatively simple – on paper. On the night of the 11th April the team would be taken to Muschu onboard HDML 1321, then dropped in foldboats about six kilometres south-east of Cape Warbu on the southern side of the island. The date was chosen as the moon would be in total darkness and the weather was predicted to be favourable, with clear skies during the day and perhaps some rain squalls in the late afternoon or early evening.
From the drop off point the team would paddle into the beach area between Cap Saum and Sup Point, lay up until dawn, then move further inland and create a concealed base position. From there they’d carry out the reconnaissance as required, either splitting into two groups or working as one team depending on the situation. On completion they’d signal HDML 1321, either by radio or torch, make rendezvous at night and be back to Aitape for breakfast. Mission duration was expected to be forty eight hours maximum.
Contingencies in the event of problems included HDML 1321 waiting out to sea during the day and moving in after dark to a rendezvous point about four kilometres off shore to await light, flare or radio signals. HDML 1321 could also give fire support from its Oerlikon and machine guns and send in a boat to pick up the patrol if help was needed. TAC R aircraft would be making regular sweeps of the island and would be listening on radio and watching for light signals for several days after mission insertion in the event of loss of contact with the patrol. Listening watch on HF would also be constantly maintained by the HDML and the SRD at Lae and Aitape.
In the event that for some reason they couldn’t rendezvous with the HDML, it was suggested that they use the outboards and head to the mainland. The nearest Australian forces were at Dagua, about forty kilometres north west of Wewak. They’d be able to motor and paddle the distance in about eight hours. TAC R aircraft would be patrolling the strait between the island and the mainland and would be able to provide cover until a pickup was arranged. Light signals or radio could be used to contact the aircraft.
Radio callsigns for the mission were:
1. The “Copper” patrol; X-Ray.
2. HDML 1321; Boxer.
By the end of the briefing, there was an air of confidence within the team. This was looking like being a relatively simple operation. There were no reasons to believe the enemy would be in a heightened state of readiness, most of them were second rate troops and from the aerial photos and description of the island, the landing area was easily defined, plus there was plenty of cover to conceal the patrol once on shore.
Their confidence was further boosted by a report that another patrol, code named “Oregon”, had gone into Cape Moem just east of Wewak during the night of the 7th April with the intention of capturing a prisoner, yet despite this being an area reported to be crawling with Japs, they’d returned empty handed without even sighting the enemy. The natural competitiveness between teams only made the Muschu patrol even more determined to succeed.
To conclude, the briefing officer introduced the Medical Officer. A tall lean captain with a thin smile, the MO proceeded to remind the team about the importance of malarial precautions while on operations and other matters of field hygiene, adding as a postscript to the subject:
“And for those of you who have them, don’t forget to check under the foreskin for leeches.”
This was greeted as could only be expected of a group of young Australians who after a few moments of chuckling and accusations, noticed that the MO had taken on a more serious stance. The captain waited until silence returned, then without saying a word produced a large wooden cigar box from his haversack. This he opened and from it distributed eight small metal tins with hinged lids, warning not to open them until he said to do so.
On command, holding them carefully upright as instructed by the MO, they opened the tins. Inside each one, packed in protective foam rubber, was a tiny glass phial.
“Cyanide,” the MO announced flatly. “Simply place in the mouth and bite.”
There was silence as realisation set in. These were suicide pills. During training all of them had been made fully aware of the treatment they could expect if captured by the Japanese, even to the extent of attending a “code of conduct” course where elements of physical and psychological torment were experienced first hand. But suddenly being given the means of self destruction in such an innocent looking form, had a powerful impact on all. For a long moment the silence hung heavy.
Then suddenly someone spoke up.
“Jees Doc, guess if we take one then we don’t need to come see you in the morning, eh?”
Everyone including the MO dissolved in laughter. After a few minutes composure was regained and after a quick question and answer session the patrol was dismissed. They had two days to make final preparations and now that they knew exactly what would be involved, there was plenty to do.
What they hadn’t been told was that SOE had knowledge of the fate of an earlier Z Special mission that was until recently been assumed lost. Gathered by radio intercept and local agents, their information indicated that ten men from Operation Rimau, a mission into Singapore Harbour to sink Japanese shipping based on the successful Jaywick operation of 1943, were now being held in a Singapore prison where they were being brutally tortured almost daily.
The Mission Begins
April 11, 1945
It was a clear, sunny day, with a light breeze ruffling the water. At 1100hrs, HDML 1321, with the men of Operation Copper on board, slipped its moorings and headed out of Aitape Harbour. Passing through lines of landing craft and freighters the patrol returned the waves of crews who paused to watch the little ship motor past. While the mission was secret, there were many who knew that the navy’s HDMLs worked with the “Z Special blokes” and to see one pass by loaded with determined looking men dressed in jungle green and wearing berets could only mean another Z Special operation was under way.
Once clear of the port the commander, Lieutenant Ernie Palmer, gave the order and the diesels were throttled up. HDML 1321 set course east, slicing through the long swell at twelve knots in an easy, comfortable motion. Palmer intended keeping well offshore until they sighted Vokeo Island, then using the island as a navigation marker, turn east and approach Muschu after dark – the somewhat round-about route chosen to remain clear of observation from both Muschu and Kairaru Island. It would take about eight hours to reach Vokeo, and from there another three to four hours to reach the drop off point.
The team’s foldboats were lashed to the deck on both sides of the ship and covered by canvas. Most of the equipment had already been stowed aboard the foldboats, so there was little for the patrol to do to pass the time. A few busied themselves by cleaning their Austens and rechecking their personal gear, but one could only occupy so much time in these tasks and after the first few hours, most of them were stretched out on the deck trying to sleep. Even that proved difficult for some, the combination of nerves and the ship’s motion keeping them awake, several of them becoming seasick.
The time before any mission is always testing even for the most seasoned veteran. It takes a tough mental attitude to prepare for the dangers that lie ahead and no amount of training can completely allay the nagging fears that inevitably enter one’s mind before the action begins. The worst enemy at these times is inactivity and soldiers will always find a way to divert their attention. Be it a game of cards, swapping stories or writing letters, all become diversions to stop them dwelling on their fears. Ironically as many soldiers will explain, often that fear isn’t about their own safety or survival, but how their death will affect their family or loved ones.
Many of the letters from that era reflect this and during HDML 1321’s run to Vokeo Island several of the patrol took the opportunity to write a final letter and entrust it to the crew who’d agreed to ensure it would be delivered if they didn’t return. This would be done via a network of couriers – soldiers, sailors or airmen going on leave who would circumvent the mail censorship regulations to make sure that parents, wives or lovers, received word without interference or delay. It was a practice the military found they couldn’t stop despite threats of the harshest punishment.
Those first hours of the voyage must have been particularly difficult for some of the Muschu team, for as one of the ship’s crew later described it; “The day was a perfect one, the soft rumble of the diesels, the easy motion of the boat through the blue water gave the impression that we were out for a pleasure cruise. Occasionally a wave broke over the bow sending spray high into the air to fall back over us in a fine mist. There were even flying fish that launched themselves off our bow wave then fell on the deck flapping and wriggling until they dropped over the side. It was times like these that it was hard to believe we were at war.”
At 1740hrs Vokeo Island was sighted. Lieutenant Palmer’s navigation and timing had been perfect and he ordered speed reduced to three knots, while maintaining heading towards the island. After dark he’d alter course and head in towards Muschu to position the patrol for insertion, but for now in the off-chance they were under observation, they’d give the impression that they were heading towards Vokeo.
Before last light the crew served up a meal of hot tea and corned beef sandwiches – after that the patrol would have to rely on their ration packs. Most ate heartily, spirits buoyed by the prospect of action, minds now focusing on the job ahead. Their final preparation was to “cam up” – blacken faces and areas of exposed skin. For this boot polish was used , during the application someone began a rendition of Al Jolsen’s “Mammy,” which although it was quickly ended by a curt order from one of the officers, shattered the tension that had been building for hours.
In the tropics, once the sun has set, darkness swiftly follows. That evening the sunset was a vivid display of gold and orange against a clear sky, with high clouds in the west over the mainland flickering with lightning. As the last glimmer of sun faded, HDML 1321 swung round onto a south westerly heading. Throttling up to full speed, the ship passed on a safe course through a minefield south of Kairiru Island then headed towards the eastern coast of Muschu. At 2230 hours Palmer calculated they were in position six kilometres south east of the island and throttled back until the boat was barely making headway.
The night was pitch black, the only light coming from the backdrop of stars. Just the vaguest silhouette of Muschu could be discerned with the naked eye, a blackness that disrupted the line of the horizon where the stars met the sea. It was said they could feel and smell the island rather than see it. Quickly the patrol made ready. First over the side were the foldboats. Then the two men per kayak slipped on board the tiny craft. A final equipment check, then amid whispered farewells and good wishes from the crew, they shoved off to be quickly lost from view. The departure time recorded in the ship’s log was 2315hrs.
HDML 1321 remained on station for another two hours in the event of the team making a sudden return, then on hearing nothing and knowing that they should have reached the shore within an hour and half, set about and powered away from the island to a position out of sight where they’d spend the daylight hours waiting. There the radio operator, seaman Ron Reynolds, sent a quick Morse transmission by HF radio back to Aitape.
"SL, SL, SL "
Code for mission successfully inserted."
Fairmile Ships of the Royal Australian Navy Volume II pages 166-173
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August 4, 2020