Bass Strait minefield claims two ships

The navy has the movement of shipping under complete control and, where possible, shipping is allowed to move. Rumors that other ships had been sunk and that a pocket battleship was operating nearby were emphatically denied by the Navy Department yesterday.

The Navy Secretary announced on Saturday morning that the City of Rayville, owned by the American Pioneer Line, was apparently sunk by a mine while en route from Adelaide to Melbourne with general cargo.

An image of the remains of the Town of Rayville.Credit:Deakin University


Thirty-five minutes after an explosion, believed to be caused by a mine, destroyed the bow of the US freighter City of Rayville and knocked out wireless equipment, 10 miles off Cape Otway on Friday night, the ship had sunk to the bottom. With one exception, all 38 crew members are safe and sound, having entered the lifeboats as they left the doomed ship or having been rescued from the water by them. The lifeboats were then taken in tow by fishermen and the crew disembarked at Apollo Bay.

The missing man is:

MAC BRYAN, 58, from Norfolk, Virginia (USA), third engineer. He was a married man with a family.

Crew members, most of whom were in some degree of shock, told dramatic stories of the tense seconds after the explosion. All agreed that its effect was to render them momentarily inactive as if stunned by a direct hit. “It only lasts a fraction of a second. You want to do something but you can’t. Then you recover and go about your business,” one said. “Once we started it was only a matter of seconds before we were at the boats.”

It was nearly dark when the explosion, apparently from the starboard side, shattered the bow of the vessel and threw water, hatch covers and other debris high into the air. One of the covers hit the gunwale of a steel lifeboat and, although damaged, it was not rendered unseaworthy.

“Within five seconds, all cabins and passageways were filled with thick, acrid smoke,” said the ship’s electrician, R. Stensaker. “I knew the smell: I smelled it during the last war and I don’t want to smell it anymore. It was TNT”

The SS Cambridge sank off Victoria after hitting a mine.

The SS Cambridge sank off Victoria after hitting a mine.

Large columns of water surged upwards after the explosion, and the amidships decks were flooded and the upper foremast collapsed. The crew members, who were below decks, ran and headed for the boats, and the captain (Captain Arthur P. Cronin), who supervised the launching of the lifeboats, paid tribute to their behavior during the disaster.

The boats are leaving

Twenty or more men went first in the starboard lifeboat under the charge of the first officer, Mr. Walter Hart. As the vessel listed heavily to starboard, Captain Cronin feared that it would be impossible to launch her.

“Seconds were precious and we had no time to waste,” said the captain. “We launched the boat safely and when I saw no more men on board I joined the boat.”

Five minutes after the explosion, by the time the lifeboats were cleared, the ship was flooded from amidships to the bow and was settling in the water at incredible speed. It was standing nearly on its nose at a 45 degree angle, with the propeller clear of the water, and banked sharply to starboard.

Several men, including the second officer, Mr. James Green, who was on watch; the radio operator, Mr. Fred A. Gritzer; the electrician, mess man, Glen Phillips, and second engineer dove into the water and swam in the freezing water for 15 or 20 minutes before being picked up by the lifeboats.

Meanwhile, observers ashore near Cape Otway had heard the explosion and seen the flares and rockets sent from the lifeboats. A telephone message was sent from Cape Otway to Apollo Bay asking all available fishing boats to come to the rescue.

In less than 20 minutes, the first of the three boats had set sail and, in intense, cold showers, and with visibility reduced to practically zero due to the darkness, was heading for the scene of the disaster. The other boats followed almost immediately.

The sea was smooth but rough at times and there was a strong tide.


“At 9.15 p.m. we saw the flares from the lifeboats,” said Harry Blyth, who was in one of the lifeboats. “We arrived with one of the boats containing 25 men around 10:10 p.m. and took it in tow. Then we saw another flare, and went for it, but sailed for an hour before picking up the second, containing twelve men.

Rescue was an act of God

“Because of the state of the weather, it was almost an act of God that we were able to save them,” Blyth said. “We had our crab pots at the spot near where the boats were picked up for three weeks and we couldn’t get to them.”

Jock Muir, another member of the rescue team, said that near the Otway lighthouse they signaled with a flashlight, and the lighthouse in turn signaled the boats. They encountered the first boat about eight miles east-southeast of the cape.

Most of the crew were dressed in nothing but shirts, pants and life jackets and, although cold and wet, remained cheerful throughout their ordeal. When the boats reached Apollo Bay at 3 a.m. Saturday after a 20-mile journey, they were greeted by anxious townspeople, who were waiting on the pier. The men were taken to the Ballarat Hotel, where the owner (Mr Rowling) and his wife provided them with hot soup, dry clothes and bedding.

The bush nurse (Sister Faul) and another nurse who was staying at the hotel, cared for several men who had been slightly injured while leaving the ship.


The radio operator, perhaps more than any other member of the crew, felt the sense of frustration that his companions had felt immediately after the explosion. When he attempted to call for help for the vessel in distress, he found that all of his wireless devices had been disabled.

Gritzer said he was performing routine tasks in his cabin when the explosion happened and pieces of wreckage and wood crashed through the roof.


“I received no bells from the bridge, and when I looked outside I saw the captain directing the launch of the lifeboats,” he said. “Captain Cronin told me to send an SOS with the ship’s position, 10 miles off Cape Otway. I returned to the radio room and found that the main transmitter was out of service at due to broken cables.

“I tried the emergency device, but it was also ‘flat’,” he continued. “Then I looked outside and saw the top foremast was down, I got out and saw what was going on, and decided to take the advice of my comrades and leave. A lifeboat was getting out, so I jumped overboard, swam to it, and was pulled aboard.

Cadet William Dawe, 20, who was on his first trip, signing in New York in August, said he was in his cabin talking to a fellow cadet when the blast happened. It wasn’t particularly noisy and at first they thought an auxiliary boiler was exploding. They ran out and found passages filled with thick smoke. Windows were smashed and broken glass lay everywhere. Dawe said he managed to climb into a lifeboat. They left the ship at 9:32 p.m. and half an hour later heard it sink.

Engineer Thomas, who was aboard a torpedoed ship in the last war, said he was in his cabin when he heard the explosion. He was running on deck, wearing only a coat and trousers, having had no time to get dressed. He was one of those picked up from the water. They didn’t know where they were, but saw the lighthouse and walked towards it.

NCO Green, who was on the bridge, said the ship was sailing normally in rough seas when an explosion shook it violently. Shards of glass from the bridge were thrown everywhere, and although he hurriedly took shelter behind the automatic steering gear, he was injured in the face. Almost immediately afterwards, the ship was enveloped in a cloud of dense smoke which, for a few minutes, left those on board in complete darkness. When he reached the bridge, the ship had taken a heavy list, and a few minutes later began to sag by the head.


Metal found in boats

At least two pieces of metal, painted on one side only, which are believed not to have come from the ship itself, were found in the lifeboats, and it is thought they could illuminate the source of the explosion.

The survivors were unanimous in their appreciation of the splendid efforts of the fishermen who rescued them and towed their boats to safety. One officer, expressing his gratitude and that of his colleagues for the gesture and the magnificent seamanship of the fishermen, asked: “Are they doing this kind of thing for nothing? When told they would not appreciate the offer of any reward, the officer remarked, “They did a job of hard work, and I’ll make sure they get credit for it.”

The ship’s officers and crew expressed amazement at such an experience happening to them around the Australian coast. Bass Strait which they considered the safest place in the world at that time.

After receiving the news of the disaster in Melbourne, the Vice-Consul of the United States (Mr FW Jandrey) and the representatives of the owners, MM. Wilh Wilhelmsen Agency Pty. Ltd., traveled to Apollo Bay, taking with them pajamas and other necessities. for the crew, who will remain at Apollo Bay, and will rest until today. Captain Cronin came to Melbourne on Saturday evening.