HISTORY: Tales of a forgotten pioneer

SHE lies wrecked on the harbour bed of Port Stephens, torn by explosives and covered in fishing nets. 

She is HMAS Psyche, an all but forgotten warship from World War I and our fledgling Royal Australian Navy (RAN).

The obsolete ship saw relatively little action and by war’s end in 1918, HMAS (earlier HMS) Psyche was an unwanted war relic. Stripped of equipment and used as a timber lighter, she finally sank off Corlette Headland in 1940.

RAN divers later used her hull for training, to detonate explosive charges.

Yet this former Pelorus, or P-class light cruiser, is not as forgotten as another of her sister ships – HMAS Pioneer –  which won far greater honour in World War I.

Navy buffs today still refer to Pioneer as “this very important ship,” although she’s been largely forgotten for 83 years, ever since she was scuttled off Sydney Heads in 1931.

Now sitting 67 metres down in the dark, cold ocean depths, the wreck was only rediscovered by scuba divers in March this year.

Measuring 95 metres (313ft) overall, the long ship was originally built by Britain’s Royal Navy and launched as HMS Pioneer in June 1899.

She was then transferred to the new Royal Australian Navy Squadron in 1912, becoming HMAS Pioneer. A sister ship, renamed HMAS Psyche, officially joined the squadron in 1915.

The steam-powered light cruiser HMAS Pioneer is today remembered by navy historians as the ship that fired more shots in anger than any other RAN vessel in World War I.

The outdated warship twice bombarded the port of Dar-es-Salaam in then German East Africa, including firing 100   four inch shells  on one day alone.

Earlier, off Western Australia, HMAS Pioneer had captured two German merchant ships while on sea patrol. She was then involved in the famous 1915 blockade of the German warship SMS Konigsberg, in Africa’s Rufiji River delta, preventing any German supply ships from arriving.

The bottled up enemy warship finally hid  20 kilometres inland, after British Empire warships gathered at sea to rain down shell after shell from afar into the river mangroves.

Months passed. The waiting British flotilla now included two shallow-draught monitors, or low gunboats, the HMS Mersey and HMS Severn, towed  from Malta to East Africa to participate.

These two floating gun platforms were finally able to steam close upriver to fire salvo after salvo. But it didn’t initially guarantee success. In their first day’s bombardment, 600 six inch shells were fired at their unseen, hidden target, scoring only four hits. 

(The Pioneer’s presence at the scene helped avenge the sinking of another of her sister ships, HMS Pegasus. Out-ranged and out-gunned by the same German raider, the crippled Pegasus was sunk in a one-sided duel at the September 1914 Battle of Zanzibar.) 

Incidentally, the Konigsberg sinking has gone down in literary history. Author Wilbur Smith’s early novel Shout At The Devil was loosely based on this same river blockade. 

It and another wartime incident on Africa’s Lake Tanganyika also probably help inspire the C.S. Forester novel, The African Queen, now best remembered for the classic 1951 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.

In the film, the two heroes decide to ram a World War I German warship, Konigin Luise,  with a small, rusty river launch laden with explosives, but fail. In the 1935 novel, however, the pair still fail, but two British gunboats then sink the vessel instead. 

 And now, World War I is suddenly the focus of news again. August 4 will mark the start of our Anzac Centenary, a commemoration of World War I to continue until 2018.

And by coincidence, an extraordinary, possibly unique, World War I souvenir photo album of HMAS Pioneer, has just emerged in Newcastle. 

The rare, small photo album marked “HMAS Pioneer” was rediscovered recently by Keith Parsons, the Hunter Region Committee chairman of the National Trust. It contains 28 postcard-size, black-and-white pictures. Writing inside the album cover indicates it was once owned by a person in Tacoma, Victoria.

“It might be from a former crewman of HMAS Pioneer, souvenirs of a voyage, but I have no way of knowing,” he said.

“I only remember buying it from an antique shop somewhere. I might have had it for 20 years. Recently I remembered it, but I couldn’t lay my hands on it until the other day,” he said.

The album starts off with a side view picture of the cruiser HMAS Pioneer, then has a posed picture of the ship’s crew all wearing straw hats.

Further inside there are nine pictures labeled ‘‘the execution of spies’’ by a firing squad of native soldiers and scenes of the beach in Zanzebar (sic).

There’s also a picture of HMS Mersey and a mystery ship, S.S. Laroona. There’s also a distant picture of the wrecked sailing ship Seeadler and five pictures of the wreck of another German raider, the warship Emden, driven ashore by its crew on a reef in the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean after a sea battle with the first HMAS Sydney in 1914. 

“The mast of HMAS Sydney [decommissioned in 1928] is mounted at Bradley’s Head, near Taronga Park Zoo. A captured gun from the raider Emden is also mounted in Sydney’s Hyde Park at the corner of College and Liverpool streets,” he said.

HMAS Pioneer was ordered home early, in August 1916, her seagoing career now over. It’s ironic then to realise the cruiser, although being “obsolete and decrepit”, saw more actual combat than any other Australian ship of the era, according to the Australian War Memorial

The vessel was used as for accommodation at Garden Island until 1922. Here, she also became the site of the RAN’s first dental surgery. 

Sold in 1925/26 and stripped to a bare hulk, she was scuttled off Sydney Heads in 1931.

In many ways though, HMAS Pioneer was a lucky ship. History records the successful German commerce raider Emden being sunk by superior fire power from HMAS Sydney in November 1914.

But the Sydney was a last minute replacement for the ageing HMAS Pioneer. She was due to take part in a convoy escorting Anzac troops to the Middle East.

Instead of steaming ahead to check-out the Cocos Islands en-route, the Pioneer was ordered back to port after a major breakdown with leaking condenser tubes, or ‘‘condenseritis’’ in naval jargon.

How different would it have been if HMAS Pioneer had gone to the Cocos Islands instead, only to detect and be destroyed by the more powerful Emden. It would have been a bloodbath.