Monday, August 27, 2012

H.M.A.S. SEA MIST & The Attack on Sydney Harbour :: Re-discovering a Piece of Aussie (and Family) History…

"H.M.A.S. Sea Mist" on patrol, circa 1942..

I recently stumbled upon a little ship that has an amazing history; having a place in both Australian wartime and maritime history - as well as my family’s…

I was out treading the boardwalks at the Royal Queensland Yacht Club in Manly, doing some R&D for a project I’m working on; and as I came to the end of the long spit that runs to the mouth of the marina and opens out into Moreton Bay, a few bays into the last jetty, I saw a classic, low profile “bridgedeck” timber rig in one of the larger berths.  I went for a closer inspection and the name on the stern revealed “Sea Mist” – I knew of her well…

My uncle had owned Sea Mist in the 70’s and early 80’s, at which time it was based at Southport.  My parents had some fond memories of being aboard her.  But the beautiful 65 foot cruiser, built and launched in 1939 by the famed Lars Halvorsen & Sons (“Halvorsen”) of Neutral Bay, had an incredible history before that – and if her timber gunwales could speak, they would tell a great story…  For it was Sea Mist that had sunk one of the Japanese Midget submarines in Sydney Harbour on that fateful night and morning of 31 May / 1 June, 1942   

"Sea Mist" tied up near Customs House, Brisbane - 1979

I had known a little bit about Sea Mists's involvement in the famous "Attack on Sydney Harbour", through my family, but seeing her again prompted me to dig a bit deeper - and I discovered a wealth of literature on this very historic and symbolic moment, in the arrival of the war to our shores..

The mere fact that the Sea Mist found herself in this position was quite remarkable…  So scant and minimal was Australia’s naval resources at the time of World War II, the Government, realising it had to bolster its fleet, requisitioned a number of larger, privately owned pleasure vessels from their owners  for service, to “prop up” its forces.     

Sea Mist was hardly built for combat.  It had originally been commissioned for the founder of “Meadow Lea” food products, businessman Oliver Triggs (the first person in Australia to manufacture table margarine).  Sea Mist was said to be the very last boat that the revered boatbuilder Lars Halvorsen  - the Norwegian immigrant and original founder of Halvorsen - had a hand in designing, before his passing in 1936. 

It was commandeered by the Royal Australian Navy in 1942 - when Japan entered World War II - and was acquired for 4,000 pounds; a bargain price considering its Lloyds valuation of 5,500 pounds...  There was apparently some haggling around this, but ultimately, Sea Mist became one of "Her Majesty's Australian Ships" as part of what was known as the Navy Auxillary Patrol (NAP).

HMAS Sea Mist (Q10) was subsequently re-fitted accordingly; with a .303 Vickers machine gun on the bow, windows “blocked in”, various other artillery and armour, 4 depth charges and a military paint job.  With the other large pleasure-come-patrol boats, including several other Halvorsens, Sea Mist became part of what was affectionately referred to as the “Hollywood Fleet” – charged (in part) with the defence of Sydney Harbour. 

To its advantage it was long, “lean” and reasonably fast - for a displacement hull – and built well.  From a distance, in profile, it could be mistaken for one of the legendary 80 foot American PT boats - but it couldn't go anywhere near the 42 knots those "giant killers" could - nor did it have anywhere near the arsenal - the PT's being, pound for pound, the most heavily armed boats in US military history...

However Sea Mist was to "punch above its weight" in the attack on Sydney...

The Attack

Warning signs that an offensive by the Empire of Japan was being planned for Sydney had been existent for sometime.  A submarine attack off Newcastle; reconnaissance flights over Sydney by Japanese sea planes; and New Zealand intelligence that there was an enemy unit 40 miles east of Sydney, being among these...  Further, the British Admiralty had failed to report a submarine attack on a harbour in Madagascar, just hours before.

Nonetheless, there was no extra or special vigilance on Sydney Harbour on the evening of 31 May.  It was a Sunday night with the typical "end of the weekend" atmosphere.  It was rainy, overcast and cold.  There was plenty of movement around the city, with people making their way home and there was hustle and bustle in the areas populated by sailors - there were reportedly over 80,000 US Servicemen in Australia at the time.

The floodlights were on at Garden Island and there was a hive of activity on the harbour, with vessels coming and going and ferries doing their usual runs.  Indeed the harbour was full of ships - more than at any other time of the war, with over 30 naval vessels and several large commercial ships.

The sun went down at 5pm and an air of calm descended on the harbour - the calm before the storm -  for just outside the heads of Sydney Harbour, three of Japan's largest ocean going I class submarines were launching three potentially lethal Ko-hyoteki-class"midget" submarines on the unsuspecting city, with a further two submarines in support and a total of 500 Imperial Japanese navy personnel in total.  Their mission was to inflict as much damage as possible on major allied ships.

The three midget submarines, the M24, M21 and M27, were released from the three larger submarines - two of which had launched midget submarines into Pearl Harbour in the famous shock attack, just six months previous.  Each of the midgets were 24 meters long (80 foot) with a two member crew, two torpedoes and with a 12 hour range, submerged.

The Japanese had intended to destroy several major warships moored in the harbour;  among these were the three major, heavy cruisers, the USS Chicago, HMAS Canberra and the HMAS Adelaide; along with several other destroyers, minelayers, corvettes and armed merchant cruisers.

USS Chicago
The M27 entered Sydney Harbour around 8pm, but became fouled in the partially constructed anti-submarine boom net, near Watson's Bay.  They were noticed by surface craft and, realising escape was hopeless, its two crew committed suicide and used a scuttling charge that destroyed the front end of the sub.

The M24 was not so unlucky - following a Manly ferry through the boom defences - it recorded inward crossings on an "indicator loop" at 9:48pm.

At 10.50pm an Ensign aboard the large warship, the USS Chicago, saw the M24's periscope 500 meters away.  He opened fire with his .45 pistol before the submarine was illuminated by the Chicago and then subjected to a torrent of shells, both from the Chicago and other corvettes - which proceeded to pursue the intruding submarine around the harbour, much to the shock of passengers on small craft in the vicinity.  The submarine submerged to escape attack.  Despite the potential danger to civilian craft, remarkably, ferries were allowed to keep running; Rear Admiral Muirhead-Gould believed:
"...the more boats that were moving about at high speed, the better chance of keeping the submarines down till daylight."
Avoiding its pursuers, at 12.30am, M24 re-surfaced and took aim at the USS Chicago.  It fired its torpedoes.  The first went astern of the Chicago, passed under the Dutch submarine K9, and slammed into the HMAS Kuttabul, a converted ferry come accommodation vessel.  The torpedo ripped through the Kuttabul, exploding it in two and sending large chunks of its hull skyward in a thunderous concussion.   Twenty-one (21) sailors were killed, with a further ten injured.  (The ultimate retrieval of the corpses took some time and was one of the more confronting scenes of the war on the domestic front).

HMAS Kuttabul... sunk by the Japanese.  21 people perished.
It was several days before they could all be recovered.
The second torpedo ran aground at Garden Island, but failed to detonate.

Unexploded torpedo from the Japanese midget sub, M24
In the chaos that proceeded, three of the big ships made ready to exit the harbour.  Rear Admiral Muirhead-Gould issued a message:
"Enemy submarine is present in the harbour and Kuttabul has been torpedoed."

The channel patrol boats were dispatched.  "Tomaree" to the East boom gate.  "Steady Hour", "Lolita" and "Yarroma" were sent to the boom.  "Marlean" and "Sea Mist" were sent to the West.

M24 made its way for the heads - a crossing was later identified at 1.10am - one and a half hours after firing its torpedoes...  At 3am the Chicago left the harbour and as it was leaving, it identified a periscope, almost alongside.  The M21 was making a belated entry...  The Chicago signalled Garden Island:
"Submarine entering the harbour."
There was now a concerted effort to find this and any other midget submarine in the harbour.

For several hours there had been pandemonium - sirens were sounding, searchlights, flares and tracer fire arced overhead.  There were so many navel vessels swarming across the harbour and such frequent explosions of depth charges and gunfire, it was somewhat miraculous there were no collisions or accidents...

It is reported that Sydneysiders displayed a variety of reactions to the action.  Some went about their business - others hurried to the nearest air-raid shelter, while others still rushed to the nearest vantage point to see what all the commotion was about...

For the next two hours, there were intermittent sitings near Taronga Zoo and Bradley's Head, but it wasn't until 5am that M21 was discovered by "Sea Mist", in Taylor's Bay.
A rare photo believed to show one of the depth charges being
dropped in the harbour on the morning of 1 June, 1942.

Sea Mist confirmed the object as a submarine and dropped a critical depth charge into its frothing wake, set for 30 metres.  This blew the midget submarine to the surface.  Attacking again as it sunk, Sea Mist's captain, Lt Andrew dropped a second bracket of shallow-set depth charges, set at 15m, which only allowed his boat 5 seconds to clear...  It didn't quite make it - lifted by the stern by its own explosion, Sea Mist's engines were disabled.  In the process, however, it had floundered the Japanese sub.

While Sea Mist was out of action, the damage was done - the attack had brought the invading Japanese to peril.  Not to be outdone though, "Steady Hour", the 56 foot Halvorsen, picked up where Sea Mist left off, continuing the assault and with other angry patrol boats joining it soon after, a further 17 depth charges were dropped on the wrecked sub.  Crippled and laying on the bottom with its engine still running, the two Japanese crew members were dead.  They had been unable to detonate the submarine's internal demolition charges...

HMAS Steady Hour - another Halvorsen - came to assist Sea Mist.

Midget submarines M27 and M21 were subsequently salvaged from the harbour in the days after the raid:  M27 from the anti-submarine netting and M21 from Taylor's Bay.  Their four deceased crew were cremated with full military honours and their ashes returned to Japan.  However the whereabouts of M24, the sub that had sunk the Kuttabul, remained one of the great wartime and maritime mysteries - until very recently...

The M21 midget submarine is retrieved from Taylor's Bay
M27 trapped in netting during recovery
Japanese Midget Sub on 3 June, 1942.

For over 60 years the final resting place of M24 was unknown.  There were many theories about what might have happened to the missing submarine and many alleged discoveries.  It was not until November 2006, that a group of weekend divers, the "No Frills Divers", located the still intact Japanese midget submarine M24 off Bungan Head, Newport.  It was entangled in nets, fifty-four meters below on the seabed.  The popular belief is that the crew never made it back to the planned rendezvous point, immediately south of Port Hacking.

Initially kept secret, the discovery generated considerable media interest.  The wreck was gazetted as a heritage site and war grave, in December 2006; numerous commemorative services and dives have taken place at the site, since.

Mamoru Ashibe was one of the Japanese sailors entombed in the wreckage of the M24.

"Sea Mist" earned one battle honour for its contribution to this historic defence: "Pacific 1942".  It is reported that perhaps its skipper, Lt Andrew, did not receive the recognition and credit he deserved...  The mere fact these humble yet capable boats were used in a major military engagement is more evidence of how far our country has come in the last 70 years - and, how gutsy Australia's contribution and sacrifice to WW2 was...  
It remains the first and only time in history that Sydney was attacked.

Post War

The original owners of Sea Mist, the Triggs, only came to know about the family boat's role in Sydney in recent years, after mistakenly thinking Sea Mist had headed for New Guinea... Oliver Triggs' son, Ken, was quoted in 2011:
"Our family had been told that our boat would be patrolling around New Guinea so it did come as a surprise to find out about her role in Sydney...  I've only just found out that our cruiser played a crucial role in the sinking of the Japanese midget submarines... a good friend told me he had found that information on the internet..."
In the late 1940's and 50's Sea Mist was used and owned by Hope Bartlett, the motor racing identity and was subsequently purchased by Radio 2GB for popular media personality, Jack Davey.  

She ultimately came north to Queensland, to Southport.

My uncle, John Donnelly, sold Sea Mist in the early 1980's to a Brisbane family - where it has called home ever since.  As I understand, the same family has retained ownership.   My cousins and I had spotted her in the Brisbane river once or twice in the 90's, looking a bit tired...  In 1999, to celebrate her 60th, she underwent a comprehensive overhaul and re-fit.

Nowadays, she is berthed at RQYS and is in pretty pristine order.  When spotted in the Bay, she still turns heads.
"Sea Mist" at RQYS, 2012

When I saw her and took these photos, it was clear she’s had a bit of work done over the years – a few of the aft portholes have been filled;  windows look too good to be original.  Of course the paintwork has had a few go-overs and the aft entrance doors, rails and cabins have all been changed.  No doubt "re-caulked" a few times...  But she is fundamentally the same, with"cosmetic surgery".  

She still looks outstanding and endures as a reminder not only of a chapter in our history but as an example of great design and timeless boatbuilding.  Few boats get built like this anymore - the timber construction being largely a lost art and cost prohibitive in a materials and tooling sense - Sea Mist would cost a small fortune to build today...  This is a hand designed, meticulously hand-crafted rig, that could theoretically be around for quite a bit longer yet...


Incidentally, a few weeks after discovering Sea Mist, I was at the Gold Coast City Marina and came upon another of my uncle’s old boats – which also has a pedigree – albeit not quite as decorated as that of Sea Mist…

“Odyssey” is a beautiful 75 foot Millcraft built timber and fiberglass boat – originally commissioned by the late Keith Williams in 1971 and used widely in the promotion and early operations of his (then) fledgling "Sea World" venture... 

It sailed extensively up and down the east coast - particularly the Great Barrier Reef - spending time in Melbourne and Sydney, but has called the waters of the Gold Coast and Brisbane home for much of its life.  Williams is on the record as saying it was the nicest boat he ever owned.  My uncle purchased it in the early 80’s and I believe felt similarly - and both these gentlemen have owned some very nice ones... Most recently it was owned by the Commodore of the RQYS and was for sale when I spotted her.

"Odyssey" on the Broadwater, Gold Coast.

It is a testament to great Australian boatbuilding that these grand old ladies continue to work our waterways – and in such style.  Boats like these have presence and personalities and these two have plenty…



  1. What a fascinating piece of history.

    I think I can add more to it also.

    The great Australian international racing driver and engineer Frank Gardner is also associated with Sea Mist. Frank's father was killed by a drunk who ran off the road and hit him, so Frank, a member of large and poor family on the NSW south coast, was reluctantly taken on by his mother's brother, unmarried Hope Bartlett.

    Hope owned and ran a very successful bus business, was a champion golfer, tennis player and racing driver who won the New Zealand Grand Prix amongst other successes. He also owned Sea Mist, and Frank was told to live on and maintain Sea Mist as part of his being reared by Hope.

    Hope grew to love and be devoted to young Frank, and assisted him to buy and build his first Jaguar racing cars, and to purchase a Mobilgas Service Station at Barrenjoey Road, North Avalon.

    Frank had to clean the Sea Mist down and polish the brass fittings, and as result of his association with the sea he became an international sweep on lifesaving boats and captain of Whale Beach Club.

    There is another twist to this tale because Hope was badgered to sell Sea Mist by 'Mr Radio' Jack Davey, which he eventually did. Davey also owned a very expensive Le Mans racing D-Type Jaguar, and when this car was severely crashed by a friend of Davey's Frank bought the wreckage and rebuilt it. He had enormous success with it, went to Europe as a result, crewed on the Le Mans winning Aston Martin in 1959 and then became legendary as a driver there.

    Sadly, Frank, who lived on the Gold Coast for many years and died about two years ago, had no idea Sea Mist was in Brisbane, but I know he would loved to see it again after all that time. As another amazing link, his D-Type is now kept and owned in Brisbane having been brought back to Australia this year for the first time since 1967!

    1. Les, thank you so much for your fascinating reply and for supplementing my blog with that great information. I'm only sorry my response has been so pedestrian - I'm working on pulling together a new blog and have not been back to this one much...

      It's amazing how this boat has weaved its way through history and people's lives... It is a shame that Frank didn't get to see her again - especially having lived (and worked) on her in his formative years and under those circumstances... She obviously made an impact on him too and shaped his life and ultimate success... The parallels with the D-Type, Hope Bartlett and Jack Davey are equally amazing!.. It sounds like you are quite involved with Jaguar cars and racing, Les - incidentally, Halvorsen Boats and Jaguar Cars are my two favourite bits of "machinery"... For mine, both have timeless design lines, unique style presence and performance... Sounds like your of the same ilk... Would love to hear some more of your experiences in that field...

      Regarding Sea Mist, I have recently come across another article, from a Woman's Day of 1972 would you believe, featuring Sea Mist and the various parties and guests she hosted while owned by Jack Davey. Its an amazing article - Sea Mist played host to the likes of Frank Sinatra, Valentino Liberace, Shirley Bassey and countless others... Here is the link :

      Thank you again, Les. I think I will re-write some of this for a feature for publication - in which case I would like to use and credit your valuable info... Cheers

    2. Hi Nicholas,
      Re the Seamist. I have a wonderful colour photo of her moored at my family home at Seaforth Middle Harbour circa 1957. Jack Davey was my godfather and a work colleague of my father. I've recently been restoring that photo plus I have another black and white photo of Jack's 3 crew members. I'm happy to share with anyone who is interested.
      Mark Bergin.

  2. Not sure if I can shed any more light on this boat but I believe my Grandfather owned SeaMist at some stage,His name was Jack Sydney Kelly.... I will do some research with dates etc

    1. Thank you Karen - that would be great. As per above, I am re-writing this piece and any further information on her past owners would be useful. have a good bit now!.. but the story seems to get richer still as more info is discovered...

  3. Hi, i may be able to provide some more info regarding Sea Mist's amazing history. She has also been a passion of mine for the past many years. My grandfather and his brother through the company "Boyce Brothers" owned Sea Mist in the 70's. The company may have been trading then under the name "Palm Island Fashion". They bought Sea Mist from Jack Davey. Sea Mist was moored in Hermit Bay (Sydney), in front of my Grandfather's brothers property - the historic "The Hermitage". There is a large boat ramp still there - however i was told Sea Mist was not slipped there. I have some great photos of Sea Mist in the early 70's I believe cruising down Middle Harbour and at anchor in Sydney. I am not sure if this story is true, but apprarently she incured structural damage heading to Pittwater one day and they ran her aground near Camp Cove to prevent sinking. The hull was then over-skinned to repair and strenghten her hull. i was told prior to the hull repair - she was one of the fastest 65 footers of her time. happy to provide as much detail as i have for your next article. Regards, Scott Denton

    1. Scott - thank you very much for that very interesting additional information - the story continues to grow! I had seen a reference to a Sydney owner during those years, so with that information on your Grandfather and his brother, her ownership background is almost complete… great to connect the dots between the Jack Davey era and when she came north - which as you are probably aware, was initially to Keppel Island - Central Queensland, where she was rigged for fishing and cruising as part of the island operations. A group called the Moffatt Group, who your grandfather obviously sold to. It was this group my uncle subsequently purchased her from, I believe… It would be great to correspond and would love to have a look at those photos, Scott, if you happen to have them scanned / readily at hand; my email is . Thank you again for your comment - it has given me the impetus to complete the rewrite...

  4. Hi there.
    My self and my family are very interested in the location of the sea mist. My grand father served on the sea mist during the war. Any information would be great. Thanks

  5. Hi Jarrod, Sea Mist has been a passion of mine for the last few years. Sea Mist is located in Brisbane, At the RQYS, in Manly.

    kind Regards,
    Scott Denton

  6. Watched her under speed a few years ago,heading into Moreton bay,fantastic looking craft.

  7. In the late70s sea mist was brought down and moored in pittwater and used as a charter vessel doing day trips up the hawksbury,also new years cruises on sydney harbourand cruises following the start of sydney hobart.


  9. HI Nicholas et all.

    Its great to read all the stories and to hear of peoples involvements with this loverly old vessel.

    Whenever i pull into a port someone approaches who has been involved with her in the past.

    I'm the fortunate person who discovered Sea Mist in 1982 tied up to a pier at Southport looking very tired. She was only running on one engine , the bilge was full of oil and diesel, tools were scattered all around, the engine room was so stuffed with fuel tanks it was almost impossible to change a fuel filter. She had been fitted out for day cruising out of Southport so had the biggest ugliest American fridge you have ever seen in your life dominating the aft cabin. From the outside she had all the grace and charm that makes her so endearing but inside looked like a bordello.

    She was owned by a syndicate of people who were bought together by Nicholas's uncle John Donnelly who of course is a well known legend.

    When i was on a mission at 37 yrs of age to buy a bigger boat The Yacht broker Trevor Hansen suggested I should have a look at Sea Mist. When he showed me a photo I said that there was no way I could afford such a beautiful boat. He said you might be surprised and i was.

    I bought her thinking that I could spend the rest of my working life getting her into shipshape for my retirement.

    Luckily I was very successful and was able to do just that.

    She was almost fully rebuilt By Norman Wright and Sons in 1999-2000 and I was a bit taken back when the final cost was four times the budget. Didn't the whole thing turn out well though.
    Who gives a rats about almost being financially destroyed feeding your passion.

    Back to the blog and clarification of a few facts.

    I understand from earlier blogs that the Triggs Family had a boat called Sea Mist built by Lars Halvorsen which was commandeered during the war and served in New Guinea. it seems it was burnt to the waterline in an encounter with Japanese fighter planes.

    According to the documents which i have My Sea Mist was in fact built by Lars Halvorsen at Neutral Bay for Hope Bartlett who has been mentioned as coming into owner ship much later which is not correct.. When the government commandeered her from him the documents indicate that they payed him the grand sum of 8000 pounds. There subsequently was a lot of correspondence where he and the government were arguing about the cost of the fuel for him to deliver the boat to them from the Hawkesbury to Sydney Harbour. How about that for beauracatic small mindedness.

    After the war radio station 2ue bought her from the government for 10000 pounds for the personal use of another legend Jack Davey.

    As wel, as entertaining all those international guests on board its reported that one night Jack won 2000 pounds from Laurel and Hardy playing poker and was able to replace the original Hurules petrol engines with a pair of 671 Grey Marine diesel engines.

    These were in the boat when i bought her. I had to immediately fully rebuild one of them. They then stayed in the boat until the 2000 refit when I replaced them with shiny new Perkins Sabres.

    Those engines still spring to life at a touch to the starter button which I'm intending to do when the wind drops on Tuesday and together with friends head off for a months fishing at the Bunker Group of Islands.

    Looking forward to tight lines.