Thornleigh Seventh-day Adventist Church (Sydney, Australia)

Home > Online Magazine > Online Magazine: Edition 27 - February/March 2009 > A Tale of Three Ships (by John Morris)

A Tale of Three Ships

by John Morris

A Tale of Three Ships - Memorials



It pays to occasionally stop where you normally don't and have a good look around.

If you are coming out of the Parramatta Central Business District by way of George Street and are heading for James Ruse Drive you will more than likely swing left under the Gasworks Bridge, and then swing right and upwards to meet the eastern end of George Street.  There is a stop sign at the intersection. You will look right to check for oncoming traffic and when clear will accelerate away to the east.

You might glance to the left when at the stop sign and catch a brief glimpse of the stern of the one time HMAS (Her Majesty's Australian Ship) Parramatta. More than likely you will not and pass on without much further ado. Pity that, as there is a good story to reward anyone who takes the time to stop.

The HMAS Parramatta, which is featured here, was built in the United Kingdom, being completed in 1910. It was the first vessel laid down for what was then called the Australian Commonwealth Naval Force, later to become the Royal Australian Navy.

"Following the outbreak of war in August 1914, Parramatta took part in operations against the German Pacific colonies. She landed men as part of the force ordered to take the German wireless station at Bitapaka and captured two small German vessels. Parramatta subsequently carried out further patrol operations in New Guinea waters in company with Yarra and Warrego. In December, accompanied by Warrego and Nusa, she steamed 310 kilometres up the Sepik River to check for any German presence.

Parramatta returned to Australia in February 1915 and was employed on patrol work locally and in Malayan, Philippines and East Indies waters. In May 1917, in company with Warrego and Yarra, she sailed for the Mediterranean, being joined en route by Swan, Torrens and Huon, thus concentrating the Australian Destroyer Flotilla.

After a brief stop in Malta, the flotilla proceeded to the port of Brindisi in southern Italy. Beginning in October 1917, the flotilla spent much of the next year conducting patrols as part of the blockade of the Adriatic Sea, which was aimed at preventing the passage of enemy submarines sailing from Austrian ports into the Mediterranean. On 16 November 1917, Parramatta was one of several Australian ships that went to the aid of the torpedoed Italian transport Orione. Parramatta, assisted by Yarra, took the Orione in tow, and was attacked by a German submarine in the course of doing so. The Orione was later passed to the care of an Italian tug. In April 1918 the Australian Destroyer Flotilla was incorporated into the 5th British Destroyer Flotilla.

On 12 November 1918, Parramatta was part of the Allied fleet that entered the Dardanelles after Turkey agreed to an armistice. After carrying dispatches between Constantinople and Sevastopol in December 1918, Parramatta, with the rest of the Australian flotilla, visited England before returning to Australia in March 1919." (1)

With the war over, and it was the war to end all wars, Parramatta was no longer useful. The vessel was towed up the Hawkesbury River in 1929, the intention being to use the vessel for prisoner accommodation, an idea that did not find favour with the general public. A short life followed as a barge and the ship was finally abandoned on the mud flats opposite Milson Island where her remains are to this day. The stem and stern were removed; the latter as noted above, being given a place of honour on the banks of the Parramatta River within the City of Parramatta, the stem is located at the Garden Island Naval Base in Sydney.


Bradley's Head is a unique feature of Sydney Harbour. It is a mini peninsular located where the harbour takes a 90o bend. Sydney harbour and its attendant Parramatta River run in a general east west direction. At Bradley's Head the harbour makes a left turn and runs north to "the heads" and across to Manly, the northern extremity of the harbour.

The area is well known for the Taronga Park Zoo, one of the world's top zoos. It is also a great place to watch activities on the harbour along both west to the Sydney Harbour Bridge and north to "the heads". The greatest use of the area is on December 26 (Boxing Day) when the Sydney Harbour Yacht Race takes place. Thousands make the peninsular their viewing platform for the day, with our family joining the crowd on a number of occasions. Bradley's Head marks the western end of the starting line with the harbour becoming just prior to the 1.00pm start a maze of sailing vessels , with hundreds of spectator craft of both sail and motor and with the occasional kayak or canoeist venturing into the melee. You can look along the starting line from your vantage point on Bradley's Head and see the smoke from the starting cannon fired from the official starting vessel and watch the efforts of the boats to cross the line as close as possible to the starting time but not before it.

Bradleys Head is known for its feature of historical defence equipment of past years.

The site has an original equipment cannon installed after the Crimean War when there were major concerns about the intention of Russia in this part of the world. The defence fortifications were expanded from earlier base works in 1839 when some American warships arrived totally unannounced and the citizens became concerned about security. The area is part of the defence heritage of the nation. The cannons were manufactured in 1861. The fortifications were upgraded in 1871.

The defence heritage was confirmed with the placement of the mast of the first HMAS Sydney, a Chatham Class light Cruiser launched in1912 which gave meritorious service in the First World War. The major event for which the Sydney (1) is renowned is the destruction of the German cruiser Emden at the Cocos Islands in 1914. With minor damage and the loss of 5 ratings, Sydney defeated the Emden. The German captain ordered the grounding of the Emden on the North Keeling Island reef. 134 German sailors lost their lives.

The Sydney was decommissioned in 1928; the mast was removed and erected at Bradleys Head in 1934. On June 26, 2007 the Royal Australian Navy announced that all Naval vessels, Australian and foreign, would render ceremonial honours to the memorial mast as a mark of respect to naval vessels, and personnel who have been lost in combat and at sea. This is a fitting way to pay tribute to the naval personnel. In particular, it is a very poignant way of paying tribute to the second HMAS Sydney lost with all hands in the Indian Ocean in the battle with the German raider HSK Kormoran. The loss was hard to understand with the Sydney having won a decisive victory in the Mediterranean with the sinking of the Italian cruiser the Bartolomeo Colleoni. The Kormoran was disguised as a Dutch merchant vessel and it would appear that this allowed the Sydney to get sufficiently close to the Kormoran to give the German vessel a significant advantage. There is only the record of the Kormoran's crew as to the events of the fight. It was not until March 2008 that the wrecks of the Sydney and the Kormoran were discovered off the coast of Geraldton.


A vastly different story is that of the Portal, also known as "the boat that would not burn". The Portal was a small diesel-driven vessel used by the Seventh-day Adventist Mission in the Solomon Islands. At the time of our tale the vessel was based in the Marovo Lagoon, said to be the world's largest island enclosed lagoon. "The province has as its centrepiece the largest double barrier lagoon in the world, Marovo Lagoon, nominated for World Heritage Listing. Literally thousands of islands scatter the lagoon, from tiny coral islets on the fringing reef to massive 1600m volcanic islands (some are still active and can be visited such as Simbo and the undersea volcanoes near Ngattokae such as Kavachi ). Inside the lagoon, the islands are surrounded by spectacular coral formations and white sandy beaches, the lagoon waters shimmering in every shade of blue, turquoise and jade green." (2) Flying over the lagoon the view of the lagoon is like a plate of mixed precious stones with great variety of colour and textures in the water, and on the sands all framed by the tree clad islands.

World War 2 was in process. The Japanese military machine was making strident advances all across the Pacific and South East Asia. The Solomon Islands and the Marovo Lagoon in particular were about to feel the enemy's might. What was left of the Allied forces decided to leave the lagoon using well known Seventh-day Adventist Mission vessels, the Dandavata, the Jones and the Portal. The Portal was well known for its temperamental engine and its reputation was not tarnished; the engine refused to start.

Seeking to minimise any advantage that might fall into the enemy's hands, the British Major commanding the small force gave the order to destroy the Portal and quickly the boat was doused with fuel and a fire brand was tossed into the cabin. The rising sheets of flame suggested that the end of the vessel was nigh and the small allied force moved off in the other 2 small ships. The local church community did not want to lose the Portal. It was God's boat. Fervent prayer was the additional resource available and the answer was immediate. The fire was dramatically extinguished by an unseen fire extinguisher.

Quick action then followed. The island people moved the Portal up a creek to a well hidden resting place. Not content with the protection offered by the natural flora, they removed the masts, the awnings and rigging and added palm leaves, mangroves and other plants making the vessel invisible from passing eyes. Then to prevent the Portal being used by the enemy should it be discovered, the villagers removed much of the engine and after dismantling what they could the pieces were distributed around the local villages. Some parts were buried, some used as personal decorations. Springs held hair in place, bolts were threaded onto belts. The components were well hidden.

In May 1945, Pastor Norman Ferris returned to the Solomon Islands with the understanding that the Portal had been burnt to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. The local community laughed at his belief and went off to get the Portal. After three years of no contact with a broom or mop or any attention at all, the vessel looked like a floating wreck. It was not helped by the lack of the engine. Ferris was absolutely astonished when engine parts materialised from seemingly nowhere. Not a bolt, nut or screw was missing. Then came the big test. The tank was filled with fuel. Blowtorches were lit to warm the cylinder heads. The rope went around the flywheel, the crewman pulled on the rope, spun the crankshaft and the engine sprang to life.

There is no part of the Portal that is set up as a memorial. There is however a greater memorial in the lives of Solomon Island people who have had their lives changed as the result of the community service provided by the Portal and in coming to know Jesus as a personal saviour from personnel carried on the Portal from time to time.


The vessels are not "tall ships" nor is each of the action reports "tall stories". Each vessel had a battle to fight and came out on top adding flavour to our national history. HMAS Sydney defeated the German cruiser SMS Emden off the Cocos Islands and after active service was scrapped in 1928. HMAS Parramatta is today lying on a mudbank in the Hawkesbury River out of Sydney. The MV Portal was preserved from destruction during World War 2 and went on to finish its active life in commercial activities.


How do you like to be remembered?  Do you want to go down in history as one who made the 200 richest list?  Or how about remembered as like Elizabeth Taylor having 8 marriages with 7 husbands, Or, gentlemen, as Mickey Rooney - with 8 different wives?  Would you care for a bronze bust at the local park or a flagpole on the harbour foreshores, extolling some activity that in 100 years time no one will remember anyway?

Paul threw an interesting alternative into the ring. Rather than being a memorial to Paul with inscriptions cut into tablets of stone, Paul wanted the church members at Corinth to be letters of recommendation by way of the life that they would live. Paul wanted them to be written "on our hearts, known and read by everyone" (2 Cor 3:2), living letters, instead of dead memorial stones. Peter painted an interesting building picture along the same line, recommending to his target church members that they be living stones "being built into a spiritual house" (1 Pet 2:5). He wanted to see activity of the highest order, to "declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light".

Peter may well have been thinking of Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount. "..let your light shine before men that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven" (Matt 5:16).

Why not be a living memorial to the goodness of God.



(1)  HMAS Parramatta (1910 - 1928) from the Australian War Memorial website

(2)  Solomon Islands Department of Commerce, Employment and Tourism: Tourism Information Website.  Accessed 16.11.2008

(3)  All scripture references are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION Copyright 1973, 1978, and 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zonderman Bible Publishers.

(4) Australian War Memorial - War History - HMAS Sydney

This article and the pictures it contains are Copyright © 2009 by John L Morris.  Used by permission.

Home > Online Magazine > Online Magazine: Edition 27 - February/March 2009 > A Tale of Three Ships (by John Morris)