MV Macdhui

Macdhui was built by the Clydeside shipbuilders Barclay Curle & Co and launched 23 December 1930. Of 4561 gross tons length 341ft. and breadth 51ft she was registered in Sydney and carried an Australian crew. She commenced trading between Sydney, Papua and New Guinea in May 1931 providing a significant improvement in that service and remaining engaged therein beyond Japan's entry to the Second World War. 

Though German Commerce Raider threats a few months before had not harmed her, in December 1941 Macdhui (with Neptuna which had evacuated a large number of civilians from Manila in the Philippines and transhipped them at Port Moresby) went to Rabaul and evacuated women and children from New Britain and the outlying islands and plantations, as many as possible, ahead of the Japanese advance and occupation. She was then taken over by the Australian Government for the transportation of troops and their logistic supplies for the defence of New Guinea, operating between Sydney and Port Moresby.

Evidence of Japanese atrocities and executions helped accelerate evacuation plans for all women and children from the South Pacific area.  Large numbers of civilians were landed in Australia from  merchant ships including Macdhui. In many cases small ships brought them to safety at Port Moresby, whence they were taken to Townsville Macdhui being heavily involved. It was an activity relatively little publicised, but of epic proportions. Those evacuated included four hundred survivors from the sinkings by German raiders in the area who had been left stranded on the island of Emirau near Kavieng on New Britain.

The first half of 1942 saw Macdhui employed in transporting troops and equipment from Sydney to Port Moresby and although she came under attack from Japanese aircraft, she managed to discharge her several cargoes and return safely to Sydney on each occasion.

After being delayed in Sydney due to the Japanese Midget Submarines attack on Sydney Harbour in May, Macdhui sailed  in convoy for Townsville and Port Moresby on 6 June 2023 with a cargo of aviation fuel. At Townsville 154 troops boarded the vessel and she departed for Port Moresby arriving 5.00pm 15 June.

The then Master Captain J.C. Campbell recorded what followed :-

"On 15 June Macdhui berthed and commenced to disembark the troops and discharge the cargo, work continuing throughout the night. At 6am the next morning Macdhui was moved to anchorage in the harbour and discharge of Avgas continued onto lighters alongside. This work was in progress when the air raid alarm was sounded. We weighed anchor and I commenced manoeuvring the vessel in the harbour to evade attack. Six Japanese Zeros were sighted. Fortunately Macdhui was not attacked in this raid. After the "All Clear" sounded the ship returned to the anchorage and continued discharge onto lighters.

"On 17 June the anchor cable was shortened in the event of another air raid at 9.45am the alarm sounded. The air raids by this time had become particularly heavy with 21 raids in the month of May this one being the 61st air raid on Port Moresby. Anchor was weighed and the ship proceeded to a position off Paga Hill to manoeuvre under the protection of a heavy shore based anti-aircraft battery. At approximately 11.00am eighteen bombers came in at 21,000ft. The anti-aircraft fire was low and trailing and the Japanese were able to unload their bombs in pattern formation. One of an estimated fifty-six bombs that were dropped scored a direct hit on the bridge of the Macdhui. The bomb passed through three decks to the first aid station in the dining saloon where it exploded, killing the surgeon Dr. Tunstall, two crewmen and a soldier. When the attack ended, Macdhui had many holes in her but was still afloat and the damage was repairable. The vessel berthed at the main wharf to complete discharge and to clear the wreckage; the following day the bombers returned."

Again Captain Campbell endeavoured to escape this attack by manoeuvring the ship in the harbour, but this time the bombing was extremely accurate and four of some sixty eight bombs that landed around the ship, scored hits. One of the bombs exploded on the poop, killing the gun crew and rendering the steering gear useless. Two others exploded in the holds, setting fire to the cargo of fuel drums of Avgas. Causing fierce fires to break out, these sent columns of flames leaping high into the air above the hatches.

The Macdhui was on fire and the vessel was sinking rapidly by the head and taking on a list to port. With the intense fires raging, the Master headed the vessel towards shallow water and ordered all lifeboats lowered into the water. Captain Campbell stopped the engines by means of the bridge controls. The vessel received a fourth direct hit on the starboard side. This explosion threw the Master from the bridge to the boat deck where he sustained serious burns and shrapnel wounds.

On recovering from the blast, the Master ordered the engineers from the engine room and the vessel was abandoned because of the danger of further heavy bombing and explosion.

The then Chief Officer was Mr. Gordon Howe (later to receive an American award of the Legion of Merit for Solomon Islands invasion pilotage) reported concerning the second attack:-

"At 1000 hours (17 June) the air raid alarm was given, as enemy bombers were approaching and ship’s company went into action stations. The Macdhui was at anchor discharging aviation spirit into lighters at 1007 hours the anchor was up and the ship was underway. Twenty minutes later 14 twin engine Betsy Bombers subjected the ship to a high level of attack, and we took evasive action, approximately 56 bombs were dropped, and one direct hit was registered on the ship’s bridge. The bomb was evidently a delayed action type, as it went through three steel decks and exploded in the saloon, where the first aid party under the charge of the ship’s surgeon were mustered. The saloon was completely wrecked, shrapnel shattered the ship’s hull and fire broke out in the debris. Damage control parties tackled the fire, and extinguished it in 40 minutes. On the all-clear signal being given, we received orders from the Naval Officer In Charge (N.O.I.C.) to proceed to the wharf; the crew that were killed and wounded were landed, and we carried on with discharge. Army personnel at the anchorage were handling the petrol, when the ship was being attacked and several of them were killed, including one army captain, and many were injured.

"Of the ship’s company, three were killed, including the surgeon and four wounded.

"The following day, 18 June, the air raid alarm was given at 1005 hours and vessel cast off from wharf. At 1025 hours whilst adopting evasive tactics in the harbour, the Macdhui was attacked by 17 twin-engine bombers, which dropped approximately 68 bombs. The vessel received four direct hits and numerous near misses, the hits were, one on the bridge, one down No.3 hatch, which contained aviation petrol, one on the boat deck and one on the 12 pounder gun and magazine on the poop deck, wiping out the gun crew.

The vessel immediately burst into flames, and as the explosion broke all the water pipes etc, the crew were unable to cope with the fire damage. As the ship was listing heavily to port and settled down rapidly, the order to abandon ship was given. In this second attack, six of the crew were killed, including the 2nd Officer, and seven wounded including the Master, Captain J. Campbell, and Mr. G Howe, Chief Officer."

And so the end of a fine ship.

Macdhui Day One of the Attack

In the background is the Norwegian Ship "Carola"