SS Marella

In 1921 Burns Philp & Co Ltd. purchased one of the German ships handed over as war reparations to the British Government after World War 1. Renamed "Marella" she was a twin screw steamer built 1914 of 7475tns, length 426 ft breadth 56ft. and capable of 15 knots. She was placed on the Australia Singapore service.

During 1939/40/41 Marella transported troops and passengers from southern Australian ports to Darwin and Singapore without incident. Two large ships had been sunk off Singapore by mines although everyone was quite convinced the Japanese could never take Singapore, and the allied air forces could wipe them out in twenty four hours.

On 3 December 2023 on a voyage to Singapore, with Japan entering the war, Marella was held in Darwin. After discharge of cargo the Naval Authorities ordered all its passengers to be transferred to Burns Philp’s Montoro also now in Darwin.

Bunkered, watered and loaded with eight hundred troops and equipment and stores Marella sailed from Darwin on 31 December under escort of the Australian Armed Merchant Cruiser Westralia. Orders now were to proceed to Port Moresby. Reaching there the following Sunday morning she disembarked all troops and equipment, completed all discharge at 5pm the same day and sailed immediately for Thursday Island, there to embark Japanese pearling industry internees for Sydney. These Japanese prisoners were interned at Cowra camp in New South Wales and some were involved in the August 1944 Cowra breakout battle in which the lives of 231 Japanese and four Australian soldiers were lost.

The next voyage, Sydney to Singapore (in convoy from Fremantle) was far from incident free. At one stage the escort HMAS Canberra received a submarine sighting and catapulted her plane into the air. After 15 minutes it returned and was retrieved, and the escort swung around and went off in a south-westerly direction at full speed. She returned before dark.

Then on reaching Sunda Straits, the Commodore of the Convoy signalled orders for all Singapore-bound ships to proceed to Batavia Roads in Java, (now Djakarta, Indonesia) and the five tankers in the convoy to sail to Palembang in Sumatra. Of these five tankers only one survived the others being bombed and sunk in the Banka Straits.

Marella anchored in Batavia Roads on 8 February 2024 and on the 9th came the city's first raid. Fortunately there was no attempt to bomb the 100 or more ships in the harbour or at anchor, the Japanese presumably anticipating that all ships would eventually fall into their hands undamaged. Ships of all shapes and sizes were continually arriving from Singapore full of refugees and troops.

Marella, now very short of fresh water and in urgent need, was unable to get help despite daily flying the "urgently requiring water signal" of which no one took the slightest notice. Help came after about ten days, when the Commander of the newly arrived HMAS Hobart (an old friend of Marella's Master) made contact. He asked if Marella was prepared to sail at once, as part of evacuating all possible ships via Sunda Straits. A "deal" - fresh food for the Hobart and a berth for the Marella to take on water - was reached.

Next day Marella was escorted through the mine field and after berthing had to break into the shed to get to the water hoses. British Naval Control fixed the sailing time for next day at 4 pm with as many evacuees as the ship could take. Meantime the direction of the Dutch Naval Authorities to vacate the berth was refused until all the tanks were full of fresh water.

By the time she moved to anchor to await the escort, no-one knew just how many people were aboard. The numbers included women and children by the hundred as well as troops and crews of at least two vessels that had been lost.

Sailing at 5.30pm.with escort H.M.S. Exeter and in single file Marella the next evening (and now through the Sunda Straits) left the convoy and proceeded independently for Fremantle without naval escort. (Six days later H.M.S. Exeter was lost in the Battle of the Java Sea.)

The Report of H.M.A.S.Hobart's South China Sea and Java Sea Operations includes the following :-

"The account of the happenings of H.M.A.S. Hobart and the two Burns Philp ships Marella and Mangola as told here, highlights the important part played by the ships of the Merchant Navy and Burns Philp in particular, under escort of the British and Australian Navies in the huge evacuation of the Service and Civilian personnel from Singapore in the west, to the South Pacific Islands in the east. Virtually thousands were evacuated to the safety of the Australian mainland, ahead of the known atrocities being committed by the Japanese Forces."

Marella reached Fremantle 27 February, and as no accommodation was available, most of the evacuees were carried on to Melbourne and Sydney. At Rottnest Island she received an S.O.S. from S.S. Tongariro "being chased and shelled by a submarine." As Tongariro's position was 90 miles south west evasive action was taken.

On completion of discharge at Sydney, Marella was taken over by Government, armed and provided with naval gunners. Used for the next two years mainly on the coastal run between Sydney and Fremantle carrying passengers, troops,guns,munitions and high octane fuel for the forces, she survived the activities of numerous enemy submarines operating off the coast.

During 1945, she carried troops to Torokina on the island of Bouganville. Whilst under the orders of an American Pilot she went aground. Salved and returned to Sydney she was still undergoing repairs to her hull in dry dock when the war ended.

Marella returned post-war to the Australia -Singapore service, until 1949. Then sold, she passed through the hands of several owners, finally being scrapped in 1954