About The Site

Modern Australia, Girt by Sea

The unique feature of Australia is that all its arrivals including our 'first peoples' had to cross the seas to reach it. Most made the crossing by boat and ship and many still seek to do so. Unsurprisingly therefore the nation's affinity with the seas is great and is blessed with climatic conditions maximizing its use and enjoyment. Little wonder that the great majority of the population lives within a few kilometres of its coastline.

Building with Maritime Commerce

Modern Australia's immigrants, whether the convicts up to the mid 19th Century or the free settlers from the early 1800s, inevitably turned to its surrounding waters as suitable for trading between the colonies of the vast continent. Entrepreneurs from the 1830s onward formed companies and some sixty of these, of varying sizes and not all surviving, operated up to the 1950s. Their passenger and cargo-carrying activities, overcoming Australia's 'tyranny of distance' include many remarkable episodes.

Conversion from Peace to War

The 19th Century Australian expeditionary forces in support of Britain's wars were carried in British ships. By the 1914 start of the Great War, Australian merchant fleets included some ships suitable for world-wide deployment in the conflict. Twenty-five years later the Second World War, this time threatening the country as never before, drew into service with the armed forces a large proportion of the total shipping owned by the twenty Australian companies. Potentially none of their more than a hundred and seventy vessels was exempt.

Ubiquitous Australians

Australian seafarers had long served in the world's merchant fleets and many, though the numbers are not known, continued to do so throughout the 1939-1945 hostilities. Under Australian law, crews of Australian ships, though not uniformed, not well-paid and not sworn members of the nation's Armed Forces, were required to continue their peacetime income-earning maritime service. Thus they shared fully the dangers of war. They received a War Risk Bonus for near-Australia operational area service north of 14 degrees south of the equator. It was some time before there was a cessation of the practice of their pay being stopped when their ship was sunk and until they signed-on to their next ship. Some 6.5 per cent of the world's merchant seamen paid the supreme sacrifice. Some 386 Australian merchant seamen died in the country's surrounding waters and in prisoner of war camps.

Sharing the Task with Allies

Maintaining the huge numbers of American, Australian, British, New Zealand, Fijian and Dutch service personnel and the massive quantities of equipment deployed and supplies required was a mammoth task, one needing to be sustained over several years. Australia's merchant fleet shared with those of the Netherlands and the United Kingdom (mainly ships which had escaped the Japanese Far East onslaught) and New Zealand and Norway as well as the United States. We include their story on this site.

Transporting and Sustaining Wartime Forces

For centuries merchant ships have carried the troops, equipment and supplies of armies to and from wars.

The logistics of supplying and maintaining the needs of wartime forces obviously vary in proportion to the scale, style, terrain, climate and general geography of the campaign areas and theatres of war. The India/Asia/Pacific theatre, of large land, sea and archipelagic areas, differed greatly from the scale of military resources and the characteristics of the European/Mediterranean environments. However in its time operations in this theatre provided the stage for a major victory over the threat posed by the Axis Powers and in doing so required all the sinews of the nation's effort, both at home, on the battlefields and on the waters that separated them.

The Context

It was often said that the Great War 1914-1919 was never properly finished. The 1930s saw wars in China (Japan's invasion), North Africa (Italy's invasion) and Spain (civil war), among others. 1939 brought Germany's invasion of western European countries and in 1941 of Russia, while the early 1940s featured campaigns in North Africa, the Mediterranean Sea and its surrounds as well as the Atlantic Ocean. Japan allied with Germany and Italy and from December 1941 attacked many locations to its south with the resulting concern of the United States of America and Australia particularly as well as European countries with Asia/Pacific colonies.

The struggle to repulse so widespread an enemy success took four hard years and it culminated in the atomic bombing of Japan in August 1945.

Evolution of the Site

This site evolved from the desire of three retired Burns Philp Shipping employees who had served during the Second World War, to speak of their service with a great Australian and Pacific Islands company of the 19th and 20th Centuries, a company where people and ships participated and, along with properties and other assets, suffered in the two World Wars of 1914-1919 and 1939-1945. It is an update of the site originally established by them, a former Chief Engineer Frank Snell, and former Deck Officers Jack ('Cracker') Knight and Ron ('Steve') Wylie and over the years augmented with research contributions from former Burns Philp Purser Ray Sharp.

The need for balance and a desire for completeness of story soon made it clear that the contributions of the other Australian ship-owning companies deserved this form of record and thus that something of a national compilation should be the objective, authentic record sources allowing. This site seeks to achieve this result.

Further, it was felt that a comprehensive coverage would not be achieved if the site failed to acknowledge the great and sacrificial efforts of Australia's allies.