The Australian passenger ship MV Kanimbla had an extraordinary war. She was converted into an armed merchant carrier in September 1939 and seconded to the Royal Navy. Apart from capturing 22 enemy ships she also steamed more than 470,000 miles during the war, a record for any ship flying the White Ensign.
But her most incredible action took place in August 1941 when she led a raid on the Persian port of Bandur Shapur, capturing several enemy merchant ships as well as a 7000-ton floating dock.
In the same exercise troops from the Kanimbla secured the rail terminus at Bandar Shapur, a strategic and vital rail link to Russia.
In 1941 both the Allies and the Germans were courting the Persian Government due not only to its rich oil deposits (the 5th largest in the world at the time) but also its strategic position as the only country offering a year-round route to the Caspian Sea and Russia.
The Allies finally decided the German presence could no longer be tolerated and after their request to the Persian Government to remove the German influence from within its borders had been ignored, they planned a surprise attack.
The Kanimbla arrived in the Gulf on 7 August 1941 where it maintained a low profile, disguising its armaments through the use of canvas screens. A few days later some 300 troops including two platoons of Gurkhas and members of the 3rd/10th Baluch Regiment were transferred on board.
Over the next two weeks, the crew carried out training exercises designed to enable them to board and secure the enemy ships and to thwart efforts by their crews to scuttle them. Taking advantage of British naval intelligence information, including complete lay out drawings of their main target, the Hohenfel, they practised landing on Kanimbla and gaining access to its engine room until they were able to complete the operation in three minutes. They also worked out where they thought explosive charges would be hidden by the German crew of Hohenfel.
Finally, on 25 August 1941, the operation commenced. Kanimbla led the way as it had the furthest to travel. Also in the attack were a Yangtse gunboat HMS Cockchafer, HM armed trawler Arthur Cavannagh, HM Corvette Snapdragon, an Indian naval sloop Lawrence, a tug from the Abadan oil refinery, St Athans, an RAF motor pinnace and a dhow Naif, codenamed Dhow Eight for the exercise.
To gain access to the port of Bandur Shapur, they had to negotiate the tricky Khor Musa Channel at night. There were some 30 miles of winding narrows which called for absolute precision in its navigation.
Once the rest of the attacking party was in position, the operation began in earnest. On board St Athans was Chief Petty Officer Frank Newman RANR. He took his party down one side of Hohenfel, severing electrical leads from an emergency generator as they passed, CPO Newman using a Kukri on loan from the Ghurkas. They discovered later these wires had been hooked up to explosive charges in the engine room.
By the time they reached the engine room it was already flooding. In addition, fuel oil taps had been opened and the oil set on fire. Grabbing a fire extinguisher CPO Newman tried to put out the flames only to discover the extinguisher had been booby trapped and was making things worse.
They were able to put out the flames which luckily had not gained a good hold but still had to deal with the water pouring into the engine room.
"We began duck-diving with all our gear on shutting off some of the valves, two turns at a time, and kept this up until we felt a bump," CPO Newman recalled. "We had obviously been dragged to a shallow section of the estuary (to prevent the ship from sinking). The water flowing into the engine room had slowed, but by now was twelve feet deep and becoming muddier, which affected visibility. At least we had saved her from going down."
Meanwhile several of the other ships were on fire. The Weissenfels was burning furiously and Bronte was also well ablaze. All the other ships were boarded and the fires and other scuttling operations halted.
Troops had landed on shore and captured the town of Bandur Shapur, taking many prisoners.
"By 5pm on the 25th the situation ashore was calm, all the principal persons were in custody and arrangements were in hand for supplying water and food from Kanimbla for the local population, normally supplied by train."
"Of the enemy merchant ships, all except the Weissenfels (which subsequently sank in deep water) were saved and sailed or were towed with prize crews to Indian ports.
"Kanimbla then carried out a major salvage feat on Hohenfels which is worthy of special mention."
"Once the ship had rested in shallow waters, PO Jack Humphries, the ship's diver, then swung into action. It was indeed an incredible performance.
"First, with the aid of the ship's drawings we were able to indicate which valves had been opened and where the sea inlets were situated on the ship's hull," CPO Newman said.
Jack Humphries then descended through the muddy water 12 times taking incredible risks that his air pipe could be fouled by the machinery under water. Having completed this task, he then had to close off the main sea water cooling inlet to the engine room from the outside.
A mild steel plate was devised with a grommet and "J" bolts but had to be curved to the shape of the ship's hull. PO Humphries took measurements while kneeling in the mud on the bottom of the sea.
"He performed this task with amazing accuracy and once we had the measurements we made the closing plate on Kanimbla.
"Once sealed we pumped her out and Hohenfels was subsequently towed to Karachi for a refit," PO Newman said.
PO Humphries was awarded the George Medal, the highest decoration for a rating in World War II. CPO Newman was mentioned in dispatches.
Kanimbla was reconverted to a Landing Ship Infantry (LSI) in 1943 and completed the rest of the war years in the Pacific as HMAS Kanimbla. She was finally paid off in March 1949 and was reconverted to her original role as a passenger steamer on the Australian coast for McIlwraith and McEacharn.
The material for this article was supplied by S.F. Newman OBE from Victoria
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