21 January, 2012

For king and country

Sticking to the topic of shipwrecks at Barwon Heads for a while longer, it may be of interest to take a look at a completely different ship from a very different time period.
The wreck of the SS Orungal took place on the 20th November, 1940. To set the scene, it is necessary to consider events occurring across the world at that time. Europe was in the grip of World War II and Australia as part of the Allied Forces, was also under a very real threat of attack.
World War I Propaganda poster at Fort Queenscliff
However, measures to guard against such attacks, had been put in place by the Colonial Government many decades earlier. These took the form of a string of forts and gun batteries encircling the bay. Chief amongst the forts was Fort Queenscliff on Shortland's Bluff with others including Point Nepean, Fort Cheviot, Fort Pearce and the South Channel Fort built on a shoal inside the bay. Gun batteries were also placed at various points around the bay and at the entrance to the Heads. The aim of these strategically positioned defensive posts was to cover the shipping channels in and out of the bay, enabling them to be blocked in times of emergency. Remains of some of the gun batteries can still be seen amongst other places, at Point Lonsdale and on the strip of land connecting Queenscliff to Point Lonsdale, known as The Neck.
The remains of military fortifications near the Point Lonsdale Lighthouse
Fortifications were also positioned in nearby Swan Bay and the newly built rail line (1879) from Geelong to Queenscliff - see the earlier blog on the Bellarine Rail Trail - was used to transport men and supplies to the fort. Further defense was provided by the laying of mines outside the Heads.
All of this, meant that Port Phillip Bay became the most heavily guarded harbour in the Southern Hemisphere and it was upon orders from Fort Queenscliff that the first Allied shots of World War I were fired from Fort Nepean across the bows of a German freighter (Pfalz) attempting to escape the harbour on 5th August, 1914. In an eerie co-incidence, the first shots of the Second World War in the Far East were fired by the same gun, this time across the bows of an Australian coastal vessel (Woniora) which failed to stop for an inspection when requested on 3rd September, 1939.
It was in this environment then, that the SS Orungal attempted to make her entry into Port Phillip Bay. Prior to the beginning of the war, the SS Orungal, was one of nine ships plying the Australian coastal trade. She, along with six of the other ships were commandeered for military transport at the outbreak of the war, however having been deemed unsuitable for this work, the SS Orungal returned to the coastal trade.
Built in Glasgow in 1923 and weighing 5826 tons she was originally named the Fezara, she was chartered by the Australiasian United Steam Navigation Company Ltd in 1927 and worked on the Melbourne-Queensland and Melbourne-Western Australia routes carrying passengers and mail.
On the night of her wrecking, the SS Orungal faced a south westerly storm whilst trying to enter the Heads through a channel which had been swept for mines. In the bad weather, the captain mistook the lights of Barwon Heads for Point Lonsdale. A lightning flash revealed his mistake and he immediately took measures to correct his course, however it was too late, and the SS Orungal ran aground on Formby Reef, a little east of the mouth of the Barwon River.
Photo of the SS Orungal burning taken from the Australian
Merchant Navy Website
Fortunately, the ship was found to be safe and the alarm raised by the use of flares and the ship's whistle. The passengers were then entertained in the music room before returning to their cabins until the Queenscliff lifeboat arrived sometime near dawn at which point all crew and passengers were safely removed from the ship.
The inevitable inquiry cleared the captain and crew of any wrong-doing, finding that abnormal currents were to blame for the wreck.
Rusted boilers of the SS Orungal on Formby Reef
During an attempt to re-float the ship in December, a fire took hold in her boiler room, seriously injuring two people after which, the burnt out remains were sold to Whelan the Wrecker. These subsequent salvage attempts also almost came to grief when, unannounced, the RAAF began firing upon the vessel as strafing practise. The remains of the vessel were then transferred to another owner. Eventually, the effects of time, salvage and the weather took their toll. Today, all that remain are two of her boilers which can be seen amongst the surf at low tide.

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