This was the dramatic headline in the Melbourne Age on Saturday, November 9, 80 years ago. The s.s. Cambridge, while on passage from Melbourne to Sydney, had struck a mine off Wilsons Promontory at 11pm the previous Thursday, sinking in 45 minutes with the loss of one life. In response to a distress call, the survivors were picked up the next morning. They had spent nine hours in the lifeboats in wild wet weather before being taken to Port Welshpool, where the residents kindly made room for them in their homes and ensured that they were warm and well fed.
Departing from Port Pirie, the City of Rayville was heading eastward through Bass Strait when at 7.47pm on November 8 she also struck a mine. The ship sank in just over half an hour, taking the life of one crew member. The lighthouse keeper at Cape Otway witnessed the explosion and called fishing boats at Apollo Bay to go to the aid of the survivors. The ship’s lifeboats were towed to Apollo Bay.
The loss of two ships in less than 24 hours prompted the prime minister, Robert Menzies, to state: “(This) brings the war nearer home.” Previously, all of the action had been on the other side of the world.
The Cambridge was a British-owned steamer, but the City of Rayville was American-owned. The US was neutral at the time of her sinking, not entering World War II until December 1941. The City of Rayville was the first US-owned ship to be sunk in World War II, and the crewman who died was the first US seaman to die in that war.
Both ships were victims of the Passat, formerly a tanker named Storstad that had been captured by the German raider Pinguin, converted into a minelayer and, with a German prize crew aboard, laid minefields in Bass Strait in early November. The Pinguin was a cargo vessel, fitted with weapons and manned by the German navy, which sank 28 ships with another four sunk by her mines before meeting her end.
After the loss of the two ships, Bass Strait was closed to shipping until all of the remaining mines were swept by HMAS Orara and Durraween.
BY MAURIE HUTCHINSON
President, Peninsula Ship Society
T: Maurie Hutchinson 9787 5780
The Peninsula Ship Society will not be meeting until further notice.