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Loss of HMAS Voyager

25 SEP 1942: World War II and HMAS Voyager is grounded and destroyed at Betano Bay, Timor. Voyager brought the 2/4th Independent Company to Timor to reinforce Australian troops already on the island. The ship came close in shore to land the troops but ran aground. The Australians were left with no option but to destroy it.

More than three years previously this bay had been the site of dramatic events that ultimately ended with the scuttling of the ship. Charles Bush was following in the traditions of the Official War Art Scheme established during the First World War to record and reconstruct paintings of historic military events. A series of works of HMAS Voyager that followed illustrates the artistic working process of Charles Bush, reconstructing events that he had not witnessed.

When the Japanese invasion force swept across Timor in February 1942 the defenders of the island outpost were quickly overwhelmed by the rapid Japanese attack. However, the men of the 2/2nd Independent Company melted into the mountains to wage an effective guerrilla war against the occupying Japanese.

The isolated Australians were able to re-establish contact with Darwin on 20 April 1942 by constructing a radio dubbed “Winnie the War Winner”. Back in Australia the decision was made to maintain the harassing guerrilla force on Timor, and a regular program to resupply the troops was established. It was recognised that fresh troops were required to continue the fight and HMAS Voyager was tasked with inserting 600 members of the 2/4th Independent Company and supplies into Timor while evacuating 400 men of the original force.

HMAS Voyager arrived in Betano Bay and anchored half an hour before sunset on 23 September 1942. To make the most of the fading light, the troops were ordered to disembark immediately. This would prove to be a fatal mistake for the Voyager; within minutes it was realised that a strong tidal current was pushing the ship parallel to the shore. The collapsible boats, made from canvas and plywood, were rapidly filling with troops directly above the portside propeller. Captain Robison urgently needed to manoeuvre the ship into deeper water using the port engine, but he waited 17 minutes for the troops to get clear, as he feared if the port engine were to start it would suck the men into the propeller. Once the engines were started Voyager had nowhere to move, and within a minute was stuck fast on the beach. From anchoring to the eventual grounding of HMAS Voyager, only 23 minutes had elapsed.

The rest of the night and the following morning were taken up with frantic attempts to dislodge the ship, but to no avail. The decision was taken at noon to abandon all attempts to free the ship, as by this time sand had surrounded the propeller and ship’s hull.

The efforts of the independent companies and Voyager’s crew were now diverted to emptying the ship of all supplies and anything else that could prove useful. This operation was hampered by a number of Japanese air raids. Voyager was stripped of all supplies by 8 pm on 24 September and demolition charges were laid in the engine room, blowing holes in each side of the hull.

Early the next morning Captain Robison and a member of the crew set fire to the ship, burning its remains. It was this dramatic act that artist Charles Bush would ultimately record for posterity through his work. Voyager burned throughout the day, with the ship’s magazines intermittently exploding. That evening HMAS Warrnambool and HMAS Kalgoorlie evacuated the stranded Voyager crew along with a number of the wounded from the independent companies.

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