It was on the General Quarters email news list that a question was asked about Towing naval vessels and the repair times for capital ships. The question posed was:
“Oh, an interesting question–how often does it happen that a ship’s engines are completely out but the ship can still float and the ship is towed back to base over a considerable distance?
Where it’s relevant in my scenario is determining the feasibility of towing a crippled ship to a better port.”
My answer to that was the example of HMAS Vendetta at Singapore harbour in World War II and it follows.
Most obvious one that springs to mind is HMAS Vendetta, refitting in Singapore after Mediterranean service as part of the Scrap Iron Flotilla. Bombed by the Japanese on 8 December 1941 (they got close but not close enough) and crewed by a skeleton crew of 3 officers and 18 other ranks, Under Reserve Lieutenant W G Whitting.
At the time, the superstructure was ashore, the engine and boiler rooms completely stripped down and the 4-inch guns taken to the naval base for refurbishment. The Vendetta‘s 12-pounder AA gun and some machine guns were set to defend the ship. They were under serious air attack. On 21 January, the 12-pounder hit a bomber, blew it up (apparently a 12-pounder shell hit the bomber’s bomb rack) big time – the explosion was so big it damaged the aircraft on either side of the bomber.
On 23 January 1942, Whitting was order to prepare to be towed out of Singapore. The naval base was fair purloined by the crew, grabbing what they could, stores, chronometers, charts etc. The torpedo tubes, director and range finders were remounted along with two of the 4-inch guns. Mind you – they looked good but were not able to fire as they were missing the firing mechanisms.
They were still bombed pretty much daily and also suffering from the monsoon rains – all this managed to hamper the process a little.
On 28 January Vendetta docked to have her bottom cleaned and painted. She completed the cleaning and painting on 30 January.
At 7:00 a.m. on 2 February, HM Tug St Just commenced towing Vendetta to a rendezvous with HMS Stronghold (a smaller destroyer). Both vessels then towed the Vendetta to the mouth of the Palembang River while under constant air attack.
On 4 February 1942 (in the morning) the three ships reached the mouth of the river. Stronghold left at this point and the St Just towed the Vendetta 90 kilometres upriver to Pelambang. I am not sure why they did this as they waited overnight, then towed back down the river the next day to rendezvous with the sloop HMAS Yarra.
Yarra took up the tow and on 10 February both ships arrived in Java at Tanjong Priok. Vendetta rested there until taken into the harbour on 14 February, docked next to depot ship HMS Anking.
On 17 February 1942, two tugs towed Vendetta out to the next towing ship, the former China River Steamer Ping Wo. They formed a small convoy called SJ37 which also included the merchant vessels Giang Ann and Darvel and escorts HMAS Yarra and HMS Electra (both sunk over the next few days).
On 24 February, the cruiser HMAS Adelaide took over the convoy escort role. Ping Wo was providing the tow and they sailed to Freemantle in Western Australia, then on to Albany. At Albany, it was decided the Ping Wo was not a suitable vessel for the tow across the Great Australian Bight. On the Ping Wo towing across the Bight, Whitting noted “If it is Ping Wo then woe it will be for us”.
An eventful crossing of the Bight occurred with the Islander providing the tow.
In the end, the Vendetta had been towed from Singapore to Melbourne. Vendetta had been towed 5,000 nautical miles in 72 days, with just a scratch crew aboard.