75th Anniversary of the Sinking of George S Livanos & Coast Farmer
In July 2017 it was 75 years since our coastal shipping came under savage attack from a giant Japanese submarine known as the I-11. Unfortunately most records of the Japanese activities on the coast were destroyed following the war, so details are limited.
The ‘George S Livanos’ was a relatively new cargo ship, at only four years old. It was built in the UK and owned by the Theofano Maritime Company of Greece. Its regular crew of thirty eight men were sourced from Greece and Cyprus. After being initially operated on a cross-Atlantic service, it was employed on the Australia-Greece run. Greece had allowed a tariff reduction for the sale of 100,000 tons of Australian wheat. The George S Livanos and two other vessels were put into this service. With the outbreak of war, a number of Greek vessels were chartered by the British Government for carrying commercial cargo and military cargo and supplies.
The ‘Coast Farmer’ was an American cargo vessel and was already 22 years old in 1942. At 3,290 gross tons, it was built by the US Submarine Corporation in 1920 and named the Riverside Bridge. Then it gained a new name, Point Arena when operated by the Gulf Pacific Mail line. She was given a third and final name Coast Farmer when employed by an American company before the Second World War for coastal freight services in the Far East. She was then commandeered to become part of a wartime fleet known as the “Pensacola Fleet” to take troops and military supplies to the island of Guam. Afterwards she was given a given a machine gun crew and sent from Brisbane to Mindanao in the Philippines loaded up with military supplies. She was one of only three vessels to successfully slip through the Japanese blockade. Then she was placed in service around the Australian coast transporting military supplies.
The Japanese submarine I-11 was launched in February, 1941 from Kawasaki’s Kobe Shipyard. It was fitted out and completed by May 1942. It was then supplied with a Yokosuka E14Y1 reconnaissance floatplane, which was stored in a partly disassembled condition in a hanger on the deck.
· Its sub-class designation was B-1 because it was equipped with a plane. It had a short runway on the foredeck in front of the tubular hanger.
· The mother-ship I Class submarines which piggy-backed the midget submarines that attacked Sydney in late May to early June 1942 were sub-classed as C-1 submarines. The foredecks of these two types are quite different but they are essentially the same.
The E14YI plane was the same type of plane as the one which had flown over Sydney just prior to the submarine attack on Sydney. There have been stories of an E14Y aircraft crashing somewhere in the Milton-Ulladulla area, but little evidence to support them. Any further information with evidence for or against this would be appreciated.
These planes were launched by catapult, from the deck, probably operated by compressed air. They could take off on the deck but had to land in the sea. Retrieval was carried out with a winch, also fitted to the deck. Over the next few weeks, launch and retrieval exercises were carried out. It is recorded that one catapult launch exercise caused an injury to a crew member. The submarine was a large vessel at 113.3 metres long, and was powered by four large diesel motors providing a total output of 12,400 horsepower. A large bank of batteries and powerful electric motors allowed it to travel long distances submerged. Then, on 9th July it set out from Japan to raid the east coast of Australia, just two months after its completion.
For some reason convoys used to protect the east coast had been temporarily discontinued. On 20th July the George S Livanos was travelling alone from Melbourne to Sydney with a load of 87 army vehicles. The Ford and General Motors factories in Victoria were mostly assembling military vehicles rather than passenger vehicles during the war. The ship was carrying a crew of 44 seamen and 4 army personnel at the time. At 11.00pm on 20th July it was around 24 km out from St Georges Head. Without having any forewarning it received a direct hit form one of I-11’s torpedoes. The raider had claimed its first victim, just eleven days after leaving Japan. Fortunately all men on board were able to launch the lifeboats and reach Jervis Bay. Being a recently built vessel, its lifeboats were probably equipped with engines.
The next attack would come just three hours later. According to the co-ordinates which have been recorded, the Coast Farmer would have been 20 miles east of Ulladulla at 2.00 am on 21st July. Most of the crew were asleep on their bunks after a hard day’s work securing the cargo of steel and earth-moving equipment needed for the allied war effort. A strong westerly wind was expected and efforts were made to ensure that nothing would move in the hull. The crew of I-11 spotted the vessel and launched one torpedo. It struck the Coast Farmer amid-ship, killing the engineer and destroying one of the two lifeboats. When the I-11 heard the explosion, a searchlight was turned on to inspect the damage. No assistance was offered to the crew of the doomed vessel. It then turned away to seek other prey. The skipper of the Coast Farmer, John Matson and the other twenty four survivors clambered into the remaining lifeboat and moved a safe distance away from the sinking vessel. Just a few minutes later the Coast Farmer slipped below the surface of the Tasman Sea. The life-boat was far too overcrowded to attempt to row towards the shore and they drifted further and further out to sea driven by the westerly wind.
The crew spent a cold, damp, cheerless night, wondering if rescue would ever come. At any time a rogue wave might topple the overloaded craft, tipping them into the ocean. Planes with depth charges were sent out from Nowra at daylight to search for the I-11 once word was received of the loss of the George S Livanos. One plane, on its very last sweep of the area that day, ranged a little further out to sea. Miraculously the sailors were discovered and a vessel was sent out from Jervis to rescue them.
After two successful attacks, the I-11 continued south. One day later it attacked an American Liberty Ship, the William Dawes. Liberty ships were built quickly during WW2 and they were made in a number of separate sections. Then each of these sections were welded together as they were completed. The William Dawes was about twenty five miles off Twofold Bay. This ship was carrying Jeeps, army trucks, ambulances and half-tracked vehicles. Two or three torpedoes were released and the ship was engulfed in flames and sank with the loss of four lives.
Following these successful Japanese attacks, aircraft patrols were stepped up and the convoy system was re-introduced. I-11 made two further attacked which were unsuccessful. Then after reaching Bass Strait it turned north again and headed for the Solomon Islands. There it came into conflict with a number of US vessels with limited success. On one occasion it released two torpedoes but a well-placed depth charge dropped between then caused them both to explode not too far from the I-11, causing it to leak. It made for the island of Truk (today in the Federated States of Micronesia) for repairs and was bombed twice by Catalina flying boats on the way, causing further damage. Truk was then the main Japanese Naval base in the South Pacific area.
After repairs it returned for another raid the South Coast of NSW without success before heading back to the Solomon Islands where it succeeded in sinking the HMAS Hobart. Eventually it disappeared near the Ellice Islands (today Tuvulu). It is believed that it either hit a mine or was torpedoed.
by BARRIE WILFORD