John Quinn survived bombing and torpedo attacks

Name: John Quinn
Date: 1939-1946
Unit: Various DEMS
Location: The high seas

John Quinn certainly had an interesting and exciting war. As a Petty Officer gunner he served on a variety of Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (DEMS) which regularly carried troops and supplies to and from war zones and even brought prisoners of war to Australia.

He survived bombing and torpedo attacks, an order to surrender after France was defeated and countless other incidents.

He joined the Dunera in Sydney where she was fitted out with armaments in March 1940. After completing gunnery trials off Sydney Heads they sailed for Melbourne.

John Quinn takes up the story.

"In company with the Strathaird, Nevassa, Neuralia and Ettrick, we loaded Australian troops for the Middle East. We were escorted by British battleship Ramillies and various cruiser escorts. We called at Perth, Colombo, Aden, Suez, entered the Suez Canal and disembarked the troops at El Kantara. We then proceeded to Port Said, then through the Mediterranean Sea to Gibraltar.

"We were ordered to Dakar in French Senegal and sailed to that port where we loaded black Senegalese troops for Casablanca. We then sailed for Dakar and Konakry in French Guinea.

"Fortunately we did not encounter any enemy submarines on the way. We loaded black troops from these two ports to transport to France. As we departed from Dakar the latest French Battleship, the 35,000 ton Richlieu, steamed in and anchored. She later had to be sunk at her moorings to stop her falling into enemy hands.

"When we were off Casablanca we received news that France had fallen and the British Army was in full retreat. We were ordered to proceed to Casablanca and disembark the Senegalese troops. This we did and we were advised we would have to be interned as France was out of the war and France was now a neutral country. We were also advised that if we attempted to leave we would be fired on.

"Captain Caffyn disregarded these orders and sailed the Dunera without the aid of tugs. I had all our armament loaded and was prepared to open fire if one shot was fired at us. We sailed without incident.

"As we steamed out of Casablanca, the 35,000 ton Jean Bart, France's latest but incomplete battleship was towed in by tugs.

"We arrived in Gibraltar and were directed to load about 2800 refugees, troops, men, women and children who had escaped from Southern France.

"We sailed in convoy escorted by a couple of armed trawlers and headed for England. We were Commodore Ship and one morning an escort vessel came alongside us and advised that we had lost five ships of the convoy during the night.

"We arrived in Liverpool on 4 July 1940. I was directed to a ship called the Sambrie to take charge of an anti aircraft gun for one night and spent the afternoon drilling the gun crew who were all black West Indians."

John Quinn had a few days leave and went to London and Southampton where he experienced his first air raid, watching with great interest as a Spitfire fighter shot down a German bomber.

"We next loaded about 2600 internees and prisoners of war for Australia. Among these people were 500 who were survivors from the Arrandora Star torpedoed in the North Atlantic. This ship had been on her way to Canada loaded with German and Italian prisoners. Our prisoners were housed in the troop decks with barbed wire across the entrances to these decks and with British soldiers as guards.

We sailed from Liverpool on 11 July 1940 with another ship, which was loaded with children for Canada, and a destroyer escort. We ran into a severe storm off the north coast of Ireland. After a day or two our escort and the other ship parted from us and headed for Canada.

"A day or two later we all heard loud explosions. The ship shuddered and seemed to heel over. We all thought this is it. We manned the guns but could not see anything due to the heavy seas. The prisoners panicked and the weight of numbers pushing against the barbed wire barricades pushed them aside. Soldiers fired over their heads and moved in with fixed bayonets shouting to them that the ship was not sinking. A submarine had fired two torpedos at us.

"During the voyage the prisoners were brought up on deck for exercise. They walked continually around the promenade deck. I mounted two machine guns trained on them in case they attempted to take over the ship.

"We called at Freetown and then Takoradi on the Gold Coast and then Capetown, Fremantle, Melbourne, where some prisoners disembarked, and then on to Sydney where the remaining prisoners were unloaded."

John Quinn then sailed for Bombay where they loaded Ghurkha troops for Penang in Malaysia. After returning to Bombay they were ordered to sail to Durban in South Africa.

"I think it was on this trip that we picked up a R R R (Raider) call from a ship called the Canadian Cruiser. She was being shelled by a German warship. She was only a few hours ahead of us. We were lucky that it was her and not us. Later I found the raider was the German Pocket Battleship Admiral Sheer (11 inch guns).

During the following year or eighteen months, John Quinn was involved in carrying South African troops to Kenya (Mombasa) to stem the Italian advance on Kenya, and dropping Abyssinian irregular troops behind Italian lines. They were at the capture of Mogadishu in Italian Somalaland and the recapture of Berber in British Somalaland where he was in charge of one of the boats landing troops on the beach.

"We also captured Djibouti in French Somalaland, Massawa in Eritria. We were in Port Sudan when it was bombed by Italian planes and we had to put to sea. We carried thousands of Italian troops captured in the Middle East to South Africa, Kenya, India and Tanganyka. We spent months carrying troops from Durban to the Middle East, British, South Africans, Australians and returning with prisoners of war. We would sail in convoy carrying troops returning unescorted.

"We then did two or three trips from Bombay and Karachi to Basra, Abadam and Banda Shapur in Iraq and Iran. We carried troops to these places and loaded Polish troops of General Anders' army for the Middle East. These Poles had been POWs when Germany and Russia invaded Poland.

"These Poles had been used as slave labour and thousands had died in labour camps. When Germany invaded Russia they had been released to fight the Germans.

"We then sailed for Durban where we loaded British troops for Singapore. This convoy was the largest troop convoy in which I sailed. Our escort included battleships, heavy and light cruisers, destroyers, sloops, corvettes and as we neared Java we were met by units of the American and Dutch Navies.

"Before this meeting we had steamed in a huge circle for 24 hours. Why, I cannot recall. Before we entered the Sunda Straits the large warships turned back. We entered the port of Batavia. Some of the convoy carried on under the heavy air attack heading for Singapore. The Empress of Asia was bombed and sunk. Most of the troops were saved.

"Two of the DEMS gunners escaped from Singapore and later sailed with me on a Dutch ship Madoera. In Tan Jon Priok, Batavia's port, we tied up near the Perth, Exeter, Yarra, Houston (USA) and Electra, all sunk in battle shortly after. We unloaded our troops and equipment and sailed just before the fall of Singapore, firstly to Colombo and thence to Bombay.

"There, as the Japanese were nearing Australia, I requested to be sent home. I was sent as Gunner in Charge to the Madoera and we sailed for Colombo. On the way the engines broke down. It was an uneasy feeling with all the hammering on metal and the ship just lying hove to.

"We loaded cargo in Colombo and sailed unescorted for Melbourne and Sydney. After leave for an operation I was ready for sea again.

"My next ship was the Morinda which carried supplies to certain Pacific Islands, always unescorted. I spent some months on this ship and then was drafted to the River Burdekin which had just been built in Brisbane. We carried out gunnery trials in Morton Bay and sailed for Sydney.

"We loaded supplies and ammunition for the Middle East calling at Melbourne, Fremantle, Bombay, through the Red Sea, Suez Canal to Alexandria on the Mediterranean. After unloading we sailed for Port Said calling at Kozier in the Red Sea, Aden and then to Adelaide where I left this ship and joined the Allara 1944.

"When we arrived in Sydney I was drafted to the Reynella which was a captured Italian ship. She was old and slow. We did a couple of voyages to Colombo and Bombay carrying passengers and cargo. Always sailing alone. We also had some troops for Burma."

John Quinn was on the Momba when the war ended. He was sent to Newcastle to disarm merchant ships and rail all armaments, ammunition and equipment to Sydney 1945.

The material for this article was supplied by John Quinn of New South Wales

Last updated: 3 June 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), John Quinn survived bombing and torpedo attacks, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2020,
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