Torpedo sinks troop ship Ballarat

Name: Hector Creswick
Date: 1917-1918
Unit: 15 Coy, Australian Railway Operating Division
Location: France, Belgium

Hector Creswick was a keen photographer so it was not surprising he should take his camera with him when he went to war - even though this was forbidden. But even he couldn't have anticipated the dramatic situations he would be recording on film.

He became an engine driver in the Australian Railway Operating Division attached to the Royal Engineers, taking ammunition up to the front lines and bringing back the dead and wounded.

But the drama started before he actually got to the war. He travelled on the troop ship Ballarat, which was on its 13th voyage - a fact that caused some concern among the troops. Nine of the stokers deserted at Fremantle, and the next major incident occurred after leaving Capetown.

Hector Creswick described the rest of the voyage in graphic detail.

"There were nine of us in all, a battle cruiser only accompanied a couple of days then left eight of us. Our boat [was] leading the column two abreast. In the middle of the night (it) broke the steering gear and swung around in the midst of the other ships and just missed cutting one in half and at the same time being rammed by one of the other boats. We drifted nearly all the night and again after leaving Freetown something went wrong and we were again roused out in the middle of the night.

"The last but not least was the worst of the lot. I would not care to go through it again although as it happened I came out of it all right, in fact better than many, although I lost practically everything, having only what I stood up in.

"Well now I will give you an idea of what it is like being hit with a "Tinned Fish" as they are termed on this side. We were sailing peacefully along, escorted by one torpedo boat destroyer, our cruiser and the four other transports that left Sierra Leone with us having separated the day before, each going off in a different direction.

"It being Anzac Day the 25th April the officers aboard had arranged to give the returned men a dinner, and were just preparing for it at the time it was 2.05pm and five minutes before I had been down to the stem end where it struck arranging about some photos and had walked up to our troop deck on the forecastle end, sat down and just took off my life belt, as I intended to clean up my kit etc. as we expected to reach port that evening about 6.30pm, when someone yelled out the B------ has got us, and had no sooner heard the words, when, bang it went with a terrific explosion and the ship shook like a leaf.

"I grabbed my belt and (set) off up the stairs to the deck with a few hundred others on our deck expecting to see our boat split in half, but found that we had been hit near the stem, as she started to sink that end very quickly for the first 20 minutes. The order was given at once to lower the life boats, but our unit having previously been allotted to the rafts had no life boats, and had to stand by the rafts and see the other boats pull away, many of them only half full.

"When we were hit it disabled our gun and also our wireless, the destroyer escorting us had to send the SOS immediately. The destroyer started after the submarine and chased it from one side of the boat to the other. By the trail in the water, though not on the surface, I could see it quite plain, as I climbed high up on the poop, expecting to see another torpedo hit us on the bow, where we were all standing, but luckily it could not get a chance to come to the top to fire, the destroyer following it too closely.

"The first ten minutes were thrilling moments as we were all prepared for the worst as we shook hands with our mates. At the rate she was sinking, it was evident that every man would have to take his chance in the water. I threw off my coat and boots and tied a piece of rope around my waist, so as to be able to tie myself to a raft or anything I could get floating, knowing that I could not possibly hold on long with my hand, as the water was almost freezing. I afterwards found out only two points above freezing point.

"There was no panic on our deck, every man kept his head, and only one man jumped overboard before the order was given, but at the other end of the boat there were several of the Infantry men jumped overboard, shortly after being hit, others got injured, one or two got their legs broke, but as far as we know, all were saved. Half an hour after being hit, an aeroplane was flying over us, and very shortly after, a big seaplane.

"After the first twenty minutes, she seemed to stop a bit, I then went below and got my camera, a few little trinkets, including the silver cigarette case from Mother, some photos, and a large bottle of brandy I had kept since leaving Melbourne. Went up on deck and gave the boys round a nip, and then took some photos, as you will see when you get them.

"By this time we could see the black smoke of a destroyer coming to our assistance, and shortly after another and I can assure you it was a great relief, as we were like a lot of rats crowded high up on the bow of the boat, as it was getting higher every minute on account of sinking at the stem.

"Well at last the destroyer came alongside for about 15 minutes, and the order to advance from the Col. R. McMea who stood on the bridge with a revolver and another officer below him with a rifle. They jumped fell and scrambled for their lives. I along with many others got onto a long rope, slid down and jump landed on the destroyer below. Safe there I took the camera out again and took some more photos. Although the destroyer was only there a short time, when she pulled out, there were over 300 aboard her. She could not stay still for long, for fear of being torpedoed herself. We then kept running around the sinking boat till another destroyer came up and took off the rest of the men on board.

"A trawler, also a patrol boat came to our assistance. Those who got on the trawler did not get landed till next day. The destroyer that picked us up, the Lookout, was in the Naval battle off Heligoland on August 28th 1914, landed us at Davenport Docks about 10.30pm at night. There were some sorry looking figures when we landed there.

"Many were only half dressed, no boots and hats, others with a pair of pants and a blanket wrapped around them, and were nearly frozen, being packed on a destroyer, and scarcely able to move, and the water flying up all round, as she lost no time getting us ashore. Half of us were put up for the night at the Naval Barracks. There we were served with something hot, and made a shakedown on the floor but could not sleep.

"In the morning we were marched back through the main streets, headed by a band to the Naval Barracks. There was great cheering coming through the streets, as they all knew about us being survivors off the Ballarat. At the Barracks we all fell in and had a muster roll call and many a good shake of the hand at seeing each other. I met my mate here, not having seen him since I left him on the sinking ship, he was cut off just as I had got on the rope.

"We are now attached to the crack Regiment of England, The Royal Engineers, under the title Australian Railway Operating Division Royal Engineers, and are under the Aldershot Command, and are about 40 miles from London. The day after I arrived I got a letter from Elsie, the only mail I have yet got from Australia. She sent me Tom's address, I wrote to him and I got a letter from him today, saying that he was going to France the next day, and that being yesterday, I just missed seeing him.

"He had a letter from Norman, he was doing well and was in the trenches I expect to see them both shortly, as I believe we start our final leave this week, so by the time you get this, I will be somewhere in France."

Tom and Norman were Hector's younger brothers. Both were killed at Messines within four days of each other in June 1917 so Hector never did get to see them. Their names appear on the memorial at Menin Gate at Ieper dedicated to those soldiers with no known grave.

"You people in Australia have absolutely no idea what the conditions are like on this side, in regard to the war, and the important part the women are taking in it, being in almost every occupation you could mention, women bus drivers, porters on the station, letter carriers, cleaning engines, driving trams and trains, plowing the fields, garage drivers and a host of other things, and as regards to food? It is very scarce and dear, potatoes are up to 1/- per pound, fruit also very dear. Strawberries 10/- lb. tobacco 21/- lb, and if we do not strike a crushing blow at the enemy on land they will paralyse us on the sea with their submarines by starving us out.

"It would surprise you to know the number of ships they are downing every day, but which are not advertised. The Naval men gave us the chat when we were at Davenport. We are getting scores of their U Boats, but still they seem to be sending them out as fast as ever, but there is one thing that is certain they are getting short of high explosives as proved by the torpedo that hit us, and had it been properly charged, the Ballarat would have been blown to pieces at the stem. I have just heard that another Australian mail boat has been sunk.

"The N.S. Wales unit have gone to France and the West Aust. are leaving this week and we will shortly follow them. We expect to go to the North of France and on to the broad gauge (railway) lines in Belgium. The British are taking over the lines there on account of the number of Belgian spies being bought by German money. I will have to draw to a close as this will be getting too large for the envelope, but will write again shortly. Hoping this finds you all well at home as it leaves me.

With fondest love to all - Hector

Hector Creswick went on to serve in France and Belgium where he continued to take photographs. He returned to Australia at the end of the war. He continued to live in Victoria and died in November 1968.

The material for this article was supplied by Mrs Vivienne Brown [nee Creswick] of the Australian Capital Territory and Mrs Margaret Fairhead of Victoria


Last updated: 31 May 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Torpedo sinks troop ship Ballarat, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/torpedo-sinks-troop-ship-ballarat
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