HMAS ST FRANCIS – WW2 Australia’s First Wartime All Aboriginal Crew

Just before ten o’clock on Thursday morning 19 February 1942, hundreds of Japanese airplanes bombed Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia. Despite wartime press censorship and the government urge to play down any threat, the fact that the Japanese had to either fly over, sail upon, or traverse through Australia’s northern waters did not go unnoticed in the nation’s capital in Canberra. Not only had Japan bombed the Australian mainland and the (then) main transport hub for northern coastal shipping, it was also dominating Australia’s northern offshore airspace. The fledgling naval port and harbour town of Darwin had been the main target, primarily because it was both the maritime lifeline for northern Australia, and an emerging hub of Allied military activity. That was why on the day of the bombings, Darwin harbour was home to nearly sixty Allied civilian and military vessels.[1]  It was also why Japan had made it their main objective in the first instance, to attack all ships and any port facilities in the harbour.

It was a motley assortment of vessels.  Alongside regular Allied Naval vessels including the American destroyer the USS Peary, or Australian minesweepers (corvettes) and patrol boats such as HMAS Deloraine and HMAS Vigilant, Darwin’s navy also included a ragtag fleet of other smaller vessels. These were the ex-luggers, ex-harbour freighters, ex-coastal freighters, ex-trawlers, ex-tugs, ex-missionary steamers, sloops, tankers, coal hulks, tugs, ketches, lighters and other awkward looking boom defence vessels, and all been recently commandeered into wartime service by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN).[2]

Each vessel and crew in their own particular way, were providing different essential services to the safety and security of northern Australia. As the vanguard of Australia’s northern defences, their collective responsibilities were just as wide-ranging as they were in their individual capabilities.  Duties ranged from coastal navigation to anti-Japanese surveillance and observation. Many provided Coastwatcher support, mine sweeping, ferry escorts and the carrying of vital stores and personnel to remote offshore areas. Others worked closely with various Special Operations activities, routinely venturing into and out of Japanese occupied islands transporting and landing ‘Z’ or ‘M’ Force personnel to and from within ‘hot’ zones.[3]  Sometimes they doubled up as refugee transports, or in the search for downed Allied or Axis pilots.

Critics might argue that these hardy little vessels and their crews were nothing more than a ‘dog’s body’ or ‘mosquito fleet’, but they’d be wrong.[4]  These smaller and usually unarmed vessels and their crews were made of sterner stuff than that. They were not just mere supply, shuttle or ferry services across northern Australia and offshore islands, they were the life blood of Australia’s northern coastline. These were the mainstays of communications, transport and supply for all of northern Australia and then some. The upshot being that as wartime Australia was faced with an acute shortage of seagoing vessels in early 1942, anything that poked its bow into Darwin harbour, more or less floated, resembled something seaworthy, and had any semblance of an active crew was commandeered into Naval service. One of these vessels was the HMAS ST Francis (FY26) (Fig.1).

Fig 1. Prewar lugger St Francis with dinghy in foreground c.1933 possibly Bathurst Island harbour.
Source: After ‘Mission Lugger to Rescue’, in The Sun, Monday, 19 June 1933, p.1.

By 1914, the St Francis was routinely servicing the recently established Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC) Mission on Bathurst Island, located roughly 80km (roughly 50 miles) northwest of Darwin (Fig.2).[5] Named for the venerated patron saint of animals and the environment, the Italian Catholic Saint Francis of Assisi (c.1181-1226), the 14-ton and 15-metre (roughly 49 feet) long lugger had been acquired by the island mission as the pre-eminent form of interisland transport at the time.[6] Despite being a vital asset for the mission in general, and Bathurst Island in particular, finding qualified skippers and locally capable crews keen to adhere to the mission’s mandate remained problematic until 1930, when a newly ordained Catholic priest arrived in the Northern Territory and assumed the position as Master of the St Francis.[7]

Fig 2. Bathurst Island Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Mission viewed from the bay c. 1941.
Source: After Northern Territory Library & Archives, PH0094/016,7, (accessed September 14, 2020).

Newly graduated from St Mary’s Towers in Douglas Park seminary in New South Wales, twenty-nine year old Brother Andrew Smith was well-suited to the job (Fig. 3).[8] Born in Wellington New Zealand in 1901, he had spent most of his youth at sea serving in a wide variety of civilian and Royal Navy (RN) ships.[9] Starting as a merchant seaman, he worked his way to London and by his eighteenth birthday had joined the RN. Training as a gunner and specialising in mine clearance operations, Smith subsequently served in the Aegean with the 2nd Submarine Flotilla, then later on the Flag Ship HMS Europa moored in Malta. Within a few months he was serving on the HMS Caesar, the last British pre-dreadnought vessel serving operationally overseas. It’s final operation was in the Dardanelles and Black Sea in support of naval forces operating against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. After seeing this last action, Smith then moved on to the harbour base at Constantinople, before joining the readying-for-scrap HMS Victoria I and biding his time until May 1920, and his subsequent demobilisation and repatriation to Melbourne.[10]  

Fig. 3: Undated photographic portrait by unknown photographer of Brother Andrew Smith of Bathurst Island Mission boat St. Francis. Source: After ‘Flashes on the World’s Stage’, in Daily Standard, Thursday, 22 June 1933, p. 10. (accessed September 13, 2020).

Within a few short days of arriving in Australia, the future Brother Smith then proceeded to  join the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). Here alike his RN service, he served on a variety of Australian vessels mostly associated with minesweeping operations including the HMAS Geranium, until his subsequent discharge as a non-commissioned Petty Officer in May 1927.[11]  In the two year interim that followed, the British War and Victory Medal recipient returned to his other life on the sea, that as a merchant seaman. It was here he’d stay until eventually joining religious orders and finding his new vocation in life possibly by late 1929 or early 1930.[12]

After being ordained, the lifetime seagoing Brother Smith eventually arrived at Bathurst Island to take on the position of the St Francis’ skipper. It must have seemed like a God’s-send to the Catholic mission,  not only because they could  have full autonomy to select crew members, but were also probably buoyed by the fact that the St Francis with its auxiliary engine and sail capability, was also the fastest vessel in the area.[13] Now, the little lugger that had spent most of its life sailing between Darwin, Bathurst Island and Port Keats could be used for other purposes, and in 1930s Darwin, that included various search and rescue operations as well as police patrolling.  

In those days, some of the biggest headaches the Tiwi Islands face was from encroaching influences from Japanese pearling lugger crews, not the least of which included prostitution, illegal alcohol and underage sex-trafficking of young Aboriginal girls.[14] Even though the Bathurst Mission had been sounding the alarm about these activities for at least five years, it was not until things had got so bad, and Japanese pearling crews were openly coming ashore in and around the Tiwi Islands brandishing small firearms, that the Australian government finally took action. By 1935, the government had deployed the purpose-built HMAS Larrakia patrol vessel in an attempt to curtail Japanese pearling crew activities.[15]

Meanwhile for the St Francis, routine ferrying work between the islands and the mainland continued. The routine transportation of buffalo hides, other agricultural produce and passenger traffic between places remained, constant At the same time, Brother Smith introduced a rotational on-the-job workplace training onboard the St Francis, whereby new crews were appointed for each monthly supply run to Darwin (Fig. 4).[16] It was a way for many of the younger Aboriginal men to gain various seagoing work experiences, although with the rapidly expanding presence of fleets of Japanese motherships and their pearling luggers, many of the mission trainees quickly made their way into paying positions on Japanese pearling fleets.[17]  Nonetheless, the St Francis continued expanding into other operations such as 1933, when it provided a quick turnaround trip to Darwin in order to supply much needed fuel to the ‘Astrea’, the Imperial Airways plane that lay stranded on Bathurst Island.[18] Two years later and while Brother Smith was taking a long hiatus from his duties, the St Francis had been instrumental in a stolen generation action.[19]  Now under the aegis of an unknown interim skipper, it was the St Francis that had been involved in the search for, apprehension and transportation to Darwin of a ‘half-caste’ girl that had reportedly been seen on nearby Buchanan Island.[20]

Fig.  4:   Brother Smith holding mug with unknown Aboriginal and other crew of St Francis c 1933. Source:  After NAA: A431, 1951/1294, The Melbourne Herald, 27 September 1933 (newspaper clipping) 214.

By July 1942 however, the newly commandeered HMAS St Francis, under command of recently reappointed Sub Lieutenant (Brother) Andrew Smith and her crew, were now placed at the disposal of the Australian Navy.  If Brother Smith was provided with a military rank while engaged in various wartime activities, surely the same measure of cover might be afforded to the crew?  If the little lugger was engaged in any ‘hot zone’ actions, such as delivering supplies and mail to numerous Coastwatching stations perilously close to known Japanese occupied battlespace areas, wouldn’t they too face the same dangers as their skipper? What if the now HMAS St Francis had encountered a Japanese submarine close to Melville Island again, just as they’d done six months earlier? And what of the crew actively being engaged in search and rescue operations of downed aircraft? Survivors of ships that’d been sunk by Japanese air and naval forces, such as they did rescuing Philippine survivors of the ship ‘Florence D’? What if the crew had to defend their vessel against piracy or Japanese hostilities?[21] What if the crew had been taken prisoner by the Japanese? Would the crew be protected under the Geneva Convention as civilians? As military personnel? As civilians considered by the Japanese as engaging in espionage activity because they didn’t have any military ranks?

All of these, of course, are moot questions that deserve answering but that is outside the scope of this little blog. That the HMAS St Francis crew were all Aboriginal men for the entire war’s duration, with a Catholic priest as skipper, is in and of itself a wartime peculiarity. That the crew was paid primarily in tobacco and flour is significant when considering they too risked attack from strafing Japanese aircraft, or Japanese bombing in general including submarine attack. Perhaps Brother Smith was the little lugger’s lucky charm, given that he’d been a specialist in minesweeping operations for at least half of his life. And while we know that there has been some retrospective recognition of Australia’s civilian Aboriginal wartime contributions to the defence of Australia, we still don’t know enough about the roles these seagoing crews. And we should.


[1] Douglas Lockwood, Australia’s Pearl Harbour Darwin 1942 (Adelaide: Rigby Limited, 1977) 44-46.

[2] Owen Griffiths, Darwin Drama (Sydney: Bloxham & Chambers, 1946) 131.

[3] In military language a ‘hot zone’ means somewhere considered to be dangerous.  Z Force otherwise known as Z Special Unit (1942/1943-1945), was ostensibly a joint Allied Special Forces unit tasked with specialised reconnaissance and sabotage operations behind Japanese lines primarily in Southeast Asia.  M Force or M Special Unit (1943-1945), was a specialised reconnaissance unit working within the Services Reconnaissance Department (SRD) primarily in the Southwest Pacific areas of operation.

[4] In the English language, a ‘dogsbody’ is derisionary slang for someone or something being given nothing more than menial jobs to do. Similarly a ‘Mosquito Fleet’ is generally an assortment of small manoeuvrable vessels, especially those only capable of operating in shallow coastal or gulf waters such as fishing or pleasure craft, that have been pressed into military service during wartime. Auth. pers. ob.

[5] The Bathurst Island Mission run by the Roman Catholic Church opened in 1911 and by 1974 became known as Nguiu (pronounced Newie). Along with neighbouring Melville Island, Bathurst and Melville Islands are often generically referred to and jointly administered  as the Tiwi Islands (Tiwi language: Ratuati Irara literally meaning two islands, trans. Kate Reid-Smith 2020).  On her maiden voyage the St Francis had been blown 400 miles out into the Indian Ocean, until she was found by the Royal Australian Navy’s Chatham-class light cruiser HMAS Sydney, herself only commissioned into service in 1913.   ‘Australian Naval History on 17 January 1942’, in Naval Historical Society of Australia, (accessed September 9, 2020). Regina Ganter, The Contest for Aboriginal Souls: European missionary agendas in Australia (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 2018) 54.

[6] The decision had also been a strategic one, insomuch as Bathurst Island could potentially become the stepping stone into northern Australia’s landward territories in search of coverts, owning the only maritime transport available to the mission was a pragmatic choice. Regina Ganter, The Contest for Aboriginal Souls: European missionary agendas in Australia, ibid.

[7] The Mission’s human resource problem with the St Francis may have been directly linked to the lawlessness of a large number of men and women located in and around northwest and northern Australian environs at that time. Unruly onshore and offshore behaviours, drunkenness, licentiousness, smuggling, prostitution, fighting, slavery, drug and other prohibited substance use, had long been rife amongst many of the seagoing community. Not only that, at that time the majority of sailors, seaman and maritime merchants also hailed from as far away as Japan, China, the Philippines, Malaya and elsewhere. Darwin being a port city alike others in the region including Singapore and Batavia, shared many of the similar town characteristics. The Mission probably hoped that all the resident evils of temptation on offer could be countenanced by the St Francis and its crew with the right ship’s captain. The other point of owning the St Francis may have been the mission’s way of circumventing Australia’s White Australia Policy at the time. Kathy De La Rue, The Evolution of Darwin, 1869-1911 (Darwin: Charles Darwin University Press, 2004) 115.  Julia Martinez, Plural Australia: Aboriginal and Asian labour in tropical white Australia, Darwin, 1911-1940 (unpublished thesis: University of Wollongong Thesis Collection, 1999) 84.

[8] Australia, Electoral Rolls, 1903-1980 (Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010) #2289 [database online] (accessed September 13, 2020). St Mary’s Towers, (accessed September 13, 2020).  St Mary’s Monastery, (accessed September 13, 2020).

[9] UKNA: ADM 337/101/57,  MC 1-MC 350, Smith, Andrew Service Number: MC58.

[10] Smith had an Aunt living in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond at the time. NAA: A6769, SMITH AA [5 pages] 2.

[11] A6769, Smith, 3.

[12] Australia, Electoral Rolls, 1903-1980 (Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010) [database online] (1928) #4596.

[13] It appears that up until Brother Smith’s captaincy, most of the St Francis activities and crewing had been at the behest of various Filipino skippers. This was probably because the Philippines and most of its population had already been heavily Catholicised for centuries, and probably made it easier for any mission tasking by Darwin’s Catholic diocese. ‘Bathurst Island Mission 1911-1938’, in German Missionaries in Australia, Griffith University, (accessed September 13, 2020).

[14] NAA: A431, 1951/1294 Bathurst Island Mission Reports – Northern Territory [275 pages], 204, 219, 228.

[15] The other outcome had also been the growing population of so-called ‘half-caste’ Japanese-Aboriginal children. NAA: A1, 1937/2419 Patrol Vessel for Northern Territory – Cruises of [145 pages], 8.  A431, Bathurst Mission Reports, 260.

[16] A431, Bathurst Mission Reports, 191.

[17] Remembering that the main currency for Aboriginal wages at that time remained rations, usually tobacco, flour or tea. The Japanese provided both financial and other incentives such as access to alcohol to Aboriginal workers. This was a similar ploy in the ‘hearts and minds’ propaganda activities the Japanese had been using throughout Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific throughout the interwar years, including up to the eve of the Darwin bombings. It is just  one example of Japan’s proactive prewar intelligence gathering that was either abrogated or ignored by Australian and British authorities at that time. See Kate Reid-Smith, A Conversation on the Pinyok Mine Massacre Part 1,, 4 June 2020.

[18] ‘Flashes on the World’s Stage’, in Daily Standard, Thursday, 22 June 1933, p.10. ‘Mission Lugger to Rescue’, in The Sun, Monday, 19 June 1933, p.1. ‘Mission Lugger to Rescue’, in The Newcastle Sun, Tuesday, 20 June 1933, p.1.

[19] ‘Darwin Notes’, in Townsville Daily Bulletin, Thursday, 7 February 1935, p. 9.

[20] Interestingly enough, the girl’s existence was well-known to the Bathurst Mission, as well as to local police for years, but both their collective arguments had been they had not been able to take the girl in to the ‘half-caste’ hostel in Darwin because they had had trouble catching her. It seems ongoing complaints by the English naturalist Walter Goodfellow (1866-1953) after a fleetingly brief visit to North Australia, lay at the crux of the sudden urge to find the girl. Father Gsell,  the long-time head of the Bathurst Mission, found Goodfellow’s continued charges describing Aboriginal hunting culture as bloodthirsty killers, attacking anything and everything in their way for food as ‘grossly exaggerated’.  Goodfellow on the other hand, had little qualms about his long-time career and primary income as a wildlife collector by hunting, killing and collecting specimens (especially their skins) for museums, as well as capturing live birds for private aviaries. ‘Half-Caste Girl Found on Island’, in The Labor Daily, Saturday, 5 October 1935, 8.  Barbara Mearns & Richard Mearns, The bird collectors (San Diego, Calif.: AP Natural World, 1998) 345. NAA: A1, 1935/9860 Walter Goodfellow – Criticism of Aboriginals [25 pages] 9.

[21] Piracy was not unknown in Australia’s northern waters and even the St Francis had on at least one occasion been the object of piratical pursuits. A431, Bathurst Mission Reports, 213, 214.


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