MS CITY OF RAYVILLE
SUNK BY A GERMAN MINE
OFF CAPE OTWAY, VIC
ON 8 NOVEMBER 1940

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In 1940, the German raider "Pinguin" accompanied by a tender ship, the pirated Norwegian freighter "Storstad", sailed through Bass Strait and laid approximately 100 mines along the Victorian Coast in Bass Strait, including the area off Apollo Bay. "Storstad" had been captured  by the German raider "Pinguin" in the Indian Ocean on 7 October 1940, and was renamed to the "Passat". It was then converted for mine laying operations.

 


Photo:- Rick Hanning

German Mine from the Passat which washed up on the
beach between Seaspray and Golden Beach in 1941.

 

The American registered freighter "MS City of Rayville" (5,833 tons, owned by American Pioneer Lines) with stars and stripes painted on both sides of its hull, left Adelaide for Melbourne on 7 November 1940. At approximately 7:47pm on Friday 8 November 1940 it was reported from Cape Otway Port War Signal Station that an explosion had been heard and seen and that a sinking ship could be seen in the fading light about 6 miles south of the Signal Station. Fishing vessels from nearby Apollo Bay were directed to go to her assistance.

The explosion apparently ripped out the foremast of the "MS City of Rayville". Water, planks, hatch covers, and ingots of lead from the ships cargo rained down on the decks and superstructure of the "MS City of Rayville" after the explosion.

The Royal Australian Navy immediately ordered 3 minesweeping vessels and a tug to help the stricken ship. They did not reach the area until the early hours of the following morning. The ship sank bow first within 35 minutes. The fishermen of Apollo Bay were able to rescue 37 crew members of the "MS City of Rayville" with only one other crew member reported as missing after he returned to the sinking ship to recover some personnel possessions.

As a result of Naval operations, mines similar to the German "X" type mine were discovered in the area where the "City of Rayville" had sunk. It was then suspected that the "City of Rayville" had struck a German mine. Authorities were aware that no Australian or British mines had been laid off the Australian coast. A British registered merchant ship "SS Cambridge" had been sunk on the previous day (7 Nov 1940) in a similar manner off Wilson's Promontory. These two sinkings were the first losses of any ships off the Australian coast due to enemy activity since the war had started 14 months earlier.

It was noted in a report that the Naval Control Service Officer in Adelaide had telephone the ships agents for the "City of Rayville" and suggested that the Master should interview him before sailing with a view to discussing the route, but it was understood that the invitation had been declined.

The "MS City of Rayville" was the first United States ship sunk during WWII. At this stage (pre Pearl Harbor), the United States had not yet entered the war.

Rescued Crew members of the City of Rayville, Master A.P. Cronin, Chief Officer M. Hart, Chief Engineer H.S. Brooks and First Engineer J.W. Thomas wrote a letter of appreciation dated 16 November 1940 to "the Right Honorable R.G. Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia which read as follows:-

November 16, 1940

 

The Right Honorable R.G. Menzies,
Prime Minister of Australia,
Melbourne.

Sir:

         On behalf of the officers and crew of the M.S. City of Rayville, we desire to express to you, as the head of the Commonwealth Government of Australia, our sincere thanks for the many kindenessses which we have received from the people and the Commonwealth Government of Australia since the unfortunate disaster which caused the loss of our ship on November 8, 1940. Since the time of our rescue by the fishermen of Apollo Bay, through our stay at the Ballarat Hotel at Apollo Bay, and since our arrival in Melbourne, we have received every consideration and courtesy from our Australian friends. We cannot adequately express our deep appreciation of this kindness.

Very sincerely yours,

 

On 1 April 2009 media reports indicated that Deakin University researcher, Daniel Ierodiaconou and his team, have recently discovered the wreck of the "MS City of Rayville" off Cape Otway. The reports indicated that its approximate location has been known since 2002 but due to the 70 metres depth of water in the area its exact location had not been pinpointed. They used state-of-the-art sonar imagery and remotely operated vehicles to take the first detailed images of the ship.

It would appear that the location of the "MS City of Rayville" has in fact been know for some time. I was contacted on 18 February 2005 by deep wreck technical diver David Alcock from Melbourne who advised he had dived the "MS City of Rayville" and was intending to dive the remains of the "SS Cambridge". David Alcock advise dthe the wreck of the "MS City of Rayville" had been dived since 2004/2005. It is believed that the late Barrie Heard, John McCormack and Rowan Stevens were perhaps the first to dive on the "MS City of Rayville", followed by groups led by Chris Law from Torquay.

David Alcock has also often heard stories (code for rumours) of a wrecked "submarine" somewhere off Wilsons Promontory. Some of the stories suggest it is a German U-Boat with multiple fatalities laying in 60m of water and clearly sunk by torpedo damage.

John McNamara told me that Jack Loneyís book "The Sea War in Bass Strait" indicated that there were stories (code for rumours) that seaman from the German Raider "Passat" may have landed for a brief period on the Victorian West Coast west of Cape Otway.

After the "MS City of Rayville" was sunk stories were circulated that fisherman from Apollo Bay had noticed an unidentified ship close to shore near Moonlight Head, and that Germans crew members had landed near there and remained for several days.

About a month after the sinking of the "MS City of Rayville", two local farmers climbed down some steep cliffs to some small beaches and bays to do some fishing. They were apparently alarmed to find possible evidence that an enemy force had landed there and camped for some time. German cigarette boxes and other disposable material were found on the beach. There were no official reports released by the Australian Government on these incidents. It is interesting to note that there is a file in National Archives of Australia titled "Letter from Miss Winifred Atkinson, Yunlong near Cape Otway, Victoria regarding rubber object found" dated 1942.

Rick Hanning told me that one of the mines that was laid by the "Passat" and washed up on the beach near Seaspray is now on display at the Gippsland Armed Forces Museum in Sale in  Victoria.

Another source states that the "Passat" operate around Bass Strait whilst the "Pinguin" operated off Newcastle, Sydney and Hobart. Both vessels laid about sixty mines during operations in Australian waters. The "Passat" laid four fields of ten mines off Cape Otway and two fields of five mines off Wilsonís Promontory.

The "score" for these operations were:-

7th November 1940 - SS CAMBRIDGE sunk off Wilsonís Promontory

9th November 1940 - MS CITY OF RAYVILLE sunk of Cape Otway

December 1940 - British freighter "NIMBIN" sunk off Norah Head N.S.W.

December 1940? - British freighter "HERTFORD" severely damaged off Liguana Island S.A.

March 1941 - Trawler "MILLIMUMAL" sunk off Barenjoy Head N.S.W.

A total of about 18,000 tons of allied shipping.

 

NOTE:- The City of Rayville is listed on the Victorian Heritage Register and the National Historic Shipwrecks Database. Under the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 it is an offence to disturb, damage or remove items from historic shipwrecks, with penalties of up to $50,000 for a body corporate and $10,000 and/or imprisonment for up to five years for an individual.

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I'd like to thank Rick Hanning, John McNamara and David Alcock for their assistance with this web page.

 

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This page first produced 8 April 2009

This page last updated 17 June 2017