SY Komet

In the September 2003 issue of Una Voce, Dick Doyle raised a question about the fate of the German gunboat, the Komet, hidden in the spectacular Johan Albrecht Harbour at Witu during the start of WW1. In addition to the following article by Neville Threlfall (published in the March 2004 issue of Una Voce), we received two other responses from Ken Humphreys and Robin Hide. They have described events in greater detail and Robin Hide’s gives several websites where further information can be found. All three articles follow.

Built by Bremer Vulcan in 1911 .She was built as a Governor’s Yacht for the governor of German New Guinea where she was taken as a prize of war by the Australian Navy and used as a packet boat. She was armed with three 4in guns and renamed H.M.A.S.UNA

The capture of the Komet: Neville Threlfall

(Published in Una Voce, March 2004)

In the second of Dick Doyle’s interesting articles about the Witu Islands (Una Voce, September 2003), he raises the subject of the German naval vessel SMS Komet (not Comet) and whether she was towed back to Germany during World War 1. The answer is No, as the vessel was captured by the Australians a few weeks after German New Guinea’s Acting Governor surrendered to the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force. The story of her movements after the outbreak of the war, and of her capture, are told in both volumes IX and X of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, The Royal Australian Navy by AW Jose and The Australians at Rabaul by SS Mackenzie.

The Komet was not built as a naval vessel, and was classed as a yacht of 977 tons displacement, serving as the administrative vessel within German New Guinea. When war broke out on 4 August 1914 Acting Governor Haber was using the Komet to visit settlements on the mainland of New Guinea (Kaiser Wilhelmsland). News of the war was received by the Komet’s wireless; Haber hurried back to Rabaul and landed at Matupit on 14 August. Australian warships had already entered Simpson Harbour on a brief raid, so the Komet was sent away at once, to a bay she had used as an anchorage before, on the north coast of New Britain west of the Willaumez Peninsula. This bay her crew had unofficially named ‘Komethafen’. For a few days she dodged about between Komethafen, the Witu Islands and points on the northwest coast of New Britain, then came back to Massawa Bay on the north coast of the Gazelle Peninsula and was commissioned into the German Navy. From there she went north to Angaur in the Palau Islands (part of Germany’s Micronesian possessions), but later came south, calling at Durour Island and at Peterhaven in the Witu’s before hiding again in Komethafen on 4 October.

Meanwhile the commander of the ANMEF, Colonel Holmes, was anxious to seize the Komet, as under the surrender terms of 17 September all property of the German administration was to come under his control. But Haber insisted that as the Komet had been commissioned into the German Navy, she was no longer the property of the colonial government, and he did not know where she was. A British trader, Stephen Whiteman, a long-term resident of German New Guinea, knew from his contacts with the New Guineans that the missing vessel often used Komethafen as an anchorage, and told Holmes that she would probably be found there. A smaller German government vessel, the Nusa, which had been seized at Kavieng, was hastily fitted with a naval 12-pounder gun and sent to Komethafen with a detachment of soldiers aboard. They took Whiteman as an interpreter, and a Japanese shipowner, Komine, who knew the area, also went with them.

By 10 October 1914 the Nusa was near Komethafen, and learned from local villagers that Komet was indeed at anchor there. At dawn next morning the Nusa steamed into the bay, taking the Komet’s crew completely by surprise. Her captain was halfway through his morning shave when the leaders of the Australian expedition boarded his ship! So the Komet was captured without a shot being fired; escorted to Rabaul by the Nusa, she was there commissioned into the Royal Australian Navy as HMAS Una. After a refit at Garden Island naval Dockyard in Sydney Harbour, she served the Australian administrators of German New Guinea for the rest of the war.

The Komet story: Ken Humphreys

Dick Doyle mentioned the German gunboat Komet in his September 2003 article on Witu. Her history during and after 1914 is of some interest. The Komet was a 1438 ton (cf Bulolo 6267t) steam yacht delivered in August 1911 to the Governor of German New Guinea. She replaced the Seestern which had disappeared in June 1909 when returning to Herbertshohe after maintenance in Brisbane.

On 20 July 1914 Acting Governor Dr Haber departed Rabaul on the Komet for Morobe where a station inspection and a short patrol was planned. At the time the OIC Morobe was Hans Klink of Klinki Pine fame. Haber disembarked at Morobe on the 22nd and the Komet was sent to Madang calling at Finschhafen mission enroute to pick up any outward mail. At Madang the Komet would also collect mail for Finschhafen and Morobe that was expected off the Austral-Japan Line Coblenz which had departed Sydney on 25 July with ETA Madang of 4 August. The Coblenz duly arrived at 7am on the 4th. Then on the night of the 5th August prior to 8.50pm the Komet wireless watch started to pick up Morse fragments of telegrams being repeatedly broadcast from Nauru. There were two telegrams that came through loud and clear commencing at 9.10pm:

DISTRICT OFFICE KBN (Nauru call sign)

The Planet was the Naval survey vessel working in Simpsonhafen but Nauru did not know that the New Guinea Bita Paka wireless had been receiving since mid July so was able to receive the telegrams. Bita Paka was not able to transmit until 8 August at a weak 8kw which caused Yap to instruct the operators to repeat all words three times. The second telegram was:


As it turned out Port Moresby VIG wireless did not learn of the war until 7 August. During the next few days while returning to Morobe the Komet ran long wireless watches monitoring the frantic coded messages between Yap and the East Asia Squadron commandeered by Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee. However care was still taken to jot down Sydney copra prices broadcast to Port Moresby via Townsville VIT.

After collecting Dr Haber at Morobe the Komet arrived Matupit at 3.45am on the 14th where she loaded 15 tons of coal at Hernsheims, then headed for Komethafen which was not in the Witu/French Islands but in Eleonara Bay sited between Wilson and Rudiger Points, just west of the Willaumez Peninsula. Colonel Holmes of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF) which was to occupy Rabaul on 12 September thought Komethafen was Tawanakus Bay but that was well to the east of the Willaumez Peninsula near Open Bay. Having arrived at Komethafen on 15 August the Komet laid low until the 27th when she steamed for Witu then Augaur where she coaled the mailboat Prinz Eitel Frederick, now converted to an Auxiliary Cruiser. The Komet bunker had been topped up on the 19th with 250 tons off the Neu Guinea Kompagnie 450t Siar. Then the Komet went on to Palau, then down to Western Island west of Manus for some unknown reason, and home to Komethafen on 4 October.

At dawn on 11 October ANMEF troops on board the 64t steam pinnace Nusa captured the Komet without a shot being fired. It is recorded that the Komet crew were completely surprised, but surely the sound of the Nusa‘s wood fired engine would have been heard well before she came upon the Komet. The Komet crew consisted of Captain Moeller, five German officers and 52 New Guinea seamen. Moeller was married to the daughter of Lt-General Wylde of the British Army who was visiting Rabaul when war broke out: thus arguably the sole British General to attain the status of a paroled POW in WW1, though only for five weeks. Wouldn’t he have some stories when he returned to the regimental mess!

The Komet departed Rabaul on 17 October for Sydney where she was refitted and armed then commissioned on 17 November as the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) sloop HMAS Una. Surprisingly her 280 ton bunker capacity was not enlarged in the refit. She served in the RAN until paid off on 23 August 1919, but was re-commissioned on 27 April 1920 to serve as the official yacht for the inspection of the Australian fleet in Port Philip Bay by the Prince of Wales. Paid off again on 30 June 1920 she was mothballed in Sydney. On 27 January 1925 she was sold to Captain Rose of the Williamstown Pilot Office and renamed Akuna. She remained in the pilot service until 1953: subsequent fate unknown.

A footnote to the Komet story is that on 12 May 1915 Colonel J. Paton of ANMEF HQ Staff was court-martialled in Sydney on a charge of looting cutlery from the Komet. He admitted taking the items in a belief he had a right to mementoes. The court found him not guilty and he was honourably acquitted, a verdict that displeased WM (Billy) Hughes, the Federal Attorney-General. The incident did not affect Paton’s career as he ended the war as Major General Paton. One other footnote of interest is the fate of the German Kaiser’s yacht Hohenzollern, illustrated on the colonial postage stamps from around 1900. The last information heard was that it was a gambling den in international waters off the American eastern seaboard around 1930?

The German Yacht Komet: Robin Hyde

Following up Dick Doyle’s query in the last issue of Una Voce (Sept. 2003, No. 3, p. 33), Dick recounted that the German gunboat Comet (more usually, Komet) was hidden at Witu Island at the start of WW I, and that he had been told it was subsequently towed back to Germany during the War. He asked for further details as, he noted later, he found that hard to believe.

The wartime history of the small ship (977 tons) is partly told in Chapter 8, ‘The capture of the Komet’, in MacKenzie, S. S. (1934). The Australians at Rabaul: The Capture and Administration of the German Possessions in the Southern Pacific. Volume X Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. Sydney, Angus and Robertson, pp. 127-137. The Komet was in fact the German Governor’s new administrative yacht that managed to evade the Australian fleet that headed to Rabaul in early August 1914. In September, from the Pelew Islands in Micronesia, the Komet headed for Peterhaven on Witu Island, where it remained between at least 29 September and 4 October 1914. (The Komet’s movements between July-October 1914 are apparently described more fully in Vol. IX of the Official History, Chapter 4). It then crossed to the northern coast of West New Britain, and hid just west of Talasea.

After news of the Komet’s presence reached Rabaul, the armed yacht Nusa (two guns, a 3-pounder, and a 12 pounder), under Commdr J.M.Jackson, with a small infantry force plus machine-gun under Lt-Col Paton, was directed to search for and capture the Komet. The Komet was taken by surprise and surrendered on 11 October near Talasea. An account on the Paton website describes Paton boarding “the Komet brandishing a revolver and took the ship by surprise, finding the captain shaving in his cabin. The entire crew of 57 then surrendered to Paton and the ship was taken to Rabaul and then Sydney as a prize.” It also reports that Paton and other officers were subsequently court martialled, but acquitted, for souveniring items from the Komet!

MacKenzie cites Jackson’s own account for the major role played by Komine (Isokichi), a leading Japanese businessman resident in Rabaul, in the search for and capture of the Komet. For a more detailed account, from Komine’s perspective, readers should consult the most interesting paper by Hiromitsu Iwamoto (1996. “The impact of World War I on Japanese settlers in Papua New Guinea, 1914-1918”. South Pacific Study, 16(2), 143-174). According to a note to the excellent photograph of the Komet included in MacKenzie’s account (there is also a photograph of her in Frigates, Photofile No. 6), the ship was subsequently armed and commissioned as HMAS Una and stationed in New Guinea waters. At the end of 1918 the Una was sent to Darwin after a “rebellion” against Administrator Gilruth.

Following the war, the Una was apparently sold into service as the pilot boat for the Port Phillip pilot service (renamed as the Akuna), and gave long service at this position with a “legend for rolling on wet grass”(?): she was finally broken up in Melbourne in 1955. However the source of the latter information (which sells model kits of the original ship, and includes technical details), also includes some other undocumented information about possible periods in Sydney and England. This however seems unlikely since the anchor of the Komet is now a memorial on the lawn of the foreshore reserve, Weroona Parade, at Queenscliff, Barwon, in Victoria. According to the official description (Victorian Memorials Database, Region Barwon, Record 30):

The anchor of the German yacht Komet set at an angle in a concrete slab with a signboard attached which reads: ‘Borough of Queenscliffe. This anchor was forged in Hamburg in 1911 for the German New Guinea Administrator’s yacht Komet. The yacht was captured in New Guinea by Australian forces in 1914 to become H.M.A.S. Una – the Port Phillip Pilot Service acquired the vessel in 1925 and renamed her Akuna. She saw service in Victoria from 1925 to 1954. Her wheel is installed in Wyuna, donated by the Port Phillip Pilot Service’.

While this summary leaves a few loose ends, it doesn’t appear that the Komet was towed back to Germany during the War.

And my thanks to Dick Doyle for hospitality at Witu in 1984!

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