Verbena

Captain Thomas Mills was qualifi ed as Extra Master in Sail and Steam, and while dual type qualification was not rare, there were very few seafarers qualified at this seniority level.

Thomas John Mills was born in Aberdeen, Scotland on 2nd of October, 1892. Thomas, along with his brother John, and sister Margaret, were orphaned at a young age. John joined the Gordon Highlanders Regiment and saw service in India, while Margaret qualified as a medical doctor then migrated to Australia where she served in the rural communities of Kynuna, Biloela and in later years the Brisbane Children’s Hospital.

Thomas was determined to go to sea even though the family solicitor, who was the guardian of the children, decided to article him as a clerk in the firm’s legal practice. The call of the sea was too strong however and, in 1910, he was signed on as an apprentice to the master of the fully rigged ship Verbena, owned by the Donaldson Line of Glasgow.

The Verbena was built by William Pickersgill & Sons of Sunderland, yard number 95, to the order of Bell Johnstone & Son of Liverpool, and launched in 1891. The ship was of steel construction, 79.2 metres length, beam 11.7 metres, 7 metres depth, 1,821 gross registered tons, with three masts carrying squarerigged sails. She was bought by Donaldson Brothers in 1904 and owned by them until 1914 over the next few years – Thomas Mills served his apprenticeship on the Verbena with a trip to Australia, then a number of trans-Pacific trips on the coal trade from Newcastle, New South Wales, to west coast South American ports.

In September 1914, Thomas Mills passed the examination for second mate after he had signed off the Verbena, which was sold by Donaldson Line to E Monsen of Tyedstrand, Norway, and renamed Craigisia. In May 1916, the Craigisia left London with a cargo of corn for Fayal (Azores) and was never heard from again.

After passing the examination for second mate, Thomas joined the Glentilt as second mate, then, from November 1914 until October 1915, he served as a junior officer with the Union Steam Ship Company on board SS Westmeath, HMNZT (His Majesty’s New Zealand Transport) Maunganni, and SS Waihora.

Thomas Mills joined the AUSN Company (Australian United Steam Navigation Company) as fourth officer in November 1915. Promoted to third officer in October 1916; he was then promoted to second officer in November 1917. After obtaining his first mate’s certificate in 1918, he joined the AUSN Company ship Kyarra as second officer.

The SS Kyarra was a twin-screw passenger cargo liner of 6,953 gross tons, 415 feet long with a beam of 52 feet; launched by Denny Brothers on 2nd of February, 1903. The Kyarra was registered at Fremantle, Western Australia, and, prior to World War One, she plied the England/Australia service. When war broke out she was fitted with a 4.7” quick-firing gun as a defence against submarines who, early in the hostilities, tended to surface and endeavour to sink ships by gunfire. She followed her pre-war trading pattern except for carrying Australian troops to the Dardanelles.

In 1917, Kyarra was converted to a Casualty Clearing Ship and, as such, sailed from Tilbury for her last voyage under the command of Captain William Smith on 24th of May, 1918. The orders were for the ship to embark 1,000 injured Australian soldiers at Davenport (Portsmouth) and transport them to Sydney, Australia. Kyarra was also to transport a few civilians and a full general cargo. In the early morning of 26th May the ship had cleared the Isle of Wight and was moving fast through calm seas around Anvil Point when she was struck by a torpedo fired from U-57 under the command of Oberleutant Johan Lohs. The torpedo struck the ship amidships killing six of the engine room crew. The rest of the crew took to the boats in haste as the ship sank in seven minutes. Fortunately, the ship had not picked up the wounded soldiers at that point in the voyage.

After the cessation of hostilities, Thomas Mills remained with the AUSN Company sailing mostly on the Australian coast ships of the company, including the passenger ships Ormiston and Orungal. Because of his decision to stay with the AUSN Company he settled in Brisbane, Queensland. Through friends he met, and eventually married, a young woman from Aberdeen, Miss Lillian Evelyn Stevens. Two boys, David and John, were eventually born to the couple. The family moved house to Sydney in 1926 so that Thomas could spend more time at home, as the company’s home port was in that city. He is thought to have passed for his Masters Certificate and, later, for Extra Master during the early 1920’s and, because of his sail training and experience, his certificate was endorsed as valid for Sail and Steam.

Captain Mills was having a break from deep sea employment in 1929 (possibly home on leave) when he was requested to serve as Mate under Captain Sydney Neill aboard the Brisbane tug Coringa. The tug was called to go to the assistance of E&A’s SS Arafura (1) which had lost a propeller blade during stormy weather off Townsville. The tug reached Arafura and put a tow line on board, then towed the disabled ship through the early part of a cyclone for 17 hours. However, due to steering gear problems, the tug starting to ship water, and they were forced to abandon the tow. The Coringa survived the cyclone and returned to Brisbane with most of her foredeck fittings missing, the bridge structure and lifeboats badly damaged. Another Brisbane tug, the Forceful, was called and managed to tow Arafura (1) into Brisbane two days later. After repairs were effected, the Coringa and Forceful towed Arafura (1) to Sydney for repair. Coringa and Forceful were owned by AUSN and managed by MacDonald Hamilton, Brisbane.

In July 1933, Captain Mills took command of SS Mungana of the AUSN Company shortly before the ship was taken under charter by E&A for a voyage to Japan. On return to Australia, he transferred to the E&A Line (they were both subsidiaries of the P&O Group) and subsequently commanded SS Tanda (1) in 1934; then later in the year assumed command of SS Nellore (1) until 1937. Towards the end of 1937 he was transferred to SS Nankin (1) as master. Shortly after assuming command the ship was coasting around Japan when they went to the rescue of some Japanese naval airmen who had crashed into the sea near Nagoya. On a subsequent voyage, in 1938, Captain Mills was presented with a momento in the form of a samurai helmet by Japanese Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai in appreciation of his efforts to save the crashed airmen. Following his service aboard Nankin, Captain Mills was transferred to SS Tanda. In September 1940, with war clouds on the horizon, Tanda evacuated British women and children from Hong Kong to Australia. He remained in command of that vessel until the ship was sunk by a Japanese submarine while on a voyage to Mumbai (Bombay) in 1944.

During the Second World War the E&A Line lost all of their ships to enemy action. On the night of 29 June, 1944, shortly before midnight, SS Nellore (1) was sunk by a Japanese submarine approximately 1,200 miles due south of Sri Lanka. The crew took to the lifeboats and, after a harrowing voyage when many died, the survivors were washed up on the Maldive Islands.

Only 16 days after Nellore was sunk, SS Tanda was also lost while on voyage from Colombo to Mumbai (Bombay). At 02:50 on the morning of 16th July 1944, while on a northerly course and close by the city of Mangalore, the Tanda was struck amidships on the starboard side by a torpedo. The torpedo struck the ship in way of the boiler room, killing the firemen on duty and rupturing the steam lines, causing an immediate loss of electric power.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - January 2018 Issue
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