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A0 195 Westralia

HMAS Westralia II - at 40,870 tonnes full load, the RAN's largest ship for many years - was a modified Leaf Class underway replenishment vessel. A modified tanker and underway replenishment ship, and part of the RAN's Afloat Support Force, Westralia II served in the RAN 1989-2006. The ship was designed as a commercial tanker for the Hudson Fuel and Shipping Company and was launched in 1974. Built by Cammell Laird in the mid-1970s, she was the former commercial tanker Hudson Cavalier, and then RN RFA Appleleaf. In 1989 the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), leased the ship and exercised an option to buy the vessel in 1994. Given a stern helicopter deck in RAN service, she served in the 1991 Gulf War.

The ship is powered by two SEMT Pielstick P C2.2V14 Engines which are housed at the bottom of an engine room that extends from the bilge to the funnel. A series of mezzanine floors containing diesel generators and auxiliary machinery lie within the space. The machinery control room (MCR) and the switchgear room lie four metres above the top of the main engines on the forward section of the engine room.

On 5 May 1998, at about 10.30 am, a fire broke out in the main machinery space onboard HMAS Westralia. The initial fire source was diesel fuel which sprayed from a damaged fuel line on cylinder number 9 starboard main engine igniting on a nearby indicator cockThe fire was intense and took almost two hours to extinguish. By that time, it had claimed the lives of four young sailors and caused injuries to at least five other RAN personnel. It was the worst Australian naval disaster in 34 years, and only very courageous action by the crew saved the ship.

A Naval Board of Inquiry (BOI) was convened on 11 May 1998, and concluded that the fire "was caused by diesel fuel from a burst flexible hose spraying onto a hot engine component and then igniting". The BOI further concluded that "the hoses were not properly designed and were unfit for the intended purpose", and the proper processes for organising and carrying out the configuration change that led to the fitting of the flexible hoses "were bypassed, largely as a result of ignorance and incompetence" on the part of key personnel in the RAN and in ADI Limited (ADI), the prime contractor responsible for carrying out the maintenance work on the HMAS Westralia.

In response to ongoing concerns about the BOI findings expressed by the families of those who died in the HMAS Westralia fire, including suggestions about alternative theories of what caused the fire, the State Coroner of Western Australia initiated an inquest hearing on 14 June 2002. The Coroner expressly indicated that "An important purpose of holding this inquest hearing has been to allow the families to ensure that relevant issues of concern to them have been adequately ventilated". After an inquiry involving some weeks of hearings and many months of consideration, the Coroner confirmed the BOI conclusion that the fire started when the flexible fuel hoses fitted to HMAS Westralia failed as a result of fatigue. The Coroner also confirmed the BOI conclusions about "a series of mistakes and systemic deficiencies" that led to the fitting of the flexible fuel hoses, describing this as "an outrageously bad error", which had it been the action of "a single person with reasonable knowledge, it would have amounted to negligence of the most gross kind".

In 2004, further actions were initiated, first by the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions against ADI for breaches of the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act 1991 (OH&S Act), and then by the families of those who died in the HMAS Westralia fire, for personal injury and economic loss. On 17 June 2005, ADI was found guilty of breaching the OH&S Act for its failure to properly oversee the work on HMAS Westralia's engines, and subsequently fined $75,000. The actions between the Commonwealth, the prime contractor and the various sub-contractors and related entities were settled in June 2006, with the Australian Government agreeing to take over the various crew claims, family claims, shareholder claims and the judgment against ADI. The Australian Government has settled all of the crew claims and five of the family claims.

HMAS Westralia II was de-commissioned in advance of an international agreement that these vessels be double-hulled. The crew of the Royal Australian Navy's underway replenishment ship, HMAS Westralia, were welcomed home to Fleet Base West for the last time on 6 April 2007 when the ship returned to her homeport after her final, 74-day deployment to New Zealand and the eastern and southern States of Australia. HMAS Westralia decommissioned in September 2007, some 17 years after being commissioned into the Royal Australian Navy on 09 October 1989. She will be replaced later in the year by the former merchant tanker MV Delos, which was converted by Tenix Defence at Henderson, WA, and commissioned as HMAS Sirius.

On 14 February 2007, articles appeared in a number of newspapers suggesting that Department of Defence (Defence) investigators had been forewarned of the faulty fuel lines that caused the fire on board HMAS Westralia in May 1998. An unsigned minute dated 6 February 1998 from Inspector-General Division (IGD) investigators. The minute reported allegations from Baileys Diesel Services Pty Ltd (Baileys) about corruption and misconduct in Royal Australian Navy (RAN) contracting and maintenance, including the use of non-genuine and sub-standard spare parts (the 6 February 1998 document). The minute cited HMAS Westralia as a ship that had recently suffered problems as a result of the use of such parts. Allegations also emerged that Baileys had raised safety concerns even earlier, in 1997.

On 14 March 2007, the Minister for Defence wrote to the Acting Ombudsman passing on the findings of an internal Defence investigation of the media allegations. Although the Defence investigation confirmed that Baileys had made allegations to Defence investigators on 6 February 1998, the investigation concluded that Baileys' allegations did not amount to a forewarning of safety risks to HMAS Westralia. Nevertheless, the internal Defence investigation did identify some areas of concern with Defence's handling of the allegations. Accordingly, the Minister invited the Ombudsman to consider conducting an own motion investigation into the allegations and into the procedural competence and integrity of the IGD with respect to this matter.

The Ombudsman concluded that press reports of February 2007 stating that Defence was warned about the safety risk to HMAS Westralia and failed to act were wrong. Baileys may have had concerns, in and/or around August 1997, about the use of non-genuine spare parts in the HMAS Westralia. However, the Ombudsman was satisfied that Defence was not aware of any such concerns. Baileys did raise a number of allegations and concerns about Defence contracting and maintenance practices between August 1997 and 6 February 1998. However, none of Baileys' allegations or concerns can reasonably be interpreted as any kind of warning of the circumstances that contributed to the HMAS Westralia fire.

Launched 24 July 1975
Builder Cammell Laird (Shipbuilders) Ltd., Birkenhead, UK
Commissioned 9 October 1989
Decommissioned 16 September 2006
Length 171 metres / 561 ft
Beam 26 metres / 85 ft
Draught 12.03 metres (maximum)
  • Three 0.50 cal Browning machine guns
Main Machinery
  • Two x Crossley-Peilstick 14 PC2-2 V400 diesel engines
  • Refuelling rigs: 2 Abeam, 1 Astern
Cargo Capability
  • 25,000 tonnes of fuel, including several thousand tonnes of aviation fuel
Horsepower 14,000 bhp to a single controllable-pitch propeller
Speed 17 knots
Complement 96
A0 195 Westralia A0 195 Westralia

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:33:53 ZULU