Eric Sydney Bright’s name has always been connected with a tragic fire aboard the oil tanker “Trocas” on November 15th 1943 at an Auckland wharf. He died below-decks during fire-fighting operations but, because of essential war-time secrecy, all details surrounding the fire and his death could, and did not, emerge at the time.
I have long had an interest in the sad story of the young firefighter’s death mainly because the facts were suppressed in the interests of security of the realm: a confidentiality that was reflected in death notices in newspapers and which then continued during the inquest into Eric Bright’s death – and the reporting of it. I had questions about the event… like how come Bright was at the scene of the fire so soon, alone, ahead of the Brigade? And how was it that the Trocas, when it arrived in Auckland unscheduled and unexpectedly, had a strange, probably secret, additional cargo?
Some information that emerged at the time, and since, has proved incorrect – either misinterpreted when details were able to be published after the war – or distorted in the telling over the decades. With most of the security restrictions lifted and improved digital research, I have attempted to pull together the story of the oil tanker and the brave fireman once wrapped in wartime secrecy. And part of the story is the remarkable discovery the crew of the Trocas made in the Indian Ocean unlocking one of Australia’s wartime mysteries.
Eric Sydney Bright
First Class Fireman Bright was aged 28 when he met his death, a single man who lived in Sandringham and who had joined the Auckland Fire Brigade in 1937 serving at Central Station in Pitt Street. In 1940 he left the Brigade to go on active service overseas with the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Forces, serving with the army in Greece, Crete and Libya. He was injured during the final days of the Al Alamein campaign and after initial recovery he was invalided out to Auckland for further treatment.
Eventually fit again, he rejoined the fire brigade in July 1943 during wartime conditions. Fire engines were painted an inconspicuous grey, hundreds of auxiliary firemen were recruited and strategically placed at stations and depots across greater Auckland together with augmented equipment for the war effort. Sirens on fire engines were silenced in case they were mistaken for air-raid warnings which were to be sounded in the event of imminent aerial enemy attack. Firefighters practised relay pumping, using sea water sourced on Quay Street and fed through long hoses and intermediate pumps, the jets trained on imaginary fires as far up Queen Street as the Town Hall. It was easier if the tide was in… but at low tide considerable effort was required to draw water up 4m into the pumps.
The idea was to prove fire-fighting capability even if the city’s usual reticulated water supplies were knocked out of action by bombing. The whole city was on a war-footing in case of enemy invasion.
The Special Duty
One of the additional war-time duties for firemen was assignment to the waterfront, as required, depending on shipping movements and perceived risks of cargoes. The Auckland Star revealed this publicly for the first time in an article published after war’s end in September 1945.
“As a war-time measure steps were taken to place firemen on duty in ships at the wharves on a request being received from the Government, shipping companies or firms carrying out repairs. This continuous watch, which was carried out by permanent firemen, placed an added strain on the staff, whose duties had already increased considerably as a result of the war. It was found that the service was well worthwhile, for the men on duty were able to quell a number of incipient fires without having to call on the brigade.
During the loading and unloading of explosives and ammunition, hundreds of thousands of tons of which were handled in Auckland, the fire brigade provided men and special plant in case of fire.
Huge quantities of wartime stores coming into and going out of the port presented additional problems for the city fire-fighting authorities. Not the least difficult of these was the danger of fire among the huge quantities of petrol stored in thousands of drums close to the city”.
Fireman Eric Bright was one of the firemen chosen for this special wharf duty and in November 1943 he was posted on the Export Wharf where an oil tanker, SS Trocas, was undergoing repairs. Authorities must have thought the ship was vulnerable because of repair work being undertaken: hence his presence. But Bright had no reason to know the ship’s history… its interesting past.
The 10,500 ton oil tanker was built in Holland, fitted with British engines and was launched in December 1926 for the Anglo Saxon Petroleum Company, later known as Shell. 11 similar tankers were built in 1926/7, all named after sea-shells which conveniently matched the name of their owner.
Boasting among the first tankers to have double-acting diesel engines, Trocas could carry 3,000,000 gallons (11,000,000 litres) of product.
Trocas plied the oceans delivering oil and petroleum products and at the outbreak of World War Two became a valuable asset supplying war ships and merchant craft as they fulfilled vital military and transportation voyages.
Trocas in Trouble
It was wartime… in March 1940 when Trocas broke her propeller shaft near Malta. Crippled, she could not anchor because of the depth of water and, stopped, was in danger of drifting, or being blown, towards Italy or Sicily. Flotilla leader, Commander Hector Waller, aboard the Australian frigate HMAS Stuart answered her call for help and proceeded at top speed, locating Trocas within a few hours of the SOS.
Stuart was supposed to stand by until tugs arrived from Malta but the weather deteriorated and Captain Waller decided to take Trocas in tow. Attempts were made to get a line established between the two ships but in the rough seas it looked futile: line after line snapped. Richard (Jerry) Garrard in his book “Remembering ‘Hec’ – Captain H Waller RAN” says big seas were washing right over the tanker. Garrard kept a diary and it recalls several attempts to get a tow line rigged, not only in sharp seas but also in thick fog: “lost in fog until 4pm” the entry reads.
Waller then ordered a most unusual rescue. Stuart would approach the stricken Trocas head on, bow-to-bow. Waller took the Stuart as close as he dared towards the tanker, at last making out the shape of her bow through what Garrard describes as “impenetrable and very cold fog”. A rocket and line was fired from the warship’s foc’sle and it was made fast at the Trocas’s bow. With a four inch (10cms) wire cable finally in place, Stuart then reversed at 2 knots towing Trocas. Garrard recalls it was “a stern sea, most uncomfortable”. At about 6.30pm Respond, a tug from Malta, joined the pair but it was decided that Stuart should continue the tow – it was too dangerous to manoeuvre closely in the pea-soup fog. About 10pm it lifted and the tow was taken over – in much more conventional style – by Respond. For Captain Waller, it was Australia’s first salvage operation of the war, and a notable one at that, and for Richard Garrard he was rewarded with his share of the salvage rights… £125 …when he demobilised some 5 years later.
Trocas Unlocks a Tragic Mystery
Trocas continued wartime duties unnoticed until she came into the news in November 1941. She was 120 miles (200kms) off the coast of Western Australia on the 24th November when she came across a life-raft carrying 25 German sailors. Trocas reported the find by radio, the first real clue about what had happened nearly a week before to the missing Australian Light Cruiser, HMAS Sydney. The Germans were from the German cruiser Kormoran which they revealed had engaged in battle with Sydney.
The discovery of the life-raft and the subsequent messages from Trocas prompted an advisory to the Prime Minister, John Curtin, giving him an initial heads-up that Sydney may have been sunk by the German raider.
Concerns for Sydney’s safety had already been raised when she didn’t return to port, as expected, from escort duties. There had been no radio message from her so she was listed as overdue. All high-powered Australian radio stations were ordered to continuously call HMAS Sydney. Air and sea searches were underway.
But Trocas’s discovery prompted 7 ships to be immediately dispatched to the area where the raft had been intercepted: a search seeking any further survivors, wreckage, debris or clues as to what had happened to Sydney.
Meanwhile the Germans had been taken, one by one as a safety precaution, from the life-raft on to Trocas, each was searched, detained and questioned. From this, and subsequent interrogation in Fremantle, it became apparent that HMAS Sydney, under attack at close quarters, was quickly overcome by torpedoes and shell-fire and sank, on fire, with the loss of all 645 men aboard, while the disabled Kormoran, also ablaze, was abandoned shortly before she blew up in a huge explosion and sank. About three-quarters of her 400 crew-members were later rescued.
Trocas had thus unlocked the whereabouts of an hour-long, two-ship encounter that resulted in the largest loss of life in the history of the Royal Australian Navy. Sydney was the biggest Allied warship lost with all hands during World War II, and her loss was a major blow to Australian wartime morale. The ship had been the “darling” namesake of the people of Sydney. Ascertaining exactly what occurred was the subject of two formal Inquiries. There has been much speculation and controversy about how a cruiser with heavier armour and superior firing-range could lose out to a modified merchant ship. The exact location of the two wrecks wasn’t known until they were found in 2008.
Trocas in Trouble, Again
This is the episode that, ultimately, led to Eric Bright’s death when the ship was in Auckland.
But the story starts a long way from the Waitemata Harbour… in fact, 1,300 miles (2,100 kms) north- east of the New Zealand coast in the Pacific Ocean.
In August 1943 Trocas was en route from San Francisco to Melbourne with 10,000 tons of fuel oil and aircraft on deck. (This was the strange additional cargo, wartime expediency with calculated risk: warplanes were being transported from the USA to Australia on the deck of an oil tanker!).
On 7th September 1943 Captain C.H. B. Lovell and his crew of 75 realised they had a problem when, sometime around 9am, fire was discovered in a stokehold. Firefighting was ineffective: worse, steam suppression systems did not work. Parts of the ship were deliberately flooded, including the magazine containing ammunition, in hopes of preventing fire-spread and an explosion.
Within an hour or so the fire was showing all signs of involving other adjacent compartments. Bulkheads were heating and wooden trim smoking. The blaze seemed to be gaining, threatening the whole ship.
It was plain help was needed and mid-morning Trocas broke the usually-enforced radio silence to request assistance. The fire raged all day. Fire-fighting continued, further hose-lines were brought to bear and more compartments were flooded. Flames were finally subdued at 6pm.
But Trocas was “dead in the water” without engines, electricity or steerage. The nearest ship to her was the new Liberty Ship Samovar on her maiden voyage from the USA to Australia and, answering the assistance call, was alongside Trocas by late afternoon the following day, the 8th.
New Zealand authorities mustered Wellington’s tug Toia to help and it set off with a view to towing Trocas to Auckland. Toia was maintained by the Wellington Harbour Board with an arrangement with the Royal New Zealand Navy that she be available at short notice for salvage operations.
On scene, it was decided Samovar should attempt to tow Trocas. The words “Sitting Ducks” come to mind… the South Pacific had been very much part of World War Two since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in December 1941. But getting a line between the two ships was difficult. Several attempts were made in successive days and at last the tow commenced towards New Zealand’s Northland coast, made difficult because, without steerage, Trocas followed crab-like: there was nothing streamlined about the tow which must have greatly increased the weight and pull on Samovar.
Toia got fairly close to the two ships when she put back to Auckland for re-fuelling and when she set out again for Trocas she was accompanied by Auckland’s tug, William C. Daldy.
The tugs met the two ships met off Opua on the Northland coast. In the event, William C. Daldy took over the long, slow tow to Auckland, Toia returned to Wellington while Samovar resumed her interrupted voyage.
The disabled Trocas was manoeuvred into Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour and, with assistance from the tug Te Awhina, was berthed alongside a city wharf. It was 3 weeks since the crippling mid-ocean fire.
Because of wartime security with absolute censorship and enforced secrecy, nothing about the Trocas’s arrival could be published. There was no Shipping Summary in newspapers as there was in peace-time when all the Port of Auckland’s arrivals and departures were detailed. Nothing sensitive was allowed to be broadcast on radio stations: all content was carefully vetted, especially matters about the war, military operations or any material that might be useful to the enemy.
Hence Trocas’s arrival could not be “news” and went unmentioned at the time.
It’s a fair bet that the aircraft were the first priority once the ship was alongside. The manifesto listed them as “US Army equipment, 70 tons”. It would surely have been expedient to unload this deck cargo which would have been visible to passers-by.
Investigations into the fire at sea concluded that the cause was a blow-back in the engine room with an accompanying flash. The damage was extensive. Mason Brothers, an Auckland firm of engineers, were contracted to undertake repairs and because work would take some time, Trocas was moved to the Export Wharf.
The successful mission to rescue Trocas was not made public until May 1944: even then the names of the ships involved could not be mentioned.
Newspapers reported that “a feat of seamanship was completed when there berthed at Auckland recently two ships which for three weeks had been battling against almost every peril of the sea for the purpose of saving one of them from the crippling results of a fire which swept its engine room. Into the last few chapters of the story entered three tugs, one the ocean-going Toia from Wellington, and the two others the harbour tugs William C. Daldy and Te Awhina from Auckland. But, the main credit for the success which crowned the efforts of many officers and men, both at sea and on shore, belonged to the captain, officers, and crew of the ship chiefly responsible for the salvage”. Further details about the salvage followed.
“Notwithstanding the success, William C. Daldy’s starring role in this mission, and another later salvage when a grounded freighter was also saved, Auckland’s Harbourmaster was keen to point out that “Daldy” was designed to work best within harbour limits. Captain H. H. Sergeant said that to undertake the work the tug had to obtain additional personnel and communications equipment as well as provisions. “She’s not normally manned or equipped for such operations – she’s definitely not a salvage tug, and was not built for ocean-going work”.
All the more respect for “Daldy” and her crew. She survives (launched in 1935), preserved, now in regular steam on Waitemata Harbour, owned by a heritage trust.
Work was underway to repair Trocas when, at 9.35 am on 15th November, an oxy-acetylene set was being used on upper parts of the engine room. Sparks fell to a lower landing setting fire to oil and waste material. There were several small fires. The alarm was immediately given. Fireman Eric Bright of the Auckland Fire Brigade was on wharf patrol, on the scene in case of just such eventuality. He went belowdecks with his stirrup pump to tackle ‘spot’ fires caused by the engineering operations. Mid-morning, there was a more serious blaze in ullage in the bilge. Dense smoke was generated, probably camouflaging the extent of the flames. Workmen left the engine room on the advice of the Chief Engineer who also made his exit, thinking Fireman Bright was hard on his heels. But Bright either remained to fight the fire – which at that point was probably beyond the first-aid firefighting equipment he had – or he got dis-orientated in the thick smoke and could not find his way out.
Auckland firefighters were quickly on the scene but by the time they arrived the ship’s engine-room was fully involved. They were soon joined by a naval party from Devonport, US Navy personnel, Harbour Board employees and the tug Te Awhina. Best tactics, with minimal risk to personnel, dictated that holes be cut in the side of the Trocas so hose-lines could be passed through and jets directed straight into the engine room.
The fire was extinguished at lunchtime. Fireman Bright’s body was recovered.
It turned out to be a hot fire, very high temperatures… and then the sudden cooling by fire-fighting water had twisted and contorted steelwork and machinery. In contrast, Intense heat in the confined areas belowdecks was slow to cool… it was days before access could be gained to all affected compartments.
Because of strict wartime security no Brigade inquiry was held into Eric Bright’s death – it was a sore point among some of his fellow firefighters. Feelings ran high about the circumstances, fuelled by mis-information.
Coroner F. K. Hunt conducted an inquest which was reported in newspapers at the time, but without great detail: the hearing was also subject to wartime censorship.
The Coroner concluded that Eric Sydney Bright died after being trapped in the engine room and burned. He said the deceased had been on precautionary duty at the ship when fire broke out in waste materials in the engine room. Workmen present attempted to put it out by stamping upon it. Someone called out “Fire!” and while those in the vicinity made their escape the deceased appeared and attempted to extinguish the fire. A call to the City Brigade was quickly answered, but because of the heat, smoke and flames nothing could be done to rescue the deceased and it was not until near midday that his body was recovered. He had been badly burned on the head and limbs, and was dead.
Deputy-Superintendent George MacKenzie, of the Central Station, told the Coroner that the deceased was a first-class fireman, and a very brave man.
Fireman Eric Bright was given a Fire Brigade funeral at Central Fire Station and there was a long procession of mourners to Waikumete Cemetery for his burial.
It was not until after the war, on the second anniversary of his passing that his family was able to spell out detail of his death in a newspaper ‘In Memoriam’ notice. His sisters Vida and Zillah remembered him… “In loving memory of our dear brother Eric (returned 2nd N.Z.E.F.), who sacrificed his life for duty on the M.V. Trocus, November 15, 1943”
Trocas and Trocus
The spelling of the ship’s name became corrupted to “Trocus” over the years, originally thwarting my research into her history.
Repairs to Trocas continued until May 1944 when she left Auckland, some 8 months after the mid-ocean fire. The make-good after both fires, machining and replacement of parts and the importation of others, comprised a marathon undertaking: some commentators have said it was the biggest maritime engineering project ever carried out in New Zealand.
Trocas continued duties in the northern hemisphere and had a new engine fitted in the United Kingdom in 1945. She had two more encounters, a collision with a cargo ship near New York in early 1945 and later had a brush with a US tanker. Repaired on both occasions, she voyaged global routes post-war, visiting Auckland again in 1951. Latterly she became part of stationary bunkering facilities at Gibraltar before being broken up for scrap in Valencia in 1960.
Trocas completed many voyages with volatile cargoes through seas alive with enemy warships, U boats and mines. She avoided them all, yet had an eventful life with fires on board, a close squeak off Malta, numerous collisions… and made a discovery that helped unlock the tragic mystery of HMAS Sydney.
Papers Past National Library of New Zealand:
New Zealand Herald
Otago Daily Times
“A Chronical of Auckland Fire Brigades 1857 – 1965” – Reg Moore, serialised in “The New Zealand Firefighter”, official journal of the NZ Federation of Fire Brigades Employees’ Industrial Association of Workers, 1975.
Anglo-Saxon’s Tanker “Trocas” and Her Tow to Auckland 1943 – Michael H. Pryce
Auckland Fire Brigades’ Museum and Historic Society (Inc)
NZ Merchant Shipping Facebook
NZ Ship and Maritime
“Remembering ‘Hec , Captain H. Walker RAN” – Richard Noel (Jerry) Garrard, RANR
www.awm.gov.au – Australian War Memorial