Today in Transportation History – 1914: Australia Launches First Hospital Ship

Grantala

Just a few days after Australia entered World War I on the side of the Allied powers, the 350-fooot-long passenger steamship Grantala (an Aboriginal word for “big”) was requisitioned by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) for military service as a hospital ship. Grantala, which had been completed and launched by Armstrong Whitworth Company for the Adelaide Steamship Company in 1903, made history as Australia’s first-ever hospital ship. She was also the RAN’s only hospital ship during World War I.

The RAN wasted very little if any time refitting Grantala as a waterborne medical facility. This conversion took place at both the Cockatoo Island Dockyard and Garden Island Naval Base in the vicinity of Sydney within only 17 days. Grantala was renovated to accommodate up to 300 patients, and space was provided on board for everything from medical wards to a bacteriological laboratory. The Sydney Morning Herald reported, “A visit of inspection to the Grantala reveals how splendidly everything that human skill can do has been done to make the place a real floating hospital.”

A medical staff of 59 was on board to tend to the injured and sick. Dr. W.N. Horsfall, who had recently retired from the RAN, was appointed the principal medical officer for Grantala. In this capacity, he oversaw a variety of health-care professionals that included six surgeons, an anesthetist, a pathologist, a radiographer, and at least six nurses.

Notwithstanding the fanfare surrounding Grantala and her pioneering status as Australia’s first hospital ship, the vessel had a short-lived military career during World War I. Her main contribution involved accompanying the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force when it dislodged a German military garrison in Papua New Guinea’s township of Rabaul and took control of the area for the Allied Powers. Grantala was later formally recognized with the battle honor “Rabaul 1914” for her support during that military campaign.

Grantala was returned to the Adelaide Steamship Company in 1915. The vessel subsequently changed hands with a couple of other shipping companies before being scrapped in 1934.

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