1943: This Non-Combat Ship Enters WWII With a Very Important Role to Play

August 27, 1943

In the midst of World War II, the ship Cape Leeuwin was commissioned into the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) to assist with Australia’s efforts on behalf of the Allies in their fight against Japan. A lighthouse tender, HMAS Cape Leeuwin had been designed and built nearly two decades earlier to provide supplies and other kinds of support for navigational aids along the Australian coast. The vessel was launched towards the end of 1924 at Cockatoo Island Dockyard in Sydney. (The ship’s geographical namesake is the most south-westerly mainland point of Australia.)

One person strongly identified with the ship throughout much of her service was seasoned sailor Noel Buxton. He was born in New Zealand and began his maritime career when he served on several sailing ships during the late 19th century. During World War I, Buxton saw military action as a soldier in the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) of the British Army’s Mediterranean Expeditionary Force.

Buxton ended up settling in Australia, and he joined the crew of Cape Leeuwin in 1928 as second mate. Within the next several years, Buxton became the ship’s captain. Affectionately known as “Bucko” by his crew, he was a soft-spoken man of spartan tastes who earned considerable praise for his decisive and effective leadership. When Cape Leeuwin was commissioned into the RAN, Buxton retained command of the vessel and received the rank of lieutenant.

With Buxton in charge, the high-risk wartime role of Cape Leeuwin entailed closely following Allied ships during the island-to-island campaign against Japan in the Pacific and then restoring and maintaining lighthouses and other navigational aids at those locations. In carrying out these duties, Cape Leeuwin often had to travel unescorted into potentially hazardous areas.

As part of her operations in the Philippines, Cape Leeuwin became the first Australian ship to enter Manila Bay following the pivotal Allied victory in the Battle of Manila in 1945. In reporting on this record-setting achievement, the Melbourne-based newspaper Argus also outlined the lighthouse tender’s other notable accomplishments during the course of the war. The Argus noted, “Australian-built, with an all-Australian crew, she is now engaged in laying buoys to indicate submerged vessels and establishing lights connection with US Navy salvage operations.” The newspaper also stated, “Cape Leeuwin has carried out the laying of buoys and serving establishing lights all the way from Brisbane to Manila since she became a Navy ship. She has lit the New Guinea coast with buoys and beacons from Milne Bay to Hollandia. In the Philippines campaign, she has carried out similar duties at Leyte, Mindoro, Subic Bay, as well as at Manila.”

In December 1945 — three months after the end of the war — Cape Leeuwin was decommissioned from the RAN. She then resumed her peacetime role as a lighthouse tender along the Australian coast, serving in this capacity until being sold to a company in Asia in 1963.

For more information on HMAS Cape Leeuwin, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMAS_Cape_Leeuwin and the 14 March 1945 Argus article “Great Work by ‘Cape Leeuwin'” at https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/1104460?searchTerm=HMAS%20Cape%20Leeuwin.

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