The Sydney cruise ship that became a battleship

Bryan Seymour

It is the extraordinary tale of the little Aussie ship that sailed into history and took a generation with it.

The Bulolo was the Australian cruise ship that became a battleship and led the fleet on the D-Day landings, turning the tide of World War II.

There has never been video broadcast of the HMS Bulolo on D-Day; because of the secrecy surrounding the Normandy invasion no official or private cameras were allowed.

But 7News has gone through the hours and hours of amateur film made by Royal Navy soldiers during World War II and found the only known images of the command ship steaming towards Normandy.


The Bulolo is a ship with history – she hosted Kings, Lords and even Winston Churchill.

She took Britain’s wartime Prime Minister to Casablanca and from her decks, the King reviewed the invasion speech two days before Normandy.

The Bulolo, seen here staming twoards Normandy, was part of the strike force with Commodore Douglas-Pennant.

Maritime historian Tim Smith said: “It's important that we commemorate the historical activities that took place but also to tell some of these unique stories.”

In 1938 it was the calm before the storm. The little ship with an unusual name ferried passengers from Sydney to Brisbane and onto Papua New Guinea.

Named after a small PNG town famous for its gold, the Bulolo, with her unmistakable checked funnel, was the toast of Sydney society.

HRH King George VI, front stood on the bridge of the Bulolo and took salute from invasion ships ahead of D-Dat

"It was just absolutely very special,” said Tania Hilder, once a passenger on the ship. “White starched tablecloths, silver service, printed menus.”

Unknown to most, after just eight voyages she was recruited by the British Navy and converted into an armed merchant cruiser.

In fact, the Bulolo was the command ship for the D-Day landings – and prior to those events HRH King George VI stood on her bridge to take the salute from passing invasion ships.

It was a crucial role in an event that changed the course of history.

“Being a headquarters command ship she was right in the thick of the action of the invasion beaches and that put her in real risk,” added Mr Smith.

As D-Day unfolded, she was fired on by a German Battery at Longues-sur–Mer, as well as from the air.

Mr Smith added: “It was actually attacked by German Luftwaffe bombers and a bomb exploded over the ship and killed four people on board.”

After surviving the war, the Bulolo was refitted and served out as a headquarters ship for the Allies in South East Asia.

It was a presented with a special sword after the Japanese surrender in Singapore in 1945.

The Bulolo was used as a ship for Japanese surrender in Singapore in 1945 and was presented with this special sword, left, while, on the right, is the board of honour.

After the war she was back in service and became the main passenger liner for voyages to Papua New Guinea – even a fire threatening off Sydney Harbour could not sink her.

However, she eventually met her match, in the form of Captain Brett Hilder, father of Tania Hilder, who so loved the ship.

Daughter Beatrice said: “I think what he liked most about being a sea captain was that he regarded himself as captain under God, so while he was at sea, he was it! He was in charge.”

From 1964, Captain Hilder chartered her through sometimes-unknown waters, they discovered reefs, caves and islands and captured them all as sketches or watercolours.

The Bulolo sailed her final voyage in 1968, fittingly with Captain Hilder at the helm; a pair fearless and adventurors to the last.

The ship that could not be sunk was, just months later, scrapped in Taiwan.

Even a fire threatened of Sydney harbour could not sink her


The following extract is taken from BBC online WW II People’s War, an archive of World War II memories, contributed by Ernest Plackett.

‘After training, I was posted to HMS Bulolo which was the HQ ship of Force G. We did four major landings. The first was Algiers N.Africa, the second one was Sicily (where I started the diary which is now in the Imperial War Museum), the third was with the 8th Army…

… On D day we landed on Gold beach. We were the first on the beach and we were fighting while other troops were still being landed. We were still there when the specially constructed floating harbour arrived but that only lasted about three weeks being damaged by severe weather.’