Debunking the myth: the rise and fall of the Zero

Debunking the myth: the rise and fall of the Zero By Fred Lane

(This article was first published in NOCN 84, 1 March 2011.)

One of the more highly trumpeted intelligence finds in WW II was a near-new Mitsubishi Zero A6M2 Type 0 Model 21 (serial number 4593) that crashed during its first operational flight on 4 June 1942. One of a three-plane section from HIJMS Ryujo, the Zero lost oil pressure after taking ground fire during one of the Dutch Harbor raids (Aleutian Islands, Alaska). Its pilot, 19 years-old Petty Officer Tadayoshi Koga, died attempting a precautionary landing on a nearby island.

The Akutan Zero

The Japanese nominated Akutan Island, 25 miles east of Dutch Harbor, as an emergency landing site and had a SAR submarine standing by. Unfortunately, the long, flat field chosen by Koga for his wheels-down landing was deceptive. Under its inviting-looking grassy-green flat surface lay a treacherous water-logged muskeg bog. His wheels dug in and he somersaulted as he touched down.


A USN salvage team examines the Akutan Zero.

Perhaps as befits such a famous icon, the history of the Japanese Zero brings with it almost as many controversies and myths as agreed facts. For instance, when 27 Chinese fighters challenged 13 Zeros in September 1940, did the Zeros destroy all 27 without loss? Was the Akutan Island Zero the first flyable A6M2 to be captured? Did American aircraft engineers quickly apply novel design features discovered in the Akutan Zero? Were tactics to defeat the Zero first derived from simulated battles between American fighters and the Akutan Zero? Was the restored Akutan Zero 100 per cent “made in Japan”? Was the Zero faster than its American contemporaries?


LCDR Eddie R Sanders USN flies the Akutan Zero in American colours, Sand Diego, September 1942.

Definitive fighter

Designed by Jiro Horikoshi, the Japanese Navy’s Mitsubishi A6M2 Type 0 Model 21 was the definitive WW II Japanese fighter. It could make a respectable 288 knots at 15,000 feet and climb to 20,000 feet in seven and a half minutes. This was better than any other Pacific theatre aircraft at that time. When they bombed Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had only 328 Zeros in front line units but wartime factories delivered thousands more (Francillon 1995, p. 362-378). More Zeros were produced than any other Japanese WW II aircraft. Mitsubishi constructed 3879, Nakajima built 6215 and other firms manufactured 844 trainer and floatplane variants (Okumiya et al, 1957 p. 350). The basic design never changed, but later production runs incorporated modifications such as wingtip folding, more powerful engines and stronger bomb racks.



Mitsubishi Zero A6M2 Type 0 Model 21.

By the time of the Dutch Harbor raids, the Zero possessed a fearsome reputation. First flown in April 1939, it proved to be agile, lightweight, hard-hitting and versatile. Except for Nationalist China’s Polikarpov I-16, the Zero’s two 20 mm cannon and two 7.7 mm machine guns out-gunned every other fighter in the Pacific Theatre.

Long range

The Zero’s 1675 nm ferry range was far superior to any other fighter and many contemporary bombers. The Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Mk V, a twin-engined bomber introduced to the RAF in 1939, had a range of only 1,430 nm (Angelucci, p. 262). If Supermarine Spitfires had the Zero’s ferry range, they could have easily flown the 1140 miles from London to Malta without risking valuable aircraft carriers to deliver them in WW II.


The Chongqing stoush

As early as August 1940, Zeros routinely flew combat round trips of 1000 miles or more, deep into China. They gained a reputation as superb dogfighting machines. For instance, over Chongqing (then Chungking), the inland seat of the Nationalist Government, on 13 September 1940, the Chinese sent 27 Russian-built Polikarpov I-15 and I-16 fighters aloft to mix it with 13 Zeros. Many claim that all 27 Chinese fighters were destroyed, without a Zero lost, but this possibly includes a Polikarpov pair that crashed into a mountain during an evasive manoeuvre and unspecified others whose pilots might have bailed out without being hit (e.g., Okumiya et al, 1957 p.14).


The Russian-built Polikarpov I-16 first flew in December 1933, the first monoplane fighter with retractable undercarriage, dimensions 9.2 x 6.1 x 2.6m, weight 3110-4034 lb (1414-1834 kg). M62R Shvetsov 9-cylinder radial, 1000 HP. Two 7.62 mm guns and two 20 mm cannon with 120 rpg.


On the other hand, although aircraft claims can be easily exaggerated (e.g., Ford, 2007 Preface ix-xiii), a small number of authors claim that “actual Chinese losses were 13 planes” (e.g., Ford, 2007 p. 28). This might well suggest an impossibly large and unresolvable discrepancy, but all agree that, in this action:

a. the Zeros initially were outnumbered more than 2:1;

b. Zeros were hit, but none lost in the melee; and

c. the disaster caused the Chinese to order cessation of all aerial combat.

Whether the Zeros destroyed only 13 or all 27 Chinese fighters in the Chongqing battle might be of little import, compared with the huge strategic victory that left the Zeros masters of the China sky. The Chinese fled the fight (Ford, 2007 p. 28; Okumiya et al, 1957 p.14).


Other Zero captures

The Akutan Zero was not the first of its type to have been captured. On 26 November 1941, two lost their way, ran short of fuel and executed precautionary landings on a Leizhou Peninsula beach. Abutting the Chinese mainland near Hainan Island, this peninsula was in Chinese hands. By 1942 these lightly damaged Zeros were being rebuilt into one machine (serial number 3372).

Another (Model 21, serial number 5349) had been retrieved from Australia’s Melville Island. Flown by Petty Officer Hajime Toyoshima, he was returning to HIJMS Hiryu from one of the first Darwin bombing raids on 19 February 1942. Again, ground fire led to oil pressure failure, but this time his engine seized and shed its propeller. He force-landed on the nearest piece of dirt, Melville Island. Toyoshima became Australia’s first Japanese prisoner of war. He died taking a leading role in the 1944 Cowra POW camp breakout attempt.

Parts of another Zero had been recovered after a forced-landing near Cape Rodney, 100 miles SE of Port Moresby on New Guinea’s south coast. Unfortunately, the salvage crew roughly severed its wings. They also souvenired many of its important instruments and other small parts before they could be formally examined.


Weak opposition?

Perhaps the Zeros were lucky in China and elsewhere, facing poorly trained pilots in obsolete aircraft? When they met “proper” pilots in “proper” aircraft, would they not get their comeuppance?  Evidently not. For instance, according to a fairly reliable Japanese source, 36 Zeros and other aircraft attacked Colombo and Trincomalee, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), in early April 1942. They were met by a mixed bag of about 60 RAF and RN aircraft. No less than 27 British aircraft were claimed by the Zeros in this sortie, including 15 Hawker Hurricanes and four Fairey Fulmars, for the loss of just one Zero (Okumiya et al, 1957 pp. 97-102). Others, (e.g. Gill 1968, pp. 17-20) claim 33 Japanese bomber and fighter aircraft were shot down for the loss of 23 Hurricanes and seven Fulmars. It matters little whether Gill or Okumiya was more accurate in the aircraft count. Once more, the Zero and Japanese naval pilots demonstrated their overwhelming superiority over both RAF Hurricanes and RAF pilots, despite their impeccable Battle of Britain credentials.


Indian Ocean sweep

The Sri Lankan and Indian raids were part of that most profitable Indian Ocean sweep by VADM Chuichi Nagumo’s powerful aircraft carriers HIJMS Akagi, Ryujo, Hiryu, Soryu, Shokaku and Zuikaku. Having dusted up Darwin earlier, on 19 February, Nagumo repeated the exercise on 3 March, sinking about 30 ships at Tjilatjap, on the south coast of Java. Entering the Bay of Bengal in early April, Nagumo not only put ADML Sir James Somerville’s Eastern Fleet to flight, but also netted the RN aircraft carrier HMS Hermes, the two cruisers HMS Dorsetshire and Cornwall, the RAN’s HMAS Vampire and 30 other naval, naval auxiliary and civilian vessels, aggregating 151,000 tons; all for negligible Japanese losses (Fuchida and Okumiya, 1958 ch. 2; Gill, 1968 p. 22).


The unknown fighter

Virtually unknown to the allies before Pearl Harbor, the Zero entered the Pacific fight with a better than 12:1 kill ratio. Major Claire Lee Chennault (later LGEN USAF) commanding the mercenary “Flying Tigers” with Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighters in China, had warned about the Zero’s performance, but analysts in the USA Department of War (later Department of Defence) regarded these reports as “arrant nonsense” and “aerodynamic impossibilities” (Handel, 1989). Chennault correctly recommended that contemporary American fighters should never attempt to dogfight the Zero, but to attack from above and maintain speed. If attacked by a Zero, the pilot should evade by diving steeply at full power and rolling right (Loomis, 1961 pp. 47-48).


Tha Aleutians campaign

What was this valuable new Zero doing in Alaska’s Aleutian chain in June 1942? Spurred by the 18 April 1942 Doolittle raid and the Battle of the Coral Sea, 7-8 May, the Japanese Combined Fleet Headquarters and Naval General Staff dusted off plans for a major offensive, the invasion of Midway Island. They looked forward to the USN Pacific Fleet intervening (Fuchida and Okumiya, 1958 pp. 41-46). While VADM Chuichi Nagumo deployed only 20 surface warships for his highly successful Pearl Harbor attack, ADML Isoroku Yamamoto had no fewer than 128 surface warships, plus troopships and support vessels for his complex Midway operation (Smith, 2007 pp. 14-17).

The light carriers Ryuko and Junyo and a small task force opened the battle during the early morning of 3 June with raids about 1500 miles north of Midway on Dutch Harbor and Adak, together with invasions of Kiska and Attu Islands, all in the Aleutians, 6 and 7 June.

As well as extending the Japanese reach up the Aleutian chain, Yamamoto aimed to draw American ships away from Midway, then crush them with a seven-battleship force in a “great decisive battle” as they returned (Fuchida and Okumiya, 1958 p. 49; Smith, 2007 p. 7-10). Brilliant decryption and misinformation intelligence work, chiefly by the USN’s CMDR Joseph Rochefort in Hawaii and Australian CMDR Eric Nave in Melbourne and Brisbane, allowed ADML Nimitz to ignore the Aleutian feint and instead concentrate on the Midway-bound thrust (Smith, 2007 pp. 31-50).



One American (Yorktown) and four Japanese (Akaga, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu) fleet carriers went to the bottom in this Battle of Midway, the “pivotal point of the Pacific War” (Okumiya et al, 1957 p. 121; Smith, 2007 pp. 328-329). Worse, the Japanese never had the infrastructure to replace their highly trained naval aircrew and staff officers lost in the Coral Sea and Midway battles (Fuchida and Okumiya, 1958 p. 157). The resulting lack of numbers and experience led almost directly to debacles such as the 19-20 June 1944 Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, when the Japanese lost 400 or so aircraft to USN carrier fighters, and the employment of four almost empty aircraft carriers as sacrificial bait to lure ADML Halsey’s strong Third Fleet away from San Bernadino Strait a few days later (Morison, 2001; Okumiya et al, 1957 pp. 256-65; Smith, 2007; Tillman, 2005).


Secrets revealed

The Akutan Zero’s secrets were revealed only after a remarkable series of events. Firstly, the Aleutians are noted for poor flying weather. Typical low cloud with poor visibility greeted the Japanese aircraft over Dutch Harbor on 3-4 June. True to form, the “Aleutian clag” persisted for weeks, so it was not surprising that, although only a short distance from Dutch Harbor, it was five weeks before a passing US Navy PBY Catalina sighted the upturned Zero on 10 July. After three attempts, the USN finally salvaged the machine. They eased the upside-down Zero onto a skid, dragged it out with a tractor and righted it back in Dutch Harbor. Crated and delivered to Seattle on 1 August, it was transhipped to NAS North Island, San Diego, where it was restored to flying trim by 20 September (Technical Aviation Brief #3, 1942).

The aircraft engineers found a 19 February 1942 manufacturing date stamp confirming the machine was a valuable late A6M2 Model 21. Some reports say the Sumitomo propeller  damaged beyond repair; others say the propeller was beaten back into shape. Yet others show it was a direct copy, built under licence, of a readily available Hamilton Standard propeller that was easily substituted for the damaged Japanese version (, December 2010). Engine spares presented little problem. The twin-row 14-cylinder engine was a close relative of the widely-licensed French Gnome-Rhone Mistral Major.

Akutan Zero flies again

LCDR Eddie R. Sanders USN flew the Akutan Zero for the first time in American colours on 20 September 1942. As a tribute to the skill of the NAS North Island aircraft engineers and the Zero’s built-in ease of maintenance, he managed 24 test flights in 25 days. It was during these flights that Sanders confirmed the Zero’s excellent low speed manoeuvrability but he also documented its amazingly poor rolling performance at moderately high speeds. The Zero had excellent roll control below 200 knots, right down to the stall, but the large servo-tab ailerons became progressively sluggish and almost impossibly heavy above 250 knots. Reinforcing Chennault’s observations, he also found that the float-type carburettor starved the engine of fuel under negative G. All this information, with combat recommendations, were relayed to the fleet shortly after Sanders’s first flight (Technical Aviation Brief #3, 1942). Not long after, he was rewarded with the feedback, “It works”.

After the test flights, the Akutan Zero was matched in simulated battle with a large number of different WW II American USN and USAF aircraft types and tactics. These were flown chiefly from NAS North Island CA and NAS Anacostia/Bolling AFB, Washington, DC.

“Thach weaves” and other gimmicks were sometimes credited with defeating the Zero, but nothing seems to have been more effective than the simple old WW I tactic of staying in battle formation and gaining a potential energy advantage in the form of a height/speed edge over the enemy. This was amply reinforced by the Akutan Zero’s test data from simulated adversary battles. It remains true in dogfighting today.

There were some less than well-informed claims that these Zero evaluation trials were responsible for massive design changes in those Pacific Ocean scourges, the Vought F4U Corsair and the Grumman F6F Hellcat (Okumiya et al, 1957 p.179). In fact, the Akutan Zero appeared far too late for any major weight-saving or other influence on these aircraft designs.

The first “Hosenose” F4U production model flew in June 1942 and deliveries to USN and USMC squadrons commenced towards the end of that year. The Corsair’s gestation was laboured, not solely because of weight considerations but mainly due to armament modifications. These required the cockpit to be moved 32 inches (81 cm) aft and the fuel tanks re-positioned. Despite its low wing loading, early production Corsairs, with their comparatively poor over-the-nose visibility, vicious torque stalls and toey undercarriage, were condemned as too difficult to deck land. (US Marines, however, found a way. USMC Corsairs, operating from tiny escort carriers were most effective. Their cheaply-modified Corsairs helped the Allies turn the tide in 1950 at Inchon and Pusan in Korea.)

Thruelsen, in his authoritative Grumman story, notes that excess weight was a major consideration long before the Akutan Zero was found in 1942. In fact, a weight-saving program was a feature of the old Grumman F4F Wildcat, one version of which was flying with the RN as early as December 1940. This owed nothing to the lightweight Zero, but more to the prospect of having to operate these fighters from small escort carriers (Thruelsen, 1976 p. 181).

The first Grumman F6F Hellcat flew on 26 June 1942 (Angelucci, 1990 p. 237; Thruelsen, 1976 p. 382) months before the Akutan Zero’s first test flight in USN colours. Regarding the Zero’s influence on the Grumman F6F Hellcat design, as stated fairly clearly (Thruelsen, 1976 p. 194):

The most important claim that could be made for the Hellcat…was that it outperformed the best of the Zeros in every department except range. And the Hellcat needed few modifications and practically no structural changes during its production lifetime.


f6f hellcat

Grumman F6F Hellcat (10.24 x 13.06 x 3.99), weight 9238-12598 lb (4199-5726 kg). Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp 2000 HO. Max 330 kn; ferry range 1330 nm. Six .5 inch guns with 400 rpg or2 x 20 mm cannon with 225 rpg and 4 x .5 inch guns with 400 rpg. Six x 5 inch RP, or 4000 lb bombs/Mk 13 torpedo.


While the Akutan Zero might have helped to modify and confirm certain fighter tactics, all the major structural F4UCorsair and F6F Hellcat design decisions had been made long before that Zero rolled out of its Mitsubishi factory in February 1942.

How “genuine” was the restored Zero? If it was restored in NAS North Island to a “better-than-new” condition, then the derived test data might carry a positive bias. Similarly, if the somersault and subsequent rough handling was sufficient to warp the airframe or severely damage the engine, then the test data might under-value the production aircraft’s true potential. Perhaps the best estimate of this may be to quote LCDR Sanders when author Jim Rearden asked was “the repaired airplane 100 per cent” genuine? Sanders’s reply was “about 98 per cent” (Rearden, 1997). Unfortunately, Rearden seems to have failed to resolve which specific parts were not genuine.

Also unresolved is the relatively minor issue of whether all propeller blades were beaten back into shape, or if one propeller blade or even an entirely new Hamilton Standard three-bladed propeller was substituted in the Akutan Zero at NAS North Island.

Regarding speed, the Zero was certainly fast and nimble, but it had flaws. What was the sense in having a fast airframe if it could not roll rapidly over 250 knots?  Read the interesting discussion defining some speed parameters by Richard Dunn at for partial answers.

What is clear is that the investigation of the Akutan Zero, if nothing else, destroyed the Zero’s aura of invincibility. The American tests put to the sword dozens of swirling myths, rumours and exaggerations. Most of the few remaining myths were dispelled when the new Grumman F6F Hellcat was first deployed in action 31 August 1943, and the remainder were firmly nailed after the 19-20 June 1944 “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”.

The Zero entered WW II as world-beater. It ended the war ignominiously, as a kamikaze vehicle. The Philippines-based Naval Air Group 201 introduced the Zero as a kamikaze following a decision by VADM Takijiro Onishi at Mabalacat Airfield (later Clark AFB), 19 October 1944 (Okumiya et al, 1957 pp. 266-282).

In a similar vein, the ultimate demise of the famous Akutan Zero was also tragically anti-climactic. Taxying out for a training flight in February 1945, a Curtis SB2C Helldiver over-ran it and “chopped the fuselage to pieces”. The pilot was uninjured, but only a small number of instruments and other odd pieces are known to remain.



Angelucci, E. The Rand McNally encyclopaedia of military aircraft. Crescent books: New York. 1990.

Ford, D. Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and his American volunteers, 1941-1942. Harper Collins: Smithsonian Books, 2007.

Francillon, R.J. Japanese aircraft of the Pacific War, Mitsubishi A6M Reisen (Zero Fighter). Naval Institute Press: Annapolis. 1995.

Fuchida, M. and M. Okumiya. Midway: The battle that doomed Japan. United States Naval Institute: Annapolis. 1958.

Gill, G.H. Royal Australian Navy, 1942-45 (1st Edition). Australian War Memorial: Canberra. 1968.

Handel, M. I. War, strategy, and intelligence. Frank Cass: London, 1989.

Loomis, R.D. Great American fighter pilots of World War II. Random House: New York, 1961. Morison, S.E. New Guinea and the Marianas, March 1944-August 1944. vol. 8 of History of United States naval operations in World War II. University of Illinois Press: Champaign. 2001.

Okumiya, M., J. Horikoshi and M. Caidin. Zero: the story of the Japanese navy air force 1937-1945. Cassell and Company: London. 1957.

Prange, G.W. At dawn we slept: The untold story of Pearl Harbor. McGraw-Hill: New York. 1981.

Smith, P.C. Midway: Dauntless victory. Pen and Sword Maritime: Barnsley. 2007.

Technical Aviation Brief #3, Performance and characteristics trials, Japanese fighter, Aviation Intelligence Branch, Navy Department (4 Nov. 1942).

Thruelsen, R. The Grumman story. Preager Publishers: New York. 1976.

Tillmann, B. Clash of the carriers. The true story of the Marianas Turkey Shoot of World War II. Penguin Group: New York. 2005.



Aiken, D. response 21 February 2001,

Rearden, J. Koga’s Zero: An enemy plane that saved American lives. Invention and technology magazine. Fall 1997, Vol 13/2.

1997/2/1997_2_56.shtml. (December 2010) (December 2010)


Mitsubishi Zero Type 0 A6M2 Model 21.

Wing span: 39.38 ft (12 m); Length: 29.73 ft (9.06 m); Height: 10 ft (3.05 m); Weight Empty: 3703 lb (1680 kg); Weight loaded: 5313 lb (2410 kg); Performance: V (max) 356 knots, Max cruise: 288 Knots, Service ceiling: 32,810 ft; Range: 1675 miles. Manual wing tip folding was introduced on later versions.

Powerplant: Nakajima NK Sakae 12, (Mistral copy, built under licence from Gnome-Rhone) 14 cylinders air cooled radial, 940 hp, driving a three-bladed variable pitch Sumitomo propeller. The A6M3 Type O Model 32, introduced in April 1942, had an 1130 hp Sakai 21 engine with a two-speed supercharger, but only 343 were built.

Drop tank: 330 L (72 gallons)

Armament: Two x 20 mm cannon (60 rpg), 2 x 7.7 mm machine guns (500 rpg), 264 lb (120 kg) bombs, or one fixed 551 pounds (250 kg) bomb in the kamikaze mode.


Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat. (The G-36 Martlet was one export version, FM-1 and FM-2 were F4Fs built by eastern Aircraft.)

Wing span: 38 ft (11.6 m); Length: 28.75(8.8 m); Height: 11.8 ft (3.6 m); Weight empty: 5760 lb (2613 kg); Weight loaded: 7952 lb (3560 kg); Performance: V(max) 422 knots; Max cruise 280 knots; Service ceiling 34,900 feet; Range 770 miles. All but the very early production aircraft had manual wing folding.

Powerplant: Pratt and Whitney R 1830-86 Twin Wasp 14 cylinders, air cooled radial, 1200 hp driving a three-bladed variable pitch propeller.

Late production F4F-4s could carry two 58-gallon drop tanks.

Armament: six .5 inch machine guns (240rpg), 200 lb bomb.








THE WAY IT WAS: Government House, Sydney under the most recent Naval Governor of New South Wales, 1991-1996


Government House, Sydney under the most recent Naval Governor of New South Wales, 1991-1996

By Ralph Derbidge

(This article was first published in NOCN 84, 1 March 2011.)

When I look back on my life to date, I have no hesitation in rating my time at Government House Sydney as a principal highlight.  This essay is about that house, its people and the then Governor and his lady.

Government House

No Governor of New South Wales has lived in Government House since Rear Admiral Peter Sinclair retired as our 35th Governor, but I believe that the property is in the hands of the best alternative custodians,  the Historic Houses Trust of NSW.  This statutory authority was established specially to conserve and manage the state’s cultural heritage of this state.  Government House is the jewel in the crown of that body’s area of responsibility.

gh external from gate_ bw

Government House, Sydney, NSW, from the main gate


The heart and soul of any inherently active organisation or institution  are its people.  And so it was with the then vice-regal residence and workplace for the Governor of this state.

By mid-1995, the establishment of staff at Government House had been fixed at 31 more-or-less permanent members.  The so-called permanent staff fell into three quite different categories and were recruited or sourced accordingly.  There was the official (or public service) staff numbering 13, the personal staff of four and the domestic staff totalling 14 and the members of each division had varying terms of reference and conditions of service.

The official staff consisted of the Official Secretary and an administrative assistant, a speech-writing research officer, five clerical staff, a building and property maintenance staff of four, an after-hours gatekeeper and the Governor’s driver.  These people were mostly long-serving New South Wales government employed public servants.

governor  mrs sinclair with scarlett

The Governor and Mrs Sinclair with Scarlett

Personal Staff

The appointed personal staff comprised four: myself,  Mrs Sinclair’s secretary  and two aides-de-camp in waiting (or ADC’s).  The domestic staff was made up of footmen, maids and kitchen staff in almost equal numbers, co-ordinated by the Butler.

The personal staff and the domestic staff, in contrast to the official staff, were under direct contract to the Governor and their recruitment or appointment rested finally on the personal approval of the Governor and his lady.  The Sinclairs, I should stress, took an active role in this process.

Official Secretary

The Official Secretary presided over all staff.  The Private Secretary worked under, but not for, the Official Secretary and it is important to appreciate this distinction.  The coordination and direction of the personal staff and domestic staff were the responsibility of the Private Secretary but there was overlap with the Official Secretary, as you might expect.

The contracted non-union staff had no security of tenure and were retained in theory, subject to satisfactory performance of duties, at the Governor’s pleasure.  They could be, and were, eventually dismissed by the government at short notice.


In the final analysis, the government’s dictates of 16 January 1996 (announcing tthat Government House would cease to be used as the residence of Governors of the state who would henceforth provide their own living accommodation —  Ed.) resulted in the dismissal services-no-longer-required of all of the contracted staff.

To be fair, the government offered the full range of employee assistance resources and programmes to dismissed staff but, with a fortnight’s notice to quit for the majority, there was little time for individuals to ponder their fate or to be selective about their futures. The domestic staff were given the most sympathetic treatment, which was appropriate, and most of them found, or were steered in the direction of new work by the time I left the house.

Extended family

There was an extended family of staff serving the office of the Governor and it would be remiss of me not to mention them. The security of Government House was in the hands of a dozen or so New South Wales Police Service armed security branch officers who worked shifts in teams of four over continuous 24-hour periods. The upkeep and presentation of the splendid gardens and grounds within the fence perimeter were the responsibility of a team of six or so gardeners on rotational secondment from the staff of the neighbouring Royal Botanic Gardens.

There were others whose expertise and experience were called upon to advise or assist as circumstances required.  The Crown Solicitor and the Solicitor General were typical of those who gave counsel to the Governor when called upon so to do, especially in times of actual, predicted or perceived constitutional crises.  I suggest there was more of the latter rather than the former in this context during my tenure at Government House, which only serves to highlight the enduring stability of our existing form of government and associated conventions in this ever-so-fortunate democracy of ours.

I should mention also the half-dozen honorary ADC’s who supported the Governor and Mrs Sinclair after hours and on weekends at all manner of functions and activities.  They were reservists from the three armed services who, otherwise, were civilians working at their own vocations.  They were to be found assisting in investiture ceremonies, receptions, musical evenings and the like, or attending upon the vice regal couple as required.


My happiest moments at Government House revolved around the daily interactions with other staff.  In view of the Governor’s extraordinary, ever-busy programme, there was not much time available for light relief, but it was a mostly contented band of dedicated and hard working people at Government House, some of whom were long serving staff members who had seen a number of vice regal representatives come and go.

It would be unfair to pretend that there were no difficulties or tensions within from time-to-time, but the show went on in an exceptionally dynamic environment and all members of staff contributed to a very efficient and effective vice regalship in this state.

Position abolished

With the retirement of the then Governor Sinclair, and the attendant closure of Government House as the vice regal residence and workplace, the long established office of the Private Secretary was abolished and consigned to the vaults of history.

I could lay claim to having been the last holder of the oldest civil service office in the land.  The Private Secretary to the first Governor, Captain Arthur Phillip RN, was one Andrew Miller who arrived with the First Fleet and served until June 1788 when he was relieved by David Collins Esq who also held the position of Judge Advocate of the then infant Colony of New South Wales.


For nigh on four years, from mid-march 1992, I served, one of the busiest and most popularly acclaimed holders of a vice regal office in the modern history of Australia.  As the Private Secretary, I was directly responsible for the planning and conduct of the Governor’s ceremonial and community activities and for the co-ordination of the internal operation of the house.

In the process, I carried much of the administrative burden of the household proceedings while supervising the input of contributing staff, processing the private, semi-official and official (but not constitutionally related) correspondence, overseeing the ceremonial and protocol functions and roles of the Governor, maintaining the Governor’s 250 plus patronages, despatching the daily vice-regal notices to The Sydney Morning Herald and managing the seven-day-a-week vice-regal programme, otherwise known as ‘The Diary’.  A measure of that involvement was that I personally staffed and signed in excess of 12,000 individual letters for the Governor during this period.

Energy and innovation

The Sinclairs were extraordinarily energetic and innovative.  Indeed, I would go so far as to affectionately classify the Governor as a peerless workaholic.  Nothing was too much trouble for him and he would view it as slothful if virtually every awake minute of his day was not given over to some productive endeavour.  If nothing was programmed, improvisation was the order of the moment.


The Governer and Mrs Sinclair were imbued with an acute sense of duty and responsibility, and compromises were only made when inescapable.  All reasonable requests for their time and services, often at short-notice, were accepted if there were available gaps in ‘The Diary’.  The vice regal programme was projected three months in advance through monthly programme meetings.  Despite maximum utilisation of the available diary time, the Governor and Mrs Sinclair were only ever available to accept about one third of the requests placed before them.  It points to the extent of their appeal.

The Governor mostly wrote all of his speeches in longhand which were then processed to type.  There was well in excess of 1000 major speeches delivered by him while in office.  I categorise a major speech as being a prepared text of 10 minutes duration or longer and he gave one of these on average every working day of the week.  He spoke on just about every subject of interest and so you can imagine the research, resources, time and energy that went into this important aspect of his term in office.

With the passing of every year, the Governor approved the use of the house for evermore functions, presentations, launchings, acknowledgments and the like by outside organisations and patronages to the extent that, by the end of 1995, some 35,000 persons were visiting the house each year for multifarious purposes.  It had not always been this way, but Governor Sinclair never publicly veered away from his conviction that it was the house of the peoples of New South Wales and should be available to them whenever possible.

Humanity and a dog

There was, I stress, a very human side to Government House.  The Governor had a well developed sense of humour and several pressure-relieving sporting interests and hobbyist pursuits.  He and Mrs Sinclair had a special affinity with young persons, the disabled and disadvantaged and country folk, and, of course, there was the principal star of stage, screen, television, poetry and magazine and newsprint reporting, to wit Scarlett, the Governor’s pet kelpie dog, and her five pups born on location.  For better or worse, many important visitors to Government House found themselves playing second fiddle to Scarlett, whom I am convinced had no idea that she was a dog.  And why not for, as with Rhett Butler, Scarlett was the Governor’s obsession!  She was even known to gate-crash investitures.

investiture room

The Investiture Room. Unfortunately gray-scale presentation cannot convey adequately the richness of this splendid room.


Investitures at Government House were held normally in April and September of each year following the promulgation respectively of the Australia Day and Queen’s Birthday honours lists.  For the vice-regal couple and all of the staff, plus a supporting cast including the New South Wales Police Service and St John Ambulance Australia and others, they posed the supreme ceremonial and protocol occasions of the year.

In all, some 500 good citizens of New South Wales were invested each year at Government House with the insignia of their awards in the Order of Australia, the Order of St John, for bravery and for distinguished service in each of the three arms of the Australian Defence Force, the New South Wales Public Service and the police, fire, ambulance and emergency services.

Preparations commenced some three months beforehand, very soon after the awards lists were made public.  I leave it to your imagination to sense the effort involved in bringing together at each ceremony some 70 recipients from around the state with their three guests each, plus officialdom, making everyone feel just as important as the other, staging and recording a memorable show and entertaining all to champagne and refreshments, small eats and live music to round out the occasion.

To the casual observer, the investitures always seemed to go like clockwork while leaving everybody with a warm feeling.  But they had their trying and sometimes unpredictable moments for the master of ceremonies, despite the best laid plans and all of that!  Let me share some of them with you while I hasten to stress that I mean no offence in the retelling.

My very capable staff would put together for me the form and content of the names and citations to cover every award, around which I would develop the supporting script and briefing notes.  No two ceremonies were identical and they demanded attention to detail.  Correct pronunciation of names and places was obviously important.  I found that, with our multicultural diversity, bravery awards, for example, are rarely won by the Jack Smiths from Rose Bay.  And we do have some exotically named places in this great state of ours that the locals express in only one way!

government house staff at stand by

Government House investiture team at stand-by.

Accident & misadventure

By my 26th investiture, I was pretty good at the business and could even ad lib with ease but I put a lot of homework into my early ceremonies.  I had to run my first investiture within days of joining Government House and there was little time for me to get up to flying speed.  And so I concentrated on the seemingly difficult words while skimming over those that appeared straight-forward.  That first ceremony was soon in full flight and running smoothly and I found myself readily slipping into the ease and entrancement which flow from a soundly researched and well-prepared script, or so I thought!

Unblinkingly, and at the appropriate point, I proclaimed loudly “to be awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for services to art — Mr Ken Done” (which I pronounced “Dunn”). As he moved past me towards the Governor to receive his award, I heard him mutter, unimpressed “not even half close!” or words to that effect. Ken may have forgiven me now.

Then there was the third attempt to coax to Sydney a particularly nomadic free spirit from the Northern Rivers area of the state who, if my memory serves me well, had earned a bravery award for plucking a child from a dangerously flooded stream.  He could be reached only through a post box address or through his mother in Queensland.  We finally made contact but he would only come if he could play his didgeridoo at some time during the proceedings.  This bothered me a bit, because the investiture cermonies were already overtimed, so I took this problem of precedent to the Governor who, in the interests of harmony, said  “Make it so!”  So I went away, wondering how and when, and whether this would lead to equal time for balalaikas, sitars and the like, and invited the man to come with his didgeridoo.  But, again, he did not show and eventually the award went off in the mail to the post box address.

Hidden dangers in zeal

I will round this segment off with an example of the pitfalls of zeal.  Shortly after joining, a new ADC was assigned the duty at his first investiture of carrying to the Governor on a velvet cushion each insignia in turn for presentation to the recipient.  This activity, after the citation was announced, was executed in military drill fashion and the final manoeuvre required a halt followed by a full left turn.  The ADC, fresh from his reserve battalion, must have confused the investiture room with the parade ground.  With rigid precision, he crash halted and pivoted left with stomping vigour.  Sure enough, the insignia for the first recipient shot right off the cushion with centrifugal force and clattered to the floor.  You can then imagine the scene as initial nervous tension propelled the ADC, the recipient, the Governor, me and two others from the front row of spectators in simultaneous convergence upon the hapless insignia.  Decorum was finally restored, and the show went on without further hindrance but it took some time for the ADC’s complexion to return to normal.  My only real concern was whether or not he had inadvertently revealed to all and sundry the secret of the Governor’s impressive recollection of the background and deeds of every recipient.  In the initial confusion, had he exposed the cue card attached to the back of the cushion?

Honours and awards

The investitures, of course, were always humbling yet uplifting affairs and I never ceased to marvel at the capacity of so many wondrous folk to do so much on behalf of others.  In particular, the details of some of the feats of bravery left one in awe of the incredible will and courage possessed by certain individuals who went to extraordinary lengths to assist their fellow citizens in the face of great adversity and real peril.

The awards system

It is right that our high achieving and selflessly serving citizens should be recognised in the way that they are through the Australian Honours and Awards system, and sooner rather than later.  Sadly, that system does not always  acknowledge a vast army of unassuming folk who give daily of themselves to others, for it relies almost entirely on persuasive nominations by our fellow countrymen and women.  And we are not very good as nationals at this sort of thing.  But the system is there, and it is the only one we have and it should be respected.  It is not something that can be treated as a lay-by department in the expectation that the store management will change in due course.  You may recall the publicity afforded the lady several years ago who wanted her award held in trust until it could be presented to her by our first republican President.  Wisely, she was rebuffed.


I hope that I have been able to illustrate for you the very human side of Government House under the Sinclairs and to unravel some of the mystique of investitures.  It was an unbelievably busy Government House throughout my four years there, and I marvel today at what was achieved by a very dutiful and caring Governor and his lady with the support of a relatively small but loyal and exceptionally hard working staff.  It was my privilege and pleasure to have served as the Private Secretary to His Excellency Rear Admiral Peter Sinclair AC AO (Mil), the 35th Governor of New South Wales.




THE OLD AND THE BOLD … Stephen Dearnley: survivor, publisher, motorcyclist, yachtsman and boatbuilder


Stephen Dearnley: survivor, publisher, motorcyclist, yachtsman and boatbuilder

(This article first appeared in NOCN 84, 1 March 2011.)

stephen dearnley pic original contrast up bw

Stephen Dearnley’s life has been full of excitement, variety and adventure — yet on first meeting, this calm, courtly and articulate man can seem like a person whose life has been measured, placid, predictable and very run-of-the-mill. Nothing could be further from the truth.

He was born in Shropshire in 1922, the son of a country parson.  The regular house moves necessitated by his father’s vocation didn’t interfere with Stephen’s traditional classical education. World War II had begun when he finished school, but by then he’d already started patrols with the Local Defence Volunteers, predecessor to the Home Guard.

Stephen was working in Manchester when he had a close experience with the blitz: walking home from work, he heard a bomb coming and dived into an adjacent pill box. The bomb landed on the other side of the road; it ruptured a gas main and created a spectacular fire.


Joining the navy

In August 1941 he joined the Royal Navy and completed basic seamanship training at HMS Ganges. His first ship, HMS Fitzroy, the RN’s last coal-burner, was leader of the 4th Minesweeping Flotilla. The flotilla was working from the Faeroe Islands, Danish territory.Later they moved to the southern extremity of the North Sea, sweeping out-dated “friendly” mines off the Dutch coast. Fitzroy never finished the job.

hms fitzroy

Minesweeper-leader HMS Fitzroy — sunk


Stephen was on the bridge when it happened. He heard a loud explosion from aft; he looked and saw the ships boats hanging from their davits and a large hole in the deck. Everybody around him was already blowing up their lifebelts; the ship was clearly going down — and it did. It was late May, but still cold. And rough. Stephen was in the water about 45 minutes, and was revived with a very large tot of rum when he was safely on board one of the other ships in the flotilla. They had probably been sunk by a “friendly” mine.


Promotion, and


Soon, Stephen was sent on officer training at Lancing College. He graduated as Midshipman RNVR on November 1942. Pilotage training followed, from RNC Greenwich. In January 1943 Stephen, now a Sub Lieutenant, began submarine training in Northumberland.

His submarine career started in depot ships as spare crew. In Dundee there were some Dutch submarines that had escaped from Java and made their way back to Europe to fight on the Allied side. They had been built in Germany, and carried a strange device called a “schnorkel”. Local experts examined this gadget, declared it inherently unsafe, and welded up the holes it had made in the pressure hull.



Eventually Stephen was posted to HMS Maidstone, stationed in Algiers. His first operational patrol was in HMS Universal, in the western Mediterranean. After she torpedoed a large merchantman, the counter-attacking escorts forced Universal well below her designed depth. Fortunately they found a good layer and lurked beneath it for four hours.

Maidstone was ordered to the east; Stephen disembarked in Alexandria (where he celebrated his 21st birthday), and travelled from there by train to Beirut to join his new depot ship, HMS Medway. A quiet patrol in HMS Upholder followed, then he was sent to Haifa for sick leave, and took recreation leave in Damascus.

u class submarine 7 cm

U-class submarine, similar to HMS Universal and HMS Upholder



An eventful patrol

Stephen joined his new submarine, HMS Sportsman, in Port Said in January 1944 as 4th Hand; an eventful patrol around the Greek coast followed. With a well-drilled gun’s crew, they had several successful surface actions against local caiques (wooden-hulled sailing vessels) that the Germans were using to supply their more remote coastal outposts.  (After a warning shot, they always allowed the Greek crews to take to the boats before proceeding with the sinking.) They were ordered to intercept a German troopship off northern Crete; the trooper came through on time, but was very heavily escorted. Sportsman fired from outside the screen and sank the target. Finally, they were ordered to attack shipping in the tiny port of Monemvasia in the Peloponnese. As well as being navigationally difficult, the port was protected by a boom. Sportsman’s skipper found a gap in the boom, fired through it, and sank a 5000 ton freighter.

s class submarine

S-class submarine, similar to HMS Sportsman


They returned to Malta, and soon were homeward-bound for Britain via Gibraltar. In Gibraltar, they heard news of the D-Day landings.

Their new depot ship was HMS Forth in the Holy Loch near Glasgow. A new captain and crew came on board, but Stephen stayed on for the new commission as navigator.

Soon they were at sea again, making a trans-Atlantic surface passage to Philadelphia, for a major ‘first’: refit, then working up with USN submarines out of New London CT. The return passage across the Atlantic was enlivened by a stop in the Azores en route. They arrived in the Holy Loch in March 1945; VE Day was only a few weeks away.


Winding down

Having been fully refitted, Sportsman paid off. Stephen, last to leave the boat, took its Jolly Roger flag. He re-joined his first submarine, HMS Universal, operating out of Larne in Northern Ireland. They were used as a “clockwork mouse”, or mobile target, to train escorts in anti-submarine tactics. The personal importance to Stephen of this relatively short period was that during it he met Jo, then in the Wrens. She soon became a permanent part of his life and they were married in December 1945 — but Stephen still had another six months to serve in the RN before demobilisation.


Publishing, and migration

As a civilian, he moved into publishing with some help from a fellow-submariner, Teddy Young — well known as the only Reserve officer to command an operational submarine — who was also in the business. Stephen worked with the publishers William Collins, but within a year or so he and Jo became concerned about prospects for bringing up a family in Britain; recovery from the war was slow, and economic signs were not good. He applied to be transferred to the Collins operation in Australia. He and Jo migrated here in October 1947, with permanent employment already secured. This has been his home ever since. He retired from Collins in 1979.


Boats …

Stephen’s life away from work has been full of variety, in two main fields. Firstly, he became a keen small-boat sailor and a boat-builder as well. He was instrumental in getting the Heron and Lazy E classes established in Australia, and in forming local Class associations for both of them. He built two Herons, a Lazy E, a Northbridge Junior, and two Moths. He raced when he could; he took out the Herons National Championship once in the early 1960s, and freakishly, twice won from a huge field of all-comers the Imperial Services Club’s annual race from RSYS  Kirribilli to Quarantine in Sydney, once in a Heron, once in a Lazy E.


… and bikes

Stephen’s other major extra-curricular activity has been in a very different field: on two wheels — with an engine between them. He has always loved motor bikes, though not always has his domestic situation permitted him to indulge his passion as much as he’d have liked. Most of his demobilisation gratuity went on ‘Dora’ the ex-US Army Indian Scout seen in the picture overleaf, taken in Glasgow with Stephen and Jo the year after they were married. But motor bikes don’t mix well with raising children, and Dora didn’t come to Australia. So Stephen stuck to four wheels for about 20 years, until the offspring were independent.

stephen jo  dora cropped 9

Jo and Stephen Dearnley with ‘Dora’, the ex-US Army Indian Scout which absorbed most of Stephen’s demobilisation gratuity.


When he returned to motorcycling in the early 1970s the scene had changed somewhat. There was by this time some quite attractive Japanese machinery around; he had several Japanese bikes, which he used to commute to work for the very convenience of it. Soon, as a mature-age motorcyclist, he got involved in long-distance touring as well.


Ulysses Club is formed

And so it was that, through a light-hearted correspondence through the pages of Bike Australia, an Australian motor bike magazine, Stephen ended up as a founder member, and for four years, President, of the Ulysses Club – whose motto is “Grow old disgracefully”.  The club was formed in December 1983 with just five people at the inaugural meeting at a Sydney pub; by the time Stephen vacated the chair in 1986 there were several hundred on the books. The club has continued to prosper ever since, with membership over 29,000 in 2010.

The basic objectives of the club were threefold: foster contact and mutual support between older motorcyclists; show by example that motorcycling can be fun for all ages; and let other institutions know the views of older riders. The club has its AGM in a different spot each year, usually pretty remote, and riders converge from all over the country. The club magazine, Riding On, has been a significant factor in the club’s success. The club is a formidable charity fundraiser, devoting funds raised to arthritis research.  Stephen thinks that the atmosphere of consensus and goodwill in which the Ulysses Club began, and continues to function, are the cornerstones of its success. Stephen says: “It operates in an atmosphere of organised anarchy — but it works”.

Another extra-curricular activity that occupied Stephen in recent years was proof-reader for this Newsletter, in which he provided invaluable and expert service drawn from his long experience in publishing. He withdrew from his responsibilities in that field only last year, when he moved into serviced hostel accommodation on Sydney’s northern beaches.


Queen’s birthday honours

In the Queen’s Birthday Honours list of 1999 Stephen Dearnley was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia — OAM — for “services to sailing and motorcycling”. Columnist and veteran reporter David McNicoll described the award as “a victory for larrikinism” and Stephen as “the leader of the largest motorcycle gang in Australia”. Stephen regarded the coverage as a compliment and great publicity for Ulysses.


Stephen Dearnley has had a rich and full life. Sadly, he lost Jo in 1996 after her long struggle with rheumatoid arthritis, but their four offspring and 12 grandchildren are constant reminders of her.

Stephen has put more in to everything he’s been associated with than he has taken out. With his organisational flair, common sense, and abundant energy he has made a difference to things and initiated change and development in several fields for the enjoyment and benefit of many others. In his highly individualistic way, he has made the world a better place — and, importantly, he’s had a lot of fun doing it. 


Reference: Dearnley, S; The Ulysses Story; Ulysses Club Revised Ed, 2003.


(The photograph with the motor bike is from Stephen’s own collection, and those of the three RN units are from the 1939 and 1944 editions of Jane’s Fighting Ships. The assistance of the Naval Historical Society of Australia with this article is acknowledged with thanks.)













THIS IS THE WAY IT HAPPENED … Swan to Shanghai, 1981: Trials of the heavenly duck.


Swan to Shanghai, 1981: Trials of the heavenly duck.

By Max Sulman

(This article was first published in NOCN 84, 1 March 2011.)


During the 1970s there was a gradual easing of tension between China and the West.  There were cautious overtures which led to visits to the country by western government dignitaries and culminated in the visit to Beijing by President Richard Nixon.  As a result of the relaxations, by the late 70’s there were a number of visits to China by warships of western nations and such visits were regarded as highly desirable for diplomatic and political reasons.  By 1980 the British, French and Italians had each achieved naval ship visits to Shanghai.  Australia was keen to join the club and, during HMAS Swan’s Far East deployment in 1980, the Commanding Officer (CO) was briefed to stand by in case negotiations were successful and a visit was approved, but it was not to be.  I took command of Swan in December 1980 and, before deploying north again in May 1981, was advised that should a ship visit be arranged, it would be by Swan.

Swan’s deployment programme for 1981 was from May to December and was particularly interesting with 24 scheduled port visits in 17 different countries or territories throughout the Pacific. Apart from minor adjustments to timing all visits and exercises were successfully completed. As readers would be aware such a visit programme included a heavy social load for the officers and the Wardroom hosted 18 cocktail parties as well as participating in many return bouts.

Shanghai confirmed

Swan was well into the deployment before it was confirmed that the Shanghai visit was a goer and was programmed from 1st to 5th September.  As might be imagined there was great anticipation among the ship’s company for the visit and considerable satisfaction in being nominated as the first RAN ship to visit China since the revolution.  It was an exciting prospect but, as the CO, and as a navigator, I was very aware of the significant lack of up to date charts of the Yangtze and its approaches.  The Admiralty charts held in the portfolio had been last corrected in 1949, the year of the “Yangtze Incident” and what had occurred in the mighty river since then was an unknown.  The only additional hydrographic information available comprised some poor photocopies of charts used by the Italians or French during their visits in the late 70’s.  It promised to be an adventure.

There had been some knowledge gleaned from the previous visitors and the procedure for entry seemed to have been consistent for their visits. We therefore expected that we would be met by a frigate guide at the pilot station off the mouth of the Yangtze where two pilots would be embarked for the passage upriver to Shanghai.  We were also aware of the complex light signals that were supposed to be worn to identify us and our guide.   The ETA for arrival at the pilot station off the Yangtze was 0430 local time on the 1st September.

Our last port of call before sailing for China was in Japan at Maizuru, on the western side of Honshu on the Sea of Japan.  Before sailing from Maizuru, Typhoon Agnes had been reported and was being plotted.  It soon became obvious from the predicted path of the storm that it would have an influence on Swan’s passage to Shanghai.  The unanswered question was just what actual path Agnes would follow and therefore what the most effective avoiding action would be.  Earlier in the month before visiting Kobe we had been at sea on the edges of Typhoon Thad and while in harbour my barometer trace showed the classic signs of Thad’s passage.  Having spent several deployments in the Far East with occasional brushes with them I had a healthy respect for typhoons and had no wish to get close to them.


Typhoon Agnes

Swan sailed from Maizuru at 0900 on 29 August and set course for the China coast.  On 30 August initial Morse radio contact was made with the East China Sea Fleet Headquarters in Shanghai; an historic event in itself as being the first contact between our navies. Meanwhile we were anxiously monitoring the progress of Typhoon Agnes which had recently caused havoc in the Philippines.  It was tracking fast and strongly towards the area we would soon be sailing in.

On passage we received regular weather forecasts from Guam which were of great value.  During Swan’s visit to Guam earlier in the month I had had the opportunity to visit the US Naval Oceanography Command Centre and be briefed on the typhoon analysis and warning facilities, not expecting that their output would be of vital interest so soon.

The typhoon’s influence became evident as we sailed south. After clearing Korea, course was shaped as far west as possible to close the China coast in an effort to reduce the effects of the typhoon, and work into its navigable semicircle. While harbouring a strong desire to get well out of Agnes’s likely path, I was also well aware of the diplomatic significance and arrangements that had been made both in China and Australia for this first visit by an Australian ship since the end of the revolution in 1949.

Just before noon on the 31st a Morse message was received from East China Sea Fleet Headquarters requesting Swan’s position and hinting that, because of the approaching typhoon, if the rendezvous could be reached by 1800 an early entry could be arranged.  The original rendezvous of 0430 on 1 September was now clearly impossible as the eye of the typhoon was predicted to be only 120 nautical miles to seaward at that time.

At this point I was seriously considering abandoning the passage south and withdrawing to the east to gain sea room but, having considered the typhoon’s position, its forecast track and the effect on the Shanghai programme should Swan withdraw far to the east, I accepted the offer of an early entry and we ran fast down the coast into an increasingly heavy south easterly swell.  The sea was deserted with no sign of the usual multitude of fishing boats.

Swan hove to in a heavy swell at the rendezvous off the Chang Chi’ang (Yangtze) light vessel at 1715 local on the 31st and there we waited for our guide and pilots.  There was no other vessel in sight.

shanghai approaches map_0002 bw expanded

The approaches to Shanghai as they might have been in 1981 (from The International Atlas, Rand McNally, 1978). The main channel in the northern part of the map is the southern estuary of the Yangtze. The Huangpu River can be seen leading south from Wusong to Shanghai. The typhoon anchorage is thought to have been between the small group of islands in the south estuary, and its southern shore. Satellite images available today suggest that the size, shape and position of the smaller islands in this map have changed almost beyond recognition. The lines of latitude are 30 minutes apart.


An unpleasant place to be

It was an unpleasant place to be. The sea was muddy and rough, and the swell was so heavy that it seemed possible the ship could bottom in the troughs. Swan was always immaculate but the spray from the brown Yangtze was covering the glistening superstructure as we waited.  Despite all efforts we were unable to establish communications with our expected guide. The option of clearing out to the south east was becoming more and more attractive as the minutes passed.

Daylight began to fade before a Luda Class destroyer, DD 132, was observed approaching at speed out of the river around 1900.  It was our escort, the intended frigate having become unserviceable.  Onboard, in addition to our pilots, was our liaison officer, LCDR Bob Burns, who had been despatched from JIO for the purpose.  Conditions were such that a transfer of pilots was out of the question.  There was also the complication that we could not establish any useful communications with our guiding destroyer until Bob Burns manned the VHF circuit.  Then, taking station about 5 cables astern of our guide, off we went at 18 knots up the river into the night and the unknown.

The river buoys were well lit and DD 123 obligingly shone a searchlight on each as we flashed by, indeed it seemed to us gazing anxiously through the wipers in the driving rain that she bounced off one or two of them as we sped up the Yangtze with a quartering sea and wind.


Crossing the bar

Upon crossing the Tongsha Bar around 2100 the effect of the swell lessened and the ships headed towards the typhoon anchorage at Yawosha.  This was a surprise; communications being less than adequate, we did not know there was a typhoon anchorage or that to shelter there was the plan. We had been expecting to proceed direct to Shanghai.  Approaching Zhongsha light vessel the large number of ships already at anchor became apparent and Swan was given a general area to anchor by DD 321.

At 2205 Swan came to port anchor with seven shackles of cable off the south eastern edge of ChangXing Dao Island, in the company of Luda DD132, about a mile away, and 40 merchant ships.  The ship anchored up stream and up wind of the other ships and was lying back on a bar taut cable into a howling gale, at very short notice with the bridge manned and the cable party on deck.


swan at shanghai 1a colour

“An unpleasant place to be”: Swan hove to at the Chang Chi’ang light vessel.


Drama in the anchorage

At 2320 a large merchant vessel, later identified as the Da Qing 29, was observed to be underway. Previously lying to the northwest of Swan at a range of 5 cables, the Da Qing 29 turned to the east and passed close under our stern then hove to, head to wind about one cable off our starboard side.  Da Qing 29 closed steadily, despite the sounding of SWAN’s siren and was only 40 yards off before gathering headway in what appeared to be a successful manoeuvre to avoid collision.  With her stern abreast Swan’s bow Da Qing 29 turned to starboard, thereby passing her stern over our cable and winding it up on her screw.  To avoid a collision I manoeuvred slowly astern.  We advised Luda DD 132 of the situation and were told the merchantman was suffering engine problems – we knew exactly why.

The cable party were immediately ordered to prepare the cable for slipping.  There was no pressing danger at that point, for Swan and Da Qing 29 were well upwind of other shipping, so matters seemed to be under control, but the cable party had problems breaking the cable and events deteriorated as wind and stream took charge.

Meanwhile midnight came and a new month began.  Later, in my Report of Proceedings (ROP) for August 1981, I wrote “With the cable well and truly fouled, and with both ships being set down wind and stream upon other ships close by at anchor, the port cable was being prepared for slipping at the close of the month.”

Of course there had been a series of signals to my superiors reporting the situation as it unfolded and the events were then in the past, but I was sorely tempted to add “see next month’s ROP for the exciting conclusion”, but I forbore as my experience had been that the principal readers of ROPs were not noted for their sense of humour.

On the forecastle things were not going well and the situation was rapidly deteriorating.  Working in the howling wind and driving rain the cable party were unable to break the cable on the forecastle and Swan and Da Qing 29 were rapidly being set down by the wind and stream onto a very large merchantman with two anchors out at very long stay.  He was making his concerns obvious by lusty use of his siren.

In the cable locker the cable was broken at a point half a shackle outboard of the cable clench by 0020 but, in view of the danger to the cable party and the chance of damage to the ship by the cable whipping out from the cable locker with the weight of two ships on it, further attempts were made to break the cable near the screw slip.   However, the situation was becoming critical and the forecastle was cleared of all but the Forecastle Petty Officer, PORP Legge, and he was given the order to slip.  It took an excruciatingly long time and a large number of sledgehammer blows to slip the cable and I had to manoeuvre the ship to avoid the merchantman’s cables but, at 0035 the buoyed cable was slipped and we were free.  Fortunately the combination of engine movements and manoeuvre caused the weight to come off the cable and it trickled out through the hawse.  Petty Officer Legge was subsequently awarded a Fleet Commander’s Commendation for his actions that night; there was a good chance he too could have disappeared down the hawse pipe along with the cable

da quing 29 aground fair print

Da Qing 29 aground — possibly to an audible sigh of relief from Swan’s bridge?


Freedom gained

Free of Da Qing 29, Swan manoeuvred clear of the other shipping and re-anchored at 0136 nearer to Luda DD132.  Unfortunately there were only 5 shackles on the starboard anchor and the combination of wind and tide over the next two days resulted in the anchor dragging as the stream changed necessitating a weary series of weighing and re-anchoring until the weather modified.  Luda DD132 reported later in the day that Da Qing 29 had gone aground and the ship could be seen to the north west on ChangXing Dao Island being pounded by the waves.  Fortunately for her she was on mud and was later refloated.  We saw her alongside on our departure from Shanghai with Swan’s cable led from her screw to her upperdeck.

Typhoon Agnes meanwhile could be seen on radar loitering off the mouth of the Yangtze and maintaining very unpleasant weather until eventually it headed to the northwest and reduced in intensity.



To Shanghai at last

It was not until 3 September that the weather had improved such that a personnel transfer could be achieved.    At 0700 Swan weighed and provided a lee for the embarkation of liaison officers, interpreters, pilots, signalmen, quarantine officers and Australian Embassy staff. On completion Swan, less one anchor, made a fast passage up the Yangtze to the Huangpu River entrance at Wusong and turned at 0845 for the 15 mile passage to Shanghai.  We were joined by five small official craft proceeding in arrowhead formation who shouldered aside the many junks and barges who could impede progress. Passing the long lines of ships at mooring buoys, the raucous sounding of sirens and waving greeted Swan at every turn, while more formal marks of respect were exchanged with

naval vessels lying alongside the banks.  At Swan’s berth at Garden Bend there were large banners welcoming the ship in fractured English – Warmly Welcome Heavenly Duck seemed to be the translation, and large numbers of Chinese Navy personnel were waiting to greet us at an official ceremony.

At 1100 on 3 September 1981 Swan berthed alongside for a highly memorable visit to the People’s Republic of China, but that’s another story.

swan at shanghai 4

HMAS Swan arriving in Shanghai, 3 September 1981.




HMAS Australia, 1911-1924: the first flagship


hmas australia

HMAS Australia, 1911-1924:  the first flagship

(This article was first published in NOCN 84, 1 March 2011.)

Builders: John Brown & Co, Clydebank

Launched: 25 October 1911

Commissioned: 21 June 1913; Captain Stephen Radcliffe RN.

Displacement: 18,500  tons standard; 22,000 tons full load.

Length: 179.83 metres (590 ft)

Beam: 24.38 m (80 ft)

Draught: 9.14 m (30 ft)


Armament: 8 x 305mm (12-in) guns in four twin turrets

16 x 102 mm (4-in)

2 x 457 mm (18-in) submerged torpedo tubes

Armour: Belt – up to 15.2 cm (6-in)

Turrets – 17.7 cm (7-in)

Decks – 25 mm (1-in) to 62.5 mm (2½-in)

Machinery: Parsons turbines; 31 Babcock and Wilcox boilers; 4 screws

Horsepower: 44,000

Maximum speed: 25 knots

Fuel: 3,200 tons coal; 850 tons oil.

Range: 6,300 miles at 10 knots; 2,300 miles at 23½ knots

Cost: £2,000,000

Complement: 900


HMAS Australia sailed from the UK in July 1913 in company with HMAS Sydney, for passage to Australian waters. On 4 October 1913, she led the first Australian Fleet Unit into Port Jackson.

When war broke out in August 1914, Australia’s presence undoubtedly prevented an attack on Australian shipping and cities by the German Pacific Squadron. That month she participated with the Australian Fleet in operations against Rabaul, and later in the occupation of Germany’s New Guinea colonies.

After the German Pacific Squadron was destroyed by RN forces at the Falkland Islands, thereby disposing of that threat to Australia, HMAS Australia was ordered to UK waters and arrived there in January 1915. She became the flagship of the 2nd Battle-Cruiser squadron, comprising also her sister ships HMS New Zealand and HMS Indefatigable.

On 22 April 1916 Australia sustained damage in a collision with HMS New Zealand. She went to Devonport for repairs, and as a result missed the Battle of Jutland in which HMS Indefatigable was lost. In December 1917, Australia was again in collision, this time with HMS Repulse.

In April and May 1918, Australia was employed in a successful experiment to launch an aircraft from a platform built on a gun turret.

Australia was present at the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet on 21 November 1918. She returned to Australian waters on 28 May 1919, flying the flag of Commodore 1st Class J S Dumaresq RN, the first Australian-born officer to command HM Australian Fleet. She was occupied on training for the rest of her operational life, but her days were numbered:  the ship had been earmarked for disposal under the terms of the Washington Treaty of 1922.

On 12 April 1924, escorted by other fleet units, HMAS Australia was towed out through the Heads and scuttled 24 miles due east of Sydney. 


(Reference: Australia’s Ships of War, John Bastock;  Angus & Robertson 1975.)









Commander Rohan Edwin (Ted) Lesh RAN Rtd; 21 May 1925 – 28 November 2010

Commander Rohan Edwin (Ted) Lesh RAN Rtd; 21 May 1925 – 28 November 2010

(This obituary was first published in NOCN 84, 1 March 2011.)

rohan lesh11 7 cm

Ted was a soft touch for voluntary organisations needing a Treasurer (he undertook Accountancy studies from 1961 to 64 whilst in the RAN).  “Are you sure that you can take this on Ted?” various Committees in Canberra would query.  “As long as I can”, would be the immediate response from Ted, known to all in Canberra as the gentleman officer.

Academically Ted Lesh was amongst the top of his class.  On graduation from the RANC in 1942 he was awarded “maximum time” for promotion and the prizes for Physics and Chemistry and  for Navigation.  During ‘Subs’ courses he was awarded a prize of £10 and the Ian Macdonald Memorial Prize (IM), now the Prize for the most improved trainee during the Junior Warfare Application Course (JWAC) at HMAS Watson; and later the Jackson-Everett Prize (JE) for topping his Communications qualification course in England.

With such academic ability Ted was well suited to ably lead, as Superintendent, the RAN Experimental Laboratory at Rushcutters Bay in 1966, and to cross swords with the many brilliant and well known naval scientists there such as Mal Buckham, Jack Lonergan and John Waller.

After graduation, from 1942 to 1945 as Midshipman and Lieutenant, Ted served in HMS Devonshire (Heavy cruiser) , HMS Renown (Battle cruiser), HMAS Quickmatch (Destroyer) and HMS Emerald (Light cruiser) before proceeding on Courses in May 1944.  On completion he was appointed to HMAS Norman (Destroyer) for a short period and to HMS Wessex (Destroyer) in January 1945, in which ship he was serving off Japan at the conclusion of hostilities.

Ted and his wife Jill married in 1952 on his return from service in HMAS Warramunga off Korea and near the Yalu River.   He is survived by Jill, their four children, 10 grandchildren and two great grandchildren.  The grandchildren have been the source of immense pride to them both.  “My word –  I‘m proud of them all”, he would often say.

Amongst them the eldest, Hannah, is an RAAF Squadron Leader and was Dux of her ADFA Graduation Class and University Medal winner.  Dimity is a ballerina currently dancing with the Australian Ballet; Thomas is a clarinetist at the ANU School of Music whilst Michael (who has a BEng  with First Class Honours for Aerospace Engineering from RMIT)  graduated from the Naval College as a Sub Lieutenant three days after Ted died.  For many months prior, attendance at Michael’s graduation has been Ted›s dearest wish.  Michael intends to apply to become a Naval aviator.

Of all Naval postings, Ted had most pride in his work as Director of Naval Communications 1959-1965.  During this time he studied to become a Chartered Accountant and passed with an Australia-wide prize for an essay on Inflation Accounting. Then he was posted as Commanding Officer at HMAS Rushcutter (and RANEL) and later to the Joint Staff Communications Directorate, from where he retired.

During his second career in accountancy Ted eventually became the Chief Internal Auditor of the Australian Industry Development Corporation (AIDC) from 1983 to 1990; and the Institute of Internal Auditors 1991-2002.  Ted and Jill retired to Canberra in 2002, where he voluntarily became the Treasurer for four local organisations: ACT Legacy, the Defence Force Welfare Association, the Friends of the ANU’s School of Music and the Naval Officers Club ACT Division.


His many friends, colleagues and family remember Ted Lesh as self-effacing, modest, loving and deeply attached to his family.  In summary, he asked that on the back page of his Funeral’s Order of Service the following be printed:

I am a Bear of Very Little Brain and long words Bother me.     [Winnie – the- Pooh     (A.A.Milne, 1926)]


(Mike Taylor )


The Coast Watchers

The Coast Watchers:

Behind enemy lines; the men who saved the Pacific

Book review by Jerry Lattin


the coast watchers - cover shot

Lindsay, Patrick: The Coast Watchers: Behind enemy lines; the men who saved the Pacific. William Heinemann (London) 2010; Random House Australia. 416 pp; $34.95 (paperback).


The Coast Watchers were an organised force established in the 1920s to observe and report shipping and aircraft movements visible from the coast. Its members were recruited initially from expatriate private citizens and government officials mainly in what are now PNG and Solomon Islands – then under colonial rule by Australia and UK respectively.  With the beginning of World War II, the force went on a war footing; members were given ‘protective’ military rank, and measures were put in place for them to be supported by local labour and police.

When Japan entered the war, and subsequently occupied parts of the area, the Coast Watchers became the stuff of legend. Many operated for months behind enemy lines, isolated and invisible, maintaining a flow of useful — sometimes vital — intelligence, rescuing stranded allied airmen and distressed mariners, and helping to evacuate non-combatants. Their influence on the Pacific war was considerable.

The achievements of the Coast Watchers are well recorded in official histories, and are known in outline by most people with an interest in the Pacific war. But strangely, general accounts of their achievements are recounted in only two published historical works: The Coast Watchers by Eric Feldt (1946), and Lonely Vigil: Coastwatchers of the Solomons (1977) by Walter Lord. The first of these is a general history of the organisation written by the man who largely created it, and ran it for much of the war. It is therefore unquestionably an authoritative and comprehensive history, but hardly an objective one. Walter Lord, an American popular historian, later produced a book narrower in scope than Feldt’s, confined to activities in Solomons. It is well written, entertaining and interesting. Both these works are available second hand.

Other existing works on the Coast Watchers, numbering a handful, are mostly personal memoirs, and deal with small fragments of a big picture. Most of them are now virtually unobtainable.

Patrick Lindsay’s work is therefore a most welcome and timely addition to the relatively scarce published material available on the topic. It is reasonably comprehensive, and while it breaks no new ground, it is more than a regurgitation of material already written. It sets the scene well, paints colourful pictures of characters, and devotes several opening chapters to establishing the strategic context in which events occurred.

Feldt, a graduate of the Royal Australian Naval College (RANC), had been in the first college intake in 1913. He served at sea in WW I and made Lieutenant before resigning in 1920. He joined the Australian administration in New Guinea and acquitted himself well, rising to the rank of District Officer. In April 1939, recognising that war was likely, Feldt transferred back to the RAN’s Emergency List of Officers. In August 1939, a month before war was declared, he was approached by a former RANC classmate, Lieutenant Commander R B M Long, then Director of Naval Intelligence, to revamp the existing Coast Watching organisation and put it on a war footing. Feldt jumped at the task; by September he was travelling through the islands by all available means, assessing the members of the organisation and recruiting new ones. As his deputy, he later took on board yet another classmate from the RANC: Lieutenant Hugh Mackenzie, who had been invalided out of the RAN with poor eyesight, and also worked in New Guinea as a planter. Mackenzie’s first assignment was as Naval Intelligence Officer to Lark Force, the army garrison on its way to Rabaul — and more of that later.

Essential to the organisation’s proper functioning were decent radio communications. The only practical radio option available for the task was high frequency, also known as short-wave.  Feldt gave his Coast Watchers the AWA 3B teleradio. It was robust, and its communications performance was adequate. But it was bulky. It was driven by car batteries, that had to be re-charged on a petrol-driven charger. The set itself was three one-man loads; its back-up of batteries, charger, petrol supplies, antenna equipment and necessary spares boosted its carrier requirements to between 12 and 16 men. Coast Watchers didn’t travel light.

The book describes very adequately the key elements of the war in which Coast Watchers played a part.

These included the evacuation of the defeated Australian garrison at Rabaul in January 1942, in which a Coast Watcher, Keith McCarthy, and two army officers with the Australian New Guinea Administration Unit (ANGAU — Papua and New Guinea were now under military rule) organised the escape routes and brought to safety about 450 men of the original 1400-strong force. Among the successful evacuees was Hugh Mackenzie, their Naval Intelligence Officer and Feldt’s deputy. (Virtually all of the rest never survived the war, though most were lost when their POW ship, SS Montevideo Maru, was sunk by a USN submarine.)

During the first six months of the Japanese occupation, several Coast Watchers were captured in New Ireland and New Britain. Despite their ‘protective’ military rank, nearly all were executed; only two survived the war. Execution was not confined to Coast Watchers, it was a fate met by civilians too, including missionaries — some of them from neutral countries — who stayed at their posts tending their flock. But as the war grew older, Coast Watchers became smarter. They practiced much tighter communications procedures, disguised their positions better, and were prepared to move at a moment’s notice. Few more were caught.

Central to any Coast Watcher’s history were the services rendered by Jack Read in northern Bougainville, and Paul Mason in the south. The US Marines on Guadalcanal had no carrier-based air cover, with only their P38s at Henderson Field for air defence. Japanese land forces were all around them and were reinforced almost every night; the American logistic chain was fragile and infrequent. Japanese land-based bombers were within easy range. Read and Mason between them were able to give precise details of nearly every incoming raid, in time to get the P38s airborne and high, and AA stood-to. This crucial intelligence served the Marines for several critical months, but was achieved only by Read and Mason playing cat-and-mouse to remain ahead of their pursuers. They were never caught

Hugh Mackenzie also played a key role on Guadalcanal. Several Coast Watchers were actually on the island but well beyond the Henderson perimeter. They provided accurate and timely information on enemy troop, shipping and aircraft movements that helped ensure the security of the lodgement. Their activities and radio traffic were co-ordinated by Mackenzie under his famous radio callsign KEN.

Lindsay tells these and other stories well, illuminating them from several sides and adding colour to the characters. Naturally he had to be selective in what minor events and anecdotes he included, and he missed a few that this reviewer would have thought appropriate for inclusion — but that’s just a personal view.

The author also declined a chance to break new ground. The later editions of Feldt’s book describe the second phase of the Coast Watchers’ war, when some of them became guerrillas — mainly on Bougainville and New Britain. The fact that the guerrillas took over 5400 enemy lives for the loss of only 47 Coast Watchers and support staff speaks for itself. Tellingly, Feldt commented that the necessity of pursuing these operations was debatable, since the remaining Japanese were cut off and isolated. Lindsay chose not to re-open the ethical issue raised by Feldt, though he does deal with the guerrillas.


The book is well illustrated with black-and-white photographs, mostly new to this reviewer. All maps are grouped together at the front of the book. They are generally adequate, bar one: Mason’s escape-and-evasion activities on Bougainville took him from one end of the island to the other, and are described in detail in the text. But it’s impossible to recreate them from the highly-simplified map provided of the island. Locations mentioned in the text could have been included on the map; better still, show Mason’s track. Mason’s is a gripping story, and deserved better treatment.

This book is a new release that re-tells a slice of history in fresh language and will re-awaken interest in the impressive achievements of Commander Eric Feldt OBE RAN and his team. It is highly recommended to readers with an interest in RAN history and the history of the Pacific war.