By Jonathan Brett Young

(This article was first published in NOCN 85, 1 June 2011.)

In the 1965 James Bond film Thunderball, the villain, Emilio Largo, played by the striking Adolfo Celi, with his snow white hair and black eye-patch, is attempting his getaway in the hydrofoil Disco Volante when a British frigate appears from over the horizon and, with some accurate shooting disables the vessel causing it to hit rocks at high speed. But not before 007 and the beautiful Domino (Claudine Auger — a previous Miss France), escape by jumping off  into the water to be hoisted up by a passing US Navy plane.

When the model of the Disco Volante was dynamited in this scene the explosion was so great that windows were broken in Bay St in Nassau some miles away.

But how did HMS Rothesay, a Royal Navy Type 12 frigate on the West Indies Station, come to have a bit part in the fourth James Bond film?

 “I can get you into movies”

It all started some weeks previously when one of the officers was talking to a girl in a bar in Nassau (as they do).  She was a nurse and was on the film set of the latest 007 adventure which was being shot nearby. Would he like to visit the set? Would he! He did, and found himself talking to the legendary producers Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, who immediately said “Let’s write this ship into the chase at the end”. Permission was given by the Admiralty (provided costs were met), which leaves one wondering what the going daily rate to hire a British frigate was in 1964.

 Reality meets fantasy

And that is why I, as Gunnery Officer, found myself on the GDP with a rather nervous Captain (he had just assumed command), and the Director, Terence Young. The Captain was conning the ship, which was doing 30 knots and weaving in between static camera barges and accompanied by a fleet of fast motor boats all firing machine guns and chasing the villain. And all this within three miles of land. Every now and then Terence Young would shout at me “Fire the guns NOW!”, and I would order over the Armament Broadcast: “Four Fives – Engage”.

It was at this point that reality and fantasy met head on. There was no way we could actually fire the shell: we could only fire the cartridge with the cordite propellant. There was therefore no gun recoil, necessary to eject the empty casing; and no air blast to send residue out of the barrel. These things had to be done by hand by the turret crew. There was however a very satisfying flash and clouds of yellow smoke including lots of unburnt cordite which covered the deck. As a spectacle it was all the Director could have asked for.

As in any film the Director required several takes, but after about an hour we had completed our filming and returned to Nassau where we were berthed amongst the cruise ships.

What the Admiralty made of the differing number of cartridges and shell used on our annual returns is not known. Normally they should correspond exactly.

 Sunday lunch

On the Sunday the wardroom entertained some of the cast to lunch. It was very informal, and in chatting to Sean Connery I learned that he had served in the Royal Navy as a gunnery rating. He said he would like to meet my sailors.

Sundays in harbour are a time of relaxation, and when I went down to check the gunnery messdeck it was a shambles. Kit lay everywhere; there were half-naked sailors in all states of undress lying around, all waiting to go ashore in the evening to sample the delights of this Caribbean island.

 “Get this tip sorted out”

Leading Seaman Reid was the Leading Hand in charge of the Mess, an amiable 6 ft 3 Irishman. (He was often an Able Seaman; he was regularly disrated for misdemeanours. )

I said to the sailors:  “Sean Connery wants to meet you guys — get this tip sorted out. You’ve got five minutes.”  I gave them ten, then said to Sean “Let’s go and meet the gunnery division.” As we were leaving the wardroom, Claudine Auger said “Ooh!  May I come too?”

I have said it was an informal gathering; 007 was in shorts and a shirt. However Miss France 1964 was wearing what can only be described as a very short towelling beach gown with not a lot on underneath as far as I could see.

As I descended the ladder to the messdeck I was  reminded of those old photos of messdecks in WW I battle-cruisers, where the sailors are all seated in rows at the mess tables, all neatly dressed and immaculate in appearance.

Sean Connery followed me down the ladder then Miss Auger started down. Thirty pairs of eyes locked onto those shapely legs like our gunnery radar locking onto an approaching aircraft. There was an audible sigh round the messdeck.When we were all down there was dead silence. This was broken by Leading Seaman Reid saying “Would youse like a cup of tea?” After that there was lots of excited chatter and photos taken.


The lipstick-stained cup that Miss Auger used was secured to the bulkhead afterwards as a trophy. (Sailors love trophies. Almost anything will do if it has history.)

Thunderball was released in December 1965, and for a period was the top-grossing film of all time. In terms of ‘posteriors-on-seats’ it still beats many blockbusters of more recent years.

When Rothesay returned to the UK, United Artists paid for a busload of the ship’s company, with wives and girlfriends to go up to Pinewood Studios. They watched some of the interior shots being filmed, and were entertained to lunch.

Maybe I am biased, but I still think that Sir Sean Connery — as he is now — was the best Bond of them all. He is an award-winning actor, has set up a charity to help people in Scotland, and has never forgotten his roots — even all the way back to the gunnery messdeck.

Cllaudine Auger in Thunderball Connery as Bond in Thunderball

The photographs of Sean Connery and Claudine Auger are original publicity stills for the film Thunderball, produced by United Artists.

Well, well! What have we got here?

 (This piece of whimsy was first published in NOCN 85, 1 June 2011, in a shorter version. This presentation contains material omitted from the Newsletter one for reasons of space, and in fact includes all the material received without omission.)

Very occasionally, something drops into the Naval Officers Club Newsletter’s editorial inbox that has its owner scratching his head. The collection of five pictures with this article constitute one such item. They show five views of what is apparently the same vessel from different angles; accompanied by English-language text which essentially says “This is the next Chinese aircraft carrier, of which three are now building.” (The full text, as received, is reproduced below the pictures; and it should be mentioned that the Newsletter’s assessment of the vessel based on what the pictures show doesn’t always agree with the assessment contained in the incoming text.)  The text came with no details or dimensions of the vessel, no authentication, and the website was unidentified.

The sender, a Club member who prefers to remain nameless (but whose identity is known to the Newsletter), received it from a mate in UK who found it accidentally on the net and didn’t record the site. We prowled round the two websites identifiable on the image. Nothing nautical or military was found (though one site led us to several photographs of a young lady in a swimsuit doing things with a chair). A search through  various Google and Wiki options provided plenty information on the Chinese aircraft carrier – but not this one.

The carrier everyone knows about is the former Kiev-Class, Varyag, bought unfinished by China from the Ukraine for $20m in 1988. That vessel is allegedly now very close to completion, named, slightly ominously, Shi Lang after the Chinese admiral who subdued Taiwan in the 17th century.

The aircraft carrier in the images is definitely not Varyag: it is a catamaran, has ram bows, no angled deck or ski jump, and considerable superstructure on the centreline which includes two separate islands – but how functions are spread between them is anybody’s guess.

There are two full-length runways on the outboard sides of the hulls, with a deck-park outboard of either runway for about half the ship’s length. The two inboard runways appear not to be full length. There is an area without markings in the middle of each, which may be a lift or lifts. Each inboard runway has two catapults: one fires forward; the other fires aft; jet blast deflectors in place confirm this. A variety of aircraft types are shown, but none were recognisable to the Newsletter. They inlude apparent interceptors and strike aircraft, two types of helos, and a big  four-engined AWACS.

The two hulls extend further aft below flight deck level to provide helo landing spots with roll-in access to the hangars.

Our Aviation Correspondent has reviewed the images. He says the catamaran approach may be an option for future aircraft carriers, but it won’t be this one. He was scathing about the vast amount of superstructure for practically the full length of the ship, and adamant that the aft-firing catapults are a sure sign that the designer knows nothing about naval aviation.

Comments are invited from readers on what to make of this vessel. Let us know what you think by email to The Newsletter’s current assessment is that the images come from a very creative person – or possibly a very creative team – that makes computer games.


The above pictures were received accompanied by the following text, reproduced verbatim and laid out exactly as it was received.

 Pictures of the new Chinese aircraft carriers. The catamaran design is very advanced!

 “As of 2008, Russia was believed to have been providing assistance for several years in the construction of three Chinese-designed aircraft carriers. Some analysts have thus predicted that China could have an operational carrier by 2015, while others have considered 2020 to be a more realistic time frame. No confirmed work on any shipbuilding project of any size had been observed or reported as of the end of 2008.” – from a US source.

They are currently refurbishing the Varyag, sold by Ukraine to China and is under completion in Dalian, North East China. The Varyag is a brand new, uncompleted vessel of the Soviet Union era, built by a shipyard in the Black Sea, Ukraine. The Varyag was without an engine when sold. As you have pointed out, the Varyag may be a ruse or red herring to draw the attention away from the construction of the three carriers, until the day the Chinese is ready to launch the ships!!!

The catamaran design of the Chinese carrier looks formidable and ultra-modern, provides four runways for takeoffs, two each side plus two landing runways at the front of the carrier. This has done away with the angle-deck in the old design. The catamaran or double hull provides more stability than the conventional single hull, and increases the usable deck area very considerably. The Chinese design appears more advanced and increases it “fighting capabilities” than the Orthodox model used by Western navies. I read somewhere that the Chinese navy spent more than 10 years studying the design of aircraft carriers, and now they have finally embarked on actually building their carriers.

Western intelligence thinks that China’s initial carriers are mediun size vessels, and smaller than the US nuclear powered carriers. The Chinese carrier’s deck appears much broader and may even be longer too. Let’s watch for the real vessel.

These aircraft carriers look formidable and of ultra modern design. There are reports the 1st Chinese aircraft carrier is under construction and could enter service around 2015 or earlier. It won’t be long we see the real thing. Defence analysts are waiting, watching anxiously.

I was told by a reliable source in Vancouver that at least three of the new carriers are being built. One for the Yellow Sea Command based in Quindao and one for the South China Sea Command based in Hainan, and one as a roving ambassador to show the flag around the world like what Admiral Cheng Ho did a few centuries ago. The Chinese are working 24/7/365 to get them ready. The old wreck they bought from Ukraine some years back are just for show and only serves as a ruse. As an old Chinese saying goes: ” They hang out a goat’s head but actually they are selling dog’s meat behind the counter! ” The catamaran hull design is certainly ultra modern and unconventional.


A TALE FROM THE ISLANDS … Our man on Vella Lavella – and the unexpected guests

(This article was first published in NOCN 85, 1 June 2011.)

Newsletter 84 published on 1 March 2011 contained a review of Patrick Lindsay’s new-release The Coast Watchers: Behind enemy lines, a book covering the story of the mainly-Australian irregular force which stayed behind in parts of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands occupied by Japanese forces from 1942.  These Coast Watchers provided valuable intelligence reports of enemy activity, rescued downed aviators and shipwrecked mariners, helped arrange the evacuation of non-combatants, and many of them later became guerrillas. The book review, though favourable, mentioned that in the reviewer’s opinion Lindsay had omitted several stories about the achievements of this remarkable force that were possibly worth including. This is one of those stories.

 Solomon Islands

The Solomons are a chain of mountainous islands, running south east from their most northerly member, Bougainville. For much of the chain’s 580-nautical mile (nm) length, it is in fact a double chain, with a stretch of deep navigable water between them 35 to 50 nm wide. This is The Slot, which in 1942 became the favoured route for the Japanese logistic supply line to Guadalcanal, the string of destroyers known as The Tokyo Express, in sustaining the increasingly-beleaguered Japanese land forces there.

By July 1943 Japanese forces had been ousted from Guadalcanal, but they were still well established in several places in the central Solomons, mainly in the collection of smaller islands on the southern side of The Slot known as the New Georgia Group. The Tokyo Express continued to operate to sustain these forces, and the waters of The Slot were continually disputed by the naval forces of both sides. No place on earth has seen such a sustained series of naval engagements as The Slot saw in 1942-43, and naval historians recognise 12 or 13 major battles. The allies lost four cruisers in the very first engagement, but soon the Japanese suffered heavy losses too, including two battleships.

 Coast Watchers on station

A handful of allied Coast Watchers were established around and near the New Georgia Group: there was one station on Choiseul, on the northern side of The Slot; on the southern side, one at Segi, in the south-east of New Georgia Group, and one on Vella Lavella, at the north-western end of New Georgia Group.

The Coast Watcher on Vella Lavella was LEUT Henry Josselyn RANVR, an Englishman who was formerly a District Officer in the administration of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate. Eric Feldt’s first description of him was “small, cheerful and assured”; later, he described him, with good reason, as “a pirate”. By the time this story starts, Josselyn had already experienced full-on action with the USMC: he was a guide for the Marines in the first wave of landings on Tulagi some months previously, during which action his conduct earned him the Silver Star.

As his deputy, Josselyn had an Australian, SBLT Robert Firth RANVR, a former Burns Philp accountant and ship’s purser. The remainder of the station staff are not recorded in published histories, but were almost certainly all Solomon Islanders to act as carriers, messengers and scouts, numbering probably between 15 and 30. Josselyn had established the station in mid-October 1942; Firth came along several months later.

Incredibly, there was a strong force of Japanese – 300 to 400 troops – spread over various locations on Vella Lavella, with their main base at Iringila about two miles from one of the Coast Watchers’ camps. (Josselyn moved regularly, between about four suitable locations.) It seems almost inevitable that the Japanese knew about their neighbours, and Josselyn certainly knew about his. There was no contact, but Josselyn used to cheekily scout right up to the Japanese perimeter. Once he asked his controlling station for permission to go inside to steal a pair of binoculars, explaining that he lost his in his first landing on the island; permission was promptly refused.

 The poacher

But other targets were available for Josselyn, the would-be poacher. With the number of Japanese ships being sunk by air attack as a result of the Coast Watchers’ reports, there was plenty of flotsam about. Drums of petrol and rice would obligingly float ashore; they were picked up and hidden in the jungle by the scouts. Twice, Japanese ships disabled by air attacks and abandoned by their crews, drifted near the island allowing Josselyn to indulge his flair for piracy. All available papers and documents were first collected for intelligence purposes, then it was batteries, radio equipment and parts, food, cutlery, linen, and small arms and ammunition. His camp became really comfortable, with food stocks that would last a long time. That was a stroke of luck!

 Yet another action in The Slot

On 5 July 1943 USN  TG 36.1 under RADM W L Ainsworth USN — comprising light cruisers USSs Helena, Honolulu and St Louis plus four destroyers — was directed to intercept another mission of the Tokyo Express — 10 destroyers — on its way down The Slot. Contact was made near the volcano of Kolombangara at 0106 on 6 July 1943, and the cruisers engaged at 0157. Unfortunately for Helena, she had expended all her flashless powder the previous night and had to use smokeless. This made her an excellent aiming point for the enemy. Her personal reward was three Long Lance torpedoes; the ship sank in 20 minutes. Helena was not the USN’s only loss that night: PT-109 (LTJG J F Kennedy USNR) which was engaged on a different mission against the same target, was rammed and sunk by an escaping Japanese destroyer in the aftermath. The Japanese lost two destroyers.

Helena’s sinking was within about 20 nm of Vella Lavella. Nearly 750 of her crew were rescued during the night by two US destroyers from the TG, but the rescue was interrupted by the arrival of Japanese destroyers which had to be engaged. With dawn the two US destroyers withdrew under threat of Japanese air attacks from the nearby strip at Munda. Many survivors remained in the water or on makeshift flotation devices. Fortunately the waters around the Solomons are warm, and loss of body heat was not a problem.


The survivors could see that land was a long way off; too far to contemplate reaching it by swimming. They spent all of the day and the next night in the water, except for the lucky few, mostly injured, who had been awarded places in what few rafts there were (including two that survived a drop by a Hudson bomber on 6 July). During their second night in the water, several of the survivors just slipped away or died.

 Dry land at last

Dawn on 7 July saw land much closer, and even reachable. Though most of them were oblivious to the fact, it was the eastern coast of Vella Lavella. In the afternoon, they started straggling ashore. Some were helped by Islanders in native canoes, and some made it on their own. They came ashore along the north-eastern part of the island, in two main groups.

At the time, Josselyn’s camp was at Toupalando, near the north end of the island, and close to the main Japanese camp at Iringila. Word about the survivors quickly reached the Coast Watchers’ camp by runners, and contact was made with the island chieftain, named Bamboo, with whom Josselyn had excellent rapport. Canoes were sent to look for more men in the water; sentries were posted to watch for Japanese patrols; the locals stood by to help with food and housing for the exhausted men. They were coming ashore at two main locations: at Paraso  in the north east, and near Lambu Lambu on the eastern extremity of the island. The Japanese had outposts near both places.

Word was also passed by radio to the Methodist mission station at Maravari, in the south east, where Reverend A W E Silvester remained at his post despite World War II raging all around him. Josselyn walked all night to get to Paraso, and Silvester moved to make contact with the group who had landed near Lambu Lambu. It was imperative to get the survivors off the beach and further into the interior where they would be more secure.

 A village is born

The southern group numbered 104. In dribs and drabs the locals moved them inland to a wooden shack that was the home of a Chinese trader named Sam Chung. It became a hospital for the wounded and injured. Nearby, the Islanders quickly built a roofed dwelling out of native materials that was big enough to provide shelter for the rest. The senior officer of the group, Helena’s CIC officer, was LCDR Jack Chew. He realised that he no longer had a group of castaways; he had a village. He set people to work on domestic tasks, and a daily routine developed. Food was short, but there was enough to get by. Reverend Silvester provided invaluable help with medicines and dressings and dropped by every evening; he quickly developed a close bond with Chew, and soon, with all of them. Security was the domain of Major Kelly USMC, and he selected a security detail known as Kelly’s Irregulars. Two pistols came ashore with the survivors, and Josselyn sent them a mixed bag of rifles and some ammunition; Kelly gratefully accepted them all for his small force. The Irregulars saw action too: a four-man Japanese patrol came too close; three were wiped out in an ambush, and the survivor was reluctantly executed. Later, a 20-man patrol was detected coming up the track from Lambu Lambu. Fortunately it turned back before contact.

   The northen group of survivors

There were 61 survivors in the northern group inland from Paraso. It is not known to what extent Josselyn was keeping contact with them, but it is known that he was also busy trying to co-ordinate arrangements for the pick-up of all the survivors. COMSOPAC would provide two destroyer-transports, but the mechanics of managing it at the island end were a headache. It was not possible to contemplate assembling everybody in one place for the evacuation, and the original plan was to move the groups out independently on two nights: 12 July for the northern group and 15 July for the southern. However the first date kept moving right as a result of the available USN forces having to deal with the unpredictable movements of the Tokyo Express — which was now delivering to Kolombangara, the volcano just 15 nm to the east on the other side of the gulf. Eventually it was agreed that the evacuation would be two pick-ups on one night, with the first being the northern group from Paraso at 0200 on 16 July, and the southern group subsequently.

Josselyn wasn’t told in advance, but the responsible operational authority, VADM Kelly Turner USN, was determined to ensure that there would be no enemy interference in the operation. The destroyer-transports (known as APDs) were very lightly armed. Turner allocated a close escort of four destroyers, and a support force of four more destroyers to deal with vessels coming down The Slot: the evacuation force was 10 ships in total. Turner wanted to ensure that people understood that the US Navy looked after its own.

Despite minor hiccups of late arrival (causing great anxiety to Josselyn and the evacuees) and imperfect recognition signals, the evacuation proceeded almost like clockwork.

 The pick-up at Paraso

The APD’s, USSs Dent and Waters, came as close in to shore at Paraso as could reasonably be expected. Josselyn was there in a canoe, and was the first man on board. The OTC of the two APDs was Commander John Sweeney USN; he knew Josselyn, having landed him with the marines at Tulagi a year ago. But he didn’t know there would be two pick-ups; this basic piece of information had been omitted from his orders. Don’t worry, said Josselyn; I’ll guide you there. It had been a tense few days for him. He had been moving the teleradio after every transmission, and shifting camp every night. He knew that the Japanese were getting close to the southern group.

The Paraso pick-up was from a sheltered river mouth, and proceeded very quickly using Higgins boats — a type of landing craft. There were two extra people, both downed pilots; one of them had flown a P-38 Lightning; the other had flown a Zero. It had been decided that the Zero pilot should be executed, but nobody could be found to do the job. As a compromise he was blindfolded and stripped to his underpants. (One of the gunners from Helena’s crew wore his flying suit.)

 Tense situation at Lambu Lambu

At Lambu Lambu it was also a river pick-up, but further up river; some fine navigation up and down a bendy channel in darkness was needed. Silvester had planned it well: he had Islanders standing up to chest-deep in the water to mark edges of the shallow patches. There were extra travellers here too: Sam Chung, the Chinese trader, with family and camp followers numbering about 10 in all (one report says 16).

Tension prevailed at the embarkation point: the area was subject to random patrolling by Japanese garrison troops. Kelly’s Irregulars maintained patrolling watch between the evacuees and the likely direction of threat; none developed. Gradually, as the crowd thinned, the Irregulars withdrew towards the embarkation point. As they boarded the boats, each passed his rifle and ammunition to one of the island scouts. Kelly watched the last rifle handed over, then boarded himself. LCDR Jack Chew, as senior officer, was last to leave. He conveyed his thanks to Josselyn, who he had just met, then turned to his new and close friend Silvester. He didn’t have words to convey what he felt, so this superstitious old sailor gave the Reverend the most precious thing he had, that had accompanied him everywhere most of his life: his lucky silver dollar. Silvester and Josselyn gave a last wave and faded into the jungle.

 Josselyn’s position

The bulk of this story has come from Walter Lord, who interviewed about twenty of Helena’s crew who reached Vella Lavella,  Sweeney (who commanded Dent in the pick-up), Josselyn and his deputy, Firth. But strangely, Lord’s account says little about what the two Coast Watchers were doing during the time the survivors spent on the island. One can therefore only speculate on the ethical and tactical difficulties which Josselyn had been facing throughout this saga.  He was charged with responsibility for the safety and evacuation of over 160 people from a relatively small island occupied by a considerable number of well-armed enemy troops.  It is hard to conceive that the Japanese did not know that some survivors of Helena had made it to shore, even if they did not know how many or where they were.

The very presence of such a large number of USN sailors on Vella Lavella was a threat to the security of the Coast Watchers’ station, and therefore to its primary role of intelligence collection. But the vast number of survivors must have carried such weight that their rescue became, for the time being, the station’s primary role, with intelligence collection placed on the back burner. Josselyn and Firth probably avoided contact with the survivors as far as possible, while ensuring that their charges were kept well hidden and adequately provided for. How were they fed? The islanders lived on a subsistence economy, and this number of people would have strained supplies to the limit. Perhaps Josselyn was able to dig into the cached gleanings from his poaching expeditions.

However it was that Josselyn managed things, he got it right. He employed the meagre resources at his disposal to achieve the desired result: the 165 survivors stayed secure on Vella Lavella for almost nine days, and were evacuated with none lost.

A dominant factor in the success of the operation was that Josselyn had the total loyalty and co-operation of the Islanders, without which the rescue could never have succeeded. Such devotion doesn’t come automatically: it has to be earned. Josselyn clearly had the right stuff.

Nor was this the only rescue achieved by Josselyn: Lord’s book lists a total of 118 allied airmen rescued by Coast Watchers in the Solomons campaign. Vella Lavella was involved in the rescue of 31 of them – more than any other island.


Lord (from his interview with Sweeney – by then a retired Rear Admiral) reports that as they steamed for Tulagi after the pick-up, Sweeney had wondered what motivated people like Josselyn to do what they did. He had offered him a ride to Tulagi, which Josselyn politely declined because he still had responsibilities on Vella Lavella. He offered cases of canned food to supplement his meagre ration stocks; that was declined too because the cans and packing material could reveal his position. “Can’t we do anything for you?” Sweeney asked.

Josselyn said that he could use two pairs of black socks, some Worcestershire sauce, and some confectionery. Whether he received those items is unknown – but we do know that Josselyn was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross to go with his Silver Star.



Feldt E. The Coast Watchers. Oxford University Press: London. 1946.

Lord W. Lonely vigil: Coastwatchers of the Solomons. The Viking Press, NY. 1976.


Picture and graphic captions:

Henry Josselyn 1

Lieutenant Henry Josselyn RANVR

 Vella Lavella map COMPLETE 2

Map of Vella Lavella

 USS Helena

USS Helena, CL-50. The cruiser took three torpedoes, and sank in 20 minutes in the early hours of 6 July 1943. The majority of her crew survived, and 750 were picked up by escorts before dawn.

 Rev Silvester 2

The Reverend A W E Silvester

 USS Dent  110 mm adjusted 2

Destroyer-Transport (APD) USS Dent, which, with USS Waters, evacuated the survivors of USS Helena from Vella Lavella.Two Higgins Boats can be seen on the port side of the superstructure, just abaft of midships.

 Tokyo Express V2

Aerial seascape with clouds; line of four destroyers just discernible only from their prominent wakes. The Tokyo Express on the job

THE WAY IT WAS: Anecdotal reflections on HMAS Nirimba, 1984-1987


Anecdotal reflections on HMAS Nirimba, 1984-1987

By Ralph Derbidge

(This article was first published in NOCN 85, 1 June 2011.)

Around the time HMAS Nirimba, the RAN’s former apprentices’ training establishment in Quakers Hill NSW, closed in 1993, I was invited to contribute about six lines on any particular incident of note that I recalled from my time in command of that great training establishment, for publication in the magazine of a local association of which I was a member.

I replied that there were many memorable moments that qualified, but I found it difficult to pick one for publication. I therefore gave them my compendium of memorable moments, and invited them to make a selection.

 Noise warfare

The first Promotion and Graduation Dance I attended in the Apprentices Dining Hall was on 21 September 1984, when the Kamikaze Kats band forced me to slip out to the CO’s residence and then return after a brief absence with ear plugs firmly in place to prevent further damage to this old Gunnery Officer’s already impaired hearing.

 Off the top of the head

The first Debutante Ball I attended by invitation with my wife was on 21 July 1984 at the Wentworthville Leagues Club when 12 well-groomed Apprentices were the escorts to the debs and where I was introduced during the proceedings, without any prior notice, as the keynote after-dinner speaker.

Similarly, on 24 November 1984, when I arrived at the annual HMAS Parramatta Commemoration Service at the Parramatta Sub-Section of the Naval Association of Australia memorial in that fair city to take my seat among the principal guests and then be handed a programme which, to my surprise,  listed me to give the Occasional Address (ah, the power of ad libbing!).


The lost admiral

One day in 1986 the Chief of Naval Staff arrived by helicopter to open the  Biennial Supply Conference being held in the establishment.  The CO’s car had been assigned to meet the Admiral at the landing zone on one of the old airfield runways but the driver had been misdirected to the Front Gate and then to the Wardroom. I was taken aback, when waiting to greet the Admiral at the entrance to the Training Centre, to find him alighting, obviously displeased, from the First Lieutenant’s rather dilapidated utility truck.

Gamlen sniffers?

One Saturday night I was called from my residence by a very disturbed Officer of the Day to one of the Apprentices’ blocks to find a worrying and eerie situation on the grass surrounds not dissimilar to the Atlanta railyard casualties scene in the movie Gone With The Wind.  There, laid out in various stages of distress, were numerous Apprentices having inhaled toxic fumes which had been generated by an inappropriate Gamlen detergent product used incorrectly that evening to clean up the bathroom spaces.  All of the Apprentices recovered without ill effects.

Pilot training?

Perhaps the most enduring memory of all was being called again at my residence on a dark Sunday night on 10 November 1985 to be informed that a helicopter had just crashed on the playing fields near the Sportmen’s Club.  It turned out to be an historic Sioux helicopter which had been part of a static display at the 1985 Schofields Air Show held earlier that day.  Sure enough, I arrived down at the scene to find the scattered remains of a helicopter strewn across the field illuminated by the glare of vehicle headlights.  There is much more to this story, of course, but it was somewhat alarming to learn at the time that this uncertified, unlicenced aircraft had been started and lifted off the ground by an inebriated and unqualified sailor who was determined to show that the aircraft could fly.  He staggered away from the wreck unscathed.

 The terpischoreans

Then, again, perhaps it was the night of 18 June 1986 when a troupe of 28 Apprentices gave a sparkling interlude of entertainment by performing a specially choreographed and much rehearsed version of the Sailors’ Hornpipe to the excellent accompaniment of the Naval Support Command Band at the RAN 75th Anniversay Ball held in the Town Hall, Sydney.  As a result, I was moved to inform the Apprentice body that ‘whereas a lot of sailors can do most things, Apprentices can do anything and everything!’.

 First lady

I gained significant satisfaction from accompanying the Reviewing Officer around the 93rd Passing Out Parade on 20 June 1986 which was under the command of a female (Apprentice Warrant Officer ETC Kathryn L Carlisle W137103) for the first time in the 30 year history of HMAS Nirimba.

Lady Penrhyn loses buoyancy

Another recollection was the personal loss felt by my wife, Megan, on learning that the Sail Training Yacht Lady Penrhyn of Nirimba (which she had christened) had been involved in a collision on Sydney Harbour with a privately owned yacht Camber on 9 July 1986 and had sunk (fortunately without casualties) in position 090 degrees Robinsons Point Light 4.5 cables.  Her spirits were lifted two days later when the yacht was raised, salvaged and returned to HMAS Nirimba for repairs.

The dark side of the force

Then there was the uncovering of the small misguided coterie of ouija-board-operating and black-ninja-dressed Apprentices who had been catwalking around the rooftops and menacing the WRANS quarters in the dark of night and who broke in twice to the K-Mart store in Castle Hill on successive Saturday nights.  They came unstuck when trying to ‘fence’ stolen electrical goods (stashed in the old deserted pig farm area) to other Apprentices at dirt cheap prices.

 Pilot training: reprise?

On 18 April 1985, when I was absent on duty from the establishment and Dakota C-47 N2-90 (The Last Plane From Quakers Hill!) was taxied on trial out of HMAS Nirimba to Schofields Aerodrome by a couple of ‘cowboys’ from HMAS Albatross and a ‘volunteer’ RAAF Flying Officer as pilot.  The Dakota, a favourite training aid at our Air Engineering School (AES) over many years, had been brought to a flying condition by the patient and dedicated efforts over the previous year by the dwindling staff of the AES under the expert eye of Lieutenant D I MacMillan RANEM.  Without approval, and in an unlicenced and uncertified aircraft, the ‘cowboys’ found that the bird was capable of gathering flying speed, chanced their luck, lifted off and flew the plane to the infant Naval Aviation Museum at NAS Nowra.  I was furious at the time, particularly over the  lost PR opportunity.  Moreover, this was as close to a hi-jacking as you could get, but the incident gained ‘retrospective’ blessing from higher authorities!


The foregoing episodes are just a handful of my recollections of the multi-faceted dimensions and magic of HMAS Nirimba that I had the privilege to experience while in command over the period 1984-1987.

What have you done for HMAS Nirimba today