Captain FN Cook DSC RAN – A Fortunate Naval Career in WW2

Frederick Norton Cook joined the Royal Australian Naval College as a Cadet Midshipman in 1919.LeutF Cook Ceremonial adj picasa BW crop

In 1936 he served as Flag Lieutenant to the Fleet Commander, Rear Admiral WTR Ford CB, onboard HA/L4S Canberra and on promotion to Lieutenant Commander in 1936 he was posted to the destroyer HMAS Waterhen as First Lieutenant, Executive and Gunnery Officer. In 1938 he was sent to England and posted to the battleship HMS Royal Oak where his duties included Commander’s Assistant, 4″ H.A. Control Officer and Mate of the Upper Deck.

In the early hours of Saturday 14 October 1939 he was asleep in his cabin when the ship, at anchor in Scapa Flow, Orkneys, was hit by four torpedoes from a U-boat that had penetrated the Fleet anchorage. The Royal Oak went down in minutes with the loss of 810 men. Wat happened that night is graphically related in a letter he wrote to his younger brother, Bill Cook, who joined RANC in 1930, and was serving onboard HMAS Perth in Australian waters.

(Contributed by Reinier Jessuran)




  1. XI.39

My Dear Old Bill

I feel I have so much to tell you. I was very touched at the trouble you took to find out about me. Thank you very much for the kind wireless message. Bill you are an uncle once more. Your niece arrived last Saturday 4th Nov at 3 pm. She weighs 8 lbs. Is very fair, in fact the hair is a bit gingery and has blue eyes. We are very proud of her and thank God. Both are none the worse for the very nasty shock Bettie got when at 1 pm on Saturday 14th she received her first news about the “Oak” over the wireless while she was quietly knitting and waiting for lunch. It said “R.O” had been sunk & so far there are 15 survivors (these had swum ashore). It was not until 4 pm that my telegram arrived so the 3 hour wait was pretty good hell for the Darling. I wish the wireless would realize that all this sensational immediate news that arm chair critics must have always hurts the poor wretched affected ones like the devil & often quite unnecessarily.

Bill you’re dying to know my story and now I feel I can write it to you but on a separate page in case some of my and your friends in the ship might be interested. It might contain one or two Tips worth passing on – gained from my bitter experience. Thank God I am on leave at the moment, have been for nearly 3 weeks, and needed it. The reaction set in last week and the local Doctor who was attending Bettie put me to bed and gave me a tonic. I was allowed up after 3 or 4 days and have been taking things quietly but am perfectly fit again now and sleep very well. The arrival of the child who is a really healthy little person and Bettie’s marvellous recovery have made me a new man. I can’t speak too highly of your sister-in-law. She has been perfectly marvellous. All remark on it. She looked after me when I was sick and the day I got up I walked with her to the nursing home. Two days later Venetia Bonham Norton entered the world with a squeak which lifted worry off my shoulders. Bill I’ve had scores of kind letters from people I didn’t think would remember me. Capt. Harcourt, Lord Gifford, Capt. C.J.Pope, Tony Smallwood, Measles, Guinius Tanners, MacNicoll, Dowling and Eric Mayo (my term) & a letter from Bill Cook written 13th Oct 1939. You didn’t realise that allowing for the time zone your ugly old brother was swimming for dear life as you wrote.

At 01:05 AM Sat 14 Oct, (Just missed Friday 13th GMT by 5 minutes) like all off duty I was asleep in my cabin – No. 13 (on the other side of course) I woke up feeling a terrific bump and the old ship shook for all the world like a destroyer when a depth charge is let go at slowish speed. I, still in pyjamas went out into the flat asking what had caused the bump to make sure I hadn’t been dreaming, when having confirmed it I went to put on the 0600 rig & went up on the Q.D. out of curiosity. The lights below decks were still on & there were no pipes. No one realized any of the explosions were caused by torpedoes at the time as we were at anchor. I suppose I got on deck at 0110 & the OOW & most officers were trying to work out where the explosion had taken place. Our first thoughts were that a bomb had been dropped in the water near us. The ship did not list then or appear to get lower in the water. Our constant air lookouts, 1 officer + 12 soon disproved this theory. By this time we knew the explosion was not aft but forward and the faint smell of paraffin or petrol which we got aft made us all think that there had been an explosion in the Inflammable Store forward.

The 2nd explosion came 10 or 12 minutes after the 1st and was followed in quick succession by a 3rd & 4th each getting near aft and last, I saw. It sent up a dense cloud of black smoke just before & higher than the mainmast & on the Q.D. we ducked to miss falling debris. This must have been at about 0117. “R.O” started to heel over to stbd very suddenly after the 2nd 3rd & 4th explosions (stbd side). That was the 1st indication that we had that she was sinking. My job was Mate of the Upper Deck & boats so I had no cause to go below thank God. When I say that she had disappeared at about 0128 you’ll understand there was no time to launch boat. Power went off with the 2nd exp – & loud speakers. The crane & main derrick were useless. It was very dark- a few stars. The 2 seaboats are the only 2 on davits & they were turned in always to open the arcs of the 4” AA guns. One night boat being a whaler hooked on the crane. I with a party of officers and men tried desperately to launch the gig which was on the Q.D. but it was hopeless in about 3 minutes you couldn’t stand on the deck, she heeled too far. I remember I fell, crawled to the upper guard rails (Port). Kicked off seaboats, M.J. & trousers, walked on the Port Side to Port accom ladder, went hand over hand down the standing Topping lift. Men all round were plopping into the water. To my horror the port outer screw & shaft came out of the water suddenly beneath me. I couldn’t get back so let go & slid down the side (Too far to jump clear) & by the grace of God went between the shaft & the ship over the barnacles. One hand was cut about a bit but the pyjama trousers & socks did their stuff. I was so amazed when I found myself in the water unhurt that I can’t remember gasping at its coldness. The Tanky told me afterward it was 49 F (17 above freezing). Once I got clear of the ship & other swimmers I remember grabbing every chip of wood I could find – too small to hold onto – I put them up the front on my “jumper”, a sweater to be exact. I had struggled out of the pyjama trousers by this time. They acted like a life belt (Hint No 1).

I was swimming towards the drifter that had been attached to us (a Peterhead Herring Drifter) which luckily got clear of the ship. In the dark she couldn’t slip her lines, was lifted by our blister but by going full astern slipped back into the water. I determined not to over exert the old body by swimming fast but to concentrate on keeping afloat (Hint No 2).

I held on to one or two small pieces of flotsam, at one time an old stool – probably from a workshop – but I couldn’t push that through the water so abandoned it for a thin 1”  plank 5 feet x about 9” that was fine but after about 20 minutes I was feeling pretty numb. My great horror was that the Drifter “Daisy” would move off in the darkness. The tide and breeze force were taking her further from the ship & as she was hauling in men I presume she didn’t want to get closer – afraid of getting in her screw in the darkness I can remember that a heaving line being thrown at me!!!! I held it somehow & they pulled me in. Fraid I couldn’t help ‘em. I’d been in the water nearly 40 minutes. I had the worst splitting headache, we all did. My only possessions were my life, a wristwatch (oyster & still going) & a sweater. When I thawed a little (it was too crowded to get into the Blr or engine room) I asked the skipper if he had any rockets or very lights or a flashing lamp to let people know where we were. He had none so I told him to make a S.O.S. on the whistle. I found out after that the launch (full of men) had been pushed under at the boom by the foretop! when it submerged & that the P.B. at the other boom was so full of men in the darkness that she sank. Off my own bat I had put lines round all our pulling boats (loops like merchant ship’s boats) Hint No 3. As none of our boats got away properly I can only hope people made use of the lanyards. Several apparently were free & overturned.

Till 0300 we helped to drag chaps in until we were all “windy” for the stability of the Daisy. We must have had practically 300 of the 370 odd survivors. Although in the Flow we were about 8 miles from the majority of the ships with one exception. We went there in Daisy & got some few clothes. Then onto a transport at 0600. This ship was “bombed”, but missed on the Monday at 7.30 am. Tuesday we were damned glad to get over to the mainland in the little ferry steamer. On Tuesday at 8 pm we left in a special train for the south & leave & damn me if the train wasn’t bumped by another & 2 more of our chaps were hurt. We certainly had a bad spin. Now those tips Bill which God forbid you’ll use but only fools discount the possibility that their ship might be a total loss.

Hint No 4. Keep a 2 lb hammer or billet of wood under your bunk for scuttle clips.

  1. I have already ordered a Gieves waistcoat for you, some days ago, but as Gieves has some hundreds to make you’ll have to wait a bit – No don’t thank me – it’s your account. Wear it when necessary – anyhow it will be a comfort in the cabin. Mine had not arrived worse luck, anyhow make a life belt of sorts.
  2. Send all your things of value ashore, flimsies, policies, photographs, address book, presents & all plainclothes except a tropical suit & grey bags. You do wear them here even if you come over. If you all land things at the same port the Navy will make arrangements about their recovery if they are requested to.

Doubtless you keep the same anti-submarine precautions in harbour as at sea. I hope you have light secluding ventilators. Both in “Courageous” & “R.O.” the majority of survivors were the older people – perhaps they kept their heads better. So that point is essential.

All Carley floats must be in the most accessible places & fitted with slips not secured by lanyards even, as men do not carry knives at 0100 & the Carleys although mostly on the ship’s side couldn’t be freed in the 3 or 4 short minutes. Well Bill, this is the longest letter I’ve ever written you. Hope it doesn’t bore you. Leo I believe is home in Sydney. Vee sent us a telegram congratulating us on the arrival of Venetia.

Don’t let this note upset you in any way. “It may never happen” but there is nothing wrong with being prepared, it gives one a sense of security & leaves one better able to do ones job.

Tell Charles Reid we have heard from Kath just 2 days ago. She is very well & happy.

Remember me to all my friends in your ship especially the Captain, Charles Reid, Ken Watson, Braces & all the others.

Best of luck to you Bill & all in “Perth”.

Yours Fred

Bettie particularly sends her love & Best Wishes – also Venetia.

[For historical information – Edward Gibbon wrote the “Fall and Decline of the Roman Empire” at the Manor House, Buriton, Hants. – When my parents stayed in the house it was owned by Lieut. Col Algernon Bonham-Carter – relation of the actress.   Venetia B.N. Jones- daughter of FN Cook]

HMS Royal Oak 1939

scapaflow1939 chart U47 incursion 300-80 (2)

Fred Cook’s subsequent service in WW2

On completion of survivors leave Lieutenant Commander Cook was posted to the cruiser HMS CURLEW as Second in Command and Executive Officer. Soon after the famous British destroyer attacks on the German destroyers in Narvik 10 to 13 April 1940, CURLEW was sent to participate in the Norwegian Campaign which lasted 6 gruelling weeks from 9 April to 27 May 1940. From 22 to 26 May the ship was at action stations and under continuous surveillance by ‘snooper’ aircraft. The Huns made a determined effort to get rid of CURLEW with bombers attacking in waves. The ship responded with gunfire but by 26 May their ammunition ran out.  The events of this time were described in an article by Cook reporting ‘My Service in HMS CURLEW 1939-1940’ published in the Naval Officers Club Newsletter Number 100 dated 1 March 2015. CURLEW was hit by a stick of 3 bombs on 26 May 1940 and the ship sank. Thereby Lieutenant Commander Cook was sunk for the second time in seven months.

Cook was promoted to Commander and his next posting was to establish and command a commando training base at the mouth of the Hamble in Southampton Water which he named HMS TORMENTOR. In mid-January 1942 he was appointed naval commander for the highly secret Operation Biting better known as the Bruneval Raid. This raid was of vital importance in many ways. Firstly British scientists were very keen to better understand the operational capabilities of new German radars and identified an installation in Bruneval from which they hoped to raid and obtain material. Second, Lord Mountbatten who had recently been appointed head of Combined Operations wanted a victory to offset the many recent disasters and boost British morale. Thirdly Churchill wanted to put into action the newly formed parachute commandos. The plan was to parachute commandos with radar technicians into France close to Bruneval, dismantle the radar and bring it and the men back to England by sea.F.Cook with Admiral Sir William (Bubbles) James at HMS Tormentor

Cook was responsible for planning and commanding the sea operations for Operation Biting. Training was carried out in strict secrecy and encountered many difficulties. On the night of the raid HMS Prinz Albert, a Belgian passenger ship that had been requisitioned by the RN after the fall of Belgium in 1940, carried 6 Assault Landing Craft (ALC) and two Support Landing Craft, and was accompanied by six fast moving MTBs. Fifteen miles off the coast the landing craft were unloaded and made their way, with Cook embarked, to a position 1 ½ miles offshore accompanied by the MTBs. This was a tense time especially when two German single funnel destroyers and two E boats were sighted moving down the coast about a mile further out to  sea. Fortunately they moved on towards Le Havre. Waiting off shore Cook was puzzled as no communication had been received as scheduled from the beach and time was of the essence if the raiding party was to be collected and well away from the coast by daylight. Meanwhile the raiding party, having been successful in obtaining the radar parts, was fighting to maintain the beachhead and waiting for the navy while concerned about the arrival of German reinforcements. An emergency flare finally alerted the naval force and instead of two landing craft at a time going into the beach all six landed together. Amongst some confusion most of the raiders were evacuated and the radar parts transferred to an MTB. The naval force was then escorted by destroyers and spitfires as they returned to England. Much publicity was given to the success of the raid and public morale given a boost.

F.Cook in LCT

Shortly before Cook died, he wrote about the raid and it was published by The Naval Historical Society of Australia Inc. as Monogram 57 printed in 1997.  This booklet is entitled OPERATION “BITING” THE NAVAL STORY OF THE BRUNEVAL RAID 27/28 FEBRUARY 1942. The Bruneval raid and the lead up to it encompassing the discovery, development and use of radar and the establishment of airborne forces is told by Taylor Downing in his book Night Raid – The True Story of the First Victorious British Para Raid of WW11 published in 2013.

Commander Cook was awarded a DSC for conducting the naval operations of Operation Biting. Later in 1942 he returned to Australia and established a commando training base at Port Stephens called HMAS ASSAULT. From late in 1943 he served in HMAS HOBART as Executive Officer operating in Cebu, Tarakan, Wewak, Brunei and Balikpapan and was in Japan for the surrender on 2 September 1945. After WW11 he commanded HMAS ARUNTA 1947-49, then was promoted Captain and commanded HMAS BATAAN 1949-50 operating in Japan. His following appointments were Naval Attaché in Washington 1951-53 (Korean War), Captain of the Port of Sydney 1953-56, Naval Officer in Charge Northern Australia 1956-58 and CO HMAS PENGUIN 1958-60. He retired after 41 years’ service, including 10 years with the Royal Navy, on 19 February 1960. Captain ‘Freddie’ Cook died on 1 August 1985.

I am most grateful to Rhod Cook (son of Bill Cook) and to Venetia Jones (daughter of Freddie Cook) for the privilege of reading this letter and seeing the great bond between the brothers.  I wish to thank them for allowing this letter to be published and for the information they have provided about their fathers. 


SpyFuchs cover

By Mike Rossiter

Reviewed by Kevin Rickard

It was just before dawn in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945 when a bright flash filled the pre-dawn with a penetrating daylight.  Next there was a huge shock wave as a great purplish column rose up into the sky, then there was a blast, duller than thunder.  The first atomic bomb explosion had just occurred.  Project Manhattan had succeeded.  The atomic arms race had begun and with it the Cold War.


Among the onlookers at the Los Alamos explosion was a brilliant German mathematician and theoretical physicist, Emil Julius Klaus Fuchs, DSc(Edin), PhD(Bristol).  Fuchs and his theoretical physics colleagues had calculated the exact shape and size of the assembly on top of the tower for the release of the energy in the atoms of plutonium such that a huge explosion would result.

This was all the expression of the science of nuclear physics.  A science barely 50 years old and based on the pioneering work on radiation and the structure of atoms by the New Zealander, Ernest Rutherford, at the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge, England and Madame Marie Curie in Paris, France.

Fuchs was a refugee from Nazi Germany where he had studied mathematics at the universities of Leipzig and Kiel.  There he became involved in student politics and joined the German Communist Party (KPD).  He eventually fled Germany, spent time in Paris, where he met his future wife, Grete Keilson, and found his way to Britain in 1933.  There, as a refugee, he was treated most kindly be British Academia.

Fuchs subsequently worked on British atomic research activities and was selected to be a member of the British team in New York working on the Manhattan Project.  There he began passing information about the atomic project to his handler, Harry Gold, who then passed this crucial information onto Soviet Russia.  Fuchs continued with similar espionage activities on his  return to Britain.   Ultimately, even secrets regarding the development of the hydrogen bomb, were passed on to the Soviets.  Dr. Klaus Fuchs was involved in espionage for the Soviets for more than a decade in both Britain and the U.S.  He could justifiable be called ‘the spy who changed the world’.

Mike Rossiter’s book on Fuchs is a gripping story of betrayal, intrigue, security service ineptitude and a confession, which eventually led to the final conviction of Fuchs at the Old Bailey.  Truth, however, is stranger than fiction and the account of Fuchs’ life and activities may be likened to a story penned by the Cold War storyteller, John le Carre.


Fuchs was born in Russelsheim in the Duchy of Hesse in December 1911, the son of a Lutheran pastor.  He grew up in Germany during the turmoil of the First World War.  In Britain he gained his PhD in Physics for a thesis on “Why the Resistance of a Wire Changes with Alterations in Electrical Current”.  He had become involved with Matrix Algebra to explain probabilities and the behaviour of sub-atomic particles.  He was also involved in studies of the theories of Quantum Mechanics and received a Doctorate in Science from the University of Edinburgh.

His application for British citizenship was dealt with in a rather unfortunate and haphazard manner but he did receive support from the British Academic Assistance Council.  It was probably at this time when he really slipped through the net.  He was granted British citizenship in August 1942 and signed the official Secrets Act but soon after was in contact with the Soviet Embassy in Britain.

At the university of Birmingham he worked on the “tube alloys” program, the British pseudonym for their atomic bomb research project. At Columbia University in New York, Fuchs worked on gaseous diffusion as a means of uranium enrichment for the Manhattan Project.  By 1944 he was in the theoretical division at Los Alamos.  Fuchs’ area of expertise was theory related to imploding the fissionable core of the plutonium bomb.  The bombs that killed 80,00 people in Hiroshima and 70,000 people in Nagasaki were created by nuclear fission – or splitting the atom!  With Hans Bethe, Fuchs began work on bombs caused by nuclear fusion where the nucleus of atoms of light elements like hydrogen and helium were joined together.  Then it was on to the classical super bomb using deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, – thus the hydrogen bomb.  One way or another Fuchs passed most of these secrets on to the Russians through Gold in New York, who was executed in Sing Sing prison in 1953.  Fuchs insisted that these atomic secrets be on the desk of the Soviet Atomic Agency “Enormoz” within a few days of the US reception.  This was achieved through the help of the notorious NKGB Head, Laventry Beria.

It is not surprising that when Truman was in Berlin for the Potsdam Conference in July 1945 and told Stalin the uranium 235 fuelled “Little Boy” would be ready for use against Japan, the Russian dictator showed no particular interest.  Fuchs’ treachery had forewarned him.  Fuchs attitude all along was, the more useful he was to Britain, the more valuable he was to the Soviet Union.


The pursuit of Fuchs by MI5 displays much about the inertia and lassitude of the British security agencies.  One agent, Michael Serpell, had produced a well-organized case against Fuchs but this report was conveniently ‘shelved’.  Serpell was shunted to a colonial posting and nothing further was heard.  An authority at Harwell said “the advantages gained to Harwell through the ability of Dr. Fuchs outweigh his slight security risk”!

By late 1949 Fuchs was well and truly under suspicion.  The police was following him and agents of MI5 were on the case, especially ‘Jim’ Skardon who met Sir John Cockcroft at Harwell.  Soon after Cockcroft advised Fuchs that he would need to leave Harwell.  Fuchs toyed with Skardon and others because of their lack of facts about his clandestine activities.

It was not MI5 that finally uncovered the extent of Fuchs’ betrayal but Fuchs himself when he confessed to his lover, Emma Skinner, the wife of a colleague.  Fuchs’ definitive confession took place at the War Office in Whitehall in the presence of an MI5 technical expert in January 1950.  MI5 legal advisers believed there was a case to answer!  Accordingly security services requested the Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, to forward the relevant documents to the Director of Public Prosecutions.


Fuchs trial was held at the Old Bailey in February 1950 presided over by a rather vindictive Lord Chief Justice, Lord Goddard.  Fuchs pleaded guilty.  Finally Goddard, in sentencing Fuchs, mentioned he was lucky not be fund guilty of treason which carried the death penalty.  Instead Fuchs was found guilty of betrayal of political asylum, of national secrets and the work of many other scientists.  Goddard passed a sentence of 14 years imprisonment on Fuchs with a non-parole period of 9 years.

Fuchs left Stafford prison in June 1959 and flew to Schonfield in East Germany.  He married Greta Keilson, his lover from Paris days.  But he was always under the suspicion of the Stasi.  Nevertheless, he became a privileged member of the German Communist Party and eventually the Director of the East German Atomic Research Institute in Dresden.  He died in Germany in 1988, aged 76 years.  It is ironic that considerable information about Fuchs’ story in MI5 and FBI files relating to Fuchs still remains heavily censored.  By 1955, the US had over 2000 nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union had about 200 and Britain just a few.  Nations were stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.  In 1955 the bespectacled boffin, Fuchs was behind bars, serving 14 years and sewing mailbags.

Rossiter’s book contains much information of both an historical and technical nature and follows one scientist’s progress along with his acts of betrayal and utter contempt for those who generously helped him.  The story answers many of the questions about Fuchs, the shy, notorious man who spied for Russia.  Perhaps the chronological details of the tale could have been better marshaled but the book is written in a presentable style about events which took place during the tumultuous years from the defeat of Hitler and the Nazis to the start of the Cold War.



byTom de Voil, Nicholson VICDuchess%20at%20sea%20with%20Sydney

I was MEO of HMAS Duchess in 1972 and we were secured alongside in the Stores Basin in Singapore when it was similarly busy.  We decided to hold an Engineering Departmental banyan on Seletar Island that Saturday afternoon.  Seletar Island was an uninhabited island in Johore Strait a few kilometres east of the Naval Base, near RAF Seletar Base – a strip of sand with a few palm trees and a couple of basic structures.

We successfully ferried all the troops, victuals and BBQ using the ship’s tinny to the island.  It was a pleasant afternoon and as evening approached we started ferrying people and goods back.  On the second last trip the Chief Tiff took charge saying he would return for us in a few minutes.  There were about four of us who could not fit into the previous trip.

We waited, and waited and waited!

Finally, we hailed a passing canoe – one of those with a powerful engine on one end of a long boom balanced by the propeller on the other.  We sped off towards the Naval Base and soon, silhouetted by the setting sun we spied our tinny.  Ahead of it was a small blob in the water.  As we drew closer we were able to discern the head of our Chief Tiff, swimming towards shore with the boat’s painter in his mouth.  We pulled alongside, all piled in and found out that the outboard had jumped off the transom.  It was too heavy for him to recover.  We pulled up the floor boards and started paddling for home.

As we entered the Stores Basin “Sunset” was piped!  It seemed as if the eyes of every ship’s OOD and Bosun’s Mate were fixed on us (they probably were) and we had nowhere to hide.  So ended the Banyan.


The 1965 HMAS Yarra Mysterious Diver Incident

By Hector Donohue

The following description of a little known incident onboard Yarra during Confrontation is taken from the recently published book ‘United and Undaunted – the First 100 Years’, a history of Diving in the RAN 1911 – 2011, by EW Linton and HJ Donohue.

The Indonesia – Malaysia Confrontation (Konfrontasi) was fought from 1962 to 1966 between the British Commonwealth and Indonesia. Under President Sukarno, Indonesia sought to prevent the creation of the new Federation of Malaysia that emerged in 1963, whilst the British Commonwealth sought to safeguard the security of the new state. The conflict raged for more than two years along the borders between the two countries from Sebatik Island off the east coast of Sabah to Penang in the Malacca Strait. From Tanjong Datu at the western extremity of Sarawak to the Indian Ocean, this border was delineated on the sea.

Although Malaysia was a sovereign state, it was only months old at the time the Indonesians launched their attacks by land sea and air.  Since Britain, Australia and New Zealand had defence agreements with the new federation, and had established bases in both Malaya and Singapore, it was the British who provided the leadership and a significant proportion of the forces engaged in repelling the Indonesians. Australia also played its part, with the air base at RAAF Butterworth near Penang providing air defence and maritime surveillance and the Australian infantry battalion and SAS troop at Camp Terendak near Malacca eventually committed to the land fighting in Borneo. But from Day One it was the ships and men of the RAN who were in the front line. Naval commitments included the destroyers and frigates assigned to the Far East Strategic Reserve, visits by the carrier HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Sydney on trooping voyages, but the major patrol and surveillance load fell on the small ships of the 16th Minesweeping Squadron.


The combined headquarters for Confrontation were established in Singapore, and command was delegated for all forces to the British Commander-in-Chief Far East.  All RN, RAN and RNZN ships and personnel were under the operational command of the Commander Far East Fleet (COMFEF), with his headquarters in the extensive naval base on the northern coast of Singapore Island, reached via the Johore Strait. At one point, COMFEF had more than 80 ships under his command, ranging from aircraft carriers to patrol boats and submarines.

The comparative ease with which Indonesian infiltrators could, potentially, enter Singapore across the narrow Singapore Strait from the Indonesian Riau Archipelago, together with the existence of active anti-British and anti-Malaysian elements in the city, meant that the threat of attack on ships in the Naval Base and those moored in Johore Strait was commensurately high. While the landward approaches were secured and the water boundaries patrolled, assault by underwater swimmer was always possible. Under these circumstances, Commonwealth ships took precautionary measures – Operation Awkward, and the RAN deployed for the first time its Mobile Clearance Diving Team (MCDT) to Singapore.

Generally there was at least one clearance diver onboard each of the major fleet units deployed to Southeast Asia during the period. While the ships divers could undertake ships bottom searches, the CD was there to deal with anything found and provide experienced diving support. The RAN MCDT embarked in HMAS Melbourne in February 1965 to join with the RN’s Far East Diving Team, to assist in providing a ready reaction diving capability which might be required from RN or RAN units operating in the region.

On arrival, the integration of the RAN team with the British was accomplished quickly and with little difficulty, as both used similar methods and techniques. Located in the Naval Base, the combined group formed two teams to operate as directed by COMFEF. Principally, they maintained the capability of responding to underwater incidents in the vicinity of the base which were beyond the capabilities and experience of ships’ divers, such as the discovery of ordnance attached to hulls.

There was, however, a more serious incident in the frigate HMAS Yarra on the night of 4 June 1965 whilst berthed in the Stores Basin at the Naval Base. It was described as ‘the extraordinary affair of the missing diver’ in the frigate’s Report of Proceedings for that month. At the time Captain B H Loxton was in command with Lieutenant Commander J H Snow, the Executive Officer.

Yarra 3B

HMAS Yarra

Yarra had closed up in modified Awkward State 3 at 1800 in accordance with the current practice and around 2100 the after sentry sighted bubbles aft. He reported to the Officer of the Day and a check was made of all underwater discharges which found that the bubbles did not emanate from the ship, and it was concluded the bubbles were from a diver using compressed air breathing apparatus. (Later that night a trial was carried out with a ships diver producing exactly the same effect.) At 2115, the forward sentry saw bubbles abreast the bridge. Grenades and scare charges were dropped at each of the forward and after areas and the bubbles ceased. The ship went to the highest state of watertight integrity and ships divers conducted a bottom search, but nothing was found.

The next morning the ship’s divers conducted a follow-up bottom search and on completion, two of the ships divers, EM C S Harkennes and ORD QMG D M Bowman, were instructed to carry out a sweep of the sea bed under the ship. At 0720 they surfaced and reported sighting the body of a diver dressed conventionally in a diving suit, face mask and underwater breathing apparatus. The body was resting on the bottom in a crouched-over position. No sign of life was evident. Bowman later said he thought there might have been a large explosive charge in the vicinity of the body. The ship then prepared to move with the aid of a tug.  Some 20 minutes later divers re-entered the water in an effort to re-locate the body, but the tug closed the ship stirring up the water, and nothing was found.

The Royal Navy’s Far East Fleet Clearance Diving Team then took over the task. Despite three hours of searching they encountered nothing unusual. In the absence of anything being found, it was decided not to move the ship. One explanation for the absence of the body was the possibility that it had been propelled from under the ship into the Johor Strait after a tug sent to assist the relocation of Yarra used a ‘large amount of engine power’ in the adjacent water.

Meanwhile, both of the divers who had seen the body were closely questioned by the Diving Officer (Sub Lieutenant Don Chalmers) to confirm their initial report. Harkennes’s observations of the body over 90 seconds from about a metre away included a full description of the foreign diver’s dress and equipment. When asked was he certain he saw a dead human with diving gear he responded:

I am sure I saw a person with diving gear on; whether he was lying ‘doggo’ or dead I’m not certain, but it was definitely a human being. I came to the conclusion that he was dead because there was absolutely no movement and no bubbles.

Yarra in its signalled report immediately after the incident concluded that ‘After intensive investigation of my divers I consider they sighted a diver beneath Yarra and that diver was not of friendly origin’. Following a review of Yarra’s report on the incident in Navy Office, Commander MS Batterham (the RAN’s then diving expert) concluded that there was little doubt that the body of a diver was indeed sighted and in addition to the description of the equipment, the body in a sitting position fits with a still unexplained phenomena that in most underwater deaths the corpse assumes this rather lifelike attitude.

Intelligence advice issued in October 1964 included the warning: ‘It is known that an underwater sabotage frogman threat exists and that the Indonesians may demonstrate their capability shortly’. Thereafter the threat of underwater attack was considered to be real and preventative measures were taken seriously. From all the evidence available and particularly the statements from the divers, it would appear that there had been a diver under Yarra that evening, but in the absence of a body the identity could not be established. Needless to say, the two divers were unsettled by their experience.