Memories of the early days of WW2 By John Philip Stevenson

When the War broke out I was on exchange with the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean as a very lowly Midshipman.

We immediately sailed for our war station in Simonstown in South Africa. Our main task was to keep lookout for two German Battlecruisers, namely the Graf Sree and the Scheer which had sailed from Germany well before war broke out. It turned out to be mostly a long and boring search in the South Atlantic until Holland was overrun at which time we were ordered to take as prizes any Dutch ships encountered.

Some days later we sighted a large ship which turned out to be Dutch and we ordered it to heave to and await inspection. A prize crew of twenty sailors was formed and to my surprise, and some horror I was ordered to take charge. We were armed to the teeth and we went over the side to one of our large whalers and fortunately in fair weather climbed up the side of the Dutchman. As I clambered over the ships side I was greeted by a large Dutch captain who scowled and demanded what I was there for. I confirmed the fact that Holland was now overrun and that they were to be taken as a prize and taken into Dakar, and await further instructions. He was not happy but invited me to go below and have some breakfast. We sat down at a large table and were served greasy fried eggs and two glasses were placed in front of me, one filled with Dutch Gin and the other with red wine. He raised his glass and the toast and I replied:” Thank you but I do not drink” . He scowled and said:” You do now!”  I managed to get some of the red wine down but could not handle the Gin.

Four days later I turned him over to the harbour master in Dakar and went ashore to await the news of what was to become of me. Word came that in the next few days I would be picked up by HMS Shropshire’s seaplane and taken to Freetown. Finally, I rejoined Shropshire a few weeks later.


The search for the German cruisers intensified and we had word that it was likely that the Graf Spee was in the vicinity of the sea lanes off South America. We set off in that direction and shortly got word that she had been sighted and was being engaged by three British cruisers. We opened up to full speed and headed for them, fortunately, only about one hundred miles away. Two hours later we caught sight of the smoke and noise of battle but by the time we arrived the Graf Spee had withdrawn and had entered Montevideo harbour. Like any foreign warship they were only allowed 24 hours sanctuary and after that time, we saw her steaming out. We all went to action stations ready for the final battle, but she hove to and blew herself up, having taken all of the sailors off.


 We steamed in and went past the burning wreck and witnessed the final sinking, A few days later we were given permission for a 24 hour break into Montevideo. We had some leave and met some of the German sailors on shore. They were unhappy but pleasant enough, though sad that their Captain (Langsdorff) had committed suicide.

After the mandatory twenty four hours we sailed for the Falkland Islands where the largest of the three British ships (HMS Exeter) was being repaired as much as possible. We were ordered to escort her to England. Many days later, we left her at Plymouth and proceeded to Scapa Flow.

News had just come in that the Germans were about to invade Norway. We set out to sweep down the coast of Norway. Fortunately, we sighted no one and we returned to Scapa and thence to Liverpool. Here we were discharged (ashore) to attend our Sub Lieutenant courses in Portsmouth.

These lasted for three months – mostly under heavy bombing, and I was given the task of

manning a twelve pounder anti-aircraft gun with a very limited supply of ammunition. Fortunately, very few aircraft came low enough to take aim at and so I had ammunition enough to be useful and was sent off to the South coast, to prepare to repel the German invaders who were about to come ashore. If they had succeeded, we would not have lasted long. Fortunately Hitler changed his mind and went to Russia instead.

With courses completed, I joined the destroyer HMAS Nestor and that is another story.



US Ambassador Berry’s remarks at Coral Sea commemoration lunch at Australian National Maritime Museum



US Ambassador John Berry lays a wreath commemorating the Battle of the Coral Sea on the  bow of museum ship HMAS Vampire.

Veterans and members of the Australian and the American Militaries,

Distinguished guests, Ladies and gentlemen:

On May 8, 1942, the Allied strategic victory of the Coral Sea changed the course of history. Without Coral Sea, there could have been no Midway, no Guadalcanal, and no victory in the Pacific. The last 70 years of stability and prosperity in the Asia pacific region would have been unimaginable.

We won because of the strength of character, dedication, and sacrifice of the US and Australian defense forces. The story of the USS Neosho is one of many stories of courage from the Coral Sea.

A survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor, this vitally important fuel tanker sustained the American ships engaged in the battle. It retreated hundreds of miles away from the battle to preserve its precious cargo. But, the battle found Neosho. It suffered seven direct hits from Japanese aircraft and a suicide dive – shooting down three of its attackers in the process. Superb seamanship kept Neosho afloat; though lost and defenceless.

Four days after the battle, the Royal Australian Air Force found the Neosho, with 123 surviving seamen aboard. Another four men from the Neosho survived nine days in an open life raft without food, water, or shelter. Hundreds of men were lost.

Only upon rescue, did the Neosho’s crew learn that the American and Australian forces had turned back the Japanese, ending their southward expansion in World War II.

The cost – the USS Lexington, three other ships and 69 US and Australian planes; 656 brave men, Americans and Australians. But, most importantly, Japan suffered its first defeat of the war– losing its two newest fleet carriers, eight smaller ships, 92 planes, and the strategic and offensive initiative in the Pacific.The cost – the USS Lexington, three other ships and 69 US and Australian planes; 656 brave men, Americans and Australians. But, most importantly, Japan suffered its first defeat of the war

The cost of our victory in the Pacific is also personal for me. I am the second generation of my family to serve here. My father fought on Guadalcanal as part of the 1st Marine Division, and my uncle, my namesake, was a fighter pilot who was among the many who did not return home. My dad told me that the Marines landed on Guadalcanal with few supplies, and received very little more due to Japanese victories at sea. They were short of food and ammunition. They lived in foxholes and dugouts. They fought in mud and rain and heat. They suffered from malaria and malnutrition. They endured constant assault, and were hit by some of the heaviest naval barrages of the war. But those Marines held that rock. And, in doing so, like those who battled in the Coral Sea, they helped turn the tide of the war – and of history.

In conditions like those – after nine months of hard fighting – it would be incredibly easy to lose hope. But my father and his mates were lucky enough to come to Australia to rest and recuperate. After the hell of Guadalcanal, Australia must have seemed like a paradise. Indeed, my father told me that the people of Australia were so good, so generous, and so warm-hearted and true it reminded him not only that there was good left in the world,  but that it was damn well worth fighting for.

When the ships came to Australia, there was a band there to meet them, playing “Waltzing Matilda.” General Vandegrift reportedly remarked that it was the best sound he had ever heard. To this day, the 1st Division Marines always ship out to the sound of “Waltzing Matilda”.

Whenever I hear this song, I give thanks to the brave and noble few who forged in blood an alliance second to none. Their sacrifice is the  unshakeable foundation upon which our alliance stands. An alliance dedicated to shared values – duty, courage, mateship, and above all, freedom. God bless them and their families.

God bless Australia and the United States of America.

Lest we forget.

(US Ambassador John Berry – 7 May 2016)



Address by Rear Admiral James Goldrick AO CSC RAN at the Australian  National Maritime Museum Sydney

We think of the face of naval battle as grey warships on a blue horizon, with the flash of guns and the splash of shells. We imagine it as very frightening but at the same time intensely exciting, as ships weave and turn, engaging the enemy as they seek to avoid being hit. The battle ensigns fly overhead, shell splashes rise around and dump vast amounts of water on the deck, while the smell of cordite and the sting of gun smoke hit the senses.

We know that the Battle of the Coral Sea saw a new form of naval warfare – in which the surface forces never came into contact with each other, but fought their battle with the aircraft of the enemy. That battle was as much in the sky as on the sea, yet, although the electronic eye of radar played a part, it remained a visual conflict. Our image of this new -form of naval combat remains largely unchanged from the old, indeed it is reinforced by the film footage so often shown in the media and online.

But this was never the face of naval battle for the great majority and it was not for the great majority during the Battle of the Coral Sea. This face is very different. It is even more challenging and even more frightening. It is an experience of confined spaces, of being shut down under armoured hatches and within small compartments.  Most

often, it is a group experience – the stokers tending their boilers, the damage control and medical teams distributed around the ship, the turret and magazine crews ready to work their weapons and push the ammunition supplies up to the guns. But it can be a solitary experience, for the individuals who have to tend a piece of machinery in a small compartment – sometimes in spaces in which it is impossible even to stand upright. The shaft tunnel of even the largest warship is not a pleasant place to be.

We have not spoken enough in naval history, nor in our commemorations of the war at sea about these experiences and, in particular, of the challenges that so many had to face in overcoming their fear – and which they may still have to face in future conflicts. For the crew below had little idea of what was going on around them. Even when ships were fitted with internal broadcast systems and senior personnel had the time to pass the word about events, those systems did not extend to many of the spaces that I have described – some had no internal communications at all. The sailors within them had to rely upon the occasional visit from their supervisors, visits which might not take place in the heat of action, or if the ship had been hit. Between these times, all they knew was what they heard.

Being inside a shut-down compartment closes down the visual horizon to almost nothing. It is sound that matters and sound that frightens. Midshipman Dacre-Smyth of HMAS Australia,

in the Transmitting Station that housed the gun control computers, wrote a few days later of ‘listening to the guns, shaken by the bombs and wondering if there was any chance of us getting out from down there if the ship did cop it.’ A cook in the forward magazine, Cliff Hemming, recalled, ‘During the Japanese bombing attack, the shrapnel hitting the ship’s side sounded like chains dragging across a steel plate.’

Consider the other effects of a near miss by a bomb or shell – for near misses were themselves often enough to open up the hull. Cliff Hemming remembered that ‘The explosions of the bombs also loosened a few rivets so that water and oil began to seep in, and in our sand shoes we were skating along the deck.’ Machinery that was not shock-mounted could leap off its mountings. Lighting could shatter and electricity fail. If the ventilation was still running – and it might not in action – then it could well stop. Flooding would bring on a list, machinery damage might bring the ship to a halt.

A catastrophic hit effectively meant no chance of survival for the personnel below, even if they did not become casualties from the outset. Yet no matter how terrible the damage, each man had to keep doing his job until he was told otherwise. And all the evidence is that they did. In retrospect, it is extraordinary that so often so many did survive ships sinking in action – a tribute in itself to internal discipline and mutual support when so many hatches and doors had to be opened up, often with little or no lighting, and escape routes found. During the Coral Sea engagements, that sort of self-discipline and mutual support was there in the Lexington, as it was in the Neosho and the Sims. And, as proved so important, it was there when the Yorktown was saved for another battle.

We also need to understand that there were other miseries to be managed. The ships’ companies of the Pacific War did not experience the numbing cold of the Arctic Convoys, but in many ways heat stress was as much a problem and certainly inescapable in ships that were not air conditioned and which were shut down for action. It is no accident that the normal clothing of officers and ratings in the tropics was shorts and sandals, with or without a shirt. But action stations forced everyone into flash-resistant and


fire-retardant clothing covering the entire body. In compartments with an ambient temperature well over 30 degrees centigrade – and sometimes more – and high humidity, this was a purgatory in itself.

And, as the Battle of Savo a few months later was to prove, the longer people remained at their action station, the more tired and stressed and the less effective they became. The Coral Sea battle allowed some respite, with sailors being allowed up to get ‘fresh air’ between air raids, and some lessening of the risk of attack at night. But it went on for several days and the crews were very, very tired when the task forces turned for home.

And, as we too often forget, the watch for the enemy and the readiness to fight had to be maintained all the time until the ships were safe in harbour. This was the reality of the naval war, a reality that continued day after day, week after week and month after month, for nearly six years for the Australians and nearly four for the Americans.

We should indeed reflect on and honour the achievements of those who fought at the Coral Sea and the other bitter engagements of the global war – so many of which had an Australian presence. But we also need to reflect on what happened between those encounters as well. For nearly six years.

Let us then remember, as we honour the memory of the Coral Sea, both the ‘far distant ships’ of the Second World War and the men inside them, and understand that what goes on out of sight to others is often the most important achievement of all. As Francis Drake wrote more than 400 years ago of another naval campaign, ‘the continuing unto the end until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory.’ The Americans and Australians who fought, often unseeing and unseen, in the Battle of the Coral Sea deserve their share of that ‘true glory’ for what they did then and what they had to endure in the years that followed. For, to paraphrase Winston Churchill’s verdict on El Alamein, the Coral Sea marked not the beginning of the end of the Pacific war, but the end of its beginning.

HMAS Canberra and HMAS Shropshire  “ Never Say Die “ Address at Canberra Memorial – Lake Burley Griffin 7 August 2016 


By LCDR Desmond Woods, RANR

Karl von Clausewitz famously wrote that war is the realm of uncertainly. The lived experience of war at sea bears this out. Ships like people can be the Victims of Circumstances, not of their making.  So it is with the story of the RAN’s Heavy cruiser HMAS Canberra.

It can take many decades for the fog of war to be dispersed and the truth to become visible. When the survivors of Canberra arrived back in Sydney the ill informed told them that they should be ashamed because their ship had been shelled and lost without them having fired back. It was claimed that they were not were not battle ready. In fact nothing could be further from the truth.

canberra at tulagi

CANBERRA at Tulagi

Listen to the eye witness account of Midshipman, later Commodore Bruce Loxton, RAN who was seriously wounded on the bridge of Canberra.  He robustly rebutted all claims that Canberra was not ready for action on the night she was lost.  He was an eye witness on the bridge and he wrote:

Ammunition and medical parties were standing by. In the boiler rooms all sprayers had been connected and were responding as the senior engineer opened the throttles. The engines had achieved the revolutions for 26 knots when all steam pressure disappeared.  All four 8- inch turrets were fully manned the guns loaded and all control personnel were at their stations.  The turrets were moving in unison as they sought their target.  Torpedo tube crews and searchlight control parties were standing by. In short before power was lost, Canberra was ready in all respects to go about the business of engaging the enemy. The ship was working up to full speed. All that was lacking was an aiming point before opening fire and a little more time, because, just as power was lost the gunnery director saw the first Japanese cruiser on the port beam.

canberra 8 in guns

CANBERRA’s 8 inch guns

As we know at that moment a torpedo slammed into Canberra’s starboard side. Where that torpedo originated from has been extensively written about over many decades and this is not the time or place for such a discussion.  What we do know is that three minutes after Captain Frank Getting took command of his bridge his ship was no longer answering her rudder and was unable to train or fire her main armament. She took on a 7 degree list to starboard as her boiler rooms flooded and she lost way.

Simultaneously Japanese float planes dropped brilliant flares which perfectly illuminated all the allied cruisers in what came to be known as Iron Bottom Sound.  In just two minutes twenty eight heavy calibre shells rained down on Canberra like a drumbeat and destroyed her as a fighting ship. Two salvos hit the bridge and killed or wounded the command team. The Executive Officer, Commander Walsh, was summoned to the bridge from his action station in the aft conning position. It was a scene of carnage. Captain Getting was clearly mortally wounded.  Before becoming unconscious he acknowledged his XO’s  presence and told him to “Carry On” and through the night Commander Walsh led the fight to save the ship.

A tremendous battle to control flooding and to put out fires with buckets and blankets ensued. There was no water main pressure because there was no power.

Fires on the upper deck were controlled but those between decks raged on unchecked.

Sailors threw ammunition over the side to ensure that it could not explode.  They flooded magazines before fire could reach them. The dead were brought onto the upper deck. The wounded were found and taken to the wardroom which was converted into an operating theatre, lit by paraffin lanterns, where the medical team treated shattered limbs and terrible burns.

Captain Frank Getting, was taken below to be attended to by the medical team. Eye witnesses said that he knew he could not survive his wounds and insisted, when conscious, that Surgeon Captain Downward  and his sick bay attendants leave him and work on his injured sailors who could be saved.  By dawn it became clear Getting’s life could not be saved and neither could that of his ship. They were both stricken and barely alive.  Canberra was beyond repair by the ship’s company and far from dockyard support.

She could not take her place in what remained of the fleet defending the Guadalcanal beachhead and the Marines transports.

 Canberra’s dead were committed to the deep from the quarterdeck and her wounded and exhausted survivors prepared to be taken off by the destroyer USS Patterson which came alongside and, at the insistence of Canberra’s men, started embarking the stretcher cases first, including the unconscious Frank Getting.

Writing later to Rear Admiral Crutchley, RN, the Commander of the Task Force, Patterson’s Captain, Commander Frank R Walker, USN, chose to pay this tribute to the steadiness of Canberra’s exhausted men:

 The Commanding Officer and entire ship’s company of the USS Patterson noted with admiration the calm, cheerful and courageous spirit displayed by officers and men of Canberra.  When Patterson left from alongside because of what was then believed to be an enemy ship close by there were no outcries or entreaties — rather a cheery ‘Carry on Patterson, good luck!’ — and prompt and efficient casting off of lines, brows etc. Not a man stepped out of line. The Patterson feels privileged to have served so gallant a crew.

This remarkable letter was a most gracious gesture from a Commanding Officer who had just lost 10 of his own men killed when his ship was raked by Japanese shells.

The destroyer USS Blue then came alongside and took off 343 survivors including 18 seriously wounded. Patterson returned to Canberra, as her CO Frank Walker promised she would, and took another 398 men to USS Barnett.

Captain Getting was operated on by American surgeons but died of his wounds on board USS Barnett on passage to Noumea.  He was buried at sea on 9 August.  Of the 819 serving in Canberra, 193 were casualties of whom, 84 were dead.

It took 263 rounds of 5 inch shell and two more torpedoes from US destroyers to sink the still burning, abandoned hulk that was Canberra.

This was a traumatic moment in the history of the RAN. This was the third Australian cruiser to be lost in war since December 1941; the light cruisers Sydney and Perth had been destroyed in battle and now the heavy cruiser Canberra was also gone.

In London PM Winston Churchill, on hearing the news of Canberra’s destruction, decided that Australia should be given a Royal Navy cruiser to replace Canberra.    He wrote privately to the First Sea Lord:   ‘the Australians have lost their 8 inch cruiser Canberra. It might have a lasting effect on Australian sentiment if we gave freely and outright to the Royal Australian Navy one of our similar ships. Please give your most sympathetic consideration to this project.’

HMS Shropshire, a County class heavy cruiser, a sister ship to Canberra, was chosen as the ship to be transferred. It was intended to change her name to Canberra. But before that announcement was made the USN announced that President Roosevelt had chosen to name the next Baltimore Class heavy cruiser to be launched USS Canberra.   This was the first and only time that an American warship has been named for a foreign warship. It was tribute and compliment to the courage shown by Canberra’s crew at Savo Island.

Canberra‘s battle scarred survivors came home to Australia to be treated and sent back to war. They were supplemented with new recruits and sent to Chatham dockyard in UK to pick up Shropshire and steam her back to the Pacific.   Captain John Collins and the ship’s company were pleased to get to sea as the Chatham dockyard was a target for regular Luftwaffe air raids and Shropshire’s anti-aircraft guns crews engaged the bombers night after night joining the Ack Ack defence of the naval town.   Her Gunnery Officer, CMDR Bracegirdle, wrote of Shropshire’s ship’s company:  The welding together of Canberra’s veterans and young sailors with keenness and the possibility of retaliation against the King’s enemies in the Pacific, was quite astounding. The ship was happy and efficient from the very first. A fine ship sailed into Sydney Harbour ready for battle and action.

shropshire crew


All on board were burning for a chance to hit back and avenge their lost comrades and to show what they could do in battle when they were able to train their turrets and fight.

Inside Shropshire‘s 8 inch gun turrets the crews stencilled the name CANBERRA so that no one would doubt what the guns crews were fighting for. This was now a very personal war.  They got their chance. Shropshire was in the thick of the fight for 18 months in 15 battles starting in the South West Pacific.  She provided deadly accurate bombardments destroying Japanese shore batteries for the Australian and American armies.

In the mid Pacific she closed up to action stations to fight off waves of kamikaze suicide attacks and shot down at least eleven aircraft. Twice this lucky ship avoided torpedoes that passed within feet of her bow and stern.   Her greatest chance to hit back at the Japanese fleet was at the Battle of Surigao Straits in the Philippines in October 1944.  Her target, along with other allied ships, was the powerful Japanese battleship Yamashiro. Shropshire’s gunners fired thirty-two broadsides, closing in to 12,700 yards to do so.

They achieved nineteen straddles and sixteen broadside hits – superb shooting by the standards of that era.   Shropshire‘s gun crews achieved their thirty two broadsides in fourteen minutes forty seconds – an amazing feat of strength and determination – worthy of highly trained athletes.   Yamashiro fired back and straddled Shropshire with massive 14 inch shells any one of which might have destroyed her.   The weary but jubilant gunners stopped firing to witness the sinking of the huge Yamashiro by USN ships and aircraft ably assisted by the Australian destroyer HMAS Arunta.   The 84 dead from Canberra and Captain Frank Getting were well and truly avenged.

shropshire bombardment

SHROPHIRE carrying out bombardment

In August 1945 Shropshire steamed into Yokohama Bay and witnessed the surrender of Japan to the Allies on board the USS Missouri. Then she carried home from Japan, sick and emaciated Australian and British Prisoners of War. They were some of the last survivors from Japanese slave mines and included RAN who had survived the sinking of HMAS Perth in Sunda Strait in 1942.

 Shropshire‘s was chosen to represent Australia and the RAN at Spithead and in in the London Victory March in 1946.  Among the men marching were Canberra survivors. It was a long way from the Ironbottom Sound.   It was very fitting that they should be given this high honour. They were representatives of all those RAN officers and sailors, living and dead, including their 84 lost shipmates, who had made victory a reality.   There has not been another RAN seagoing ship named HMAS Shropshire but her name lives on as a Training Ship for Australian Navy Cadets.

It lived on in the memories of men who took her to war and lives still in the annals of the RAN. These young men brought great glory on their ship, on their Navy and on their homeland. Shropshire was manned by many men who had endured horror, fear and what we now call battle shock, yet they came back from death and defeat at Savo Island fighting hard and in doing so earned a very personal Victory in the Pacific.

At this memorial we remember Canberra’s 84 dead every year. We remember that members of the Royal Navy serving in Canberra were among her dead.  And we remember all those USN who died defending the Marine Beachhead. When they sank USS Quincy lost 370 men, Astoria lost 219, and Vincennes lost 332. In total the United States Navy lost 1024 killed at Savo Island in cruisers and destroyers.

It learned the hard lessons of this battle.  Sun Tzu, the Chinese Military strategist wrote 2000 years ago: Do not presume that the enemy will not come – prepare to meet him.

That age old lesson was re learned and the USN, RN and RAN went on the offensive and went on to win the Pacific War and destroy the Imperial Japanese Navy just three years after the Battle for Guadalcanal was won.

The USS Canberra went to war in 1944 and was hit by an air torpedo off Formosa. Ten of her sailors were killed. We remember them too.

Next year it will be 75 years since the Battle of Savo Island. The number of veterans of the RAN and USN who were there is now small indeed.  We remember them all today with pride, respect and affection. We remember those who were lost with Canberra, whom we never knew, and those who survived to fight another day in Shropshire returned to Australia to lead their civilian lives.  

 Many of us gathered here knew those brave men well. I am very aware that some of the veterans gave this memorial address in years gone by. They were our fathers, grandfathers and RAN colleagues and our friends.  They were also lifelong members of the naval family and the Canberra-Shropshire Association.

Here at their memorial today the Last Post will sound for them all.

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.