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 Two hours later we caught sight of the smoke and noise of battle but by the time we arrived the Graf Spee had withdrawn and had entered Montevideo harbour.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.



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.


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.

HMAS Whyalla’s last voiyage

HMAS Whyalla: her last long voyage

By John Ellis

Following the outbreak of World War II, the Government asked BHP if they could develop a shipyard for the war effort. In 1940, BHP Newcastle recruited seven shipbuilding personnel from the United Kingdom to establish a shipyard at Whyalla, SA. One was soon dismissed after expressing his dismay with the flies and heat of Whyalla; the others set to and developed a yard that built 63 ships, an oil rig and two barges over the next 38 years.


HMAS Whyalla (J-153, B252), a Bathhurst class Minesweeper Corvette, dressed overall anmd in her wartime paint scheme. Displacement: 1,025 tons (Full load). Length: 57 metres (186 feet), Beam: 9.4 metres (31 feet. Draught 2.6 metres (8.5 feet. Propulsion: Triple expansion, two shafts, 1769 shp, Speed: 15 knots, Complement 70-85. Armament one four-inch gun, two 20 mm Oerlikon cannon, one 40 mm Bofors, Depth charges.

First built: Whyalla

The first was HMAS Whyalla, launched in 1941, with a ten-year planned life. Her proud builders would have thought it inconceivable that more than 60 years later their first ship would still be serving, albeit in a very different role. It would have been just as incredible to suggest that her final resting place would be a mere two kilometres down the road. In Whyalla, the unbelievable happened.

HMAS Whyalla (1941-46), later became the Rip (1947-84) before reverting to Whyalla. The ship was hauled from the sea in February 1987 up the same slipway, now disused, that gave her birth and transported through the BHP plant, across a sea of saltbush and sand to rest on concrete foundations near the city’s northern highway entrance.

Since 1987 the Whyalla has been the focal point of the Whyalla Tourist Centre and Whyalla Maritime Museum. RADM David Holthouse, the Support Commander at that time, represented the RAN at the opening that followed an outlay of $1.3m. Although the ship was purchased for just $5,000, another $560,000 was required to remove her from the sea and set her up for display.

Ship tours

Visitors can tour the ship and explore the museum that displays aspects of wartime service of the corvettes and the achievements of the shipyard. The work of Matthew Flinders in local waters is also covered. Many town sceptics regarded the Mayor’s ideas harebrained in 1984, but the museum is firmly established as an important tourist attraction.

One Saturday in February 1987, Whyalla started her last voyage. Several hundred onlookers, television crews who had flown in from Adelaide, official photographers and other media representatives applauded as the ship edged up the slipway. Dawson Offshore, a WA contractor, planned to have the ship “on site” within two or three weeks but the “Reluctant Lady” took seven weeks of long hours, sleepless nights and many frustrations before the Dawson’s crew could win her over.


HMAS Whyalla Museum, just outside the city of Whyalla.

The ship was positioned on a purpose-built cradle and a new track to allow her to be hauled towards the old slipway. That phase took five days, but the cradle was damaged when it fouled the slipway. Divers worked for the next fortnight clearing damaged sections of the frame and easing the ship up the slipway. Meanwhile, 220 tonnes of trailers with 328 wheels and two prime movers valued at $4 million arrived from Perth to transport the ship overland. Because of the delay and another commitment at Mount Newman, the trailers were diverted and did not return to Whyalla until late March.

Hurdles cleared

By mid-March the ship was at the top of the slipway where she had to be raised another 1.5 metres to allow the trailers to slide under. The big hurdles had been cleared and the Whyalla awaited the Brambles Manford crew and their transport equipment. From then on it was pretty smooth “sailing”. Within five days the ship was secured on the trailers, hauled along the two-kilometre route and settled on her permanent foundations. The move was complete; the contractors and local firms who had worked their hearts out were not about to allow the “Reluctant Lady” to win.

Wartime construction

Four corvettes were built in Whyalla under the Commonwealth Government’s wartime shipbuilding program, all launched in 1941 – HMAS Whyalla (12 May), Kalgoorlie (7 August), Gawler (4 October) and Pirie (3 December). Originally allocated the name Glenelg, Whyalla was commissioned 8 January 1942 and her first captain was Temporary Lieutenant L.N. Morrison, RANR (S), who remained in command for most of the war. He was granted acting rank of LCDR from June 1943 and was relieved by LEUT G.L.B. Parry, RANVR in April 1945.

Japanese midget subs

Following commissioning and work up, Whyalla started escort and patrol duties off the east coast of Australia. She was in Sydney Harbour when the Japanese midget submarines attacked and a week later she was escorting coastal convoys off the Australian coast. Whyalla continued convoy escort duties until December 1942, when she reported to New Guinea for minesweeping duties and hydrographic surveys prior to the Japanese withdrawal.

In June 1943, she returned to Australia to refit and resumed convoy duties until February 1944. Whyalla then joined Admiral Fraser’s British Pacific Fleet to serve until the end of the war on escort and anti-submarine patrol duties. During this time she served briefly off China and returned safely to Australia in October 1945, having steamed 111,000 miles on war service.


HMAS Whyalla in her post WW II garb, before conversion to the Rip.

Re-christened Rip

Whyalla began a new life in February 1947 when sold to the Victorian Department of Public Works and renamed Rip. She was employed in blasting operations to keep clear the approaches to the Rip, the entrance to Port Phillip Bay. She also maintained buoys, moorings and pile lights in Port Phillip Bay and other Victorian ports.

In 1984 the City of Whyalla learnt that Rip was to be sold as scrap and after extensive negotiations the Whyalla City Council purchased her for $5,000. Rip sailed to her birthplace from Williamstown with a crew of volunteers augmented by a few professional seamen.

Bathurst class

Sixty Bathurst class minesweepers were built during World War II in eight Australian shipyards. Four were built for the Royal Indian Navy, 36 for the Royal Australian Navy and 20 for the Royal Navy. The latter, however, were commissioned into the RAN and manned by RAN personnel. These minesweepers were the Navy’s “maids of all work”, serving in the roles of convoy escort, anti-submarine patrol, search and rescue, evacuation and shore bombardment. The ships had the endurance to patrol the long coastlines of Australia and New Guinea. The class was designated Australian Minesweeper (AMS) but were generally referred to as corvettes.

Three were lost during the war: Armidale was attacked and sunk by Japanese aircraft 1 December 1942 and Wallaroo and Geelong sank after collisions with American merchant ships. (Wallaroo was hit by Liberty ship Henry Gilbert Costin off Fremantle on the night of 11 June 1943, Geelong sank after a collision with a tanker, York, off New Guinea, 18 October 1944.) Warrnambool sank 13 September 1947 after touching off a mine during minesweeping operations off the north Queensland coast. The Bathursts carried some 280 rounds of four-inch ammunition, 2,500 rounds for the Bofors and up to 40 depth charges. The ships could transport 300 troops in an emergency, 400 troops ship to shore or 100 over a period of four days. The ships were basic. There was no refrigeration, no broadcast and no ventilation; spuds and onions were stowed in a wire mesh locker abaft the funnel.

Following World War II, four ships were sold to the RNZN, five to Turkey, six to the Royal Netherlands Navy and one to China. Of those sold to the RNN, two were passed to Indonesia. The RAN retained six in service until the late 1950s and the remainder were sold.

Five in 1983, now two

By 1983 five of the 60 corvettes survived. Bendigo was with the People’s Republic of China, initially Cheung Hing and later Loyang. Castlemaine was a museum ship alongside at Williamstown. Colac was a tank cleaning vessel at Garden Island Dockyard. Gladstone, aka Akuna, was a refugee ship and Whyalla, aka Rip, was at Geelong. Today, only Whyalla and Castlemaine remain.


HMAS Fremantle


HMAS Fremantle: A young Lieutenant goes west

by John Jobson

It was late in 1952, as a fully qualified Lieutenant, that I received my appointment as third officer of HMAS Fremantle. She was one of 60 Bathurst class corvettes built in Australia during WW II. Constructed in Brisbane, she was to be recommissioned in Williamstown dockyard (WND) and then sail for Western Australia to show a naval presence in the west and, more particularly, to give sea training to national servicemen inducted into HMAS Leeuwin.


HMAS Fremantle.

Minesweeping and patrol

Fremantle was a ship of about 700 tons, powered by two triple expansion reciprocating engines that drove two shafts to give a maximum speed of about 12 knots. Designed for elementary minesweeping and patrol duties, she was far from a formidable fighting vehicle, armed only with one 40mm Bofors and small arms. When I joined the ship at WND most of the hull and mechanical refurbishment had been completed, but the ship was not ready to be occupied.The captain, LCDR George C. Rance RN, was married and living ashore, as was LEUT Fred M. Murray RAN, from my last ship HMAS Bataan. I lived with my parents at East Malvern, which was a considerable drive from Williamstown. The stand-by staff were allocated an office in the dockyard from which we worked, using plans to familiarise us with the layout, complemented with daily visits to the ship herself.

Varnished wood

The captain, first lieutenant and I had separate cabins that doubled as our offices. A fourth cabin had double bunks for officers under training. We watched as these cabins and wardroom were beautifully fitted out with varnished wood for which WND was justly proud.

It was not long before I discovered an attractive lass working in the drawing office. We went to the beach nearby, dined out and went to a couple of balls. I was in my home town and met up with some old school friends from Melbourne Grammar. One in particular was Keith Farfor. He was working for some secret service or other. He never told me and I did not press the subject. We regularly went out for lunch, from which I discovered many of Melbourne’s better-value establishments. It was a problem finding somewhere to reciprocate.

Multiple duties

Fremantle was a small ship and could sail with about 50 as crew. Even so there was a lot to be done by the third officer. I was a watchkeeping officer at sea and in harbour, the supply officer for such matters as pay, ship’s books, accounts and correspondence, gunnery officer and explosives accounting officer, education officer, medical officer and wardroom wine caterer. This latter duty was crucial since I had to have the duty free grog onboard in time for commissioning.


The captain, LCDR George C. Rance RN, and the coxswain on the bridge.

The captain was the navigator and the first lieutenant was man-manager and responsible for all stores including food. Most stores were supplied to a scale. Wires and anchors, mechanical and electrical spares, medical kit, educational books, ammunition and side arms and galley equipment had to be checked and stowed onboard.

Other stores had to be sought by individual application. There were ever-present forms, for stationery and of course drinks and grog. Personal signatures were required for stamps, travel warrants and cash, so I had quite a number of visits to Albert Park Barracks, which at that time was the central office for such matters. This was not a duty to be taken lightly. An officer in an adjacent ship was jailed while we were at WND for using ship’s funds for horses that had a habit of losing.

Portable fittings

Another group of stores, known as portable fittings (e.g. ship’s boats) and naval stores, were fortunately the responsibility of the first lieutenant, while the captain sought his sextant and pencils and charts and other impedimenta required for navigation. Storing complete, we, i.e. the crew, moved on board and set out to Port Phillip Bay for what were comparatively simple demonstration trials. The ship was sound and worked mechanically.

Smooth talking made sure that the grog was on board by 10 December, when the ship commissioned. I have no idea who was there except for my guests who were among the visitors on the forecastle.


HMAS Fremantle, in a WW II garb, with a “J” prefix in her pennant number and a four-inch gun on her foredeck. The Australian-built Bathurst class was very similar to the RN’s lighter and faster Bangor and Algerine classes. Fremantle commissioned 24 March 1943 and was employed initially on minesweeping and escort duties.  The 56.7 x 9.4 x 2.6 metres (186 x 31 x 8.5 feet) hull displaced 800 tons (war load) and two triple expansion engines might drive the ship at 12 knots. Armament varied. In WWII the class might carry one four-inch (101 mm) gun, one 40 mm Bofors, two 20mm Oerlikons and 40 to 70 depth charges. Post-WW II, a number of the corvettes had their four-inch gun replaced by a Bofors. Crew size varied, usually 62, but 70 might be accommodated for training cruises.

Christmas arrived for five crew and me. It was as hot as hell, but to his long lasting credit the cook produced a traditional Christmas fare for us all, including my mother and father. We three were trying to get cool on the quarterdeck after lunch when cookie appeared; all he wanted was a couple of beers, forget the food. Christmas 1952.

Regular exercises

Once commissioned, HMAS Fremantle regularly exercised in the Bay. As was standard practice, after work, the WND senior staff frequently visited our wardroom. This was a naval custom to thank the good offices of them and their workers for giving us a good ship. Now at work, January just seemed to flip past.

In February Fremantle plied between Sydney, Cerberus on Westernport Bay and Melbourne, taking a mélange of persons for a day at sea or a group for sea experience. The crew and wardroom developed into a very happy team. Our Fred, as we called him, was seen bare-chested with brush in hand helping with the painting. Big George was always smiling. The coxswain was in total charge and the little bucket, despite a number of mechanical problems, was ready to go west.


HMAS Fremantle departing.  Some 38 of the 60-strong Bathurst class were tricky to manoeuvre at such slow speed. Instead of conventional “outwards turning” twin propellors, theirs were “inwards turning”.  With a rudder practically useless at slow speed, their screw’s “paddlewheel” effect might well oppose and not add to the offset thrust turning effort.

Adelaide rarely has visits from the RAN. Fremantle made its way up the Torrens to a berth at Port Adelaide, a fascinating run up the river and an even better reception. The hospitality at Adelaide was great.

We picked up a contingent of sailors and officers for sea training and, as I recall, had a couple of days at sea with them. Sadly, I have forgotten the name of one man with whom I corresponded for many years. Such is naval life that one makes many acquaintances who could have developed into long lasting friends but, by place and time, have to fade.

New First Lieutenant

At this time our Fred developed a problem, so severe that he had to be relieved. LEUT Ian Nicholson RAN was the replacement. He was a lovely man, two years ahead of me at Naval College, who always called me Jobworthy, for why I do not know, but more of Ian later. Fred retired from the Navy and was last known as a newsagent in the Blue Mountains.

Into the heavy westerly swell, Fremantle was lucky to make eight to ten knots. It was a long westerly voyage and smoking became a no no. We ran out of cigarettes. The boat sent ashore at Albany had only one message: “Get a lot of cigs.”

The ship had been painted to perfection. Here was HMAS Fremantle coming to Fremantle at a time when naval presence at WA was rare and the crew were excited. But in truth we were a tiny, tiny vessel. It was Sunday 8 March 1953 as we came alongside the outer breakwater of Fremantle Harbour. No bands, no crowds; only the harbour master to greet us, CAPT Bolton from the Port Authority. I have the feeling that the crew had a beer and we in the wardroom had many. It was becoming clear that we were here for work.

Fremantle, stored with fresh provisions, soon commenced a routine of a two-week run out of Fremantle going north with a complement of trainees. Arriving back on the Friday, we collected pay and stores and sailed away on the Monday with a fresh group of trainees. I felt like a wild west cowboy as I nestled a .38 fully loaded in the old ute as the ERA drove me to Leeuwin to get the pay. I was itching to get a chance to use it; but all was peaceful. After all, my SBLT group won the pistol shooting contest.

Submarine surrender

The journeys north were generally to the Houtman Abrolhos Islands. It became routine until a submarine appeared: HMS Thorough. As an exercise it was decided by someone that Thorough had decided to surrender and Fremantle was charged with taking her into custody. Guess who had the job? I knew nothing about submarines except that their mob was a devious collection of persons. I did get advice that a sub would have demolition charges in the periscope base should they wish to do that thing. I also had the love of explosive devices. My team dressed in the standard and stupid rig of heavy boots for the boarding of the submarine. How stupid, trying to board a smooth-sided vessel in boots that would only assure you a quick sink if you slipped. We really were still in the years of tradition rather than war sense. Myself, a petty officer and three were the party. Each had their instructions. I make no apology for giving this account some time later, since many lessons can be learnt.

Flawed plot

As our boat approached the submarine the captain was smiling like a Cheshire cat. Four persons were with him on the conning tower and only about ten on the casing. My lads had submachine guns trained on them. But the plot was flawed for many reasons.

I approached the captain and asked him if he intended to surrender. The reply was a toothy grin and a no speaky the language. Game on. Like an impetuous young officer I was going to be the first down the hatchway. (What a fool I was. You always send the petty officer.) It was dark, therefore suspicious. Half-way down I knew it was a trap and yelled to my petty officer. He and I and my team donned gas masks as he threw several tear gas capsules down the conning tower. Game, set, match. The submarine captain suddenly spoke English as he ordered blow this and that.

The grinning crew members at the bottom of the hatch, waiting to encapsulate me in a sack and shoot me out of the conning tower, were not up to the job. My team took over.

Unfortunately one of my boys sat under a mechanism that hit him on the head. Oh well, you cannot win them all.


HMS Thorough was a British T class submarine displacing 1,290 tons surfaced and 1,560 tons submerged .
Dimensions: Length: 84.28 x 7.77 x 4.44 metres ( 276.5 x 25.5 x 14.6 feet), twin diesel engines 2,500 hp (1.86 MW) each and twin electric motors 1,450 hp (1.08 MW) each. Speed: 15.5 knots surfaced, 9 knots submerged. Complement: 61. Armament: Eight torpedo tubes forward and three aft. One 100 mm (4 inch)  deck gun

Arming grenades

At least the captain of the submarine sent a “well done” to Fremantle. As I have said before, I play to win. After that episode it was anti-submarine training. The trouble was that to communicate with the submarine one threw grenades over the side. As gunnery officer I had to break out the manual. Arming grenades is something that I hated, but the job had to be done. Following the book I roped off an area on the forecastle and placed a red flag on the rope and sat down with my box of lovelies. I was very relieved when that job was done.

Happy ship

Yes, Fremantle was a happy ship. We spent Easter at Bunbury. Nothing going really. I was at an age that sex was quite a dominant factor, but no pills and so a problem. Have sex at your risk. Don’t take the risk. But in truth there was no opportunity. We just drank.

The ship was proceeding to Cape Naturaliste when a stoker was burnt with wild steam. Doctor Jobson consulted the book and found that one should do nothing. The stoker was placed in the spare wardroom bunk, covered with a clean sheet, fed and watered until we reached Bunbury, where he was discharged to hospital.


On one trip north as far as Carnarvon, our captain arranged that Ian and I should go to sea for the day with a whale catcher, called in fact Carnarvon. Whale hunting was still in progress at this time, with a flensing station ashore. The captain was the gunner who fired the harpoon from a mounting in the bows. One crewman was aloft and one steered the boat, while the important cook did what he did best.

Nothing sighted by lunch so we all tucked into an excellent roast meal. Soon after lunch the lookout reported a herd a mile or so off. We closed the herd and with final directions from the gunner got to a firing range of about 100 yards. A tremendous bang and out went harpoon and line. There were some misses but soon two whales were shot and strapped alongside. The light was fading so the boat headed for shore, but not before a couple of sharks appeared. Driving directly at the whales with mouths agape they savagely bit great hunks off the sides of the whales.


Harpooning a whale. Whaling ceased in Babbage Island, Carnarvon, in 1963, due chiefly to over-harvesting the profitable humpback whales. The Nor-West Whaling Factory became Nor-West Seafoods, scaled down considerably to process prawns.

Shark attack

After that I have never subscribed to asave the sharks campaign. Once at the anchorage, air was pumped into the whales and they were towed ashore to a ramp where they were pulled into the flensing shed. The works give off a distinct and unpleasant odour, which no doubt was why the township was some miles distant. An experience that few would have had is now no longer possible.

While in Fremantle port, taking onboard a new load of recruits, we were surprised as HMAS Sydney and HMNZS Black Prince arrived on their way to the Coronation. Half their luck we thought. But for us it was north again to the Houtman Abrolhos Island area. Someone had heard a fisherman talk of old cannons on one of the reefs.

17th century cannon

Unfortunately the reports of proceedings from Fremantle for this period could not be found in the archives at the War Memorial and the actual reef that I describe is not identified. On board we thought that they may have belonged to the Batavia or the Zeewick.

A raft was made of 44-gallon drums and paint stages. Towed by the motorboat we made the reefs and slowly drifted across the inside. It was not at all rough, but still the breaking water made observation difficult. You could only see the reef between successive breakers. By good luck we came across some iron cannons.  Floating our raft over them (they were still submerged) we managed to grapple two underneath the raft and gingerly made our way back to the ship. Just at this time some fins appeared, coming directly at us. You can imagine for those of us on the raft we got our legs well and truly out of the water. Then the porpoises leapt out of the water.

Bowlines underwater

Even so the task of securing the lines around the cannons for their loading onboard was left to me. The only reason I volunteered was that I could tie bowlines in the dark, or in this case underwater while holding my breath. It was extremely disappointing that on arrival at Fremantle not one authority seemed to be interested in our haul. They were landed in Leeuwin and I understand finally deposited in some park or other in Perth. We never did establish the name of the ship that at one time was the proud owner of these two cannons.

Our next trip was to Shark Bay; where, incidentally, if one told the steward that you wanted fish for breakfast, he hung out a line and within five minutes he had a well-sized schnapper.

I decided to test our landing party with Turtle Island as our enemy shore. I mention this exercise because of my lifelong memory of the poor overweight electrical able seaman who had to carry the aldis lamp and a car-sized battery up the cliffs. He really was bushed.

Coronation time

It was Coronation time. There was to be a march through the streets of Perth, Navy of course leading. I happened to be chosen to train the lads and lead the march. Well, the Whale Island training had to be used to the limit on the combined ships’ companies of Fremantle and Mildura and probably some from Leeuwin, all of whom, shall I say, were very rusty on the parade ground. For a week we practised at, I think, Garden Island. I shouted and drilled as best I could without a band.

The day arrived

The day arrived and I nearly had a fit as the lads took up ranks. One of the sailors took out a cigarette and lit it.  I nearly blew a fuse. Off we stepped and it looked as if we would put on a good show, but I was wrong. The naval contingent was in three ranks. (As an after-thought it should have been in six or in two groups.)


The Perth Coronation march past.

As we entered the main drag a band near the saluting base struck up. The front part of my contingent took the step of that band; the rear being so far away, took the step of the band behind that had led us in. Result, I had a millipede. Have you ever seen one? Its legs move in a ripple. In an effort to get my troops in one step, I retreated from the head of column and took station on the side, calling the step.

Wrong move John. I passed the saluting base without giving the eyes right until too late. When I think of it, there is no way the rear of my contingent could have heard my order. That was the last time I would be on parade.

The reader will observe that with only two days in harbour, Ian Nicholson and I had one day each to go ashore. The Freshwater Bay Yacht Club became my oasis. I do not remember how, but John Green, a pharmacist and brother of an electrical officer in the RAN, became my host and good friend. Mostly we would take his motorboat and a box of beer and race a most stupid race with others who were equally bored and thought that it was a good excuse for a beer fiesta.

Coronation Ball

It was Coronation Ball time and John and I decided to attend the Club’s Ball. I forget who I took but I ran into a sister of an old friend of mine from Melbourne Grammar. She was a great lass whom I could have been interested in if it had not been her habit of liking garlic. Not my perfume. After the west I never saw her again. One day off per fortnight is hardly the situation for a social exchange.

It was in May that Defence or someone, decided that the old merchantman Commillies, which was to be sunk, would make a good target for Mildura and Fremantle and the local RAAF.  The RAAF had first go. I have not recorded if their bombs actually hit the ship or not. By lunchtime the old Commillies was still afloat and perhaps the RAAF had expended their high explosive bomb allowance.

Mildura with her four-inch mounting blasted away. Even at somewhat point blank range she either missed or her shells made no impression. Commillies still was not going to sink.  It was now Fremantle’s turn.

Well, my aimers blasted the hell out of the deck-mounted toilet. I implored them to try for the waterline and at last we had about 20 rounds hitting the hull at waterline. Still the old girl did not sink.

Demolition charges

Guess who got the short straw to take demolition charges on board to sink her as dusk was approaching? Just as well I paid attention in HMS Excellent, but in all truth I was only just competent in handling this sort of thing. I imagined myself three decks down in the dark setting the fuses as the ship settled. In truth it was a stupid decision. As I climbed into the motorboat to head for Commilles, she gave a heave and started to slide into the water. Fate, one might call it. I was not destined to die just yet. After all it was peacetime.

In July, the captain’s wife was expecting, so a team of us went ashore and painted their very ordinary rented accommodation. LCDRs were not very well paid in those days.  

An able seaman and I were very happy and confident that we would do well in the interservice tennis tournament. He was a nice lad and we combined well. What happened? A washout. What a shame. Exercise was not easy to come by.

HMAS Fremantle had been worked well. It was time for the dockyard to give her a face lift. She was placed in a dry, dry dock. By this I mean she was on a ramp and 20 feet from deck to land. An enormous ladder got us onboard. You might have known it. It was time for a cocktail party. We bribed the crane driver to lift our guests by a pallet. It worked well, but what about getting down? We thought that our luck might have changed, but somehow our “guests” all chanced their luck and descended by the ladder.


LEUT Jobson with the Buffer, LSEA Schubert

Eyesight complications

My eyesight was not good. I had to use binoculars for navigation. One night I was heading for an anchorage on a flashing red light when I used the binoculars. I found it to be Joe’s Fish and Chip shop on the end of a pier.

Mildura was alongside us entertaining the local medical officer, Ned-something-or-other, when I was summonsed onboard for my medical. Ned had had a few. “Can you see ?” said Ned. “Of course he can see,” said the captain of Mildura.“He can see you consuming my grog”. “OK, passed,” said Ned. But in my heart I knew this was only a temporary respite from a long term decision that I would have to make. That was not the end. After a long and rewarding nine months in the west, I was appointed to the Naval College as a term officer.

I arrived home in Melbourne to find my WND girl friend had been a charm to my mother, but somehow nine months away changes perceptions. There was nothing there. She knew it and had a quiet weep outside. It was not that I had met someone else, but the magic was not there. So we parted and I never again saw or heard of her, I hope she found a nice man.

Good record, but…

From a shaky start at RANC, I had gained confidence in my ability, in my profession, in exams and in practice. I had served in a war zone. My record was good but my time had come to an end. My eyes were going to stop my quest for command. “What next?” was the question that I, and I alone, had to answer.


Hobart in Vietnam: Followup Letters

Hobart in Vietnam: Follow-up letters

by Ian Callaway and David Holthouse

Part 2 of 2. Read Part 1 here

Ian Callaway (left) is at the Naval Gunfire Support (NGS) plotting desk in HMAS
Hobart. The
Raytheon AIM-7 Sparrow (right) is a semi-active air-to-air missile that homes at up to Mach 4 on a target illuminated by its launcher’s radar out to maximum ranges of 20 to 32 miles (depending on the version). Launch weight is a hefty 225 kg (500 pounds) and the Sparrow measures 3.66 metres x 203 mm (12 feet by eight inches) with a wingspan of one metre (3 feet 4 inches). The expanding steel rod warhead carries 40 kg (88 pounds) of explosive. (F-16 net graphic.)

Harry Daish’s story of the second HMAS Hobart deployment to Vietnam from March to September 1968 (Newsletters 76 and 77) filled in some of the gaps left by the official histories published over recent years. It is a pity that the full details of what happened on board Hobart and in the operational area around the DMZ on the morning of 17 June 1968, do not seem to be available. I don’t believe they were investigated thoroughly at the time and although I was the ship’s Gunnery Officer, I was never formally asked to describe the events of that night, as I saw them.

Political context

In the context of the political environment of the Vietnam War, I have always assumed that no formal inquiry was held and no timely detailed conclusions about the incident were released, because the RAN did not want to embarrass the US.  But because the incident was not looked at thoroughly, the full details of what happened on board and in the area and the lessons for the RAN and the relevant US military commands were never discussed, at least not at the working level.

I don’t know if this can be called a cover-up, which suggests that the RAN had something to hide. I don’t believe it did.

I can fill in a few details of the gun engagement, amplifying Harry’s account.

Shock wave

I was awakened in my cabin by the shock wave that went through the ship when the first missile struck. I reached the Ops Room before the second missile hit and, in addition to feeling the shock wave, I heard what sounded like tons of glass smashing against the after Ops Room bulkhead.  Following these attacks, the state of the ship’s gun and missile systems were as follows:

a. both missile systems were unserviceable, due to major shrapnel damage to the missile radar aerials and director room equipment, and
b. the gunfire control system was down due to the loss of gyro stabilisation and the missile directors.

There was also a previous radar defect. Mounts 51(forward gun) and 52 (aft gun) were operational, but both were showing signs of a breech problem that was spreading through all 5”/54 fitted gun mounts. This followed recent re-barrelling in Subic with the latest modified barrels. Initially there was turmoil on AA Control as the port after lookout, ORDSEA Butterworth, had just been killed by missile warhead shrapnel from the first attack. Other members of the AA Control crew were in shock. They had narrowly escaped a similar fate.

ORDSEA Raymond J. Butterworth (left) was killed in the action and ME Graeme H. Sculley DSM won the only medal awarded during Hobart’s deployment for taking over talker duties in Repair 5, despite severe trauma that included a broken leg and witnessing the death of Chief Electrician Hunt.

I was told later that the AA Control Officer, CPO Miller (an HMAS Hobart I Pacific War veteran, who had seen such carnage before) quickly got his team of lookouts back to their duties when he barked, “This is what you joined up for; now get back to your job.”

Very soon after,  AA Control was able to report that a swept wing aircraft had overflown the ship and they continued reporting what they saw and heard.

SPA 50 display

In the Ops Room, I stationed myself at the SPA 50 display at the starboard end of the Evaluator’s desk. The SPA 50 was displaying an unstabilised SPS 10 picture and on the 20 nautical mile scale an aircraft could clearly be seen in the vicinity of the ship. As this aircraft turned towards the ship from a position about 12 miles out and just to the right of the rotating ships head marker, I spoke to the Mount 51 captain, LSEA Stokes, using the ship’s dial telephone and ordered him to train on 010 relative, elevate to 30 degrees and then to “fire”.

The order meant fire the gun immediately with whatever ammunition was available in the loader. The gun mount fired five rounds towards the approaching aircraft when it was at about four miles. The aircraft turned away towards the south without attacking the ship.

AA lookouts in HMAS
Hobart, monitoring enemy coastal battery fire.

Using the same procedure, Mount 51 fired another five or so rounds towards this aircraft while it circled threateningly to the south-east. During this period I heard of reports from USS Boston and USS Edson that they also were under attack. Hobart retreated rapidly eastwards by keeping North Vietnam astern and the aircraft finally departed the scene.

Miraculous survivors on that night were the members of the .50 calibre machine gun crew. They were sitting down next to their weapon on top of the Ikara magazine and just forward of the first exploding warhead. Most of the shrapnel passed over their heads and they suffered relatively minor injuries.

Pre-deployment training

HMAS Hobart was the first of the DDGs to deploy to Vietnam with a ship’s company that  had no benefit of pre-commissioning and sea workup training in the United States. A few of the first tour people remained onboard for the second deployment, but the bulk of the ship’s company was new to DDGs and their weapons systems.

There was no pool of DDG-experienced personnel available to provide shore training and shore training facilities were not available in Australia. Most of the gun system personnel had not previously seen or received training on the equipment with which they were to go to war and fight.

The USN gun system drill book had to be rewritten in the month immediately before the start of the sea workup, to make as much use as possible of existing standard RAN procedures. The results achieved during the gunnery workup were abysmal and the gun system was not fully operational until Ford Instrument Company technical representatives rectified the many matériel problems that existed, on arrival in Subic.

Successful firing

The first successful Naval Gunfire Support practice firing for the second deployment team was on the Subic range, immediately before departure for the gun line and the Vietnam War.

Official historians seem to have ignored the very special difficulties faced by HMAS Hobart’s ship’s company for the ship’s second Vietnam deployment. It is a pity that no effort has been made to correct this omission.

David Holthouse, who was Hobart’s EO at the time,  adds …

Harry Daish’s article brought back some memories. I was Hobart’s Engineer Officer (EO) during her, and his, second deployment to Vietnam and readers might be interested in some impressions from below 1 Deck. I almost said “from the starting platform” but that was David Blazey’s action station, together with CERA Kevin Fanker, the youthful and efficient Chief Tiff, and his engine and fire room teams; mine was Damage Control Central (DC Central).

Hailstorm of fragments

Like Ian Callaway, I was soundly asleep when the first missile hit us, but the initial shock and noise followed by a hailstorm of fragments – rattling around in the cross passage and on the door to the officers’ after cabin flat – fixed that. We’d all taken to wearing USN khakis with RAN collar insignia during the deployments. They seemed especially useful for Plumbers, as one could fuel ship, or visit the machinery spaces and eat in the wardroom without a change of uniform in between, but Pussers’ white overalls were my choice that morning: you’re into them in a whole lot less time which, maybe, is also true of the new Disruptive Pattern Combat Uniforms (DPCUs). I hope so as they don’t have much else to commend them.

Damage inspection. The jagged tear (left) attests the efficacy of the expanding rod shrapnel warhead of the AIM 7 and explains why some of
Hobart‘s radar was not functioning.

Repair 5, the midships Damage Control Base, was just forward of the other end of the cross passage and on the way to DC Central. I stopped to discuss damage control with my very calm and capable Chief Stoker, John Scott. The lights were out, but we had torches and there was some illumination in the main passageway from electrical arcs and small fires in the overhead. The passage was smoky and smelt of fire.



Second salvo

There were no casualties in the vicinity, but this was to change tragically with the arrival of the second salvo, moments after I left the Repair 5 team and continued forward to the hatch down to DC Central. None of us knew who or what was the enemy, but the impacts were a whole lot more convincing than the sounds made by near misses from North Vietnamese shore batteries when heard from below the waterline. I decided that the second salvo coming in so soon and so impressively probably meant we were in big trouble.

Chief Electrician Ray Hunt was killed in this second attack and the wounded included Engineering Mechanic Graeme Sculley, a member of the Repair 5 team, who received a DSM for his bravery that morning.

Like Ian Callaway,  I was never interviewed about the incident, which is a pity as it would have provided an opportunity to correct some errors in the record. For example, it has always been held that we were hit by three missiles, one on the first pass and two on the second.

Substantial dent

This was the initial assessment and report. On closer inspection, once we were alongside in Subic, it was clear that a substantial dent, concave from outboard, in the side of the starboard Ikara magazine, well forward of the “reflecting corner” created by the empty boat space where the two missiles that armed themselves had exploded, could only have come from a piece of a fourth missile. My guess is that this one hadn’t armed itself and broke up on impact with the sea and we copped a piece of it.

After daylight the Captain asked for an estimate of the number of holes we’d sustained; he needed this for his battle damage report. My Chief Shipwright “Brick” Bradford and I were on the upper deck organising cosmetic repairs so that Hobart could enter harbour as shipshape as possible. The aim was to cover the worst of the holes using taped on grey PVC sheeting, damage control plugs and wedges, quick drying cement and a lick of ship’s side grey paint.

David Holthouse seems well justified in his claim that “200” only accounted for the “bigger holes”.

Why do we do these things? My estimate of 200 covered only the bigger holes, the ones we were attempting to hide, but the number was thereupon written into the annals of history. Of course there were many more: probably twice the number. There was also some pretty impressive structural damage too, including the base of the after funnel that was largely removed, and one leg of the ammunitioning jackstay tripod, completely shot away. The expanding warheads from the two armed missiles had opened jagged zip lines in the starboard superstructure, but did not penetrate 1 Deck.

While the Chief Chippy and his team were doing their best to hide the battle damage as we made our way to Subic, a column of RN ships, no doubt on passage from HK to Singapore for a jolly, crossed our bow, did a hard right and steamed down our starboard side for a good look. How did they know? It seemed quaint then, and still does, but I remember feeling glad, perhaps for the first time, that the RAN had adopted its own distinguishing white ensign two years earlier.

Representatives of the Subic Bay Ship Repair Facility (ShipRepFac as I recall) came on board before we entered harbour and by the time we were alongside they’d given me their estimate of the time to repair the ship: a scarcely credible 28 days, working three shifts. This estimate was later confirmed and would have been met, but for difficulty in sourcing material for the replacement tripod leg.

Repaired in 30 days

In the event the repair took 30 days, thanks largely to the good humour and drive of the ship supervisor (“Hoss”), whose parting gift was a pair of white overalls left over from his previous job at the Navy Yard in Jacksonville, Florida. They became my painting overalls at home and wore out eventually, but a rectangle cut from the back and bearing the blue embroidered legend “SUPSHIPJAX”, is framed on my workshop wall.

Turning the ship around as they did, in a way that Garden Island Dockyard (GID) could not have imagined, was a remarkable achievement. We were set, I thought, to be warmly welcomed back to Sea Dragon by our USN friends but unhappily this was not to be. First the Surface Search Radar (SPS10) and then Long Range Air Search Radar (SPS52, I hope I’ve got that right) played up, leading to much frustration all round, and we departed for IV Corps.

Harry Daish mentioned that the Board of Inquiry did not seek input from Hobart. I suspect that FOCAF or Navy Office got some sort of a guernsey though, because word filtered through to us that the RAN had turned down a US offer to pay for the repair, on “fog of war” grounds – friendly fire happens and where will it all end if allies start paying each other for their mistakes – which seems sensible.

I believe the Phantom that attacked us was part of the US Seventh Air Force, based in Thailand. A sad story that did the rounds at the time was that the commanding General or second in command, I forget which, was in the back seat of another Phantom some weeks later when it was shot down in flames. The pilot ejected safely but the removal of his canopy swept the flames aft and the General was engulfed.

Massive damage

The missile from our Phantom’s second salvo, which did not arm itself, did massive damage. It entered the small arms magazine through the transom as a projectile and took out the watertight door. This must have acted like a piston as the missile continued forward along the passageway containing the Engineer’s workshop’s bolt stave rack, made a hole in the main deck outside the workshop and penetrated the next watertight bulkhead forward. It finished up on a bunk in the after seamen’s mess.  All this was due to kinetic energy and residual rocket motor thrust (if any).

This piston effect created an over-pressure in the vicinity, which collapsed joiner (non-strength) bulkheads in the aft section of the ship. The 150 psi fire main was also ruptured – very useful as it turned out, because the deluge found the hole in the deck outside the Engineer’s workshop and eliminated any chance of a fire getting established in the Supply Department’s storeroom below. It must have helped with the SO’s compilation of his outstanding asset register, as it did mine.

The workshop’s longitudinal bulkhead went the way of the joiner bulkheads, and the bench grinder just inside the door took a hit. It was found and duly repaired. Some wag fastened a pair of Vietnam campaign ribbons to its plinth, which were still there when I inspected the ship, as CSO(T) I think, years later.

Repair 3 and Mechanician First Class Fischer in particular had a lively time of it down aft and did a very fine job.

The two missiles that did explode did so within a very few feet of the same place: in the vacant personnel boat space abaft the starboard Ikara magazine, probably just inboard of the spurn-water (a deck-edge lip that drained water).


Boat left behind

The boat had been left behind for repairs in Subic Bay and it was popularly held that it was this that created a hard reflecting corner for the Phantom’s missile guidance radar to lock onto. If so, one might wonder where we would have been hit had the boat been on board.

David Blazey tells me that he and his cabin mate David Campbell are eternally grateful that it was the starboard boat bay, rather than the motor whaleboat above their cabin, that was empty.  

(Incidentally, the personnel boat went like a rocket when it got on the step, but getting it there was difficult. Not quite enough power. The trick was for all on board bar the coxswain to stand in a huddle in the bow. Slowly the nose would drop and the speed pick up. Once established on the step the huddle could retire aft and enjoy the fastest boat in town.)

Fortunately there was no third salvo, but the damage to the ship was substantial nevertheless, particularly down aft. I was proud of the way the propulsion and repair teams, and other individuals of course, responded.

Lasting memory

A lasting memory of this rather exciting episode is the way people behaved in the action; reinforcing observations made during earlier counter-battery engagements. I think most saw it as an opportunity at last to do what they’d been trained for; maybe even what they’d joined for. They became focussed by it all, they leaned forward at their controls, they did exactly what they were meant to do, they took initiatives and they reported back. Excited and engaged is how I would put it.

It is true, as Ian Callaway says, that the bulk of the second deployment crew had not been trained by the USN, but in some applications perhaps this was a good thing. For example, the RAN achieved far better results from the DDG’s 1200 PSI steam plants than did the USN, and Hobart’s steamies were frequently consulted by USN DDGs in company.

“1200 pound plant get well program”

So bad was their experience that a “1200 pound plant get well program” was introduced into the USN, which continued into the 1980s, I believe. Included in the program was a substantially improved boiler feed water quality standard, the same standard that the RAN had specified for all of its steamships for as long as I can remember. The boot was on the other foot however, when the RAN no longer had steamships, apart from the DDGs, and there was no steam nursery where DDG-bound sailors could cut their teeth. It is an irony that the RAN’s solution was to send them for training to the USN schools.

The Fleet had learnt a lot from the DDG work-ups in the US. Many of the commissioning crews wound up in the Fleet Training Group where this non-USN trained second deployment EO, for one, encountered the Battle Problem regime for the first time. It was good stuff alright, and we all saw the benefits of it on the morning of 17 June.

Life goes on in war, as in peace, and it was somehow reassuring to watch those fishermen Harry mentioned, apparently calmly putting off from the shore in front of their villages for a day’s work – while we hurled five-inch shells over their heads towards Hue, or wherever it was this time.

Army vs Navy life

Life in the Navy: so much more civilised than, say, the Army. But wait! One of my late night tasks was to draft the daily gun damage assessment report to be signalled home. This meant wandering around the CIC and bothering tired and busy people for their inputs, before presenting the draft to the Captain for approval. On one such night the command team was gathered around the plotting table as usual, laying down fire in close support of a unit ashore. I listened to the Naval Gunfire Liaison Officer (NGLO), a LCDR USN, directing our fire to the tree line on the other side of the clearing where he lay in the mud, or the dust, under his vehicle, which had shed a track. A Marine I could understand, but a Naval Officer? What was he thinking?