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

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

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

 Solomon Islands

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

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

 Coast Watchers on station

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

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

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

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

 The poacher

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

 Yet another action in The Slot

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

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


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

 Dry land at last

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

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

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

 A village is born

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

   The northen group of survivors

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

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

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

 The pick-up at Paraso

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

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

 Tense situation at Lambu Lambu

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

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

 Josselyn’s position

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



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

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


Picture and graphic captions:

Henry Josselyn 1

Lieutenant Henry Josselyn RANVR

 Vella Lavella map COMPLETE 2

Map of Vella Lavella

 USS Helena

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

 Rev Silvester 2

The Reverend A W E Silvester

 USS Dent  110 mm adjusted 2

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

 Tokyo Express V2

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

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


Anecdotal reflections on HMAS Nirimba, 1984-1987

By Ralph Derbidge

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

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

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

 Noise warfare

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

 Off the top of the head

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

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


The lost admiral

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

Gamlen sniffers?

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

Pilot training?

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

 The terpischoreans

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

 First lady

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

Lady Penrhyn loses buoyancy

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

The dark side of the force

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

 Pilot training: reprise?

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


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

What have you done for HMAS Nirimba today




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


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

By Max Sulman

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


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

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

Shanghai confirmed

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

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

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


Typhoon Agnes

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

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

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

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

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

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

shanghai approaches map_0002 bw expanded

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


An unpleasant place to be

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

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

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


Crossing the bar

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

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


swan at shanghai 1a colour

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


Drama in the anchorage

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

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

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

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

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

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

da quing 29 aground fair print

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


Freedom gained

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

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



To Shanghai at last

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

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

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

swan at shanghai 4

HMAS Swan arriving in Shanghai, 3 September 1981.




HMAS Australia, 1911-1924: the first flagship


hmas australia

HMAS Australia, 1911-1924:  the first flagship

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

Builders: John Brown & Co, Clydebank

Launched: 25 October 1911

Commissioned: 21 June 1913; Captain Stephen Radcliffe RN.

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

Length: 179.83 metres (590 ft)

Beam: 24.38 m (80 ft)

Draught: 9.14 m (30 ft)


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

16 x 102 mm (4-in)

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

Armour: Belt – up to 15.2 cm (6-in)

Turrets – 17.7 cm (7-in)

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

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

Horsepower: 44,000

Maximum speed: 25 knots

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

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

Cost: £2,000,000

Complement: 900


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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









This is the Way that it Happened– The unguided missile


The unguided missile

by Jonathan Brett Young

(This article was first published in NOCN83, 1 December 2010.)

It was the last opportunity for the frigate to carry out a live missile firing in the Far East before returning to Australia and a major refit. The gunnery officer was keen that one particular aimer, who had not yet carried out a live firing, be given the chance to demonstrate his ability to hit a target before a posting ashore.

The missile was the Seacat, a close-range self-defence weapon that had replaced the 40 mm Bofors gun in the fleet. Its control involved the aimer keeping a flare in the tail of the missile in line with the incoming target, then controlling it laterally and vertically by means of a thumb joystick. Well, that was the principle anyway.

The weather was closing in. It was one of those afternoons in the Far East that ends in a violent thunderstorm and downpour. “Get on with it Guns,” muttered the captain, who was not known for his love of things that go bang. In any case, he was an aviator and had had experience of towing targets for live gunnery practice. Perhaps he even knew the unpleasantness of TTBs (target-triggered bursts) moving along the towing wire towards the towing aircraft, which usually resulted in the frantic call to the ship that “I’m pulling this thing, not pushing it!”

The whole ship’s company had assembled on deck to watch the firing. The towing aircraft and target turned towards the ship. The target was acquired and after getting the captain’s permission to fire, the gunnery officer ordered “Seacat engage”.

There was a thunderous roar and a huge cloud of smoke as the missile set off towards the target. All eyes were locked onto the fast-receding missile as it sped away. All, that is, except the two pairs of eyes that mattered most: the Seacat aimer and the Seacat controller. Both had failed to pick up the flare in the missile’s tail. The aimer pressed the thumb-stick fully UP in the hope that he would sight the missile – and kept it there.

The missile climbed steadily until it was directly over the ship – and kept going into the disengaged side where the motor burnt out and it started to plunge back to earth (or, in this case, the sea).

The ex-aviator captain was by this time jumping up and down. The gunnery officer said: “The towing aircraft is clear of danger sir, but I am a bit concerned about that tanker on the horizon”.

At this everyone turned to look at the disengaged side. And there, large as life, and steaming at about 20 knots without a care in the world, was next year’s gross profit for the Shell Oil Company.

The missile entered the sea with a big splash, well short of the tanker but dead in line with it. The navigator, who had a sort of sense of humour, remembered something from his sub’s gunnery course and muttered, just loud enough for the gunnery officer to hear “Up 800”. The gunnery officer gave him a black look.

The captain stormed off to his cabin, demanding as he went the gunnery officer’s reasons in writing, before he went ashore again, for the spectacle just witnessed. The ship’s company returned to their duties, agreeing that it was great entertainment but another spectacular example of a gunnery cock-up.

The gunnery officer  set about gathering all the records required for the analysis, wondering how he was going to explain this one away. He consoled himself with the thought that the bar would be open in three hours time, when the ship would be safely alongside in Singapore.

seacat launch cropped for website

A Short Seacat launch: a sight to raise the pulse-rate of any red-blooded

gunnery officer? Seacat was fitted in the RAN’s Type 12 frigates:

HMASs Parramatta, Yarra, Stuart, Derwent, Swan and Torrens.

A Tale of Two Cruisers


A tale of two cruisers

by Colin Baxter

chaplain colin baxter

(This Message was first published in NOCN 83, 1 December 2010.)

The recent discovery of the sunken wreck of the WW II cruiser HMAS Sydney brought to a close one of the greatest maritime mysteries of our time. The ship’s loss left a nation grieving its disappearance, with all its 645 officers and men presumed dead.


sydney ii

I recall as a young teenager the tumultuous welcome the City of Sydney gave the cruiser’s heroic crew on 11 February 1941, on their return from deployment in the Mediterranean with the British fleet. The ship was feted as the pride of the navy and the toast of the nation in recognition of her impressive fight against superior speed and fire power. This had led to the sinking of the pride of the Italian Navy, the cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni, seven months earlier, on 19 July 1940 off Cape Spada, Crete.


bartolomeo colleoni

Severely crippled from Sydney’s attack, Bartolomeo Colleoni was finished off with torpedoes and rolled over and sank. The 555 members of the crew who were rescued included her Commanding Officer, Captain Umberto Narvi, who was badly wounded. He later died in Alexandria on board a British hospital ship. He was afforded full naval honours by the officers and crew of all allied ships in harbour who attended his funeral. He was buried in the British military cemetery in Alexandria.


In recognition of his role in the action, Sydney’s Commanding Officer, Captain J.A.Collins RAN, was made a Commander of the Order of the Bath by His Majesty the King. It is against this background that I move on to tell the next part of the tale of the two cruisers.


It happened about 30 years later in the early 1970s while I was relieving Chaplain at HMAS Moreton, Brisbane. An Italian — call him Vittorio — had presumably emigrated to Australia with his wife and family after the war, and they had settled in Queensland. Vittorio had sought me out to officiate at the marriage of his Australian-born son — call him Bruno —  who was at the time a sailor in the RAN, to his Italian cousin — call her Maria. Maria had only recently arrived from Italy, and couldn’t speak English.


It was one of those culturally-arranged marriages I hadn’t encountered before. In this country the Laws of Consanguinity permit the marriage of cousins, but do not encourage it.


I performed the marriage ceremony in a church on the Gold Coast, with the father of the groom, Vittorio, acting as both best man and interpreter for Maria. Surprisingly the young, very attractive, but shy and extremely nervous bride seemed to be very happy, despite the fact that she had met her husband-to-be for the first time only several weeks before.


At a small gathering for refreshments that followed the marriage, Vittorio told me that he had been a sailor on the Bartolomeo Colleoni in 1940 and was trapped in a gun turret by battle damage from Sydney’s deadly onslaught that immobilised his ship. With his typical Italian effervescent broken English, laced by a few expletives, Vittorio expressed his utter dismay and incredulity that an, in his opinion, inferior Australian warship had left him imprisoned in a damaged gun turret frantically saying the Rosary believing he was going to drown. (The Guissano class cruiser I believe did boast superior armoury and speed — a real greyhound of the sea, capable of over 40 knots.)


Fortunately, an officer from the stricken ship heard Vittorio’s cries for help and managed to free him from the damaged turret. They both dived overboard and were picked up by a British destroyer. Vittorio eventually found himself in a POW camp in Australia.

Later  in 1941, he was fortunate enough to be transferred to a detention centre near Griffith in NSW. There he spent the rest of the war working as a farmhand with other prisoners who enjoyed a significant amount of freedom based on trust; this won him over to the Australian way.


It’s my conjecture that at war’s end, repatriated home to Italy, Vittorio found it difficult to settle back into a country so dislocated by years of war. This perhaps led him to leave his homeland and find refuge and a new life in far-away ‘Oz’.


Looking back through that story, what a refreshing thing it was that in the wake of such destruction and violence, men at war still retained and afforded to a former fallen enemy, the captain of the Bartolomeo Colleoni, such values as decency, compassion and chivalrous respect; and buried him as they would have one of their own, with full naval honours.


There is a certain kind of irony here that is expressed in Beth Neilson’s pop song that I heard on radio recently called ‘World of Hurt’:

In a world of hurt nothing seems to work.

We’re just a lonely little planet made of dust and dirt.

But who would think in a world like this

A thing so beautiful as LOVE exists.


The world into which the child Jesus was born was violent. If anything it was much more violent than ours. Born in a cave at the back of an inn, and forced by the threat of infant genocide by a crazed King Herod, His parents fled with Him to Egypt and lived there as refugees for four years until the King’s death. At the age of 33, His enemies had Him condemned to death on a trumped-up charge and hung Him on a Roman gallows overlooking a city’s garbage dump. But despite what the world did to Him, it is written of Him:


… He was a light that shone in the darkness, and that light still shines, and the darkness will never put it out.


Shalom, and Season’s Greetings to all.



(Historical Note by Ed: Without wishing to detract from this fine spiritual message inspired by and drawn from a famous RAN action, Bartolomeo Colleoni achieved ‘over 40 knots’ on trials running ‘light ship’without ammunition, with much of her armament removed, and with minimal fuel. She would not have achieved that speed in fighting trim. The Guissanoclass cruisers were very lightly armoured, with a maximum plate thickness of 24mmcreating another area of critical vulnerability.)