HMAS NIRIMBA – What’s in a Name

HMAS Nirimba – what’s in a name?

by Ron Robb

 

This article was first published in NOCN 82, 1 September 2010.)

 

Originally parts of two land grants made in 1814 and 1816, to Major West and John Pye respectively, the site of Schofields Aerodrome, Quakers Hill,  was acquired in 1941 as a satellite field to RAAF Richmond. Air base construction started in 1942 but with the formation of the British Pacific Fleet in November 1944 it was allocated to the Royal Navy (RN)  for a MONAB (Mobile Naval Air Base). MONAB III arrived and  commisioned the base as HMS Nabthorpe 5 February 1945.

 

MONAB VI

In November 1945 the RN shut down MONAB VI, HMS Nabstock, in Brisbane, and transferred most of its personnel and equipment to Schofields. The name went with it, so Nabthorpe evolved into Nabstock.

 

A ship’s pennant with the name HMS Nabstock on it is the only known remaining tangible link of these times. The pennant was in the Nirimba Wardroom but is now in the Fleet Air Arm of Australia Museum at Nowra, an air station that coincidentally also had a life as a MONAB.

 

RAAF Schofields, again

In 1946 the RN vacated the base and as it reverted to the RAAF, it became known, for the second time, as RAAF Schofields. Then, in 1952 the RAN began to move in under an Acting CO, a Commander we quickly got to know  as “VAT” Smith.  Later there was an XO named Stevens, who achieved some notoriety as the captain of HMAS Voyager.

 

The establishment was commissioned HMAS Nirimba,  RANAS Schofields, 1 April 1953. The plan was to make it a depot repair facility (the birdland equivalent of Garden Island) and jointly an air technical training school.  The former never really got off the ground but the training function did, and very well too. Naval Officers Club long-serving committee member  Fred Lewis was a “bootlace” Warrant Officer in the Air Electrical School.

 

The civilian repair lobby (mainly Hawker de Havilland) managed to convince the RAN and the politicians that they could do a better job repairing naval aircraft. On the pretext that H. de H. was a strategic national industry, a political decision was made that it had to be kept alive and they got the job.

 

RANATE

On 4 January 1956 RANAS Schofields was decommissioned and on 5 January the Royal Australian Navy Apprentice Training Establishment (RANATE) was commissioned.  RANAS had run down to a LCDR as CO but RANATE commissioned under the legendary CAPT F.L. George.  The name Nirimba was similarly decommissioned on 4 January, but recommissioned the next day.

 

The business of the RN naming its MONABs is a story in itself and the naming of Nirimba by the RAN was sometimes a story of high farce.  Together with all the relevant Navy Office and other documents it was so convoluted that it deserved a separate annex in my book,  The Flight of the Pelican.  The ship’s crest also underwent three metamorphoses and the one that is still on the University of Western Sydney’s  Administration block is actually the fourth version.

 

Nirimba finally decommissioned on 25 February 1994, having trained some 13,000 young men and women from the RAN and other Commonwealth navies.

Reference:

Robb, R.K. Flight of the Pelican. ISBN: 0959194223. 1993.

 

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CDT 3 in Iraq

Australian Clearance Diving Team Three in Khwar AzZubayr, Iraq

by Troy Miles and Paul Papalia

cdt3badgeYou can be forgiven for thinking we dropped off the radar screen after our formal farewell in Sydney on Valentine’s day, 14 February 2003. Once we began the deployment, OPSEC was imposed to ensure security from the terrorist threat in the build-up and, of course, the enemy once hostilities commenced. So just to fill in the blanks, here’s what happened before we hit the headlines.

We arrived in theatre (Bahrain) on the 24th Feb. Just getting up there was a challenge, as those who went last time will remember. Two days in a droning Hercules wouldn’t normally be too hard but coming on top of the trip to and back from the States in January, it got old very quickly.

On arrival, our friendly advance party consisting of the Team Warrant Officer, Herbie, and the brand new Storeman, Darbs, met us. The boys immediately leapt into a whirlwind of activity, spending six days sorting through the tonnes of our equipment that were brought into the AO (Area of Operations) by HMAS Kanimbla. The entire load was broken down and re-palletised. The majority was then re-embarked, this time in USS Gunston Hall, which was to house most of the coalition MCM (Mine Counter-Measures) diving forces. At the same time, all of our personal equipment was also readied for the move forward to Kuwait. Unlike the Yanks and Poms, the Aussie divers were not going to sail into the war zone.

Tent city The Boss and XO flew to Kuwait on 01 March and were waiting for the remainder of us when we flew into Al Jaber air base via US Marine Corps C130 on 02 March. We all took up residence in a tent city established at Kuwait Naval Base. Just the Team, and about two and a half thousand of our closest American friends! For the blokes who were in Kuwait last time round, the location brought memories flooding back. They’d cleared the entire port on their own and were soon pointing out some of their old haunts.

cdt3group
CDT3, before moving forward.

The days, and nights, were spent preparing equipment and training for the move forward. One major task was the receipt of the remainder of gear from Kanimbla. Our four Land Rovers, RHIB, explosives and ammunition were all transferred ashore by Mike 8 boats under the watchful eyes of Rocket and Jock, who had flown out to the ship from Bahrain to act as custodians. Naturally, noting Saddam’s bio details, a fair whack of the time was devoted to chemical detection and decontamination.

On the 18th March, John Howard committed ADF forces in the Middle East to the coalition and to support any action taken by a United States-led strike against Iraq. That night, we got the nod to move up to tactical assembly area Bullrush, a slab of desert situated 30km south of the Iraqi border. The very next day was the first real eye-opening experience for the members of our team.

During a friendly game of desert cricket with the Poms (we were winning by the way), one of the boys noticed a couple of Yanks running around putting on their gas masks. Well that was enough for the men of AUSCDT THREE. With hearts pounding we quickly donned our gas masks and chemical suits, awaiting word from the Command to ascertain what was happening.

Living with Scuds

It didn’t take long for the word to come through that the Iraqis had fired Scud missiles into Kuwait. Many landed close enough to our location for us to hear them impacting or being taken out by coalition defence systems. In the first 24 hours, we went to MOPP 4 or full Nuclear Biological and Chemical Defence dress on 11 occasions. Over the next four days we went through over a dozen more of these attack warnings, each time having to go through the same procedure, each one lasting anywhere up to two hours. In the end, the team just left the chemical suits on. Better than any Jenny Craig weight loss program I have ever heard of.


Terrorist threat

Throughout our stay at Bullrush, the boys manned observation posts and vehicle checkpoints because the terrorist threat was real and the Marines had staged forward. It just goes to show that those exercises where you assume you have to provide your own security are on the money. When the job’s on, there’s never enough soldiers to go around. While we were ducking incoming missiles in the desert, the divers out in the Task Group were also in the thick of it. Four blokes from AUS-CDT FOUR had been embarked in HMAS Darwin as a detachment well before AUSCDT THREE got up and running. Now, on the 20th March, these blokes were staged forward from HMAS Kanimbla and tasked with boarding and searching an enemy tug and barge.

cdt3-mines
The mission was a success, and the boys (helped by
Kanimbla‘s boarding party) found 86 sea mines (Mantas and LUGMs) in the Khawr Abd Allah seaway. LSCD Jason Dunn (left) and POCD Troy Pudney (right) inspect two LUGM and two MANTA sea mines found on an Iraqi tugboat located in the port of Umm Qasr.

Meanwhile, back in the Kuwaiti desert, we once again got the nod and staged forward to the border. We spent an interesting night within sight and sound of the battle for Umm Qasr and surrounds. Finally, on the morning of the 24th of March, three days after the start of the war, we snaked our way in convoy across a break in the berm and over the border.

Arriving in the port of Umm Qasr, we established ourselves in an old warehouse located by the old grain wharf and started the clearance of the estuary port.

It didn’t take the boys long to get into the thick of things. The very next day, on our first dive, the team found four LUGM 145 sea mines on a sunken Iraqi patrol boat. Diving in the area was a challenge to say the least, with a three to four knot current and no vis (ops normal). The team disposed of the mines over two days in the tidal windows, remotely moving them away from the wharf to a safe area to crank them off. Although they won’t admit it, some of the dives the boys did during this phase were heart-stoppers. Old fashioned wrestling live contact mines and explosives at depth in zero visibility and a surging current – hard core!

During our stay in Umm Qasr members of the team were involved in a wide array of tasks. One patrol was sent out to help 42 Commando with EOD in Umm Qasr town. The boys had to dispose of RPGs and mortars found in a schoolyard, with many of the Aussies called on to keep the locals at a safe distance. It was challenging working through the language barrier with mobs of locals constantly asking for food and water. Hats off to the boys who at all times had control of a situation which could very easily have turned nasty if they had not conducted themselves in such a professional manner.

Mine disposals

On another occasion, four members of the team, together with a mixture of British and US EOD divers, were given the task of rendering safe and disposing of 18 LUGM 145 sea mines. The mines were part of a cache found earlier by the team and 42 Commando. The team was split into two groups, one to carry out the render safe and transportation of the mines to the disposal area, and the second team to prepare and clear the demolition site.

manta
A Manta MN 103 bottom-dwelling mine.

The removal of hydrostatic switches, detonators and horns went according to plan. The clearance and preparation of the demolition site commenced with bribing the local shepherds with food and water to round up their flock and move to a safer location. After giving a hand to help round up a couple of rogue sheep and one recalcitrant calf, the clearance of the demo range was complete.

The mines, arriving by truck, were quickly unloaded, set in place and primed. Once the all clear was given and safe numbers confirmed, the troops were able to sit back and enjoy the reward of a long, hot day’s work: witnessing the awesome display that nine pairs of LUGM sea mines containing 145kg of TNT make when being transformed into a very loud noise, a large ball of fire and smoke.

On 27th March, the boys from HMAS Darwin arrived on the ground. I think they were happy to get off the ship after six months and we were certainly happy to have the extra four divers to enhance our capabilities.

Coincidentally, we became the biggest AUSCDT THREE ever formed, with a total of 32 personnel.

Morale boostWe finished clearing the port of Umm Qasr on the 9th of April which was a real morale boost for all involved. Humanitarian aid could now start flowing to the people and the whole team could see that we were actually doing some good and helping to make a difference.

Still, there was no rest for the boys. It didn’t take the CO long to have our next task ready to go. On 11th April we once again staged further north to the port of Kwar Az-Zubayr, or the KAZ, situated 20km north of Umm Qasr.

As usual, the team didn’t muck around and the boys set to with a will to clear the port quickly. We have also recently been given the go ahead to conduct tactical EOD patrols on the southern Al Faw Peninsula.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the team to gain experience and to consolidate their knowledge in this core skill of the clearance diver. With six consecutive patrols under our belts and heaps of ordnance destroyed, the Team is throwing itself into the latest task with its usual determination.

Remembering Anzac

AUSCDT THREE proudly spent Anzac Day in the port of Khawr Az Zubayr, Iraq. So when all of you march in remembrance of our fallen comrades next Anzac Day, spare a thought for your brothers-in-arms doing the same in Iraq.

It makes us all proud on Anzac Day to know we are here representing not only our country, but also the Clearance Diving Branch.


HMAS Boonaroo

HMAS Boonaroo

by Pat Burnett

The short and unusual history of HMAS Boonaroo constitutes an historical first in the story of the RAN. It was the first occasion on which the Navy commissioned and operated a merchant vessel in peacetime because of an industrial dispute. In February 1967, during the escalation of the Vietnam War that followed Australia’s involvement, the Seaman’s Union decided that it would not man ships carrying war materials into the war zone.

The issue came to a head over the planned sailing of the Australian National Line (ANL) freighter Boonaroo to Vietnam with a cargo of munitions; this was the first time that such a cargo had been involved. Announcing the decision, the secretary of the union, E.V. Elliott, said he did not support escalation of the war and believed only naval vessels should be used for the purpose and civilians not involved.

Bernie Nolan, the Victorian secretary, said Boonaroo was not built to carry war materials and his members had not been told any details of the cargo or its destination. The ACTU was brought into the dispute at an early stage and its president, Albert Monk, advised the Seaman’s Union to man the ship voluntarily. When it refused the government stepped in and ordered the RAN to man her. The ACTU then instructed Charlie Fitzgibbon of the Waterside Workers’ Federation and other unions involved to work normally to load the cargo.

boona2boona1
HMAS Boonaroo was the first naval vessel commissioned under the new Australian white ensign.

MV Boonaroo was one of five B Class freighters, the largest general cargo ships operated by the ANL at the time. Three were motor vessels and two steamships and Boonaroo was the first of the former, commissioned in 1953. All the class had Aboriginal names, the sister ships being Baralga, Bulwarra, Bilkurra and Binburra.

Dimensions

Boonaroo‘s load displacement was 9400 tons and deadweight 6450 tons. Overall length was 405 feet, beam 53 feet and deep load draught 22.5 feet. The main engine was a two-stroke single acting four cylinder Doxford diesel developing 2800 IHP with a fuel consumption of eight tons per day, giving the ship a top speed of 11.5 knots. She had five hatches and holds, one 25-ton and 16 five-ton derricks. Her port of registry was Melbourne and she was normally employed on the Queensland coastal run. At the time of the takeover she was 14 years old and although clean enough inside, she was in a rather advanced state of rust on the outside of the hull and superstructure. Navigationally, she was fitted with a small gyro compass, a standard magnetic compass and binnacle, a commercial “ship’s head up” radar and VHF radio.

When the RAN was ordered to man Boonaroo I was Captain of HMAS Vendetta, then refitting at Sydney. I was told on 28 February 1967 to report to Lonsdale, the naval depot at Melbourne, and stand by to commission Boonaroo, which was berthed at 24 South Wharf in the Yarra. I arrived there that afternoon and immediately had a meeting with Department of Shipping and Transport (DST) representatives on the details of taking over the ship. The ANL paid off the 37 members of the civilian crew, 17 of whom were members of the Seaman’s Union, on the morning of Wednesday 1 March and at 2100 that evening I went on board with two-thirds of the ship’s company of eight officers and 32 men and held a commissioning ceremony.

It must have been one of the shortest and least ceremonious commissionings ever held, consisting of simply reading the warrant and hoisting and lowering the ensign, all in the dark. It was also one of the most unusual, since not only did we have a new RAN ship (and a merchant ship at that) but also a new ensign, as by a coincidence this was the date on which the present RAN ensign was introduced. The occasion attracted some front-page publicity and amusing cartoons in the press next day.


The rest of the ship’s company joined during that day and it was spent learning our way around the ship and the operation of the engines, winches, derricks and other unfamiliar equipment and in meetings to plan the cargo stowage. The Departments of Shipping and Supply and the ANL were very helpful and by the end of the day we were sufficiently confident to set our sailing time at 0500 next morning.

boonaroo-crew
Ship’s company, HMAS Boonaroo.

Part of this confidence was due to the fact that we had on board two officers who had served before in B Class vessels: LCDR George Hunt RANR(S), who was Master of the sister ship Bulwarra at the time, and Jim Ford, Second Engineer of Boonaroo and formerly a mechanician in the RAN, who was signed on as a Reserve Lieutenant for the voyage. The expert knowledge possessed by these two officers was of great assistance to the operation.

Expert assistance

No doubt we could have managed without them if we had had to, but it would have taken longer and been more difficult. Another ex-Merchant Service officer, LCDR Tom Whittaker RANR, was the Engineer Officer, and the Executive Officer and Navigator was LCDR Mike Freeman RAN. There were also two other watchkeeping officers and a Supply Officer. As far as accommodation was concerned, the sailors were not too disappointed to learn that they each had their own cabin, except for the sick berth attendant and an ABSEA who shared the two-berth sick bay.

At 0500 on 2 March we slipped from South Wharf to proceed to the explosives berth at Point Wilson on the northern shore of Corio Bay, where we were to load our cargo. The tug crews were on strike in sympathy with the Seaman’s Union, so we had to make do with naval workboats. Our departure and passage down river and across Port Phillip were uneventful and provided good practice for me in handling a merchant ship for the first time.

It is a very different proposition from a Daring Class destroyer, the main differences being the single screw and rudder, the reduced power and manoeuvrability and the big change between light and deep load conditions. Other factors are the increased effect of wind and greater emphasis on use of anchors. On the whole I was pleasantly surprised by the ship’s handling characteristics, especially her response to rudder movements.

We began loading later that morning, mainly 500 and 1000 lb. bombs but also three field kitchens, some telegraph poles, a 10-ton road tanker and several smaller vehicles, all of which had to be secured on the upper deck. In addition there were some explosives items such as detonators which were stowed in a special locker embarked for the purpose. All of it was destined for the RAAF base at Fanrang, about 25 miles south of Cam Ranh Bay on the east coast of South Vietnam.

Ordnance loading

The loading was carried out by the Geelong waterside workers as advised by the ACTU without serious interruption, although at a sedate pace. The DST were again very helpful and the ship’s companies of Cerberus and Lonsdale also gave great assistance throughout the operation, especially with mustering stores and securing cargo. It was interesting to learn more about cargo stowage and handling and our lone shipwright was backed up in his task of “tomming” and shoring the bombs on their pallets by a team from Cerberus.

We took over the ANL victualling and general stores already on board, which necessitated a high-speed muster by naval stores inspectors who had to grapple with the ANL’s “heap” system. The main items we added were RAN lifesaving equipment, small arms, stationery and communications equipment. By the evening of Friday 10 March loading was completed and we sailed at 1900, only two days behind the original schedule.

The first leg of the voyage was to Cairns to fuel from RAN stocks there. It started in calm sunny weather, which gave us a day to check the cargo under good conditions and make a few minor adjustments. We also took the opportunity to exercise leaving ship stations and make ourselves acquainted with the unfamiliar boats and davits.

 


Boonaroo track chart

boonaroo-map
Boonaroo track chart.

This was just as well, because the further we went up the coast, the worse the weather became. By the time we reached the Sunshine Coast it was raining continuously and three cyclones were in the Coral Sea area.

We carried out cargo rounds every hour until we got inside the southern end of the Barrier Reef and the sea moderated. At our sedate top speed of 11.5 knots it took us seven days to reach Cairns, where we arrived on the morning of 17 March and sailed six hours later on completion of fuelling. The ship’s draught and length were rather critical in the entrance channel and off the naval fuelling jetty and provided more good ship-handling practice.

As we progressed through the tropics the weather improved and we rigged an improvised canvas swimming pool on No. 4 hatch, which was well patronised.

It was interesting to note how many merchant ships we passed were on the ball and dipped their ensigns to us, in spite of our disguise, and how many were fooled by it. We cleared Torres Strait on 19 March and our route thereafter was west of West Irian and east of Kalimantan and Sulawesi. The long hop from Cairns to Vietnam took 11 days and to help pass the time various competitions were organised, as well as the usual “crossing the line” ceremony.

We also practised our small arms fire and started a ship husbandry program on some of the worst rust-affected areas of the ship. On crossing the equator on 23 March we transferred to the operational control of C-in-C Far East Fleet. The only warship we met on passage was an Indonesian frigate in Banka Passage.


Cam Ranh Bay

We arrived off Cam Ranh Bay at 0700 on Tuesday 28 March, at action stations and ready for anything, not knowing quite what to expect. It was 200 miles north of the main scene of Australian logistic operations at Vung Tau and our communications with the outside world, and hence our knowledge of the current local state of affairs, were limited by our equipment.

Cam Ranh Bay is a fine large natural harbour, one of the few on this coast, and was one of the main supply centres for the allied forces. It is divided naturally into inner and outer areas and on arrival we were directed by the US port authority to anchor in the inner harbour. Shortly afterwards we were boarded by a young US Army officer from the 24th Terminal Transportation Company, which handled all cargo operations as well as manning most of the tugs and other harbour craft and providing pilots.

We had considerable difficulty in persuading him that we were RAN personnel, in spite of our uniforms; I think he believed, looking at the ship, that it was some kind of weird Aussie hoax. We shifted berth to the outer anchorage at 0845 and by 1100 the unloading of our deck cargo into lighters had started.

Floating pontoon piers

At Cam Ranh Bay unloading operations were carried out over the beaches in landing craft as well as at floating pontoon piers. The USAF and USN patrolled the base area continuously and we had our first sight of F4C Phantoms.

Next day we moved alongside an ammunition pier where men of the 24th Terminal Company unloaded our bombs. They were much quicker than the Australian wharfies but also much more casual and thought nothing of it when they dropped one bomb from upper deck level to the bottom of No. 3 hold, fortunately without serious results. By late Saturday 1 April they were finished and I breathed a sigh of relief that the main part of our mission had been successfully accomplished.

During our five-day stay I was taken on a jeep tour of the base, which covered an extensive area of sandhills. The base contained an enormous stockpile of military equipment, vehicles and munitions, much of which went unused and was eventually abandoned, as this was cheaper than shipping it back to the States. At this time the local front line was in the coastal ranges several miles to the west, held by a South Korean battalion, whence the sound of firing and air attacks could be heard. The only action at the base itself was an infrequent hit-and-run grenade or mine attack.

I was able to witness an impressive demonstration of the latest types of landing craft and techniques, given for the benefit of a visiting US General, as well as talking to some of the Phantom pilots about their flying operations. The base amenities were naturally limited, accommodation consisting of huts and tents, but the US authorities were generous in extending the use of whatever they had with us, including their well-stocked PX store.

There was one Vietnamese village inside the perimeter, into and out of which all movement was tightly controlled; the only other local settlements were outside the base area. During our unloading we were visited by a Malaysian TV cameraman filming Australian operations for Channel 7 and the results were later shown on Sydney newsreels.

We sailed on Sunday 2 April for Singapore to refuel from RN stocks before returning to Melbourne west about. We anchored overnight in the open sea 12 miles south of Cape St Jacques, off Vung Tau, to rendezvous next morning with RAAF helicopters for transfer of stores and mail. While there we established radio contact and exchanged greetings with MV Jeparit, the second ANL vessel to be requisitioned by the government to take war supplies to Vietnam, which was unloading at Vung Tau. She was still manned by ANL officers but had an RAN detachment on board to replace members of the Seaman’s Union.

Russian merchantman

On this passage we encountered more shipping off the Vietnamese coast, including several USN escort vessels and a Russian merchant ship. After the helicopter transfer we proceeded for Singapore, where we arrived on 5 April. Our passage up Johore Strait to the naval base caused considerable curiosity among the RN ships present. We berthed at the Stores Basin to refuel, sailing on completion.

We had expected to return to Melbourne west about, but were diverted to Darwin to load another cargo of bombs for return to Sydney. We proceeded via Carimata and Lombok Straits, passing through the latter with its spectacular views on 9 April, when we reverted to FOCAF’s operational control. Time threatened to lie heavily on our hands during the return passage and again an ambitious program of organised games and ship husbandry proved helpful in preventing boredom. We anchored overnight in the approaches to Darwin, berthing alongside the main wharf next morning.

Our first encounter was with Customs, who searched us thoroughly before granting pratique, and our second with the Darwin watersiders. They are a law unto themselves and the facts that the ship had been to Vietnam, the civilian crew had been replaced and the cargo being loaded was munitions, apparently caused the loading to be frequently interrupted on trifling pretexts, so that it took seven days instead of the scheduled four. However, the delay provided the ship’s company with a welcome opportunity to catch up on some social and recreational activity and we finally sailed for Sydney just before midnight on 20 April. The passage took nine days with a bit of assistance from a “plumber’s current” and was uneventful.

On arrival at Sydney we secured to the explosives buoy off Garden Island to disembark the bombs into ammunition lighters. To our surprise, although we had been cleared by Customs at Darwin we were again subjected to intense surveillance during our stay. A launch continuously patrolled the ship and officers were on 24-hour duty at Kuttabul Steps, the only place we were allowed to land.

This time our unloading proceeded quickly and without incident. On 3 May we refuelled and the ship was surveyed by the DST. We were interviewed by the media about the trip, but by this time public interest was much less than at our departure. We sailed for Melbourne at 2200 that night.

Decommissioned 8 May 1967

We berthed at No. 11 North Wharf in the Yarra late in the evening of 5 May. So the wheel came full circle and we were back at our starting point after 10 interesting weeks, under quieter circumstances, though our peace was disturbed by our third Customs clearance since our return to Australia.

The weekend was spent disembarking the ship’s company and naval stores to Lonsdale. At 1500 on Monday 8 May a brief decommissioning ceremony was held at which the ship was officially handed back to the ANL. So ended the history of HMAS Boonaroo, one of the shortest and most unusual commissions in the RAN. As far as I was concerned, there were four major main points of interest arising from the whole operation:

It gave the Navy and other departments concerned practical experience in the manning, operation and logistic support of a merchant ship.It enabled the plans for this contingency to be revised in the light of this experience.It provided a rare opportunity for practice in handling a merchant ship and cargo.It was an interesting comparison of different attitudes towards ship husbandry. ANL and Department of Shipping officers told me such maintenance is not economically viable in the merchant service.


HMAS Creswell

HMAS Creswell and the RAN College, heritage jewel in the defence crown

by Tom Lewis

For 90 years the Royal Australian Naval College (RANC) has educated the RAN’s naval officers. In that time, it has built up a unique and precious collection of artefacts to complement the beautiful buildings set alongside Jervis Bay’s pristine waters.

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Sunrise at
Creswell, over Memorial Park.

The College, first established in 1913, was originally located at Osborne House in Geelong, Victoria, for two years, while the Jervis Bay site was being readied. The present golf course within RANC was the “tent city” of the hundreds of workmen who laboured for five years to produce the stone and weatherboard buildings that still are used for naval training today. The “Class of 1913” arrived at Jervis Bay in 1915, and graduated at the end of 1916, joining ships then engaged in World War One. Among the first class were John Collins and Harold Farncomb, who would achieve Flag rank in WWII, and command over British and American ships, thus signifying the success of the RAN College experiment.

The geographical pattern set from 1913 reflects the “garden city” concept used to design Canberra. A main ridge was levelled to form the “Quarterdeck”, and the buildings of the College were grouped around that. Accommodation for both staff and cadets was at a distance. With the removal of the seamen’s quarters (where the present gymnasium stands), a College accommodation building and a stewards’ block, the rest of the original buildings remain today, with some additions to the design of timber and stone, unfluted Doric columns and tiled roofs.

College relocation

The Great Depression’s effects struck hard at RANC in 1930, seeing the College, in a cost-cutting exercise, moved to the sailor-training establishment of HMAS Cerberus near Melbourne. Many of the Jervis Bay buildings were then leased to hotel proprietors, heralding a new existence for the site. This meant that many holiday-makers were able to enjoy the white sand beaches and clear waters of the Bay from these new holiday resorts. The choices ranged from the Commanding Officer’s House, renamed Canberra House, at four pounds a week, and moved through a range of alternatives, down to the cheapest accommodation of Links House, formerly the sailors’ quarters.

captains residence
Historic buildings in
Creswell include the Captain’s house (above) and the old Naval Lodge Hotel, now Senior Sailors Mess (below).

senior sailors

It was not until 1958 that the College was moved back to the Bay, when it became part of a newly-commissioned establishment, named HMAS Creswell, after the “father of the Navy”, VADM William Creswell, who argued strongly for the establishment of the RAN after Federation. The buildings suffered somewhat however, with a few having to be removed upon the Navy’s return, due to poor maintenance. Most of the remaining buildings have changed their purposes over time.


College dining room

Perhaps one of the most beautiful of the constructions that retain their original purpose is the College Dining Room. This has been located on its present site since its construction in 1914. In the hotel period it was used as a cinema. The building is distinguished by the thrust beams above the diners’ heads, and by the tall walls lined with honour boards. The Dining Room and its Galley were substantially renovated in 1999. One of the unique aspects of the College in its original location is that trainees walk the same grounds and are trained in the same buildings as previous generations of successful naval officers.

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Kangaroos on the quarterdeck (left) and Midshipmen fall in near the brass cannon (right).

The brass cannon from the 1900 Boxer Rebellion has been in front of the Dining Room for many years after having been brought back to Australia by the naval contingent. The rangefinder from the first HMAS Sydney also has been positioned in the front of the building for many years. It was first featured in a 1923 College Magazine. The explanatory plate notes that it was presented to the College by CAPT Glossop, commander of HMAS Sydney in that ship’s victorious action against the German cruiser Emden. The bell tower’s building date is not known, but the bell dates from the 1958 return to Jervis Bay when the name HMAS Creswell was chosen for the Establishment’s commissioning.

Set at a distance behind the wardroom are a number of houses. Eleven remain, the others having been gradually replaced over the years by more modern designs. The houses, which have a history of occupation by officers living on the base, have some similarity in design and were built in two periods: 1913-15, and 1920. They follow the same design of gabled roofs over 3.5 metre ceilings, open verandahs and a multiplicity of bedrooms. Most have five, which can be used for this purpose or as studies, playrooms etc. The interiors all had polished board floors originally but these have now been largely replaced by carpet. In the kitchens a large fireplace that once housed a wood-burning stove is now often a cupboard. The gardens of many of these houses merge into the surrounding parkland.

Captain’s residence

The Captain’s residence was originally built in 1914. Its isolation reflects the position of a captain apart from the ship’s officers on board a warship. For many years a tall radio mast stood nearby. During the Hotel Period it was featured in advertisements as having: “Every convenience including Hot and Cold Running Water, Electric Light and Sewerage”, at a rate of four pounds and four shillings per week.

During that time an annex to the building was built. In 1920 a servants’ wing was added and the south-west balcony enclosed. In 1958 a new bathroom was added to the first floor, and in 1960 some additions from the Hotel Period — paths, ponds and pergolas — were removed. The name was changed back to the “Captain’s residence” in 1958.

Another building of interest within Creswell has seen substantial change. What is now the Senior and Junior Sailors Messes was originally the Establishment Hospital. An isolation ward was located at the northern end and an operating theatre inside the main building. It is a sign of the times in which the College was built that such a large establishment was needed: many people were often sick, and death was not as unfamiliar as it is now. A Cadet Otto Albert, for example, died in 1915 from influenza.

During the Hotel Period the Mess was renamed the Naval Lodge Hotel (the front doors still bear the initials NLH) and managed by a Mr and Mrs Maffesoni. According to a WAAF Officer stationed at Jervis Bay during the war, the Lodge was an “upmarket rendezvous for holidaymakers from Sydney”.

Many alterations have been made to this building. Upon the Navy’s return to Jervis Bay in 1958 some accommodation outbuildings were found to be in an abysmal state and demolished. The original purpose of the hospital building was unsuitable: such a large building was no longer needed due to advances in medical practice. A change of identity was made, adding a central bar that serves both messes, redesigning rooms as dining and recreation rooms and so on. The whole complex now is large and quite complicated in layout.

Historical collection

The College’s Historical Collection houses many hundreds of items of heritage significance, including books dating back to the arrival of the first settlers in Australia, items relating to RN history, and of course memorabilia associated with College graduates. This latter category includes items such as John Collins’ uniforms, swords belonging to Rankin and Farncomb and one commemorating HMAS Sydney II. There are also some 15,000 photographs detailing RAN and College history going back to 1911 and a large number of naval artefacts, some of them going back centuries.

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The RANC’s Historical Collection house.

These include the Hunter telescope. Hunter arrived with the First Fleet in the rather unusual position as second captain of HMS Sirius and made surveys of Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay. He was the second governor of NSW, from 1795 until 1800. His telescope is a leather-bound brass instrument, in fair condition.

A silver tureen presented to the College in 1966 by a descendent of Captain Dawson RN, stands around 30 cm in height. It carries the hallmarks of the City of London in the year 1810. The lid is surmounted by the Dawson family crest, a lion’s head with a rat in its mouth. The tureen is accompanied by a ladle marked 1777. These pieces of silver are internationally famous. They are featured in Roger Perkins’ Military and naval silver: treasures of the Mess and Wardroom, published in 1999.

The collection includes a Nelson signature made with the Admiral’s left hand. He lost his right arm after the battle of Santa Cruz in Tenerife when he was hit by grapeshot. On the way back to his ship, at that time the Theseus, Nelson lay in the bottom of the boat with a tourniquet around his arm, half conscious from loss of blood. When they reached the ship, he was half-hauled on board, clinging to a rope with one arm while he climbed up the ship’s side. Once on board he gave orders for the surgeon to be called immediately, saying: “for I know I must lose my arm, and the sooner it is off the better.”

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Artefacts in the museum include Nelson’s signature (left) and Governor Hunter’s telescope.

The full signature is “Nelson Bronte”, which reflects Nelson’s award of the Dukedom of Bronte in Sicily from King Ferdinand in 1799. The document gives Nelson’s instructions to Captain King regarding the use of signal pendants, and is dated 1 October 1805, 20 days before the Battle of Trafalgar.

There is also a collection of presentation swords given to officers for special gallantry Usually presented by a patriotic organisation, this custom saw its peak during the Napoleonic wars between Britain and France.

In the days when swords were employed as weapons, an officer often would own two, one a fighting item and the other for ceremonial occasions. Fighting swords were based on the sabre, with an edge and a point, and were often taken into battle without the scabbard, as it might trip up the wearer in the melee that usually ensued whenever an enemy ship was boarded. Sailors carried cutlasses, plain and functional heavy-edged weapons that were usually taken up from cases on the deck.

Presentation swords were a badge of honour: sometimes a senior officer gave a junior officer such as sword, as did Captain Duncan in 1810 when he presented a sword to his Lieutenant, Watkin Pell. Sometimes, and unusually, a ship’s crew gave an officer a sword. The Petty Officers and ship’s company of the bomb vessel Infernal presented one to Lieutenant James Legard in 1830, to honour his leadership in a particularly trying disciplinary period.

Most common of the presentation swords however, were those awarded by the Patriotic Funds, such as one sponsored by Lloyd’s. The sword was “of fifty guineas” or an alternative value, depending on the significance and/or gallantry displayed during the action.

The blade was usually inscribed, as these are, with an account of the action, the name of the recipient and the name of the Fund. Two swords commemorate the same action, in 1808, of LEUT William Dawson RN, who took command of the 36-gun frigate HMS St Fiorenzo after the death in action of his captain, Hardinge. The ship was fighting the 56-gun French frigate La Piedmontaise, which had attacked a British convoy.

The French ship was captured, and two swords were duly presented: one by the association of the ship owners, and the other by Lloyd’s Patriotic Fund.


RAN HFV Memorial

RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam memorials

By Robert Ray

Gloria Shipp, widow of LACM Noel Shipp, and Sue Marschaulk, widow of WO I Glen Moore, unveiled a monument at the US Army Aviation Museum, Fort Rucker, Alabama on 27 May 2005. The memorial records the names of the 32 Americans and five Australians killed in action during operations in Vietnam, 1967-71 with the 135th Assault Helicopter Company, an Experimental Military Unit (EMU) made up of US Army and RAN personnel in a single command. An Australian memorial at Walsh Park Bomaderry was dedicated on 27 April 2002.

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The memorial at Fort Rucker, Alabama, commemorating the 135th Assault Helicopter Company and those Americans and Australians who lost their lives in this Experimental Military Unit (EMU) in Vietnam
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Over 200 veterans, relatives, descendants and friends attended the U.S. memorial dedication, including 42 or so Australians who also shared a pre-dedication reunion at Biloxi, Mississippi, on the Gulf of Mexico. LCOL Fred Dunaway US Army (ret) presided and CMDR Winston James DSC RAN (ret), OIC RANHFV 1970-71, Frank Eyck OAM and Jim Hill participated in the ceremony.

During the ceremony, an Australian National Flag, donated by the Australian War Memorial, and an Australian Naval Ensign, along with the EMU history were presented to the Garrison Commander, COL William S. Laresse, for safekeeping in the US Army Aviation Museum.

The Australians were warmly hosted and accommodated by families in Biloxi and the district surrounding Fort Rucker. General Bill Lord, CO Keesler Air Force Base, invited all those attending to a base tour and a very professional briefing: how reservists on full time service routinely fly their J model Hercules into the eyes of hurricanes.

Transferring the activity from Biloxi, Mississippi, to Fort Rucker, Alabama, 150 miles away, was no challenge for the experienced Army hosts. They simply formed a 50-vehicle road convoy and provided a police escort! Through each town the county police kept the convoy moving by cancelling traffic lights and stopping crossing vehicles. Each policeman saluted or honoured the passage in some distinctive way. It was a never-to-be-forgotten experience.

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The Australian Memorial, in Walsh Park, Bombaderry, NSW.
Fred Dunaway, a former CO of the 135th AHC, with great assistance from his wife Caroline and daughter Fran, plus the willing help of many, pulled it all together in the USA. Frank Eyck, his wife Skippy and their team organised the monument in Australia. The US Army and RANHFV EMUs who put in the hard effort may now relax with the certain knowledge that the EMU history is carved in stone, in both countries, for those who follow to ponder.