Memories of the early days of WW2 By John Philip Stevenson

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

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

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

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


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 Two hours later we caught sight of the smoke and noise of battle but by the time we arrived the Graf Spee had withdrawn and had entered Montevideo harbour.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


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

(Contributed by Reinier Jessuran)




  1. XI.39

My Dear Old Bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours Fred

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

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

HMS Royal Oak 1939

scapaflow1939 chart U47 incursion 300-80 (2)

Fred Cook’s subsequent service in WW2

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

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

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

F.Cook in LCT

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

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

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


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

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

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

We waited, and waited and waited!

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

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


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




THE WAY IT WAS: Government House, Sydney under the most recent Naval Governor of New South Wales, 1991-1996


Government House, Sydney under the most recent Naval Governor of New South Wales, 1991-1996

By Ralph Derbidge

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

When I look back on my life to date, I have no hesitation in rating my time at Government House Sydney as a principal highlight.  This essay is about that house, its people and the then Governor and his lady.

Government House

No Governor of New South Wales has lived in Government House since Rear Admiral Peter Sinclair retired as our 35th Governor, but I believe that the property is in the hands of the best alternative custodians,  the Historic Houses Trust of NSW.  This statutory authority was established specially to conserve and manage the state’s cultural heritage of this state.  Government House is the jewel in the crown of that body’s area of responsibility.

gh external from gate_ bw

Government House, Sydney, NSW, from the main gate


The heart and soul of any inherently active organisation or institution  are its people.  And so it was with the then vice-regal residence and workplace for the Governor of this state.

By mid-1995, the establishment of staff at Government House had been fixed at 31 more-or-less permanent members.  The so-called permanent staff fell into three quite different categories and were recruited or sourced accordingly.  There was the official (or public service) staff numbering 13, the personal staff of four and the domestic staff totalling 14 and the members of each division had varying terms of reference and conditions of service.

The official staff consisted of the Official Secretary and an administrative assistant, a speech-writing research officer, five clerical staff, a building and property maintenance staff of four, an after-hours gatekeeper and the Governor’s driver.  These people were mostly long-serving New South Wales government employed public servants.

governor  mrs sinclair with scarlett

The Governor and Mrs Sinclair with Scarlett

Personal Staff

The appointed personal staff comprised four: myself,  Mrs Sinclair’s secretary  and two aides-de-camp in waiting (or ADC’s).  The domestic staff was made up of footmen, maids and kitchen staff in almost equal numbers, co-ordinated by the Butler.

The personal staff and the domestic staff, in contrast to the official staff, were under direct contract to the Governor and their recruitment or appointment rested finally on the personal approval of the Governor and his lady.  The Sinclairs, I should stress, took an active role in this process.

Official Secretary

The Official Secretary presided over all staff.  The Private Secretary worked under, but not for, the Official Secretary and it is important to appreciate this distinction.  The coordination and direction of the personal staff and domestic staff were the responsibility of the Private Secretary but there was overlap with the Official Secretary, as you might expect.

The contracted non-union staff had no security of tenure and were retained in theory, subject to satisfactory performance of duties, at the Governor’s pleasure.  They could be, and were, eventually dismissed by the government at short notice.


In the final analysis, the government’s dictates of 16 January 1996 (announcing tthat Government House would cease to be used as the residence of Governors of the state who would henceforth provide their own living accommodation —  Ed.) resulted in the dismissal services-no-longer-required of all of the contracted staff.

To be fair, the government offered the full range of employee assistance resources and programmes to dismissed staff but, with a fortnight’s notice to quit for the majority, there was little time for individuals to ponder their fate or to be selective about their futures. The domestic staff were given the most sympathetic treatment, which was appropriate, and most of them found, or were steered in the direction of new work by the time I left the house.

Extended family

There was an extended family of staff serving the office of the Governor and it would be remiss of me not to mention them. The security of Government House was in the hands of a dozen or so New South Wales Police Service armed security branch officers who worked shifts in teams of four over continuous 24-hour periods. The upkeep and presentation of the splendid gardens and grounds within the fence perimeter were the responsibility of a team of six or so gardeners on rotational secondment from the staff of the neighbouring Royal Botanic Gardens.

There were others whose expertise and experience were called upon to advise or assist as circumstances required.  The Crown Solicitor and the Solicitor General were typical of those who gave counsel to the Governor when called upon so to do, especially in times of actual, predicted or perceived constitutional crises.  I suggest there was more of the latter rather than the former in this context during my tenure at Government House, which only serves to highlight the enduring stability of our existing form of government and associated conventions in this ever-so-fortunate democracy of ours.

I should mention also the half-dozen honorary ADC’s who supported the Governor and Mrs Sinclair after hours and on weekends at all manner of functions and activities.  They were reservists from the three armed services who, otherwise, were civilians working at their own vocations.  They were to be found assisting in investiture ceremonies, receptions, musical evenings and the like, or attending upon the vice regal couple as required.


My happiest moments at Government House revolved around the daily interactions with other staff.  In view of the Governor’s extraordinary, ever-busy programme, there was not much time available for light relief, but it was a mostly contented band of dedicated and hard working people at Government House, some of whom were long serving staff members who had seen a number of vice regal representatives come and go.

It would be unfair to pretend that there were no difficulties or tensions within from time-to-time, but the show went on in an exceptionally dynamic environment and all members of staff contributed to a very efficient and effective vice regalship in this state.

Position abolished

With the retirement of the then Governor Sinclair, and the attendant closure of Government House as the vice regal residence and workplace, the long established office of the Private Secretary was abolished and consigned to the vaults of history.

I could lay claim to having been the last holder of the oldest civil service office in the land.  The Private Secretary to the first Governor, Captain Arthur Phillip RN, was one Andrew Miller who arrived with the First Fleet and served until June 1788 when he was relieved by David Collins Esq who also held the position of Judge Advocate of the then infant Colony of New South Wales.


For nigh on four years, from mid-march 1992, I served, one of the busiest and most popularly acclaimed holders of a vice regal office in the modern history of Australia.  As the Private Secretary, I was directly responsible for the planning and conduct of the Governor’s ceremonial and community activities and for the co-ordination of the internal operation of the house.

In the process, I carried much of the administrative burden of the household proceedings while supervising the input of contributing staff, processing the private, semi-official and official (but not constitutionally related) correspondence, overseeing the ceremonial and protocol functions and roles of the Governor, maintaining the Governor’s 250 plus patronages, despatching the daily vice-regal notices to The Sydney Morning Herald and managing the seven-day-a-week vice-regal programme, otherwise known as ‘The Diary’.  A measure of that involvement was that I personally staffed and signed in excess of 12,000 individual letters for the Governor during this period.

Energy and innovation

The Sinclairs were extraordinarily energetic and innovative.  Indeed, I would go so far as to affectionately classify the Governor as a peerless workaholic.  Nothing was too much trouble for him and he would view it as slothful if virtually every awake minute of his day was not given over to some productive endeavour.  If nothing was programmed, improvisation was the order of the moment.


The Governer and Mrs Sinclair were imbued with an acute sense of duty and responsibility, and compromises were only made when inescapable.  All reasonable requests for their time and services, often at short-notice, were accepted if there were available gaps in ‘The Diary’.  The vice regal programme was projected three months in advance through monthly programme meetings.  Despite maximum utilisation of the available diary time, the Governor and Mrs Sinclair were only ever available to accept about one third of the requests placed before them.  It points to the extent of their appeal.

The Governor mostly wrote all of his speeches in longhand which were then processed to type.  There was well in excess of 1000 major speeches delivered by him while in office.  I categorise a major speech as being a prepared text of 10 minutes duration or longer and he gave one of these on average every working day of the week.  He spoke on just about every subject of interest and so you can imagine the research, resources, time and energy that went into this important aspect of his term in office.

With the passing of every year, the Governor approved the use of the house for evermore functions, presentations, launchings, acknowledgments and the like by outside organisations and patronages to the extent that, by the end of 1995, some 35,000 persons were visiting the house each year for multifarious purposes.  It had not always been this way, but Governor Sinclair never publicly veered away from his conviction that it was the house of the peoples of New South Wales and should be available to them whenever possible.

Humanity and a dog

There was, I stress, a very human side to Government House.  The Governor had a well developed sense of humour and several pressure-relieving sporting interests and hobbyist pursuits.  He and Mrs Sinclair had a special affinity with young persons, the disabled and disadvantaged and country folk, and, of course, there was the principal star of stage, screen, television, poetry and magazine and newsprint reporting, to wit Scarlett, the Governor’s pet kelpie dog, and her five pups born on location.  For better or worse, many important visitors to Government House found themselves playing second fiddle to Scarlett, whom I am convinced had no idea that she was a dog.  And why not for, as with Rhett Butler, Scarlett was the Governor’s obsession!  She was even known to gate-crash investitures.

investiture room

The Investiture Room. Unfortunately gray-scale presentation cannot convey adequately the richness of this splendid room.


Investitures at Government House were held normally in April and September of each year following the promulgation respectively of the Australia Day and Queen’s Birthday honours lists.  For the vice-regal couple and all of the staff, plus a supporting cast including the New South Wales Police Service and St John Ambulance Australia and others, they posed the supreme ceremonial and protocol occasions of the year.

In all, some 500 good citizens of New South Wales were invested each year at Government House with the insignia of their awards in the Order of Australia, the Order of St John, for bravery and for distinguished service in each of the three arms of the Australian Defence Force, the New South Wales Public Service and the police, fire, ambulance and emergency services.

Preparations commenced some three months beforehand, very soon after the awards lists were made public.  I leave it to your imagination to sense the effort involved in bringing together at each ceremony some 70 recipients from around the state with their three guests each, plus officialdom, making everyone feel just as important as the other, staging and recording a memorable show and entertaining all to champagne and refreshments, small eats and live music to round out the occasion.

To the casual observer, the investitures always seemed to go like clockwork while leaving everybody with a warm feeling.  But they had their trying and sometimes unpredictable moments for the master of ceremonies, despite the best laid plans and all of that!  Let me share some of them with you while I hasten to stress that I mean no offence in the retelling.

My very capable staff would put together for me the form and content of the names and citations to cover every award, around which I would develop the supporting script and briefing notes.  No two ceremonies were identical and they demanded attention to detail.  Correct pronunciation of names and places was obviously important.  I found that, with our multicultural diversity, bravery awards, for example, are rarely won by the Jack Smiths from Rose Bay.  And we do have some exotically named places in this great state of ours that the locals express in only one way!

government house staff at stand by

Government House investiture team at stand-by.

Accident & misadventure

By my 26th investiture, I was pretty good at the business and could even ad lib with ease but I put a lot of homework into my early ceremonies.  I had to run my first investiture within days of joining Government House and there was little time for me to get up to flying speed.  And so I concentrated on the seemingly difficult words while skimming over those that appeared straight-forward.  That first ceremony was soon in full flight and running smoothly and I found myself readily slipping into the ease and entrancement which flow from a soundly researched and well-prepared script, or so I thought!

Unblinkingly, and at the appropriate point, I proclaimed loudly “to be awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for services to art — Mr Ken Done” (which I pronounced “Dunn”). As he moved past me towards the Governor to receive his award, I heard him mutter, unimpressed “not even half close!” or words to that effect. Ken may have forgiven me now.

Then there was the third attempt to coax to Sydney a particularly nomadic free spirit from the Northern Rivers area of the state who, if my memory serves me well, had earned a bravery award for plucking a child from a dangerously flooded stream.  He could be reached only through a post box address or through his mother in Queensland.  We finally made contact but he would only come if he could play his didgeridoo at some time during the proceedings.  This bothered me a bit, because the investiture cermonies were already overtimed, so I took this problem of precedent to the Governor who, in the interests of harmony, said  “Make it so!”  So I went away, wondering how and when, and whether this would lead to equal time for balalaikas, sitars and the like, and invited the man to come with his didgeridoo.  But, again, he did not show and eventually the award went off in the mail to the post box address.

Hidden dangers in zeal

I will round this segment off with an example of the pitfalls of zeal.  Shortly after joining, a new ADC was assigned the duty at his first investiture of carrying to the Governor on a velvet cushion each insignia in turn for presentation to the recipient.  This activity, after the citation was announced, was executed in military drill fashion and the final manoeuvre required a halt followed by a full left turn.  The ADC, fresh from his reserve battalion, must have confused the investiture room with the parade ground.  With rigid precision, he crash halted and pivoted left with stomping vigour.  Sure enough, the insignia for the first recipient shot right off the cushion with centrifugal force and clattered to the floor.  You can then imagine the scene as initial nervous tension propelled the ADC, the recipient, the Governor, me and two others from the front row of spectators in simultaneous convergence upon the hapless insignia.  Decorum was finally restored, and the show went on without further hindrance but it took some time for the ADC’s complexion to return to normal.  My only real concern was whether or not he had inadvertently revealed to all and sundry the secret of the Governor’s impressive recollection of the background and deeds of every recipient.  In the initial confusion, had he exposed the cue card attached to the back of the cushion?

Honours and awards

The investitures, of course, were always humbling yet uplifting affairs and I never ceased to marvel at the capacity of so many wondrous folk to do so much on behalf of others.  In particular, the details of some of the feats of bravery left one in awe of the incredible will and courage possessed by certain individuals who went to extraordinary lengths to assist their fellow citizens in the face of great adversity and real peril.

The awards system

It is right that our high achieving and selflessly serving citizens should be recognised in the way that they are through the Australian Honours and Awards system, and sooner rather than later.  Sadly, that system does not always  acknowledge a vast army of unassuming folk who give daily of themselves to others, for it relies almost entirely on persuasive nominations by our fellow countrymen and women.  And we are not very good as nationals at this sort of thing.  But the system is there, and it is the only one we have and it should be respected.  It is not something that can be treated as a lay-by department in the expectation that the store management will change in due course.  You may recall the publicity afforded the lady several years ago who wanted her award held in trust until it could be presented to her by our first republican President.  Wisely, she was rebuffed.


I hope that I have been able to illustrate for you the very human side of Government House under the Sinclairs and to unravel some of the mystique of investitures.  It was an unbelievably busy Government House throughout my four years there, and I marvel today at what was achieved by a very dutiful and caring Governor and his lady with the support of a relatively small but loyal and exceptionally hard working staff.  It was my privilege and pleasure to have served as the Private Secretary to His Excellency Rear Admiral Peter Sinclair AC AO (Mil), the 35th Governor of New South Wales.