Taff Jones

Taff Jones, a sailor’s sailor.

Idwal Morris Jones, was born 22 September 1924, the son of Janet and John Morris Jones of Treddafydd Isaf, Bodorgan. Educated at Gwalchmai and Llangefni County schools. This is his story:

I joined the RN as a Boy Seaman in January 1940. If  the war had not started my ambition was to be an architect, but the calling to serve my country became a priority.

After training at HMS St George on the Isle of Man I was part of the commissioning crew of the newly-built aircraft carrier HMS Victorious. Her first action, just two weeks after commissioning and with one quarter of her aircraft embarked, was when her aircraft intercepted the German battleship Bismark, scoring one vital torpedo hit that slowed her down sufficiently to be finally sunk by other naval forces.

Victorious R-38, seen here in October 1941 was the second of the Illustrious class of Fleet Carriers, and was commissioned in May 1941. Displacing 35,500 tons full load, the flight deck measured 238 x 29 metres (781 x 95 feet) and the carrier drew 8.5 metres (28 feet). Six boilers and three Parsons geared tubines delivered a total of 111,000 shp to three shafts, which gave a top speed of 30.5 knots. Aircraft numbers in WW II varied considerably, from 33 up to 60 with an American-style deck park. With a full air group embarked, Victorious might carry 2200 personnel. Armament initially included 16 x 114 mm (4.5 inch) guns and 48 two-pounder pom poms.
I stayed in Victorious until January 1946, right throughout her distinguished war service. This included numerous Russian convoys in the bitter icy cold of the North Atlantic and supporting a valuable Malta convoy in 1942.

Operation Pedestal

Victorious was heavily involved in Operation Pedestal, the effort to resupply Malta that began 10 August 1942. Two battleships, Rodney and Nelson, four aircraft carriers, Victorious, Eagle, Indomitable and Furious, together with 39 cruisers and destroyers, were deployed to escort 14 merchant ships.

Operation Pedestal’s SS
Ohio, decks awash, engines dead,entering Malta Harbour 15 August 1942 after severe damage by an Italian submarine torpedo and  many bombs including numerous near misses. Ohio was launched 20 April 1940, displaced 9,263 tons and had a trials speed of 19 knots.
Continually attacked for days by German and Italian aircraft and submarines, the fleet recorded many losses. HMS Eagle was sunk by U-boat torpedoes, two cruisers and a destroyer were lost and Victorious was slightly damaged by bombing. Only five of the merchant ships saw Malta, but they brought sufficent supplies for Malta to continue fighting.

Operation Torch

This was an important turning point in the Allies regaining control of the Mediterranean. Victorious then participated in support of the Allied landings in North Africa, which eventually brought about the defeat of the German and Italian armies in North Africa, and paved the way for Allied landings on Italian soil.

After supporting Operation Torch in late 1942, HMS Victorious refitted at Norfolk Navy Yard, then joined the US Pacific Fleet as the Robin (her voice callsign) on loan to the USN until relieved by the brand new USS Essex towards the end of 1943.

USN VF-6 and RN 832 SQN

Victorious sailed from Norfolk for Pearl Harbor, joining Saratoga’s Task Force 14 in Noumea around 17 May 1943. With embarked USN (VF-6 Wildcat) and RN (832 Squadron Wildcat) aircraft and aircrew, Saratoga and Victorious swept the Solomon Islands. Saratoga hosted the strike squadrons, including the RN’s TBF Grumman Avenger element of 832 Squadron, while Victorious typically operated 60 RN and USN Grumman 4F4 Wildcat fighters.

In May/June 1943, Saratoga and Victorious supported the invasions of Munda, New Georgia, and Bougainville. The two carriers sailed 27 June, took up position and in the next few days put up 600 sorties against little opposition. The aircraft were reassigned to their parent carriers on 24 July, and the force returned to Noumea the next day.

Victorious returned to the Home Fleet at Scapa Flow towards the end of 1943 and in early 1944 her aircraft participated in the attack on the Tirpitz.

Operation Tungsten

On 2 April 1944 Victorious joined Anson, Duke of York, Emperor, Fencer, Furious, Pursuer, and Searcher, along with numerous cruisers and destroyers, launching a devastating attack (Operation Tungsten) on Tirpitz. A total of 29 Barracudas in two waves hit the battleship 14 times, putting Tirpitz out of action for six weeks. During the operation, Victorious became the first RN aircraft carrier to employ the F4U Corsair fighter in operations. The Task Force returned to Scapa Flow after this relative success three days later.

The German battleship
Tirpitz was damaged by Barracudas from Victorious and Furious in Operation Tungsten.



Victorious then undertook a number of diversionary operations around the UK, leading up to the Normandy landings. After the Allied landing in Normandy was seen to be successful and the German armies were retreating, Victorious was deployed to the Indian Ocean and had a small refit on the way in Bombay (Mumbai) India.
After her Bombay refit Victorious sailed to Trincomalee in Ceylon, to join a large British fleet being assembled as the vanguard of an even larger British fleet to be based in Sydney, Australia. On their voyage to Sydney, aircraft of the carrier force attacked Japanese targets on the Nicobar Islands and oil fuel installations in Sumatra. A number of Japanese aircraft tried to attack the fleet, but all were shot down.


The fleet arrived in Australia in November 1944 for shore leave and recreation. During this stay in Sydney I met my future wife. The British Pacific Fleet, or the BPF as it was now called, sailed from Sydney early in 1945 to attack Japanese-held islands as directed by the Commander-In-Chief, Pacific. The fleet’s main attack force were the aircraft carriers HMS Victorious, Illustrious, Implacable, Indefatigable and Indomitable, together with supporting escorts of cruisers and destroyers from the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

This fleet was continuously at sea, being replenished at intervals of about four days from a large task force of oilers and store ships. These vessels supplied oil, food, spares and especially bombs and gun ammunition to the attacking fleet. In the initial stages, the BPF’s main targets were Japanese forces in their occupied islands, especially Formosa (now Taiwan.)

The Japanese by now had incurred heavy losses to their navy and were unable to retaliate on the Allied fleets with seagoing forces. In this state of desperation they introduced “kamikaze” bombers. These frequently obsolescent aircraft were fitted with bombs and flown by pilots who dedicated their lives to fly directly into Allied ships, especially the aircraft carriers, whose aircraft were inflicting so much damage on their forces.

Formidable, sister ship to Victorious, cleans up after a kamikaze hit on the base of the island, 4 May 1945.

Wooden flight decks

These kamikaze bombers did inflict some heavy damage to USN aircraft carriers because of their wooden flight decks. They inflicted some damage and flight deck personnel casualties in the British carriers but because our flight decks were heavily armoured the damage to our ships was negligible. Our carriers were able to remain operational.

(Ed.note: But see Naval Officers Club Newsletter 73 June 2008 p.8-13 and Armoured decks for a wooden vs armoured deck discussion.)

Victorious received three kamikaze hits in one day and it was distressing to see 59 of my flight deck and guns crew shipmates killed. Luckily, I received only minor flesh wounds but the sight of blood made them seem much worse. Many of these kamikazes were shot dawn by our own protective fighter aircraft, but those few that got through the many layers of defence were capable of inflicting severe damage.

Our aircraft lost in these actions were quickly replaced from the smaller support carriers that sailed with the replenishment ships. The organisation administering to the needs of the fighting fleet was indeed of the highest order. Towards the middle of 1945, US and British forces were being prepared for direct operations against the Japanese mainland, but the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought about an early Japanese surrender.

Wedding bells

By 1 September 1945, Victorious had returned to Sydney, where I proposed to my future wife, Dora, before going back to the UK in the carrier for leave and to see my parents. I returned to Australia in January 1946 and married Dora on 2 February 1946. After a three-day honeymoon I was posted to HMS Swiftsure, (11,000 tons six-inch cruiser) heading for Hong Kong and Shanghai to oversee the withdrawal of Japanese forces. In July 1946 I was posted to Australia and transferred to HMS Euralyus, which was returning to Sydney. During this voyage the light cruiser encountered a typhoon which, despite tumultuous seas, was successfully negotiated. This same typhoon sank four USN destroyers.

I was luckily stationed in Sydney until 1950 and returned to the UK with my wife Dora in March 1950. Not having previously had much ambition to further my career beyond my present rank of Leading Seaman, I decided to do something about rectifying this state of affairs. I started a number of promotional courses in my chosen profession, Underwater Submarine Detection, Torpedoes (TAS), Explosives and Diving, and in January 1951 was promoted to Commissioned Gunner (T).

promotion course
Taff Jones (front row, far left) graduates as a “bootlace” (Commissioned Gunner [T]) in January 1951.

HMS Decoy

Posted to HMS Decoy to gain experience as an officer, I served in her as she voyaged to the Mediterranean as part of a very substantial British fleet. Our chief base was Malta, but during this period Decoy served some time in the Suez Canal. The Egyptians were not happy with the number of British land forces based on their soil and were making signs that they wanted full control of the canal.

After visits to Istanbul, Algiers and some Italian ports, Decoy completed her tour of duty and returned to the UK. We then became part of an RN group that visited the Russian port of Leningrad. At the same time, part of the Soviet fleet visited Portsmouth. This Russian visit was a memorable occasion. It gave those of us who were lucky enough to be part of this group a most illuminating view of life in the Soviet Union.

Mine clearance

In August 1956 I was part of a RN contingent sent to Aden, whose task was to convert a number of commandeered ships into minesweepers and stores carriers to be employed to clear the mines that the Egyptians had laid in the southern end of the Suez Canal. British and French forces had landed in the northern end but the Egyptians had sunk a large number of merchant ships, effectively blocking the canal. The invasion was soon brought to a halt by US and Russian intervention. The canal was returned to Egyptian control and the clearing of the canal was undertaken under the auspices of the United Nations. Our Aden group was not deemed necessary and we flew back to the UK in February 1957.

HMAS Tobruk was a Battle Class destroyer, 114 x 12.5 x 3.9 metres(379 x 41 x 12.75 feet) displacing 3450 tons (full load). The main armament was four 114 mm (4.5 inch) guns, 12 x 40 mm Bofors, 10 x 533mm (21 inches) torpedo tubes and a single three-barrelled ASW Mortar.
In March 1957 I voyaged to Australia via the Cape of Good Hope and Capetown. On arrival in Australia and after a week’s leave with my wife, I was flown to Singapore to join the Australian destroyer HMAS Tobruk, which was part of the Far East Strategic Reserve. During my ensuing career in the RAN, until 1963 I served in the frigates HMAS Quickmatch, Quiberon and Queenborough as a Lieutenant. In between ships, for short periods of time, I served in the RAN’s Torpedo Antisubmarine and Diving School in HMAS Watson.
HMAS Quickmatch was an ASW frigate converted from a Q class WW II destroyer. Displacing 2,020 tons, from a 109 x 10.9 x 2.9 metres (358.75 x 35.75 x 9.5 feet) hull, the engines developed 40,000 shp that drove the frigate at 31 knots. The complement was 220 and armament included two 102 mm (four-inch) guns, two 40 mm Bofors and two three-barrel ASW mortars.
In December 1964 I went to the USA as part of the crew to stand by HMAS Perth, a Guided Missile Destroyer being built in Bay City, Michigan. Perth was comissioned in Boston, Massachussets, after sailing from the Great Lakes through the St Lawrence Seaway. We conducted extensive training and trials on both the east and west coasts of the USA. Perth returned to Australia in April 1966 and I was promoted to Lieutenant Commander in July. I left Perth in August 1967 for HMAS Watson’s TAS and Diving schools. In February 1970 I was posted to the guided missile destroyer HMAS Brisbane, a sister ship of Perth, as the second in command.

Trials unit

From September 1970 until January 1974 I was in charge of the RAN’s TAS Trials Unit. Our task was to ensure that all the relevant equipment was in a functioning state before ships were ready for sea deployment. In February 1974 I was posted as second in command of HMAS Stalwart, the RAN’s seagoing repair and depot ship. In December 1974, together with my wife and 10-year-old daughter Julie-Ann, I joined the staff of the Naval Attache at the Australian Embassy in Washington DC. We returned to Australia in March 1977, where I was promoted to Commander and I became the Naval Representative on a Special Projects Design Team of civilian specialists. This task was completed in August 1979 and then followed my final appointment as Director of Naval Safety at Navy Office, Canberra, until my retirement in September 1981.

Epilogue: by Ron Osborn

Taff recorded this story primarily for his family. After retiring from the RAN, Taff worked as the administrative officer of Bankers Trust (Australia). As BT expanded its activities in Australia, Taff’s organising abilities helped to smooth the path acquiring, staffing and equipping new office space. He was held in high regard by the financial group.

Poor health dogged Taff over the last decade of his life, but he always remained his old cheerful self and enjoyed getting together with his mates to have a chat.


The Pusser and his men

By Ron Robb

This article was another distinguished entry in the 2001 Literature Prize competition.

The RAN’s Supply and Secretariat Branch has a proud and very long history. Its progenitor was the Royal Navy Supply Branch and nowadays it is an amalgam of several former specialisations. Originally, a range of people who had little to do with each other looked after food, clothing, ship’s stores, pay, legal, secretarial services and so on.


Moreover, the first Supply Officers were not commissioned officers. They were originally called ‘Paymasters’ and along with carpenters, surgeons, schoolmasters, navigators (or ‘masters’) and engineers were ‘warranted’ and classed as members of the ‘civil branches’. The Purser, in fact, wore the same uniform as the surgeons and masters in 1807. They were accorded the privilege of wardroom status, ranking in order behind lieutenants.

We tend to think of the 15th to about the 18th centuries as the great era of discovery when the globe was first circumnavigated and the ‘New World’ discovered. But the Vikings in their longboats were accomplished long distance seafarers, as were Christopher Columbus, Leif Ericsson and Amerigo Vespucci.

It has been postulated that early Briton fishermen knew about the eastern extremities of what we now call Canada. In our own time Thor Heyerdahl has demonstrated that the ancient Egyptians could have sailed to South America and the Polynesians were certainly skilled long distance navigators, who opened up vast areas of the South Pacific well over a thousand years ago. Obviously, the business of logistics at sea is not new.

No refrigeration

The Supply Officer of Nelson’s time had no refrigeration or canned foods as we do today. One method for keeping meat was to preserve it in brine. Flour keeps well, as do dry biscuits ( ‘hard tack’ in old navy terms), but vermin control and basic storage conditions made the keeping of these staples highly problematic.

The humble potato is an excellent food and keeps well, but is a relatively recent arrival. Not many other vegetables keep for very long although dried peas and other lentils (‘pease’) were available. Captain Cook was one of the first to realise that greens are vital and reputedly made his crew eat grass from time to time. The British discovered that vitamin C was all that was needed to beat the dreadful illness of scurvy and found that limes and lemons, containing vitamin C, kept well over long voyages. That’s why the British are often referred to as ‘Limeys’.

Importance of food


Nevertheless, real difficulties were faced by the early supply officers in the Navy. A ship of ill-fed men sick from poor nutrition or grumbling about food was not a good fighting unit. Nor was food the only problem. Liquid stores such as lighting oil and turpentine could leak from their casks. Rats were notorious for chewing at anything while cockroaches and weevils abounded.

Older navy people refer to the Supply Officer as the ‘Pusser’ and, by extension, the Supply Branch as ‘the Pussers’. This comes from the fact that the Supply Officer was the one who ‘holds the purse’ so became known as the ‘Purser’. That word itself is associated with ‘bursar’, a financial office still extant in universities and some schools. The Supply Officer in the Merchant Marine and the Chief Steward aboard some aircraft are still called ‘Purser’.

Since the Supply Branch ‘owns’ everything, the term has become generally applied to the Navy. In broad usage we talk of a ‘pusser’s dirk’, meaning a seaman’s knife, or ‘pussers grey’ being the colour of Navy ships, while old hands used to call the WW II cruisers’ Supermarine Walrus amphibian a ‘Pusser’s Duck’.

The ‘Pusser’ in fact can claim one of the oldest lineages in the Navy. His direct forebear was the Ship’s Clerk, of whom we have positive identification as far back as the beginning of the 13th century in King John’s time, shortly after 1200. By 1546 when the first ‘Navy Board’ was created it included a Treasurer and a Comptroller. The Royal Navy senior supply admiral is still called ‘the Comptroller of the Navy’. (A ‘comptroller’ is simply a person who has ‘control’ of a household’s domestic affairs and financial affairs.)

In summary, then, the Supply Officer has a lineage that can be directly traced back to before there was a standing Navy. He was ‘in at the start’ when the Navy was set up as a formal armed service.

The Purser did not originally enter the navy as a cadet, or commission from the ranks. He was essentially a civilian businessman who decided on a particular way of life to make his living and contracted with the navy to provision and issue a particular ship for a set period or voyage. An unusual part of the contract was that as well as storing the vessel – he went along for the ride!

The Purser had little staff and certainly no branch or division. Like the engineers later, if he needed some working hands he’d simply borrow them from the crew, who were all seamen. He did, however, have a yeoman who rejoiced in the nickname of ‘Jack-in-the-Bread-Room’; this chap was a ‘dayman’ for duties and as such not a regular seaman. He was thus regarded with some disdain by the regular trained seamen. His official title was the ‘Purser’s Steward’ and he became the foundation of the modern Steward branch.

Establish a bond

To become a Purser, an applicant would be required to put up a bond to the Admiralty and the size of the bond would determine the size of ship he could provision. For a first rate ship-of-the-line he would need some £1200, a huge sum in the 18th century and easily the equivalent of someone ‘floating his all’ on some business venture today. For a small ship, such as a frigate, a bond of about £400 would suffice to get him into the business (though even that in those days £400 was a sobering investment). Since he made most of his money by the amount of goods he turned over it is obvious that a big ship would be a big money spinner.

Interestingly, although the Purser eventually became a full naval officer, the concept of a civilian storeman continued for many years, until just recently, even in the RAN. All except the small ships carried a civilian canteen manager, sometimes with a small civilian staff, even in wartime. This explains why some crew lists in the appendices of books about famous ships might carry a few civilian names.

Nowadays, modern accounting methods and computers make storing a ship a fairly scientific business. But in Nelson’s day the ‘Pusser’ faced a daunting task and a brief glance at his job may give us a new respect for some of those earlier seagoing storemen.

Good business acumen

The Purser needed very good business acumen and precise regulations also governed his affairs. The Old Navy was victualled and stored to scales and standards (which still exist – though much updated) set by the Navy Victualling Committee. Ships were supplied from the Board’s warehouses from whence supplies were moved to the Purser in tons but eventually set on tables by him in ounces. A paymaster had to be a skilled mathematician to start with. But the job didn’t end there because rats, mice, weevils and other vermin, heat spoilage, leakage, sharp contractors, pilfering and so on all added to the unpredictability of his task.

The Purser was also known as ‘the eighth man’. This had nothing to do with his position in some pecking order but everything to do with the fact that he made much of his commission by being allowed 12½ per cent ‘wastage’ from his stores (although for tobacco and clothing, the latter being called ‘slops’, the commission was 10 per cent for the former and 5 per cent for the latter). The line between legitimate economy on his part, as against economy on the Admiralty’s part, coupled with generosity (leading to good morale) on one hand with parsimony and fraud on the other, was a difficult and narrow path.

Profit and loss

Walking that line successfully meant the difference between comfortable old age or bankruptcy. Ever hovering in the background was the wrath of an all powerful captain, if the ship did not have its necessary fighting and sailing provisions or the crew suffered ill health or poor morale.

The Purser was of the same standing as the other ‘civil branches’. In pay he equated to the carpenter, gunner and boatswain: £4 (about $8 in modern Australian terms) a month on a first class ship down to £2 per month on a sixth rate vessel. The attraction of the job came in the 12½ per cent commission, plus, at the end of the year or commission, an Admiralty bonus equal to several months’ salary, if his accounts balanced.

There was one other source of income apart from the commission and the wastage allowance. Most Pursers engaged in the illegal practice of issuing only 14 oz for every 16 oz pound. It was accepted practice, and the Admiralty turned a blind eye to it, because the alternative was to raise the Purser’s salary or commission. One of the demands of the 1797 Spithead mutiny was ‘that our provisions be raised to 16 ounces in the pound and our measures be the same as used in commercial trade in this country’.

A seaman’s ration from the Purser for a week may be of some interest. First, he was allowed a kilo of bread (a little over two pounds). A modern sliced loaf weighs about 680 g, so the seaman’s weekly ration was roughly equivalent to about 3.24 modern standard sliced loaves. He was also entitled to a gallon of beer (4.5 litres) per day.

However, the ‘bread’ was in reality ‘hard tack’ and likely to be dry, hard, dusty and full of weevils. The beer was notoriously wish-washy and very weak, at best water with some hops floating around in it and has given us the term ‘small beer’. Unlike rum, it certainly presented no problems from drunkenness. Each week, spread over different days, a sailor would be issued with 4 kg (10 lb) of salt beef, 2 kg of salt pork, 2 pints (a shade over a litre) of pease (dried lentils), 3 pints of oatmeal, 6 oz (170 gm) of butter (often rancid), and 12 oz of cheese (likewise).

‘Jack Nastyface’

Variations were possible and in place of one of the beef issues a man could have some flour, suet and currants to vary the menu with a little ‘duff’. And, of course, the daily rum issue! That was it.

Each mess had a rostered seaman mess ‘cook’. He didn’t cook, but organised the pooled victuals to be delivered to the ship’s cook at a central galley (with a wood- or coal-fired stove and oven) for processing. Incidentally, the cook’s mate was known as ‘Jack Nastyface’ and a very famous 19th century book by that name gives us a good insight into American naval life at that time.

Today, we might grizzle if our navy meals are not ‘cordon-bleu’ but the Supply Officer of Nelson’s day would be flabbergasted to see today’s sailor at his meals. Not even the landlubbers in wealthy homes then would dream of what ordinary sailors now take for granted. Each day they tuck into three or more well planned, nutritious and attractive meals, virtually without a second thought. Many of the foods we have in today’s navy were unheard of before the 19th century. Modern principles of nutrition and presentation were only vaguely understood.

By the turn of the 20th century, refrigeration was becoming available in ships at sea while food preserved in cans and bottles were common. The Surgeon began to take some of the responsibility off the Supply Officer for the planning of properly balanced meals. Specific training for catering staffs was established and the cook became a professional rather than some seaman lumbered with the job.

Other consumables

Food and pay were not the only concerns of the Purser. The Admiralty also required him to provide coal (originally for fires, not engines), wood (for both burning and repairs), lighting oil, candles, lanterns, sails, rope, and the myriad of consumable items needed by a fighting vessel at sea.

Today, the Supply Officer and his staff have shelves full of reference books, regulations and guides to assist them in efficiently controlling their empire. The Old Navy Purser had some guidance but it tended to be fairly broad and the old Supply Instructions were geared more to protecting the profitability and integrity of His Majesty’s naval stores than making the Purser’s job easier.

The Supply Branch also issues uniforms. Here a skirt is checked for fit in Balmoral during WW II.

For the Supply Officers of Nelson’s Navy a privately produced publication entitled A Treatise on the Office of Purser appeared in the very year of 1778 that Captain Phillip established a British colony on the east coast of ‘Terra Australis’. The author was ‘An old-established Officer in that line in His Majesty’s Navy’.

Pussers Bible

This valuable publication contained over 200 pages and gave useful information to new Pursers for many years on ‘how to avoid being cast into debt’. It listed many handy warnings about vermin control, checking stores as they came in from contractors, storing procedures and how to thwart skullduggery by sharp practices in foreign ports. The instructions included tips on how to argue effectively with Navy Victualling Yards after a long voyage when stores were being returned to shore, plus many other pieces of advice, including how to present sound accounts in accordance with Admiralty policy.

When the Purser found stores that had gone bad or rotten (a common occurrence) he had to seek permission to write them off and get a bill of attestation for settling accounts with the Admiralty. These bills were not issued lightly and normally required a survey board of three officers, from another ship or ships in company where possible. The concept of a properly convened board of survey by independent officers for writing-off stores still exists today.

Pay and entitlements

Navy regulations for the protection of a sailor’s pay were rather good for their day. Since there were no air mail, radio or satellite computer services to amend a sailor’s pay documents regularly, methods were established for his wife (or parents) to be able to draw on his pay at designated Navy pay offices so that they could attend to his domestic affairs. Creditors were always trying to get their hands on Jack’s pay and some quite ingenious methods were in place to ensure that Jack was not unduly ‘seen off’.

Dead man’s kit auction

The Purser became by common consent and tradition the general ship’s Executor to all and sundry so that in the event of a man’s death (by no means uncommon at sea in those days) the ‘Pusser’ organised an auction of the man’s clothes and effects. Buyers could bid on credit and have the charge made against their pay. The Purser was allowed to keep five pounds for every hundred made but had the responsibility of getting the proceeds and any heirloom effects and cash to the next-of-kin on the ship’s return to her home port.

By 1886 a ‘Fleet Paymaster’, wearing three stripes and having at least 12 years seniority, had been established in the RN. The ‘Staff Paymaster’ required at least six years seniority and wore the modern LCDR stripes and an ‘Assistant Paymaster’ wore two stripes, or one if he had less than six years seniority . Clerks wore one thin stripe. This was the forerunner to the later commissioned warrant officer who disappeared in 1956 to be reintroduced more recently as a non-commissioned, but still warranted, officer.

At the top of the pile was a Paymaster-in-Chief, who wore four stripes. Also, the white velvet distinguishing cloth between the gold stripes, now gone, was introduced (at one time it was proposed to make the colour yellow).

On the lower deck, a supply sailor branch began to emerge. The Writer was first and was formally established in 1867. The branch was given a distinguishing badge, the Supply Star. At first, Writers and Stewards wore a gold star and Cooks a silver one.

Initially, there were three classes of Writer, all of Chief Petty Officer status, messing with the Master at Arms and Schoolmaster. But almost immediately the Admiralty had difficulty recruiting men with sufficient education, so in 1873 a new rate was introduced: Boy Writer. They were entered almost exclusively from the Greenwich School and specifically trained there in ‘the three Rs’ for the purpose of handling the Navy’s business affairs.
In 1866, savings banks managed by the Supply Officers were set up in seagoing ships.

Alphonso Jago

The RAN cookery branch will be interested to know that the first RN cookery officer, one Alphonso Jago, had a direct link with the RAN. He was born in 1875 and joined the RN at 16 as a ‘Boy – Domestic’. He obviously was fairly bright because he quickly worked his way up the ladder, becoming a commissioned warrant instructor in cookery at the Portsmouth RN School of Cookery. (Prior to 1895 cookery instruction had been in charge of civilian staff.)

In 1900-03 he was the China Fleet lightweight boxing champ, taking that title while serving on the Australia station in 1904. Jago eventually became a Lieutenant in 1925, an unheard-of achievement for a cook in those days.

The faces and uniforms change, but the job remains essentially the same. Messing in WW I (left) and WWII.

He wrote the first Manual of Naval Cookery, published in 1925, and that manual stood until 1974. Jago did not invent but was primarily responsible for popularising the ‘General Messing’ system of food purchase and preparation from 1921, although the concept had been trialled in HMS Dreadnought before WW I. It is interesting to note that it is only in the last few years that the RAN finally adopted the system for its wardrooms.

Supply Branch valour

Finally, the Supply Branch has plenty of its own heroes. In WW II some of its members led lives more exciting and stranger than fiction. Paymaster Commander Eric Nave was Australia’s and, indeed, one of the world’s top WW II code breakers. Others were famous as members of the New Guinea Coastwatchers. Any general history of the RAN in both wartime and peace will have some mention of Paymasters, Writers, Cooks and other Supply Branch personnel who exhibited uncommon valour or devoted unusual service under fire and in emergency.

VADM Hickling noted some heroic acts by Supply Branch personnel during that dreadful night in 1964 when HMAS Melbourne collided with HMAS Voyager. Leading Cook Manser, for instance, left his wardroom galley in Melbourne, jumped over the side and, with three other sailors, boarded an inflatable liferaft and paddled it to the wreckage of Voyager, about 200 yards away. They pulled aboard four survivors when Mancer dived overboard yet again to drag an injured or shocked survivor into the raft. “He was only in the nick of time; two minutes more and the man would have drowned,” said Hickling (1965, p 44).

The foregoing has been but a brief description of the background of the branch that keeps the Navy fed, clothed and fighting. To cover the subject in detail would require a full scale book but surprisingly, although one exists for the RN, no major work has been published about the RAN Supply Branch. There is, therefore, a fascinating task awaiting some budding ‘White Mafia’ Naval historian.


Golding, H. (Ed), The Wonder Book of the Navy. Ward-Lock & Co: London, 1926.
Hickling, H. One minute of time. A.H and A.W. Reed: Sydney, 1965.
May, W.E. (Ed), Badges and Insignia of the British Armed Services (Navy). St Martin’s Press: New York, 1974.
Pope, D. Life in Nelson’s Navy. Allen & Unwin: London, 1981.
Robinson, W. Jack nastyface: Memoirs of an English seaman. London: Weyland 1973 (First published as Nautical economy in 1836.)
Warlow, B. The Pusser and His Men. Royal Navy: Devon, 1984.

Women in the RAN

Women serving in the RAN

The subject of women serving in the armed forces has been contentious for centuries. Not long ago there were accusations that a USN female pilot had been pushed beyond her limits, with fatal consequences, after the crash of her F14 Tomcat following a possible single engine failure on finals approach to a carrier. Two American women died in the USS Cole terrorist attack, 12 October 2000. An RAN female Midshipman perished in the 5 May 1998 HMAS Westralia engine room fire.

It’s dangerous at sea, even in modern times, but the original argument probably goes back to Boadicea and beyond.

RAN women serve in our submarines.
Sceptics claim that females are weaker physically and mentally than males. Women also get pregnant and this contributes to their early posting ashore from seagoing ships. They also require special toilet and sleeping arrangements. Additionally, some male sailors’ wives don’t want their husbands exposed to romantic shipboard temptations. Others worry about romantic favouritism or false sexual harassment claims and time wasted on sexual harassment education and punishment issues that detract from morale and readiness. Submariners, with their close-quarter living arrangements and distinctive lifestyle, are particularly vulnerable to these issues.

There are also sneaking perceptions that, given free rein, with increasing emphasis on academic proficiency in the ADF, the more verbally adept and generally more intelligent females (according to Recruiting Office IQ tests) might outscore their male peers for selection to desirable courses and promotion in peacetime, but be found wanting in war. Admission to the Australian Defence Forces Academy, strictly on a merit basis, records close to 50 per cent women in recent intakes. In time this might risk promotion block for some men, dissatisfaction and perhaps even lower male retention rates.

Submariner issues

J. Michael Brower, an American civilian IT specialist, acknowledges recent worldwide changes, including those in the RAN. He notes that women serve in all arms of the Israeli forces and that a female has even commanded a coastal-range Norwegian submarine. He is particularly concerned with the USN submarine issue. “What female submariners really threaten is existing power relations. While top admirals … maintain that putting women on submarines constitutes an insurmountable logistical challenge, many women possess just those attributes submariners actively seek … The fundamental issue is less about managing privacy in the head and more about keeping everyone at the top male,” he claims (Brower 2000).

RAN women serve as musicians.

Margaret Mead

It is important to remember that we do not have to reinvent the wheel every time we wish to discuss the issue of women in the services. Margaret Mead is as good a place as any to start with a library review. She was the first to examine systematically the physical and mental “weaker sex” argument, back in 1935 and she reported strong counter-intuitive data. She found isolated primitive societies with contrasting gender roles. In one, the men might be the warriors and heavy workers. In another, within the same country bounds, females assumed more of those roles while the men raised the children and cooked. In others these roles were shared (Mead 1935, 1950).

Many of her derived assertions were challenged, but Mead’s original data were never seriously challenged. Traditional male-female roles, therefore, may be shaped more by learned behaviour, such as culture, than just simple genetics. Learned behaviour, unlike the “hardwired” genetics, may be fairly easily modified through relatively simple interventions.

RAN women also monitor and maintain the machinery.

Sara Lister

There have been a number of interesting studies recently about women serving at sea. Sara Lister, a former Secretary of the U.S. Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, and a visitor to Australia, published a well-researched article, probably in response to earlier discussions dating back to 1997 in the USNI Proceedings, about women serving in the USN.

“The second major issue (after Services homosexuality), often phrased in terms of a (civil-military) gap, is whether the ‘social experiment’ of bringing more women into the armed forces “and opening jobs for them previously reserved for men” has “weakened or drastically changed the military ethos,” she writes (Lister 2000).

Warrior spirit

She argues that women possess a “warrior spirit”, yet combat “and particularly ground combat” remains an issue; the USA does not yet deploy women in “combat billets” except as aviators and on board ships. She acknowledges that “liberal” and “feminist” pressure from government increases the number of women in the services and combat-related jobs, but this kind of civilian control over the military risks “the professional military’s disdain for civilian society and its values”.

She eschews the hard line “women’s liberation position” that any woman with the right tools can do anything better than any man, but she sees no long-term problem with women serving alongside men in any military capacity.

Marine LCOL C.J. Lewis commanded a joint unit staffed by 13 per cent females in Sarajevo in 1998-99. “Every one of these women … was as tough as any one of us (and) exuded the ‘warrior spirit’ described by Mrs. Lister,” he says (Lewis 2000).

CAPT L.A. Wells, USNR ret, a female legal officer, takes issue with Lister on a number of points. She says that we cannot ignore but must deal with the issue of pregnancy among serving females. “A commander may forbid all sexual encounters aboard his ship, but this rule becomes yet another ‘zero tolerance’ standard, doomed to fail,” she correctly asserts (Wells 2000).

CMDR Vickie McConachie, was Commanding Officer of the shore station HMAS

Pregnancy data

There are a lot of unfounded “weaker sex” and pregnancy rate assumptions based on poor anecdotal data. Hard data were supplied by CAPT K. Amacker, USN. In a 1999 USN survey, the unplanned loss of females was found to be 2.5 times that of males (25 per cent versus 10 per cent) and “most of these losses are for medical (including pregnancies) or disciplinary reasons,” he says (Amacker 2000). Oddly, the RAN pregnancy rate is only about one eighth of the USN’s, according to unofficial but reliable data. Perhaps the RAN has better sex education and contraception attitudes.

Sexual harassment is an important issue. A certain “critical mass of women is necessary” for optimum integration into ships, according to Dr. Sue Bailey, the United States Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs. Small numerical or powerless minorities, male or female, within larger populations become traditional harassment targets. It is RAN policy to post a minimum of six women at a time to submarines.

Despite the “critical mass” problem, there has been a fairly successful gradual integration of females into Australian naval aviation. Women were employed in clerical and similar jobs in shore-based squadrons for many years, but the first three female RAN maintainers joined HS 817 in 1985. The first female RAN observer, (then) SBLT A.J. Goodier, graduated from RAAF East Sale in 1991 but she resigned in 1995.

LCDR Nicole Wilson is the RAN’s senior female aviator. She trained at East Sale and flew in Seahawks in the Persian Gulf from Melbourne. She is presently a Seahawk TACCO/co-pilot and airborne instructor.

RAN women fly as helicopter pilots

In 2001, there was only one female pilot, LEUT N.J. McDougall (above), a Sea King Captain, serving in the RAN. Others tried but, like their male counterparts, many failed to learn to fly or, as in one early instance, were poached by the RAAF during their flying training.

RAN submariners

Following the “critical mass” line more closely, and leading the world, RAN female submariners train as a group and quietly join their long-range submarines as a group. Six or seven females are posted to one submarine at a time and the official minimum number to serve on board is three. Unfortunately, examples of women serving in the RAN that have received greater local publicity include isolated instances of a possible harassment of a female officer in Swan and a more recent example of misbehaviour by an alcohol-influenced Newcastle female sailor and others returning from duty in Timor.

In contrast, severe criticism of the USN Tailhook organisation followed a 1991 Las Vegas function that featured sexual assaults of females, including female USN officers. Contributing factors were a botched cover up and an equally unsavoury politically-inspired congressional overreaction.

First seagoing commands, first clearance divers

Notably, the first female to command a USN warship, CMDR Kathleen McGrath, went on station in the Persian Gulf in early 2000 in command of the USS Jarrett, FFG-33. This frigate, with a crew of 262, carries surface-to-surface as well as surface-to-air missiles, a 75 mm gun, torpedoes and a pair of SH-60 Seahawk helicopters. Jarrett’s major task was to detect and board blockade-running tankers carrying Iraqi oil (Thompson, 2000). Closer to home, hydrographer LEUT Jennifer Daetz, assumed command of a 305-tonne RAN survey craft, HMAS Shepparton, in 1997 (navy.gov.au). She was the first woman to command a commissioned RAN vessel. LCDR Michelle Miller, a PWO, was appointed the Commanding Officer of the patrol craft HMAS Dubbo, last year. Female submariners now serve in Collins class submarines and the last RAN all-male bastion, the Clearance Diver Branch, is presently accepting women.

This Fremantle class patrol boat is a sister ship to HMAS
Dubbo, which was commanded by LCDR Michelle Miller, RAN.

CMDR Vicki McConachie, CO Kuttabul and a legal officer, was a member of the (later) ADML Barrie’s 1993 “travelling circus” that explained gender issues to the RAN. She forecasts that a female officer could command an RAN major unit within three to five years. She found very little opposition to women in the RAN. “People anticipate problems but resolve them. Australian navy people want to know the rules. Once they know them, they follow them,” she asserts.

“Most did not know what sexual harassment meant (in 1993). We were the first western nation to put women in long-cruise submarines and we are in the forefront of the world in this and other gender-related issues,” she adds. Australian women have been serving in the Persian Gulf in support and other ships since the early 1990s.

USN history

Women served in the USN in WWI and WWII, but it was not until 1948 that they could join the USN in peacetime. Then, they could not make up more than two per cent of the force and could not be promoted to admiral. By 1972 the first woman was promoted to admiral rank in the USN (by CNO ADML Zumwalt) and in 1973 they began navy pilot training. The first mixed gender US Naval Academy class graduated in May 1980, with 55 females. Women now make up about 14 per cent of the USN’s uniformed strength and supply 12 of 220 admirals.

In 1994 the carrier USS Eisenhower became the USN’s first combat ship with females as crew, typically about 600 women aboard in her crew of 4,700, serving in all trades and ranks, from sick berth attendants to flight deck ordnance handlers. In 1998 LEUT Kendra Williams, USN, became the first female pilot in US history to drop bombs on an enemy target, this time from an F18 over Iraq.

WRANS history

Nursing sisters filled seagoing billets in either the USN, RN or RAN for more than a century. During WWII WRANS and WRNS served ashore in, for instance, “non-belligerent” communications, supply and medical billets. The RN extended this policy so that by the end of the 1940s women were well established in Naval Air Stations as aircraft mechanics and air traffic controllers.

In Australia, the WRANS quietly started in 1941 with 14 telegraphist instructors “enrolled” from the voluntary Women’s Emergency Signalling Service. “Enlistment” (conferring post-service benefits) followed in 1942. By the end of WWII, more than 3000 WRANS had joined, filling about 10 per cent of all RAN billets.

One Coastwatcher

They served in all the major shore establishments and in a number of very remote locations. However, apart from one notable Coastwatcher, WRANS never served overseas and other than service aboard harbour-based depot ships such as HMSs Maidstone and Adamant, never aboard sea-going ships. The WRANS disbanded in 1948, but started again in 1951 with an initial planned complement of 300 (Curtis-Otter 1975).

As the Australian adult male recruiting rate slowed in the late 1950s and 1960s, high quality female applicants still presented themselves at the recruiting offices. This led to a pool of female volunteers, permitting selection of only the very best, contrasting with the virtual guaranteed enlistment of any reasonably intelligent and fit adult male body.

“Women have served at sea in the RAN since 1981,” says the RAN’s Web site. “In 1990 their role expanded to include service in ships assigned for combat-related duty.” It was originally intended to integrate submarine crews with women in 1997, but this was delayed until 1999, awaiting the resolution of privacy and accommodation issues in the Collins class submarines. In July, 1999, there were 11,425 men and 1,979 women (14.7 per cent) serving in the RAN.

Males become watch on, stop on sea-goers?

With adult male recruits hard to find and sometimes harder to keep, female sailors are one solution to maintaining the RAN at full strength. Keeping the women ashore, as the RAN did in WWII, is no peacetime solution. This strategy might leave more men free to man ships at sea, but this means even fewer male shore billets, at a time when many of the higher profile and desirable shore jobs have been civilianised. Only a very few very odd males will want to spend their entire lives at sea in warships.

Women have become an integral part of the RAN, ashore and afloat. There will be isolated problems, but as CMDR McConachie asserts, there does not seem to be any major systemic problem. Knowing the rules is important. She has found from experience that once they know the rules, Australian sailors are more than eager to follow them.


Amacker K. Letter USNI Proceedings 126/2, February, 2000, p. 2426.
Brower J.M. The enemy (below), the brass above. USNI Proceedings 126/6, June, 2000. p. 33.
Curtis-Otter M. WRANS, Garden Island: Naval Historical Society, 1975.
Lewis C.J. letter USNI Proceedings 126/3, March, 2000, pp 10-11.
Lister S.E. Gender and the civil-military gap. USNI Proceedings 126/1, January, 2000. pp. 48-53.
Mead M. Sex and temperament in three primitive societies. New York: Morrow, 1935.
Mead M.  Male and female. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1950.
Thompson M. Aye Aye Ma’am, Time, 27 March, 2000.  pp. 22-26.
Wells L.A. letter USNI Proceedings 126/4, April, 2000. pp. 30-32.


RAN web site: www.navy.gov.au.