HMAS Fremantle


HMAS Fremantle: A young Lieutenant goes west

by John Jobson

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


HMAS Fremantle.

Minesweeping and patrol

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

Varnished wood

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

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

Multiple duties

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


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

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

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

Portable fittings

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

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


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

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

Regular exercises

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

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


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

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

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

New First Lieutenant

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

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

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

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

Submarine surrender

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

Flawed plot

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

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

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

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


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

Arming grenades

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

Happy ship

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

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


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

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


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

Shark attack

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

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

17th century cannon

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

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

Bowlines underwater

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

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

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

Coronation time

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

The day arrived

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


The Perth Coronation march past.

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

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

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

Coronation Ball

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

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

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

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

Demolition charges

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

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

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

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


LEUT Jobson with the Buffer, LSEA Schubert

Eyesight complications

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

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

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

Good record, but…

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


One thought on “HMAS Fremantle

  1. John, lovely to read your story. When you were in the west I was undergoing flying training. When I was grounded they sent me over to the west to replace you!! Would love to have your email address so that I can share and compare!
    Tony Gatnor

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