THE OLD AND THE BOLD … Stephen Dearnley: survivor, publisher, motorcyclist, yachtsman and boatbuilder


Stephen Dearnley: survivor, publisher, motorcyclist, yachtsman and boatbuilder

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

stephen dearnley pic original contrast up bw

Stephen Dearnley’s life has been full of excitement, variety and adventure — yet on first meeting, this calm, courtly and articulate man can seem like a person whose life has been measured, placid, predictable and very run-of-the-mill. Nothing could be further from the truth.

He was born in Shropshire in 1922, the son of a country parson.  The regular house moves necessitated by his father’s vocation didn’t interfere with Stephen’s traditional classical education. World War II had begun when he finished school, but by then he’d already started patrols with the Local Defence Volunteers, predecessor to the Home Guard.

Stephen was working in Manchester when he had a close experience with the blitz: walking home from work, he heard a bomb coming and dived into an adjacent pill box. The bomb landed on the other side of the road; it ruptured a gas main and created a spectacular fire.


Joining the navy

In August 1941 he joined the Royal Navy and completed basic seamanship training at HMS Ganges. His first ship, HMS Fitzroy, the RN’s last coal-burner, was leader of the 4th Minesweeping Flotilla. The flotilla was working from the Faeroe Islands, Danish territory.Later they moved to the southern extremity of the North Sea, sweeping out-dated “friendly” mines off the Dutch coast. Fitzroy never finished the job.

hms fitzroy

Minesweeper-leader HMS Fitzroy — sunk


Stephen was on the bridge when it happened. He heard a loud explosion from aft; he looked and saw the ships boats hanging from their davits and a large hole in the deck. Everybody around him was already blowing up their lifebelts; the ship was clearly going down — and it did. It was late May, but still cold. And rough. Stephen was in the water about 45 minutes, and was revived with a very large tot of rum when he was safely on board one of the other ships in the flotilla. They had probably been sunk by a “friendly” mine.


Promotion, and


Soon, Stephen was sent on officer training at Lancing College. He graduated as Midshipman RNVR on November 1942. Pilotage training followed, from RNC Greenwich. In January 1943 Stephen, now a Sub Lieutenant, began submarine training in Northumberland.

His submarine career started in depot ships as spare crew. In Dundee there were some Dutch submarines that had escaped from Java and made their way back to Europe to fight on the Allied side. They had been built in Germany, and carried a strange device called a “schnorkel”. Local experts examined this gadget, declared it inherently unsafe, and welded up the holes it had made in the pressure hull.



Eventually Stephen was posted to HMS Maidstone, stationed in Algiers. His first operational patrol was in HMS Universal, in the western Mediterranean. After she torpedoed a large merchantman, the counter-attacking escorts forced Universal well below her designed depth. Fortunately they found a good layer and lurked beneath it for four hours.

Maidstone was ordered to the east; Stephen disembarked in Alexandria (where he celebrated his 21st birthday), and travelled from there by train to Beirut to join his new depot ship, HMS Medway. A quiet patrol in HMS Upholder followed, then he was sent to Haifa for sick leave, and took recreation leave in Damascus.

u class submarine 7 cm

U-class submarine, similar to HMS Universal and HMS Upholder



An eventful patrol

Stephen joined his new submarine, HMS Sportsman, in Port Said in January 1944 as 4th Hand; an eventful patrol around the Greek coast followed. With a well-drilled gun’s crew, they had several successful surface actions against local caiques (wooden-hulled sailing vessels) that the Germans were using to supply their more remote coastal outposts.  (After a warning shot, they always allowed the Greek crews to take to the boats before proceeding with the sinking.) They were ordered to intercept a German troopship off northern Crete; the trooper came through on time, but was very heavily escorted. Sportsman fired from outside the screen and sank the target. Finally, they were ordered to attack shipping in the tiny port of Monemvasia in the Peloponnese. As well as being navigationally difficult, the port was protected by a boom. Sportsman’s skipper found a gap in the boom, fired through it, and sank a 5000 ton freighter.

s class submarine

S-class submarine, similar to HMS Sportsman


They returned to Malta, and soon were homeward-bound for Britain via Gibraltar. In Gibraltar, they heard news of the D-Day landings.

Their new depot ship was HMS Forth in the Holy Loch near Glasgow. A new captain and crew came on board, but Stephen stayed on for the new commission as navigator.

Soon they were at sea again, making a trans-Atlantic surface passage to Philadelphia, for a major ‘first’: refit, then working up with USN submarines out of New London CT. The return passage across the Atlantic was enlivened by a stop in the Azores en route. They arrived in the Holy Loch in March 1945; VE Day was only a few weeks away.


Winding down

Having been fully refitted, Sportsman paid off. Stephen, last to leave the boat, took its Jolly Roger flag. He re-joined his first submarine, HMS Universal, operating out of Larne in Northern Ireland. They were used as a “clockwork mouse”, or mobile target, to train escorts in anti-submarine tactics. The personal importance to Stephen of this relatively short period was that during it he met Jo, then in the Wrens. She soon became a permanent part of his life and they were married in December 1945 — but Stephen still had another six months to serve in the RN before demobilisation.


Publishing, and migration

As a civilian, he moved into publishing with some help from a fellow-submariner, Teddy Young — well known as the only Reserve officer to command an operational submarine — who was also in the business. Stephen worked with the publishers William Collins, but within a year or so he and Jo became concerned about prospects for bringing up a family in Britain; recovery from the war was slow, and economic signs were not good. He applied to be transferred to the Collins operation in Australia. He and Jo migrated here in October 1947, with permanent employment already secured. This has been his home ever since. He retired from Collins in 1979.


Boats …

Stephen’s life away from work has been full of variety, in two main fields. Firstly, he became a keen small-boat sailor and a boat-builder as well. He was instrumental in getting the Heron and Lazy E classes established in Australia, and in forming local Class associations for both of them. He built two Herons, a Lazy E, a Northbridge Junior, and two Moths. He raced when he could; he took out the Herons National Championship once in the early 1960s, and freakishly, twice won from a huge field of all-comers the Imperial Services Club’s annual race from RSYS  Kirribilli to Quarantine in Sydney, once in a Heron, once in a Lazy E.


… and bikes

Stephen’s other major extra-curricular activity has been in a very different field: on two wheels — with an engine between them. He has always loved motor bikes, though not always has his domestic situation permitted him to indulge his passion as much as he’d have liked. Most of his demobilisation gratuity went on ‘Dora’ the ex-US Army Indian Scout seen in the picture overleaf, taken in Glasgow with Stephen and Jo the year after they were married. But motor bikes don’t mix well with raising children, and Dora didn’t come to Australia. So Stephen stuck to four wheels for about 20 years, until the offspring were independent.

stephen jo  dora cropped 9

Jo and Stephen Dearnley with ‘Dora’, the ex-US Army Indian Scout which absorbed most of Stephen’s demobilisation gratuity.


When he returned to motorcycling in the early 1970s the scene had changed somewhat. There was by this time some quite attractive Japanese machinery around; he had several Japanese bikes, which he used to commute to work for the very convenience of it. Soon, as a mature-age motorcyclist, he got involved in long-distance touring as well.


Ulysses Club is formed

And so it was that, through a light-hearted correspondence through the pages of Bike Australia, an Australian motor bike magazine, Stephen ended up as a founder member, and for four years, President, of the Ulysses Club – whose motto is “Grow old disgracefully”.  The club was formed in December 1983 with just five people at the inaugural meeting at a Sydney pub; by the time Stephen vacated the chair in 1986 there were several hundred on the books. The club has continued to prosper ever since, with membership over 29,000 in 2010.

The basic objectives of the club were threefold: foster contact and mutual support between older motorcyclists; show by example that motorcycling can be fun for all ages; and let other institutions know the views of older riders. The club has its AGM in a different spot each year, usually pretty remote, and riders converge from all over the country. The club magazine, Riding On, has been a significant factor in the club’s success. The club is a formidable charity fundraiser, devoting funds raised to arthritis research.  Stephen thinks that the atmosphere of consensus and goodwill in which the Ulysses Club began, and continues to function, are the cornerstones of its success. Stephen says: “It operates in an atmosphere of organised anarchy — but it works”.

Another extra-curricular activity that occupied Stephen in recent years was proof-reader for this Newsletter, in which he provided invaluable and expert service drawn from his long experience in publishing. He withdrew from his responsibilities in that field only last year, when he moved into serviced hostel accommodation on Sydney’s northern beaches.


Queen’s birthday honours

In the Queen’s Birthday Honours list of 1999 Stephen Dearnley was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia — OAM — for “services to sailing and motorcycling”. Columnist and veteran reporter David McNicoll described the award as “a victory for larrikinism” and Stephen as “the leader of the largest motorcycle gang in Australia”. Stephen regarded the coverage as a compliment and great publicity for Ulysses.


Stephen Dearnley has had a rich and full life. Sadly, he lost Jo in 1996 after her long struggle with rheumatoid arthritis, but their four offspring and 12 grandchildren are constant reminders of her.

Stephen has put more in to everything he’s been associated with than he has taken out. With his organisational flair, common sense, and abundant energy he has made a difference to things and initiated change and development in several fields for the enjoyment and benefit of many others. In his highly individualistic way, he has made the world a better place — and, importantly, he’s had a lot of fun doing it. 


Reference: Dearnley, S; The Ulysses Story; Ulysses Club Revised Ed, 2003.


(The photograph with the motor bike is from Stephen’s own collection, and those of the three RN units are from the 1939 and 1944 editions of Jane’s Fighting Ships. The assistance of the Naval Historical Society of Australia with this article is acknowledged with thanks.)