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