I joined the Navy in January of 1937, three days before my seventeenth birthday. I was immediately sent to Flinders Naval Depot in Victoria where we were assigned to a class and issued with uniforms, a hammock and blanket. Later, we were introduced to the parade ground where we marched and marched and marched. I remember almost every step because of the blisters on my feet from breaking in new boots. On completion of ten months instruction in Naval gunnery, torpedoes, depth charges and not forgetting spit and polish, we were considered ready for sea and were sent to various ships. Mine was the Australia, a ship of 10,000 tons and eight 8”guns.
Preparations were being made to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the landing by Governor Phillip in Sydney Cove. It was a spectacular sight. All Naval ships were dressed with hundreds of flags by day. At night, the silhouette of the ships were illuminated by hundreds of lamps. Several other Navies were represented including the French, Italian, American, Dutch and British. There was a spectacular fireworks display at the end of proceedings.
In April of 1938, I was assigned to the Albatross, a seaplane carrier built at Cockatoo Dockyard just after World War I. We took her to England where she was used as down payment on the light cruiser Hobart. I managed to get some leave while there so I went up to Birmingham to visit an uncle who had stayed there after World War I. It was while I was there that Germany made its move provoking the crisis of 1938 which caused Britain to mobilise. I was in the local picture theatre with my uncle when the picture was interrupted and my name appeared on the screen recalling me to the ship. On the way back to the house to pick up my bags we saw many people already in the parks digging slit trenches.
I caught a train at about 9pm and by the time we reached Plymouth, in the early hours of the morning, we were packed in like sardines; all Navy men heading for the barracks in Devonport. I went to Navy house hoping to get a hot drink, but the place was completely packed out. It was incredible that so many men could be mobilised in so short a time. Fortunately it did not last long. The British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain returned from Germany with his ‘Peace in our time’ pledge and so we were free to sail for home. Before we left, we were able to walk along Plymouth Hoe and see the spot where Drake played bowls before polishing off the Spanish Armada. We also managed to get down to Portsmouth to see Nelson’s Victory and observe the spot where he fell saying, “Kiss me Hardy, I’ve had the gong.”, or words to that effect. I did not get to London. I had to wait until I had a clear weekend free, and the day before, I was caught doing something I shouldn’t have done and so I copped three days stoppage of leave, and another opportunity did not present itself before we left.
Back home in Australia, we did a tour around Tasmania, showing the flag at Hobart, Burnie, Bell Bay and Devonport, before arriving at Jarvis Bay in N.S.W. where we went through an extensive work up period to familiarise ourselves with the workings of the ship. I was a member of a twin mounting 4”anti aircraft gun. We worked and worked until we obtained a rate of twenty rounds a minute per gun with a practice projectile.
On our return to Sydney, we looked forward to a spot of leave at home and also to renew old acquaintances, as by now, it was over twelve months since we left Sydney. On Sundays, we were allowed to entertain our visitors on board, and on this particular day, the Officer of the Day was entertaining his girlfriend in the wardroom. When the time came for visitors to return to shore, the motorboat was called out and came alongside the gangway. One member of the boat’s crew answered to the name of Angus Seymour. It was his duty to keep the boat alongside and give any assistance to passengers stepping onto it from the ship. The boat was kept alongside longer than usual, so Angus glanced up the gangway to see what the delay was, just as the girlfriend commenced her descent. Perhaps he allowed his gaze to linger longer than was considered prudent because the Officer of the Day called out,
“What’s your name, sailor?”
“Seymour, Sir.” was the reply.
“Report to me when you get back.” said the officer. “You’ll see less when I’ve finished with you.”
Late in August, a German merchant ship entered Sydney Harbour and anchored off Bradley’s Head. On September 1st she left without acknowledging any signals, so the Hobart was ordered to shadow her. As we were on a peacetime footing, it took us several hours to get up enough steam to sail, so when we got outside the heads, we knew not where she went. After two days of searching, it was obvious she had given us the slip.
Of course, on September 3rd we listened to Robert Menzies perform his melancholy duty and we were despatched to do ours. Initially, we were based in Colombo and picked up the first contingent of troops and escorted them across the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea. Later we were moved to Aden to continue much the same work, but I suspect it was also to provide extra anti-aircraft defence because by now, Italy had joined the circus and was bombing ships anchored in the harbour.
The officer in charge of our small division was a Lieutenant Commander on loan from the Royal Navy. He was often in trouble with the Captain because whenever we attempted some sort of exercise, it usually resulted in chaos because the men became confused with his instructions. As a result, we nicknamed him ‘Dildo’. About this time, Dildo was recalled to England where he was given command of a submarine. We felt like sending our commiserations to the crew but lo and behold, Dildo covered himself in glory, winning the D.S.O. and bar for the havoc he wreaked amongst Italian shipping in the Mediterranean Sea. The seabed around Taranto Harbour was mostly rock. The sonar equipment could not distinguish between rock or steel, so he would lay on the bottom, and when everything was quiet, he would pop up to periscope depth, knock off the nearest ship in the harbour and then submerge to the bottom again. The destroyers would come out dropping depth charges and for half an hour or so, complete bedlam would reign. When things quietened down again, he would listen for the last destroyer to return to harbour, come up to periscope depth again and knock off another one, before returning to the bottom. This type of action was repeated until he had fired all torpedoes. He would then sneak back to either Malta or Alexandra, reload torpedoes, the troops would enjoy a spot of leave, and then travel back to Taranto again.
While we were still in Aden, intelligence reports came through which indicated the Germans were trying to infiltrate through Yemen in effort to gain control of the Persian Gulf, so we were despatched to ‘show the flag’ and perhaps get the Prince on side. The Captain went ashore bearing gifts and to present his credentials and, in the afternoon, the Prince returned the compliment. His gifts to us were all livestock; yaks, goats and chickens which all ended up in the butcher’s shop. You can imagine the shop with its gleaming white tiles, chopping blocks scrubbed snow white and stainless steel benchtops polished so you could see your face in them and five minutes later, the floor was covered in bulldust, chicken poo and goat droppings. The butcher broke into a burst of profanity and after five minutes, began repeating himself. He wore three good conduct badges which meant he had been in the Navy at least thirteen years. In all that time, he had not been called upon to slaughter anything. Fortunately we had on board a couple of ex buffalo hunters and a kangaroo shooter, so it wasn’t long before the shop was back to its gleaming best.
At Italy’s entry into the war, she had a number of submarines in the Red Sea in addition to surface craft, a strongly defended base at Massawa in North Africa and well equipped armies in Abyssinia and Eritrea. She had high hopes of closing the Red Sea to British shipping and immobilizing the Suez Canal. She had however, no success whatever in this area. In British Somaliland, it became necessary to give protection against air attack during disembarkation. We spent alot of time at Berbera keeping the garrison supplied with provisions and ammunition, but after some weeks passed, it became clear that to avoid capture or annihilation they would have to be evacuated. Hobart supervised the evacuation and was the last ship to leave, remaining several hours scanning the desert for stragglers, of which there were many.
Early in the morning, we turned our guns on the town and destroyed it. The Captain was awarded the C.B.E. for his part and other officers received the D.S.O., while the ship’s crew were ‘mentioned in despatches’ for the difficult circumstances under which they had to operate. A wind used to start blowing about 10am and continued for the rest of the day raising waves up to 5 feet in the harbour and filling the air with sand whipped up from the desert. Coupled with machine gun attacks from the air, conditions were far from pleasant. On some occasions, the wind reached gale force intensity and once, we dragged anchor and ended up aground on an ebbing tide. Efforts to refloat the ship were hopeless and the next six hours was heart in the mouth stuff until the incoming tide refloated us. Fortunately, in that time we did not get one air raid, we would not have been able to bring our guns to bear because we were listing so badly. Shortly after refloating, there were several, one after the other.
We spent fifteen months altogether in the Red Sea, bombarding enemy positions along the North African coast and escorting ships through the Red Sea. It became obvious that we needed to go into dry dock. We had rested on two propeller shafts when we went aground and they were now causing some concern, so we were sent to Colombo Naval dockyard in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where we entered dry dock. We were not given any leave, but were sent to a Naval camp called Dyitalawa near the centre of Ceylon. Discipline was almost nil, and after normal housekeeping type tasks were performed, we were free to hire the scores of bicycles available or perhaps a native guide who would take us around points of interest.
Whilst in dry dock, the ships toilets were locked up and a toilet block near the dock was opened up and scrubbed out ready for our use. This block of toilets consisted of a long trough similar to the old horse trough, which sloped towards the sewerage outlet. About ten seats were erected along the trough and a small cubicle surrounded each seat. Naval toilets had to be scrubbed out daily to guard against parasites which were prone to infest these places. The cleaner had a problem getting everyone out so that he could scrub the seats. There were always two or three reading a paperback and ignoring his pleas to move, so he would get a sheet of newspaper, screw it up, light it and drop it in the trough at the high end and turn on the tap. As it sailed down the trough, the response was immediate, accompanied by cries of anguish. A second paper was held in readiness in case someone sat down again.
On return to duty, we were sent into the Mediterranean to relieve H.M.A.S. Perth from having to pass through the Suez Canal, which we knew contained a number of magnetic and acoustic mines. I was recently intrigued by the book Spycatcher, written by Peter Wright because, as he explained in the early chapters, before he became a spy catcher, he was a scientist with the Admiralty Research Laboratory which developed some of the equipment which I was responsible for.
One such piece of equipment was the A.R.L. plotter. When a chart of the area the ship was sailing in was placed on the table of the plotter and a few adjustments made, such as ships speed, latitude and longitude, the output of the plotter worked a pencil which scribed the ships course on the chart. The navigator would then know at any time where the ship was, without using the sextant, although he still took fixes at noon. What I was most interested in however, was the way in which he devised a defence against the magnetic and acoustic mines and saved so many tons of Allied shipping. These mines were dropped by parachute on a moonless night in harbours and shipping lanes, and initially were a tremendous problem. They worked on the fact that the Earth is a large magnet and is surrounded by a magnetic field. The mine would be set for the particular field which existed in that area and when a ship passed over, disturbing the field, the mine exploded. Peter Wright and his colleagues developed a system whereby a single wire was passed around the ship many times from stern to stern and then connected to a direct current supply. This neutralised any magnetic field set up by the ship and so she was able to sail over the mine unharmed.
Later, the Germans introduced the acoustic system in the mines and to combat this, an apparatus something like a big drum was lowered over the bow of the ship. When activated, it created a racket which exploded the mine some distance in front of the ship. We could not use that system in the canal, but as the position of the mines were known and marked, it was with great trepidation we sailed over each spot with all engines stopped and all electric motors switched off. Two ships did not make it, showing how effective the acoustic mine was, but they were able to move over to the bank before settling to the bottom.
We joined the Mediterranean fleet at Alexandria in Egypt and almost immediately became involved in sorties along the North African coast, bombarding German positions. These raids were carried out at night and we would return to Alexandria the next day. The following night, the Germans would carry out an air raid, probably in retaliation.
King Farouk’s palace faced the harbour and when he was in residence, the whole damn place would be a blaze of light and ships anchored nearby would be silhouetted. It was very difficult to get the palace to darken, they would only comply after several requests from the Commander in Chief. We became incensed when a ship near us was hit in one of the raids. There was much talk about what action could be taken. A decision was put into effect during the next raid. Amid all the chaos that was around us, a burst of Oerlikon gunfire entered the palace and in a short space of time the palace was in darkness. The guns crew later denied all knowledge of it, but as every fifth round was a red tracer, we knew where it had come from.
Whilst in Alexandria, my mate and I organised a trip to see the pyramids. We approached a taxi driver who said he would take five of us and be able to return to the ship before our leave expired. I was a bit dubious about accepting the only three others to respond to our offer but anyhow, we went. As we approached Cairo, one of the trio suggested a drink at Sheppards Hotel and there we bogged down. It soon became evident we were not going to make it to the pyramids and a bit later, I was concerned that we would not make it back to the ship on time. As we were not supposed to leave the precincts of Alexandria, we would be in big trouble. I consulted the taxi driver about the latest time we could leave and make it back on time and with the help of my mate, attempted to get the trio into the taxi. We soon attracted an audience and finally had to prevail upon a couple of local police to assist us. Then began a most hair-raising experience as we reached speeds of 120m.p.h. and, with the horn blowing almost continuously, we made it back with a little time to spare. It makes one wonder what makes a man want to fill his belly with beer with one of the seven wonders of the world almost in view.
This brings to mind another story of the resourcefulness and guile one will go to over a drink. We had on board two chaps who were inseparable. Their names were George and Dusty and they did everything together; they went ashore together, got drunk together, but somehow they did their stoppage of leave separately, usually for thumping an M.P. It is strange how an M.P. will single out a chap heading back to his ship, however unsteadily and provoke him into throwing a punch and then proceed to rough him up, arrest him under the pretext of resisting arrest and then escort him back to his ship where he is charged. Anyhow, back to George and Dusty. George was acting as a sort of batman to an officer. He tidied the officer’s cabin and pressed his uniforms and kept him looking like an officer and a gentleman should, but on this occasion, he was helping him to pack his trunks because the officer was posted elsewhere. The conversation went something like this;
“There is something you ought to know, sir before you go. Do you remember, back in Port Tewfik how Dusty was doing time for clobbering an M.P. and I had gone ashore on my own and, feeling miserable, I came back early. You were the Officer of the Day and you spotted the whiskey bottle I had up my jumper and called to the Master at Arms to arrest me. I succeeded in persuading you that it was eau de cologne and that I’d found a place ashore which sold it in bulk and the only bottle they could find to put it in was this small whiskey bottle. We removed the cork and everyone took a sniff and confirmed it was eau de cologne, but you did not see the second cork halfway down the neck of the bottle, the eau de cologne was only between the two corks.”
“Oh.” said the officer.
“But that’s not all sir, you did rounds before lights out and you did not see Dusty and me in the chain locker enjoying a drop of the doings. I just thought you would like to know that sir, before you go.”
As an alternative to sweeping around ‘Mussolini’s lake’, we were sometimes sent to Haifa in Palestine for R.&R. Haifa lies under the shadow of Mt. Carmel, which is a limestone ridge about 20 miles long, rising to a height of 1,750 feet at its highest point. There is a point on the range near the sea where there is a cave in which Elijah is said to have lived. Near this cave, the famous order of Carmelite monks was founded in 1156AD and today, the site is marked by modern buildings erected over the cave. Many of the ship’s company took a few hours off their warlike duties in order to make a pilgrimage to some of the sacred sites in Palestine. One of the places visited was Nazareth, 25 miles east of Haifa. We visited several old churches in the area. One of these was the ‘Church of the Carpenter’s Shop’, built over the cave where Christ is said to have lived with his parents and where he worked with Joseph as a carpenter. Proceeding further east, we reached the Sea of Galilea, the surface of which is 680 feet below the Mediterranean Sea. This was the farthest point from Haifa we reached and after a swim in its waters, we returned to the ship.
After Japan attacked Pearl Harbour on December 7th 1941 and then sunk the two British battleships off Singapore, we were recalled by the Australian Government and sent to Singapore where we provided additional anti aircraft fire. When the decision to surrender was made, we left to join up with a Dutch squadron in Batavia. Our stocks of 4”ammunition were now causing concern, so a signal was sent to the Admiralty board requesting ammunition to be sent to Batavia. The squadron made many attempts to engage invading forces around the islands but each time, we were driven back by intensive air attacks.
Hobart, during her period in these waters withstood some of the severest bombing of her career. As an instance of the intensity of the attacks and the calls made on personnel and ship, the Captain in his report said;
“There have been occasions when I have had to call for the most violent manoeuvring of the main engines and the instant answer has resulted in swinging the ship in a manner I hardly thought possible. On one occasion, I found it necessary to go from 24 knots ahead to 24 knots astern on one engine, while going full ahead on the other. It was on this occasion that the bombs fell close enough to see the ugly red flash of their burst and feel the heat across my face, but the ship steamed clear. With a less alert engine room team, the results might have been different.”
A bond began to develop between the Captain and men, because it was only due to his skill in manoeuvring the ship which repeatedly saved us from being sunk. This bond remained, right up until his death a few years ago. That it was mutual was evidenced by the substantial amount of money he left the Hobart Association in his will to “splice the main brace”.
Our stocks of 4”ammunition were now very low, so another signal was sent out, only to be returned with the message that the ammunition was on the wharf in Sydney and the wharfies were on strike. After another couple of trips up ‘Bomb Alley’, as we now called it, we returned to Batavia, where we expected to refuel and join up with H.M.A.S. Perth and U.S. Houston, plus the Dutch squadron at Soerabaya. It was then intended that we take on an invasion force heading for Batavia. On February 25th 1942, twenty seven bombers attacked us while we were tied up to a tanker to take on fuel. It was estimated that sixty bombs fell around us, one hitting the tanker and going right through her, exploding in the water beneath.
We were unable to continue fuelling, which prevented us from joining the squadron and taking part in the Java Sea battle on the 27th February. Perth and Houston had recently joined the squadron and in the ensuing battle, with strong Japanese forces, three British destroyers, two Dutch cruisers and one destroyer were lost, the others broke off the action and returned to Soerabaya. It was decided that we would take a small fleet and fight our way through an invading force approaching the western end of Java. On the way however, we were observed by a Japanese scouting plane, which reported us as a battleship accompanied by two light cruisers and one destroyer. This resulted in the invasion force detouring, so we continued on through the Sundra Strait where we turned north, up the coast of Sumatra, whilst the others headed for Australia. The next night, Perth and Houston left, intending to sail through the Sundra Strait but ran into the invading force which had detoured from us and both were sunk.
We eventually found a small place with sufficient oil to refuel, but as we were not welcome, we only took on enough oil to get us to Colombo where we learned that all the ships which had accompanied us had been sunk by air attack.
We eventually made it back to Sydney where the ship was fitted with radar and we were given six days leave, during which time I was married. A few days before the ship was due to sail, I developed appendicitis and was admitted to Randwick Naval Hospital. I had almost completed four years on Hobart and it was with some relief that I left her because I felt that out there somewhere, was a bomb with her name on it. However, she survived the Coral Sea battle but caught a torpedo in the Solomons battle and had to return to Sydney for repairs. Sometime prior to these battles, the Americans broke the Japanese Naval code and therefore had some knowledge of Japanese Naval movements.
On discharge from hospital, I did a short course to qualify for a higher rate and then joined the Stuart. She was part of the ‘scrap-iron’ flotilla and had been engaged in the ‘spud run’ in company with Vampire, Voyager and Waterhen, which kept the garrison supplied during the siege of Tobruk. She was back in Australia and almost clapped out; one turbine was useless and the propeller shaft was disconnected, all armament had been removed from her, and she was now an anti-submarine ship. She was the worst sea-going ship that I was ever on.
We also encountered the most foulest of weather I had ever experienced. On one occasion, we were sent to pick up a ship from New Zealand and escort her to Sydney, but a few hours out, we ran into a storm which produced 40ft. waves. I remember standing on the quarter deck watching a mountain of water bearing down upon us and wondering however we were going to survive. It was as though a giant hand had picked us up and deposited us on the crest of a wave where we poised for a few seconds, and then crashed down into the trough of the next, receiving many tons of water on the fo’csle which cascaded off, as we were tossed up on the following wave. For the next two days, we battled the elements before the weather abated. We found ourselves down near Garbo Island, near the eastern end of Victoria.
On another trip, we experienced a following sea which caused the ship to roll heavily. Tasks other than that necessary to steam the ship were impossible and when not on watch, the only comfortable place was in your hammock, as it all but eliminated the ship’s roll. I was in my hammock attempting to sleep, when I felt something bumping me. I raised my head, intending to say a few harsh words to the offending person, when to my horror, I saw I was bumping the deckhead. I scrambled out of my hammock and sought a sheltered spot on the upper deck, and there I stayed until we rendezvous with our convoy and turned back. I don’t think any bomb attack put the wind up me more than a trip to sea in the old Stuart. I wasn’t at all sorry to leave her and although I was never seasick in all my thirteen years in the Navy, she kept the adrenalin flowing.
The chronicling of wars is often left to historians and is too often viewed only through the eyes of Generals and politicians whereas the reality of war is the experience of the men who do the fighting and this is seldom recorded. Such is the case of the men in Corvettes of the Australian Navy. As the campaign launched by General McArthur gathered momentum, we would hear over the radio, a communique released by his headquarters;
“American marines this day landed on…”
It could have gone on to say; “The success of this landing was made possible by the work carried out by Corvettes of the Australian Navy in the survey of the waters leading up to the landing.”, but of course it didn’t.
The waters north of New Guinea and around the many islands in the area were largely uncharted because, up until now, larger ships had no need to sail them. The task of surveying these waters were left to Corvettes who not only charted reefs and marked necessary channels, but also located minefields and marked and swept channels through them whilst facing hostile air attacks. The loss of life and ships could have been heavy but for this work which, by and large went unrecognised.
I spent a short period on the Corvette Whyalla; she had been relieved of her surveying work and was now stationed at Brisbane where it was her task to sweep the Whitsunday passage area, as there was evidence of a Japanese mine laying submarine operating off the East coast of Australia. My first trip on her was a real eye opener for me. We swept a huge area around the passage for two days. On the third day, I was wakened about 4am by the P.A. system;
“Hands to fishing stations,” it announced, and men began jumping from their hammocks.
I asked someone what was going on, and was told that the ship was now over fishing grounds. Thinking you don’t have to be mad to be a fisherman, but it sometimes helps, I went back to sleep again, but by 6.30am, I could no longer sleep through the noise going on above me. When I finally made it onto the upper deck, I was amazed by what I saw. Those who were not fishing were engaged in cleaning, while some were filleting fish which went straight into the galley for our breakfast, or into the ship’s freezer. This was repeated over the next two days. Of course at night, we carried out anti-submarine sweeps of the area using out ASIC gear. On our return to Brisbane, word was passed around and several cars arrived to receive our catch for distribution among the various Naval Offices.
Unfortunately, things came to an abrupt halt a few weeks later. We were returning to Brisbane, preparing to tie up to the wharf, starboard side. It was always the practice to remove the last depth charge from its rack because it overhung the side and there was a danger of it being dislodged if contact was made with the wharf. A davit was a permanent fixture near the rack, especially for handling depth charges. Unfortunately, as an attempt was made to attach a sling to the charge, someone released the mechanism holding the charge in the rack and it fell into the water near the Pile light; a navigation light at the entrance to the Brisbane River. We continued on to Brisbane and picked up a diver and equipment and returned to the spot. However, he gave up after a short time because the water became so muddy, he could not see where he was going. We returned to Brisbane and the following day, we were sent to waters north of New Guinea.
This had a sequel some forty years later. I was home in Melbourne reading the evening paper when I noticed a small paragraph which reported a dredge, whilst operating near the Pile light at the mouth of the Brisbane River, swept up a wartime depth charge. As the reporter was speculating how it came to be there, I was tempted to write and tell them, but eventually managed to suppress the urge.
The skipper did not give up fishing altogether. We had on board a depth sounding machine with 300 fathoms of a very fine steel wire, which was wound on a drum controlled by a brake. An electric motor recovered the wire after it was released; normally with a 28lb piece of lead attached to the end. To all intents and purposes, it was a very large fishing reel. The skipper attached a large hook on the end of the wire in place of the lead, cadged a piece of red bunting from the signalman and released it to trail 40–50 yards astern. First he began catching sharks and after hauling them up to the ship on the motor, he shot them and then released them, minus their teeth. The next catch presented a spectacle to quicken the pulse of any ardent fisherman. It was a sword fish which leapt clear of the water many times in effort to throw the hook. The skipper reckoned it could weigh up to 1000lbs, its sword was at least six feet long. Our gear was no match for this magnificent animal, it broke free and as if in triumph, went on its tail for 20 yards or more across the water before sinking from our view. When we retrieved the wire, the hook was almost straightened.
I was on several other ships, one of which was the Napier, a destroyer with four 7”guns as main armament. In company with the battleship Barham and several cruisers, we bombarded Japanese positions along the Burma Coast, this time without air attack because by now, the Japanese Air Force was being matched.
I was in Flinders Naval Depot at wars end doing a course for a higher rate and on completion, I joined the Warramunga, a tribal class destroyer built in Australia. We were immediately despatched to Japan as part of the occupation force. We had two trips to Japan, each of six months duration and both of which took place in the Northern winter. I have never experienced anything so cold. Ice formed on the ship’s rigging and posed a hazard when it thawed later in the day.
I was now within two years of serving my time and as they were calling for volunteers to serve out their last two years in the Naval Dockyard Police Force, I volunteered and was accepted.