And a Happy Birthday to the Royal Australian Navy!

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<i>Galah</i>, my first boat in Tasmania

Galah, my first boat
in Tasmania

Next week an International Fleet Review is being held to commemorate the centenary of the first entry of the Royal Australian Navy’s fleet into Sydney.

Prince Harry will attend the festivities on behalf of the Queen.

The event, which promises to be a splendid affair, will commence on 3 October with the arrival of tall ships in Sydney Harbour. This will be followed by the ceremonial arrival of the warships on Friday, 4 October.

The formal review of the assembled ships will take place on Saturday, 5 October, and will culminate in the evening with a Pyrotechnics and Lightshow Spectacular.

On 4 October 1913 the flagship, HMAS Australia, led the new Australian Fleet Unit comprising HMA Ships Melbourne, Sydney, Encounter, Warrego, Parramatta and Yarra into Sydney Harbour for the first time to be greeted by thousands of cheering citizens lining the foreshore.

Sadly, work commitments mean I can’t make it Down Under for the 2013 celebrations but I have a special connection with the Royal Australian Navy, having served there for part of my naval career.

Picture the scene: a 15-year-old, rather unworldly Stockwin has joined the Royal Navy but learns that his parents have suddenly decided to emigrate to Australia. In those days it was easy to move between the two navies with very little paperwork so it was Down Under I went! I remember catching the plane to Sydney – the flight took three days, stopping at then exotic places like Cairo and Karachi and arriving at Darwin where I was stared at over the fence by a bunch of tough-looking Aussies.

On the rantan at Lunar Park in Sydney with chum engineer apprentice Dave Nothrop

On the rantan at Lunar Park in Sydney with chum
engineer apprentice Dave Nothrop

I was based at HMAS Nirimba where I completed my training as a shipwright, some fine instructors there from the old world timber ships and the new one of fibre-glass. Sydney in those days was a sailor’s town and we were always made to feel welcome but I won’t go too much into that… The world-class harbour was as well where I won my colours at sailing, once staying at sea in a full-reefed two masted navy whaler while a proud twelve-metre America’s Cup yacht retired ignominiously.

On leave I would return to my parents’ home in Tasmania and sail the pride of my heart, Galah, my first boat, in the wild south of the island. Little did I know I’d be bringing these memories to my writing of COMMAND, where my hero sails in these waters as one of the very first explorers.

In the RAN we were often at sea for many months at a time. Some of my abiding memories are going ashore for a banyan on some deserted tropical island in the South Seas, the unreal beauty of ashore; and scoring well in the pistol team against the local police in Rabaul in New Guinea…and there are many other wistful memories of a time when I was young and adventuring on the high seas.

There were the darker memories, too. Savage storms at sea when you feel the presence of nature like a wild beast out of a cage; close inshore in a gale when you wonder if a mistake at the helm will end with those black rocks suddenly bursting in.

Night of the <i>Voyager</i> I grew up a lot that night

Night of the Voyager
I grew up a lot that night

I saw service for several years in the Vietnam war and was duty watch in the carrier Melbourne the night when we collided with and sank our plane-guard destroyer Voyager – I was out keeping the seaboat afloat with ‘tingles’, copper patches, while we searched for survivors. And later, exhausted, keeping watch on a shored-up bulkhead forward while we made harbour.

I’m ‘Old Navy’ I guess; for a time I even slept in a hammock, and certainly there were no women at sea in the RAN in my day. Now some ships even have individual cabins for the sailors and women ably perform all roles aboard. There was no internet then and once you weighed anchor you were pretty much cut off from life ashore, your world was the universe of your ship, much like my hero Tom Kydd found.

I’m often asked when did I start thinking about taking up writing. This was certainly not something to the fore of my mind in my navy days – and I would go on to have several other careers before putting pen to paper. But my time at sea gave me invaluable insight into the sailor and life at sea; the good times and the bad.

There are many things that have not changed from Nelson’s day – mateship, duty, loyalty. And I’ve had sea experience on both sides of the world and have served on both the lower deck and as an officer, something I called upon when I described Tom Kydd’s transition to the quarterdeck.

I look back on my time with the RAN with great warmth and I will certainly be splicing the mainbrace next week!

The Royal Australian Navy

The RAN’s first fleet


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11 Comments on “And a Happy Birthday to the Royal Australian Navy!

  1. The old navy was better without woman at sea. They cause all sorts of dramas on ships. That christ we don’t have any real war anymore or we would be in grave danger I think. Half the ships company would be crying in the mess decks. Bloody Wrans.

  2. Stan Wright
    Newcastle. Australia
    Hi , Jules ,
    On Saturday we had a 2 page article on an Officer who was in the radar room on the night the Melbourne and the Voyager collided , in our local paper his name is Barry Spaulding and he has suffered for 49 years and has only this year been on the water ( in a dinghy to fish ) .
    He said that when they collided they thought it was a whale and when he checked he only saw the stern of the Voyager , he then returned to the radar room wrote down the time 8-52 pm and the position and notified Nowra Base of the incident .

  3. Boy, does this bring back some memories, not just Voyager, but even earlier, on an adventurous weekend, you and me on the run back to “Rushcutter” for essential supplies in a whaler, but losing the wind on the return trip to North Head at night, with no lights, in a busy shipping lane! I also recall you spinning a good yarn or three in the “chippie shop” when our mess got too hot to endure.

  4. HMAS Melbourne must have been trying to emulate USS Wasp (CV18), known as the “Can-opener” after she rammed and sank USS Hobson (DMS-26), in 1951.

    When our destroyer USS Hank (DD702) acted as plane guard, we steamed 500 yards astern of the carrier. Antipodean plane guard destroyers must be stationed differently if Melbourne rammed Voyager…or had Melbourne been backing…?

    • While I was below decks at the time I understand it was a mix-up with the flying control light (red) and the port side navigation light (red) – all dealt with in detail in ‘Where Fate Calls’ by Tom Frame. Short answer – it wasn’t Melbourne‘s fault…

  5. I had the pleasure of visiting the Naval Club in Fremantle this past April when staying with relatives in Perth. First thing I noticed in the mess were photos of the two corvettes they had during WW2. I left them with copies of books on HMCS Sackville
    When EO of our Naval Memorial, HMCS Sackville, I met two Auzzies on the jetty arguing if they were seeing a corvette as they believed there weren’t any left. I convinced them and invited them aboard for our usual Friday get-together for sandwiches and a beer Neither had met the other before and each had served on those corvettes. We had an interesting lunch..

  6. Fond memories of the best welcome I had in 20 years of service in the USN was at Sydney when our carrier left VietNam to represent the USA in the Battle of the Coral Sea celebration. I had the honor of being entertained by the Veteran’s of Galipoli, an Aussie club that is no longer. I believe I returned aboard with more coin than when i went over the brow! Wonderful people and a terrific navy!

  7. Fascinating to hear about Julians RAN days, I also so nearly transferred and in retrospect wish I had. My first contact with Julian was in an email whilst travelling around Australia in a caravan and fell in love with the place. Instead I served on HM’S Jaguar and Mohawk also sleeping in a hammock, (your own a cabin! never heard of such a thing!) And we too whilst aboard HMS Jaguar rammed into the side of HMS Grenville nose first in Portsmouth harbour, apparently because one of the drives to a prop shaft tripped out. The skipper later disappeared after several incidents, springs snapping, ramming the harbour wall at Gib the final straw when he slipped a disc playing squash! Best time of my life.

  8. And my time in the RAN was filled with similar memories, except crashing into HMAS Voyager although I remember the pictures of a bow stove in and a ship sliced in two – tragic. Not old enough to serve during the Vietnam conflict but certainly a small part of it was to serve on HMAS Hobart (D 39 destroyer) which saw first RAN action in Vietnam, unfortunately by way of being shelled by the Americans! The scars on some of the superstructure embellished the ships history a little more every time it was mentioned! Now, sadly, a dive wreck off the coast of South Australia.

    But my most enduring memory is the mate-ship with colleagues and friends, each of us were well trained for a single purpose and rely on each other exclusively. A close bond that saw us all through stormy nights where you wondered if the next wave would breach the ship or a run ashore where you wondered how you ever got back to your bunk! Julian’s novels bring these enduring memories alive again to me because I cant image his characters thinking things any different. 20th century RAN or 19th century RN, only the ships really changed. 🙂

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