So Ken can you tell me where you were born, where did you grow up and when did you join up for the navy?
Yes, well I was born in Glen Innes, New South Wales. I lived there all my junior life until I joined the navy. I went to school at Glen Innes, both the Primary and High School.
That’s excellent. So we’ll go right back to the beginning at this point and talk about Glen Innes. What kind of town was Glen Innes when you grew up?
Well, I think a typical country town. From memory the population was about 6000 in those days. I didn’t know anything different, of course. I spent my whole life there. I didn’t see the sea until I was 9 years of age. I guess like any other country town.
What sort of relationship did you have with your brothers as a child?
I would say good. I don’t remember anything that wasn’t good. Being the youngest, of course, I always got shooed away from whatever was happening. My mother came from a big family. She was one of 15.
I had plenty of aunts and uncles. My memory is we all got on very well together.
Your childhood was during the Depression. What memories do you have of the Depression?
I think everybody was involved in that. Obviously money was short and people were very friendly and trading bits and pieces. For instances vegetables that were home grown, and rabbits and that sort of thing. We would exchange bits and pieces for
food and clothing. That didn’t apply in my family quite as much as in some others. Dad had a reasonable job and we seemed to manage all right. Although as a kid I suppose I was demanding, and sometimes it was “you can’t have this and you can’t have that”.
really appreciate it all but electricity only came in…that was modern. We started off with kerosene lamps and what have you in the house. We also had a gas lamp which was supplied from the local gas works, and
we had that in two rooms; one in the kitchen and one in the lounge room. Later on of course electricity went right through the house. A 25 watt globe was all you were allowed. You couldn’t have a big 100 watt because it burnt too much electricity.
So that sums up the Depression.
What kind of people were you working with at the glass factory?
Working type people. The glass company was where those who couldn’t get a job anywhere else wound up because there was a lot of dirty work in the way of….let me go back and say it was cut crystal glassware.
This has to be etched and put in acid baths and polished and this sort of thing. That wasn’t…it was all manual work which I would classify as dirty. It wasn’t like office work or anything like that.
Was there something specific they’d look for in an ASDIC operator?
Well, you had to have good ears because the ASDIC is based on a sound transmission, and the return of a signal, and according to what the Doppler was you could tell whether a submarine was present or whether it was going left or going right or towards you or away from you. So basically I think
history of the navy. Mind you at this stage we were still in a pre-war position, the navy, as far as I could see. I went in as Royal Australian Navy Reserve which is part time sailors and that sort of thing.
That was altered soon after. Practical work we did, knots and sailing and rowing and goodness knows what. All the roustabout jobs.
For instance in the navy at Rushcutters Bay, we had ships coming and going. Not only naval ships but the troop transports for the Middle East. One of my memories there is of seeing the Queen Mary
departing through Sydney Heads as the Queen Elizabeth came in. A magnificent sight. There were other…at that particular time there was a big convoy of ships that was going to ship troops to the Middle East. There was the Mauritania, the Aquitania. Yes, lots of movement, lots of troop movement.
were wooden and they used to give you what they called a ‘holy stone’ to scrub the deck with. That was like a brick, coarse sandy type material that had a hole in it that you used as a broomstick. You pushed it up and down the deck and polished, cleaned all the muck
off the wood which you got lovely and white, but as the war progressed that all went by the board, of course. Camouflage came in. If you are doing any painting on a ship they always tell you to leave the deck until last.
What kind of thoughts go through your head when you’re scrubbing the deck?
I think in those days it was, “How long has this got to go on for?” They featured all sorts of training. You learnt how to handle what they called a “whaler” which wore a cutter for a bigger boat, basic seamanship stuff,
you touched on tying vessels up, that sort of thing, general stuff. That was our seamanship. We were only ratings, we weren’t officers, so you didn’t do navigation or anything,
Where did you go from Rushcutters?
The anti-submarine detection course was carried out at HMAS Watson, which as you probably know is on South Head. They had a set up there, what they called “attack table” which once the operator learnt how to operate a set you
could put a situation on the attack table where you had to find and attack the submarine, using the gear that you had.
a wheel for training the ASDIC dome and that consisted of a transmitter which sent out a beam in the water, it’d hit an object, it would return an echo. So you trained this oscillator in degrees
until you picked up a noise and from then on you had to determine (a) was it a submarine and (b) was it moving: which way was it moving, left, right, towards you, away from you and you could tell that from the difference in the sound heard on the earphones.
type of set here. When I went to motor launches we had a different set altogether, but on the normal way in those days you trained the oscillator around to the starboard beam, brought it up in five degree increments until oscillating it dead ahead,
and then you let it down 90 degrees to port and came back and did the same thing. So that you covered an area from left to right on the ship.
Why wouldn’t you check, say, behind you and do 360 degrees all the time?
Well, there’s not much point in doing behind you, because you’ve already been over that area and you would have picked anything up when you were coming up from the sides up to the bow.
You could pick a whale up like a submarine for instance. If you were operating in shallow water then you’d get an echo off a rock or something like that. Most of them were only done at sea where the water was deep. You got different results from different water temperatures, or different salinity of the
water, that effected the beam. It wasn’t all cut and dried; if you put it on to starboard 40 you may have gone to starboard 50 by the time that it went through the water temperature and water salinity.
It was a glass table which was smoke glass and the images of your ship and the ship, the sub you were hunting or what have you could be planned and altered
in operation, it was a bit like a flight simulator, or something like that with aircraft. They could set you a problem if you were going for your turn on it, they could set a problem up where maybe the submarine was going to alter course rapidly or something like that.
but there’d be probably three or four officers who would be responsible for the overall operation of ASDIC where they would more or less control any attack, whereas the operators all they did was operate the gear. If they found something then the officers would
come in and help and give you directions if they thought that they understood it a little better than you, understood the operating of the ship better than you under the circumstances.
destroyers that were being built in England for the Australian Navy, but they weren’t ready. Ships like the Nizam, Napier, they were all N-class destroyers, when we got there they weren’t ready so they tended to split
us up and sent individuals off to other ships as replacements.
off being operated as a cruise liner and she was going to England to be converted to a troop carrier. When we travelled on her she still had all the first class, second class cabins and dining rooms and the whole box and dice.
We felt a bit honoured, whilst we slept in hammocks, we had hammocks, we ate in the dining room and played shuffle board on the upper deck, just as if we were passengers. They had cabin crews, that sort of thing, on and it was quite an experience.
You arrived at Nova Scotia. Did you get off here?
Yes. We were allowed to go ashore there. We were only there for a couple of days. That was a port, the home port for all the escort vessels that were doing the convoys across the Atlantic. So it was a navy port, you weren’t anybody there you were just another
sailor. I think our main experience there was that most of us met up with Canadians and wound up at a place called Citadel Hill which was a club where you could have a drink, probably the first drink a lot of us had ever had.
Can you take me through what a typical day would have been like there? What did you do?
Well, if we weren’t training on the ASDIC sets, as I say we were utilised as…just to keep us busy and active we spent a lot of time in physical training with the physical training instructor. He used to like taking Australians ashore with the Military Police, or Naval Police patrol.
And because he thought that we were probably a little more athletic than some of the English sailors, he liked us a bit better. One day we had…he challenged our contingent which was still 16 people to a boxing match. He was a Mediterranean
boxing champion of the fleet. The Mediterranean Fleet Boxing Champion. He said, “I’ll have a round each with you.” So we got to number 6 and that was it. He’d had enough. So I think he thought we were all pretty good blokes. From then on in, the people were split up. Some went
to English destroyers, escort vessels because they only had a limited number because if one chap…if they wanted a relief on a ship, then one of ours would go and fill that vacancy.
My role from the outset was to…I went to a section that handled a lot of the light craft, coastal command craft and what have you which was called Seahawk, HMS Seahawk. I used to go out on the North Sea trawlers for a week
and they would do escort duty just to bring convoys in once they were almost into England. And the convoy, the destroyers and that, they wouldn’t land, they would turn around and go back to Canada. So they’d only just complete the crossing and
hand the convoy over to some of these other North Sea fishing boats. And some of them were fitted with ASDIC and some weren’t.
Most of these ships of course were trawlers in civilian life and they had been taken over by the navy and the original captain of the vessel, he generally was transferred into the navy and he was then captain of the trawler and probably had half a dozen men with him,
like permanent sailors, and the rest of it would be trainees or what have you, like myself.
being sunk, what was the level of tension like on any of these convoys?
I think people were very conscious of it and as a result of this everybody was at top efficiency. Look outs, gun crews, and in the case of ASDIC, this was run all the time.
So on these North Sea trawlers, what was the learning curve like? Were these some of the first ships you were on where you were actually using the ASDIC?
Yes. Well, I think you were more concerned with the rough weather and the general sea conditions than anything else. I mean the ASDIC, you sat on a chair and you turned a steering wheel and that was your shift. If you could stand that for four hours then you had a good shift.
What was that experience like for you?
I think you get a bit frightened. You don’t quite know what’s going to happen, but once things start to happen you either hide your head or you try and help out. There were many, many civilians of course who took the brunt of this and if you could help them, you did.
too old to be in the war or be in the forces. But they had a magnificent property and they were obviously very rich people. You were at your own…you could do what you wanted to do, but again they were there if you needed any help. Whilst I was there they were
talking about rabbit shooting which is what we used to do here in Australia, or I used to do before I joined the navy. We used to fire pee rifles or 22 calibre rifles. And I said, “Yes, I’d like to go rabbit shooting”, so they gave me a shot gun. That didn’t seem right to me but
anyway. It was all enjoyable.
days. The depot I was in allocated me to what they called a Fairmile, which is a 120 foot length vessel and is in affect a motor boat. They were based …the base for that was at St Christopher which
was up at Fort William on the west coast of Scotland. So while we were waiting to be distributed around, I was distributed to Coastal Command. The boat I was to join wasn’t built, it wasn’t finished. It was being built at a place
called Brightlingsea, which is at the mouth of the Thames River on the northern side. So I joined her there. Again we were billeted at a private house which the navy had actually taken over. So it wasn’t private really. It was a naval place.
When you say we, who were you with?
Well, the crew. The crew was assembled there. I was one ASDIC operator. There were two gunners, a signaller, a radio operator. We were all sent to this one area to join the new ship.
Can you tell me what she was like as a ship?
Well, from my point of view nowadays, it was terrific. I really enjoyed my time on board there. As I said…we weren’t in a serious navy. It was a terrific sort of …a more friendly atmosphere.
Not a lot of…discipline was there but it was self inflicted. I think a bit like submarine life. That’s very much so. It was something new. We understood that we weren’t going to be at sea for weeks and weeks.
We went out for the day or two days and then back into port. So it was a much easier life.
You’ve mentioned the flotilla. Can you tell me about the set up of it, how did it work as a unit?
Well, there were eight units in our flotilla. We eventually wound up with only six because two of them weren’t ready when we assembled to go out to Singapore. But if you had a specific job…for instance two craft might go out together and
would operate as a unit together, but each captain of those craft were responsible…but you had a senior and a junior. And this is very prevalent in the navy. If you join a unit, somebody says to you, “What’s your seniority?” So if you had two lieutenants,
and one had been made a lieutenant a month ahead of the other one, then the one who was the older of the two in commission was the commanding officer if anything happened. He was the responsible officer.
It was quite a rigmarole before we got there. As I mentioned earlier, St Christopher up at Fort William was the base and when it was known that we were going originally to Singapore, although the boat was just new, it wasn’t fitted with long range petrol tanks
that were needed to go from England to Singapore.
carried 5000 gallons, and then we were fitted with another 5 tanks up on the upper deck to augment so we could go say from England to Gibraltar without refuelling. So to fit those petrol tanks, we then had to get rid of
depth charge throwers and a 6 pounder gun etc, so we could fit the tanks on the upper deck, which took up a lot of deck space, and that made it a lot harder to walk around the craft.
Was there anything that protected the tanks?
No, no. Oh no. It was a type of rubberised tank, self sealing, which was supposed to…if an ordinary bullet hit it, it would tend to close so you wouldn’t gush petrol out.
Did it ever seem strange?
Well, you weren’t switching regularly. You might go 6 months before you got a bit of leave, a couple of days leave. Of course, if you could get to Glasgow or get to London, the thing then was to
So tell us about forming the flotilla?
We had to undergo this refit. Just in passing, I nearly lost my life at Fort William. We took our little dinghies…two other chaps and myself. We rode onto a sand bank to gather some cockles and muscles, and the tide rises pretty quick up there.
And we didn’t use our knots that we’d learned in training to tie it up. So the next thing we know the dinghy’s floating away and being the only swimmer amongst the three of us, I got the job of swimming after it. But the water was so cold that I just blacked out and went. On our boat, the lookout who was
on duty saw it and called for help and they fished me out of the water with a boat hook and poured a bit of brandy down my throat and I survived. But another minute or so I was gone.
There were 12 bunks, 6 on either side and there was one bunk above the other. So you really had 3 lower and 3 higher. I had the upper bunk right forward on the starboard side which is where the ASDIC equipment was situated.
So it was handy for that but when you were at sea, in a bit of a rough sea , the water was just over your head.
it had a fixed oscillator training forward and another oscillator that transmitted both sides at once. So the arrangement here was if you picked up an echo you could switch from the bow one to the side one. So
normally you operated on the side ones which put out the ping on either side and then if you got an echo return you then had to steer the vessel to ascertain on which side it was. And you did that by steering 10 degrees to starboard
or 10 to port…once you lost…you had to lose the echo and pick it up again by steering the vessel. Then once you knew where it was you switched to the forward looking ping and then re-picked it up with that.
The ASDIC operator sort of took over command of the operation. It was entirely up to you, unless one of the officers interfered…no, not interfered, that’s not the right word, interrupted and sort of said, “No, I think we aught to do this or that”.
tiring because we had…our commanding officer kept us at different watches where we were working two hours on and two hours off so nobody got any sleep. So after 3 or 4 days we were a bit like zombies. We came into Gibraltar fairly late in the day,
tied up to a wharf and we were ready to go to sleep but that evening they happened to get an air raid which …we were right alongside on the wharf where we were tied up to. They had a rocket launcher there which they used to call ‘flaming onions’.
It used to throw a lot of rubbish into the air which would tangle aeroplane propellers and that sort of thing. But the noise was absolutely frightening because we were right under it. We hadn’t experienced that before. But later on we had a good look and knew what we were going through.
that they weren’t English. They were all from around the area. Probably some of this was necessary because the Spaniards were harbouring Italians and Germans. And we used to…in Spain,
they had an airfield behind the mountain on Gibraltar, and at one stage they mounted on our vessel a big pyramid, an aluminium pyramid. A thing about 12 feet high. We used to go up the Spanish coast. The army would direct radar onto us
and we’d spin this pyramid around slowly by hand and that would redirect the radar beam in behind the back of the mountain. They were trialling that sort of thing. Another important job we did there, when the Italian frogmen
were sinking vessels in Gibraltar harbour. They’d been very successful in Alexandria. They were pretty active around Gibraltar, they had sunk a couple of vessels there, and they were coming from Spain across the harbour and putting limpet mines
on cargo ships or navy ships that were anchored in the Roads there.
used to go out…we’d take them out on our vessel and help them. They’d drag a rope underneath a cargo ship, run it down either side until they came to a dead halt and then if they thought that was a limpet mine they would then put on a
Davis escape apparatus which was the submarine escape gear…a little oxy set. Dive down and if it was a limpet they’d unscrew it and bring it up for destruction. We were lucky in the point that these limpet mines were attached
either by magnet or by a little clamp, but they didn’t start and prime themselves until the vessel got underway. So the vessel could sail from Gibraltar and then blow up. We used to keep a …do a watch out for these people at night. We used to drop little charges
every now and then through the night to try and discourage them. If we dropped one of them near them they could be injured of course. They were coming from an Italian vessel which had sort of got itself in bed with the Spanish authorities.
And they had decided they’d keep it in port and unbeknown to…well it was suppose to be, they cut a hole in the side of it and they were putting their frogmen out the side of the ship under water. So nobody ever saw them and they would transfer across to…we could see the ship
that they were operating from but there wasn’t anything they could do about it. It was suspected of course.
after the explosion, the vessel had gone. It obviously had blown up, but there were 40 air force people in the water who we picked up. Another convoy, some of the ships, an odd one, a cargo vessel, had ramps
on the bows which held a Hurricane fighter, and if they ran into a bomber raid, because there were no aircraft carriers and that with the convoy, they would launch the Hurricane and shoot him off. But he had no where to land, so we’d get the job of picking the pilot up after he had parachuted out
or his petrol ran out or what have you. They would have to just ditch the plane.
Would you still be doing the ASDIC work?
No, very rarely because whenever there were big escorts, they did the ASDIC. We weren’t effective as anti submarine vessels because (a) we didn’t have enough depth charges …with the upper deck tanks we had to fit, that cut down on the depth charges, so
issued with supplies. The ship was paid so much per member and that amount of money you could spend wherever you liked and wherever you could. So if you could get into a naval depot you could go ashore and buy up naval stores.
But if you were in the invasion of North Africa, or anywhere around the coast there, there was no food or very little, so it was difficult to buy anything. I remember once when we attended to a merchant ship which had been torpedoed and was slowly sinking. We took the
crew off and asked them whether there was any food handy. Yes, there was a bag of potatoes at the top of the gangway. So up we went and got the bag of potatoes. We hadn’t tasted potatoes for quite a few months. We had no access to fresh meat. If we got nearer the capital ships such as the
battle ships or something like that, then we could beg, borrow or steal a bit off them, frozen stuff anyway.
an invasion force in to come up behind Rommel and start the invasion of Europe. There was one part of the force went in to Casablanca on the west coast of Africa. There was the force we were in that went into Oran, and then there was another one that went
further towards Algiers. They were the first American troops in, on that conflict. And American ships and British ships cooperated…I actually have a photograph, a little snap shot of an American ship flying both the American and
Royal Navy flags at the mast head, which is most unusual.
the invasion where we were at Oran, they thought that would be over in a matter of hours. Just in case they sent in two…what they called ‘cutters’. They were small merchant ships which carried commandos and they were going to secure this operation,
like the guns and that, that were in the shore battery. Anyway it seemed to me, and again I’m not responsible for this, but it seemed to me the effort was a bit weak because the invasion force tried to broadcast their message into the French people at about midnight
so nobody was awake and things didn’t go according to plan. All of a sudden all hell broke loose. The two commando ships were fired on at point blank range. We had shore batteries firing at us. There were submarines out. It was suddenly very chaotic.
Two of our boats went in with the commando ships. They were going to drop depth charges on the boom so the bigger ships could get in. They had a bit of a torrid time of it. Fortunately the big guns in the harbour couldn’t get down low enough to
do much damage to them. The firing was over their heads which decimated the two commando ships. I think they were the Walney and the Hartley. One of those vessels, they got three people off out of four hundred. There were bits of bodies lying everywhere on them.
I was on the wheel at that particular time and our senior lieutenant was directing and he and I cooperated. He was a New Zealander who was very kind to me. He would spot…the two guns were synchronised. They couldn’t both
fire together which helped us. We would set on a course...one gun would line you up and fire and we would alter course before the shell arrived and then get back on a course and the other one would do the same thing. So we were actually dodging the shells. By the time they left the guns and arrived at the ship we were 50 or 100 yards off.
We eventually…our CO who was in charge of those bits and pieces, he called in one of the Royal Navy battle ships, the Rodney, which had 16 inch guns which meant they could fire a lot further at the batteries. And a couple of shots from her silenced the shore batteries. They weren’t a
It was one of those situations. As I said, there were two French; the Vichy French [French who sympathised with their German occupiers] and Free French [French opposed to their German occupiers]. While we were in Oran a classic example of this was, the French owned one of the biggest submarines in the world. It was quite a monster. It had its own aeroplane on board and had a couple
8 inch guns which were tremendously big. My particular boat, 469, went over to near Toulon in France and gave it…the submarine and its French escort, an escort back to North Africa. The submarine crew turned over to the allied forces
but the other vessel that was guarding it, pulled a lever on the water cocks and sunk it. They didn’t want to change over.
ships stocked with goods for the shops to smooth things over with the locals. Others were American war ships. There were…things started to happen. We actually…on the surrender, we picked up the French naval officer who was
doing the surrendering, and took him out to the American/British ship, the Lague [?] which was serving as the senior ship in the operation. They’re the sort of jobs we did.
Can you describe what the town was like, what the architecture looked like?
Not really. More of an Arab influence. We later on went into Algiers which is a city. I went through the Kasbah there which was a pretty dangerous place. But I think like any other city or town…
At Oran there was one instance where one of the American army trucks was coming down a hill. They lost the brakes and there were a lot of people looking over a stone wall at what was going on at the docks and the truck went right down through about 40 of them. Just squashed them against the wall.
it was hard. The English weren’t particularly liked at Oran because they had had a do in with the French there, naval gun wise, previously. There was a big cement wall around the harbour and one time when they…the French and the British were at
loggerheads [disagreeing], the French ships were behind the wall and the English ships were out at sea. But the English ships could lop a shell over the wall but the French ships couldn’t…if they lifted their guns high enough to go over the wall, they couldn’t hit the fleet out at sea. So they took a bit of a beating there, and like all middle eastern countries
they did harbour a grudge a bit.
Motor launches didn’t carry ranking people. We were on the lower end of the scale and if somebody, for instance went from an able seaman to a leading seaman, there mightn’t be any opening on the boat for him so he was then transferred to another ship. We’d get a new operator, and
it was not long after this when we were operating out of North Africa again that I was transferred back to England.
it was the thing to do. Our crew were amongst the first to go into Algiers on the invasion. They were a little wary. The Kasbah’s a dreadful place. They lived in sort of dreadful concrete dwellings, rooms.
They had a goat’s skin on the floor and that was it. The people all appeared dirty and it had the reputation of being the home of criminals much like the films depict I think. We went in…about 8 of us I think started off and it finished up only 2 of us. A Scotch mate of mine and
myself went in a bit further. There were a couple of little girls about 9 or 10 years of age. The used them as decoys. ‘Hey Johnny, come on Johnny. You come with me’. We had a belly full of beer I suppose.
There was an old bearded Arab sitting on a stone wall. He caught my eye and he just went like that. ‘Thanks very much.’ We turned around and came out quick smart. In other words, don’t try and take on the girls or anything like that. Next day one of the British sailors who went in there was killed.
He had his testicles sewn up in his mouth and chucked over the wall back outside.
reservations on them. I can tell you many funny stories…it’s not funny some of them, but stories which give you the impression that they’re a different type of people. A different mentality altogether to the British who are more conservative. Just for instance, in part of the invasion
we tuned in…they used to talk on the radio to one another, whereas the British would keep radio silence. In one of these sessions the guy comes on the radio and says, “Right ho Jo, we’re going to send a despatch rider and he’s about to leave now, he’s on so and so, and away goes the despatch rider and gets down…”
they came in on…we used to keep radio silence. We didn’t broadcast but we could hear. We heard this despatch rider being sent from one area to another. And they gave the area he was going to and the area he was coming from just on the open area. So away he goes,
gets a couple of mile down the road, bang. And they said, we’ll send another one. We’ll despatch another one. So away goes a second one. Boom, same thing. And you wouldn’t believe it but they even put a third fellow up. He got to exactly the same spot and bang. It was like a turkey shoot. It took them three despatch riders
before they realised they had told the enemy when and what they were doing. Another instance we had in Oran was they brought over two American PT boats which were fairly fast boats and fairly similar to our own.
So they decided to do patrol. They’ve got all their navigation lights on in a blacked out section. Everybody else operated on a black out. So they’ve got lights and they’ve got their wireless playing records to each other. “Would you like to hear so and so.” We found that very strange.
I got a recommendation from sea to go to Officers Course, so I had to get back to England to do that, or back to Australia. They chose England. I was given passage back…I think I joined a fleet of landing craft …infantry landing craft at Gibraltar,
one of six, and had passage back to Falmouth again, in England.
They’d drop two 250 kilogram bombs at a time. The convoy we were in, the landing craft. There were six in two lines. The bombers came in from forward and travelled aft in that direction which gave them the biggest target.
We had no guns so we couldn’t fire back so they were pretty low. They attacked the first one on the right hand column. The two bombs hit and there was a cloud of smoke and it was gone. Then the second one, they did exactly the same to her. In that instance
three of the sailors came out of the debris, the smoke, paddling what they call a Carley [life] raft. We picked them up. Then the next attack was on the vessel I was on, but instead of coming fore and aft they came across. They had us dead set in their sights.
One of the bombs dropped on the port side and the other on the starboard side. Both exploded and kicked our vessel right up and completely clear of the water, but no damage done and no injuries. I would have been within 3 yards of where the bomb fell. I didn’t even get concussed.
So I think we were lucky they landed in the water and it took all the blast, apart from the fact we were blown right up out the water. We then received a message from the senior boat who was in the other column to say, ‘We’re glad to see your bottom is clean.’ He was referring to the ship’s bottom of course.
just out of the blue. And as I walked in the front gate, the mother and daughter were about to walk out the front gate to go to the tea cup reader and invited me along just to accompany them. When we got there the lady doing the readings agreed to do mine, and amongst some of things she
said, was, ‘I can see you operating from a one funnel ship in shallow water and you’re going to receive a medal.’ There it is. So I must admit since then I’ve always treated them with a bit more respect.
Is that the general feeling on a navy boat?
I think so. You’ve got a job to do and in this case I didn’t have a job, I was a passenger. But you know, you wished you had a gun, and anti aircraft gun or something like that, but they would have been much higher in the sky then. They realised we couldn’t shoot back.
you were all dressed in your uniform, you started to think you were pretty good. But in effect you weren’t. You were still the lowest. Again they start to disperse all these people from the class to different ships or different placements, and according to if you suit what they want, and
if you didn’t know what you wanted or what have you, they would transfer you to somewhere. It might be a big ship or a little ship.
I didn’t really know what I was going to do because at this stage the European war was starting to turn around and we sort of understood that it wasn’t going to be too long before the war would be over. So in my discussions with the senior officer I mentioned this and
he suggested I might try and get into port clearance which in my imagination meant that a lot of ports around the world were wanting to clear goodness knows what around the place. And perhaps that was a skill I could learn in the navy.
So the next thing I had a chit to go to Portsmouth.
we were sitting in his office a couple of floors up. He was asking me what I wanted to do and what have you and I went through the story. He said, “You’ve volunteered and if you would like to look out that window, you’ll see what you’ve just volunteered for.” Of course, I had a look out the window and I couldn’t see it at first.
He said, “Have another look.” And there was a little midget submarine which was on the surface and he said, “That’s what you’ve just volunteered for. What do you think?” Anyway by this time I knew that midget submarines had carried out operations.
So I said, “Well, if other people can do it, I’m sure I can. Yes I’ll be in it.” From then on the training started for them.
We were sent up there with four instructors and we started our practical training. Most of it was practical. Closed circuit oxygen is pretty dangerous below 30 feet, below the first atmosphere, so
that was why we had the 30 foot lake. It was safe and we used to dress up in diving suits with oxygen sets on and wander around the bottom of this lake carrying out different things to keep us occupied. We trained there very hard. We would remain dived for 3 hours at a time,
day and night. I suppose the diving suits were big rubberised suits in one complete piece. The head gear was like the old gas mask with round glasses. They had a big slit in the stomach where you had to crawl in and get in there.
You would get your feet through and down and then your arms through and then the big metal clamp…the thing was folded backwards and forwards, this clamp was put on. You were in there then, you couldn’t get out. Anyone with claustrophobia wasn’t considered. They didn’t last very long.
These suits were fitted with an oxygen bottle and incidentally the early ones came from German aeroplanes. Their oxygen bottles were better than the English. Your set comprised of a big rubber bag on your chest which had a CO2 [carbon dioxide] absorbent in it.
So you could unscrew your oxygen bottle, fill your bag. You breathed through your bag and you had a nose clip on it. So you didn’t breathe carbon dioxide back into your mask. That wasn’t a real pleasant experience because it was very drying on the throat…protosorb powder used to get in your throat and goodness
knows what. But we built up. We went from quarter of an hour up to three hours or more duration until we could do all these things automatically. During the course they altered the diving suit a little bit; in fact they put a face mask on that you could open up and get a breath of fresh air.
Hard hat diving gear. You had a valve on top of the head gear which was to let any excess pressure out, because the deeper you went the more pressure you got on your body, and it used to squeeze this suit in very tight…you didn’t have a
…you had plenty of creases but no seams. They were all squeezed out. While we were practicing, while we were learning, some of the boys who were terrors, it was a favourite thing to reach around and grab the pipe into your mouth and you’d get…you couldn’t get a breath,
you can imagine how that would make you feel. And when you were just about ready to keel over they’d let it go and….or else you knew who it was. Another thing they used to do was close the valve on top of your helmet, and then open your oxygen bottle and that just flooded your suit, and if you couldn’t get to it quick enough the pressure of the
oxygen just put your arms out like that and then you couldn’t get at anything. You couldn’t bend them. There were some peculiar senses of humour I can tell you.
Sort of like walking down an incline at that stage. We were only learning diving at this stage. When you were ready we used to walk around the lake with a string tied to us and with a float tied on top and a piece of tin. So attendants could see wherever you were moving
and every now and again they’d give you three on the rope and you’d answer it to say you’re okay. While we were there, on one night dive we had a bombing raid on Portsmouth, with bombs landing pretty close. And I can tell you that six divers hit the surface with torches blaring and goodness knows what. It was a bit scary.
Can you tell me the story?
No, I don’t really want to. I might implicate the bloke who did it. No, that’s a long time ago. But it was one of the latest British aircraft carriers that was being proposed and they had this…I suppose you would call it a four metre model.
They had observation points set up in the lake. They were trying to measure the turning circle and what have you of it. You can’t just turn a ship like that on sixpence. It takes a lot of miles to do it sometimes. But they could determine that on the model. One of our divers had a little bit of a fiddle with the rudder on it
and I don’t think the scientific reports were too good the first time up.
so you had to be very observant of what you were doing and making sure that nobody closed your bottle off in the practice runs. This was only in the early days. We progressed. Once that initial training period was over we got into the midget submarine
era a lot closer. While we were doing this initial training we were able to go to the factory that made our suits. That was Siebe-Gorman in London who were well known diving manufacturers. Of course mostly their suits used to be the old
hard hat and copper top hard hat. That was a different type of diving altogether too, where they’re actually connected to an air supply. But on ours we were operating closed circuit oxygen sets and we used those because they didn’t give bubbles. So it didn’t betray your position. If you were in an enemy harbour
there wasn’t a row of bubbles or anything like that following you. To offset that though, the deeper you dived on oxygen the more dangerous it became. The oxygen enters your blood stream and you tend to black out, vomit into your mouth piece and black out. During the training
they used to put us into a chamber where they could increase the pressure equivalent to deeper water, and they’d take you up to the point where you were ready to black out and you had a pretty good idea of what your condition was like.
Opposite Rothesay was a loch, Loch Striven. We had a base, Varbell [HMS Varbell] it was called. So we had one at Rothesay, Varbell one, where the navy had taken over a family home, a lovely big old family home and that was…we used to operate the midgets between those two bases. They chose
Scotland because it was sparsely populated and the people that were there didn’t come and go very much, so security was…whilst it was…we wanted everything secure, it was much easier in that area to keep people from talking.
No doubt they saw the midgets on the loch and what have you but to our knowledge no one seemed to blab about it.
The early ones…again, these were being developed. They were based on some of the operations that the Italians had done out in the Mediterranean. They used what they called ‘chariots’ where a diver sat on like a log and all he had was his diving suit. The British developed the midget submarine. It was the same as a large submarine
but on a miniature scale. The early ones we had for training were different to the operational ones. The first operation was the six they sent against the Tirpitz [German ship] to try and do damage to her…of which three got through.
and they did damage the Tirpitz. The next model was a bit improved on that because they had a fair lot of problems with those.
Don’t forget these weren’t capable of travelling all that distance themselves. So they were towed by a parent submarine, and the parent submarine may have been on the surface or it may have been submerged. And the midget is sitting out on 600 feet of rope.
It had to carry a crew to operate it up or down or whatever was necessary so it would tow all right. But tremendous forces on them. Tow ropes broke. A 600 foot tow rope the size they were using would just sink to the bottom if it broke at the parent sub. The midget couldn’t get up again. It wasn’t buoyant enough.
Had they started to remedy these problems by the time you…
Well, every time there was anything go wrong with them they altered the thing straight away. They went through the manufacturers, the people who made the submarines. If there was a problem with any of them, they didn’t muck about with them. They fixed it.
He’s still alive, living in Perth. I had no sooner joined him than he went off on an operation. He didn’t want the diver so I was left at home and he went and carried out the operation in X24. It, incidentally, is on show at Portsmouth. The next models after that were the
XE craft. The ‘E’ standing for ‘Eastern’ and they were fitted with a bit of air conditioning as opposed to the others. They were slightly different in shape and had a few different fittings.
was something to be done and a crew trained on one thing then we’d switch around. For instance, we had a very good engineer on board our boat and they had a submarine…they’re made up in parts, three parts. There’s the battery compartment, the control room and the engine room.
On this particular craft in the engine room and control room there was a leak. The only way to fix it was to separate the two halves and hand fit with a file and what have you, so it became water proof. And our engineer did that, but that was a different sub to what we were actually on.
That was X25. When that was completed, we took it for a deep dive in one of the lochs. A deep dive was 300 feet, and it didn’t leak where the leak was, but it did crack one of the observation ports and we got water in.
So we got out of there pretty quick.
seat there actually steered the craft and he had control of the main valves for diving. So if you want to dive a submarine you open a valve and the water rushes in and it gets heavy and it goes under. When you want to come up you close the valve and blow all the water out with compressed air. So he did that particular job.
Immediately near him was the periscope which was about 6 or 8 feet long, extended. Very, very tiny and very thin. Not much thicker than a pencil. Very difficult to see.
on the height. You can’t see a great deal. It depends on the height you put the periscope up to and from what depth you’re diving the boat at. For instance you could be on the surface and have the periscope extended right up, then when you dived you might be say 6 feet under the water. So the periscope’s only up 3 feet you know.
The next position aft which was near the engine room is the man on the diving planes. He was responsible for up and down, and he could do this by altering the planes or he could do it
by pumping water forward to aft or aft to forward. He would get a different balance on the boat. He also controlled the electrical power or started the diesel engine from there. So on a submarine you’ve got Group Up or Group Down, that means you’ve got a low volume
of electricity or high. So if you want to go faster, you switch over to Group Up and run that for only a short time obviously.
The diesel engine was the same they used on the London buses. They were 42 horsepower, I think, from memory. We had the gyro compass in there. We had the motor controls where you switched from diesel to electric and
that sort of things, and the air conditioner. If anyone had to get in there they had to thread a needle and crawl under hot exhaust pipes and this sort of thing.
And I had to put my diving suit on and what have you while I was stretched out lying on top of them. No, there’s no room. You couldn’t even stand up in one. They had a …they were about 6 feet in diameter, but of course you had your floor and all the gear around you. All I had to do was shift from the battery compartment
into the wet and dry which also had the toilet seat in it. So I would sit on the toilet seat, close the valve, start the pump and it would pump the water up out of the tank and completely immersed you in that little…you were then able to open the outside hatch and gain exit from the sub. So as soon as you got
out you had to close the hatch again so the people inside could drain the water back if they wanted to. But you would leave it full until you went and did the job, whether it was attaching a limpet mine or cutting a cable. Then you would go back, open the hatch, hop in, close the hatch, let the water drain back into the tank,
and you’re back in fresh air again.
right around the ship so a big submarine can’t go through it. Or they put down what they call an anti torpedo net where a torpedo can’t get through the net. So that’s some protection for a ship that’s at anchor because it can’t just get up and shift or what have you. So with the midgets
it’s possible to run it into net, keep the buoyancy and everything intact, a diver gets out with a hydraulic cutting and cuts a hole in the net so a submarine can pass through it.
Did you ever have a sense of irony that previously you had been listening so hard?
Well, that’s a funny thing. Of all the people…there were three Australians when I was there, and the three of us had gone through the school at Rushcutter and three of us had switched from chasing them to being part of them. That was quite remarkable actually.
There were two other Australians killed in the Pentland Firth, they were part of a three man crew that was under tow by a big submarine, and the seas washed the skipper off the bridge, and the second officer
sort of was right on the spot and he turned the parent submarine around to try and pick up his skipper if he could, but in doing that all the tow went off the midget. She surfaced and the big sub rammed it and sunk it and killed all the blokes.
That was an unfortunate accident.
It wasn’t that we didn’t want to go out on action or anything, there just wasn’t the targets about that we could actually go and perform on. These submarines carried two side charges each of two tons of RDX explosive. That’s quite a big amount. We could
run in under a ship that was anchored. We could do it when it was underway or anything. We would pick the target that was anchored in port or something. We could go in and put on positive buoyancy and go up underneath the ship’s bottom which is almost flat. The EX models had little arms on them that
could be extended and they would go up like a fly’s leg. You could run around the bottom of the ship if you wanted to. They also carried a side cargo of six limpet mines if needed. If you wanted to use them instead of a big charge.
You also had a nickname, Acid? What’s the story there?
That goes back to when I first was made an officer and transferred to the submarine training up in Scotland. And the first job of my arrival was to take the parade. Somebody new, give him a go.
Anyway the parade used to be the whole crew of the midget submarines. They paraded as one group. And of course everybody was proud of their own crew. I’ve got my crew paraded and they were two short. Anyway about half a minute later, these two fellas who
were obviously were working in the bowels of the submarine and took a longer time to get on parade, they turned up in old overalls and the necessary white jumper that the submariners wear, and being new to the job I didn’t quite know what to say or do. I tossed this over in my mind and thought, “that’s not very good
if I’ve got two blokes showing up as if they don’t care”. So I gave them a bit of a dressing down before reporting everything as correct. From them on, after that date, whenever we were doing anything and we got a bit closer, and I got a bit closer to the crews, whenever you would ask them to do anything they’d say,
“Right ho Cid. You’ll be right Cid”. Of course I had to grab someone one day and ask, “What’s the meaning of this ‘Cid’?” And he said, ‘Well, do you remember sir, the first day you were up there and you dressed them down?” I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Well, that’s where you got the name. Short for acid.”
Ken Hudspth. He lived in Tasmania and has subsequently died. He and another English crew one, they used to take the commandos…and this goes back to the midget I saw at Portsmouth. They were leaving Portsmouth and going over to the Normandy beaches and setting up lights
and taking depth soundings and all this sort of thing for the invasion. They carried a couple of commando type people with them. Quite a dangerous job it was. Then on D-Day they went over…because the weather was rough and the place was cancelled, they had to sit on the bottom for
24 hours, but then they put the commandos ashore and these fellows set up and lit the lights to guide the landing craft to the beaches. So they played quite an important part there.
went ahead and obviously the jobs for the midgets were fewer and fewer, they decided to send them out to the Pacific. They were equipped with refrigeration for the Pacific theatre. So I guess we had to use them. They were loaded onto our depot ship Bonaventure. And away we went.
On our own. We weren’t in a convoy or anything. We travelled from Loch Cairnbawn, the big submarine base up in Scotland. We had that place to ourselves when we were in the early days of the war. So we went to the Azores and refuelled there. Then onto and through the Carrabeen and Trinidad,
through the Panama Canal, San Diego, Honolulu. From Honolulu we came back to Brisbane through the Gilbert and Alice Islands, Manis and a few places like that. But when we arrived out here there were no jobs for us. We couldn’t rustle up any. The Americans didn’t want anything to do with us.
They of course were in charge of everything and doing what they wanted to do.
And did you do anything more in Australia before you left?
Yes, we were trying to fill in time a little bit while our captain was trying to get information here and there. We finished up…we went up to Townsville and then we had a bit of time there so we had a week over in
the Whitsundays as a crew. All our crew of the XE4 which was the one we were on. We had a week there of just rolling around an island that wasn’t inhabited. So that was a good bit of R&R [rest and recreation]. We
were asked then if we could do this particular job, cutting under water cables. There was a cable going out from Monrepose Beach [?] which went over to French Noumea. It wasn’t in use. It had been abandoned so we set up our craft. We put special drags on them and what have you and
eventually found a way of locating and cutting the cable. We said, “We could do it”, so the Americans said, “go”. They wanted them cut because they were in the process of getting ready to drop the atomic bomb, and they had the Japanese codes but they wanted to make
them send all their broadcasts from radio so they could monitor them in case things were not as they should be. When we said yes, we set off and went up to Borneo; we were actually based in Labuan in Borneo, and we got ready for the missions from there.
Two of our craft went to Singapore and attacked a cruiser there that was in the harbour which was not seaworthy but the guns were capable of being fired. XE4, we went to Saigon and cut the cable from Singapore to Saigon and Saigon
to Hong Kong. Another one of the boats went to Hong Kong and that cut the end down there.
passage crew on board. The operational crew which included myself went in Spearhead. We were towed within 100 miles of Saigon and in the middle of the night changed crews. The operational crew then took over and we then navigated in on our own while the parent submarine went and had a bit of rest at the
bottom and just did a bit of reconnoitring. We were due to go back in a day or so and link up with her after she had done the job. Once we slipped from the parent submarine we rigged up the dragging arrangement and away we went.
We navigated into the Delta, into the Saigon River, which is now Ho Chi Min of course. We had a fairly accurate layout of where the cables were and we started to drag the grapnel for them. We came up hard as if we had grabbed one.
I went out of the submarine and found out it wasn’t, that it had been caught on a piece of coral. So I released that and went back into the submarine, kept on the sweep. The next time we came up I went up and we had hooked one of the cables, so I went ahead and cut that with a special cutter, a hydraulic cutter.
I brought a bit back into the submarine to show I had actually done the job. Then we went looking for the second one. So that was a repeat performance on that. So that was the job. There was nothing there…we had a message that there was nothing in the harbour that we could attack by putting out limpet mines or anything on them. So we went and rendezvoused
with the submarine again and went back to Labuan.
we thought then, well, this is it, it’s nearly all over. The job at Singapore was botched a little and they were going to send us back there to have a go at one of the cruisers again. There were two there and only one was attacked. They wanted both attacked and we actually had the side cargoes on board and running to meet our
parent submarine when the war was declared over. So that wasn’t necessary.
What were some of the things that were hard to deal with, changing things…wartime life to civilian life?
I guess the camaraderie, the friendships. You had to start all these, all over again, with completely new people. I was indoctrinated. I was a bit pommish when I got out of the navy.
Anyway it was a case of get a job, knuckle down and see what you could do.
So coming home, what job did you get into? What kind of job did you do after?
Well, starting off I got a job with a British company called British United Shoe Machinery and I joined them as a mechanic, a trainee mechanic I might add, earning less money
than I was in the navy. So that was bad. Anyway in 1952 it was make or break for me and I had an opportunity to go and manage a shoe factory in Sydney and I would mention his name because everybody knows him…it was Alan McGilvray.
He owned a shoe factory, he and his brother and sister. It was a shoe factory in Sydney. They wanted me to go and manage that but I knew I wasn’t capable of doing that because there was a lot in that side of the thing that I didn’t know. Anyway the firm countermanded that and made me branch manager of their Perth show.
I was there for 7 years and then went back to Sydney. I was in Sydney for the same period, came up to Queensland as branch manager and then eventually went back to Sydney and went out to one of our other companies still owned by British United. So I had a service of 38½ years with them
I’ve got a video of a German one and it’s absolutely raw stuff. It’s called The Boat [Das Boot]. That’s a bit frightening. It’s about a German U-Boat crew. But anything like that, obviously they never show you much because a lot of it at the time was secret.
I’ve been on and over a couple of the American nuclear subs. I’ve been over the Australian sub, but you don’t see anything even though we’re submariners. There’s lots of stuff they won’t show you.