Archive number: 1236
Preferred name: Fish cake
Date interviewed: 22 January, 2004
You are listening to the interview audio
So Tom you were going to just give us a quick rundown of what your history is?
My naval history, or which history?
Well just a general rundown of your life over ten minutes. Just that short –
Where I was born and all that?
Well I was born in a small country town called Geraldton in Western Australia and
went to a farm, a farm just out of Geraldton. Came down to Perth when I was eight years old and served an apprenticeship as a motor mechanic, or started to. And the war broke out. I was called up in the navy. Before that I was in the naval cadets for two years. When I turned eighteen I became a reserve and the day war broke
out I got a telegram saying report with your shaving gear and toothbrush. Nothing about change of clothing, underwear or anything else. I was called to the naval depot to Fremantle. I was immediately sent up on guard duty to the big wireless station in Applecross called now Wireless Hill. I was there two months guarding the wireless station with about twenty other chaps. I was sent back to
Freemantle to the depot for seamanship training. That carried on until March 1940, when I was put on the Sydney, which was in Fremantle. I’d like to clear my throat if possible.
Yeah. You don’t have to – it doesn’t have to –
Yeah. I see. Because of – excuse me.
Now when I joined the Sydney, we were only on the West Australian station for six weeks until we took the second Australian convoy away to the Cocos Islands, then went on to Singapore as my first trip outside Western Australia. From there we went across to Colombo and then to Aden and then up to the Mediterranean. I was in the Mediterranean
in May 1940. A fortnight later Italy came into the war. Have I got time to get a drink?
We can just pause. You were just saying when you left off that Italy had just entered the war.
Yes. The 10th of June 1940. On the 28th of June we were on what was called a sweeper of the Mediterranean
and we had our first action. Somebody said to me, “Were you ever frightened?” I said, “No. I was too terrified to be frightened.” We sank an Italian destroyer and picked up the survivors. The boys made a fuss with the survivors on board but when we got back to Alexandria in Egypt some of the Italian sailors wanted to stay on our ship. Several died at sea. We had to bury them at sea and the captain
died ashore. The next – Just before that we did the first bombardment on Bardia, which was a big port, and Italian fort, and our aircraft went up spotting. It was an old seaplane. We used to call it the Pussers [merchant navy term for ‘navy’] Duck. Anyway they were attacked by three aircraft, which turned out to be RAF [Royal Air Force] planes on recognisance.
They fired at our seaplane and damaged it so it couldn’t land in the water. It flew on to Mersa Matruh. As it landed it just collapsed, and smashed. By the way the crew onboard that plane were all air force chaps, we had six of them. And the pilot, Tommy Price, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross
for his efforts there. On 9 July 1940 we were in the first fleet action in the Mediterranean since Napoleon’s time. So signals went up on all the ships saying, enemy battlefleet in sight, and that was the first signal in a hundred years or a hundred and forty years since Napoleon’s time, or since Nelson’s time. And
today, looking back on it is a bit of an honour, especially to be here. The Eastern Mediterranean Fleet, the British Eastern Mediterranean Fleet, engaged the whole of the Italian Fleet. Fortunately we came out of that. On 19 July Sydney and five destroyers were sent on a sweep up towards Greece
looking for submarines. Now the Sydney was about sixty miles north of Crete with one destroyer and the other four destroyers were south when they sighted two Italian cruisers. Well knowing that the Sydney was in close proximity, but not exactly where, they tried to entice the Italian destroyers towards the Sydney.
Sorry, the Italian cruisers were much faster being the fastest cruisers in the world at forty knots. That is forty-eight miles an hour. But they were overhauling the destroyers. The captain of our destroyer flotilla, he signalled the Sydney saying they were being engaged and chased. The Sydney – the captain was Captain Collins.
Now being a very astute man, he didn’t break radio silence to headquarters to say he was engaging. He kept very quiet, came rushing down at full speed towards the Italian ships and he opened fire without them realizing it was there through the mist. It was an element of surprise and that was the first and only cruiser duel of World War II. It was the Sydney and two Italian ships.
One was called the Bartolomeo Colleoni and the other was the Giovanni Delle Bande Nere. That is a mouthful. Anyway we sank the Colleoni and the Bande Nere got away but it was damaged. So the captain asked one of the destroyers to torpedo the ship which we damaged, but it wasn’t sinking. And when we got back to harbour it was a proud day in my life because the whole
of the Mediterranean fleet and all the civilians had lined the harbour on the foreshore and all cheered us into harbour. And a lot of chaps and myself said we had a lump in our throat. Excuse me, can we stop for a minute.
Sure. You’re are doing a fantastic job.
I didn’t know whether you wanted me to do a rough resume first.
Yeah. Just keep going with your rough resume. You are doing a fantastic job.
Oh Good. Well I’ll do a quick resume.
In the Mediterranean the Sydney was there, we spent Christmas in Malta in dry dock amongst air raids and that. We spent – we were involved in eighty-eight actions in the six or seven months we were in the Mediterranean.
That is a lot.
And I think – we did also engage motor torpedo boats
Italian ones, carried out a lot of bombardments and on 11 November, Armistice Day, we went right into Italy’s back door, up into the Adriatic. Two cruisers, two destroyers and ourselves and we sunk and Italian convoy up there in 1 o’clock in the morning and when we came out we caught up with Admiral Cunningham and his fleet, which were waiting out in the Mediterranean and
they said did you have a wild Australian night. And the captain signalled back only one word. “Bonzer!” Which is an Australian word, I don’t know. When Greece came into the war we started carting troops on our ship, six hundred at a time, up to Greece. And that’s when we started getting really good Greek meals up there. That’s when – and sight seeing. That’s when we got invited
into a Greek wedding. We were walking around and they saw these Australian sailors. That’s where we saw the first dance where the men all put their arms around one another. I don’t know what they call it. A Basuca [Kalamatianos dancing] or something. We went up and saw the Parthenon, which I had only vaguely heard about which everyone was talking about and they wanted to go and see it. To me it was a lot of old ruins at the time.
We went down to Malta for seventeen days to get some repairs done to the ship but there were a lot of air raids going on at that time. A rather humorous thing. The navy put us up in hotels for forty-eight hours for leave. I said to the hotelkeeper or chap one day, “That was lovely steak we had last night. I thought rationing was strict here.” He said, “We only serve the best horse flesh.” Gee. I was nearly
sick then. And we were then – as we came out of Malta in early January we were relieved by the Perth our sister ship. We came back to Australia and being West Australians we had fourteen days leave in Perth. Where the rest of the crew went on to Sydney and had the big march, which we missed.
But we had fun here because we were entertained by the Lord Mayor at a civic dinner in Perth and by the Fremantle Mayor for another civic dinner.
Then we went across by train to Sydney. It was a passenger train and that was one of the last trips we did because the troop trains came in after Japan came into the war. I was on the Sydney
up till October the 26th, and I left it to go to another ship. But I left it just before its last trip out. It never ever came back from it. It was lost with all hands, six hundred and forty-five men. I think the good lord was keeping me to make my wife unhappy. Well she reckons. I was then put on the Queen Elizabeth, which was the largest ship in the world at that time. It was a troop transport. We went across to Egypt again,
and I joined the Hobart, the sister ship of the Perth. We only had two weeks in the Mediterranean because Japan came into the war. We had one trip on a Malta convoy and some fairly heavy German air raids. We then left Alexandria, came back to Singapore, but on the way back we had to call into an island
called the Lacadive Islands, just south of Ceylon because there was a radio silence. They thought the Japs [Japanese] had landed there. It was only the radio station had broken down. So we called into Colombo, got an urgent recall to sea and all our Christmas dinner and goodies was left on the wharf. We were on our way to Singapore – this was Christmas 1941. The captain
announced over the phone that there would be no Christmas luncheon but that every mess would receive one bottle of tomato sauce to celebrate Christmas. We arrived at Singapore and had a month up there in Singapore and Java. Singapore fell. In one afternoon we were very heavily bombed. A hundred and nine planes alone attacked the Hobart.
They estimated around six hundred and fifty bombs fell around the Hobart. The Hobart had the reputation of being the heaviest bombed ship in the Australian navy during the Second World War. And I was on it for all that time. We were in the harbour of Batavia, which was Tanjung Priok, when the HMAS Perth arrived from Fremantle and we thought beauty, we have another Australian ship. We had
no air force, see no planes and while we were in harbour we were getting oil from a tanker and when the bombers came they went all down the tanker on one side of us so we just slipped off the tanker and shot out to sea and the tanker was on fire, the Perth was over against a wharf firing away. So we came in after dark and when we came in to harbour,
the Perth had sailed and gone down east of Java and was involved with the Battle of the Java Seas which we missed. We were sent north towards Singapore to intercept a Japanese invasion fleet. We had instructions that if we didn’t see it or meet up by midnight we were to travel south and leave the area to go to Colombo. Well we
didn’t meet the Jap fleet, thank heaven. We came out through the Sunda Straits at seven in the morning. The Perth was coming out eighteen hours later at midnight and got intercepted by the Japanese fleet and sunk. The Perth and Houston, an American cruiser, so once again we beat it. We went up to the North of Sumatra and picked up a lot of civilians, women and children. People who had got out of Singapore.
And we took them across to Colombo. We left Colombo and went down to Fremantle. We had one night in Fremantle and had eight hours leave. I had only been away from home that time two and a half months, or three and a half months. We went around to Sydney. The ship was pretty battered after the Singapore Java campaign. We did a quick
refit. At the end of April we sailed up and got involved in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Once again we were lucky. We got out of that because the American aircraft carrier, the Lexington was sunk. A lot of planes shot down but that is supposed to have been the turning point of the Japanese war where the Japs didn’t come down to invade Australia. We went to Brisbane and were there for a couple of months.
We went down to New Zealand to pick up the first division of marines. American Marines. We took them up for the landing at Guadalcanal. At Guadalcanal we were bombed every day and in the second night the Canberra and an American cruiser were involved with Japanese ships. We were down the eastern end of what they call Iron Bottom Sound now. The
Canberra was sunk. She was a great big heavy eight-inch cruiser. And we were lucky. We weren’t engaged that action but we were engaged with a lot of air raids. We went back to Brisbane and the next twelve month was just convoying a lot of troops across to New Guinea. There was a big build up in New Guinea and we didn’t see any action on that time,
but on 20 July 1943 we were torpedoed. The ship didn’t sink though the rear end was right down into the water. Three American tugs came out and towed us into the New Hebrides. The Americans spent a month patching us up and we came back to Sydney at about eight knots. Just drifting back.
And when the ship went into the dock I was transferred to another. Oh, we got twenty-eight days survivors leave, which was great, so we could come across to the west. Because coming across to the west, in those days, was five or six day on the troop trains. You spent up to ten to twelve days travelling each way. After coming back from leave I was sent to Townsville and I joined an old destroyer called the Stuart.
She was a rust bucket. The boys said she was held together with cockroaches and rust. From then we spent a lot of time in New Guinea especially around Milne Bay, between Milne Bay and Gona escorting convoys. The Stuart was the roughest ship I think I’ve ever been on. It was built in 1918. That’s getting on nearly twenty-five years old.
We got an extra sixpence a day for what they call hard laying money, for putting up with a hard ship. Sixpence is about five cents but to give you an idea of purchasing power it would buy you a glass of beer. Just one glass of beer a day, but we didn’t have any beer onboard. I came back to – The following April I was sent to Melbourne to what they called the M class pool.
That was a pool of sailors waiting to go on M class destroyers. Then I was put on a modern fleet destroyer, which was beautiful, called the Cribron. We immediately sailed for the Far East, what you would call the far eastern fleet, which was Trincomalee in Ceylon. And from then we used to go out with the battle fleet when the carried out bombardments on
Japanese islands and doing convoy duties up to Bombay. From then we came back to Australia on Christmas day – arrived in Melbourne on Christmas Eve 1944. We were supposed to have twenty-four hours leave but we got a recall in the early hours of the morning because a Japanese submarine, they thought a Japanese submarine but later on it proved to be a German submarine,
sank a ship off the east coast of Australia. So we shot through. We had – out of a crew of 160, we left eighty ashore. We were very shorthanded and instead of working watches we were closed up the whole time. Another ship arrived before us and picked up survivors. And we went to Sydney. The next trip was across to New Zealand. Take the
air minister, the Minister for Air to New Zealand – to take him across because he had no transport. They decided to give him a feed of fish so we dropped two big depth charges. Two big fish came to the surface and albatross swooped on the two fish. So the boys said, two depth charges, two fish, and two albatross. We had four days in New Zealand, which were beautiful, and then we went across to
Hobart. We had a day in Hobart, which was good, because they didn’t see many navy ships down there and they made a big fuss of us. We were told, when we left there, we were told we were going across to pick up a ship which was bringing the Duke of Gloucester out. He was the new Governor General for Australia. We went across, met that ship and took him across to Sydney. But before we got across to Sydney
we all had to get into our best uniforms, stand on the ship’s upper deck while the steamer passed with the duke of Gloucester on it. We all had to wave our hats. We were getting soaking wet from spray and water coming from the sea. And when the captain screamed out, “Right boys, cheer.” There was not one cheer. Everybody was wrenching [?UNCLEAR] . So he wasn’t very happy with that. We went to
Sydney, had a fortnight there and then we went up north for the landing at Okinawa. That is an island off the coast from Japan. They said it was the biggest invasion – It was bigger than D Day [June 6, 1944] with the number of ships the Americans had there and at that time we had the British Pacific Fleet which we were attached to. We were in one
harbour and we went out for exercises and we were supposed to come back for our supplies but we didn’t, we went straight up to Okinawa so we had no supplies for ten days. We had no meat, a bit of egg powder, tinned vegies and that was all. After six weeks there we went down to the Philippines. From the Philippines we got out first fresh meat but the only meat we got from the Americans was liver. Fresh liver.
Before that as a kid, I wouldn’t have a bar of liver, but it was beautiful. From then we went back to Okinawa again for another six weeks, down to Sydney and that finished my seagoing time because I was sent down to Flinders naval depot to do a course. It was a seven month course and while I was there the war finished. I finished the course, I was kept in the navy, being a
single man until the following July and then I was paid off as a leading seaman. I had been out of the navy for about three years before the Korean War broke out and I got a letter from the navy board asking would I go back as an instructor in the reserves, which was two nights a week. So I went back as an instructor and they made me a petty officer, so I spent three years there. I did one trip
– we had to do a fortnight a year of training. When the Queen was here in 1954 I did a trip on the Bataan destroyer as far as the Cocos Islands, escorting the Royal Yacht back. And on the way up, we had to fuel off the Vengeance the aircraft carrier, and when we collided with it it made a big hole in the destroyer. So we were detached then and we went on
to Darwin to where we transhipped to a corvette called the Junee. I came back to Fremantle, another ten day trip and that was the end of my navy career.
What did you do when you got out of the navy.?
Well in 1937, I started an apprenticeship as a motor mechanic. I was only there two years but then the war broke out and I got called up.
I was getting one pound four a week as an apprentice, which is not enough to survive on after I paid my mother a pound. Four and six is about forty-five cents. And so my boss said to me, “You are an apprentice. I am going to get you out of the navy.” And at that stage I was getting three pounds four a fortnight and everything found. So I said, “You can get me out, but I’m not going to work.” So he left me in there because
when we became able seaman the pay jumped to five pounds eight a fortnight and when we were overseas you were paid in sterling. Now getting all your pay in sterling meant I could put four pounds in the bank and I was credited with five pounds Australian. So I was rich. After the war, I went back to finish my apprenticeship, which was very good because the repatriation department, which was
down at Veterans’ Affairs made up out pay to full tradesman’s pay. So I was one of the few apprentices getting a full tradesman’s pay and finishing my apprenticeship. The day my apprenticeship finished I went to the RAC [Royal Automobile Club of Western Australia] , where I stayed for the next forty years. I started there as a patrolman, and I finished up there as claims manager, which was number three in the insurance department.
Right. That’s wonderful. You’ve certainly
had some interesting things happen on the sea. My goodness.
You haven’t got the thing on now, have you?
Yes we have.
When the Sydney was in the Mediterranean in action it was in action eighty-eight times. I had been in action eighty-eight times before I turned twenty.
Gee. That’s just a lot isn’t it? So anyway.
I was scared.
But I think everybody else was scared but the greatest fear was not letting our shipmates know we were frightened. You know, we were always putting on a, you know, ‘I’m not scared mate’ attitude.
It certainly keeps you from jumping overboard and literally swimming to the nearest piece of land.
Well the trouble was the land was too far away and I wasn’t a good swimmer.
So lets start at the beginning again. So you were born in Geraldton.
Geraldton on 30 April 1921.
What was it like to grow up in Geraldton?
Well I didn’t actually grow up in Geraldton. We had a farm about twenty-seven miles out of Geraldton because Northampton was thirty-three. We were six miles south of Northampton but I’ve still got a letter that was written in
– three days after I was born by my grandmother. I ended up with it. Saying how she had sent a telegram and as soon as he could get the horses in he came down to Geraldton, which was a four-hour trip. He was driving everybody mad at Nurse Brown’s nursing home, which is now the cultural centre of Geraldton too by the way. I went to a little school in Geraldton. There were fifteen in the school and one teacher.
I started school at a place called Isseka. So being fifteen I was the only one in infants. I don’t know what they call it now, grade one or something. It was called infants in those days. And I was the top of the class because I was the only one in the class. So from when I was eight years old, the Depression had set in. My father wasn’t getting as much for the wheat as what it cost him to buy
him wheat for seed so he sold the farm and we came to Perth.
Just before you go to Perth, what sort of a farm was it?
A wheat and sheep farm.
Wheat and sheep. What sort of jobs did you have as a kid?
Milking the cow. That’s what I can remember because I would milk the cow one day and I wouldn’t have tied the leg and it would kick the bucket of milk over. And then I would have to get the cows out of their wet night. I would have
to get the cow in and it knew I was a kid. It wouldn’t take much notice of me.
Have you got brothers and sisters?
Yes. There were six of us. Three brothers and two sisters. One brother who is younger than me went through Tobruk when he was seventeen. Another brother went away in the merchant service at the end of the war. He was much younger then me. And one sister was in what they call the
Land Army during the war where they had to work on farms and market gardens and that. And the other sister was at school.
Quite a large family then?
And did the Depression really hit you hard?
My father was very lucky in that when we came down from Geraldton, my mother’s cousin was a minister for railways and when a lot of people were being put off,
he got my father a job with the government as a truck driver. Only in the very middle of the Depression for about a year, my father had two weeks on and one week off. We were lucky because going to the local school here there were a lot of Italian and Slav boys who were good friends and my younger brother and myself used to go down and work in the market gardens on Saturday morning just for vegetables. And every Saturday morning
we’d get a sugar bag full of vegetables, which was enough to carry my mother through the week and also we had two and a half acres of land at Tuart Hill, which meant we had a lot of fowls and that. I said when I grow up there is two things I never want to see. Chooks, poultry or plum jam. My mother used to buy plum jams in seven-pound tins
three and a half kilograms I suppose, and that’s what we got every day for school, bread and plum jam. I swore black and blue that I’d never ever eat that again but I do. It’s like the prisoners of war swearing they would never eat rice any more.
So you had this little plot of land with chickens?
Well everybody had two and a half acres. That was the standard sized blocks in Swan Street, which was the last street out of Perth.
How old were you by the time you moved to Perth?
Eight. I had just turned eight the day we moved.
And what did you think about the difference between being in the country and being in the city?
I didn’t give it any thought to be truthful. I suppose it wasn’t so lonely because the nearest farm was about two miles away. You only saw the kids at school and I was the junior one at school so I was the dogsbody.
So finally you had some friends to play with.
Yes. We did, yes.
Did you play any sport?
I played cricket, only schoolboy cricket until I stopped, head over an eye and it was closed up for a week and after that I was always scared of the ball coming towards me. But when I was seventeen or eighteen, just before I joined the navy, I joined
– we started to play tennis. Just ordinary clothes. And we had one chap who had a good job and he insisted. I had a girlfriend at the time. Seventeen too. She got me into tennis. I wasn’t a good player and this chap made himself the captain and insisted that we all had to buy white flannel trousers, a white shirt, a panama hat, and sandshoes so I had to pull out.
And he took my girlfriend. She reckoned he was the captain and he was right.
How unfair. So what sort of subjects did you enjoy at school?
I was not a very good scholar. I think geography and history were my two favourite subjects because when I was in the navy, when they announced we were going to another
harbour or another port I went to see the chaplain, who was also the librarian. They had very few went near him. I’d ask were there any books on Colombo, or Aden or Alexandria and he’d bring me in like a long lost friend so I’d swot up. I was going through the Red Sea one day. He told me the day before, “Tommy, when we got up the Red Sea we’re going to cross over the
part where the sea opened up and Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, you see. So I had a look at the Bible he showed me and got the page number and in the morning at stand easy, that is morning tea when we used to get a quarter hours break. I told the boys. We are just passing over the spot where Moses opened up the sea and Moses led the Israelite through. “Oh rubbish. Can you prove it?” I said, “If you get
hold of a Bible and look at page 276, it will be there.” So that was my hour of glory.
Wonderful. So which school did you actually go to?
Well I went to the little school in Isseka, which was fifteen. When I went down to Perth I went to the local convent school, St Kieran’s. From there I went to St Pat’s [St Patrick’s] in town. And first – I had an ulcer on my leg that wouldn’t heal up and every day I had to go to the children’s hospital for dressings.
So I was booked into Aramore at Glenfield, where I met Lionel Navel, Lionel Navel was in my class. And then after six months I came back and went to St Pat’s in town, which is not there now. That’s where the Royal Perth Hospital is. Apart from schooling in the navy, my next schooling was thirty-five. I wanted to do a diploma in management
at the Perth Tech [Technical College] and I was told that I either had to have a senior manager’s position or have my Leaving Certificate. So at thirty-four I did my Leaving. I did it in one year, which was very hard and my poor old wife used to have to type my assignments on a rattly old second hand typewriter. When I passed my Leaving, I was accepted into the class. Sixty-three actually started the Leaving class
and eighteen graduated out of the Leaving. And for the diploma course, five of us graduated out of the eighty. Out of eighty-three that started all together five graduated, so I got a diploma in management. The following week at work I got a promotion and was made chief clerk. From there I went on to claims manager.
Just rewinding you, quite a way back actually. What sort of things did you do when you were a kid
Up in Tuart Hill it was Saturday mornings going down to the market gardens, weeding, it was all swampland and filthy black peat. You weeded and then you’d look around and the weeds had grown behind you. Quickly. We did that just to help my mother out to get vegetables. The Italians were very good. They’d give us two sugar bags of vegetables, one for my brother and one for me. We’d take them home on the handlebars
of our bikes. And then in the afternoon I suppose mostly we went bird nesting or –
Did you manage to do any swimming at all?
Now and again we’d ride pushbikes out to North Beach and do some swimming but not very much. We used to go to a place called Sorrento. There’s a big complex out there now but we used to go out, just boys, and all swim in the nude.
Nobody else was around.
Well that would have been half way to Darwin in those days.
It was. Watermans Bay was only a small place. That was the last place. There was nothing at Sorrento or anything like that.
Well that has certainly changed over the last few years.
Well I’m going back seventy or eighty years.
And the humorous things. Do you want any humorous things?
Yes. You kind of jumped.
There was a hut or CUSA [Catholic United Services Association] in Sydney for sailors, single sailors mostly. You could go up and play sport or table tennis or darts and have afternoon tea and then have a free meal at nighttime and it was run by a group of mothers and their daughters. So one of the chaps
on the ship said, “Are you going to have a run ashore and have a few beers?” I said, “Right. Pick me up about half past five.” I’m going up to CUSA first to see what it is like, sort it out. Of course as soon as I got there I met this beautiful girl. Of course, when you are at sea everyone looks beautiful. When you come into the harbour it reminds me of that story after the war about the occupation of Japan. Where this Aussie says the longer he is in Japan the
whiter the girls look. And the American negro said, “The longer he is in Japan the blacker they look.” When you’ve been at sea a long while all girls look beautiful and this girl was really beautiful. She had lovely eyes, sparkly eyes. So I helped her to set up the tables for tea and my mate turned up to go for a beer, and I said no, I’m staying awhile because they’re going to have a dance after.” So I helped this
girl and helped her with the washing up after. And then I said, “Can I take you to the pictures?” You couldn’t take these girls home. That was the rules. They had to go home with their parents. But you could take them out if you made arrangements to see their parents. “Can I take you out tomorrow night to the pictures?” She said, “You’ll have to come and meet Mum and Dad first.” “OK.” She said, “You’re not married or engaged are you.” And I said, “No.” I never
had enough time at shore to – So we cleared up and helped wash up and the dance started. And my mate came in and he’s half-full. We were sitting at this dance talking. And he walked up to me, “Are you Tommy Fisher?” He is out of my mess, by the way. I thought, “Hello, what’s going on here?” “I haven’t seen you for years. How’s the wife and baby?” And of course the girl said, “You told me you weren’t married.”
Well that was the end of a budding romance. That finished that.
End of tape
Interviewee: Thomas Fisher Archive ID 1236 Tape 02
Did you join the naval cadets when you were a young bloke?
Yeah. When I was sixteen.
Where about did you join them Tom?
I joined them in Fremantle. I was living in Tuart Hill but the reason I joined was I was a messenger boy at Skipper Baileys, a motor company in Perth and the storeman there was in the reserves and he said, “Why don’t you come down and join us. You know.” You do a lot of drills and you do sailing on Saturday afternoons. Which they were not good yachts but they were old navy cutters and
whalers. So I joined the cadets at sixteen, which you didn’t get paid for in those days. I think you do now. So a lot of Saturday afternoons in good weather. Excuse me, Can I cough? Every Saturday afternoon in the summer weather we went sailing out of Fremantle. At Easter time we would go over to Rottnest for the holiday period.
And the last Easter before war, 1939, was a dead flat calm and the petty officer said we’d better set out in the morning. We rowed all the way back from Rottnest to Fremantle and there was no skin on my behind, my arms were breaking off because we rowed twelve miles. Hands were sore, but we did it.
That’s a long way. You just didn’t have enough wind.
There was not even a bit of wind. No sea breeze and also it was a heavy cutter.
Can you describe a cutter for me?
A cutter is a thirty-two foot, what they call clinker built boat. It takes twelve people to row it, twelve sailors. Also we had a lot of gear onboard. Tents and everything else. There were two cutters and we were
tired. Worn out.
Any funny stories from your experiences while you were in the cadets?
Yes. We had to do a march one-foundation day, which is a holiday in June. I think it’s still kept up. We had a ceremonial parade on the esplanade
down at Fremantle and there was a hole in the ground where they had a tap or something. And everyone fell. They were just like ninepins. The first one fill and then the second one didn’t see and he fell into the hole. We all fell over. Of course I was in the next row over and I started up laughing and the petty officer is yelling out, “Cut that cackle out in the ranks.” There were crowds of people around
watching the parade, you know.
It sounds like a disaster.
It was a disaster but that was one of the humorous things we were talking about the other day. Really it’s a long way back now to remember humorous things, you know.
What kind of sea craft were you learning in Cadets?
Just about everything. General seamanship, all about different types of boats, a little bit of signalling,
marching. We did a lot of marching and parade drill. Knots. How to tie different knots.
Did you join up with a few different mates?
No. Only the chap at work. He got me to go down there because he was in the reserves. He was a little bit older than me. I was in the cadets. A lot of the other local boys were in the CMF,
the Citizens Military Forces, in those days called the militia. They all went into the militia and I was the only one who went into the navy. There weren’t any air force cadets or anything in those days.
Did you ever think about joining the militia?
No. Because my father was in World War I and when he talked about people bayoneting the Germans I thought that’s not for me. I couldn’t bayonet anybody. But in the navy, of course, my mates used to say. “The ships will go down
a long way out from land. That’s a long way to swim, you know.”
But you were a country boy. I don’t suppose you had had much to do with the water growing up?
Yes. But we went down to Geraldton for holidays and we had aunties in Geraldton. We were only twenty-seven miles from Geraldton.
Were you near Mingenew?
No. Northampton. That is north of Geraldton. Mingenew is south.
So what kinds of things would you do on Holidays
with your aunties?
Swimming. Just kids – See at that stage it was up to eight years of age but I’ve still got a vivid memory of it, you know.
Yeah. Those young memories usually stay with you. Don’t they?
Yes. I think they were branded.
So before your boss suggested that you should join the cadets did you ever have any dreams or aspirations of being in the navy?
No. Yes. When I say no, I used to read a lot because I was a skinny kid with not much strength and I used to do a lot of reading. I would often think that it would be beaut to be in a big naval battle, reading lots of books, and I never thought I would be, you know.
The dream came true, didn’t it.
Yeah. The dream came true. I didn’t realize I was going to be so scared.
Do you remember the names of some of those books or the stories that you were reading?
It’s seventy odd years ago.
How long were you in the cadets before you were called up, Tom?
Roughly two years. I was in the cadets for two years and then when I turned eighteen I transferred to the reserves. When you transfer to the reserves you sign an undertaking that you will be called up or defend your country. Also in the reserves we got paid.
It was great, you know.
How much were you getting paid with the reserves?
I can’t remember because we were being paid every six months. It was about five pounds for six months. But also in the reserves, a month before war broke out we did what was called fourteen days annual continuous training. That was fourteen days at sea and they used to send two sloops over, which were thousand ton ships, the Swan and the Yarra.
And the Yarra was sunk during the war too and we went up to Denim and Canavan for thirteen days away. In those days you only had to drop a piece of string over the side in Sharks Bay and you pulled up snapper, you see. It hadn’t been fished out by anybody. And every night we used to get fish for the meal. In the navy the cooks
cooked the fish we caught, which was terrific. We couldn’t bring any home because we didn’t have any freezer space.
Was this in the reserves?
In the reserves, yes. For that fourteen days we got five pounds four, they paid us able seaman rates. I was getting one pound four a week at work, two pound eight a fortnight, five pound for been away plus my two weeks holiday pay was pretty good. I had never been so rich in all my
What did you do with all your money?
Well I put it in the bank but a fortnight later I was called up into the navy, see.
So you never got a chance to spend it?
No. I wouldn’t have spent it anyway.
What kinds of things did you spend your earnings on when you were that age?
Well lets start at eighteen when I was getting one pound four a fortnight. I gave my mother a pound a week and she bought my clothes and fed me and every thing. That left me with
four and six. I think it was four and six. That would carry me for the week. Friday nights I would go to the pictures for a shilling. Saturday nights we could go to the dance. That would be one and tuppence. Sunday nights we could go to the pictures. That was threepence family night. A silver coin so that was threepence. Wednesday night we used to – Family night, that was sixpence. Friday night we’d go and get a bottle of plonk [wine] for a shilling off the
slaves, the mates and myself. That would last us a full week, a bottle of cheap plonk.
Where did you visit the slaves for the plonk?
In Osborne Park. Out in Hertha Road, a chap had a wine cellar out there. There was about four or five of us and we’d all get a bottle each and would sip it before we went into the pictures or before we went to the dance and we’d sip a bit on the way home. We didn’t have a lot of it but it used to last us for a week.
Sunday mornings we’d all meet up at one of the boys places and have a bit of a sip
I don’t suppose they had any vines at Osborne Park?
They did. More so out around the area of Hertha Road. Also North Beach Road. In fact there’s a wine shop in
what’s Karrinyup Road now. Just before you get to the Osborne Park Hospital. Do you know the Osborne Park Hospital? There used to be a wineshop there, a small one, owned by people called Baldacci.
I think there are still a few market gardens in that area aren’t there?
Yes. Also this wine used to a shilling a bottle.
Was it a good drop?
We reckon it was being young and not allowed to drive. Our parents never ever knew.
We never ever got drunk. We just used to sip it, you know, and get a bit bright eyed.
Where about did you go and see the pictures?
Osborne Park. There were open-air pictures there. Sixpence for hard wooden seats or nine pence for deck chairs. And they had double deckchairs so if you had a girlfriend two of you could sit in the chair, which was only a canvas chair.
But the pictures were – Do you remember the open-air pictures?
There has been a bit of a resurgence in open-air pictures.
Yeah. I like the drive ins and that.
Oh sorry I was just going to say you can see open air pictures in Leederville now or at the University of WA [Western Australia] . I’ll have a chat to you later. Maybe you can go down memory lane and visit and open-air picture this summer.
What kind of pictures do you remember seeing?
Well there used to be a lot of cowboy pictures, Rory Rogers and that. Also a lot of dancing pictures. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers [entertainers] and our girlfriend, who we all fell in love with, Deanna Durbin, the singer. She was beautiful and a beautiful singer.
She was a very pretty girl so all the boys were in love with her. Yes. Dianna Durbin. I loved her pictures.
Say no more. What halls did you dance in?
Mostly pre-war was the Osborne Park agricultural hall. And at Tuart Hill Hall. Tuart Hill Hall was an old tin hall and it was run by the Tuart Hill Progress Association.
It was only a very small area in those days in Tuart Hill. The hall is gone now. Tuart Hill hall is about where the shopping centre is about half way up the hill on the left hand side. And during the war years there I wasn’t here but my young brother said that he and his mates – they used to have a good supper and they’d heat all the water up in the copper and my young brother and his mates
tipped Epsom salts into the water and of course the old ladies are saying the pipes are dirty and the pipes are bad but they drank it all and there was only one ladies toilet so there was a big line up for it.
So it wasn’t a particularly grand dance hall?
No. But they danced differently in those days. I took up dancing not long ago, a while back and you lift up your feet, you walk.
Then we used to slide everywhere because we had dancing pumps. They were seven and six, very light shoes. We used to put a lot of Weet Bix [breakfast cereal] and sawdust on the floor to make it very, very slippery. We slid our feet everywhere but today they walk and you can see the competitions on the TV and it’s all walking. I think I couldn’t do that now.
And I think our main entertainments in those days was weddings because when they had a local wedding in those days they usually had the local hall and there was a dance and a supper. So the whole district came to it.
So it must have been a very tight knit community.
It was a friendly community, yes.
There wasn’t a great many people. To give you a rough idea I was talking to my younger brother the other day. He is only seventy-seven. About the boys that were out here, in our day, in our group. There are only two of us that are left now, none of the others are alive. They have all gone.
That’s you and your brother.
Yes. From Tuart Hill.
So while we are on this subject you have lived here your entire life.
Since 1929, except for seven years away in the navy.
You must have seen the area change a lot.
Very much so. Yes. It has. This main street was just a narrow road with a tramline down one side of it and a laneway wide enough for one lane of traffic.
What other changes do you think are most noticeable.
I think transport for a start because in those days the trams used to run every hour in the morning up till nine o’clock.
And then the next tram was half past ten, the next one was half past twelve and the next one was three o’clock. Now the busses run every half hour, well actually every quarter hour because there are two different busses. And the roads, because there was only a couple of bitumen roads pre-war. There was only gravel. When we moved
here they just put a gravel road through. I think there were only about four or five roads that were bitumen.
I imagine the homes have changed too?
Yes. When we moved here we had an old asbestos. It was only eight years old but it was an asbestos with a cement tiled roof. And we pulled it down and built this house.
When was that house built?
1942. I bought it in 1950.
Was it the kind of house
with big verandahs and –
Big front verandah and a big back veranda but a lot of houses had verandas all the way around. They were the classier ones. But most other houses had a front verandah, which we used to sleep on in the hot nights. You couldn’t sleep on a verandah now. It would be too risky.
Well we were discussing
your time in the reserves, you had left the cadets. How was your time in reserves different from being in the cadets?
Exactly the same except you got paid.
Had you made some good mates in those two years in the cadets?
Not the cadets. See the cadets came in the reserves with us. The only one is a chap called Clarrie Glossop, who I meet every Tuesday now.
Most of the rest are dead now.
But did all the cadets that you were in cadets with all join the reserve?
Most of them did, yes. But then, just when the war broke out a lot were put on different ships and you lost track of them, see. There was only the chap called Clarrie Glossop, who was with Arthur van Croft, I see him every Tuesday
now at Anzac House. We go in. We have passed the beer drinking stage. We have squashes now and sandwiches and talk about old times.
So virtually when you joined the reserve or were enlisted everyone went their separate ways?
Yes. I did training there but after the seamanship training they all went on different ships. See I went on the Sydney.
Before we talk about your time on the Sydney, Tom,
how and when were you called up?
Fourth of September 1939.
And how were you called up?
Telegram. It was just ‘Report to Fremantle Depot with shaving gear and toothbrush’. Nothing about underwear, nothing. Oh, it said in uniform. We used to be supplied with a navy uniform but nothing about underwear, towels or anything like that.
Were you waiting to be called up?
No. I didn’t expect to be called up.
Why didn’t you expect to be called up?
Well they told us that there was roughly five hundred reserves and we had been warned earlier. See I had only been in the reserves four months at that stage and I was an ordinary seaman. You can’t go much lower and a lot of the boys had qualified able seaman or leading seamen.
They were the first ones to be called up but they called every reserve up. And a few apprentices got out but – and some of the men – one man had six children. He was a wharfie or lumpie or waterside worker and he put on a terrific problem and said that he couldn’t live on the money the navy were paying him
with his six children, so he got a discharge.
So you said you were still ordinary seaman. How did you qualify for able seaman and –
Examinations in seamanship and signalling and you have to do twelve months as an ordinary seaman. Then you were rated able seaman. I was rated able seaman on the Sydney and my pay jumped from
three-pounds-four [shillings] a fortnight to five-pounds-eight, so it was a very big jump.
That would have been welcome.
Yeah. When you become an able seaman then you can undertake, you are called a seaman on your left arm. That’s where you’ve got your raised anchors and crossed anchors for a petty officer. Your right arm rates were gunnery, torpedoes, anti-submarine, and electrical branch. Signalling,
So you were surprised because you were still ordinary seaman and you were being called up?
Yes. I wasn’t unhappy.
What about your mother?
She worried because she remembered the First World War. My father was worse. He really worried. He said he couldn’t sleep the first night because he went through World War I in France. And he was wounded in France and had a slight amount of gassing.
Of course he was worried about us, see, and worried about me. I said, “I’ll be alright.” To me it was a great adventure. It was because in our day you had little chance of getting outside West Australia. And if someone had been across to Melbourne to work and come back he was a hero. We would listen to him and everything – and to get into the navy I thought that’s my chance to
travel. I wasn’t looking so much at action. I was looking more at travel. Excitement, you know. And I was living with a great bunch. In the navy there is a great bunch of men too or boys or chaps. They looked after you and –
A home away from home. I was just curious actually to ask you. You went to the pictures quite often. Were you seeing newsreels about the war?
Not this war because it hadn’t really started but there was a lot about the Spanish War. And the Abyssinian War, when that was on. Because Italy had invaded Abyssinia in 1936. That got a lot of newsreels. The Spanish war got newsreels all the time. But it was different. We weren’t involved on the land.
How soon before you were called up had you heard that war was declared?
War was declared on the Sunday night, on the third. And I got a telegram at work the next morning.
You weren’t even expecting war to break out. Let along be called up.
Yes. The first three days because Germany had marched into Poland – a lot of the older men, we used to listen to them, our fathers and that. And they said
it will be on for young and old. Because Chamberlain, he was the prime minister of England and he was giving Germany an ultimatum to pull out of Poland or else, you know. Hitler didn’t take any notice of him and we knew it would be on. It was on that Sunday night. I remember vividly that Sunday night. It was on the radio at eight o’clock. That England had declared war on Germany and –
What do you remember about that night apart from the radio?
A bit of excitement I guess.
Who were you listening to the radio with?
Just at home. It was on at home with our family.
And the whole family was home?
Yes. In those days we didn’t go very far, yes. The whole family would have been there. And I was the eldest at eighteen, see, and the next brother was sixteen and my sister was fourteen. There was a difference of two years in our family.
So it must have been a surprise to receive the telegram the next morning?
That was yes. And the boss just said to me, you can’t go, you’re an apprentice. You know. “Well I’ve got to do what the telegram tells me.” And I can remember going in the bus because I was feeling a bit shy and a lot of people were looking at me in uniform, you know. I caught the bus into town and the train to Fremantle.
All I had was my toothbrush and razor, nothing else.
I’m guessing that you didn’t wear your uniform in public very often?
No. Only going to night drills which I used to go down one night a week, sometimes two nights a week. Because I’d go Tuesday nights normally and on Friday knights they used to have a bit of sports down there and table tennis and other games. I’d go down for that.
So you must have felt a bit like you were wearing your school uniform on a Saturday?
Yeah. We didn’t wear school uniforms in our day. Well I suppose we did but it was shirts. Shirts and shorts, green socks with a gold band around them. I can remember that. That was St Pat’s in town which was a part of the Christian Brothers’ Secondary School. It is equivalent to, I don’t know if you know Trinity [College] .
It is Trinity now. There is four hundred there.
Yeah. We didn’t talk much about your time in school. Is there anything you’d like to share with us about those times?
No. I wasn’t much of a scholar. I went to school because I was sent to school and didn’t wag it very much. But I wish
– No nothing really happened except having an ulcer on the leg and having to go to the Children’s Hospital and then coming back to Aramore School. That’s where I knew Lionel.
You wished what? You were going to mention something then?
I wish I had taken more interest in school than I did. I used to daydream a lot. And I lost track very quickly. Like with algebra I was daydreaming the first day. I was out fishing I suppose
and then I couldn’t catch up with it for the rest of the year. I was trying to learn it parrot fashion without understanding it.
Don’t worry. I think a lot of people daydream through their algebra classes.
But this was the first day, see and I missed the basics of it.
Yeah. I did too. We didn’t discuss much about your family life. What was your family life like after you left the farm?
Well my father had a
job as a truck driver in the government and they were building and they were building a brancher at that time and he was carting all the supplies up to [UNCLEAR] for the government. See the depression was on and they gave the men what they called, not the dole as we know now but sustenance work. These were all married men and they got thirty-five shillings a week. It was just enough to keep barely alive and my father had to cart the supplies up for building
[UNCLEAR] . My mother had six children. I think the last one was born in 1932, so she was seven when war broke out and she seemed very young to me. I was eighteen and there was a big difference in age. We had a house, we had a poultry farm. I shouldn’t say a poultry farm, a lot of
– oh yes, my father had a trotter given to him and we used to have to train it in the morning. Instead of trotting it we used to gallop it, which we should never have done you see. Every time it would start in a race it would gallop away. And so the old man couldn’t understand it but it was our fault. Being kids we didn’t have a sense of responsibility, you know. We used to have to get up at five o’clock in the morning and train this darn
horse for a couple of hours.
This is here?
In Tuart Hill.
Where did you gallop a horse in Tuart Hill?
In those days there was a lot of bushland you see. In those days, Swan Street was the last street out and it was only a couple of hundred yards long. So it was all bush but a lot of track where the cows used to wonder around and you could gallop a horse through up there.
It sounds like
It was really because Swan Street being the last street out, there were only about ten houses in Swan Street. So –
Were you upset that you had lost the farm?
No, I wasn’t, but I was too young to realize. I have vivid memories of it and I’ve been back to look several times. No, I wasn’t. I
did what my parents said, you know.
How did it affect your parents?
Well my mother had two thousand pounds left to her when her father died and she ploughed it all into the farm. And the whole lot got lost, you know. Which was a shame?
That must have been deeply upsetting to her?
It was. Yeah. Two thousand pounds was a lot of money in those days. Not only had the price fallen out of the wheat in the Depression days but a disease called
rust had got into the wheat and he had two seasons of that and he said, “We can’t stand another season. We’ll go bankrupt now, you know.” But he didn’t go bankrupt he sold the farm and got a little bit of money. Enough to buy a house and two and a half acres in Tuart Hill. With two rooms on and he put another two rooms onto it and gradually kept adding on to the old house.
The house is still there. It is the oldest one in Tuart Hill and it is the oldest one in Swan Street.
What number is it?
Well we didn’t have numbers in those days, but I think it’s 169. It is an old green weatherboard house.
Has it changed much?
Not since my father left. Oh Yeah. The roof’s gone rusty. It has my brother living in it but he won’t move. He’s a loner.
How did losing the farm effect
your Dad do you think?
He came back from World War I and he bought the farm. And I remember him and his people saying they thought he would live the life of a country squire because he would wear – He had a beautiful big horse called Volunteer because he volunteered for the army. He used to wear
leggings, which were all polished, polished shoes, kaki shirt and he used to strut around, you know. It was a presentable sort of chap. Different to his son.
He sounds like a very proud man.
I think so and I think the army trained him. The marching the drill and all that made him stand very straight. But I can always remember people saying, the squire.
It wasn’t a big farm in comparison to a lot of farms, you know. I think he suffered and I think my Mum just philosophically took it, you know.
Did it put any pressure on their relationship?
It did towards the end because they divorced after the war, this last war. He met a much younger woman and –
It’s sad because when he died, my new mother, she got the war widows
payment with all the perks and my mother dipped out, you know.
Did she have any children?
The other one. One. Yeah.
It sounds like your mother could have done with that pension more than her?
Yes. The pension and the gold card and everything that went with it. Yeah.
I might discuss that a bit more.
My mother lived until four months off a hundred.
Tom, we might discuss that a bit more when we come back from the war. You had been called up. You’d just got you telegram,
you’ve got your toothbrush, your uniform, your razor. What happens – ?
We reported down to Fremantle and they said, “Right, You’re going to Applecross Wireless Station. There was a place in Applecross called Wireless Hill and on Wireless Hill there was a four hundred foot mast. Now four hundred feet, I don’t know whether you know the language. It was a big radio – it was a naval radio station.
A single mast standing up and it had three big guy ropes going down to towers. Now we had to guard those towers because they reckoned that if the enemy got in and dynamited those towers the mast would fall over and so I was up there for two months and about – there was all bush around it, by the way, no houses and they gave us a .303 rifle and ten rounds of ammunition
and a lot of noises in the bush so I’d build up a pile of rocks and if I heard a noise I’d throw a rock and “Halt, who goes there?” And one night there’s footsteps going through the bush and I yell out, “Halt, who goes there?” and it keeps coming. We had a whistle with us too. Which we had to blow if we wanted to call out the rest of the guard. So I did blow the whistle like mad and the guard would all come out with their guns and
shine a torch around, it was a cow.
At least you were alert.
They used to call me the cowboy after that. I felt an idiot, you know. Oh well you couldn’t go to sleep because they had to have three petty officers there, one for each watch. Four hours on and eight hours off and he’d come around during the night just to try and catch you asleep, you know. They caught
one chap asleep there on night and just took his riffle away and then came back and said, “Where’s your rifle?” But we were up there and it was quite good. The living quarters was a big shed and we had our hammocks in there and good meals and things like that. It was chaos at the navy depot because five hundred odd chaps had been called up. Sixty had been put on the Sydney, which was in Fremantle and the rest were milling around trying to
do courses and that.
And you were called up to be on the Sydney?
No. I did a seamanship-training course in Fremantle. The following March, the fifteenth of March, the corporal of gangway on the gangway of the depot come in. He said, “It’s a weekend. There are only a few of us here.” Because when the navy goes through they give as many people weekend leave as they can
and they don’t have to supply too many meals. Economising and the corporal gave me a chap called Bill Wreford. Have you met a bloke called Bill Wreford?
He was a lieutenant later so I thought you might have copped him.
He doesn’t sound familiar.
He’s a pretty outgoing bloke. I thought he would have volunteered earlier. Anyway, Bill Wreford was an ordinary seaman and a corporal and he said, “They want a relief on the Sydney and they want an ordinary seaman.” I said, “Will you put me in for it
when you go and see the officer of the watch. Tell him I’m ready to go.” So he came back and said, “Pack your bag and hammock, you’re on your way. So I joined the Sydney on Saturday about two o’clock and the leading seaman who met me was very good. He took me round and showed me the ship and the hammock sling where I was to sleep and locker to put all my gear in and that. And his ashes were buried
at Geraldton when we had the opening of the memorial up there. They took it out in a launch and buried it at. So there’s an affinity there seventy years later.
For sure. So can you just explain where abouts did you board the Sydney?
Yes. The Sydney was in Fremantle.
She came into the harbour?
She was based in Fremantle in those days. Fremantle was her
war station and she was here when war broke out. That September – the following December she went back to Sydney and did a quick refit and then in February she came back here. In March I joined it. She was doing convoys in and out. Like when a convoy sailed from Sydney she would escort it as far as the Cocos Islands or down into the Bight [Great Australian Bight] and I joined it on 15 March. I remember that.
It was my mother’s birthday. And then on the twenty-second of April.
Sounds like a good omen tom.
We escorted the second Australian convoy taking all the troops away as far as the Cocos Islands.
Was that an interesting voyage?
Yeah. On Anzac Day, 1940, we steamed up fairly fast between all the convoys of ships with our
sirens going and all the troops on the ship waving to us. It was quite good, you know.
That was your first convoy.
That was my first convoy. We escorted signal ships around and that but that was my first big convoy because it was the second Australian convoy of Australian troops to go overseas. The first one went in January.
What ships were in the convoy? Can you remember?
No. I can only remember one.
Which the Australian 2/11th went away on. The Navers [Strathnaver] . They used to call it the – never was a – it was a coal burner. Have you done any 2/11th chappies yet?
I didn’t know how many were alive, that’s all.
I couldn’t tell you either.
And so we took them away but we didn’t go back to Fremantle. We got a signal to
go on to Singapore. Will I carry on this way?
Well actually it might be a good idea just to ask you a few questions about being made welcome onboard. You were a new crewmember and you were shown to your mess deck – is that right?
Well the leading seaman of the mess. Each mess is usually about twelve men and the leading hand, leading seaman, he is in charge of the mess. When any new rating comes on they meet him, welcome him,
give them a locker to put all your gear into. Big aluminium lockers. See you have a kit bag when you are travelling, big kit bag. And then he took me round the ship pointing out different things about the ship. There were big drying rooms onboard the ship too. When you do your washing they call it a ‘dhobi’ and you need heated drying rooms. He showed us where the galley was, the sickbay, the canteen.
And action stations. Well I wasn’t given an action station until after the weekend on the Monday.
Sorry, so you were given the ships tour on the way to the mess?
No. I went to the mess first. When you join a ship you go to what is called a police office. Each ship has a police office. And then they say right we’ll put you in mess twenty-one. Mess nineteen was the
first one. And so they just
Interviewee: Thomas Fisher Archive ID 1236 Tape 03
Good. You were just talking about being shown around the ship for the first time.
When you join a ship you go over the gangway and the first, I shouldn’t call it a building, a superstructure that you come to is the police office and nobody can get past the police office
because they have regulating petty officers there that ask you what you want, who you need and that. So I reported to the police office and they say, you can go to mess nineteen and they pipe over the loud speakers saying, “The leading hand of mess nineteen to the police office.” So the leading hand comes up, you are introduced to him and he says, follow me and you are taken down to your mess. He says, “This is your mess.
This is where you should be for all your meals and everything. Now we’ll find your locker.” See all the lockers are on the mess desks, between. They were big aluminium lockers with a big draw at the bottom to put lots of things in and spaces to put photos in. Standardized ones for all ships. He said, “Right we’ll have a look around.” He said, “Right, do you want to stay aboard?”
“If you are staying aboard for the night we’ll vital you in, for meals, for tea.” I said I wanted to go ashore. I wanted to go ashore and catch up with my mates and tell them I was on a ship. And so he showed me all around the ship first. I didn’t go down to the engine room. That came later. He showed me the guns, where to go and get supplies when it was my turn. See you take your turn with what they call the cook
of the mess. Each day two men had to get the meal from the gully, serve it up and clean out afterwards and scrub the table. It’s called cooks of the mess. You take your turn of that and it was about every sixth day. So he showed me what to do. This is where to collect your meals. He said, “Now, if you are selected for a guard at eight o’clock in the morning they raise a flag
– the Ensign.” So the guard with riffles goes there, followed by the band. They go there and play God Save the Queen. Because other countries had been overrun like Holland, France, Denmark, countries around England they were playing each national anthem every day. And so you had to stand there at attention with the guns while they played each
of eight anthems. And I always liked the French one the Marseillaise. It was a real swinging one and from then he showed me that, he showed me the galley, the police office and how to get a police guard. What to do when I got back. I had to be back at half past seven in the morning.
What sort of uniform are you wearing?
Ordinary naval uniform. Collar.
It is navy blue bell-bottoms and we used to try and get wide bottoms, thirty-two inches so they would flap around. Now the idea of wide bottoms on sailors’ trousers, in our day, was that if you went overboard they were easy to slip out of. They would go over your legs. People used to say they were for rolling up when you were scrubbing decks but they wouldn’t stay rolled up. The main idea of bellbottoms [flared trousers]
was to slip out of when you got in the water, because if they were tight, trying to get tight trousers off.
I can see where you are coming from. Is there a particular way that one should wear the uniform?
Yes. Things have changed now since the end of the war. Before the war we used to wear the hats on a bit of a tilt. The uniforms used to be cut away to show as much white singlet as we could. After the war finished the admiral or the commodore in charged
decided all caps had to be warn square on the head. Our caps we wore the little bow over the – I have a photo I can show you later. Should I be mentioning you?
Yeah. You can say.
No what I meant is –
And we used to wear a little bow over the eye and flash. A blue collar.
Now we were always told but it is not true, that the three stripes on our collar represented Nelson’s three great Battles of the Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar. But that’s not correct because a lot of other navies, Japanese, Germans and American all wear those three stripes and they weren’t involved in those three battles.
So what do the three stripes signify?
Nothing. Just a – nothing that we could really find out. Also we wore a silk around our back but that silk was just a hang on from when early gunners used to wear a black band to wipe the sweat off their forehead. But then we were told it was morning for Nelson so I don’t know what to believe.
It’s all got to do with Nelson.
Nelson was the greatest saint of all time according to the navy.
Well he was a very successful man.
What sort of things did you actually take onboard with you?
In what way?
In your kit.
First of all we got kitted up in Fremantle. Three dark blue uniforms, what you called your number ones. That was your shore going uniform, you best, number twos were for wearing on the
ship on Sunday and that when you didn’t wear – number ones had gold badges. Number twos had red badges. I-3 was an ordinary blue uniform, which you wore at nighttime without a collar. As soon as sundown came you took the collar off. And then you were given two duck suits, canvas things that were used for painting ships and that but they did away with those very early in the war.
We ended up cutting ours up to send parcels in when we sent things home from overseas. Number six was a white uniform, which was drill material. Number sevens were tropical rig, which was white shorts and white singlet. Well what we call a singlet. You’d probably call it a shirt or a square neck or that. And black stockings and black shoes.
Then there was overalls but mostly on the ships during working days we wore overalls. We had a couple of pairs of overalls because we slept in a good pair of overalls as pyjamas ‘cos when we were at sea if there was action stations called at night-time you had to be out and at your action stations within seconds. You’d have your shoes just tied with laces around the hammock. You’d slip those on, no socks.
and your overalls that you’ve got on and straight to your action stations. Grab your tin helmet and away you went. I had three overalls mostly. One you used to work in, one was being washed and one I slept in, you know. From – what else did we take? We were issued with boot brushes. I’ve still got mine. That was 1939, about sixty- five
years ago. We were given uniforms, caps, socks, no underwear – you had to buy your own underwear. Well the only underwear that you bought were knickers, you know. Everything else was supplied.
Did you take any personal items with you?
You can do, yes. All your personal items were your toothbrush, comb and razor.
I was just wondering whether you took any photos with you?
When I went to sea? No. I didn’t have any girlfriends at that stage. One chap had a locker next to me and he got a ‘Dear John’ letter [informing the end of a relationship] , we were in the Mediterranean. He had a great big coloured photo of a girl that he used to take out and kiss and he said, “Don’t you wish you had a girlfriend like this?” I said, “No, I’ll find one one day.” Off I went to go down one day and the photos all torn up
on top of his locker. She’d sent him a Dear John letter. The next mail it was on again. So, no photo.
He was too quick to rip. So what was your action station?
I went on the Sydney first. I had a variety of action stations over my six years. First off I was put on a turret. I was a rammer on a gun.
I was a little skinny bloke of about eight and a half stone, where the phone number was a twelve stone chap sitting there with phones one and two of us were ramming a hundred pound shells home. And being a little bloke it was pretty heavy going for me. I think over our time in the Mediterranean I would have rammed about six hundred shells home, hundred pound shells.
That’s a lot.
So what was your first destination at sea?
My first port outside Australia was Singapore. But the first landfall I saw outside was Krakatoa with the volcano. Each evening we had to fall in to what they called evening quarters and the origin of that was to muster the ships crew and count them to make sure no one had fallen overboard during the day.
If they had it would be a long way to go back to find them. So in the evening they just counted heads and the commander gave us a talk on Krakatoa saying how his grandfather told him about the beautiful sunsets on Krakatoa for twelve months after Krakatoa had blown up, you know.
When did that actually blow up?
I think it was 1888.
Now this is 1940 so it would have been seventy years before.
So what did you see of Krakatoa then?
Just a big mountain. It was all covered in growth, forests and that too.
I thought there wasn’t anything left of it.
Oh yes. It blew the side out of it but there’s still a big volcano cone there.
You can see it for a long way away out at sea.
Wow. I didn’t know that.
That was my first – and from there we went to Singapore. We lost – well we didn’t lose but we only had about eight hours at Singapore, a little bit of leave, to get fuel. Eight chaps missed the ship. Adrift as usual. They came across on the eagle, an aircraft carrier,
and they reckon the English officers made them really work on that ship. They had to work their passage. They caught up with us at Colombo.
What did you think of Singapore.
Well I thought – I got a couple of hours leave and bought up a lot of stuff. I didn’t know whether we were going home or not. I bought up silks and things.
Well that would have been the first time that you’ve –
Well Singapore wasn’t spoiled by the tourists
in those days. It was 1940 and it wasn’t built up either. Sort of gentle people but it wasn’t commercialised.
And so then you went on to Colombo.
Yes. We had a couple of weeks in Colombo escorting convoys south towards Australia and coming back. Colombo was a lovely green city in those days. It had a big modern Fleet
Club and the meals were good and that.
Oh, what did the Fleet Club look like?
The Fleet Club was for sailers and it was just a big building with games and meals and that. It was for English sailors as well and nay that pulled in there. Three of us – we went out in rickshaws one night and we told the rickshaw bloke we were going to have a race and we gave them a few rupees each. The ones who won. So we had
a race down there and my bloke came last. He was a poor old bloke. He was on his last legs.
Would it be quite popular to go to the Fleet Club?
Yes. First of all it was very clean and the beds were very clean. It was also cheap, very cheap. You got a meal – To give you an idea the English sailors got paid a lot less than we did. The Australian sailors, at that time, got seven shillings a day. The English sailers were getting three.
That is a very big difference in pay and a meal, an evening meal and a bed was a shilling and sixpence for a good breakfast. So that’s why you stayed there, you know.
So did you see any other sights around Colombo?
the thing that is sticking in my mind now was the cemetery. I was looking at the headstones from the road. Lieutenant so and so died here in age 22 like a hundred years before and things like that. Because it had been an old British outstation for many, many years, you know. And I remember the Galle Face Hotel. Sailors weren’t allowed to go in that, only officers. But the women all looked beautiful after a few weeks at sea.
How excited were you that you were off on this journey?
Very, very much so because I will say that when I was a youngster I used to read a lot, adventure stories and other countries and that and actually I was seeing them in the flesh. And as I said if I was going to a new port I would go down and see the chaplain and get a geography book and read and he’d explain something and I’d go back and
just bide my time and then I’d slip it into conversation in the mess about the population [UNCLEAR] .
Well it makes it more interesting if you know something about the places before you get there.
A lot of blokes would say, here comes the blooming professor again.
Were you told at any point where you were heading?
Only when we went to sea. When you were at sea out of sight of land or anything
it would come over the loud speaker, we are now going to Aden. We expect to be there in three days time. We are stopping for fuel or we do not know the length of our stay or something like that. But Aden was, I think, the worst place I had ever been to. There were no trees and it was in a hollow and it was hot. It was the hottest place in the world. And
one thing that stuck in my mind was the number of turtles in the water before we came in. The whole sea was floating with turtles. The ship just ploughed through them but it didn’t hurt them because the bow just pushed them aside. It was a sight just watching the turtles. Well, going from Colombo to Aden, we hit a whale. We thought we had run aground because there was a terrific charge through the ship. We had hit a big whale and cut it in half.
I would think that a whale would be able to get out of the way. And you cut it in half.
But the ocean is a very big place and I don’t know how many whales would be around there. This is between Colombo and – I didn’t think whales went up in the tropics, but they were there.
I wouldn’t think that they would be in that area either.
So how long were you in Aden for?
About a day or
– we got there in the early morning and left in the late afternoon. It was enough to get fuel. There was no leave and we went up the red sea and going up the red sea one of the fresh water pipes burst and we got a lot of salt water in the drinking water. You couldn’t drink it. We were terrifically thirsty and there was no soft
drinks onboard or anything like that and we went a day without drinks. The red sea is one of the hottest places going. You couldn’t stand on the upper deck without shoes. Now and then you’d go up on bare feet and it was just too hot, even on the woodwork. It was old wooden decking and we passed the Hobart, our sister ship, up there. I went on that eighteen months later.
And the next exciting thing was going through the Suez Canal and we went through at nighttimes. We had a searchlight rigged up to show us the way and we had a pilot onboard to take the ship through. And that was exciting because it was ninety-six miles long, nearly a hundred miles long, and half way through the Suez Canal it goes into
lakes called the Bitter Lakes. And we came out of that at dawn next morning at Port Said. A lot of people call it Port Said. They pronounce it like that, but the Egyptians call it ‘Sai-eed’. And then we got into Alexandria at about four o’clock that afternoon.
Did you have some time off in Alexandria?
We were based there for seven months so we had a lot of leave there.
One thing that was intriguing was going to the pictures at Alexandria.
You can always have a drink if you like.
Wes going to the pictures there. They served beer. Small bottled beer which you could drink in the pictures. You couldn’t do that here.
Very nice. What other sorts of activities would you get up to in Alexandria.
Well they had a big fleet club there and every night they would play – there might be a thousand sailors staying
– or come in at feed time for their meals. The beer was crook – There were two beers. Stella and Pyramid.
It was compared to – well I started to drink then, you see. I just didn’t like it but it didn’t stop me from drinking, which I’ll tell you later. And
with they used to play what they call tom bowler, or bingo. That was on every night because it was the only legal game in the navy. They used to give you different games and they’d say, “This one is a NAAFI Sandwich. The NAAFI is the Navy, Army, Air Force Institute. Which is an English thing and they look after all the canteens for the navy and army and air force in England. And they said the next one’s a NAAFI sandwich and I said to an Englishman,
“What’s that?” And he said, “Top and bottom line and nothing in the middle.” So NAAFI sandwiches had nothing in the middle. Meals were good there and you could sleep there too. But we used to go a lot to have meals outside but a lot of meals in Egypt were cheap but cooked in peanut oil. There was a stench and stuff, you know.
It wasn’t until we got to Greece that the olive oil meals were much different and much better. But we used to go to the pictures a lot in Alexandria.
You’ve got a lot of sailors in one spot. You’ve got a thousand sailors on leave in a fleet club. Does it get a bit rowdy?
Just continual noise. But you seem to tune out with the noise. It wasn’t too noisy when the tombola was
going – the bingo – because everyone was listening for the number. Because it was big value for the wins too. It could be a hundred pounds for the big games. And we did sight seeing. Now and again a few of us would put in to hire a taxi and go around Alexandria because it is a pretty place like the Gardens and Cleopatra’s Needle
and the museums there.
Well that would have interested you. What sort of things can you remember about the museum?
Well I wasn’t very interested because a lot of it was old Egyptian artefacts, see. It wasn’t like the science museum in England. It was entirely different. I only went to the museum once but I wasn’t rapped up in it.
What sorts of things do you do to
pass the time while you are on the ship travelling from Fremantle to Alexandria.
Well first of all it wasn’t bad in the Indian Ocean because there was no war zone early in the piece. You spent a lot of time reading, letter writing, sleeping. Because if you had what they called the middle watch it meant you were awake from midnight to four so you
didn’t get much sleep before midnight and after four you didn’t get much sleep till down action station. Forty minutes before dawn you went to action stations because this was the most dangerous time at sea. This was before radar and you could come upon another ship and you could be engaged very closely so everybody
went to action stations at dawn. And you were standing at the guns, ready and everything and as soon as daylight and you could see things in the distance you fell out and went to work at seven.
Did you make any mates by this time?
Yes. I had some very good mates there but I lost a lot of them when the Sydney was lost.
Were they people from your mess?
Yes. I left the Sydney on its last trip and I couldn’t believe it that she’d gone down or disappeared.
It must have been a big shock when you heard that news.
Yes. Well I was on the Hobart then but still had my Sydney tally band on. One of the telegraphists came up and said, “You’d better get rid of that tally band.” He said, “The Sydney is no more.”
I said, “Come on, you’re joking mate.” He said, “No, it’s missing with all hands.” I just couldn’t believe it, you know. I don’t get emotional about it or anything but I just think I was lucky.
And were you surprised that they couldn’t find it?
Very surprised. I didn’t think it would disappear without any trace or any records. They only found one Carley Float [life-raft] .
What do you think happened?
I think she just blew up. Even if they find it now she’s going to be covered with barnacles and weed and everything. But I have – Should I carry on like this, but I have been to a seminar where some American chaps said they were going to find it but they said it would be like finding a needle in a haystack.
But we’ve got to find the haystack first. The trouble is the area that they think it has sunk there is so much junk from containers falling overboard from the ships. Not only that there is not a flat surface, there is rifts and valleys and things. He said you’ve got to find the valley and go along it. You can’t go across it. If you go across it you’re only finding that small area.
First of all you’ve got to find the valleys down there but I mean this is about ten years ago so technology had improved a lot since that time. They think she’s too deep.
But still it is like finding a needle in a haystack.
You’ve got to find the haystack first.
That’s a good way to put it. So just going back to the fact that you have made some mates. Are you hanging round with them all the time
at the club?
Yes. At sea and even on leave. You see on leave your brother and sister’s at school, your father’s at work. Don’t forget that we’re talking about World War II and your mother’s home on her own, and you soon run out of conversation. She’s doing housework and that and you’d go into town and meat at the Savoy. The Savoy was the main meeting place in the island bar [?UNCLEAR] .
And the sailors seemed to gravitate towards each other even on leave. But we had a fortnights leave together at that time. But during the war years I only had three lots of leave in Perth. When the Sydney came home there was a fortnight, when the Hobart got torpedoed we got a month’s leave and then after the war finished I got a fortnight’s leave again. So actually
I only had two months at home in the seven years.
So you had been aboard the ship for a great majority of the time?
Five years – nearly six year onboard. Five years and eight months.
So what happened after Alexandria?
Greece came into the war and we went up to Crete
we carried a lot of soldiers up there. We landed our seaplane at Crete because the Royal Air Force were going to use it. The petty officer came up to me and said, “Would you like to go ashore and be a mess man for our air force chappies? We are landing with the plane. And I thought no, something might happen to the ship and the ship might come home and I might be stuck in Crete, see. Another chap volunteered straight away and he reckon it was the greatest thing he ever did because
they were messed by the army so he didn’t have to do anything. He’s drinking the cretin plonk every day and he didn’t have to get up for watches so he’s sleeping all night, see. So I was sorry in a way I missed it but if I hadn’t have gone I would have missed an action up in the Adriatic Sea when the ship went right into Italy’s back door and sank an Italian convoy.
And that was one o’clock in the morning so I would have missed that action. It’s a funny thing. You don’t want actions but you don’t want to miss any the other boys have been involved in because you are one of the boys, you know.
Yeah. I can see what you mean. So is that where you’re heading from Alexandria. You’re heading up towards Italy?
We were running between Alexandria and Greece and Crete.
taking British troops up there. Because Greece had come into the war with Italy. The was no war around Athens at that time, you know, but the meals were terrific there and the people were good. Four of us were walking around one day and heard all this music there was a Greek wedding going on.
They called us in. It was all under grape vines and things in the afternoon. And they called us in and made a terrific fuss of us when they found out we were Australians. Because the Sydney – the knowledge of Sydney had already got to Greece and they knew we were in harbour. And that’s when I first saw that Greek dance, I can’t remember the name of it, but the men have got their cigarettes hanging out of their mouths, their hats on and they are all dancing around
and asking us to join in. You know.
Sounds like you saw a bit of culture while you were there?
Yeah. And the meal was terrific too, the wedding meal.
What did you think of the Greek food?
Out of this world. Plus we had been used to navy food, which was plain. It was substantial but plain.
What sort of food did you get onboard?
A good mixture. It is a mixture of –
We used to get a lot of curried salmon for a start, ‘Salmon Monet’. We got a lot of baked dinners. Every Sunday night was what was called ‘Pedagogies’. They were big pasties and we had that with tomato sauce. Breakfast – we used to get a lot of porridge for breakfast.
If you wanted it. You used to get a lot of eggs. The eggs were shocking. I don’t know what the Egyptians fed their eggs on because they had a tang about them but you had to force it down or go without. So you had two courses, take it or leave it. And a lot of stews. The meals were substantial but plain. I don’t think they knew what herbs were in the navy.
So to get ashore in Greece and to be able to eat up some of their meals was terrific. Especially fish meals.
What else did you see in Greece while you were there?
The Parthenon or the Acropolis. Everyone said you must go and see the Acropolis, but to me it was all ruins. And the nightclubs. They were
sort of different nightclubs to what we have hear with a lot of music and dancing. That’s in Athens. Of course I only had about four runs ashore there so we didn’t go to any cultural places. One chap did meet us and take us out to a little farm with a farmhouse and it had a lot of olive trees and that. We got a very good meal out there and some
shocking wine but being big strong-bronzed Aussies we had to come and drink their wine. I shudder when I think of it now. It was called Mavro Daphni.
I’ve never heard of it.
Well it had a bit of sediment in the bottom of the bottle and you didn’t pour it out too quickly.
How did you get the invitation to go out there?
People in the streets and that. You’d be standing round and they’d come up and talk to you and say you’d best come home to my home.
There were a lot of them who had been to America to work and England and they came back and were fairly proficient in English. I think they wanted to practise their English too. It was rather humorous, you know, some of the chaps I am talking about would say, “What is the meaning of that word.” Some of them had American accents.
Sounds very friendly.
They were very friendly. They were very good. At that time Greece had just had a big victory against the Italian army and there were a lot of celebrations going on and crackers going off.
Exciting times. At this point have you joined the Eastern Fleet?
No. We joined the Eastern Fleet in June 1944, much later.
So where are you heading now after you’ve left
We left Greece and went back to Crete and then we went to Malta for seventeen days because there were too many damaged ships and torpedo ships at Alexandria in docks. And we had to have some refits done so the ship was waring. So they said, “We’ll have to try and put you in docks at Malta.” And we were getting a lot of air raids during the daytime so they worked on the ships at nighttime. And I was in Malta for
seventeen days and one little thing I’ve never forgotten about Malta, Christmas day, the Maltese men that worked on the ship, the tradesmen, they used to call them ‘dockyard maties’. One of the sailors said, “I’ve met one of the maties here. His
brother is sick. He’s got six children. No social security or anything and they are only depending on churches to help them.” He said, “Would you come with me while we take out some food.” By this time our Christmas parcels had come from home and we had a Red Cross parcel with tinned puddings and tinned fruit and cake in. He said, “He’s supposed to have six children. He’s sick and he can’t work. Would you come out with me?”
So we scrounged a lot of food. We saw the chief cook and he said, “Look, it’s Christmas morning.” And he carved us off some beef and some ham. The master at arms who was the chief policeman onboard – you’re not supposed to take anything ashore. But the other chap was leading hand and he went and explained it all and old Mickey Trig is an Irish man and he said, “Right. If I see you, I didn’t see you.” He said, “Take it.” And
this chap said to me that his uncle in Sydney was in the St Vincent de Paul [Catholic aid society] . We took out the food, some jumpers and clothing that we scrounged. This chap lived in a little two – we went out in this rickety old bus. This chap – the sick man, he was sick too and he had six young children under twelve. He said, “Look boys. I can’t
give you anything. I’ve got nothing. But I’ll pray for you every day that you come through this war.” And I got through the war. I don’t know about the other bloke. I lost track of him. And so the old chap started to cry. And I felt really good then thinking that I had helped somebody. And that was sixty-five years ago. End of 1940.
It is a wonderful demonstration of Christmas spirit.
Well the other boys were great because they were bringing out the clothing they didn’t want and there were no convoys coming though Malta at that time. And people couldn’t buy anything at that time. That lady could probably use the clothing and cut it up and remake it and make do with it. But two rooms and eight of them living in it.
So I felt very good that Christmas
You mentioned that there were quite a few air raids. Had you seen an air raid by this stage?
Well the Sydney was in five surface actions. It was in action eighty-eight times and the majority of them would have been air raids.
When did you see your first air raid?
I don’t know the actual date but it would be about
probably a month after Italy came in. Lets say, July 1940, and the first thing that came over the loud speakers was, “Enemy aircraft in sight. All hands clear the upper deck.” We were just sunbathing. It was summer time and so what do we do? We all run up to the upper deck to have a look. We saw these silver planes coming across and the bombs start falling and boy did we leave the upper deck
Because you would have had to immediately go to action stations.
No. Not everybody. Only the anti aircraft gunners. Because the big six-inch guns that I was on. They didn’t go to action stations. It was only what we called the high angle guns and we had four of them and they had ten to a crew. So it would be forty men plus ammunition. That is fifty men at action
stations. But they learned later on when the Japanese came into the war that everyone went to action stations. With the Japanese we used to use the six inch guns too, long distance. Six-inch guns have the six-inch barrels, you know.
Sure. It must have been pretty exciting to see that for the first time.
First time it was.
And the fear set in after that.
The first time you weren’t scared because it was too exciting.
I think it was more exciting the first time and then they started landing very close. And also on the Gloucester, a British sister ship, it was right next to us and a bomb fell on the bridge. It was a bullseye and killed the captain and everyone on the bridge. Fear set in then, you know.
How close were you to that?
Oh I suppose about half a mile away.
End of tape.
Interviewee: Thomas Fisher Archive ID 1236 Tape 04
How was it announced that Italy was coming into the war, Tom?
On June 10, 1940 we were in the Mediterranean and it just came over the speakers. See we had loud speakers in every mess deck and it just came over the system. And the captain come on and said, “Right, boys, Italy has now declared war, and from now on it’s
dinkum, you know. We’ve just got to be on our toes and we’ve got to do more training.” Although we had been training a lot. So next day. Well that night at eleven o’clock the whole fleet put to sea because we didn’t know whether there was going to be a surprise attack on Alexandria harbour where the Eastern Mediterranean fleet was based. So the whole fleet went to sea for a few days and we carried out exercises and that.
What kind of exercises did you do?
Gunnery exercises. See other ships or tugs would tow targets, which was just more or less a big screen like this. And we would fire but not to hit it. We’d fire astern of it and another ship was spotting to see if we’d shot dead in line with the target. And they used to lay off, what they called laying off
because they didn’t want to damage the target. They wanted the exact distance, whether it was too far forward or too far short. And there were also fleet manoeuvres like manoeuvring with destroyers. Because the Sydney had been on Australian stations with only a few ships but when you are out there with twenty ships – and you’ve also got to remember that there’s no radar and the ships are all blacked out at night time. You
are steaming, complete blackout, no navigation lights, no nothing. You are relying on your good lookouts.
That’s a lot different to today.
They are all radar controlled and everything today.
That was with which fleet?
The Eastern Mediterranean fleet.
So who was involved in the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet?
A famous admiral now was Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham.
He was the commander and chief of the eastern fleet. We were – the Sydney was in the seventh cruiser squadron which had five cruisers in it. They had different flotillas. I can’t remember the flotilla names but we had five Australian destroyers there, the old BMWs [Bavarian Motor Works] , which were referred to as the Scrap Iron Flotilla by Goebbels, the minister for
propaganda in Germany. Because he said they were held together with rust. But they did a wonderful job of relieving and keeping Tobruk supplied with men and troops and bringing them out. And some of the ships did up to thirty-four trips in and out of Tobruk. The battleships, the Warspite was the
Commander Sanders’ ship, flagship – and there was the Ramillies, the Berwick, the Royal Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth, so be had some big, very old battleships and when we had the first big action, the Battle of Calabria, it was the first time since Napoleon’s day that the signals were raised enemy battlefleet in sight.
But only the war spite was the only warship that could catch up to them because the other ships were too slow. The war spite could do nearly thirty knots where the other ships were battling away at twenty knots.
What was the Sydney’s top speed?
The log went to thirty-two knots and at one time when we were chasing Italian destroyers there was a dead calm
ocean like a millpond and the log was hard over and from engine room revolutions it was estimated that we were doing thirty-four knots. That is close to forty miles an hour. A little over sixty kilometres an hour.
That’s pretty fast.
Yes. Because when we engaged the Bartolomeo Colleoni
one of the officers on the destroyer said that he saw the Sydney coming down from the north west with such foam at the bow and stern that he could nearly hear the high scream of the motors driving across the water, you know. Then we reckon we were doing thirty odd knots, or thirty-two knots.
Just go back a little bit here Tom.
You were involved in the first bombardment of Bardia? Describe what happened during those events.
The first bombardment of Bardia took place on 20 June, ten days after Japan came into the war. Bardia was an Italian port just inside the Libyan water, just outside Egypt.
It is a big fort on high cliffs. Now the French battleship Lorraine the French were with us. seven cruiser squadron and we went in to do the bombardment on these forts, see, at dawn. It caught them by surprise and the barracks that we were firing at collapsed. It was made of old mud bricks and that. But our aircraft was set up – The old Pussers Duck. It was a
Walrus pusher plane [amphibious aircraft] with three people in it. The pilot, the observing officer, who was a navy officer and a leading hand telegraphist, sparkers. He was a machine gunner and they were doing the spotting for us. Saying, right you’re too far over, you need to lift your range and that. Planes attacked them and they turned out to be Royal Air Force planes we found out later. And we were told that
the observer in our plane had his forty-five revolver that he was carrying and that he had that out and he was firing at the planes with his forty-five revolver. And anyhow the plane, she fell two thousand feet out of control and the pilot got her under control. This is a plane from the Sydney. They catapulted her off and he managed to get into Mersa Matruh
which was on the Egyptian border? Of course when she landed she fell to pieces, just collapsed.
This is the Pussers Duck?
The Pussers Duck.
How was she catapulted off the ship?
When they were ready to catapult it the catapult expands out and it’s a big cartridge. Just an ordinary – like a blank cartridge full of cordite and about six inches in diameter
that gets put into a chamber or into a breach and the impulse of that goes into a big chamber that fits onto a drum that works the cable and those cables are hooked onto a part underneath the seaplane. When the drum spins around very quickly it pulls the plane
off like a catapult so it is catapulted off. And when it hits the end of the catapult it is doing sixty miles an hour and it drops a bit towards the water and then it goes up again.
It must be a sight.
So Bardia is the first target that you’ve actually fired your guns at?
Yes. Bardia was the first action on 20 June 1940.
Can you describe your experiences during that action?
Yes. I was a rammer in the left gun in a turret. I couldn’t see anything. All I was doing was ramming shells and the first time we ever fired the turrets in a practise shot I didn’t like gunfire because it used to hurt my ears. Especially the outside and when the guns fired in the turret it was just like somebody hitting the outside of the turret, the gun house,
with a big sledgehammer. It wasn’t bad at all. I thought this is not bad so I kept up with it, you know. But the four-inch guns, the hight angle stuff, they really hurt your ears. You feel like your head is splitting open.
Are you saying that it was quieter inside the turret than on deck?
Which six-inch gun were you on?
That is the most forward turret and I was on the left gun. There were seven to the guns crew. There’s the layer. Do you want these?
There’s a layer, he elevates and depresses the gun. It all works on hydraulics. There’s the breach worker that opens the breach and closes the breach and the gun can’t fire until he closes an intercept switch, which is an electrical switch. He just pushes it up like that and then three and four are rammers, I was number four,
then number five is a tray worker, he’s got the big – The shells come down. You don’t touch anything. It’s all in a hoist. The shells are in a tray that’s pushed over behind the gun breach. We ram it in and then it is pulled out and six works the hoist to bring the shells up and there would be seven working another hoist in the centre of the turret
where the cordite comes up – the forty-pound bags of cordite. And that’s handed to the – put on a tray and we ram it in to the breach.
What do you ram it in with?
Just a rammer. The rammer is like an oversized mop. It’s a thing like a, how can I explain it. It’s like a billycan
in shape, but it’s got a big brush on it and it’s got a soft nose on it and it’s got a long handle. See when we ram it – First of all when we ram a shell in we drop the rammer into a container of water to keep it cool. When the gun fires the breach is opened and there is a blast of air which blows up the barrel to blow any burning
refuse out because – And then when we ram the shell in the rammers wet and it helps keep the barrel cool and if there’s anything still alive in there is puts it out, you know.
How rapidly can you fire shells?
We were firing eight shells a minute. Each gun was firing eight shells a minute.
That’s pretty quick.
You sound and look pleased with yourself. How many shells did you fire on Bardia?
Twenty-one. Our gun fired twenty-one, so eight times twenty-one, that’s a hundred and sixty odd or a hundred and seventy.
And how long did that action take place?
I suppose half an hour but you didn’t fire both guns at once in a bombardment.
Because the shells that you used for bombarding were the same size and shape but in the nose they had a plunger because if they didn’t have the plunger and you fired ordinary Common Pointed Ballistic Cap, CPBC – you would use those against metal ships and that because they would hit a ship and go inside and burst inside. But in a general
bombardment they would hit the soft sand and wouldn’t go off. They’d bury. So you used a bombardment shell with a plunger in it. And you didn’t fire both guns together in a turret because the blast from one gun could set the other shell off. Excuse me. So one gun would fire five and then while you were loading the other gun would fire five. That is for bombardment only. Excuse me.
Did you find that action a challenge?
Was that action much of a challenge for you?
Well I didn’t realize they were shooting back at us for a start, you know. Because their guns – where we were going from the buildings but the guns were away from the buildings and they were firing back at the ships. Of course being in the turret you can’t see anything. Only the officer can. He has his periscope in the turret. Now the idea of that periscope is
that if you have to go into local control. If the gunnery control gets shot away or breaks down you go into local control – the officer of the turret. He controls the firing. But we never went into local control but I believe they did when the Sydney was sunk because the Germans shot the control away first. But
I think we were too busy just loading and when you are loading eight – Well you weren’t loading eight a minute in Bardia. You were firing and then you were waiting for the other gun to fire.
What kind of artillery were they using to fire back at you?
I know they were fortress guns but I haven’t got a clue and it didn’t worry me.
What ended that action?
I just think it was predetermined how much we were going to shoot. I think they cleared up all the buildings. They collapsed and were shot down. I think they were built by Arabs and that from mud brick. See we had the Lorraine, the French battleship with thirteen-inch guns as well. I don’t know what she was firing at but they’d be pretty big bombardment shells.
And I don’t know what their target was because they fired cruisers there too – all at different targets. But our targets was the barracks. I do know that one.
The gun positions that were firing back at you were later taken out?
I don’t know. No. I don’t know.
I’m also wondering Tom about what did you say, the Puss Duck? Is that what you called it?
The plane that was.
The Pussers Duck.
Oh the Pussers Duck. How information from that was plane getting to the Sydney and then down to you guys?
Radio. Two things. Radio and also Morse. A flashing Aldis lamp [signal lamp] .
Who onboard the Sydney would receive that and how would that get to you?
The signalmen on the bridge would get that. And they’d immediately –
Everything was relayed to the captain and he’d relay it to the director control tower, which was on the bridge. And to the gunnery officer there and they might say down two hundred, up four hundred and that just means lift the range another four hundred. We didn’t have that long. The Pussers Duck was attacked fairly quickly.
It sounds as though you were on target and it sounds like a very short action.
I think we got on target more or less first salvos. You know.
What happened after that action when the action was completed?
We steamed back to Alexandria.
And what was the feeling onboard?
Excitement. We’d been blooded. I think a lot of boys join the navy and sea action is a part of life. I mean a lot of boys joined up down here at the same time as me and never saw a shot fired during the war.
But I seemed to cop it right from the beginning. Different places, different times and different ships, you know.
Did you celebrate your action when you got back to Alexandria?
No. No. Only. No the only celebration was later when we got a half ounce of butter for dinner. That was the Colleoni action when we –
Well before we get to the Colleoni action after Bardia
you – What was the next action?
The Espero destroyer.
What led up to that action plead Tom?
Well the fleet were doing a sweep when we came across three destroyers and the seven cruiser squadron three ships were detailed out for the three destroyers but the destroyers fanned out, see. We were given one called Espero
to sink. Well we sank that one and we picked up the survivors and that is the saddest part of my trip because they grabbed out turret to take the lifeboat away. They sent two lifeboats away and we went away and of course the Italians were yelling in the water because their ship had been sunk. They were screaming and yelling in the water. So when
we got alongside a group of them they all grabbed hold of the cutter to try and climb onboard. Our cutter was going over like this see and the petty officer gave me a tiller handle and said, smack them on the knuckles and make them get back so we can bring them in orderly. I was panic-stricken and they were panicking too and one chap wouldn’t let go. I think I broke his
hands but he wouldn’t let go, so I belted him across the head. Because he just let go then and that’s something that’s stayed with me for the rest of my life. I often think, “Did he leave a wife and family?” I know I killed him and that’s something that I’ve lived with for a long, long time and I’ve tried to put out of my mind but war – one’s war [?UNCLEAR] .
Sounds like a desperate situation.
Well actually as I said there were some men and they could have capsized us. Of course the captain was yelling get a move on, get a move on. We were in danger waters. They had a signalling projector lamp, like a small searchlight shining down on the water and of course we didn’t know where the submarines were or anything. So later on in the war they decided not
to pick up any survivors.
I think the important thing is the men that you rescued?
Well we looked after them. They gave them all a sailor’s old uniform, especially the sailors old duck ones which we didn’t use any more. Because their uniforms were oil soaked
and covered in oil. So took them round to the bathroom and gave them hot showers and got the oil off them. They put them all in the recreation room for sleeping and gave them food. Gave them chocolates and cigarettes and that and I’ve got photos of them here, now on the deck. And when we got to Alexandria, several of them wanted to stay on the ship
– they didn’t want to go ashore.
That’s interesting. Why do you think that was?
The way they were treated I think onboard. See a lot of them were peasants too. They were called up and put in the navy just before the war broke out and not much training. I don’t think that they had the national pride that the
Australians have, you know. As soon as they reckon the food was good –
How many men did you have onboard?
I think we had twenty-eight so a lot were killed. We left a cutter with supplies onboard and a humorous thing. The cutter, a thirty-two foot boat and we left it there with supplies on.
Just left it adrift?
Yes. And we caught up with a chap called Cantoni in North Perth, who was a survivor and got away in that cutter. He was an electrician and he died only a couple of years ago, he was in North Perth.
That’s remarkable. What was
that meeting like when you discovered that?
He was a little bit anti-social but another chap that we met up with on the Colleoni we used to take him to our reunions. So when we get the Colleoni. Do you want that now?
No. But can you describe your action with the Espero before she sunk?
I couldn’t see anything because I was in the turret. Being a rammer my job was just to ram shells home and to keep on my feet, you know. So all I remember was enemy in sight, range 19 terro. Now 19 terro is nineteen thousand two hundred yards that they open fire at. Nearly ten miles. And one thing I do remember, after we’d
ceased firing, just before we took the lifeboat crews away there was a terrific underwater explosion and they think that as the Espero sunk depth charges or the boiler blew up. It was a terrific explosion and I think that killed a lot of chaps in the water before we picked them up.
What is your overall knowledge of that
day? Were there any other vessels involved in that battle?
Well there was two other cruisers and two other destroyers that escaped. They got away. There was only one destroyer sunk and that’s the one we were given.
And did the Sydney take these ships on by herself?
Took one on. No, see the admiral, when he sent the signals, he said
we have allocated one to the Sydney – the one on the – They didn’t know the name of it but they took the bearing of that ship and the others were to engage the other two separately. But the other two got away. It was just on dark then too. It was dark when we were picking up the survivors.
The only thing I can remember is the engineer, he was on a camp stretcher in one of the officers cabins. See, I had a job at sea in those days as what they called a signal deck officers messenger boy. I had to take the signals round on a clipboard to the officers but nothing of a confidential nature. Just
the general signals that come through. You know, the oiler will come along at such and such a time. Just general ordinary things. And I can remember going to the chap and he could speak English and he said, “Are you an Australian?” And I said, “Yes.” “Is Australia a good place?” He was an officer and he spoke well too. “Yes.” You know. A little simple thing because
his is still an officer. So he was an engineer officer but in the engineer officers’ cabin, sleeping on the deck on a stretcher. A canvas stretcher.
That’s interesting. You were travelling with the fleet before you sunk the Espero and then the admiral gave you all different ones to attack?
Yes. There was no good all of us rushing around trying to concentrate on one and the others getting away.
The Italian found themselves out numbers that day?
Yes. Very much so.
What did the rest of the fleet do while you were out sinking ships?
They carried on. They just steamed away because we had to catch up with them later. We caught up about midnight.
I just want to ask you Tom. Before you sank the Espero were you doing any anti-sub patrols?
No. Well no. See when you go to – No we didn’t. The first one we did was when the Colleoni action was on.
Right. Perhaps you can begin by describing those patrols and then we can work our way in to the Colleoni
Well there’s a big action before the Colleoni. The Battle of Calabria.
Shall we do this Calabria and then the sub?
So do you want it in order? Chronological order?
OK then. We were doing a fleet action. We were up in the sea just south of Italy. The whole fleet when they got a signal that the Italian fleet was at sea. Admiral Cunningham wanted to engage the admiral fleet because if he could destroy it
it was less of a threat because you never knew when it was going to come out when you had convoys going through to Malta. So the whole fleet was at sea. The aircraft carrier the eagle – We only had one aircraft carrier. A couple of old battleships, the Royal Sovereign, the Ramillies and the Warspite. Seven-cruiser squadron which was the Orion, Ajax, Neptune and Sydney.
And when we got the signal that the Italian fleet – They made for where they thought the Italian fleet would be and that’s when the signal came from the flagship the Warspite enemy battle fleet in sight and that’s gone down in history as being the first signal since Napoleonic times. A hundred and forty years or a hundred and thirty odd years, you know.
I knew nothing about it at that time. It was just another day. So the enemy cruisers and ourselves got stuck into each other and again I couldn’t hear much accept we were firing in the turrets. The boys on the four-inch gun decks and the lookouts said the noise was terrific and the shells coming over was just like the electric trains roaring through the air
but we couldn’t hear anything of that in the turret. I suppose in turrets, engine rooms, and shell rooms and that you don’t hear what’s going on. Only the exposed boys standing there doing nothing and getting blasted with out guns.
So after an action you’d congregate with them and talk about what happened?
Well you’d be in your messes and that, you know and you’d be talking and
It would have been good to get their feedback I suppose.
Now the other thing I heard that day was the first time in World War II that there were – a lot of planes flew off – I don’t know how many, it might have been a dozen, flew off the Eagle with torpedoes underneath them chasing the Italian fleet. None of the torpedoes hit but it is the first attack by planes
– torpedo carrying planes in World War II. And they were all biplanes, you know, slow moving sixty mile an hour jobs. What’s that ninety kilometres and hour, carrying torpedoes underneath. You know. And they were flying very low. They might have been two-hundred or three-hundred feet off the water. You know.
Did they all return safely?
So there were a few milestones set that day?
Yes. I didn’t realize it at the time, you know.
What do you know about the manoeuvres during that action today?
Nothing. No. I don’t. Oh what, the ships?
Your fleet verses the Italian fleet.
All I know is when the Warspite at a range of twenty miles got a hit on the flagship of the Italian
fleet they broke off the engagement. If you’re going to be hit by a one ton shell. It would have been a bit nerve-racking for the Italians. But then we were told the Italians had instruction they had to conserve their fleet. They didn’t have the facilities or the materials to keep building ships and so they were told not
to expend their ships if they could help it.
What ships were sunk that day?
A little destroyer called the Espero. An Italian destroyer. Because she was coming around steaming between our fleet and the Italian fleet to lay a smokescreen. Because every ship concentrated on it including ourselves and she just got hit and sunk.
But they really – The boys cheered her. They reckon she was a brave little ship.
So that day the Battle of Calabria is better remembered for the milestones and dates that were set than for enemy ships that were sunk.
Yeah. See we weren’t told so much. If we were told I don’t remember. And the publicity. We didn’t get the papers or anything.
You were busy making the news lines. So what happened after the Battle of Calabria, Tom. Was that when you started some anti sub patrols?
The first big one we went on was the Sydney and I think it was four destroyers. I’m not certain if it was four or five. Four went out with the Sydney and we went up above Crete
and sailed between Crete and Greece. So the Sydney thought she would spread out a bit and went more towards Greece, sixty miles and left the three other destroyers covering the straits west of Crete. And we had havoc with this one destroyer. When we got the signals from one of the other, the Hyperion that they were being chased by two Italian cruisers.
They outgunned them, out sped them and everything because on their trials these Italian cruisers did forty knots. Forty point nine knots, which is a fast speed. The fastest our destroyers could go is about thirty-six knots. So there was a four knots difference so when we got the signal the captain sent us to breakfast. Captain Collins and to change. We always changed into clean underwear and clean overalls
before going to action stations in case you got hit and I suppose it was so you wouldn’t get poison or dirty clothes, you know. Anyway I went to breakfast and I was only half way through breakfast when they sounded action stations. Collins didn’t break radio silence until we had fired our first salvo
to let Cunningham know. Cunningham was the Admiral in Alexandria and he was getting the signals from the destroyers. But he heard nothing from us and he didn’t know whether we were getting them or not so when we came south thirty-two knots rearing down the destroyers thought it was a wonderful thing. Suddenly they saw the flash of our guns firing at the Italians.
So the Sydney came to the rescue?
Yes. See we had six-inch guns
and it was two to one and is was the first and only cruiser duel of World War II. So another milestone.
And what happened on your arrival there?
Well on our third salvo – my third broadside and it was salvos because we were only firing the forward turret. The two forward turrets. The after ones wouldn’t bear – And we got a hit on the Banda Nere, one of the cruisers.
And they swung around then so we swung around and bringing all guns to bear we concentrated on the Colleoni. Which was the closest one to her? They blew her bows away and got shots into the engine room so she stopped. Collins said for the destroyers to torpedo her. And we chased on after the Banda Nere but by that time the Banda Nere was too
fast for us she was running away we did get one salvo right on here quarterdeck. There was a flash there, you know. So she did get some damage. But as we went past the Colleoni, about a mile away, we had finished action then and we were all looking out of our turret. I saw – Gee it was vivid. It is still vivid today. On fire and no bows on her and –
What else did you see that day Tom?
Of her as you sailed by?
I didn’t notice anybody in the water. We were about a mile away from it I think as we steamed past it. It was stationary in the water. But the next thing, on the way back to Alexandria we got very heavily bombed by the Italian air force.
And were you firing the six-inch guns during those bombardments?
No. We didn’t fire six-inch guns on aircraft until I was on the Hobart on Java.
So that must have been quite a touch and go situation.
the Colleoni one?
One the Italian air force came into it?
Yeah. See what happened was the first thing we knew not
having radar they come out of the sun and the first thing you know is a great string of bombs fall down in either side of the ship, you know. See you’re not taking evasive action or anything. And then the Havoc from the Italian survivors. We didn’t pick up Italian survivors but the destroyers did. And one of they broke down, the Havoc, so we had to go back and cover her. Next day, next morning at about ten o’clock
when we got into the harbour the flat – the cruiser flagship, the Orion came out to meet us. When they heard we were in action – Cunningham sent the cruiser squadron to assist us. They had come out and were underway when we said the action was over. When we came in the next morning the flagship, which had joined up with us, pulled over and let us go into the harbour first.
Which was great? The flagship always went in first.
To pay their respects.
I’ve got a photo of that. A big photo I can show you later.
That must have been a proud moment.
We were all in our white uniform. From the mouth of the harbour to where we birth was two miles. For all that distance ships and people on the shore all cheered and cheered and
ship were letting their sirens off and I had a lump in my throat. You know.
So you had sunk the Colleoni, escaped the Italian air force and rescued the Hyperion?
We didn’t rescue. Just went back to her and circled her until they got her going again. No. I think it was the Havoc. It was the Havoc I think. I can’t swear to that.
That sounds like an incredible day.
It is exciting for seven shillings a day and I was an ordinary seaman, four shillings a day.
Well we’re getting the wind up now, Tom, so I think it’s time to break for lunch.
End of tape.
Interviewee: Thomas Fisher Archive ID 1236 Tape 05
With the last tape you were mentioning how it was wonderful to have the flagship let you go into the harbour first. You were entering Alexandria Harbour?
Yes. At Alexandria Harbour. A very big harbour and the whole Eastern Mediterranean fleet was based there in wartime. In peacetime some were based at Malta and some were based at Alexandria. There were also big dockyards there
where a lot of the ships were repaired. See it was from the mouth right up to where we were – See we were tied up alongside buoys, not to wharf or anything. They were all buoys. Not little boys. The Sunderland flying boats of the Royal Air Force used to take off and land in the harbour
and one day I saw – The falukas were the native boats that were equivalent to a water taxi only they were sailing boats. And one of them was sailing across the harbour when it got hit by a Sunderland Flying boat. It didn’t sink his ship it just snapped his masts off and when he was being towed away this Egypt block was yelling and screaming.
I bet he was mad.
Can you remember what you did after you got into that harbour. You probably got some leave after that action?
I probably got half full, had a meal went to the pictures. There was a sort of standard routine there. You’d go ashore, have a drink, have a meal and go to the pictures.
What did you think of some of the locals in Alexandria?
You had to be
– the French people were very, very nice to us and very good. There was a big French population there. One Jewish chap onboard we were jealous of him because the Jewish population used to take him in hand and send a car for him. He’s now long passed away. We were all jealous of him.
He got the full treatment.
Yeah. He got the full treatment. Yeah.
But the Greeks. We didn’t see many Greek people there. The Greeks were very good in Greece but the French would take us home now and again for a meal. But I suppose they were a bit – some French were a little bit anti-social on account of France been – at that stage the British Fleet had attacked the French fleet in Iran.
and a lot of French sailors were killed there. And they had to demobilize a French ship in Alexandria Harbour. That was a rather traumatic experience because all of one day, one Sunday, we had our turret motors running. They didn’t know whether there was going to be a battle in Alexandria Harbour. The Authorities asked the French Fleets to surrender. And they
wouldn’t. See they were frightened to Germans getting control of French ships. What happened was they didn’t know whether there was going to be a battle or not and all ships were at action stations in the harbour. It would have been a bloodbath but an air raid came over, Italian bombers came over so even the French Ships joined in firing at them. We knew it was going to be alright then. But they took most of the oil out of the ships and
also the French ships and took the breach blocks away. But over the years the French conserved their oil, built up a lot and tried to steam out of harbour one night. So they said if you go we’ll torpedo you. They didn’t want the Germans to get hold of them. And I’ve forgotten about that section.
It was more nerve racking than –
Yeah. I’m just remembering what we know about different things and I’m thinking I don’t know anything about that at all, do I?
So what was the tensest part of being involved in all of that?
The tensest part?
Yeah. What was the most stressful part of being involved in all that?
That I was involved in?
I think in hindsight, looking back, it was when I hit this chap with a tiller trying to get them out of the water, you know. Well you are scared waiting but as soon as you get into action you haven’t got time to think about it you’re too busy. I got used to the Mediterranean but I think the tensest part, the worst part I ever went through was Java/Singapore.
But in hindsight, looking back on it, I wouldn’t have swapped it. You look back on it with the other boys and say “Thank God I am still here!” And –
I was going to ask you about the anti-sub patrols in the Mediterranean.
would go out with one cruiser in case we struck something big like another cruiser. Usually four destroyers and they’d be spread out around you. They’d be spread across three miles apart because the ASDIC [Anti Submarine Detection Investigation Committee radar] or anti-submarine detecting gear was good for about a mile and a half. Sorry.
That’s OK. You’re allowed to move.
They’d be spread three miles apart. With the size of the Mediterranean people think it’s small but it’s a pretty big sea when you’re there. And we’d go up around the Greek Islands. One night there were two cruisers and we struck a Greek tanker and they thought it was taking oil to the Dodecanese which the Italians had. They were
they ordered the crew off the ship and they rowed away and then the other ship, not the one we were on, put a few shells in and blew up the ship. A great sheet of flame and that. It was only a small oil tanker. But we didn’t ever strike any. I think we only dropped two charges on the Sydney. We didn’t strike any submarines in our runs.
It must have been pretty attractive around that area.
It was beautiful. See even in the turrets there’s the periscope and only two turrets are closed up at a time. And in A turret, which was mine, they had a periscope in for the officer to use for spotting and I used to get up there when I wasn’t on watch and
look at these Greek islands and buildings. They didn’t have blocks of land like we do. They were all on cliff sides and that. And all white buildings. It was up around what they call the Cyclades, the Greek Islands. What’s the name of the sea now?
Is it the Aegean Sea?
Aegean Sea. It is between Gallipoli and Greece
and that part north of Crete – It has gone out of my mind. But there’s bundles of islands up there and it’s very, very pretty. Of course we were there for a lot of the summer too and it’s beautiful hot weather.
You just wish you could get off the ship and go and have a closer look around I suppose.
Yes. To be truthful.
Were there any other sorts of patrols that you would embark upon in that area of the Greek Islands?
contraband patrols where the tanker was sunk. We didn’t sink it. And, yes, Contraband and submarine patrols. That’s all there was. Several times we did bombardments up on the Italian aerodromes at midnight and landed some bricks on them and they wondered what happened. But the navigation officer could pinpoint us and take us in on navigation by the stars and that. Right. The next thing is
that we would open fire and we’d see the buildings and the aerodrome and that go up. And there must have been planes there with petrol because there would be big fired and you’d get out as quickly as you could. You’d be well away by dawn before you could send planes over.
So how long were you actually doing those sorts of patrols for?
June until the following January.
So that’s quite some time.
Seven months, yes. Then the Perth relieved us.
Where were you taking leave at that time?
Well the only leave we got was night leave. Well I shouldn’t say night leave. Afternoon leave from say midday until ten o’clock at night mostly in Alexandria, Greece, like Athens, we anchored – not anchored, we were alongside the wharves in Piraeus.
Out by electric train to Greece. You can liken it to Fremantle and Perth. Piraeus and Athens. Have you been there?
Oh good. There are a lot of orchards, olive trees, farms and that and orchards between Piraeus and Greece. I was back there about twenty years ago and it is all built up now, completely
built up. The Romans are gone. I went down to Piraeus to see but they’d all changed too. Everything had changed. Ammonia Square which was in the centre of Greece, in my time there were no traffic in it. There were all stall around it. My last time there I was running round dodging cars, you know.
It would have been interesting to see the comparison over the years. So
what happened as far as where you were heading to next?
Well we left – what we are up to. We’ve done the Colleoni action and we’ve done all those contraband patrols. When Greece came into the war we were carting troops to Greece and to Piraeus.
Did you have any contact with the troops?
Only onboard the ship. These were English troops.
did you think of these men?
I felt sorry for them. They reckon it was beaut getting a hot meal and one bloke said, “Two washes today.” They had been in the desert where water was scarce, only drinking water. He said, “I had two washes today, you know.” And what else was there. When we left just before Christmas
– oh, one night we did a run up into the Adriatic Sea too and sunk an Italian convoy. That was the night that the British fleet with their aircraft attacked Taranto. A big base at the bottom of Italy and sank the battle ship and some cruisers there. But we’d been further up. We did
two trips up into the Adriatic sea which is supposed to be pretty dangerous. And then we went to Greece, we went to Malta at Christmas for docking. And we were there seventeen days. We got two lots of forty-eight hours leave. And I think I mentioned earlier, I don’t know if you – at the time, that
I was just talking when I complimented the hotel chappie on the good meat and I said, “Everything’s Russian here. How do you get good steak?” “We only serve the best horse flesh.” I went out in the gutter and almost put my finger down my throat. And that – I told you about taking the parcel out to the people at Christmas time. Went down and had a look
through the catacombs.
What was that like?
A bit eerie because it’s where the people used to live in the early days and during the sieges and the chap that took us round and they only had a candle on one of the old candle holders, like a flat plate. One candle and he had big wide shiny eyes. There was two of us and I felt a bit scared, you know. More scared than when I was at sea. I though this bloke looks a bit nutty, you know.
You might not get out of there. Don’t they store skeletons in the catacombs?
I didn’t see any there. No. This is down at St Paul's Bay. What they call St Paul’s Bay. There is a statue of him there where his is shipwrecked.
Right. How many times are you getting attacked by dive-bombers and air raids?
Now, just a minute. I’d say about eighty because we were in action eighty-eight times. There was five surface actions.
Several bombardments, three or four bombardments. So I’d say a good eighty times.
So would that be an average of once a week?
No. A good three or four times a day and then you might go ten days with none, you see. it depends on where you are. Because see they build up a Royal Air Force round Alexandria but you only cop it at night time
In Alexandria. You only cop it of a daytime. We only had the old eagle with us, half the time, the carrier. We actually had no radar until the Ajax came out. The Ajax soldiers said the aerial on the radar is similar to our household TV [television] aerials and we asked the English sailors what it was and they said, we can pick up
planes thirty miles away. Oh yeah, big joke, you know. We thought out legs were being pulled. So the next time we went to see there were signals flashed around. Enemy planes bearing so and so distance forty miles, you know. Gee that was great.
So you realized that they weren’t pulling your leg after all?
No. It was only one ship with radar on. And they didn’t call it radar, that’s an American name. They used to call it RDF. Range and Direction Finding.
And the radar came in in ’42 from the Americans.
So it was originally called something else.
and you mentioned signals. How common would it be to see signals at night flashing across the water?
Rarely at nighttime because they used the blue light. It is daytimes that they used the Aldis lamps and that. Or flags if the whole fleet was
going to manoeuvre they’d put up flags saying, Starboard turn ten. And as soon as they put it down they’d say execute and the whole fleet would turn at the one time. I don’t know if they use that now.
Was there any humour involved with the signalling or was it always very serious?
It was only humorous when two ships came side by side
and they used the semaphore [flag signalling system] . They’d pass messages backwards and forwards. But the official ones – There was one from Admiral Cunningham when we came back out of the Aegean Sea. “Did you have a wild Australian Night?” And our captain sent back, “Bonzer.”
So he did have a wild Australian night?
Were there any close calls with
bombs dropping next to the Sydney at any time?
Yes. We got hit by a lot of splinters and that and we were very fortunate with people being wounded. One chap – it came right through the metal control tower, through the quarter inch plate and landed in his leg there. He got a trip to hospital out of it.
And no we did our own degaussing – degaussing was to nullify the magnetic field of a ship and we put our own cables around. And a big drum, when they were running the cables off slipped off its slings and hit a chap in the forehead and crushed his skull. He was put in hospital until he was coming home. A chap called Thompson.
We picked him up when our ship was leaving the station.
Why do you do that? It’s got something to do with electricity?
Magnetic mines. The magnetism of a ship can send off magnetic mines. So what they’ve done they ran big cables around the ship which they’d put – Sorry, when I mean cables electric wiring. Cables. So they could run currents through it to destroy the magnetism of the ship.
So the ship wasn’t a magnet.
I have not heard of that before.
Degaussing. Gouse was a bloke who had a lot to do with the discovery of magnetism and things. And so we did our own degaussing. on other ships in the dockyards and that we did our own on three days and three nights. Everybody pulling the cables right around the ship.
It is a lot of cables.
A lot of ship too.
Can you describe to me what happens when you decide that you are going to be in the middle of some kind of air raid or bombing phenomenon. What kinds of things do you hear and what kinds of things do you do until you can get to your action stations?
The ship is divided up into messes and the people in the forward part of the ship, whose messes are in the forward part of the ship, have action
stations on the front guns, front lookouts, front searchlights. And the messes further back look after the aft end so you are fairly close to your action station. Excuse me. And first of all in peacetime they use bugles but in wartime it’s like a clack son horn. You immediately grab your lifebelt and tin helmet
if you are on the upper deck part and race to action stations. Say you are in the turret when all the numbers arrive you number off and they report to the transmitting station, which is the nerve centre of the ship. A turret closed up and Y gun [large gun at the stern of the ship] closed up and P1, Port one
closed up. So that they are all closed up to action stations within minutes it sends that up to the bridge. To the captain. You know. All hands closed up. So if somebodies adrift they want to know why and where. In Suda Bay once in Crete we all closed up action stations for an air raid and they couldn’t find one chap. They searched the ship for him but he was
up in the crows nest taking photographs and he said he didn’t hear the pipes. The pipes are the announcements on the loud speakers.
It is a fairly good excuse but you’d think that he would see something though.
Yeah. But coming down he was ready to take photos of ships being hit and that.
So where were you heading after being in the Mediterranean?
We were relieved by the Perth. It was announced on the ship that the Perth had relieved us and she was only about a mile away so we all cheered. We went down to Alexandria and then they asked for forty volunteers to go to England.
To do what?
To man destroyers. The ship was coming home of by the way so they only got one volunteer and thirty-nine to go. Have you had a chap by the name of George Ramsey?
I don’t think so, no.
Because he was detailed off to go to England and then we came back to Australia and then West Australians got fourteen days leave here.
What did you feel about being relieved? Were you happy?
We’d been away ten months and we thought it was beaut to get home again. Well see all the local places like Tuart Hill put a
reception on for me and a dance and everything. That was great. The Lord Mayor of Perth was Thomas Meagher, before Sir Thomas Meagher, before he was knighted. And they put on a civic dinner at Town Hall. The Mayor of Fremantle, a chap called Gibson put on a lunch for us down there and after fourteen days we went to Sydney to pick the ship up again.
When you were involved in all those actions does that increase the
reputation of the ship.
Very much. It was called the glamour ship of the Mediterranean fleet. Also the glamour ship of the RAN, Royal Australian Navy.
So you were all pretty aware of the fact that you were quite legitimately [UNCLEAR] . Obviously you were all looking forward to getting back home.
Anything happen on the way home?
Yes. We called in to
the Seychelle Islands. They sent the band ashore. We only called in there for fuel and that but the captain went ashore to pay his respects and we got a signal that a merchant ship two hundred miles away was being attacked. We shot out and send the old Pussers Duck up searching but we sat there for a couple of days trying to find a radar. We couldn’t find one. So we ended up two days out of
Fremantle we ran into a cyclone which made us a day late getting in to Fremantle. And of course there was no announcement in the papers in those days of coming home and it wasn’t announced that the Sydney was home until it hit Sydney. But that photo there – the day I was down in Sydney that photo of, in the West Australian. I’ll show it to you in a second. But the West Australians were taken off there.
We went to Sydney and went back.
Just if I could rewind you. What’s it like being on the Sydney in the middle of a cyclone.
Not as bad as being on the destroyer that I was on because the Sydney was a big ship of seven thousand tons while the destroyers were only fifteen hundred tons. They bobbed around like a cork. And I was on several in a destroyer and in a thing.
Just rough. To give you an idea you are trying to drink tea and you tilt the cup down and you might only get half a cup of tea because the tea comes out the top of the cup. So does your stomach.
Does it increase the incidents of seasickness?
No. no. No you just get used to it. It was just a matter of balancing
in the ears.
So what did you do when you were on leave in Perth apart from the civic reception?
On a regular basis?
Oh just meet the other boys. I hadn’t seen them for a day.
A whole day. How were you greeted by your family when you arrived back?
Surprised because I bought back a lot of little presents and things from Egypt and some from Singapore.
Purses for my mother and sisters. Like leather purses. Kimonos from Singapore and that and lace from Malta. A lot of bits and pieces, watches for my brothers and things like that. The customs came aboard and said we’re not going to check what you’ve got boys. As long as you don’t have any knives or daggers
and no, no daggers, no knives. They didn’t ask you about drugs or anything. They didn’t even know about them in those days. The only drugs were beer.
Was your family aware of some of the actions that the Sydney had been involved with?
Yes. It was all in the papers.
Because they must have –
Because see mail used to take about three months to get to us in those days and to get back too. It was all by ships. See
when our parents wrote to use the address was HMAS Sydney care of GPO [General Post Office] Sydney. The mail would all go from Perth, across by train to Sydney, and then they would wait for a ship going to the Middle East. When it got to the Middle East they would find out which harbour they were based in.
So it took quite some time.
Mail was three months old when I was getting it.
So how important was it
to get mail?
Very much so when you’re away. You just want to know what’s going on. Later on in the war, in forty-four, forty-five when I was in the Middle Eastern Fleet the mail used to be photocopied here on a single sheet – you filled in like an aerogram sort of thing. It was photocopied and it all went on a reel of film and it was flown over. And we’d get it in a matter of
probably a week. So if you were at sea it would be held up for you but the mail was only, at the most, a week old.
Did you get packages with different bits and pieces from home?
Yes. The family used to send over food parcels and things. Chocolate and stuff. It was all stuff you could buy over there.
But I suppose they didn’t really know where you were?
We used to get a lot of cakes
because one of my brother became a pastry cook and used to make lovely fruitcakes and seal up the tin. That is toward the end of the war. Now there is a lot more excitement coming in the Singapore Java. I think we are getting pretty well down on the Mediterranean.
We can move on at that point if you like.
Well when I
left the Sydney we were just – Just before I left here we were on the west Australian coast taking a convoy up to the Sunda Straits and Java. The captain lined us all up on Sunday morning and said, “There’s a raider around. I intend to get it. You’ve got to be on your toes. Everyone’s got to be on the alert. We’ll do a lot more training.” And three weeks later is was sunk
by the raider. But by this time I left. I was transferred to a ship which we called drafters in those days which I knew was in Singapore being refitted because it had come back from the Mediterranean because I used to see the sailors in the Savoy. Instead of sending me to the Vendetta they sent me to Sydney and I was put on the Queen Elizabeth and ended up in the Mediterranean, Egypt again.
Sorry and what – ?
This is in the end of November. It is on the twenty-sixth of November forty-one. I joined the Hobart in the Mediterranean.
But you didn’t actually get over there on the Hobart?
No I joined it over there. I was only there two – we had one trip to sea on a Malta convoy on which we were fairly heavily bombed. We came back to Alexandria
We heard on the news that Pearl Harbour had been bombed.
How did you find that information out?
Morning tea again, stand easy. It was on the radio news – a flash that Pearl Harbour had been bombed by Japanese forces. The boys said, “We’ll be into it now.” A couple of days later we left Alexandria and we came
to Colombo. That’s when all our Christmas goods were left not the wharf. Because we then in mid December went to Singapore and spent the next two months up there. Singapore fell. First of all there was air raids over Singapore when we were there. They dropped
leaflets asking the people to surrender. I had some of those leaflets and never kept them. I wish I had of done. The day Singapore fell we were in the Banker straits half way between Singapore and Java. It was estimated that a hundred and nine planes attacked the Hobart alone and they estimated that six hundred and fifty bombs fell around the Hobart that day.
It was the first time we had been at action stations in the tropics. We were all in overalls. I was in what was called damage control because I was a trainee electrician. And when the bombers came over it came over the loud speakers all hands between decks lay down. Laying down you’ve got less chance of being burned by bomb blasts than standing up. We were laying in hot boiler rooms with perspiration just running off us
and I made a vow to myself if I got out of that I was going to drink that much beer that it would run out of my ears. I was that thirsty. Nobody thought of supplying any drinking water or anything. And so from midday up till six o’clock at night perspiring all day with nothing to drink and then the cooks brought around big trays of sandwiches and hot tea. The boys were growling about the lack of butter
on the sandwiches. I just think it was tension. Oh, the ruddy cooks are selling the butter ashore. I think that day was the worst day of the war for me.
How do you deal with that kind of intense pressure and stress?
I don’t know. I get drunk after. The point was we couldn’t do anything. I wasn’t working like in a gun turret when I was ramming. I was just laying there and when one
stick of bombs I just crawled under a chap. He was laying down and they reckon you’d crawl under a sheet of newspaper in an air raid, you know.
What did you think of your chances of surviving that bombardment?
I didn’t think we were going to get out of that. But what was going through my mind was if I survive this I’m going to write to every member of parliament and ask them where the air force was. You know. Because we had no planes.
Oh and then we were down in Java one evening.
Just if I could rewind you for a little bit. Just, was there a real anger that there was no support for you?
Yes. Amongst the boys there was anger that we were on our own. And we were in Tanjung Priok, which was the port of Batavia or Jakarta.
It is very hot there. We were all standing on the upper deck trying to get cool and an aeroplane flew up the harbour, right up the centre of the harbour a hundred meters away with a great big red Japanese sign on it see. But without waiting for action stations to sound off everybody had closed up at their action stations waiting. The plane didn’t come back, you know. And one day when we came in we tied up alongside a
tanker which was at a buoy at the centre of the harbour to get fuel and a flight of bombers came over and hit the tanker and down one side of us. The Perth was over at the other wharf all firing together. We were in action with the Perth and we were all firing together. That’s why the boys adopted me. So we shot out to sea. The motor boats had tied up at a boom, which was a long spar outside the ship.
Well as we shot out to sea the motor boat with its crew was still there. Oh after the air raid they’d gone down there to secure things, to get it inboard. As we went out to sea at a rate of knots the motor boats are being towed out like this at the bow and these three chaps are hanging on for grim death. Now we cruised up and down outside the harbour and the Perth left to go and that’s the last we saw of them. They were sunk.
Then we left.
What went through your mind when you found out that news?
That the Perth left. Well nothing really. She’d gone down to stop another Japanese fleet going down the eastern end. The Battle of Java Seas which we missed. And we were told to steam north till midnight and if we didn’t meet the other Japanese force coming down to turn round
and get out of Java, which we did. Luckily we didn’t meet them because we were on our own and that’s the same fleet that the Perth ran into. No, Arthur Ramcross wasn’t on there then. Now we went up to the top end of Sumatra and picked up a lot of people, civilians who had got out of Singapore and that, and we took them across to Colombo.
When Singapore did fall was that a surprise to you?
No. It was on the cards then because the troops had left Malaysia and they were bottled up in Singapore because chaps were saying that they would chop the water supply off. Nothing they could do. And that part – I think the terrific heat. At that time is the hottest
time. The terrific heat of the tropics, the heavy bombings, I think the morale was dropping very much with the boys because we didn’t think we had any help and we were on our own and out of six cruisers we were the only one to get out of it. The others were all sunk and we came around to Sydney and the next thing, very quickly, we went up to the Battle of the Coral Sea.
And then we saw the American Fleet there, the aircraft carriers and that and we thought boy. They’re on our side. That was terrific.
Was that the first time that you thought you might actually have some support?
Yeah. We only had one American cruiser and six old destroyers up in Java. See we had heard that the American fleet had been wiped out in Pearl Harbour.
Really. Was that one of the – ?
Well we used to listen to the Japanese
broadcasts on the radio at nighttime. You could listen. It was on the ships radio. They would say there is no American Fleet and then they would announce that they had sunk the British Battleship the HMAS Hobart which our parents heard. And some of the blokes would yell out, Have another go. And I went from ten stone then down to eight stone. Then I got back and got four days leave.
the ship was in dock in Sydney and I went down to Melbourne to my aunties place for four days leave.
Just going back to the propaganda did you actually believe that the American fleet was sunk?
Yes. Well we heard that they had attacked Pearl Harbour see and there was only one cruiser in – one American cruiser, the Houston in Singapore.
Not Singapore. Java after that and only six World War I destroyers, you know. And the Dutch ships, well out of six cruisers we were the only one to get out of it and we said, “What are we going to do now?” You know. The Australia and Canberra, two other cruisers in here and there was no stopping the Japs. They were too strong.
totally chance the morale as soon as you saw the Americans?
It did because to see two aircraft carriers, five cruisers, a lot of destroyers, a big tanker.
On that note I think we should break for lunch. We are just about coming to the end of this tape I think. We are. Good timing. Have a –
End of tape
Interviewee: Thomas Fisher Archive ID 1236 Tape 06
Tom, you had an interesting point to make about the sinking of the Colleoni.
On the 19th of July 1940 when the Sydney engaged the two Italian cruisers as you will appreciate the Sydney sank the Colleoni and at lunch time that day the captain announced over the loud speakers that in view of our gallant victory all troops would be issued with and
extra half ounce of butter. We normally got an ounce a day but a half ounce was the same as you get when you go out of a meal and you get those little gold plastic covers. So the troops all yelled out how generous can you get.
What a mighty reward?
I was just going to ask you Tom how did you feel when you were drafted from
the Sydney to the Hobart?
Well I wasn’t drafted to the Hobart. I was drafted to a destroyer in Singapore called the Vendetta. But I ended up on the Hobart by being sent to Sydney. The Vendetta was in Singapore, the Sydney was in Fremantle and I thought I’d go strait from Fremantle to Singapore but I was sent by train to Sydney and put on the Queen Elizabeth and ended up in the Mediterranean so at least I was – the Vendetta was
an old World War I destroyer, what we call a rust bucket and Gobles used to call the scrap iron flotilla but the Hobart was a modern cruiser, a sister ship to the Sydney so I was quite happy. And when I joined the Hobart the leading hand on my mess used to be the leading hand on my mess on the Sydney a year previously. So I had a friend straight away.
Was it sad to leave the glamour ship behind?
everybody would say he’s from the Sydney, you see, where the Hobart wasn’t as well know. The Hobart had been in the Mediterranean for six months.
How were you treated on the Hobart coming from the Sydney?
Oh yes. Very good. Yes. I think sailors treat everybody fairly – A little bit of chiacking about coming from a glamour ship but it was only chiacking. I think after our episodes
– our experiences in the Singapore Java campaign where the Singapore had the reputation, after the war, of being the most heavily bombed ship in the Royal Australian Navy. So I think we learned out battle spears there.
An incredible claim.
Just if I could ask you did the crew onboard the Hobart ask you questions about the Sydney when you joined?
Some did. Yes.
Some were very interested and others just thought our turn would come. We’ll sink an enemy ship and get the same acclaim.
I suppose you realized that you were quite fortunate to be drafted when you realized that the Sydney had been sunk.
I was fortunate because there were no survivors from the Sydney. They lost six hundred and forty-five men when it went down. At that stage they thought they might have been prisoners in Japan or
– But they didn’t know what happened to the Sydney in those early days.
You must have left a lot of friends behind on the Sydney?
A lot. Particularly chaps in my mess and that and chaps I had been with for twenty months.
That must have been quite unsettling news.
It was very sad because one chap on the Sydney said don’t forget to write and we’ll reply to every letter we get. I hadn’t written because I didn’t have a chance to write and
Was it quite sobering to hear that the Sydney had been sunk and that the Hobart could be sunk?
That didn’t enter into it as far as I was concerned. The main thing was to make certain that the Hobart wasn’t sunk. And if we went close to a merchant ship, another merchant ship to examine it, the boys used to line up along the upper deck and yell out to the bridge, “Remember the Sydney! Remember the Sydney!” The idea was the Sydney had
gone too close to the Kormoran, a German ship.
So you took their lesson.
Yes. Actually being a young able seaman at the time I had no say. I could only depend on the captain. Captain Howden on the Hobart.
I just want to ask you also about your thoughts of the campaign aboard the Sydney?
Well I was bridge crew on the Sydney, only a phone number,
but I had the utmost respect for Captain Barnett, the captain of the Sydney, because he used to never go alongside a ship. He used to stand miles off and signal. And I couldn’t understand. Of course we only had the Germans word for it as well that he did go alongside another ship and did what he was supposed to have done according to the Germans. To me it was quite out of character.
Because see he was the captain from I believe the first intake in the Royal Australian Navy. He had been in the navy a long time and they didn’t make what they call four ring captains, seagoing captains. They didn’t make them lightly before the war. It wasn’t like some navies where they bought their commissions. They had to earn it. And also he had spent some time with the Royal Navy, the English navy.
I think he was very experienced. In my book there is a lot of armchair strategists out there who know everything but know nothing, you know.
How is he regarded by the crew?
the Sydney crew and those that are left – Not so many are left because what actually happened captain Barnett came aboard in May 1941 and the ship was sunk in November forty one
but a lot had left before me to go to Flinders naval depot to do courses or had been sent to other ships and that. I had served the longest time with him than anybody because I left it on the last trip. I was bridge crew, all be it just a phone number. I could see a lot of what was going on.
Did you say bridge crew or breach?
Bridge. B-R-I-D-G-E crew.
So you spent some time on the bridge?
I did spend time on the bridge, because I was a phone number.
What does that means, sorry?
Well I was handling a phone where messages had to go to different parts of the ship. The captain would give the message or the officer of the watch would give the message, mostly the officer of the watch or the navigating officer, and I would repeat it over the phones.
I didn’t know that you left the turret and gun.
Yes. I left – What actually happened in Malta in 1940
I left the seamanship part of the ship and I was put on the torpedo party to do training with the ships electricians. And that was at Christmas 1940. And of course I had different jobs. Some time on torpedoes, some time on depth chargers, and some doing electrical work. But at sea and action stations I was a bridge phone number. And I found the captain to be a very
cool, calm and collected man. A gentleman. He didn’t panic.
Sorry. You must have had quite a few opportunities to observe him?
And also something of interest. In September 1941, that’s two months before the ship is sunk, we were in Melbourne and we did a two-day trip around the bay down to Port Arlington and back.
Captain Barnett had his two sons who were, I think about eleven and twelve onboard for the two days and that would be the last time they saw their father because he was killed after the Sydney disappeared. I had a chance to observe them but they were little college boys and very quiet. Later on I caught up with one in the West here and told him I remembered that and he was very, very surprised and
excited, you know. He didn’t remember me but I remembered him.
Just how many surviving crewmembers of the Sydney are there today?
I think there’s about eight in Western Australia but they didn’t all leave at the same time as me. Some left to go to England before we left the Mediterranean. They left to go home. There is seven or eight left now but actually of the West Australians who came back and in the
photo there’s only two of us left of that group. A lot went down on the ship. A lot have died since.
Do you know how many there are today across the country?
No I don’t but there’s very few left now because every time I talk to somebody from the east they say so and so has passed on and that. I would be surprised if there is fifty out of the seven hundred that’s in the Mediterranean that would be left today.
Out of those fifty are there any men that you knew quite well from your service?
Only several now. Several that were torpedomen with me.
Can you tell me what those jobs were specifically as a torpedoman and doing the electrical work?
Yes. We were more maintenance. Electrical officer and ‘electricotisophers’,
Now they did the actual work. If work had to be done on a lathe or a machine they did that kind of work but our work was to correct faults. Like maintenance work. First of all on telephones, searchlights, gunnery control circuits, lights, ships lighting, big fans, there’s a lot of ventilation. A lot of fan ventilation on the ship that had to be looked after. Every
turret had two fans in it. Mess decks had big fans in. And the big fans were actually electric motors with a very big impellor on it which bought the air down through ducking too.
Had you had any electrical experience before?
No. I was a mechanical apprentice before but just little simple wiring. And the reason I wanted to become a torpedoman, who were then the ships
electricians – the reasons being the torpedomen did the ships electrics was in about 1890 in the Royal Navy they decided to electrify ships. They had no electricity in those days, just oil lamps and things. So they had to pick someone with a bit of mechanical knowledge, so they chose a torpedoman. The torpedomen worked with the mechanics on torpedoes.
They selected the torpedomen to be the electricians. In 1948 they changed the whole rating system up and split the electrical and torpedo system up. In our day the torpedomen had to look after depth charges, torpedoes, and electrical work and you spent about three months in each section. See on the Hobart I was an electrician for Y turret.
To interrupt you. Just
so that I don’t become confused can you tell me where the torpedoman’s mess was and what it meant to be working with torpedoes and depth charges.
The Torpedoes mess was a separate mess deck and there would be about fifty men in there I think. And on the other side – We were on one side of the ship and on the other side were the communication branches.
Signalmen and sparkers, or wireless telegraphers, they had one side of the mess deck and it was the same on all ships, destroyers, curvets and that and cruisers. Like we were on the same deck and that but different on each side of the ship.
Were you on the port or starboard side?
On the Sydney starboard side on the Hobart portside. And yet they were sister ships.
What kind of work were you doing as a torpedomen?
I had about
three months on everything except later on the Hobart I had fifteen months as the electrical electrician in Y turret. Y turret had batteries, low power lighting, phones, and fans, to look after.
Just while we are on the Sydney what kind of work were you doing with depth charges and torpedoes?
Nothing on torpedoes, nothing on depth charges. It only carried five depth charges on the cruisers.
but most of my work was telephones and gunnery circuits for the four-inch guns.
It must have been a bit of a novelty to be up on the bridge as a phone operator?
That’s at sea. When I was talking about the work I was doing that’s at harbour. When you were at sea, excuse me, on the Australia station
you did four hours on and eight hours off. In the four hours that was from eight o’clock to midday, before lunch, you did your maintenance work. You might be working on phones, you might be working on searchlights, and you might be working on fans. The big fan motors. Fire control table. Fire control table is a
gunnery control table. It is like a computer today but it was all hand controlled. You had a little wheel that you fed everything in to into gauges and it was all mechanical.
Why did you leave the gun turret and become a torpedoman?
Because I wanted a change to a different part of the ship. See when I was on the turret I was working as a seaman. So when I became a torpedoman
I was put in the torpedoman’s mess deck and they had their own watch bill where the torpedo party looked after their own people.
Did you ask for the change or did you – ?
Very much so because seaman, which I was, an ordinary seaman and then a naval seaman later, were the labourers in the navy because when you came into the harbour you had to store ship, paint ship,
wash paintwork and they were really jobs where you didn’t have to think. But once you became a torpedoman you became a technical person and that’s what I wanted to be.
So it was a move up the ladder?
We’ll return to the Hobart Tom. You had only one trip onboard before you were attacked?
One trip in the Mediterranean. We were covering a convoy to Malta, came back and then Japan entered the war
and we were recalled to what they call the Australian Station. We went straight to Singapore from the Mediterranean.
And how long were you based at Singapore?
Based at Singapore might have been about a month and then we went down to Java, escorting convoys backwards and forwards from Java and going up the Indian ocean bringing convoys in.
What kind of convoys?
Troop ships, supply ships. Singapore fell on 14 February. That day the whole fleet which was six cruisers and six American destroyers? There were four Dutch. There was ten destroyers and we went up to try and intercept the Japanese taskforce coming down. Japanese invasion fleet to Java.
According to the powers that be they turned back when our forces went up there. They sent their air force on to us then. That’s the day when the Hobart was attacked by a hundred and nine planes on one afternoon. I think that’s my worst day in the whole navy.
Can you describe that day for me.
Well there were ships steaming along and the first thing we knew was a string
of bombs around us. We had no radar and there was a terrific burst of things. Hands were piped action stations but they didn’t need to because the men were running there without being told. All that afternoon it was continual air raids. And my action station, that time being a torpedoman, electrical was what they call damage control. If the ship got hit we had to run electrical cables and supply them
with electricity, engine room, boiler room, turrets and that. Big electrical cables. But we couldn’t do anything until damage occurred and they used to announce over the loud speakers, bombs away, all hands between decks lay down. Different officers on the bridge would have their binoculars on the plane. They used to see the bomb bay opening and then they’d see
bombs falling and then the captain would immediately – We were doing twenty-eight knots all day and we had four propellers. Full astern on the port propellers and full ahead on the other and the ship used to just swing around. It was really shuddering to and where we had been, or should have been, the bombs were falling. You know. They reckon Harry Howden saved us that day,
but a full afternoon of continual air raids and gut wrenching fear for me because I couldn’t do anything. I was just laying there. I was so thirsty. I swore black and blue that if I got out of that I’d drink that much beer that it would run out my ears. I kept my promise many times. We were laying over the boiler room, like our action station was over the boiler room. We could feel the heat coming from the boiler room, heat in the tropics,
and there was no air conditioning in those days and of course I was that thirsty. You couldn’t leave your action station to go anywhere to get a drink, yo know. I knew what thirst was and I knew what a promise was.
When did you fulfil that promise?
Well I must admit that it wasn’t until after the Coral Sea battle in May that we got back to Brisbane and had a night
A night on the town was it?
A night on the town.
Looking back to that day which you’ve described as the worst day in your service –
The fourteenth of February 1942.
How long exactly were you under bombardment for?
About six hours.
That’s incredible to survive bombing raids for six hours.
Sorry. It wasn’t a continuous six hours. There were breaks in the six hours.
And we kept getting the piped – That is the first time too that the ship was using the six inch guns for a long way away. They had six-inch shells that were anti-aircraft shells too but I don’t think we shot any planes down.
But you managed to dodge their bombs? What lead to the end
of that day? Why did the bombing raids stop?
Darkness. There was no air raids after darkness fell. That’s when they bought the tea around. The tea in big teapots. They call them a tea fanny but they were big teapots and corned beef sandwiches. And then the whinging started, not enough butter on the sandwiches. The tea was very hot. I didn’t even taste the first
So you reckoned you deserved an extra half ounce of butter that day too?
What happened after that day? Where did you go then?
Backwards and forwards – No. Sorry. Tanjung Priok, which is the port of Batavia. It is the equivalent of Fremantle and Perth, and we came in one day from a convoy
and tied up alongside a tanker. It was about midday and we saw the Perth had just joined us. This it towards the end of February and first of all a wave of bombers came over, dropped bombs all around us and the old ship was going up and down, up and down. They put bombs through the tanker and so the captain immediately
slipped off straight away. We shot out to see, out of the harbour because we didn’t want to get caught again. The second wave come over but that’s why the Perth boys adopted me and that because we were in action with the Perth. Like Arthur Bancroft’s group and he said we were blood brothers. So we stayed outside until after dark, came in, got some more fuel,
the tanker was damaged so we didn’t get much fuel from that and the Perth had gone. So we couldn’t go and join up with the Perth but she went down for the Battle of the Java Sea. And we were sent up north to try and intercept – it must have been a Japanese invasion force coming down because we were told that if we didn’t meet it by midnight we were to turn around and leave the area all together. Commodore Collins
the old captain of the Sydney was the officer in charge, ashore. He told us to get out of it. The Perth had been in the Battle of the Java Sea. It came back but it couldn’t get up oil. Fortunately it picked up a lot of floats, but that’s another story. They came out seventeen hours after the Hobart and the Perth and Huston ran into the Japanese fleet.
So we beat that by seventeen hours. Then we went up the west coast of Sumatra.
Sorry. If I could just interrupt you there. I’ll just go back a little bit Tom. In that action earlier that you were involved with the Perth.
Yeah. It was actually fighting off aircraft in Tanjung Priok.
Can you describe that day in a bit more detail?
Well that’s when we came in and to get oil we tied up alongside this tanker.
It was called the Warsirdar the tanker and we were getting fuel, oil fuel from that. And the planes came over and we weren’t getting any warning from them. They were flying fairly high and before we got to action stations the bombs had dropped. A great string had dropped down the Starboard side of the Hobart. And a string dropped down the other side and two dropped through the tankers so we
couldn’t get any more fuel from that tanker because the oil would have been contaminated with salt water. We immediately slipped from the tanker, went out to sea very quickly towing the motor boat which was on it’s boom. The boom was a long spar out the side of the Hobart. The Pinnies [?UNCLEAR] was tied to that. It was being towed with its bows up in the air with three boat crew in it hanging on for dear life. And
we left the Perth inside but on the way out got attacked by another wave of bombers. We were just lucky we escaped the whole lot of it. And then we cruised up and down outside the harbour. There was a lot of shipping in the harbour too. But they went for the two ships, the Perth and ourselves, the two warships. They seemed to leave the merchant ships alone.
They missed you both?
Missed us both. Yeah.
How long were they bombing you both for?
Oh there were two waves. A bombing might only last a few seconds. By the time they dropped a big string of bombs it was all over and done with. The second wave they dropped some and then came around and had another go.
Did the Hobart or the Perth return any fire?
We were all firing. We were using six-inch guns and four-inch guns.
Did you hit any planes?
I don’t know. See I was below decks lying on the boiler room deck. I wasn’t in the boiler room, I was in the compartment above the boiler room. And I thought gee if a bomb goes through the boiler room it will be good buy.
I cant imagine.
When it comes to shooting down planes it is only chaps on the upper decks who would see it and know it’s there.
I guessed that you might not have seen it. I just thought you might have known there were a few shot down. So after the raid did you go back into the harbour and – ?
After dark we went in and went alongside the wharf and got some fuel. We couldn’t get enough fuel because we couldn’t get it back from the tanker because the tanker would have salt water
in it and that would contaminate the fuel.
Was there a fire onboard the tanker?
No, no. What actually happened. The bombs went right through the tanker, through the bottom deck and exploded underneath them. They blew the bottom out of it, see and let salt water get in.
That’s a lucky phenomenon. What would have happened if the tanker had blown up?
It would be good by and I mightn’t be here to tell you this story.
Do you think the Hobart would have blown up alongside her?
It could have caught fire, cause the boiler could have been sent everywhere. If the bombs had of landed in the ship it could have caused a big flash and the paintwork could have caught fire.
So I’m imagining that you got ashore with the crew from the Perth that night? Did you go ashore that night?
No. There was no leave.
Where did you become blood brothers with Arthur Bancroft?
Only because we were in action together in these big air raids, both firing at the same targets.
Did you meet each other then or later?
No. I only met Arthur a few years ago in Anzac House.
I joined up with his mate Carry Glossop.
That’s when you declared you were blood brothers
Arthur would say, “Our bonds were forged in the fields of battle.” They were his words.
Did you seal that oath
with a beer?
Several. Sorry. I’m a bit hard of hearing too.
Sorry. I’ll try and speak a bit more directly to you, so you can do a bit of lip reading.
A bit slower.
Alright then. So the Perth then left.
During the afternoon, after the air raid, the Perth left to go down
east of Java to join up with the Dutch ships. We should have been with them but we didn’t have fuel.
And that’s when they were sunk?
No. They were in the Battle of Java Seas. Two Dutch cruisers were sunk, the Exeter a British cruiser was sunk, the
Perth came back to Tanjung Priok to get more fuel and to get out and it was when they left Tanjung Priok and came to the sunder straits. They just arrived at the sunder straits and ran into the Japanese invasion fleet that we’d been up to try and meet. That was actually seventeen hours later.
And you were still in the harbour at Tanjung Priok?
No. We were going up the west coast of Sumatra at that time.
We wouldn’t have got out. See we got out of Java. We’d been in the Indian ocean at that time and the Perth was seventeen hours behind us.
I see. When did you receive the news that the Perth had sunk?
Well we didn’t know whether it had sunk or not. We were going up the west coast of Sumatra to pick up Europeans and Indian soldiers who had got out at Singapore.
And it was announced over the loud speakers that the Perth had been in action in the Sunda Straits and all signals had ceased. So they assume that – see, sometimes they get into action and signal but ships don’t want to let the enemy know their whereabouts so they don’t use the wireless.
Excuse me. Are you a little bit confused about our where abouts are you?
No. I’m just trying to make sure that I’ve got the whole picture.
Well recapping very quickly if I may. We had been out in a convoy
and we came back and came into harbour at Tanjung Priok. Excuse me. The Perth had arrived from Fremantle and was over against a wharf. We tied up to a tanker in the middle of the harbour. The tanker was on a buoy. The Arrow was alongside it. The Arrow cast off and steamed away. We were getting fuel when a wave of bombers came over. So the Perth opened fire from alongside wharf
and we opened fire from alongside the tanker. I hope this is not spoiling it.
It’s OK. That’s fine. I hope you’re feeling OK.
Yeah. I’m feeling OK. It’s just that something’s caught in my throat. We were alongside the tanker. Now when the bombs came down the starboard side of the ship, a string went down the side of the tanker and two hit the tanker. We cast off then and shot out of the harbour.
And shot out f the harbour. To keep away from the bombers or not to be a stationary target we cruised up and down outside the harbour. In the meantime the Perth slipped, went to sea, and went down to the other end of Java.
After dark we came back into the harbour, got some more fuel, and were told by Commodore Collins to go north towards Singapore and try and intercept a Japanese invasion force. And if we didn’t meet it by midnight to turn around and leave Java. Which we did. We came out at dawn or seven o’clock. We went up the west coast of Sumatra. In the mean time, that afternoon,
the Perth arrived back in Tanjung, got some fuel, and put some floats on board. Then set sail to go out to Java. At midnight they met the Japanese fleet that we were sent up to try and stop. Now we were on our own so we wouldn’t have had much luck. And they were sunk in that action.
How had you missed that invasion fleet?
They hadn’t arrived to where they should have been.
We were about twelve hours early, thank heavens. We were under orders that if we didn’t meet it by midnight, to that point, we were to reverse and get out. Well they were about twelve hours late or six hours late, I don’t know, so many hours but the Perth ran into them. And the Perth wasn’t there any more.
What were you doing when you went up the coast of Sumatra?
We were under instructions to pick up civilians and some soldiers that got out of Singapore. We got right up the top end of Sumatra to a place called Padang, P-A-D-A-N-G, and we picked up five hundred odd civilians, mostly women and children, and
a group of Indian army. They were seeks and the only thing was they refused to let the ships company cook their meals. They had to cook their own rice in the galley. They had their own cooks. And the ladies were very good, the civilian ladies. They worked in our hospital with the wounded people and that. And we landed them at Colombo.
We were only in Colombo overnight. We took a big convoy down to Fremantle. Am I going too quick now?
No. No. That’s OK.
Down to Fremantle. When we steamed out of Colombo we had a battle ship with us, cruisers, aircraft carrier, and a very big convoy. The next day we had the convoy and we were the only warship there. Because they reckon there were a lot of spies in Colombo and we sailed towards Aden but
that night they turned due south. It took fourteen days to get to Fremantle because they sailed due south in line with Fremantle and then turned to port and came straight to Fremantle.
What was with all the spies in Colombo?
Well instead of leaving Colombo and just turning left to go to Fremantle if the spies had been there they would be watching us, which direction we were taking,
and they reckon some of the native population could have been spies. They reckon there were also Japanese spies there. Though they didn’t have to be Japanese you know. So we sailed west till we were out of sight, that would have been about midnight, until we turned south to go to Fremantle. Instead of going in a straight line we went down at right angles. And then turned a right angle and came in to Fremantle. It took us
fourteen days instead of about six days.
Just to give the spies a bum steer?
Gee the pre radar days made war pretty interesting, didn’t they.
Especially in the Mediterranean where you were steaming in a fleet, it might be thirty ships, battle ships, two aircraft carriers, destroyers and that and no radar and it could be a rainstorm.
I’m surprised there weren’t more –
No collisions. But today with radar and that they have more collisions.
It makes you wonder. What happened when you arrived at Fremantle?
I got six hours leave. I went home, went straight home and stayed with my people. The other boys who got six hours leave got really tanked up.
And then we left Fremantle and took a convoy – two big American –
Actually I’m going to interrupt you there, Tom? Where would they get tanked up in Fremantle in those days?
All the pubs.
Was there a favourite watering hall?
I don’t know about Fremantle but the Savoy in Perth was a favourite one. But the pubs used to close at six o’clock then.
Is that what they used to call the six o’clock swill?
Yes. Now wait a minute. I’ve got to be a little bit careful.
The six o’clock swill came in during the war years but I don’t actually know when. It might have been later because when I came home on leave in forty-three it was six o’clock closeting then.
OK. So then you set sail for Sydney Tom?
Yes. We had two big American ships with us. The Monterey and the Mariposa. They were troop ships and we took them around to Sydney. We got to Sydney and I was given four days
leave. It took five days to go across to the west if you could get on one because troop trains were the priority. So I went down and had four days with my uncle and auntie in Melbourne.
It sounds like a very civilized way to spend your leave.
A rather humorous thing. All the trains were blacked out then. They had curtains over all the glass and no lights were shining out of the trains then. That was because of planes from
submarines coming in to strafe them.
Well how did you spend that leave with our auntie and uncle?
Well see I was around ten stone and I dropped down to eight and she was trying to fatten me up, you know. I ate everything she put down in front of me too.
I don’t know whether it would have mattered if she was a good cook?
Oh she was a good cook, thank heavens.
But I was getting double helpings of everything, you know. Little things like that stick in your mind, you know. And my auntie was over here a few years ago. She was very elderly, ninety then, and she said I had a terrible job trying to fatten you up.
The tapes just finished there Tom so we’ll change another tape.
How many have we got left now. No what I was trying to say is –
Interviewee: Thomas Fisher Archive ID 1236 Tape 07
When we spoke last time you were actually heading off to the Solomon Islands. Can you describe what the mission was over in that direction?
Well before – That was the Guadalcanal in August 1942. Prior to that was the Battle of the Coral Sea.
Well maybe we should talk about the Battle of the Coral Sea first?
April, on my twenty-first birthday. It was my last night in Sydney and I thought what a cow of a way to spend your twenty-first birthday. All they said was store ship, ammunition ship, and we took a lot of fuel onboard. And the Australia, ourselves, a big heavy cruiser. We sailed north and all we got the captain said over the phone the Japanese
invasion force they look like they are either going to invade New Guinea or Australia and we are going up to try and intercept it. And we thought only two Australian ships, you know. What are we going to do? And the morale was rock bottom.
It must have been pretty surprising to hear that there was a threat to Australia? Was that at all shocking for you?
was worrying about – after reading that time the Rape of Nanking, and that and what the Japanese did to the Chinese and I thought of my sisters and my mother and our wives. I wasn’t married but this is everybody’s thoughts. I wasn’t worrying about myself as much as worrying about my family. Plus the Japs were vicious or had a reputation for being vicious.
The morale was really rock bottom. What could two Australian ships do? No air force, no nothing. We had lost some of our boys had left the Hobart and had gone to other ships or down to the depot to do courses. We had a lot of new boys onboard and they seemed to be excited but we weren’t because we had been through it, you know. So the day before the Coral Sea battle we
met up with the Americans. Two aircraft carriers, five cruisers, fourteen destroyers. Boy was that lovely. We weren’t on our own and our morale went up like that, see. So there was no ship-to-ship action. It was all aircraft against aircraft and the Japanese sank the Lexington, one of our carriers. Our carrier sank several Japanese carriers.
We took a lot of air raids. We got a big thrashing with the air raids and then after three or four days it was all over and we went back to Brisbane.
With the three or four days when you were being hit with air raids how often would you be bombed?
It might be every couple of hours. I didn’t keep any record or times or anything but I remember that we were forever closing up and action stations.
We came back to Brisbane. We did some exercises – We were forever exercising for ships, you know. For other ships and we had some American ships then, cruisers with us. And we became part of American task force, Task Force 72. The Australia and ourselves.
So what sort of exercises did you do off the coast of Brisbane?
Fleet manoeuvres and I think at that time they were getting used to each others signalling devices.
Semaphore, because Americans were using American signals and we were using British signals and they were trying to standardize then to a form of signals, you know. And also we were doing a lot of practising that if one of our ships got hit how we’d run big towropes and tow the ship and if we got hit they’d drop cables. There was a lot of seamanship involved in it.
I wasn’t involved with that too much being a torpedoman. But the ships were. And then we went down to New Zealand.
Just before you went down to New Zealand in that time in Brisbane did you get any time off?
Only got leave from midday until – I’m not certain whether it was ten or eleven o’clock at night. But there was a big recall one night. We were in the pictures and it got flashed on the screen all sailors return to your ships urgently, see.
So a lot of American sailors came out and they jumped on trams and pushed the tram drivers aside and took over. They said, “We are going down to Hamilton Wharf.” And the trammie [tram driver] said, “That’s not my run.” So we all piled on trams. And what had happened was that was the night that the midgets submarines had got into Sydney Harbour and sunk the Kuttabul and that.
And they tried to torpedo the Chicago which was tied up in the middle of Sydney harbour but the torpedoes went under the Chicago. Otherwise she would have been sunk in the middle of the harbour there. With the recalls of course we shot out to sea because we didn’t know whether any other midget submarines had come up the Brisbane River. They didn’t stick around to get caught. And what else.
That must have been pretty disturbing to be sitting in the movies and to see, “All sailors return to your ships.” flashed across the screen?
It was because the words were “All sailors return to your ships immediately, urgent, urgent” or something. So somebody said something. The humorous thing is all the Yankee [American] men taking control of the trams. They said to the drivers, buster, there buster, we’re in control now. And gee did they drive fast too.
What were they like the American sailors?
First class. I think in those days compared to now. I’m not being racist or anything but they were all white sailors and most of them were gentleman. And they had negroes on board, but they were mostly madmen or cooks. But every time we tied up alongside an American destroyer later on they couldn’t do enough for us, you know.
In my book first class and if it hadn’t been for the Americans I think we might have lost this war.
Do you think that it’s become a little more crude and ‘rabbly’ in later years?
Well I don’t know – It could be lack of discipline in the American navy or both our navies or if there could be a different kind of person involved because it is like youth around the place here, you know.
I’m trying to say I thought we were different. We weren’t so much larrikins or troublemakers. We never stole cars or got involved with drugs, only beer.
Beer was your drug of choice?
That was refreshment. I don’t know if you drink or not.
Oh I’ve been known to have a few drinks, yes. Team ten has not been known to have a few
drinks. So where were you actually patrolling, looking for possible midget subs? Oh you didn’t.
We just got out of the Brisbane River in case the midget subs were coming up there to attack the shipping. Because we had American cruisers and things up there and they would have had a killing. Up the Brisbane river. So we got out and they put us to sea very quickly.
What came next after
being at sea.
Guadalcanal but to get to Guadalcanal we had to go down to New Zealand to pick up the first division of marines. American marines and it was bitterly cold down there. And while we were down there we had to paint the ship. I didn’t have to do any pointing, being a torpedo man but the ships company were painting the ship with mittens and gloves on.
Much the same as the American. See we had Mediterranean camouflage on, which was green stripes but the Americans were just blue to fit in with the camouflage of the sea. And that’s the time we didn’t wear white caps any more. They gave us khaki cap covers. And khaki shirts
instead of white shirts. It was to stop the Japanese strafing the sailors. When we went to New Zealand we were painted and the boys had a little parody of the song, You Take The High Road And We’ll Take The Low Road. “You take the paint pot and I’ll take the paint brush and we’ll paint the ships side together and when the captain comes along we’ll sing our little song.
Why the hell we joined forever.” I can’t sing or I’d sing it for you.
It was good.
Well going ashore there we were anchored out in Wellington. This was July and bitterly cold so one of the first things we did, one of the chaps said, there’s no good drinking beer here, it’s too cold. We’d better get some rum into us. We got little rum bottles. They were almost kidney shaped in those days. So we bought
those and put them down our socks, one on each leg to take back onboard because you couldn’t take Grog onboard. We were taking rum back to get warm. And we had quite a few rums and I didn’t feel the cold going back. Anaesthetised. We left Wellington with the thirteen troop transports with the American Marines.
What were they like?
I didn’t have anything to do with them. They were sort of landsman
and they weren’t on our ships, they were on troop ships. We went up to an Island where Fiji is that had been cleared of all it’s inhabitants. They carried out landing exercises there an strafing of dive-bombers and everything. That’s before we went into Guadalcanal.
How many as part of this practise? How many ships as part of this practice?
Oh well what happened is when we left New Zealand and we went to Fiji we saw a fleet coming this way and we thought that’s terrific. Then there was another fleet head of us, and a little later a fleet on the side. All warships. In the end we had ninety ships there. After Java and Singapore with six old cruisers and few destroyers ninety warships
– oh the morale was – we were happy.
And what sort of exercises were you carrying out?
None. Because each fleet kept it might be twenty miles away from each other so no chance of collisions and that. we went in to Guadalcanal and our job was with several ships bombarding shore bases to soften it up. Then we saw the marines landing.
You could hear the voices over the speakers onboard the ship of the American pilots and one went, “I’m going down to look at this god damn dance floor.” The aerodrome on Guadalcanal, you see. “I cleaned up them fairies.” It was rather interesting to hear them the speaker was on the bridge but I was also on the bridge as a phone number.
And I could hear it all going on and we got a lot of air raids in Guadalcanal because the coast watches reported that – There was coast watch up at Guadalcanal and they reported that there were forty planes coming in one day but only about thirty got through because the American planes were waiting for them on the aircraft carriers. They shot down ten. One Japanese got shot down near our ship.
Could you actually see it getting shot?
Yes. He was a dive-bomber and he crashed. The pilot got out of it and he got out and he was sitting on the wing. We slowed down to pick him up and he got a revolver out and started firing at the bridge. Of course every gunner onboard with the anti-aircraft guns, the small ones. They all opened up on him. There wasn’t much left of him, mincemeat.
It seams to be a bit of a pointless exercise
on his part?
Well he shouldn’t have been fining a revolver. The Japanese culture was such they didn’t understand us. They didn’t know that they were being taken prisoners. But I felt a bit sick watching that because I was on the bridge watching him splatter everywhere.
And we were there three days, four days. One night we were down the eastern end of the sound. It was piped action stations, or we
were at action stations and up the far end of the – the other end of Guadalcanal there were a lot of flashes going on. It’s when the Japanese fleet – the fours ships came down and sank the Canberra and damaged one and sank two American cruisers.
Were you aware that that was happening that night?
No. We didn’t know what was going on. We knew a battle was going on because we could hear the guns.
We just didn’t know what was going on at all. The next morning, we saw the Canberra listing over and an American destroyer had to put torpedoes in to sink it, to get it out of the way.
Were there any survivors from the Canberra and the other ship that went down?
There were about eight hundred. About eighty odd got killed. I don’t know the actual number.
That’s alright. I was just wondering if you guys were picking them up at all.
The American destroyers picked them up. The point is it is a bit hard to stop up there. If you stop up there you might end up with a torpedo up your middle.
So the whole object of the exercise is to keep moving?
Keep moving the whole time, Yeah?
How would you have an idea that there is a torpedo coming towards you at any time?
You don’t really. All the stories you read with lookout seaman, there’s bubbles coming towards you
the bubbles are many feet behind it. When a torpedo is going through the water the bubbles from the engine are behind it. By the time they surface it may have passed you.
See the night we got torpedoed no one saw the torpedo.
So it’s not like a James Bond movie at all?
So as far as the exercise in Guadalcanal
Was concerned was it a failure because of –
No. No. Because the Japanese had airfields there which they could then attack Australia and New Zealand and Fiji. The idea was to capture that and to get our own planes on the aerodrome there. Guadalcanal was a hard fought battle. The Japanese wouldn’t give in at all.
What were you told about the Japanese?
As far as what they were like was concerned. What were you told?
We were told not to get caught as a prisoner of war because a lot of their reputation came from China and their cruelty in china.
So you were warned against being a POW [prisoner of war] ?
Yes. I don’t know how we were going to get out of it, though.
I wasn’t going to commit suicide. I’d take the risk and let a Jap kill me. While there’s life there’s hope.
He says with a huge smile on his face.
So how did that whole Guadalcanal end?
We held the island. We lost a lot of ships up there. Not at that time but later on. But the main thing was
to stop the Japanese from having a base. The next base was further up at the top islands. They didn’t get Noumea. But New Britain and New Ireland, the islands up there they had until the end of the war. They isolated those but kept bombing them.
How was morale after the sinking of the Canberra?
Well it didn’t
– it was sad to see another ship go but I think we had the philosophy, as long as it wasn’t us. I mean if you saw a bloke break his leg you’d say, “I’m glad it wasn’t me.” But the next ship we lost was the Armidale going to Timor. We didn’t hear about that for a while. You didn’t have much publicity during the war. If a ship got sunk they’d
keep it under wraps.
That’s pretty hard to do?
After Guadalcanal we used to anchor at a place. We were on convoy duty to New Guinea. Not in sight of the chaps we were escorting. We were always over the horizon in case other cruisers or big ships came down. When it was all over
and it was finished up there the captain told us, we never saw the ships we were convoying so if any of them were captured they couldn’t say which ships were doing the escorting and that. But it was monotonous. Four days out, four days in, four days out, four days in.
And how long did that go on for?
From about August ’42 to
about August ’43, about twelve months. And then we went off and joined the Americans in the Solomons and that’s when we got torpedoed.
Before we get into that torpedoing section you say you were doing the four days in and four days back. Was there any danger in that area?
Well there could have been Japanese submarines, I don’t know.
When I say four days in the Australia and the Chicago were there with us and we’d come in and the Chicago and the Australia would go out. She might only go for two-day sand then when we come in she’d go out for two days and the Australia would take over. So there was always someone at sea covering the convoys. But we used to go ashore there
and play water polo there. That’s another thing. Are you in for a bit of humour now?
I’m always in for a bit of humour!
Now what happened was the commander said the boys have got to get more exercise, see he said. The torpedomen are not being involved in anything. We always kept out of sight. So the PTI, the physical training instructor,
got us together and said, “Right, Fisher, can you swim?” “I’m not a good swimmer.” “Right, you’re in the water polo team.” The water polo was anchored the ship was always anchored like at Palm Island, off the coast of Queensland, forty miles out of Townsville.
They put two big spars out of the ship to hold the nets and so I’m in one and screaming and yelling with everybody else. I couldn’t get near the ball. Suddenly the ball hit me in the chest and I hung on to it. The next thing a dirty big stoker had both his feet on my shoulders and I was six feet under the water, I started to yell out and swallowed half the Pacific Ocean. They had to drag me out. I
had my feet up in the air getting the water out of me. That night we did have a beer ration and I knocked mine back. So the PTI said, “You’re no good at water polo. What can you play?” And I said, “Nothing.” I was trying to get out of it. “What about deck hockey?” And he put me in the deck hockey team. I was only out there a minute when I got s smack in the ankle and go sent to sickbay, you see. He thought I was malingering. He thought I was trying to keep out of sport.
“I said I’m not a sportsman. I’ve got no sporting genes.” Well I didn’t say I had no sporting genes but today I would have, you know. And I just wasn’t interested in too much sport. I said, “Righto, I like tennis.” There was no tennis on a boat. Anyway that blew over.
Thankfully or else you might have ended up with a few more injuries.
We’ve all got a talent. It’s just that sport clearly is not yours.
Yes. No genes.
I would be alright on crossword puzzles.
There were no competitions there. Oh and then we sent away – four of us sent away for a course called Don Athaldo course. ‘You too could have a body like mine’. All muscly and ripply, you know. A letter came back to the ship that we could buy it for five guineas, which is a lot of money.
Is this like a correspondence course?
It was a correspondence course in bodybuilding. Big muscles and there are photos of him with his chest out here and big ripping arms. One of the chaps said now hold tight, I’ve been through this before. This chap will keep dropping the prices. Well he dropped it down from five pounds down to ten and six. We ignored him but letters kept coming. So when we got down to ten and six
we sent away for the course and spent two and six each, which was twenty-five cents. And I got conned. I was a bit naïve. One of the boys on the ship said, “Fisher, you’re a bit puny. Go down to sickbay and ask the doctor for an iron tonic, you need building up.” I went down to sickbay and the doctor said, “What’s wrong with you?” And I said, “I think I need
building up. Can you give me an iron tonic?” So they gave me something and I was putting on two ounces a week. And the humorous thing about it is that after the war when I put in for my medical certificate to see if I could get a pension, they thought they were treating me for nerves. I might have been a nutcase or something but that paid off because Veteran’s Affairs gave me a pension for nerves.
Didn’t they talk you about having a stress conditions.
Shirley said to me, when I put in for a stress condition they sent me to a psychiatrist and she said they didn’t have to send you. I could have told them you were bloody well mad.
That’s very interesting. You had no idea that you came across as being unsettled.
I used to jump is somebody dropped something. I’d jump out of my skin.
I didn’t lose sleep or anything like that. They gave me a pension for nerves anyway.
Well I suppose you weren’t the only one at that time that was jumping?
But I haven’t been sent to Greylands [Hospital] yet. One of my daughters is a psychiatric nurse and my son is an assistant professor in psychology. So I’m going to be looked after in my old age. A psychologist and a psychiatric nurse.
All I’ve got to do is get old.
Well clearly that part of the plan is not working very well is it?
So what was part of this bodybuilding plan?
It was no weight lifting or anything but it was straining one muscle against another muscle like straining like this. Head like this, backwards and forwards, doing a lot of straining. I was starting to develop but if I went in to pick up a tool bag is used to hurt.
Or lifting something so after about four days, after you gave it away, you were back to what you were before you began the course. The muscles started to develop, I can say that, but it was too much effort. I was too lazy.
How did your friend go with it?
There were four of us and I think they gave it up round the same time as me. See what happened is we used to do it on the gun deck while we were at anchor and we used to get a crowd around watching us, you know.
“Fisher, don’t stand sideways we won’t see you.” Oh another thing. Can I revert back to Singapore?
When it was falling, they knew it was going to fall. We – when I say ‘we’, I mean the captain of the ship and the officers sent trucks over to the big naval base that had been abandoned. They took a lot of wireless gear and gear for the ship. And
the captains chef went over and he got a big jar of rum. He bought it back and said it was sauce. So around his galley up top there was a rack around the range, the stove. He was the captain’s chef only and he had all these old sauce bottles full of rum. And for months when I was on looking after fans Id make it my effort to
get up and check the fan out on the range that was taking the draft out and he used to give me a sip of it. It was about that much of a glass or rum. It would make me a bit bleary eyed, you know, and the boys on my mess didn’t know where I was getting my grog from onboard. Well I mean it’s all right now, everybody’s got them. They can’t hang me now, can they?
Not that that’s so much of a crime.
So I had a good run there. But all the sheds on the wharf in Singapore were deserted and the boys said, “Oh look, there’s a bundle of sewing machines.” And the ships side was level with the wharf. So instead of going down the gangway you’d just step off the ship onto the wharf. I got a sewing machine and I’ve still got it. It was a Singer. And on the wharf and I got that onboard and
and went back to get a Remington typewriter. There were a lot of crates of Aussie beer there. And I just dumped the typewriter, it was a brand new one, and got four bottles of beer. And onboard and we were in Singapore, dangerous, but half the ships company where whooping it up with Australian beer, hot. I don’t know. It’s a good job we didn’t go to action stations that night.
Well you can’t say no to free beer.
No. The same happened to the Perth boys when they came back from the Java Sea and went in to get their last fuel the sheds in Java were all deserted and there was cigarettes and grog and everything. Six hours later it was at the bottom of the ocean. Ours landed in the bottom of our stomach.
You were certainly lucky in that point?
Am I talking too much?
No you’re supposed to be talking.
Yeah, Yeah. That’s the whole idea. If you don’t talk that’s the problem, you see.
Things are coming back to me now.
You can’t make mistakes. It’s impossible.
I’m in my element
Good. You are supposed to be.
Singapore, Java, Fremantle,
We were talking about Guadalcanal and then what happened after that.
We came back. We were on the Coral Sea escort duties.
And that was – I shouldn’t say a waste of twelve months. There was nothing happening but we were doing something. Every six months we would come down to Sydney to have the boilers redone. What I mean by the boilers refit is inside a steal ship there are heavy fires but to stop the damage to the metal there are bricks
inside a boiler and the fire is inside those firebricks like insulation. After eighteen hundred hours of steaming the bricks start do disintegrate, break down. So they have got to come down, close everything down, pull the brickyards out and close everything. The dockworkers do that. They put all new bricks in like brick on the decks and brick on the side. We all used to get four days leave each watch. There were to lots for four days leave.
Did I tell you the story about my broken romance? Yes. I told you the story about my broken romance? When I went up to this hut and helped the girl to set up table there.
Did you record that?
Yes, yes, yes. I remember now.
I had the broken romance and what else happened?
So that was all around that time. But weren’t you kind of relieved though when you were on patrol in the Coral Sea and you weren’t seeing action. Was it a good break?
We were almost hoping for an air raid to break the monotony. It got terribly monotonous. They reckon wartime in the navy was ninety-nine percent monotony and one percent fear and
How would you pass the time?
I don’t know. I suppose a lot of writing. A lot of sleeping. You used to sleep a lot because you’d be four hours on watch and eight hours off.
But I was lucky because with the job I had I was only on call if something went wrong in the turrets electrically so I used to sleep in the turret hammock all night. The night we got torpedoes, that’s 20 July, 1943, I had slung my hammock next to an ordinance artist who was a gun mechanic. I was a turret electrician.
I went up to clean my teeth and we got hit. We got hit right where I was sleeping and the chap sleeping next to me was cut in half. I had to help him later to put his body in two parts – we only had canvas bags in those days. So I had to put – I was sick too. My hammock was cut in half. What happened then?
Did you know this fellow quite well?
I only knew him by his. I knew him as Kingie, everybody called him Kingie. I don’t know his first name. I might have at the time but sixty years later I can’t remember it. Well sixty-one years this year.
That is a terrible sight to see. You must have been absolutely shocked?
It cut right through a big sheet of metal from the torpedo sliced him in half.
It is the only time I vomited through fear or sickness or everything.
I think everybody who hears that will be doing it with you.
And it was that night that Bert Hewett, you won’t be doing him, because he’s now got Alzheimer’s very badly. He lives out Busselton way. He is a lovely chap. But he was a very good swimmer and where the ship got hit that was some of the officers cabins.
And when they did a muster one officer was missing. Someone got blown over the side. They thought he was in his cabin right near the blast so Bert Hewett tied a rope around him and he sort of half swam and half got through the water swirling in and out because if he got pulled out of the ship we were ready to pull him back. He went down and he got this officer out and when he came back through the water the water was sort of in between like a river so we
pulled him back, got him back, and took the officer back to sickbay.
What was wrong with the officer?
Concussion. Another officer, I asked you if you did one on Bill Wreford and he got his ear cut off.
How did that happen?
With the blast, with the bomb blast and flying metal. It’s a wonder you haven’t done him because he’s really outgoing. His name might be on the list. Reefid.
And a very good talker too. What else was there?
It sounds like pandemonium?
Anyway we had a month in the New Hebrides having the ship patched up.
Where abouts in the ship did you actually get hit?
In the stern. I can show you a photo of it after.
Could you describe it for us?
Yes. It is what they call the quarterdeck, the rear end of the ship and there’s two turrets
and it hit right alongside and there was only thirteen killed. And the beauty of it is that it happened at ten to seven at night just as all the officers had left to go to their cruising stations. The others were waiting to be relieved. And the same thing happened with the warrant officers and that. The rear end of the ship was where the officers and warrant officers lived. They had left to go to their cruising stations
The men they were relieving hadn’t come back so it was more or less deserted, you know. So that was the reason there was – but it was only the men waiting to go into Y turret on the upper deck that were blown over the side. The paymaster and the American liaison officer got blown over the side. But we only lost fourteen. A lot hurt.
Were the medical facilities enough to –
We had two doctors and one was killed. And the other one was injured to because being officers they didn’t have to go and relieve anybody. They were there for action stations and that. They were both in the wardroom and one was killed and one was badly injured. We had what we called sick bay attendants, which were equivalent to nurses. They were trying to carry the weight, you know.
It still sounds like a bit of pandemonium. You limped back to, where did you go?
We were towed in – that night three American tugs came out from Espiritu Santos. That was the name of the island. Espiritu Santos. They came out and towed us back into harbour and it was about a twenty-four hour tow.
Could you take some time off after that event while they were patching you up?
No. Because we were up in the islands.
There were no watches to keep or anything because you couldn’t man guns or anything but the Americans had a lot of guns round the islands too. We had concerts. The Americans would come aboard and give us concerts or we’d go ashore to their concerts. And they had a big canteen, recreation place that you could go to and it had awful American beer.
Could you get more interesting food at this
Yes. We had stuff called Spam [manufactured ham] which was awful. Have you ever had Spam?
I hope I never do have Spam.
It is a mixture – it is something like our baloney [seasoned meat] , only twice as bad.
I’ve seen it, it looks terrible.
Well the Americans had a lot of it. The canteens were good.
The picture shows were good. And that’s another thing. I saw Noel Coward [entertainer] one time. Noel Coward came out and he was at an English base at Trincomalee and he said, “Now you boys when you write home to your wives and your sweethearts you can say that you’ve met Noel Coward in the flesh, see.” Because the Poms [English] would all clap their hands and the Aussies started booing.
Did the Aussies know who Noel Coward was?
Yes. But it was just his snobbish attitude. “You can tell them you saw Noel Coward in the flesh.” So that started a lot of booing too. And I saw Harry Lauder in Egypt too. A lot of these people came out and gave concerts. Gracie Fields came out and gave a concert when I was at Flinders Depot. I was talking about sports when I was playing cricket
And hocky and water polo. After the War, I was an instructor in the navy down at Flinders Naval Depot and it’s crib point about three miles out of Melbourne and they decided that we old instructors had to take part, with all the junior recruits, in a five mile race
I’m just trying to think of the name for it. Sandshoes on, shorts on, there were five hundred in it. A lot of youngsters, new recruits. The war had finished now and I was at the grand old age of twenty-five and getting a bit of a refreshment stomach. So I took part in this race and I think I was in the last ten to finish.
and nearly dead and I found out they’d realized then that I wasn’t Olympic material.
There you go.
End of tape
Interviewee: Thomas Fisher Archive ID 1236 Tape 08
Can you tell me about your survivors leave when the Hobart was sunk tom?
We came back to Sydney at eight knots. That is as fast as she’d go because we only had one and three quarter propellers instead of four. We got back to Sydney and we got twenty-eight days leave, twenty-eight days home leave, meaning that you got travel on top of that. Because they always had an expression in the
the navy that home leave meant actual leave at home. But it was the first time that I had actually been on a troop train. The other trains had all been passenger trains. Troop trains were from Port Pirie – It was eight Port Pirie or Augusta [Port Augusta] in South Australian on the trans continental line.
And the troop trains had what they called the ordinary old goods wagons they put goods in with straw palliasses to sleep on. Of course you got a lot of dust and everything through them but fortunately I didn’t travel in those. The navy were allowed to travel in a carriage. Navy and air force, the poor old soldiers were put into the troop trains. When it came mealtimes the train
would pull up. The meals were all cooked in one of these trucks. It was covered in like a goods van. So you’d line up. They’d give you two little sausages about two inches long and an ice-cream scoop of mashed potato. So you’d eat it in two mouthfuls and you’d be looking around for some more, see.
And every day of that and of course I was famished by the time you’d get to Kalgoorlie. There used to be a pie shop down the road and you’d race down and get three or four pies and eat them all at once. And we got to Parkeston – trains had to change at Kalgoorlie. Parkeston is a few miles out of Kalgoorlie. And because there is no showering facilities on the train
you used to take a couple of days to come across the desert you’d be gritty and dirty in the carriages so you’d get off and go to have a shower but there was about a two foot gap all around between the roof and the walls. And a cold icy wind came off there and there was no hot water it was all cold water. There was no hot water. So I took off my clothes, felt the water, and put them on again. I thought I’d wait till I got home to Perth, you know.
And the drinking water in the trains in those days was a waterbag on the end of each carriage. The carriages had a passageway down the side and a platform on either end. There was a canvas water bag hanging up with an enamel mug tied to it so you couldn’t pinch the enamel mug. Everybody drank out of it and it never ever got washed I think. So when we got home.
we had the leave but it was a very lonely time for me because all my mates were away. And it was a time of domestic upheaval at home. My father had got himself a young girlfriend. My mother was very unhappy and of course a divorce didn’t come till later but it was a leave I could have done without. On top of being away, you know, and rationing was very
heavy. People would say I would like to ask you to come and have tea but I’ve got no meat coupons left and things like that. And I said, anything will do me, just vegies because vegies were not rationed. Sugar, tea, meat, were rationed. Clothing.
Tom how did you find out that your Mum and Dad were separating?
Well my mother told me that my father was playing up and they had six children too. I was the eldest.
And I had tried to have a talk to him but I couldn’t get through to him and that. He more or less told me I should mine my own business. I said OK. And it was a very unhappy. Not only was it unhappy for me but it was unhappy for other chaps who got back because their wives had got tangled up with Americans and they didn’t know till they got home. Others were pleased to get home because girlfriends were trying to get rings on
their fingers. So there was a lot of stories to be told when we got back, you know.
Can I just ask you, how did you approach your father?
Look. you’ve been married to Mum now for – I’m twenty-three and you’ve been married for eighteen months longer than that. If you’ve had a fling can you get rid of it. He said, No. I love the girl. She wasn’t much older than me, you know.
And so it didn’t work out.
Can you maybe expand a little on the story of who she was and where he had met her?
Well yes. She was a manageress of what they call the lodge or the swimming pool at Yanchep. He was carting the gear up to Yanchep and the supplies and everything. He used to pick her up and give her a ride out and a ride back.
The romance developed, you know. I got back to ship and found out that a few marriages had broken up. Even chaps onboard. But the ones onboard it was their own wives through, I think, American servicemen. They must have got lonely and the American servicemen were buying a lot of chocolates and things.
How did you counsel your mother?
I couldn’t really. I wasn’t worldly wise enough to do it. I just said, right I’ll stick with you Mum and if you need any financial help for anything just give us a yell, you know. She was devastated.
Was she still in the home with your father when you came home?
Yes. She was. Even when I got home at the end of the war. But she got involved in what they called Euchre parties.
That was cards in town. Euchre parties were non gambling. I don’t know whether you play cards.
I’ve heard of uca. I can’t remember how to play it though.
It’s a friendly sort of game. That’s all. I don’t know how to play it either but apparently you play and you keep moving up the table as you win or moving down as you loose and that and they used to run a lot of them in Perth.
So she found some entertainment
Well she didn’t drink or anything but she started smoking at that time. She lived till four months off a hundred.
That’s a good innings.
Yes. We were really long livers in our family.
You mentioned that you and your brother are the longest living out of the group that you hung about with?
Yes. He’s a young bloke. He’s only seventy-seven. There was a brother in between us and he died but he was an alcoholic.
He went through Tobruk when he was seventeen and he was a prisoner of war in Germany but I think he just drank himself to death. The rest of us are still alive and I think he baby is seventy-two this year. So Shirley has a lot to put up with.
Well we should just jump back to the leave
– it came to an end.
I went back to the ship. The ship was ready to go into dockyard hands because it had to be rebuilt. It was in dock for fifteen or eighteen months after that. And then I got a draft to the old Stuart, which was in Townsville, so I took the train from Sydney and got as far as Brisbane and then the train from Brisbane to Townsville was a type with just seats
across like the present day trains and that. With softer seats and a ling isle down the centre between the seats. And there were a lot of troops onboard. We got to one place up the track, Bundaberg I suppose and there was only one tap on the station and we all had to line up and turn the water on and wash your face and hands.
Nothing to dry on and another train went through the town – These are things coming back to me. It went right up to the main street of the town and the people used to stand up on the footpaths and wave to the troops and the dogs would follow the train barking. So when we got into Townsville I got put on to the old Stuart relieving another chappie.
I think I was relieving a leading hand so the coxswain, his is the chief policeman onboard of a destroyer is a coxswain. It is a master at arms on a cruiser and he says, “Right you’re the leading hand in a mess.” But coming in as an AB [Able Seaman] and being put in charge of sixteen other blokes is. I passed my exams and got it.
What exams did you have to sit?
Leading seaman’s and seamanship.
What is involved in those exams?
First of all signalling. You’ve got to read Morse code on a light at six words a minute. You’ve got to know Semaphore, waving your arms around signalling. You’ve got to know a certain amount of flags, wire splicing, what they call rules of the road. Knowing the lights above ships and what to give way to and that if you are out on a motor boat. And what ships have got to give way to you.
That’s called rules of the road. What else was there? Boat handling. You had to go away sailing and be able to handle a boat. A little big of first aid in case somebody got hurt or something while you are in a boat. So I got through that exam alright. What else?
Where abouts did you do your exams?
the Stuart came down to Sydney for a boiler clean and we went over to Rushcutters Bay. We first of all did all the sailing up in the Islands sailing with an officer onboard seeing you could handle a boat and how to handle a boat. The rules of road and the Morse code and all that was done at Sydney. Now I was very happy. About twelve of us went across and I topped the class.
I was probably older than some of the other blokes but I was very happy.
So you were taken a nice promotion?
I was made a leading hand.
Did that soften the fact that you’d left the Hobart?
Oh well no because the Hobart was going into dockyard hands to be worked on. There was nothing worse than working on a ship with all the hammering going on all the time.
Even if at wartime they were working twenty-four hours a day on it and with the hammering and riveting going on it was hard to sleep. You come down for a refit the boiler cleaners have a lot of noise going on. But when we came back – We are digressing a little bit but when we came back form Singapore and Java they put a new – We used to have the degaussing cable right around the top of the ship.
They decided to put them down through all the mess decks, along the ships side. There’s one chap there a dockyard worker, a dockyard matie, they were civilians. He used to bring snaps aboard. He didn’t do much work but we used to go down to the electrical workshops and sample the snaps every day. We were all in a bit of a daze. I mean I could tell it now but you couldn’t tell it in the navy day, you know. And I should have had more
principle about me and made sure that chap did his work or make him do his work. He probably wouldn’t have taken much notice of me and if you looked sideways at them they would go on strike. Even during war years. There was a lot of strikes on with the coal miners and the dockies and the wharf loaders and so on.
I’ve heard a few stories about the wharfie not loading or unloading supplies.
Yes. I know. They put the troops in the wharves
at one time even though it was a labour government and they were supposed to be sticking up for them Certain put the troops in.
So Tom, you’ve got your sea time and you’ve got your tickets and you’re a leading hand aboard the Stuart. What sort of ship is the Stuart?
It was a flotilla leader built in 1918. It was a V &W [class] destroyer. She was one of the scrap iron flotilla in the Mediterranean and she was in the Battle of Matapan too, which the Perth
was in the Mediterranean. And I joined it in Townsville and we were doing the run up to New Guinea escorting. We’d go from Milne Bay, which is on the end of New Guinea, up to Madang escorting ships and that, you know. No action on that one. We only had one
what was supposed to have been a submarine attack. We dropped depth charges and a whole lot of fish came to the surface. They reckon there was no sub there so they scooped up the fish. There is nothing worse than depth charged fish. They’ve got no taste. I don’t know what it does to the tissues of the fish but you couldn’t eat them.
That’s a pity.
How many convoys would you hade done up that route?
Look, I just wouldn’t know.
See you’d come back to the harbour and you might stay in harbour for a couple of day and then you’d do another convoy, you know.
Many. I was only up there till the – I joined it in October and I was only on it until the following April. So it wasn’t a long length of time. There were a couple of air raid alarms but nothing near us.
And you were based in Townsville?
We were based in Milne Bay.
Can you describe the harbour at Milne Bay?
It was a very big harbour with a couple of ships laying on their sides. One thing that did intrigue me there was tropical waters where you would think there would be a lot of sharks. Some American troop ships came in, many of them negroes and they all had their life vests on, which they had to wear and you could see them just floating round. All these floating heads
bobbing up and down in the water and I wasn’t came to go in the water because of sharks and that, you know.
And there they were swimming in the water?
Trying to keep cool.
Did you see the airstrip there?
No I didn’t. I didn’t go ashore there. There was nothing to go ashore for. No canteen, no nothing see. This was ’43/’44.
So how was your time spent when you
were sitting in harbour there?
Just sitting on the ship. Working on the ship, there was work that had to be done.
Was there a fuel depot there?
We used to get it from tankers, fuel tankers. But one job we had there was taking charts out to incoming ships. Ships coming from America and that we’d have to take charts out. See the entrance to Milne Bay was called
China Straits, and we’d take charts out to the ships. And one day we collided with a shipside on. We went too close to it and bang. We were having lunch or dinner and I thought we’d been torpedoed again because there was the terrific bang and I was on the upper deck quickly but the other blokes laughed at me, you know. They hadn’t been torpedoed.
What had caused the accident?
What caused the collision? We’d go alongside a merchant ship and throw a heaving line over and then put a bag on it and put the charts along for the China Straits to get in to Milne Bay. And our captain just came in, either he or the merchant ship just veered into each other. You know. A nice old Jar and a bang and boy did
I leave that mess deck quickly. Because our mess deck was one deck below. It was on the waterline, see.
How long did you spend on anchor in Milne Bay.
You might do two or three days at a time, you might do one day. There’s no set time, you know. When the signals went to go you went.
How did you fill in time?
Well I suppose just writing letters, talking, reading.
I was doing a – no I’m sorry at that time I was doing a correspondence course on motor mechanics and I had started an apprenticeship before the war and was doing a lot of studying and trying to brush up for when I came outside.
Were a lot of people doing those sorts of correspondence courses?
On the Stuart I think there was only about three or four of us.
That’s fairly studious of you.
Well I had one thought. I was going to last the war out, I was going to see it out and I just wanted to be semi prepared for when I came out.
Do you think that many men were thinking about preparation for after the war?
I don’t think so. They had dreams. There was a lot of dreams going on. What we are going to do after the war. Most of them were going to buy a pub or a shop in a movie theatre, you know.
I will only work a few hours a week and then get my car out and go to golf attitude. Fantasising.
Were you a realist?
I think I was and I got though a lot of the courses and got through them.
I’m just trying to think of anything untoward on the Stuart. She was an old rust bucket and to climb up on the bridge you had to go up the vertical ladders. You were climbing up when it was very rough and you had the spray and everything. It was a completely open bridge. The Sydney and Hobart had roofs, I suppose you call it a roof, a deck head over the bridge and you were covered in. You were dry but with the Stuart you were
soaking wet half the time. You were living in wet clothes.
That sounds a bit rough?
Well you got an extra sixpence a day, that’s five cents, for what they call hard laying.
Well that’s some consolation I suppose.
Well the most you could get was one and six a day and the only ones that got that was on the coal burning minesweepers. Because the coal ship
and there was always coal dust in everything, in their food and in their clothes. They got one and six a day. That was three glasses of beer a day.
It’s interesting. Everything equates to beer.
Well talking to someone of your vintage you wouldn’t know what sixpence could buy you. You don’t know what value it was. Well sixpence a day is a glass of beer.
While you were in Milne Bay where abouts were the convoys taking you?
We would bring the convoys in to Milne Bay. It was a fairly big bay and mostly it was troop ships. By the way they weren’t big convoys. Big convoys didn’t come through the China Straits. They were mostly single ships or two ships. Some didn’t stop at Milne Bay. Some went around to Madang and Gona further up
the coast and then we’d escort them up there, take them up there.
What did you see on those convoys?
Nothing very much. Just a lot of land. Because we were always very close. We might only have been two or three miles off the shore. That was a monotonous part. I said previously it is ninety-nine percent monotony and one percent fear in the navy.
How long were you doing those convoys?
Well I joined the Stuart in October and I left it the following April in Sydney when she was going to be converted into a store carrying ship. They were going to take out boilers and make holes. She was an escort ship at that time but they turned her into a store ship.
So she came back to Australia?
Yes. She came back to Australia in April and I went down to Melbourne to what they called the M class pool for M class destroys. But we had two more modern destroyers called Qs. The Quiberon and the Quickmatch. Have you done anyone who was on a Quiberon or a Quickmatch? They were modern fleet destroyers and going from the Stuart to the Quiberon it like going from a doss house to the flashiest hotel in Perth.
You know, the Hyatt [Hotel] or something like that. Beautiful ships, clean, tons of room.
Had they only just been built?
It was built in forty-two and this was forty-four. Two years old. We had two Qs the Quiberon and the Quickmatch. Still an open bridge but everything
was more modern on it. Good cooking facilities and laundry facilities. Plenty of hot and cold water.
All the mod cons [modern conveniences] .
On the old Stuart there were no showers. There were six washbasins for the seamen and four washbasins for the stokers. So we all had buckets and they had what they called a geezer, which the hot water
thing. And the old chief stoker used to ration out hot water. About a quarter full of hot water and the rest cold water per day. So you stood up on the iron deck and washed yourself all over and then wet yourself. But you were in the tropics and you were sweating all day. On the Quiberon you could go and have ten showers a day if you wanted one but the amount of fresh water they made. See ships made their own fresh water.
Distilled. The old Stuart, no. The chief stoker reckon he payed for the water the way he rationed it out.
It does sound much more comfortable onboard the Qs? What kind of work were you doing onboard the Qs?
I was on the torpedoes for a while, depth charges for three months and then electrical, what they call fire control tables where you control the firing of guns.
And that was very interesting.
Can you go into a bit more detail and describe that work?
The fire control or what?
The more interesting work.
Torpedoes. Now what we would do was that when we came into harbour we had ten torpedoes. I was with another party, another man, on five only. And another team on the other five. When we came
Into harbour you’d open the back of the tubes up, one tube and pull the torpedo half out, or a quarter out. And then you’d have to do a routine on it. Checking the giros, lubricating all the bits and pieces on the thing and then checking the amount of fuel in case it had leaks or anything. And then they would be replaced and if you had enough time
you’d check the second one. They had air pressure to check air pressure which was three thousand two hundred pounds per square inch . When we came back to Sydney we had to land one torpedo that wasn’t operating as well as it should be and we had to let the air out of it and because air from three thousand two-fifty pounds, as the
air was being released through the big nozzle it all frosted up. There was all ice around it because that’s how refrigeration works too. If you hold your mouth wide open and blow on yourself it’s hot but if you close your lips and blow you’ll feel it cool. Because there is a restricted space with the air blowing out of it there was ice all around. But we had to take the air out of it before they sent that torpedo to shore to the workshops.
If there was something wrong you haven’t got the facilities onboard a destroyer to deal with it but on the cruiser you have a torpedo workshop where the torpedos could also be carried. There is one spare torpedo on the cruisers and there were four either side. So if you pulled one out for working on you replaced it with the spare.
What kind of operations
were you doing on the Q’s?
Fleet escort with the far eastern fleet first out of Trincomalee. Then escorting ships round to Bombay and Colombo and that was quite good because we saw a bit of civilization. The
Trincomalee, there wasn’t a big canteen there, only a village. But you couldn’t swim there because at the entrance to Trincomalee two stop frogmen coming in to put [UNCLEAR] mines on a ship. Although often they had a motorboat going dropping small five pound chargers over. And often if you were swimming you’d get a belt in the backside, you know.
You’d feel it through the water. So that we couldn’t swim in the bay but there was a big swimming bathes ashore. Now depth charges – one of our main functions too being escort duties and detecting submarines we’d have to go and detect them so you had to drop a pattern of ten depth charges and they had to be ready at all times see. So we’d have
one, two, three, four , six. A leading hand and six torpedomen on depth charges all the time. We didn’t have to have torpedomen. You could have seamen two helping you to load and unload. But we never ever struck a submarine. I was hoping I would because being the leading hand on there I was hoping to get a – The leading hand always got a decoration for sinking a submarine. Like a distinguished conduct medal or a distinguished service medal.
We were unlucky not to get one.
So the Indian was a little more volatile than when you’d previously sailed through the Indian Ocean?
No. I never – In the Bay of Bengal between Colombo and Sumatra we did a bombardment there on the Car Nicobar Islands because the Japanese had airfields on there.
The whole fleet went in and covered us including a big French battle ship. I can’t remember which one it was now. It might have been the Dunkirk but it was a big battler. Our own battle ship was the KGV, King George V or the Howe.
Can you describe that day? How you completed that bombardment?
I didn’t see it. I was on damage control again so I was sitting down on one of the mess decks with my tool bag waiting to get hit. The only thing I heard was we did run over a minefield but we were lucky they were set deeper for big ships. Otherwise I mightn’t have been here today to tell you. But when you become a torpedoman and an electrical you get different action stations and sometimes in a big battle
you could be on the torpedo tubes or if it’s an anti submarine attack you’re on depth charges or a straight out bombardment where you don’t use your torpedoes or fish as we call them or your submarines depth charges we were on what was called damage control. And at that time we were on a damage control section.
What equipment did you have in case there was damage done?
Being electrical we had a
tool bag but we had big cables and if the main cables around the ship were damaged we’d run this – like an extension chord. Just like an over sized extension chord. They clipped onto terminal. There were no holes because they had to be sealed but they had terminals coming through like big bolts and you clip them
on to one side and have another set of terminals on the other side. Now the leads were on the other side and these terminals were fixed so that they wouldn’t leek because sometimes you would have to seal off that compartment.
Were there instances where you found yourself having to take that kind of action?
No. I thought we might have in Java and that and
Guadalcanal. That’s where the heavy air raids were see. It is mostly when you got hit by a bomb and damaged that you need this, see. The night when we got hit by the torpedo I wasn’t in the group that was running cables that night because my action station was Y turret which was damaged so I couldn’t do anything. I had to put this
chap, Kingie, who was sleeping next to me, I had to put his body in two body bags. I didn’t feel like doing anything then. Then Bert Hewett – we had this rope holding on to him while he was going through the water. I was kept busy with a couple of things but I had nothing to do as far as the ship being hit, you know. If chappies were killed or something I’ve probably have to slot in but I wasn’t called upon
to do that.
Fortunately. One – When I was on the Hobart for three months I was called a switchboard operator. Now the switchboard from the navy is not answering phones. That’s the telephone exchange. It is a big switchboard controlling all the power on the ship. And so you get a fairly responsible job because you’ve get two
steam dynamos running the whole time supplying the ship and as soon as they start action stations they start up two big diesel generators and then you’ve to split the big main into four sections supplying – two will supply the forward turrets and the forward part of the ship and two will supply the after part. If one got damaged it wouldn’t short out the whole ship. It would only
short out a quarter of the ship and when you went into action stations you had to bring the diesel generators on, split your ring main. You are watching volt metres and amp meters and it’s a real feeling of power. I’m controlling the whole power of the ship, you know.
It sounds like a lot of responsibility.
It was. You could black out the ship very quickly but we were given a lot of instructions on how to handle it and everything.
There’s a sort of thrill because I never ever had that experience or responsibility outside, you know. You know in my outside employment and to have that responsibility made you feel good.
What other action did the Quiberon see, Tom?
Right now we are coming. When.
No Germany hadn’t left. At Christmas time 1944 we escorted the Howe down. She is a very big battle ship, HMS Howe. We escorted her round to Melbourne and we got some leave in Melbourne, overnight leave, and then we got a recall because a ship had been sunk of the New South Wales Coast.
And we went to sea with about half our ships company. Out of a hundred and sixty we only had about eighty onboard. We were in almost permanent watches, you know. It was supposed to be two on and two off but when we got to the scene of the sinking another destroyer had already picked up the survivors. It turned out to be a German submarine across from New Zealand where they tried to get the shipping there. And you are talking about action. Have we covered the early part
of where – when you were filming us in the beginning and I was giving a quick rundown of the whole of my story was that being filmed? Oh so I won’t repeat it.
That’s OK. We can go over it now? It is flowing well.
Well we went to Sydney and we took the New Zealand minister for air over to New Zealand. We had four days there, which was great.
This is after you took the Howe to Melbourne?
Yes. And we went
up to Sydney, took the minister for air. I don’t know why we had to run him across but he was our passenger. It was the Quiberon and Quickmatch. And then we came back to Hobart and had a day there. And filled the whole tiller float up, which is a big compartment where the rudder engine is. We filled it with cartons of beer. That is the first time I saw beer in cardboard cartons.
So they filled that up out of the canteen trust fund. And then we went across to Albany.
Was there a big booze up [drinking alcohol] ?
No. It was while the boys were ashore while we got some leave. They gave four hours leave to each watch. That was enough to get tanked.
Where did you get tanked?
Where in Hobart?
I can’t remember. it was just the afternoon. I suppose the pub wasn’t far from the wharf because we weren’t going to waste drinking time having a look around, you know.
Wasn’t too far to stagger back to the ship.
I didn’t get that drunk that I staggered. Just merry. But a lot of people there were saying, “Would you like to come home for tea and that?” You couldn’t say you were sailing because you only got four hours leave, you know. Then we went across to Albany
and had a couple of days there.
What did you do in those couple of days?
Got some leave, got two days leave. Went to Perth
Are you going to say, “Got tanked again?”
Got two days leave and while we were there there was a big firing on the Fremantle wharf. Fremantle Wharf. I don’t know if you’ve read about that or heard about that.
One of the veterans mentioned that there was a big fire on water from a fuel spill or something. Was it the same fire?
No. This was the actual wharf.
And then we sailed right out southwest to meet the London. A ship coming down from, I don’t know where it was coming from. It had the Duke of Gloucester and his wife and family. He was the new Governor General for Australia so we brought him around to Sydney before we got into Sydney
we had to put our best uniforms on. Gold badges and all. They were nicely pressed and put away. And we had to all stand up on the folk sail and steam up fairly fast past the ship that was bringing the Duke of Gloucester out and give him three rowdy cheers. You know. We were all wet and miserable. Our good suits were wet and when the word came over the loud speaker for three cheers for his majesty
not one sound came form the boys. They waved their hats because people could see us and they couldn’t prove we didn’t. We got a roasting from that too.
What did the captain say?
He said it was lack of respect and disloyalty.
Were you punished?
They couldn’t punish us much. And so I thought we’ll be able to tell our friends
that we took the Duke of Gloucester in but when we got in they didn’t give us any leave that night.
Interviewee: Thomas Fisher Archive ID 1236 Tape 09
We have just come back and just started to roll again so where are you now.
I was on the Quiberon, a Q class destroyer. We were attached to what they called the fourth destroyer flotilla and it was all Q class ships. The Quadrant the Quality, the Quickmatch equivalent, the Quiberon, etc.
Only two were manned by Australians – Actually the ships were owned by England, the Royal Navy but they were sailed by Australians. The Quiberon and the Quickmatch, the others were all run by English sailors. We left Sydney with the whole pacific fleet and went up to a place called Manus, just above New Guinea and did
exercises ready for the landing at Okinawa. But we were going out one day and it was the supply officer onboard. It was his fault. He hadn’t picked up his supplies. We were going to get them when we came back into harbour but we didn’t come back in to harbour. We carried on up to a bay of islands called Ulithi. It was a big American base.
Some of the invasion fleet was there and all you could see from horizon to horizon was ships. We were told that there were more ships in the invasion of Okinawa than what there was in Normandy in D Day. There were a lot there. So Sunday – I think it was the fifth of April 1945 I think, the landing was on at Okinawa.
We were a long way out because we were Tail End Charlies [last to leave] for the carriers. Our job was that if a plane landed in the water from the carriers we’d have to race over and pick up the pilots. That is called Tail End Charlie. One day we picked up seven pilots, four with broken legs. At least we picked them up and then we’d get back to
And then we’d get them back to the carriers. I think – That’s when we ran out of supplies. We had tinned potatoes. Dehydrated. You had to mix them with fresh water to thicken them up. All we had left was green peas, dehydrated potatoes and egg powder. No meat, nothing. And I had a book onboard that had been given to me called the CWA, Country Women’s Association,
cook book. So with the flower and powdered eggs and that, no baking powder or anything, I was making cakes. We were out of sugar so there was no sugar in there so it was just dehydrated eggs and flour. The boys were eating them. Other days they wouldn’t even look at them, you know.
It had no taste in it. It was just packing but we were hungry. We ate the canteen out of chocolate, there was no biscuits left and things were getting desperate so they dispatched us down to the Philippines to a place called Tacloban. It was a big base and we got American supplies and the first and only fresh or frozen meat that came aboard was liver.
I didn’t like liver as a kid. I wouldn’t eat it but boy it tasted beautiful. It was the nicest thing I’d ever tasted. We had been starving for meat and that. We used to get a bottle of beer a day there and it was my twenty-fourth birthday so I saved up four bottles and had a king sized hangover the next day. Got there. We went back to the
landing at Okinawa.
How much of that invasion could you actually see from where you were?
None. Because we stood out to sea behind the carriers and the carriers are flying off planes doing bombarding. And you’d see the planes coming back damaged and they were trying to land on the carriers and they’d miss the arresting wire and go over the side and the pilots,
the pilots bailed out quickly and sometimes they’d catch fire as they landed on the thing. You’d see a great flare flare up and five people pushing all the foam out, you know. Some of the Japs came over and we used to sit on our torpedo tubes and watch the dogfights, you know. But the Americans were good. They were shooting those Japs down. Some aeroplanes got shot down.
That must have been exciting to watch.
Yeah. Better than being home working in the garden.
And we weren’t. I think another six weeks there and in June we came down to Sydney for a refit. Or a boiler clean actually because of the boilers.
So how long were you actually in Okinawa?
From April to June. From 5 April till we got back to Sydney on 20 June, so that period.
Going up from Sydney and back was about a ten-day trip either way. And in coming through the tropics the things that did stick in my mind coming down were the Milky Way and the southern cross. They were brilliant. Well you see there was no haze or nothing around and it was a beautiful haze, you know. And you could see the Southern Cross right up to the Equator when it was on the Equator. I worked out crossing the Equator about
forty times. See in the old days to cross the Equator was a big ceremony and things but we didn’t do it during wartime. You can’t count crossing the Equator nowadays, because people on passenger airliners are doing it every day and things. And so when I got back to Sydney I was put on another. We were going to fumigate the ship to get rid of cockroaches.
So they fumigated – They had to close it right down and people on leave and we tied up right beside the Nizam destroyer so we had to sleep on that.
Did you have a cockroach problem?
Why is that?
I don’t know. The old Stuart was held together with rust and cockroaches. And also blackouts
during the – See on the Hobart one night they used to make what they call Ky and it was unsweetened chocolate. Very thick, very nice, but laced with tons of sugar. Then it becomes sweetened chocolate. It is spelled K-Y. And you put in plenty
of unsweetened milk, ideal milk but the problem is little cockroaches get into the milk, you see. I heard of an officer on one ship complaining of a cockroach and the captain said, “Oh men. The good lord gave you teeth to act as strainers.” Of course everybody laughed. You had to laugh at what the captain said.
Well that was reasonably witty?
This officer said, “Well I’m not used to it, sir.” “You’ll have to get used to it, you know.”
The officers just been made and come to the ship and a real rookie, you know. Oh anyway with the Quiberon being – I was put on the Nizam to sleep there overnight and previously the Nizam had rolled over on it’s side down at Leeuwin. Have you struck that one yet? And they lost eleven men.
The ship had done an eighty-two degree roll and there’s been a lot of controversy about this but since I was an electrician when I went onboard the Nizam they showed me the battery. It was about that high, about two-foot six off the ground and the acid had run out of the battery and hit the bulk head on the side. So they measured that up and the distance and worked out an eighty-two degree roll, which was on the side. That was the Nizam.
Then I was sent down to Flinders Naval Depot to do a seven months course. They called it leading torpedo operator which is an advanced electrical course. And while I was down there the war ended.
How did you find out that news that the war had ended?
It came over the radios. So they opened the canteen and – but it didn’t hit me that night but the next day was 15 August. The next day, the weekend,
I was going up to Sydney and it hit me that the war’s finished and I’m still alive. I’ve come through it. You know. And I thought that’s the greatest relief going.
What was the general reaction from the other men you were with, when they found out the war was over?
Relief, I think, and a lot of the married men were saying, “I’m going to put in to get out straight away, you know.” I didn’t want to
get out of the navy straight away. I was getting good pay and good conditions and I was ready to go out when they put me out, you know.
You were getting some quite good training too.
Yeah. That’s true. I finished the course, the seven months course then. And part of the course was operating a cinema. And now the next thing I came out of the navy and in 1951
the war broke out in Korea.
Hang on a second before you go there. You’re just going a bit fast for me. So what did you do after the war ended and after you finished your course?
I was discharged on 20 July 1946. That is I had six weeks short of seven years in the navy and
I went back to finish off an apprenticeship but the people I had been working for had closed down. So I went up and saw the local garage chappie and said that repatriation. It was repat in those days, Now it’s Veterans’ Affairs said they’d make my pay up to full pay because I had already done two years before the war and I was going to finish up the next three years on full pay. So I thought I’d better have something.
As I was being discharged another chap said look what about doing a brick-laying course because I think there’s going to be a building boom. A lot of people want houses and everything.
That’s good thinking.
Yeah. I was a bit cunning for him. So what I did was I found out the weight of a brick. It was nine pounds and I thought I worked it out that I’ve got to work another forty years. Twenty-five
plus forty is sixty-five in those day. There was only two weeks holiday in those days. I thought I’ve got to work the number of weeks and the number of years and a good brickie In those days was laying about five hundred bricks a day. And I thought now all those days I’m going to bend down and I’m going to pick up five hundred bricks a day and it worked out roughly five million bricks I was going to bend down, pick up,
and I thought no. That’s too hard for me.
You certainly approached it with a bit of logic.
Yes. It worked out roughly about five million bricks. I thought no. That’s no good. I wouldn’t have a back left by then. I went back and got a job in a garage as an apprentice. Just before the apprenticeship finished –
You were an apprentice mechanic?
Yes. A mechanic. I sat for the
motor mechanics institute exams and I was only an apprentice and sixteen sat for the exam and six got through. I got through on my electrical experience form the navy and what I had learned in the navy. Then I found out later that I shouldn’t have been allowed to sit for it because apprentices couldn’t sit for it. I thought to myself well I’m working in a garage, it’s dirty and Greece and I don’t want this for a lifetime job. So I went to the RAC [Royal Automobile Club] ,
and I saw the chief engineer and told him my experiences electrical and everything and he said, “Can you start on Monday?” I said, “No. I’ve still got a month to go to finish my apprenticeship.” So the apprenticeship was up and I started that day and I was there for forty years.
Well that worked out very well for you.
Yeah. But I was only a patrolman, going around starting cars for fourteen months and then they promoted me to
a training assessor, which is a collar and tie job.
What does that involve?
Working for the claims department. Looking at damaged cars. Mostly writing up reports for damaged cars and that. I thought well I want some advancement and I went up to the technical school and they were starting a new course, a diploma in management.
I said, “Can I enrol?” They said, “Have you got your leaving certificate?” “No.” “Are you a senior manager?” “No”. “Well you’re out. You’ve got to have a leaving certificate to do a diploma course.” So I said well where I go from here. They said well we have got a course running for leaving certificates next year. It’s only four units but you’ve got to get the four units. I did it and got them.
What were the units?
English, psychology one, statistics one, and not accountancy but financial principals one. So I got through the first year. Out of eighteen who sat the exam five got through.
Then I got admitted into the course. And of the six of us that began with the leaving five of us graduated four years later. So I only had the diploma for about a month when I was made chief clerk at work. And a couple of years later I was made claims manager, you know.
So how did your job change from doing reports with
damaged cars and over the next years how did your job change?
Running and office. I ended up running and office with seventy staff. It had its ups and downs. Especially with some cantankerous girls.
We only had a couple that had mental problems I think and I didn’t know it or realize it. One girl did her block one day and just got a hold to the type writer and
with the ball type typewriters came in and she just slammed it off the end of her desk onto the floor. And the boss was walking through and he says, “Righteo, lass. Get your pay. You’re finished.” There was no warnings in those days or anything.
Oh, fair enough.
I don’t know what happened. She seemed to have an argument with somebody but it was a beautiful new typewriter. I don’t know what they call the ball type typewriters.
Were they electric ones?
Yes. But instead of the fingers they had a ball.
Yeah. I know what you are talking about. I used to work on one of those things.
And then the boss kept me on as claims manager until I was sixty-six and two months.
What did you enjoy most about that job?
I think the happiest job I ever had was a patrolman out of the road fixing cars. Well I left a dirty garage
where I was always getting filthy. In that job I was clean and the only thing that got dirty were my hands. I was clean, uniform provided and a slightly prestigious job. Not highly paid. You got a couple more pounds a year than a mechanic got. But I was happy and then of course my job carried a car and a managerial status so I was happy. Also
I was sent on two overseas trips. One to England, to Lloyds of London to report on our claims experience, which I went to Ireland. Two other chaps from work came with me. The boss said three of us from company. We went to England for ten days, Paris, Switzerland, Germany, Venice, Rome, Hong Kong and home.
I was away six weeks both times. The second time was to America. America, England, Norway, Denmark, Greece, Hong Kong and home. But we were visiting the automobile association equivalent to the RAC. They’d wine and dine us and that.
So you managed to do a bit of travelling in style and not even have to pay for it.
And plus spending money given to use as well. And also every two years I’d be sent to the Eastern States to the NRMA [National Roads and Motorists’ Association] , which is our eastern counterpart. When we were going to go on to computers at work the boss sent me to Brisbane because they had just installed their computers. I know nothing about it. I can’t spell the word but anyway. But I found out later from another manager
that he said, “I’m sending Fisher over there because he’s got a daughter over there and he hadn’t seen her for a while.” So I didn’t learn much about computers because it is way beyond me. I didn’t even know how to type on a keyboard. We’d go to Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, they sent us to Hobart once, Adelaide. So I had a lot of travelling. They sent Shirley with me twice so –
It sounds like they treated you pretty well. Did you miss the navy at all?
Did I miss the navy? Very much so because when I left a lot of chaps from round the place there was not one of them in the district. See it was a very small district and there was not one left that I could go out with or have a drink with. They were either all married or
they had been killed during the war or they moved to other states, you know.
How hard was it to get resettled?
Extremely hard for me. My parents had split up so every night I used to go down to the pub after work. I was also going to – The government used to pay for different courses so I did a welding course and a woodworking course. Which I wasn’t very good at.
And then I thought I was going to learn the piano. Mum had a piano at home. After a couple of months, Mrs McLean said, “Look, Mr Fisher. Can I give you some advice? You’re wasting your time. You’re tone deaf and you’ll never be able to play.” “Good. I’m out of this.”
Oh dear. Sport and piano not done well. So were you doing quite a bit of drinking at this stage?
Too much, every night. I would have quite a few drinks after work and then I would go home and have some tea and go back down to the pub.
Were you going there with some of your mates?
No. I’d meet some of them down at the pub because mostly ex-servicemen were all drinking. We couldn’t get settled, you know.
So it was a pretty common sort of a problem?
How about the stress reactions to loud noises, is that still with you?
Well there was the noises too and sometimes if the phone rings I’ll jump out of my skin. But that’s about the only thing. I don’t think I’m worried unduly with nerves or anything now although they give me a pension for nerves. When I had to go and see the head shrinker he said, “What is the last time you were upset?”
“Sitting in your ruddy waiting room.” He had this ruckus music going on with drums beating and that. He said, “It won’t be there when you go out.” When I came out there was soft music like waltzing music. I think he must have done it intentionally. But I was ready to tell the receptionist to turn it off, you know.
Do you ever have any bad dreams after all the –
Not now. I did for a long while after the war and
my mother said I used to moan and groan in my sleep and honeymoon we went to Caves House in Yallingup and there was a blackout because the lights used to be turned off at ten o’clock. Suddenly this big bomb went off in the room. This is 1951, five years after I had come out of the navy. A bomb went off and a great flash. I was out of bed running and I hit the wall and fell over. Poor old Shirley was terrified.
She wondered what she had married.
It is to be expected really isn’t it? You were going to mention something about the Korean war and then I rewound you. What happened in the 1950s with the – ?
Oh I joined the naval reserves. No sorry. I got a letter from Navy Board asking me would I come back as an instructor in the reserves for two nights a week. I had a talk to Shirley and I thought well you get
paid for it so I went back and I did three years and that’s the time that my course started at tech and I did a diploma so I bailed out. But the queen was out here in 1954 and I did a trip to Cocos Islands. We were escorting the Royal Yacht away and then
we were taking fuel off the Vengeance, a big carrier and we came in too close and the carrier rolled over. There was a gaping hole in the side of the Bataan the destroyer I was on. They detached us and sent us to Darwin, which was the closest, and we did a pit of patching up. And then we left the Bataan and they sent us back on a corvette, the Junee to Fremantle and then I paid off.
A bit of an unlucky kind of thing going on there. You said that you did miss the mateship. What does the mateship actually mean to you?
I think it meant a lot. Not homosexual or anything like that. You said mateship didn’t you? You got a special mate and he looked after you and I looked after him, in the navy,
You see. You used to call him your oppose. Your opposite number. You’d do anything for them and they’d do anything for you. They used to keep you out of trouble and things like that. Definitely no homosexual tendencies or anything like that but because there was no women you had to have a permanent friend, someone to look after you. And when you first go in the navy an older sailor will look after you, teach you the ropes, watch you and make sure you wash yourself properly
and that your gear was nice and clean. And they used to be called ‘sea daddies’. And I had an old chap looking after me. He was very good too. He pulled me out of the coals a few times and told me to smarten up occasionally. They took a personal – He was an old married man and he had a son as old as me. He was an old able seaman too. He was never promoted.
But he made certain that I studied and looked after myself. They were called sea daddies. Very clean. Nothing wrong about it but just somebody to look after you. That’s been something in the navy for time immemorial that sea daddies look after the younger blokes.
Do you think that’s where some of the homosexual intimations come from?
No. I only struck one homosexual in the navy.
He was an officers cook but he didn’t last very long because they didn’t have them in the navy. They put them out.
When you came back from the war did people notice that your stress levels had changed?
Well I think my mother did but she didn’t say anything about it. But she told my sister, who told me just recently, that I used to moan and groan a lot
at night and then I’d get up and walk around. But I thought I slept right through. I didn’t know I was getting up and walking. But I was very bad tempered so something was wrong. Everybody was wrong except me. And then later on in life what happened was I was getting very bad tempered and Shirley said to me one day, “If you don’t go to the doctor I’ll be leaving you.”
I won’t be here whine you get home. I said, “No stay till I get home and I’ll help you to pack.” And so I thought gee I’d better go to the doctor and pride took over. I thought if Shirley leaves what my boss is going to say, what my fellow managers are going to say. “Old Fisher couldn’t hold his wife.” See. So I went to the doctor and I flew in. And I said, “I wish Shirley would mind her own business.” And he said, “Let me be the judge of that.”
He said, “Go to the toilet and give me a sample of urine,” and he pricked my finger. “You’ve got diabetes, you see.” And oh, he said, “Now I’ve got to stop you having a heart attack.” “What’s wrong with my heart?” You know. “There is nothing wrong with your heart, but there will be. You’re going to worry yourself into one.” He put me on to a lot of diets and stabilized me on tablets and within
a month everybody was right and they weren’t wrong at all. You know. I was telling the boss about it one day and he said, “You were a cow to live with.” He said, “That’s why I sent you and Shirley down to Albany for a week.” And when we got down there there was a small bottle of whisky in the thing and a bunch of flowers for Shirley but I didn’t realize I was suffering from that. See, sugar poisons the system.
When I got stabilized I haven’t looked back.
I can’t imagine you being a bad tempered person. So that was basically the problem.
Yes. Sugar and diabetes. But I used to get irritable early in the piece. See customers used to make me very irritable. When they would bring me their cars and want them yesterday, you know. And things like that. I can laugh it off now. I can just say I can’t have it ready but I used to flare up at them.
And the boss said to me one day, “Can you just calm down a bit? Walk away if it is going to upset you.” I didn’t realize but the head shrinker [psychiatrist] I went to was very good. He said, “I’m going to recommend you for a pension, but you should have had it when you came out of the navy.”
How did the so-called headshrinker help you out?
Talking. Telling me what to do and that. A chap called Olli Kay. I don’t know whether you know him.
His office is out in Applecross near canning bridge. I had a couple of sessions with him and repat [repatriation] paid.
Very nice. Was it just about getting out of your system what you had gone to?
He was telling me that if I felt like flaring up just get right away from that person. Just calm yourself down, walk away, and think of something pleasant, that you’ve just won a big lotto
prize or something. I said, “Oh God I might believe it and start promising everybody everything.” But anyhow I think I’ve got over it now. I hope I haven’t upset you people today.
No. You’ve been wonderful. I just wanted to ask you what you usually do for Anzac Day?
I used to go to the marches in town. I loved everybody waving and cheering but
having to stand up for an hour down at the esplanade. It’s not on at the esplanade this year, Langley Park and it is too long and you couldn’t sit down on the grass, it would be damp. If I sat down I wouldn’t be able to get up. So at our local RSL [Returned and Services League] up here we have a little march here and a barbecue breakfast after. We have a couple of plonks and just walk home because it is around the corner. I’m wrapped up in that because I’m the editor
of the newsletter.
Why did you volunteer for that job?
No one else would do it. No what actually happened is another chap that used to be in there said how about doing a newsletter, I can get it done for three thousand dollars a year and I jumped up and said look I think we can get it done cheaper than that because I’m in the Hobart Association. And our secretary types it out and prints it down at the chemist at ten cents a sheet.
and it is much cheaper. I said, “We can do it that way and I’ll give you a hand.” Well a month later the other chap bowed out. He was far too busy with the job. So that was June ninety-five and nine years this June and I’m still going strong. But every year when we have the elections all positions become vacant, president, vice president,
including the editor. But before I can open my mouth everybody says, “Tom again. Tom.”
It looks like you are going to continue on with that one. You said that you were involved with the Hobart association. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
It is a group of old – Because the Hobart had a long life a lot of boys went through on it.
Also includes the other Hobarts. Which had been two other Hobarts and a lot of younger chaps are in it too. And so now and again we meet on the last Thursday of the month at Anzac House. We had some sandwiches and a soft drink. I’m off the beer so I haven’t had a beer for eleven years. I have a whisky and dry.
Well at least you
you are having a drink at some point?
A couple of plonks down the drain at the RSL.
Are you part of any sort of association groups with the Sydney at all?
There is only two of us go into Anzac house now. We meet up with Arthur Bancroft and Clarrie and the four of us sit there and tell lies. No the Sydney faded – I think the Sydney faded out because the chaps that are here served on a lot of other ships
and they belong to the N class association or the Corvette association too.
What do you get out of meeting together with some of these fellows?
Mostly reminiscing about old times. That’s all. And talking generally. We chiack [tease] one another because I tell Arthur Bancroft while you were up in your rest camp on the Burma Railway I was down here chasing the girls and
we just chiack one another.
Play around with the more serious aspects of it. How important was a sense of humour to go through what you went through?
Well I don’t know. I think I was reasonably – On the Hobart I got very irritable and grisly there. I was
a leading hand on the mess. I didn’t have a sea daddy at that time because I was a trained man. But the leading hand in the mess just took me aside one day and said, “Look Tom. Just simmer down, just slow down. You’ve been getting very stroppy lately.” I had to realize that if somebody is noticing it there’s something wrong, you know. But that’s about the time I was getting that medicine for putting on weight and they were treating me for nerves and I didn’t realize it.
So yeah, the nervous disorder affected your sense of humour literally?
Probably Yeah. Which I didn’t know.
Do you think that all the extreme situations that you were in in the navy changed you on a deeper level rather than just nerves?
I feel, are you meaning did I mature more?
I think I matured a lot more.
It also gave me a taste for promotion. Because if I hadn’t been in the navy I think I would have stayed a motor mechanic all my life but when I was in the reserves I passed my petty officer exams too and passing leading seaman exams and torpedo exams too I got a taste for promotion and I think that was a big –
it gave me ambition because I could see that it was there if I tried.
Do you think it changed the way you dealt with other people?
Yes. Because I could see chaps in the navy that were run in for being silly and stuff and I thought if that kid stays in the navy it will be a black mark on his record forever and a day, you know.
When I was a leading hand I never ever ran anyone in. I just took people aside and said, “If you are going to make the navy in your career, slow down. The less trouble you get into now the better it is going to look for you later in life. If you get in too much trouble now you won’t get a petty officer or a leading seaman rate, you know. “But I think it gave me a lot more maturity.” I think that’s what gave me the promotion.
I think that’s what gave me the promotion too at work with the maturity I picked up in the navy.
What was the most enjoyable thing about your war career?
I think being a part of a big organization, being a sailor, wearing a uniform. Being somebody because when I came home on leave a few times or even down to Melbourne everybody made a fuss of me. I’m bragging now. And I think that
if I had stayed outside I would have just been Tom Fisher, you know. But I think with being in the navy, especially in wartime, people, I hoped, looked up to us. I think there came a sense of well being too. The reason being too I got over a very bad attack of the inferiority complex. When I was a kid my father used to say, “God you’re ugly.”
I was a kid with big jug ears and covered in freckles and that gave me an inferiority complex. And I grew out of it in the navy because I think people treated me as an equal.
Well that’s a wonderful –
And I do appreciate that.
Are there any words of wisdom you’d like to share about war with us?
Well not so much war but I’d like to share words
of wisdom to the young chaps who say they can’t get work. Join a service. Join the navy because there’s wonderful opportunities. They’ll teach you a trade and if you do want to stick it out for twenty years you’ll come out with a good pension. Because I know a lot of chaps who had ordinary jobs and that pension and they are living the life of Riley, you know. And I’d recommend the navy especially for anybody.
If they want to join some other service try and get into the administrative section. A lot of people join the army for blood and guts. No. To get out in the field and be a real soldier and a real hero. I don’t recommend that at all. No.
That’s very interesting. Tom, just want to say thank you for talking to us today. You’ve been an absolute delight.
I hope I haven’t bored you too much.
No you haven’t bored us at all.
Don’t keep saying that and worrying about that.
It’s an inferiority complex.
Well get rid of it. You’re too old for it.