- Rosenweig, Paul A.
- History - WW2, Biographies and personal histories
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Tolga, HMAS Coonawarra, HMAS Australia II, HMAS Melville, HMAS Moresby I, HMAS Hobart I, HMAS Swan II, HMAS Adelaide I
- September 2003 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The senior military officer, Major General Allen, similarly opposed the civil resumption of the land occupied by the Navy, and there arose a clear delineation between Abbott/McInnis, the various departmental bureaucrats, and the military. Abbott called the Naval position totally unreasonable and totally beyond post-war requirements, although himself exaggerating Navy’s stance:
‘I must say that I entirely fail to grasp the point that it is essential to hold land and keep it vacant for half a century because it might be required at the end of that time for possible war expansion.’
Following the death of Prime Minister Curtin, the Department of Post-War Reconstruction was created, which caused conflict between the Minister for Post-War Reconstruction and the Minister for the Interior (responsible for the Northern Territory). Cabinet deemed the rebuilding of Darwin to be the responsibility of both departments, so an Inter-Departmental Committee was established, which in turn established a sub-committee, which led to the involvement of the Department of Works and Housing – a stroke of ‘midsummer madness’, according to Abbott. The Department of Works and Housing produced a new Darwin Town Plan in January 1946, which was adopted by Cabinet on 18 January.
Abbott blamed the Navy completely for the failure of the original McInnis Town Plan, opposing its intention to construct a Naval barracks where Abbott himself wanted to build an impressive civic centre. In a letter Tozer accused Abbott of ‘. . . acting like a bosom companion to his face, and writing letters which were absolutely untrue behind his back.’ Abbott departed the Territory in May 1946, and Tozer’s appointment with HMAS Melville ceased on 11 December 1946. The next Administrator, Arthur Driver, oversaw the reconstruction of Darwin but for various bureaucratic reasons little happened and by 1950 there had still been practically no progress.
The Naval occupation of the land on the toe of the Darwin Peninsula, seaward from Bennett Street to the wharf was finally ended – not by Canberra or the Northern Territory Administration but instead by nature. On 25 December 1974, Cyclone Tracy destroyed both the Coonawarra Transmitting Station and the main buildings of Naval Headquarters, HMAS Melville. At the height of the storm, Captain Eric Johnston OBE (NOCNA) and three of his staff were trapped under collapsing debris; Johnston then led the Navy’s clean-up effort, for which he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia. HMAS Melville was decommissioned on 21 August 1975, and a rebuilt HMAS Coonawarra became the centre of Naval activity in the Top End. The damaged buildings of HMAS Melville stood vacant for nearly six years before a contract was awarded to restore the structure to its original appearance.
At the end of 1981, on the seventh anniversary of Cyclone Tracy, the rebuilt courthouse/Naval Headquarters was officially opened by the Chief Minister. As Naval Headquarters at the end of the war, these buildings had figured prominently in the dispute between the Administrator (Abbott) and the RAN (Tozer) over occupation of the lands between Bennett Street and the wharf. In documenting the history of town planning in Darwin, Eve Gibson observed: ‘Given the history of the disputed area, there is some irony in the fact that the building now serves as the office of the Administrator of the Northern Territory.’
That the buildings were rebuilt to be the new Administrator’s Office may indeed be ironic. But a greater irony perhaps lies in the fact that the first occupant of the rebuilt facility was one who had been the senior naval officer in Darwin and occupant of Admiralty House, as had Tozer – Commodore Eric Johnston AM OBE, appointed as the thirteenth Administrator of the Northern Territory.
I would like to acknowledge the following people who gave assistance or permission to reproduce material: Captain Bill Cook LVO RAN (Retd.), Mr. Fred Cooper, The Right Honourable Sir Zelman Cowen, Mr. Vic Gibson, Ms. Jeanne Isles (WA Genealogical Society Inc.), Mr. Bob Turner and Mr. Brett Mitchell (Naval History Directorate).
(The original text of this article included 36 footnotes. These were omitted from the printed edition of the Review due space considerations. Please contact the Society for further details.)