- A.N. Other and NHSA Webmaster
- RAN operations, Naval history
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Platypus, HMAS Cerberus, HMAS Marguerite, HMAS Protector, HMAS Latrobe, HMAS Yarra II, HMAS Vampire I, HMAS Tattoo, HMAS Gladstone I
- December 1982 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Flinders Naval Depot – The Cradle of the RAN
ONE RESULT OF THE FAMOUS HENDERSON REPORT of 1910 was the establishment of a naval depot at Crib Point, Victoria. Originally intended to be a fleet base, it was eventually commissioned as a training depot, under the name of HMAS Cerberus, and as such still functions as the RAN’s prime training establishment.
The name Cerberus had been borne by the depot at Williamstown, Victoria, the name ship being the old turret ship herself. On transfer to Crib Point, the name was transferred to the old South Australian cruiser Protector, the old turret ship being renamed Platypus II and utilised as a mooring vessel for the submarine base at Geelong. In 1920 the new depot opened for business, from very modest beginnings. Accommodation was spartan for the sailors, but quite comfortable for the officers. The buildings were brick, the two main blocks being three storey constructions known as A and B blocks. Later additions saw C block, as well as separate blocks for petty officers and chief petty officers. The ratings slept in hammocks in large dormitories, with small wooden kit lockers to hold the large scale kit required by the matelots in those days. Petty officers slept in dormitories, but were issued with beds. Chief Petty Officers had beds and single cabin accommodation. The living quarters were built to form three sides of a very large rectangle, bordering on playing fields.
On the side not used for accommodation was built a drill hall. This building was one of the landmarks of FND. It had many uses, a gymnasium, a church, a drill hall and a stage theatre. It also held the gunners store. Next to the drill hall stood the training battery where young seamen learned the gentle art of gun drill on a mixed battery of BL guns. In those days, and until fairly recent times, the depot was known as Flinders Naval Depot, the name Cerberus being the ‘ship’ name, and the name inscribed on the sailors’ cap ribbons. A captain held the position of commanding officer, his title being Captain Superintendent of Training, Flinders Naval Depot (short title CST FND), but later the post was upgraded to a Commodore’s command. Many of the Navy’s training schools were established, such as gunnery, supply, engineering, etc. and a full scale hospital was opened. In 1927 a band was formed in the depot, the second band in the RAN. Until that date the one and only permanent band was held in the flagship.
The depot was a self-supporting township, it had its own power station, bakery, etc. When the ‘J’ Class submarines were paid off in 1922, they were brought around to Flinders and put on the mudflats, but ‘J7’ was utilised as a standby power station, and performed this duty until sold in 1929.
FND is situated on Hanns Inlet, off Westernport, and in the early days it was possible to bring reasonably deep draught ships alongside; Marguerite was a regular visitor, and Yarra was used as a training ship for a short time. In the 1930s Tattoo was permanently attached to the depot, being replaced in 1936 by Vampire, the channel still being deep enough to allow the destroyer to reach the depot. By the 1950s the channel was becoming quite silted up, and two AMS, Gladstone and Latrobe, became the training ships; they sometimes came alongside, but normally anchored in Westernport. When negotiating the channel the AMS were attended by small wooden ex-army tugs who quite often had to nudge the corvettes off the bends in the channel.
During the Second World War many temporary blocks were built to house the influx of recruits, and these were numbered from D block to J block. These were built behind the original brick blocks, and since then new permanent blocks have replaced the old temporaries. In 1931 the RAN College was established in the depot after its transfer from Jervis Bay. This was a very sound idea, as besides being a good economical move, it allowed the sailors to see at first hand the tough training carried out by the thirteen-year-old cadets, and gave the sailors a better understanding of the officers.
Over the years many improvements and modifications have been made to the depot, and of course many old points of interest have gone. Heating used to be obtained by a boiler house near the main blocks. This consisted of a bank of Babcock and Wilcox coal fired boilers, and hand fired at that. This was known as the ‘giggle house’. The powerhouse proper was situated away from the main accommodation, near the engineering school. It contained two B&W boilers and a Yarrow boiler, as well as the electric generating equipment. This has now been modernised.
Sport has always been a big thing in the Navy, and at FND all sports were catered for. The large playing fields near the main blocks are in constant use, there is an indoor swimming pool, heated in winter, a rifle range and of course enough water for boat pulling and sailing. Internal transport in the depot was, and probably still is, normally by push-bike.
All officers seemed to acquire one of these machines, and when the training classes were marched down to their ‘parts of ship’ it was usual for the officers to ride up to the falling in point and then hand their ‘velocipedes’ over to one of the men. This was very popular with the sailors as they would rather ride than march. Dutymen rode bikes, as did the duty officers. One story told regards the DXO’s bike. During the night watches the depot maintained a fire party, the members of which had to ride around the depot looking out for fires. On return to the fire party dormitory the duty fire party man would enter that ’rounds’ were correct. One particular DXO was in the habit of waiting until the firemen rode past the wardroom, and then hauling down the Commodore’s flag.
When the man returned to the fire point he would fill in the log ’rounds correct’. In would amble the DXO, read the log, then produce the flag. How could rounds be correct if the Commodore’s flag was not flying? He would then proceed to ‘dash the offender in’. One night the worthy carried out his usual childish prank, and then ambled over to the fire point to carry out phase two of the operation. He read the log, spluttered, and raced out as fast as he could. The entry read ‘Commodore’s flag not sighted. DXO’s bike sighted at the truck’. If any one remembers the height of that mast outside the wardroom they will understand the job the DXO had in getting his means of transport down again. From all accounts he never tried the trick again.
FND was the RAN’s home of pomp and circumstance. Divisions on Friday was the big event of the week. The ship’s company dressed themselves up in their best uniforms, and were inspected by the CST. After the inspection, CST positioned himself on a platform outside the drill hall, facing an asphalt covered area known as the quarterdeck, and took the salute as Divisions marched past. On Sundays a smaller edition of Divisions was held, after which the sailors marched into the drill hall that had been ‘rigged for church’. After church, the duty watch would ‘unrig church – rig cinema’. The seats were turned around 180°, a flap was lowered to conceal the pulpit and another one raised to reveal the screen. Side screens were lowered and presto, the church facing west had been converted into a cinema facing east. The evolution took about five minutes. With the building of two chapels in the 1950s this evolution became a memory.
Over the years many changes have been made to the depot, and today it is one of the most modern of its type in the world. In its early days it was a very dismal place, isolated from civilisation as it was. Vice-Admiral Sir John Collins, in passing a few comments about FND in its early days, told of how, when asked to play a selection at an official function. Bandmaster Joe Ventry had his band play ‘Down On Misery Farm’, a fitting description of FND at that time. In these modern times the title of FND has greatly been dropped, CST is now known as Commanding Officer, HMAS Cerberus, but to the older ex-naval men it will always be FND.