- Gale, Lieutenant Commander M.B. , VRD, RANR (Retd.)
- Ship histories and stories, Naval history, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Platypus
- June 1987 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
THE PLATYPUS (Plats) was a WWI submarine depot Ship which, together with five ‘J’ class submarines, was presented by the RN to the RAN in 1919. She was later paid off and recommissioned HMAS Penguin and lay alongside Garden Island in Sydney as a depot and accommodation ship.
In 1940 she was, as the story goes, broken free from a bed of beer bottles and put into dock at Cockatoo, fitted with a 4” high angle gun in addition to her old 4” low angle gun, and then recommissioned once again as HMAS Platypus, to be a fleet repair and depot ship in Darwin.
She was the only permanent navy ship which still burnt coal so that on our way north we called at Bowen to coal ship. To the uninitiated, coaling ship is an extraordinary experience. Officers and ratings all put in, no one is excused, and at Bowen, the system was for a hopper type railway truck to be lifted from the wharf by an overhead gantry, and then traversed out over the deck of the ship, where from a height of approx. 10-12 ft. the bottom of the hopper was knocked out, and 10 tons of coal would fall in a cloud of coal dust which enveloped the whole ship. From the deck it would be shovelled into the bunker hatches. The ventilation of the ship was always shut down whilst coaling was in progress, but notwithstanding this, it took days of work to rid the ship, and ourselves, of coal dust.
On arrival in Darwin, the CO of ‘Plats’, Commander (Wiggy) Hennett, RAN, became senior officer afloat under NOIC Darwin Capt. Thomas RAN and Platypus became the mother and repair ship for all auxiliary vessels and ships operating out of Darwin. These included corvettes, minesweepers, coastal patrol boats, ex- pearling luggers and the Boom Defence Vessels. Darwin had at the harbour entrance the longest anti-submarine boom in the world.
In 1941 the war generally was remote from Australia, with the result that Darwin was still on a civilian footing, but all of that came to an end with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, and the entry of both Japan and the United States into the war.
The early impact on Darwin was the arrival of a flotilla of corvettes en route to Singapore, and the arrival of a miscellany of US merchant ships, ammunition ships and store ships en route, across the Pacific, to the Philippines, which were diverted to Darwin for orders. Quite often they had no charts of Northern Australia, and one ship navigated with a school atlas. As the situation in the Philippines deteriorated, US warships started to arrive. I can remember some, the Aircraft Tender Langley, the Cruisers Marblehead, Boise, Houston, the Submarine Tender Holland, and the Destroyer Perry, a four funnel flush decker of 1920 vintage.
At about this time I found that in addition to my appointment in ‘Plats’ I was appointed as Base Gunnery and Torpedo Officer Darwin, so that I had responsibilities both ashore and afloat, and my duties brought me into contact with a number of the US ships. The Yanks generally were in a mild state of stunned shock; they just could not believe what the Japs had done, but they were anxious and eager to learn.
I recall one evening, the quartermaster came down to my cabin to inform me that an American officer was asking to see me. He was the gunnery officer of the USS Houston and his request to me was, I quote, ‘Say Aussie, I wonder if you would help me. You guys have been at war for a couple of years, but it is all new to us. Would you do me the favour of coming aboard my ship and having a look at my battle orders and watch bills and tell me what you think.’
He had a boat standing by, so over I went and spent several hours going through his gunnery organisation with him. On my return to ‘Plats’ I could not help reflecting on the odd situation of a two wavy ring rocky Lieut. being asked to advise a regular navy three ring Commander, the gunnery officer of an 8” heavy cruiser. It was rather sad that this fine ship, the USS Houston, a short time later was lost with HMAS Perth in the battle of Sunda Strait.