- Zammitt, Alan
- Biographies and personal histories
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Australia II
- September 1981 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
A light fleet carrier, HMS Terrible, was in the yard, and about 75% complete, this ship later being renamed and commissioned as HMAS Sydney in 1948. As we had expected to commission Ocean, a near sister to Terrible, I was interested in having a look over her. While on board Terrible a couple of dockyard workers started to talk to me about the ship. One said that Terrible was the right name for the ship. This class only had destroyer’s engines, their top speed being about 25 knots, so most warships could overtake them. The hull was only mercantile standard with no armour plating, and if damaged at the waterline all they had to keep them afloat were 44 gallon drums.
Of the five light fleet carriers completed before the cessation of hostilities, none were in action against the enemy – Colossus, Vengeance, Vulnerable and Glory joined the BPF just as the war ended. Ocean was still doing trials and working up in August 1945.
July saw the Renown arriving in Plymouth Sound, to be used on 2nd August as a meeting place for HM King George VI and American President Harry Truman. After the meeting the President sailed for the United States in USS Augusta.
Before the refit started, over 400 of the ship’s company took over Raglan Barracks, recently vacated by the US Navy. Personnel living in the barracks came to work by bus or truck. The main task Commander Wright put the working parties to was chipping away at the many coats of paint the ship had received over the years. At 1600 the men accommodated in Raglan Barracks would leave the ship, whilst those living on-board carried on with normal ship’s routine.
The Royal Navy allocated an MFV type vessel (or drifter) to bring out stores when the ship was in Plymouth Sound. These vessels were mainly crewed by WRENS, with usually one stoker and a leading seaman, the skipper, as the only males onboard. By the regulations the WRENS should have slept in the barracks ashore, but many of the girls slept on the MFVs and they lived very well indeed. One of the skippers invited us over one night, and one of his WREN crew said she was going to turn in early because ‘she had had the dick’. This became a very popular saying in the RAN in 1945, and meant that someone was tired, or something was broken. The saying soon spread from Australia all over Plymouth and became part of the language.
In Britain at that time the naval dockyard police were mainly retired Royal Marines, and they knew all the rules and regulations, and all the tricks of the trade. Libertymen below leading rate had to be marched from the ship to the dockyard gates, and at the dockyard gates the sailors were searched. Officers were not exempt from being searched, and one officer who had previously held his own command, and stood no nonsense, was asked to open his bag. He said ‘Why don’t you do the job properly and search my person as well.’
Dockyard police boats stopped the RAAF boats visiting Australia when the cruiser moved to Devonport Dockyard.
The break up of Australia’s ship’s company started at the end of July 1945, when some 300 of the crew were drafted to man the cruiser Suffolk in Liverpool. Captain Armstrong gave a farewell address to the crew before leaving for the Pacific to take command of an escort carrier. There were tears in his eyes as he said ‘Goodbye, you pack of bastards’.
Just as Vice-Admiral Sir John Collins, KBE, CB, will always be linked with the cruiser Sydney, Rear-Admiral Farncomb, CB, DSO, MVO, and Captain Armstrong (who was the gunnery officer and wartime executive officer and finally captain) will always be linked with Australia. Captain Armstrong was the most popular captain I ever served with. Aussie was a very happy ship under his command.
In harbour he would walk around the upper deck and come up and talk with the crew. His son joined the navy in 1945 as an ordinary seaman. OD Armstrong is now Professor David Armstrong, BA B.Phil. Oxon, Ph.D, FAHA, Challis Professor, University of Sydney.