- A.N. Other
- Biographies and personal histories, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 2015 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Alan Jacobs
Alan Brian Jacobs was born at Port Lincoln on 28 January 1922; on leaving school he worked for the major stock and station agents Goldsbrough Mort. Aged 19 on 28 March 1941 he was mobilized for naval service enlisting as an Ordinary Seaman at the Port Adelaide Depot (HMAS Torrens). After initial training at HMAS Cerberus he was sent with other youngsters as passengers in the coastal steamer Montoro from Brisbane to join HMAS Penguin at Darwin. His war service was mainly in the Darwin and North Australia areas other than for a few months during 1945 in HMAS Tolga when she was based at Madang in New Guinea. He eventually returned to HMAS Torrens from where he was discharged ashore on 11 January 1946. Possibly uniquely in the annals of the RAN, at the request of Goldsbrough Mort, Alan was granted three months temporary demobilisation to help with the export lamb season. In civilian life Alan attended the University of Adelaide where he gained an economics degree. He then worked for Australian Iron and Steel at Port Kembla, before moving to Sydney with computer systems consultants. A sprightly Alan, now aged 93, has kindly shared with us some of his unedited memories of those dark days when the violence of war descended upon Darwin.
After one elder brother joined the army at the outbreak of war, and sailed for England in the Queen Mary, and another joined the air force destined to fly Spitfires in England and North Africa, I determined to outdo them by joining the navy ‘to see the whole world’. Disillusionment was rapid. My first ‘sea posting’ after training was to HMAS Platypus which had her anchor firmly embedded in the mud of Darwin harbour, and did not look like moving. Nor did I look like moving for 18 months, for this was the standard navy sentence for all those consigned to the Darwin area.
The trip to Darwin by sea in SS Montoro was pleasant enough via Port Moresby and Thursday Island. It’s just that we happened to arrive in Darwin on the day that the Japs chose to bomb Pearl Harbour that had its forebodings. Conditions deteriorated rapidly and looked ominous for Australia.
However, in Platypus we continued to holystone the quarterdeck, and paint battleship grey upon battleship grey over the ship’s hull. Platypus was a ship from hell. Built in World War I for the Royal Navy as a submarine tender for northern hemisphere conditions and later transferred to the Royal Australian Navy, she was totally unsuited for tropical service. It was impossible to sleep below deck in hammocks. We lay these on the upper decks in any place that we could, and raced madly for shelter from every thunderstorm of the wet season. Combined bathroom and laundry facilities for about 100 crew were a few enamel hand basins and one shower with water available just a few hours each day.
We were given shore leave two evenings out of three, most going to the open air picture show. I took the opportunity to look up old friends from my home town of Port Lincoln. The Bald family had been transferred to Darwin where Mr Bald was postmaster. Mrs Bald and daughter Iris (who was in my class at high school) were excused evacuation as essential telephone operators. I saw a lot of them, and dined with the family on the evening of February 18. Within 12 hours all three, and other post office staff, would be dead from a direct hit on their air raid shelter.
After only a short time in Platypus I was transferred to Darwin Naval Headquarters (HMAS Melville), and never was anyone so glad to see the last of a ship. I was in town on February 19 for Darwin’s day of disaster. I do not want to dwell on the well-recorded events of that day or times, except to give you some insight into what life was like for the few of us who stayed on in the town. The same naval task force bombed Pearl Harbour, and land based planes devastated shipping and shore establishments. Twice as many bombs were dropped on Darwin as on Pearl Harbor. I sheltered during the raid in a slit trench from which I could watch the planes and even see the bombs as they fell. After the all clear I dashed through a pall of dust to overlook the harbour where most of the action had occurred.
It was a scene of absolute desolation. The bay was full of burning and sinking ships. We were immediately despatched to the wharf area with the intention of helping the ships alongside – Neptuna and Barossa. Fortunately for us a bomb had made a great hole in the jetty and we could not reach the ships. Instead we were told to run for our lives as Neptuna was afire and about to explode. The 300 tons of depth charges that went up moments later blew the stern off the vessel, embedded hundreds of steel piles of the jetty many feet further into the sea floor, and sent up a mushroom cloud of smoke that these days we would associate with an atom bomb. We made our way back to headquarters.
The second raid on the aerodrome followed at noon. After this we were told that paratroops had landed at the aerodrome. We were hastily issued with rifles, piled on to the back of an open truck in our white shirts and shorts, and sent out to deal with the landing. The drome was a devastation of burning hangars and planes, and bomb cratered runways – but fortunately, no Japanese paratroops. No Air Force personnel either – they had been told to disperse into the bush. Some finished up in Adelaide. Why was handful of ill-equipped sailors sent to deal with a paratroop landing – where was the Army? We learned that they were busy packing up to leave. The Darwin area was considered indefensible in the event of invasion, so overnight they moved 30 miles south.
Invasion was imminent and expected at dawn next day. Ships that could leave, left – including the damaged hospital ship Manunda. Only Platypus, boom defence vessels, and a few small ships remained. The Air Force had dispersed, and the Army except for an anti-aircraft battery on the oval had left town. All civilians had departed in the afternoon by train or any vehicle that would move. Darwin was an empty town and its defence for a short while was seemingly left to about 20 sailors.
Before dawn next day we gathered on the cliff top with our rifles and pockets full of ammunition, still in our whites, waiting for the expected naval bombardment and landing, prepared to give a good but futile account of ourselves. We were not disappointed when daylight revealed only the wrecks from yesterday’s drama.
Life in Darwin was pretty primitive for most of 1942. Food was scarce and virtually limited to one meal a day, plus anything we could scrounge from abandoned shops and houses. I don’t know how we would have survived if it were not from food parcels sent by parents and friends. The mail got through but not much else.
Daylight raids continued, but there was much work to be done and we were the only hands available to do it. Diving parties on all of the wrecks to recover confidential books so that these did not fall into enemy hands. Fire fighting the blaze of an oil tank set alight by bombs, with a river of roaring flaming oil racing down a channel from it. The sight and sound at close quarters was terrifying – an inferno. Days on the harbour as working parties in small ships. These were made even less comfortable through practice attacks on us by Vultee Vengeance dive bombers. Their screaming engines and last second pull out of the dives did nothing for already fragile nerves even though we knew (or hoped) they were ours.
Our night work was more intense. Ships would not come into the wharf or floating dock in daylight, so they had to be serviced at night. One, Admiral Halstead, had a load of high octane fuel in drums for the American Kittyhawks. Some of the drums were holed by bomb splinters through the ship’s hull and poured petrol down on us as they were hoisted from the hold. Why the fumes did not explode from a spark I will never know, as no precautions were taken to prevent this.
Working on corvettes and other ships in the floating dock at night under floodlights was an experience. Ships did not want to be stuck in the dock as sitting ducks for the Japs in daylight so we had to start work as soon as we could – up to our necks in water, hoping that no crocodile or shark would come drifting by. Long toms eyed us warily as we scraped and painted, and the dock gradually raised the ship and us out of the water.
Life became a little more settled later, day raids giving way to smaller night raids. This turning point probably came on Anzac Day 1942 when 24 high level bombers came over in eight groups of three. An awe-inspiring sight from the bottom of an open slit trench in the clear blue Darwin sky. Then the newly arrived Spitfires got stuck into them and we cheered as some of the bombers peeled off into oblivion. Our viewpoint was a hundred yards from the oil tanks for which the bombers were heading, so we had a vested interest in the outcome.
Another night job was the salvaging of the Barossa from the mangroves where she had been beached and abandoned because she had an unexploded bomb deep in her hold of jetty piles. We headquarters sailors got more seamanship and other experience in a few months than battleship boys would get in a lifetime. I now know where the term Jack of all trades originated.
Naval Board in their wisdom decided that we didn’t need our kits in Darwin. They would be sent south, except for our white shorts and shirts which would be dyed. You should have seen the results of the dyeing. Gear that was meant to be khaki came out nice shades of pink and green and brown. The Japs would have died of fright had they come.
In December we were living reasonably comfortably in houses at Myilly Point. One Saturday afternoon I stoked up the outside wood copper to do my accumulated washing – everything I owned was on the boil. A messenger came to tell me that I was to report on board HMAS Terka immediately with my kit. So I arrived on board with a few sandbags full of wet gear. We did some minesweeping, and were sent on a trip to Broome with supplies. However, on the way we ran into a tropical cyclone so ferocious that we doubted arriving anywhere. At the best of times when loaded our deck was at sea level. Now we were more underwater than over. The skipper wanted to turn back but was afraid to make the turn as it meant going broadside to the breaking seas. We eventually made the turn without rolling right over and got back to Darwin. Our skipper, from the merchant service, had worked on the China coast and was unused to an Australian crew, whom he treated poorly.
We were instructed to go to Thursday Island, and then Cairns to cart water because TI was experiencing water problems – what’s new in the world! Our speed was a miserable six knots, and our armament described in the records as ‘rudimentary and obsolete’. This at least matched the rest of the ship. Japanese floatplanes were very active in those northern waters. Floatplanes operating from submarines had a nasty reputation for sinking ships then machine gunning survivors in the water. Once they landed to take prisoner a priest who was being transported to a remote mission. The poor guy was later beheaded.
At sea we worked one watch in three as helmsman, and when not on watch in the day shifts worked on deck. We also closed up at action stations before dawn each day. No radar those days, so dawn could reveal that we had overnight steamed into the middle of a Japanese fleet – or more likely to wake up alongside a Japanese submarine. I have tried on several occasions to count up the number of hours we worked each week (Saturdays and Sundays included), but it always came to more than 168, so we must have been doing double duty somewhere.
Cairns was our first sight of civilisation in a year, and the first thing I did was to buy myself a good feed and some fruit, neither of which we had had since February 19. We returned to Darwin after a number of Cairns/TI trips to serve the remainder of our 18 months sentence.
I returned to Adelaide by air in the middle of winter 1943 in only shirt and shorts – sadder, wiser, colder, but much relieved to have my Darwin time behind me. Even in later years and ships I never did get closer to my brothers than the waters of New Guinea still in slow, rusty, but hard-working little coal burners. Not quite the experience I had expected in seeing the world through naval spit and polish.