- Thomson, Max
- History - WW2, Biographies and personal histories
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Sydney II, ML817, HMAS Australia II, HMAS Hawkesbury I, HMAS Cerberus (Shore Establishment), HMAS Westralia I, HMAS Yarra II, HMAS Deloraine, HMAS Waterhen
- September 1995 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
*The first became Australia’s Minister for Defence.
* The second piloted 8463 ships of the world through our major ports to set a record that probably never will be eclipsed.
* The third went on to senior command in the permanent Naval Forces.
In retrospect there was a fascination about the sequence of having served in units of the wartime RAN commanded by officers of the RANVR, then the RANR(S) and finally of the RAN itself.
It wasn’t only what they accomplished as naval officers during the war years and the high drama with which each of them was involved but even more so, their accomplishments later in their postwar careers.
ATHOL TOWNLEY, of Hobart, enrolled in the RAN Volunteer Yachtsmen’s Scheme “A” and embarked in the steamship Thermisticles on November 20, 1940 for passage to Liverpool. His service with the Navy in the United Kingdom involved considerable work “delousing” German mines. Upon return to Australia, more high drama came his way when, as Lieutenant Townley commanding the harbour patrol vessel STEADY HOUR he played a key role in the sinking of one of the Japanese midget submarines that raided Sydney Harbour on the night of May 31, 1942.
Excitement seemed to go hand in hand with Athol Townley. Appointed to command one of the first of the Fairmiles – ML 817 – which were the forerunners of the sleek Navy patrol vessels we know today, he took off for the New Guinea waters. His was the first Fairmile to operate there. When ML 817 had its hull twisted and punctured with 40 significant holes after a Japanese bombing attack on the evening of the AIF landing at Lae, it was ordered back to Australia under tow for repairs. Townley chose to stay on in New Guinea and took over another Fairmile, subsequently to become Commander of Light Coastal Forces in New Guinea. After a series of impressive portfolios in the Menzies Government after the war, he became Australia’s Minister for Defence and was Ambassador-designate to the United States of America at the time of his death on Christmas Eve 1963.
Commander Howard Weston DSC, US Legion of Merit, lived in retirement at Point Piper, Sydney, until his recent death. A Master Mariner, his early years at sea were with the famed Cunard Line but when he delivered a ship to Australia he decided to stay on here, becoming Navigator of the crack trans-Tasman Liner Awatea.
When World War II broke out he joined the RAN as an RANR(S) officer and served in the sloop HMAS YARRA then commanded the corvette HMAS DELORAINE. As its CO, he commissioned the frigate HMAS HAWKESBURY and later appointed Commander, was CO of HMAS WESTRALIA.
In an incredible postwar career with the Pilotage Service, he piloted a total of 8463 ships into or out of Newcastle, Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour), Botany Bay and Port Kembla – setting a record that probably will never be eclipsed as one great ship today does the job which once required three or even four to accomplish. He retired as senior pilot in Sydney for the Maritime Services Board of NSW, having spent his postwar years piloting the great luxury liners, the enormous bulk container ships, oil tankers and the run-of-the-mill merchantmen that ply the trade routes of the world.
Commodore I.K. Purvis OBE, who lives in retirement at South Melbourne followed a spectacular wartime career by attaining high senior rank in the permanent Navy. Four of the ships he served in during World War II were subsequently sunk – the cruisers HMAS SYDNEY and HMAS MANCHESTER and destroyers HMS QUAIL and HMAS WATERHEN. He was aboard HMAS AUSTRALIA in the Mediterranean during the Italo-Abyssinian War, was in HMS DEVONSHIRE when that cruiser was involved with the Spanish War, was at Freetown when the Atlantic U-Boat war was raging and was in HMAS SYDNEY when that cruiser sank the Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni in a memorable action in the Mediterranean. His service career included command or time in destroyers, corvettes, frigates, cruisers and aircraft carriers mixed with numerous postings to England including a period as Australian Naval Representative in the UNK. He retired as Commodore Superintendent of Training, HMAS CERBERUS and Naval Officer in Command, Victoria.
Those three men typified so well the spectrum of command that was required to find officers to captain the 337 vessels large and small that comprised the ships of the Royal Australian Navy during World War II.
[Ed: RANVR = Royal Australian Navy Volunteer Reserve; RANR(S) = Royal Australian Navy (Seagoing)]