- van Gelder, Commander John RAN (Rtd)
- Biographies and personal histories, RAN operations
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2004 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Why did it always seem to happen? There I would be, thoroughly enjoying myself either flying somewhere or swanning around the Far East in a nice frigate, when out of the blue comes a new posting. On this particular occasion the posting brought with it a completely new and perhaps a more serious perspective to the outlook on my naval service. As an aviator I had more than enjoyed my posting as Executive Officer of HMAS Quiberon. Having trained and persuaded the new Captain to run the ship to my satisfaction (!) we had a pleasant and very eventful six months or so in the Far East. As all good things must come to an end, I found on the return passage to Sydney that I was posted to the Joint Services Staff College, in Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom.
After a comfortable trip to the UK first class in a Qantas Boeing 707, I presented myself to Latimer, the home of the JSSC in beautiful Buckinghamshire. The time was late spring 1964 and the country looked magnificent.
Much could be written about the time at Latimer, such as living like a gentleman in Lord Chesham’s former residence; black bow tie every night and croquet on the lawn outside the library on occasion. The main benefit of the course seemed to be making great friends with officers of diverse backgrounds from the British and Commonwealth services, and officers from the older colonies such as the United States. Of equal importance seemed to be making the acquaintance of as many publicans as possible in the County of Buckinghamshire. As a sideline we were encouraged to commit what original thoughts we may have had to paper in a more or less logical fashion. In this context, perhaps, it should be mentioned that in Syndicate Exercises naval personnel would state the strategic policy, the Air Force people would attend to details and the Army chaps would do the typing. A most satisfactory arrangement!
Naval Staff, Canberra
On completion of the Staff Course I found myself appointed to the Naval Staff at the beginning of October 1964 as Assistant Director of Naval Plans as a Commander. On arrival at Russell Hill Offices, Canberra, I had a very ‘Joint’ attitude towards our sister Armed Forces and determined to do the best for Australian defence generally. This attitude lasted about two weeks until the reality of what was happening in Canberra dawned on me. Regrettably, as in life, success for the individual armed service boiled down to dollars, or more precisely how much of the Defence vote could be obtained for one’s own Service.
At this time the Plans Directorate was very compact, with two Captains and two Commanders. The Director of Plans, with myself as his Assistant, was in a broad sense responsible for Operational aspects of future naval planning. That is, the shape, size and composition of the RAN for the future defence of the country. The Deputy Director of Plans and his Assistant were responsible for Administrative or Logistical planning for the future. This situation was, of course far too clear cut, and in practice responsibilities frequently overlapped and often involved solving problems as they arose on a day to day basis. The Directorate offices were located adjacent to and, in fact, surrounded the offices of the Chief of the Naval Staff and the Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff.
There is no doubt that during the period 1964/66 the Plans Directorate was the senior Directorate within the Naval Staff and much material generated by Naval Staff Directorates was perused and filtered through the Plans Directorate. In this context there were times when, having been asked an opinion on certain serious matters, one became extremely conscious of the responsibilities. The realisation that we were dealing with matters that could profoundly affect the wellbeing of large numbers of people was uppermost in our minds.
The first chink in the armour of my ‘Joint Service’ attitude occurred within two weeks of my arrival at Navy Office. I was given a file containing the minutes of a Chiefs of Staff Committee meeting, naturally with a high security classification. Within the minutes a sentence stood out like a beacon to me. The sentence stated: ‘With the Chief of Naval Staff dissenting it was decided that the two Daring Class Destroyers, Vendetta and Vampire, would be fitted with Ikara during their half life modernisations . . . ‘ Here we had two RAAF people (the Chairman was RAAF) and an Army officer deciding what weapon systems should be fitted to RAN warships – and this with the Chief of Naval Staff dissenting! I found this very hard to accept and it had a profound effect on my future thinking, particularly in regard to the RAAF. Fortunately, in the event Ikara was not fitted to the two Darings.
By late 1964 the RAN was well involved in Confrontation activities with Indonesia. With this came my first responsibilities in the Plans Directorate. I became the custodian and expert (?) on the Directive for RAN ships involved. The Directive was, of course, the Rules of Engagement for the captains of our ships, which at the time were our Ton Class Minesweepers. There is not the slightest doubt that whenever an incident occurred in the operational area, bureaucrats from the Department of Defence would insist on further restricting the initiative of our young ship’s captains. Bureaucrats are very sensitive to anything that may adversely effect their careers!
Involvement in Vietnam
The period late 1964 to mid 1965 was a particularly interesting time within the Defence community in Canberra. We were involved in the Indonesian confrontation operations and it became patently obvious that active involvement in Vietnam was becoming a reality, whether the United States wanted us there or not. Reading the Diplomatic signals in the months leading up to May, 1965, was fascinating and a sure indication that we were on the way to military commitment in that unfortunate country. It is doubtful whether any politicians in the US or Australia at the time fully understood the implications of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, either militarily or politically.
With Australia’s commitment to Vietnam confirmed, the transport of our troops fell to the RAN. The troop transport HMAS Sydney was scheduled to sail with the first battalion on the weekend of 26/27 May, 1965. On Thursday 23 May a most unusual situation descended upon me. Whilst leaving Navy Office in a lift late that day my Director, then Captain Brian (‘Chick’) Murray said to me in a very casual way ‘John, I think you had better write a Directive for the Sydney’s passage to Vietnam.’ My reply was naturally ‘Yes Sir.’ I believe I had an excellent working relationship with ‘Chick’ and I certainly respected him as a man and naval officer, but with this request/order I wondered if he may have been joking since the ship was due to sail within two days.
Rules of Engagement
That night, taking a good seaman-like precaution in believing my good Director had not been joking, I sat at the kitchen table with pad and pen and started to write. Setting out the Rules of Engagement, embracing all RAN vessels and RAAF escorting aircraft involved in the passage, was an extremely serious matter and, to my mind, had to be simple, straight forward and completely unambiguous. The transit Force included HMAS Sydney, escorted by HMA Ships Duchess and Parramatta and supposed to be covered all the way by RAAF Long Range Maritime Reconnaissance aircraft. In the event the RAAF aircraft only partially met their commitment and that outside the likely operational zone. This did not surprise me.
Having satisfied myself that the Directive made sense I arrived at Navy Office early next morning (Friday) and gave the paper to a clerk for typing. When my Director arrived some time later he asked me if I had written the Directive. I answered in the affirmative and this confirmed to me that he certainly had not been joking. The Directive was then subjected to a very rapid progress through many hands. My Director approved without changing a word, as did Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff, followed immediately by the Chief of the Naval Staff, who then directed me to take it to Department of Air for signature by the Chief of the Air Staff. It was here that the first correction was made. The RAAF insisted that the pilots should be referred to as Captains of LRMR aircraft rather than Commanding Officers of LRMR aircraft as I had written!
Returning to Navy Office with the document signed by both CNS and CAS, I was then directed to take the document to a certain First Assistant Secretary in Department of Defence. I gathered from the attitude of this gentleman, whose name I will not mention, that his position was little short of a Messiah. On occasion I am not slow to learn. He proceeded to read and dissect my worthy document in such a way that no possible blame could vaguely be pointed in his direction if something untoward happened. Perhaps I am being unkind, but I doubt it. Upon approving the written word without alteration, he advised me that the Directive would be submitted to Federal Cabinet for consideration early that afternoon and he would call me later in the day.
Apparently the Prime Minister and his Minister for Defence were happy (or maybe not unhappy) with my Directive and I was advised to call upon the good First Assistant Secretary to pick up the document and promulgate it to whom it may concern. Having done this I gave a copy to my counterpart in Department of Air and proceeded to release it as a highly classified exclusive signal to FOCAF, FOICEA and Captain of HMAS Sydney. The RAAF on the other hand released it to everyone from London to Hawaii and beyond! The time was now about 1800 Friday 24, May, and HMAS Sydney sailed at 0100 on 27th May.
The purpose in my recording this incident is simple enough. There was certainly some satisfaction in achieving something as a Staff Officer, however we were well briefed by Naval Intelligence and constructing the Rules was not particularly difficult. The matter of most concern was the reluctance of the Government of the time (and successive Governments) to recognise the legitimate claims made by so many naval personnel for recognition by the Department of Defence for Veterans Affairs benefits. Initially it was stated by people who should know better that naval personnel in the logistic support operations were not involved in dangerous operations.
Questions that must be asked are:
- Why were the United States Navy committed to anti submarine operations in the Gulf of Tonkin and the sea area to the south Saigon?
- Why did members of the Australian Seamen’s Union refuse to enter the area?
- Why did the Federal Cabinet approve Rules of Engagement if there was no threat?
Yes, a very interesting period indeed in Canberra. I wonder how many Legal minds it would take these days to formulate such a Directive?
In October, 1964, a Labor government was elected in the United Kingdom and Mr. Dennis Healey became Minister for Defence. In a short time he announced that Britain intended to withdraw her military facilities in the Far East, not in 1983 as previously intended, but as soon as possible. This announcement came as quite a shock to the Australian authorities and from a Defence perspective raised some disturbing questions.
The questions were simple, the answers were not. Where were we to relocate the Army personnel from Terandak and the RAAF personnel from Butterworth in Malaya? What facilities would be available to the RAN from the Naval Base in Singapore? Both the Army and Air Force responded to the Government that they could not bring their personnel back to Australia because accommodation and airfield facilities could not be provided. No alternative proposals were submitted by either Service.
At this stage I witnessed some of the most brilliant staff work one could imagine. Throughout the Christmas leave period 1964/65 two officers, Captain Frank Lord, a Technical Director, and Commander John Ferguson, Assistant Director of Plans (Administrative), worked day and night to formulate a paper for the Government proposing alternative facilities to Singapore naval base and in doing so initiated the establishment of RAN facilities in Cockburn Sound, Western Australia. This was Staff work of the highest order.
In staff work humorous situations rarely occur, but it can happen. For some months I was the naval member of a Defence and Parliamentary committee revising a section of the Commonwealth War Book relating to Key Points. The meetings, chaired by an Assistant Secretary, Department of Defence, were held in the Department of Defence and consisted of about twenty people. The draft proposals for a particular meeting noted that the three Service Departments Navy, Army and Air were given the highest priority. That is, their loss would be ‘catastrophic’ to the war effort. Unfortunately, I could not agree to that proposition, since I believed that any military service worth its salt should have a back up command and control situation should they lose a headquarters and I doubted that the loss of Navy Office would be a catastrophe. When I made this point all heads around the table dropped and became silent. I had given them a problem which could not easily be resolved by public servants. Having stuck to my guns I reported the matter to DCNS when I returned. His reaction was to have a hearty laugh. I wonder if Navy Office is given a lower status on the wartime priority scale than the other two Services Departments even today?
On another occasion on a morning in 1965 some idiot member of the Senate asked a question as to why our Attack Class Patrol Boats were not fitted with missiles to balance the threat posed by the Indonesian Komar missile fitted boats. As an immediate answer was required by our Minister, a meeting was convened in my little office to prepare the answer. The meeting comprised a Rear Admiral, three Captains and myself. As I was the junior officer present I was despatched to the canteen to purchase the meat pies for lunch. In relatively quick time an answer was prepared without referring to the good Senator as a lunatic. Such was the way in which business was conducted at times.
Replacement aircraft carrier
There was a strong feeling within Navy Office at the time that we should reduce the emphasis on the primarily Anti- submarine Navy and look more closely at the surface/air and underwater aspects of RAN operations. During my last twelve months or so at Navy office I had become increasingly concerned at the relatively low number of escorts available to the Fleet. I also had a strong feeling, even at that time, that HMAS Melbourne would not be replaced. The indicators were already there in 1965. The decision not to proceed with the acquisition of HMS Invincible in July 1982 did not surprise me in the least. The political will was just not there but heavy pressure and lobbying from individuals opposed to an aircraft carrier for the RAN certainly were.
Without a credible organic Air component within the structure of the RAN in which way should we direct our planning? I certainly did not have the answers, nor, I suspect, did anyone else. The redirection of equipment acquisition from British to American sources also brought with it some significant cultural changes.
It was not until early 1966 that I was given the go ahead to write a paper stating a proposal (not a Staff Requirement paper) for the RAN to acquire a new type of ship, which became known as the Light Destroyer (DDL). My concept, the specifications of which I will not list here, was for a vessel of about 1500 tons displacement, and we needed twenty of them. Uppermost in my mind was the future requirement for reconnaissance and patrolling to the north and northwest of the country. One did not need to be a genius to reach that conclusion. Equally important to my mind was the need to build the vessels in Australian dockyards and the infrastructure at the time did exist to design them in Australia.
Progress of DDL project
Shortly after CNS had approved my proposal for the DDL I was posted away from Navy Office. Progress of the DDL Project from early 1966 until 1974 is a story in itself. In the intervening years my little 1500 ton displacement ship had grown to 4500 tons and priced itself out of existence. A classic case of killing a project by not controlling people who wanted to depart from the original concept in order to build their own empires. Their ‘empires’ always lay in completely different types of ship.
As the sun arose over beautiful downtown Canberra in early 1966 I departed Navy Office and headed for the sweet smell of salt water and the comfort of a familiar and nicely painted grey frigate. The experience and memories of being a member of the Naval Staff during that fascinating period will remain with me forever.