- Vennell, C W Lt RAN Retired
- Biographies and personal histories
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Cerberus, HMAS Tingira, HMAS Australia I, HMAS Sydney I, HMAS Melbourne I
- June 1979 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
FROM A WESTERN DISTRICT FARM, far from sight or sound of the sea, to the gunroom of a battle-cruiser in the Grand Fleet within the space of four months – this was a metamorphosis that helped to turn at least one Victorian schoolboy into a very junior naval officer sixty years ago.
In the years following my entry into the Royal Australian Navy in 1918 as a ‘Paymaster’s Clerk on Probation,’ I made little impression on that service, but the RAN, then only six years old, with its Royal Navy background and traditions, made an impact on me that has lasted right down to the present day.
Until appointed at the age of seventeen to ‘His Majesty’s Australian ship Cerberus for training’, I had not seen a ship of war. Not long before this event I had been summoned into the (to me) awe-inspiring presence of the Naval Secretary himself, George L. Macandie, at Navy Office, then a modest two-storeyed building in Lonsdale Street, Melbourne. I must have passed his kindly scrutiny.
In due course came an impressive-looking document over his signature, ordering me to ‘repair on board’ HMAS Cerberus at Williamstown. To my surprise the naval training depot, which bore a name carried by ships of the Royal Navy for 150 years before I was born, was not a ship at all but a collection of battleship-grey buildings definitely land based. It took its name from a venerable coast-defence ironclad of 1870 vintage, which was still gathering barnacles out in the bay.
Living in the wardroom (less like a wardroom than a suburban bungalow) in which I occupied a spacious ‘cabin’, saluted and addressed as ‘Sir’ by gold-badged beings twice my age, gave me an uneasy feeling that, possibly, I was now a person of some importance. It was not until I joined Australia at Scapa Flow and experienced gunroom discipline of the RN pattern that I realised that I was of no consequence whatever! But I anticipate.
My 28 days’ disciplinary training consisted mainly of ‘square bashing’ in the company of about fifty embryo stokers, under the stem eye of a RN Chief GI. CPO Conlan was really a kindly soul, but on parade he could roar, ‘Mr. Vennell, Sir’ and bawl me out in the same breath. Four years in the Senior (Military) Cadets had taught me my drill reasonably well, and so I incurred little wrath.
After about a fortnight we were joined by two midshipmen RANR, Eric McWilliam (the kindness of whose family in Sydney I still remember) and Harold Litchfield who, a decade later, piloted Kingsford-Smith in the Southern Cross on the first air crossing of the Tasman Sea. We learned to strip down and reassemble weapons ranging from a Webley-Scott pistol to odd bits of a six-inch gun, also sword drill, as well as qualifying in rifle and pistol shooting.
What all this had to do with paymastering I had yet to find out. Only at the end of four weeks, when Staff Paymaster (Lieut-Commander) E. W. Trivett, a veteran of the old Queensland Navy, pushed into my hands two great tomes entitled ‘King’s Regulations and Admiralty Instructions’ and sternly ordered me to learn them off by heart, did I come into contact with anything remotely connected with being a Paymaster’s Clerk, even one on probation.
To later generations of naval officers these modest beginnings must appear highly unorthodox. Sixty years ago, however, after such rudimentary ‘training’, the embryo RAN paymaster was shot off to sea there to learn his job as best he might, by the simple method of doing it, making the inevitable mistakes and suffering the consequences. The time when all Australian boys contemplating a naval career went before a selection board, received naval college and some sea training to make them, first, naval officers and then, but only then, specialists, was still far away in the future.
I was rescued from dreary days with KR and AI (alleviated, when no one was looking, by lighter literature) by being run to earth by a boy writer who handed me my first seagoing appointment. Of all ships in the RAN this was to HMAS Sydney, the light cruiser which, three and a half years before, had destroyed the German raider Emden! Soon I found myself in the express heading north from Melbourne to Sydney.
At Central Station I joined up with a draft of seamen boys from Tingira. This small detachment, commanded by Lieut. John King Davis (an Antarctic navigator of note and later Commonwealth Director of Navigation) was about to embark in the 11,000-ton P & O Transport Borda, together with 1,600 men of the AIF and seventy of their officers.
From Central Station we marched, the troops with fixed bayonets and the naval draft under the nominal command of a mere Paymaster’s Clerk (who, nevertheless held the equivalent rank of midshipman) for Davis, I was to learn, avoided parades, down through streets packed with waving cheering crowds, and through the Domain to Woolloomooloo. From the upper windows of the Commonwealth Bank as we passed came a shower of cardboard boomerangs with the message, “Good Luck and Come Back Soon.”
And then, to the strains of “Pack Up Your Troubles“, “Goodbyee“, and other wartime songs, the troopship backed away from the crowded wharf and headed for Neutral Bay where we anchored for the night. At six next morning the dazzle-painted Borda turned her bows towards the sea, to the accompaniment of a chorus of train and ferry whistles. Out through the Heads there was much speculation as to our destination. The Borda herself answered the question by turning southward. We were, it seemed, bound for England by way of the Cape.
Ten weeks and 12,000 miles later – punctuated by rickshaw rides in Durban, behind fearsome-looking Zulus, surfing at Muizenberg, my own eighteenth birthday (also spent at Capetown), a week of hellish humidity and heat off Sierra Leone while waiting for a merchant-cruiser escort, and an abortive U-boat attack on the convoy somewhere in the North Atlantic – we berthed at Tilbury. From Australia House in London, Davis learned that I was not to go to Sydney after all, but to Australia. I tried, not very successfully, to hide my disappointment.
An all-night train journey from Euston to Thurso and a breezy crossing of the Pentland Firth in St Ninian, and we reached Scapa Flow, and came alongside the old Imperieuse, the depot ship in Long Hope. Late the same evening we transferred to a drifter and steamed away into the darkness down seemingly endless lines of sheer black cliffs – the bows of anchored battleships and battle-cruisers.