- 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)
At last, feeling very ‘small and lonely’, as the poet has it, I climbed the after gangway of HMAS Australia, flagship of the Second Battle-cruiser Squadron and one of the major units of the Grand Fleet.
Waiting to receive me at the top of the gangway was Assistant-Paymaster (Sub-Lieut.) Alan Freyer, one of my finest shipmates of after years, and then about to join the cruiser Sydney. Taking me under his wing he saw me bedded down for the night on the gunroom settee. Next day Joe O’Reilly (then a fully-fledged Paymaster’s Clerk twelve months my senior), took over, showed me around the ship and provided useful hints on keeping out of trouble. That night I joined twenty or so other Australian midshipmen who slept in hammocks in the gunroom flat – my “bedroom” for the next two years.
At that period of First World War there were three major units of the Royal Australian Navy serving with the Grand Fleet – Australia, already mentioned, and Sydney and Melbourne in the Second Light Cruiser Squadron. Jutland had been fought more than two years before, and the fleet’s main task was now the blockade of the German coast and to keep the High Seas Fleet bottled up. In this it now had the valued assistance of a brand-new Paymaster’s Clerk (on probation).
Learning the rudiments of my job in the ship’s office, absorbing ‘the customs of the service’ and the rules and restrictions of gunroom life (including early morning PT on the upper deck, with the hands washing down and the thermometer at half a degree above freezing point) sweeps by the Battle-cruiser Force (sometimes with most of the Grand Fleet), south to the Firth of Forth, north as far as the Shetlands, or south-east towards the German coast; and an occasional run ashore on Flotta or at South Queensferry, made the days pass quickly enough.
Then there were pictures (silent) and singsongs (vociferous) in the wardroom on Saturday nights to which the gunroom was invited. We “ranted and roared like true British seamen” with as much gusto as our RN seniors, and generations before them, had done. Six American battleships formed the Sixth Battle Squadron, each with its Royal Navy ‘chummy ship’. Ours (for we were virtually RN too) was Arkansas and several future USN captains and admirals can have had no clear recollection, after dinner in our gunroom, of being lowered over the side by the collar on to the deck of a drifter, for the cold journey across the Flow back to their own ship. Their ships were dry, ours not.
I have spoken of Australia as an RN ship. In effect, apart from being built and maintained by the Australian Government, she then was. More than half the ship’s company of 1,200 were RN. All the upper deck officers, down to and including the sub of the gunroom mess and a number of other one-stripers, were also RN. Our admiral was Sir Lionel Halsey (later to accompany the Prince of Wales on his Empire tours), the captain, T. N. James, and the commander Dudley North, all RN. In the Second World War, Admiral Sir Dudley North GCVO, CB, CSI, RN commanded the North Atlantic Station. The light cruiser Sydney, at that time, was commanded by Australian-born Captain John S. Dumaresq, CB, CVO, RN, later Commodore Commanding the Australian Fleet.
Until October 1918, all the RAN captains, commodores and admirals of the Second World War were still midshipmen serving in various ships of the Grand Fleet. It was (and maybe still is) an RN tradition that brand-new sub-lieutenants should retain only the haziest memories of the night following the shipping of their first stripe. The half-dozen first-entries from Jervis Bay, who were our senior midshipmen when I joined Australia, certainly must have found it difficult to remember much of the celebration of their elevation to commissioned rank.
Earlier the same month had come the news that accountant and other branches were to be given executive titles, so that I and my kind became Paymaster Midshipmen. Up till that time junior accountant officers were expected to serve from seven years before becoming lieutenants (or in the nomenclature of those days, paymasters). This was now changed so that only two years intervened between the first and second stripes.
On 27 October we left Scapa for Rosyth amid ironical cheers and catcalls from the other ships as we steamed down the lines. “Another Jutland: Aussie’s going into dock,” the RN matelots yelled across the water. (Just before Jutland New Zealand rammed the ship in a fog, necessitating her absence from that historic action in which three ships of her kind were sunk. On the present occasion we came out of dock in time to take part, on 21 November 1918, in one of the greatest sea spectacles of all time – the surrender of the High Seas Fleet fifty miles easy of May Island.
As Australia and the other ships of the squadron – New Zealand, Indomitable and Inflexible – led the southernmost of the two British lines, we in Australia had a box-seat view of each of the German ships as it passed into the Firth of Forth and captivity. Following the last of them in, we anchored as guardship between the battle-cruiser Hindenberg and the light cruiser Emden, the second of her name. Few of the RAN officers and men privileged to be present at the surrender will ever forget Admiral Beatty’s signal later that afternoon: “The German flag will be hauled down at 3 pm. (sunset) and will not be hoisted again without permission.” Three days later the German ships left for internment at Scapa Flow.
After a foggy two months in the Firth of Forth we left for Portsmouth, the last time our four ships went to sea as a squadron. There with the ship undergoing a long refit, we (the ship’s office staff) worked almost round the clock, for weeks on end, under conditions of considerable discomfort. Apart from normal routine we had to discharge hundreds of ratings back to the RN, with all the attendant paper work, and take on an equivalent number of newly arrived Australians. In spite of all these changes, forty per cent of the ship’s company were still RN (on loan).
Between times we managed to get some leave, an occasional run ashore to Southsea or to a show at the Hippodrome, a visit to HMS Victory – then still afloat in Portsmouth Harbour – and visits to Gieves to kit up with peace-time necessities. In these were included, in my case, a new No. 1 uniform, mess kit, frock coat, sword and sword belt, tropical whites both day and evening, sun helmet and white shoes. There were no shirts-and-shorts in those days. Formal starched jackets and long trousers were worn on all occasions in the tropics, and during the summer in Australia.
So far as I am aware, none of my shipmates had a private allowance and so, with mess bills and other shipboard demands to meet, none of us had any prospect of meeting the high cost involved in purchases which peace-time uniform regulations compelled us to make. To enable us to comply with these, the Australian High Commissioner in London agreed with the Naval Board to back our accounts at Gieves to the extent of £50 (about 1,000 dollars in today’s currency). This had to be repaid by allotment at the rate of £2 (40 dollars) a month, or nearly one week’s pay out of every four, over the next two years, on an income of six or seven shillings a day!