- Scrivner, R.
- Biographies and personal histories
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Yarra II, HMAS Sydney II, HMAS Sydney I, HMAS Penguin (Shore Base - Balmoral), HMAS Hobart II, HMAS Tasmania, HMAS Vampire I, HMAS Huon I, HMAS Canberra I, HMAS Brisbane I, HMAS Perth I, HMAS Hobart I, HMAS Protector I, HMAS Albatross
- December 1974 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
So many wonderful stories come from Hobart officers and crew, of which the above is typical. One of the most true, and illustrating the interest Harry Howden had in his fellow man no matter of what rank, was the friendship which developed between himself and one of Hobart’s Telegraphists, Frank Sutton.
Nightly at 1900 hours Captain Howden wanted to hear the BBC news bulletin. As his ship carried the only high frequency direction finder unit on an Australian ship, the broadcast was picked up with clarity, to suit the captain. However, having established the habit of listening, the ship then being in the Red Sea, it soon developed that Captain Howden arrived a little earlier than the time of the broadcast, and daily the time of arrival came forward until he would arrive perhaps at 1830 and sit and talk to Sutton about the war generally, and expound his views on winning peace and what he would do.
One delightful story, and story only it may be, is told by the then torpedo officer, Lieutenant-Commander Tom Morrison (later Rear Admiral Flag Officer-in-Charge, Eastern Australia Area). Describing his captain as a cheerful, hard-working officer, and a strict if in some ways unpredictable disciplinarian, he recalls that it was rumoured in Hobart that a book was run as to whether a defaulter would receive 90 days’ detention or be let off scot free. (The writer recalls himself being punished with seven days’ number eleven – stoppage of leave and daily punishment – for simply hanging a pair of wet boots inside an open port whilst at anchor but within view of passers-by. It would have to be the captain who passed by!)
Captain Howden bore no malice. Once a thing was settled through punishment, it was forgotten.
His benevolence was a highlight of his character. He probably had more financial backing than most of his contemporaries, and he used some of it to entertain his fellow officers, their wives and, on a number of occasions, his ship’s company and their families. Most impressive of all was the party he gave, personally, aboard Hobart after her return from the Java Sea. He met every guest at the officers’ gangway, and insisted on meeting mothers, wives, sweethearts, etc., and talking at length to whomever he liked. The food was oversupplied, the sweets and ice cream came from a source unexpected for those days of restrictions. On the other side of the coin, his hospitality was repaid in part when he finally left Hobart in Brisbane after the Coral Sea engagements. A thoroughly professional model of Hobart was made by the ship’s OAs, from brass mounted upon blackened glass. This was presented to the skipper moments before he departed. The crew were invited to join him on the quarterdeck, and very touching speeches were vented. (It may be recalled that, when the US built destroyer Hobart first arrived in Sydney during September 1966, the same model was presented to her commanding officer. Captain Guy Griffith, RAN)
One of Captain Howden’s officers, then Lieutenant ‘Speed’ Gordon, had an influential friend, a publican in Brisbane, and the captain’s final goodwill gesture to his friends who had served him so well, and, it must be said, who he served so well, was to invite every officer and rating serving aboard his ship Hobart to free drinks at the nominated hotel. The scarcity of beer in those days was a mockery, as enough was procured to allow a most gratifying occasion.
As this respected captain moved to shore across the gangway, loud cheers rose from the mouths of all, and many tears were suppressed as calls of praise and endearment filled the air. In fact, as remembered by so many of the survivors of the day, as that man stepped ashore, hearts were heavy, and the thought of losing a friend was foremost in the minds of probably six hundred men. The writer, on the other hand, has had it from Harry personally, that his heart was also leaden, as little did he know, he was to be away from the action he had handled so well and away from the men who had given so much encouragement, for the duration of hostilities. Soon, however, he would make new friends, but under differing conditions.
Captain Howden was to take up the appointment of captain, HMAS Penguin, assisting in the planning and operation of the new, modern, and to this day, very successful naval depot at Balmoral, Sydney. In fact he spent, altogether some four years in this delightfully picturesque foreshore of the Middle Harbour district. So intent was he in planning a radical and revolutionary depot, and so successful was it, that it has been referred to as a monument to Captain Howden.
Space alone is the restrictor when words are put to print in which a life is described. One could and should mention so many details of such a fun-filled, action-packed and humanitarian existence as was experienced by Harry Howden. It is remembered of his early years as a young Lieutenant- Commander, when he had himself lowered over the side of Australia to rescue a sailor, in seas far too rough to allow the lowering of the sea boat. His reputation for carrying on the British traditions within the Service is well remembered. His appointment as the Royal Australian Navy representative to the coronation of King George VI and his appointment as ADC to the King seem in line with this reputation; and, as so many officers remember, their irreverent description of him as ‘Collar and Cuffs’ Howden, originally formed whilst serving in Albatross during the nineteen thirties as Commander, was to typify his insistence upon good dress of even Regal standard, for such was the height of entertainment Howden had and was to have in the future experience. To see a senior officer wearing the class-distinctive three-inch collar and five-inch cuffs so white, so stiff and so polished must surely have indicated the man’s determination in carrying on the traditions so quickly disappearing from the wardrooms afloat and the banquet halls ashore. His charm and gracious manner seemed fitted to good and correct dress.
On the success of his refloating a stranded Chinese ship by HMS Mantis during the sojourn on the upper Yangtse River during 1931, Commander Howden received high praise from the Commander-in-Chief, China Station, Admiral Kelly, RN. The method adopted was to scour the channel by means of the ship’s screws, thereby clearing away the riverbed enough to free the grounded ship.
Such was the success that orders were promulgated in permanent form to follow this procedure. No wonder the freed ship’s crew called out ‘Ta ying ping chien’ (Great British Gunboat) upon being refloated. The river there was notorious for the strength of the current and the hazards to navigation, to say nothing of the shelling by Communist guns during the refloating operation.