- Thomson, Max
- Ship histories and stories
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1991 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Navy history keeps bobbing up in the most unexpected places.
Browsing through an antique shop ‘up north’ a Navy enthusiast spotted the wartime shield of the RAN 817 Squadron Fleet Air Arm. Snapping it up, he steered it to Ron Bremner of Wandiligong, Victoria. A crewman of ML 816 (among other ships), Ron was spearheading a reunion of Fairmile men at Sydney’s Combined Services Club.
Appreciating the value of the ML shield, he steered it to a couple of ML 817’s original commissioning crew now living in Melbourne.
Bearing the Navy emblem and the letter ML 817, the shield features the sub-chaser’s wartime crest in full colour complete with its Latin catchcry ‘Aside Facere’. On the reverse side is the wording ‘1943 – Shield of RAN Fairmile ML 817’.
Arrangements are in hand to present this fascinating little piece of small-ship memorabilia to the Director of the Hobart Museum, Tasmania – for good reasons.
ML 817’s original commanding officer was Lt. Cdr. Athol Townley, of Hobart, who in post-war years became MHR for Benison, achieving a string of important portfolios in the Menzies Government culminating in his appointment as Australia’s Minister for Defence. He was Ambassador designate to the United States of America at the time of his sudden death on Christmas Eve, 1963.
Prior to commissioning ML 817, Townley had commanded the patrol vessel Steady Hour which helped sink one of the Japanese midget submarines in Sydney Harbour on the night of May 31, 1942.
His ML 817 was the first of the Fairmiles to go to New Guinea where it operated along the New Guinea coastline harassing Japanese barge traffic, undertook a good deal of ‘cloak and dagger’ surveillance work and a share of antisubmarine patrols and convoy work.
NOIC New Guinea (Cdr. G.C.F. Branson RN) with his staff officer operations (Lt. A.A. Joel [later Sir Asher Joel]) boarded ML 817 for the AIF invasion at Lae in which operation ML 817 had a role regulating the movement of vessels in the amphibious force.
Off Morobe, ML 817 made rendezvous with the survey corvette HMAS Shepparton. Both vessels were attacked by nine Betty medium bombers. They were well straddled and ML 817 had 40 holes and significant punctures in its hull after the attack. Both vessels survived but ML 817’s engines had been thrown out of alignment. One propeller was inoperative and only three knots could be achieved on the other screw. The crew hid the Fairmile under jungle foliage then, by night, laboriously worked the Fairmile down the coastline to Buna. Ultimately it was towed all the way back to Sydney for repairs.
When Athol Townley died, his family gave Hobart Museum important items of memorabilia from his collection. The white ensign flown by ML 817 in the action at Morobe south of Lae was also presented to Hobart Museum by ML 817’s signalman. Now, the little sub-chaser’s original wartime shield recovered so unexpectedly from an antique shop, will be added to the collection for preservation and as a tribute to Cdr. Athol Townley who went on to command a whole flotilla of Fairmiles in New Guinea after having captained the very first of them to see service in those waters.