- Sullivan, John
- Ship design and development
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1987 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
(In the previous two issues of Naval Historical Review John Sullivan has written of the early establishment years of Williamstown Dockyard up to the outbreak of World War 2. This part completes the story up to the present day.)
SOME OF THE SHIPS which visited the Dockyard included the Free French destroyer, Le Triomphante, and the Dutch cruiser/destroyer, Tromp. I had read of these ships in a pre-war publication, and I was thrilled to find myself on board them. Tromp was classed as a destroyer pre-war to meet the terms of the Washington Treaty, but she was really a young cruiser. RAN types will know how much emphasis was placed on cleanliness in most of our ships, but I never saw anything to equal Tromp in this respect. Even RAN ships would get dirty and untidy when in dockyard hands, but not Tromp! Even in her boiler rooms you could literally eat a meal off of the deck. Another thing we ‘dockyard mateys’ liked on Tromp was the fact that her crew would invariably switch the conversation to English if we entered any compartment where they were talking. In this way they made sure we knew they weren’t being uncomplimentary about us, which we could not be so sure of when on board Le Triomphante. Some of the RAN ships on which I worked were Adelaide, Nizam, Napier, Quiberon, many corvettes, the minesweeper Orara and the former Chinese river-steamer Whang Pu. Many US ships, mainly destroyers, called into Williamstown. Two that I can remember were USS Blue (whose failure to detect a Japanese force whilst on radar picket duty resulted in the loss of HMAS Canberra and three US cruisers) and USS Bagley who was involved in the same action. One thing which surprised me with many of the American destroyers was the fact that, although the forward guns of the main armament had shields or turrets, the after guns had no such protection. It seemed that the shields on the forward guns were more to enable the guns’ crews to fight the guns in heavy weather than to provide some protection from enemy retaliation!
Earlier I referred to a mobile crane when telling of the large sunfish caught off the dock entrance. The old-timers will remember these. There was Leaping Lena, a huge self- propelled crane which ran on very broad-gauge rail tracks along the west side of the dry-dock. She was originally steam-operated, but in my day she had been converted to run by compressed air. Her speed would allow a hobbled snail to pass her, but she could lift a mighty load. The other two mobile cranes were steam-operated and ran on the normal Victorian 5’3” gauge tracks. Each had its 4-wheeled flat truck attached, and as well as carting bits ‘n’ pieces all over the Dockyard, they were used as shunting locomotives to bring Victorian Railways trucks from the railyard outside the Dockyard gates into the yard for unloading, and then returned the empty vehicles to VR property. In comparison to Leaping Lena they had a reasonable turn of speed.
Mention of Leaping Lena’s compressed air reminds me that at one stage I was attached to the Dockyard powerhouse for some weeks. Here was produced 120- and 240-volt electricity, as well as all the compressed air used in the yard. In those days of rivetted construction, air was used a very great deal to operate rivetting and caulking hammers, amongst many other tools and equipment. The main electricity generators were powered by two huge (and noisy!) Aktiebolaget diesels, and the main air compressor had a flywheel which must have been at least 20 feet in diameter. My major job was keeping the machinery clean, with the most dreaded job occurring when the big wheel was stopped, as it was always cleaned on these occasions. I think I had been sent to this noisy environment as a punishment for the bad behaviour to which I referred earlier, but fortunately this banishment did not last long. Shortly after I returned to the Dockyard in 1946, after my Navy service, someone had the bright idea of sending some of the lad labourers on designated routes with mobile tea trolleys at morning tea times. We had to collect a ticket for each cup of tea or coffee we dispensed, which tickets had been purchased previously in bulk by the employees. I don’t know how long this system lasted, but it was still in operation when I left the yard in 1947.