- Roberts, W.O.C., DSC, Lietutenant Commander, RAN
- Naval history
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 1976 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
IN THE LATTER PART of World War 2, twelve British designed frigate hulls were built in Australian shipyards. These were ships of 300ft. overall length fitted with two triple expansion reciprocating steam engines giving a maximum speed of around 18 knots. Beyond these basic specifications the ships were fitted out to local Australian requirements, eight of the class favouring anti-submarine capability whilst the remaining four were designated anti-aircraft frigates. The latter were armed with twin four inch mountings fore and aft and with five 40mm Bofors guns. Their anti-submarine armament consisted of a hedgehog forward and depth charges aft. They were named Condamine, Culgoa, Murchison and Shoalhaven.
Because they were heavily armed for their size, cheap and therefore presumably expendable these proved to be ideal ships for the peculiar circumstances of the Korean war of 1950-1953 where shallow draft and good endurance were of more importance than high speed and modern weaponry and in this conflict all four vessels played a distinguished part.
The Murchison played as active a part as any and on hearing that I had been her First Lieutenant during her Korean deployment your Editor approached me some months ago with the request that I should write an article covering that period.
I concurred, and my first step was to approach the Australian Archives for approval to inspect the relevant logbooks and reports of proceedings. I felt that these would provide not only accurate times and dates but that perusal of them would recall places and events hitherto forgotten.
However, I found that a 30 year embargo exists on the casual study of such documents and whilst, as one of the original authors, permission has not been refused me, none the less after the elapse of six months it has not been granted either.
In the absence of any authentic documentation I have been forced to rely on a failing memory assisted by those of various shipmates with whom I have shared reminiscences. However, I do have the advantage of possessing the transcript of a tape recording of a talk on the subject which I gave to the Society some time ago. I present it herewith suitably edited and with explanatory notes inserted as necessary to ensure the coherence of the narrative.
The New Year of 1951 found HMAS Murchison engaged in daily running out of Sydney training anti-submarine classes from Watson. The navy was then, as it always seems to be, very short of hands, and although we were a fully commissioned ship with a laid down war complement of about 200, we were running in fact with a total complement of 60; that is Officers, Chiefs, Petty Officers and sailors. Sixty! We could steam overnight, but only just and generally speaking we were an eight to four job out every day chasing clockwork mouse submarines. Although the ship was designated and armed as an anti-aircraft frigate her underwater detection capability was the equal to that of the designated anti-submarine frigates; only the armaments differed. Murchison at this time was commanded by Lieutenant Commander AN. Dollard, RAN – later Commodore DSC – who remained with her throughout her time in Korea.
Then in April 1951, out of the blue as far as I was concerned anyway, the ship was detailed for service in Korea and allowed about four weeks to prepare. And now followed what I would honestly consider to be the most hectic four weeks of my life.
The ship had settled down to a pleasant routine with sixty fellows on board and quite naturally these had expanded to occupy all the available space, so the ship was nice and comfortable and everyone had the space of four and the sailors reckoned this extra space was essential and there was no way they could do with less. Furthermore at some time a good half of the messdeck lockers had been landed, quite improperly, to increase the space and there was no record of where they were, nor did any machinery exist for drawing new ones as they were ship’s fittings. It was only with the cooperation of many friends in the Dockyard and after the exchange of much duty free largesse that replacements arrived in the nick of time just before we sailed. How on earth such matters are arranged these days when the unfortunate First Lieutenant has to deal with a computer which neither drinks nor smokes I cannot imagine.
Then came the manning problem. This was solved by the authorities by means of a simple signal around the fleet saying words to the effect ‘Ship X is to provide Y number of sailors in the following categories’. Well! Naturally every ship in the fleet took this Godsent chance to rid itself of its King’s hard bargains. Thus in a few days we were brought up to nearly full war complement with these characters arriving on board looking askance at their accommodation and amenities and many of them bearing with them the most spectacular conduct sheets. However, it is interesting to observe that this unlikely group developed into the keenest, liveliest and most efficient ship’s company with which it has ever been my privilege to serve. As I see it, in their former ships they were the above average intelligence type of sailor who found themselves bored rigid with peacetime routine. In an operational situation they found a meaning in the drills and discipline and responded accordingly.
Finally, early in May, we sailed from Sydney without any kind of work up, with stores still scattered around the ship, even on the upper deck, and still twelve sailors short. The manning authorities solved this problem by selecting twelve ordinary seamen from a recruit class in Cerberus, flying them up to Brisbane and sending them out in the pilot ship John Oxley whence we picked them up on the way past. It was twelve weeks from the day they had first donned Naval uniform; and in another twelve weeks they were to be in action.
The crew of a Mark XVI 4 inch mounting consists of a layer and trainer, two gun captains and twelve loading numbers. On our recruits we adjusted the quarter bill to make them the after 4 inch guns crew loading numbers and together with the four senior rates making up the remainder of the crew put them all in the one messdeck. It was a most successful arrangement; these sixteen, under the outstanding leadership of the Officer of Quarters who was also the Chief Boatswain’s Mate, became an excellent gun’s crew which was to perform brilliantly in the months to come.