- Letter Writer
- History - general, Letter to the Editor
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 2000 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
At one period in my existence afloat in one of pusser’s corvettes it appeared that the way home was a bit of a lottery with Tojo in charge of the barrel and in possession of most of the marbles. In an act of defiance I bought a book – “First Steps in Astronomy”.
The idea was that if by chance I survived and fluked a seat in whaler, Carley float or rubber dinghy, I would know how to steer by the stars. As history has it, by the Grace of God or by pure joss we all made it back to Fremantle. My sparker mate, Harv, was with me when I bought the book which accompanied us for the rest of the war. Lying flat on my back on the upper deck I learned to recognise stars, planets and constellations.
A couple of weeks ago, star-gazing up in the mountains out of Beechworth, there was Sirius the dog star, acknowledged brightest in the sky and the heavenly home of Harv and those of the communications branch, who have passed through the Pearly Gate. There was a stream of glittering movement from Sirius through the constellations of Orion, the Hunter, thence Aldebaran, the red eye of the Bull, to the little cluster of the Pleiades which was exploding with luminosity.
I was still full of this vision when I hit the sack. Sometime in the middle watch there was transmitted through my mortal fog, the voice of Harv, veiled in a cloud of 3-Nuns pipe tobacco and pitched in the tone of a barracker for the Geelong Cats.
“Wake up, you old bastard. the mess has just returned from a booze-up in the Pleiades. Jacko was there and Lord Louis, Sam Benbow and Nobby Hall. The hosts were a mob of Greeks; beardy communicators named Homer, Plato, Aristotle and Zorba. No VB or Four X, only Ouzo. An old three-badge spruiker by the name of Socrates was skiting about how the Greeks had won the world’s first great naval battle and why the celebrations were being held in the Pleiades. The grog put me to sleep at half-time so you’d better type out the story and tape it on your garage roof so that I can read it next full moon.”
Harv was a pusser rating: cap and tally square over the right eye; Ming and the Libs. Socrates in his grubby shimmy shirt with no dickey front did not impress. Greeks to Harv were not naval men but dishers-up of scran in Paragon cafes. In the interest of ethnic peace and harmony in the heavens above, he had to be educated.
Socrates was talking about the Battle of Salamis which took place off the coast of Greece in 480 BC. At that time Persia was the then Yankee Doodle Dandy world power. Only the Greeks stood independent largely due to the fact that to conquer Athens, the Persians had never managed to cross the Aegean Sea. Just as the French and Germans had to cross the English Channel centuries later. Both Greece and Britain based defence on the navy and each designed and built ships of superior power. Britain’s dreadnoughts and Athen’s triremes.
The trireme was a galley of little freeboard. It was strengthened with a keel and frame with thick planking from stem to stern – unique to the Middle East of those days. It had a length of about 125 feet, beam of 20 feet and draft of 3 feet (38 x 6 x 1 metres). It had one big furlable sail. A huge pointed bow ram shod in bronze was its main weapon. The vessel was manned by some 200 officers and seamen and three tiers of oarsmen rowed it at seven knots (generally 85 paddlers on each side, though how they pulled together is still a mystery). The Athenian navy was vastly inferior to the Persians in quantity, but infinitely superior in quality.
In the spring of 480BC Xerxes, King of Persia, moved against Athens with a force revised to 300,000 men and a fleet of 800 vessels. Xerxes crossed from what is now Turkey, via a bridge of boats across Hellespont which narrow is downstream from Gallipoli. Despite heroic but tragic resistance from the Spartans, the Persian horde swept south. In Athens, women and children were evacuated and according to Plutarch, all the men caught the chariots to the Piraeus and joined the navy.