- Johnston, Anthony, DSM, Lieutenant Commander, RAN and Francis, Richard
- RAN operations, Ship histories and stories, 21st century wars/conflict
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Adelaide II
- June 2007 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Because of the remote location of the Coalition’s naval forces in the Persian Gulf, very little news about their day to day activities is reported in the Australian media, apart from the occasional ‘good news’ story in Navy News. ((A brief outline of this incident originally appeared in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail newspaper 26 January 2006, announcing awards of the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) to both LCDR Johnston and PO Keitley, for coolly defusing a situation that could have ballooned into a major international incident.))
An unusual incident (( The Courier-Mail article was subsequently republished in the February 2006 edition of TOUCHDOWN (the Australian Navy Aviation Safety and Information Magazine), now acknowledged as the basis of the above NHS article, with the kind permission of its editor, LCDR Shane Firkin RAN. Additional details were obtained by later discussions with LCDR Johnston, for publication in NHSA Review.)) developed from a routine boarding operation carried out by the guided missile frigate HMAS Adelaide (Commander Bruce Victor RAN) on patrol at the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab river at the extreme head of the Gulf on 6 December 2004. Acting on directions from the (USN) naval force commander, Adelaide was sent to investigate a large Ro-Ro vessel ((Ro-Ro vessel – roll on/roll off cargo ship fitted with either bow or stern doors, or side door access for vehicles, or a vehicular ferry.)) which had run aground on a sandbank and remained stuck there for an extended period. The boarding party was despatched several miles distant from the ship in two RHIB ((RHIBs – Rigid hull inflatable boats – standard 7m and 12m seaboats carried in most RAN vessels, configured specially for carrying out boarding operations.)) (rigid hull inflatable boats) to check the status of the vessel. This had been checked on several occasions previously. Overhead observation and top cover of the operation was conducted by the ship’s embarked Seahawk helicopter ((Seahawk – Sikorski S-70B-2 model embarked as ship’s flights for A/S, surveillance and general purpose helicopters.)). Adelaide’s Flight Commander, LCDR Tony Johnston, was airborne as TACCO and Mission Commander, along with Pilot Lieutenant Sam Dale and Sensor operator (SENSO) POA Andrew Watson. Once the boarding party of twelve personnel and two interpreters led by POCD Keitley had embarked without incident on the vessel and the boats had laid off, the helicopter departed to conduct a surface surveillance mission in the Northern Arabian Gulf (NAG).
Some time after the helicopter had departed, the boarding party sighted a small boat in the distance coming towards them at speed. The unidentified boat was soon followed by several others. These were assessed as belonging to the Iranian Republican Guard ((Iranian Republican Guard Coast Guard (Navy) – also known as the Pasdaran)) Corps Navy (IRGCN) – a maverick organisation known to have carried out the detention of a similar Royal Navy boarding party earlier in the year.
While the boarding party went about their business, Adelaide’s boats came under threat from the newcomers, and with only the coxswains remaining onboard, withdrew from the scene to avoid any escalation. At the height of the confrontation with the Iranians, as many as six IRGCN armed boats circled the stranded vessel, with their crews brandishing AK-47 rifles, assorted small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and rocket launchers. The Australian boarding party, armed only with light side arms, 9mm pistols and two shotguns, prepared to fend off the threatening boarders.
LCDR Johnston in the helicopter had by now completed his surface patrol and was returning to Adelaide. Once onboard, Johnston was informed of the developing situation by the Command Team and began making immediate preparations to relaunch. Upon returning, the aircraft had been released for programmed maintenance, which was quickly stopped. The flight maintainers set to, to return the helicopter to full serviceability, which they achieved in less than half an hour, enabling a rapid response to the unfolding crisis.
Johnston and his crew, now supplemented by Lieutenant John Flynn in the rear cabin, took up a watching position two miles to the west of the incident ship at 1000 feet. From this vantage point the aircraft could easily surveil the entire area and its approaches, keep clear of weapon envelopes and maintain good communications with all parties.