- Swan, W.M., Lietutenant Commander, RAN
- Biographies and personal histories
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 1975 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
This biography of Australia’s most distinguished Reserve Officer is told by his former First Lieutenant. Captain A. V. Knight, OBE, DSC, RD, US Legion of Merit RANR(S) Rtd, served with distinction in both World Wars. He was decorated in both and was Mentioned in Dispatches after the cessation of World War I. This is the story of an officer whose naval service commenced in 1915 and ended in 1947.
THE OXFORD DICTIONARY defines ‘errant’ as ‘roaming in quest of adventure (esp. Knight)’, and this sums up the exciting and adventurous life of the boy from 19th-century Kent who is now living in honoured retirement in Antipodean New South Wales.
Captain Knight was born in Dover in 1897 of a family with a long connection with the sea on his mother’s side. He vividly remembers his school days at St. Mary’s School, Dover, and his time in the local Scout Troop when he learned the knots, splices and signalling which were later to be so useful to him in his chosen profession.
From the age of 12 young Victor Knight was a chorister at the famous Norman church of St. Mary’s-in-the-Castle, Dover (Garrison Church of The Buffs and The Royal West Kent Regiments), walking up the hill to the castle three times a week. This experience, in such an historic setting in the heart of the Empire, was to leave a lasting impression.
In 1912, at the age of 15, he joined the Merchant Navy as a Cadet in the Roberts Steamship Company of Liverpool. His apprenticeship to Roberts was wholly served in the tramp steamer Batiscan, in which he was still serving when war broke out in 1914. By early 1915 young Knight, with his brother Gordon, now a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve (HMA Ships Swan and Parramatta), was eager to join the Navy. After some difficulties with his father, the Master of his ship, who was reluctant to release him, and the Admiralty, had been overcome, he was appointed Midshipman Royal Naval Reserve and to Chatham for training. His first ship was HMS Victorian, an Armed Merchant Cruiser of the 10th Cruiser Squadron engaged in intercepting ships bound for European ports.
November 1916 saw him appointed to the destroyer HMS Owl, Senior Officer of the 4th Destroyer Flotilla, in which ship he was promoted Sub-Lieutenant. After a gunnery course at Chatham he was then appointed to HMS Crusader, a destroyer of the Dover Patrol. Crusader paid off in April 1918, and Knight was sent to HMS Hindustan with an overflow party attached to the Force assembling for the historic operations to block Ostend and Zeebrugge. An event now occurred that was to have a profound effect upon him. The Captain of Hindustan called to farewell a friend, Lieut. Cdr. Hardy, on board Sirius, one of the ships of the Force bound for Ostend. There he learned that the Sub- Lieutenant of Sirius had injured himself adjusting a smoke float. On returning to Hindustan, the Captain asked Knight would he like to go on the operation to replace Sirius’s injured Sub. Knight’s eager reply was never in doubt and he, together with a duffle coat and a pair of sea boots, was bundled into the waiting boat. The story of the historic assault on Ostend is well known and, when awards were announced after the operation, there was a DSC for Sub- Lieutenant Knight, RNR.
His last ships of World War I were TB111 and the sloop Ormond and, after the Armistice, he volunteered for the vast mineclearance programme which lay ahead for the Allies. Not every officer who volunteered was chosen for these MC duties and, once again, the now 22-years-old Knight was favoured by a lucky break, being chosen for these duties. Appointed to HMS Northolt he was shortly promoted Lieutenant and became First Lieutenant of this ship, which was based on Lerwick and sweeping the mine barrage in the North Sea. He served in Northolt until October 1919, and was awarded a Mention-in-Dispatches for these duties.
Demobbed in January 1920, Knight went straight to a Navigation School in London where he studied for his Master’s Certificate, passing this examination in February 1920. Returning to the Merchant Navy, he joined the Booth Line as 3rd Officer, but transferred to Alfred Holt’s Blue Funnel Line for quicker promotion. He now saw Australia for the first time, serving in SS Charon in Western Australian waters until 1924. In this period Knight met the Acting- Director of Naval Reserves, Cdr. Leo Quick, who persuaded him to transfer to the RANR(S). After several months in command of a Malayan Customs Patrol Service Motor Cruiser, he went to Flinders Naval Depot to pass Gunnery and Torpedo Courses, then to Sydney to join the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand, a company which over half a century provided many good officers for the RAN Reserve. Knight served in many ships of the Union Line, including those fine vessels Aorangi, Niagara and Awatea, meanwhile rising in the Reserve to Lieutenant-Commander on 1st January 1931, and Commander on 30th June 1937.
When the Second World War broke out he was still in the Union Company, with his home in Sydney. The RAN did not mobilise him straight away as in the first months of the war there were few unfilled Commanders’ appointments. However, in March 1940, Knight was appointed to the Staff at Navy Office, Melbourne, where he made many useful contacts, saw the conduct of the war in this area from HQ and served until February 1941, when he was appointed in command of the corvette HMAS Lithgow. In this, his first naval command, he was the Senior Officer of a group of four corvettes operating mostly in north Australian waters. In January 1943, he left Lithgow after a happy 22 months, receiving the OBE in the New Year Honours of that year for his service in corvettes.
His appointment to command HMAS Westralia, the RAN’s second Landing Ship Infantry, in February 1943, was a great feather in Knight’s brass hat. Commands of 10,000 ton white ensign ships were scarce and not given lightly, and it was to be his biggest naval command. He joined Westralia during her conversion in Sydney from an AMC to an LSI, and was to take her through her working-up and training periods, and her first four invasions. There is not space here to describe these 20 historic months of Knight’s association with Westralia. I refer the reader to my book Spearheads of Invasion which covers these events in much detail. It was possibly Knight’s greatest achievement, performed at a time when he was at the peak of his mental and physical powers. As Captain of a major war vessel employed on the new-style Combined Operations, now called Amphibious Warfare, Knight expected the best from his officers and ratings aboard Westralia – and got just that.
He had travelled a long way in 35 years from a chorister trudging for two miles up to the Norman church in Dover Castle in 1909, to the Captain of an invasion ship on that dramatic morning of 20th October 1944, on the other side of the world, when the shape of the Japanese-held island of Leyte loomed grey ahead in the dawn light. The boy who had watched Louis Bleriot, the first to fly the English Channel from Calais to Dover on 25th July 1909, land in southern Kent, had become the man invading the Philippines with 2,500 soldiers and sailors under his command.
For his distinguished service in command of Westralia, Knight received the US Legion of Merit (Degree of Officer), was appointed ADC to His Excellency the Governor- General, and subsequently promotion to the rank of Captain RANR(S).
From Westralia he went to Sea Transport Officer, Sydney, a responsible appointment at that stage of the war with Australia a major Allied base for the final blows against Japan. Although disappointed at receiving a shore appointment on the eve of even bigger invasions in the north and, perhaps, victory at sea, Knight, now in his 48th year, was once again associated with the Merchant Navy and also with the newly formed British Pacific Fleet. These were a busy two and a half years for him, and he met many interesting people and steered vital projects to completion.
Demobbed in July 1947, he joined what was to become the Australian National Line of well-found freighters trading round the Australian coast. In these 15 years he commanded many ships, the largest being the bulk-carrier Mount Kembla. On his retirement in 1962, the Australian National Line gave him a farewell dinner in Melbourne and a presentation watch. But it was just after he had retired from the Merchant Navy that he was to receive, in addition to his four decorations, an honour very dear to him. He was appointed the first Commodore of the Australian National Line, being recalled to carry out an inauguration voyage, as such, to Yampi Sound and back to Port Kembla with iron ore. He thus became Australia’s first and only Commodore of any shipping line, and in 1972 this was changed in his retirement to ‘Honorary Commodore of the Fleet, Australian National Line’ – something akin to a distinguished soldier being made Honorary Colonel of his Regiment. On Anzac Days in Sydney he stands with the Commanders of the three Services at the Dawn Service at the Cenotaph, representing the MN, and later leads the Westralia, Manoora and Kanimbla in the Anzac march through Sydney.
Since 1963 Knight has lived in retirement in Double Bay, beloved by so many naval men; but it has been a busy time. Justice of the Peace, an Assessor to the Marine Court of Enquiry, President of the Naval Officers’ Club, National Patron of the AMCs and LSIs Association, a member of the Hon. Company of Master Mariners of the City of London, a foundation member of the Naval Historical Society of Australia, and other interests have kept his days full and active, including an associate directorship of Multicon Engineering Pty. Ltd.
Spanning six reigns, this is an inspiring story of a life of duty by a worthy officer of the British Empire, a British seaman whose love of the Navy has burned bright for 60 years.