CONDAMINE, one of four modified river class frigates (the others being Shoalhaven, Murchison and Culgoa) was built by the State Dockyard at Newcastle, NSW.
Laid down on the 3rd of October 1943, launched on the 4th of November 1944, and commissioned on the 22nd of February 1946, she was armed with 4 x 4’ guns, 5 x 40mm Bofors, hedgehog anti submarine projectiles and depth charges. Quite a formidable outfit for a ship of 1,544 tons displacement.
From the time of commissioning, she served in NSW waters proceeding to New Guinea, Darwin and Kangaroo Island in South Australia, on routine and towing duties, following which, she went into refit at Williamstown Dockyard.
Following her refit, Condamine again served in the New Guinea area, returning to the Sydney area, having steamed some 63,000 miles in the first two-and-a-half years since commissioning.
From 1949 until 1951, Condamine was deployed in the East Australia area on anti submarine training and exercises, visits to various ports including such exotic places as Portland, Hobart and Twofold Bay, under the command of Lt. Cdr. A.W. Salisbury, RANR.
In March 1952, Condamine loaded some twenty tons of stores and provisions for Lord Howe Island. (I do not think there were any bottles of Chardonnay, as Neville Wran was not a frequent visitor at that time.) On the Monday morning, having bade our fond farewells, we were at No. 1 Buoy, Farm Cove ready to set forth. To the consternation of most of us, sailing was delayed, with no reason being given. About two hours later, tugs arrived alongside and moved us to the Cruiser Wharf. Not long afterwards, HMAS Wagga came alongside and the stores were transferred to her. At lunchtime, lower deck was cleared and the commanding officer put us in the picture. Instead of a balmy two- week cruise to Lord Howe, we were to have a nine-week refit and go to Korea to relieve HMAS Warramunga.
The refit involved, among other things, the removal of the original Bofors outfit, they being replaced with the you beaut new electro-hydraulic version. We were also fitted with the first type 974 radar in the RAN (Some years later, I was informed by Cdr. Col Stewart, when I was serving in HMAS Sydney, that I had the distinction of having served in the first and last ships in the RAN to be fitted with type 974 radar. In this age of trivia I considered that information to be too important not to be included.)
Eventually, we were as ready as we could be, our numbers had been brought up to our complement of 217, we had fully stored and taken on our full stocks of ammunition. Perhaps the only thing that was not fully stocked was enthusiasm for what lay ahead. We now had a new Commanding Officer, Lt. Cdr. R.C. Savage, DSC, RAN. After a short work up to see if we could frighten an enemy any more than we did our friends, and by now, as a result of the very high standards of work carried out by Garden Island Dockyard, we were ready to get amongst it.
In June 1952, Condamine sailed from Sydney for Korea, via Darwin and Singapore. From Singapore, she proceeded nonstop to Kure in Japan. It is a tribute to the designers of this class of ship that such a distance could be covered in one run. The majority of the pre-refit complement had been retained. A large number of whom were Ordinary Seamen under training, and as is usually the case, acquitted themselves well during the tour of duty.
My role at the time was the ‘Chippy’. I was a joiner 4th class and you don’t come much lower down the scale than that. I was fully prepared for the great struggle, never having done a damage control course or being versed in the noble craft of boat building or any of the wonders of the shipwrights calling. However, a small matter like gross ignorance was not to deter me.
We had laid in damage control stores and by good fortune, I had had enough instinct to order some 4’ x 4’ shoring which came in useful at a later date. By the time Condamine arrived in Kure, we were no longer considered a hazard to navigation and more so, to ourselves. The gunners were shooting quite well, and were known to occasionally hit what they were aiming at. At last we reckoned we were ready to show the North Koreans a thing or two.
On the 4th of August 1952, Condamine took her war station off the Haeju Peninsula on the west coast of Korea, as a unit of Task Unit 95.12.4. I don’t know how these numbers are arrived at, but I daresay the Seamen would be aware.
On the 7th of August, Condamine fired her first angry shots when she bombarded North Korean positions on the mainland opposite Hudo Island. The following day, Condamine relieved USS Kimberly as Task Unit Commander, defending the Chodo-Sokto Islands at the mouth of the Chinnampo River. The following week consisted of daily bombardments, with air support from the carrier group over the horizon. (They must have been well out to sea, as we never caught sight of them.)
During one of our actions, we were dismayed to actually see an R.N. Firefly aircraft blown up in mid air by a good bit of enemy shooting. It brought home to us that the naval war was not entirely one sided.
We were relieved by HMS St. Brides Bay and proceeded to Sasebo in Japan, having to go hundreds of miles out of our way to avoid a typhoon. Can’t say that I would recommend a frigate and typhoon combination as a desirable way to travel. The deck edge was close to being immersed on a number of occasions and I recall sitting down for the midday meal which was stew of indeterminate ancestry. The ship rolled, everything on the table started to slide and I could not fend off everything at once. The devil was determined that I was not to be denied this culinary delight however, as the plate of stew slid gracefully off the table and landed on my lap without spilling a drop. It had probably coagulated on the way.
After a spell in Sasebo during which we took about an hour or so it seemed, to pass USS Missouri (they are big ships), Condamine set off for the east coast to show the presence there reporting to the Task Unit Commander off the Yongdo area, relieving HMS Mounts Bay.
Our area of action was from Yongdo to Chongjin in the north to Chado in the south, giving the North Korean railways a hard time.
This activity consisted of lurking offshore with the main armament loaded, ranged and ready, waiting for any train to work up a full head of steam in the tunnels which formed a large part of the rail system. At the first sign of steam, etc., rushing out of the tunnel, it was the signal that the driver was making a run for it, and we would open up on him trying to blow him off the tracks. The North Koreans had not however, come down in the last shower, as they invariably had a locomotive at each end of the train, which meant that even a direct hit on the train did not guarantee success, as the train could be pulled into tunnels at both end of the clear area if it was hit. We knocked out at least one train, although the Task Unit Commander who was in the vicinity, claimed that it was his guns that did the damage (sounds like an America’s Cup deal).
Condamine had some satisfaction at a later stage, when on the 10th of September we bombarded Tanchon and demolished six buildings which had previously been untouched. Later in the same patrol, we were steaming up the east coast towards Wonsan, on a bright sunny day, and came upon USS Iowa with what seemed to be half the cruiser and destroyer strength of the US Navy, in company, with more than 230 jet and other aircraft circling around. As we got near this force, Iowa appeared to blow up. This was not the case however, as she had just fired a broadside from her main armament. What a sight! The city of Wonsan was on the receiving end of all this and I for one, was glad they were on our side.
Knowing the difficulties that Iowa would be having, our fearless leader signalled ‘Do you require assistance?’. Iowa did reply in a printable manner to the effect, ‘Go away, little man.’ It was quite obvious that Iowa did not know with whom she was dealing. As a matter of interest, Condamine steamed 2,577 miles in 19 days, on that patrol.
We were relieved by HMS Charity on the 11th of September and returned to Kure for a maintenance period of docking. Following this break, we returned to our old haunt, the Haeju Peninsula, on the west coast, relieving HMS St. Brides Bay once again.
It was during this period that the North Koreans put over a very convincing story on the radio, that Condamine had been sunk by North Korean shore batteries, with the loss of all on board. The story was convincing enough for British Headquarters in Japan to send a Canadian destroyer out to take our place on station. As we had been maintaining radio silence at the time, we did not realise that we were in such dire straits. The story reached Australia, spread like wildfire around Cerberus, and even reached Taree in NSW as an aunt of mine called to see my wife to enquire whether she had received any recent mail. An AB Jones had been left ashore in Kure and had the news broken to him that we had been lost. It seemed that we must have had made some impact on the locals, as all the haunts had hung black crepe and drapes in mourning for us! A pity we had to turn up and spoil a good wake!
Our next patrol saw us back in the bombardment business supporting raids by South Korean wolfpack guerillas. I believe that these wolfpacks were so good at their tasks, that even now, their modus operandi is classified, in case it is needed again, as the relations between the two Koreas are not altogether affable.
One raid was a bit of a disaster, as this John Wayne clone (a US Marine Major), found out to his cost. We laid down a barrage to cover this particular effort, and the Major took his team in. On the appointed time, he leapt out, guns blazing, and tried to take North Korea single handed. True! His troops stayed put and as a result, he copped some return fire, mostly in the chest and had to be rescued.
We were told of the situation ashore, and called up air support. Some Corsair aircraft arrived in a hurry and plastered the North Korean positions with napalm. Nasty stuff. It was the biggest barbecue I had ever been to. I think we won that one.
After a spell in Kure, we returned to our stamping grounds on the west coast. We never did any more east coast patrols as we did not have the speed to keep up with the requirement. We were flat out at 18 knots. Condamine relieved St. Brides Bay once again and with units of the South Korean Navy, we spent a couple of weeks guarding offshore islands, anchoring at night between the islands and the mainland, to ensure the security of the islands. Those were the nights of nuisance shooting, which consisted of firing a 4’ round every hour, but not necessarily on the hour, to keep the North Koreans on their toes. We fired star shell to help them see what we did not want them to do. I don’t know if the NK’s thought it a nuisance, but it certainly was to us! As having been jolted awake by the gun firing, there was the interminable wait for the shell case to be picked up and tossed from the gun deck to the upper deck and roll down to the sick bay sky-light on the port side. I suppose the reason that the port side was favoured could have been that the wardroom and officers’ cabins were on the starboard side and I daresay the occupants needed their beauty sleep!
From then until the remainder of our fair weather patrols, it was harassing gunfire and routine patrolling, except for the memorable occasion, when our seeming supremacy was challenged.
We were escorting a South Korean minesweeper about two or so miles, could have been a bit more, from offshore, when the sound of gunfire attracted our attention, about 1 p.m. When waterspouts started appearing about a hundred yards from our starboard beam, it attracted a whole lot more attention! We went to action stations faster than the proverbial speeding bullet. I had my working tools on the workbench I had on the quarterdeck between the depth charge racks. I went down the starboard side as the after 4” mounting started to train, grabbed my tools and burst back up the port side. As I got adjacent the mounting, the first shells were fired. The gun crew must have been extremely quick, as I was not wasting any time. Luckily I was pointing towards the bulkhead door, as when the gun fired, I must have leapt four feet into the air and if I had not been pointing at the door, I would have certainly gone straight over the guard rails in one bound and at the pace I was going, would have travelled several yards before my ankles got wet. Anyway, after a fierce duel with the shore batteries, during which time, the after mounting was oversupplied with ammunition, we knocked out one position, called up air support, who fixed a second position and the others called it quits. We were blooded but not bloodied, and from that day, we considered that we had earned our gongs, and although we never matched Murchison and her exploits on the Han River, we felt justifiably proud of ourselves and when ANZAC arrived on the scene afterwards, we felt that we had an edge on them.
During this action, there was one casualty. AB Rose had his hand caught in the ammunition hoist near the after mounting and had to be cut loose from the rope which had jammed on the winch drum. Apart from that the only other noticeable effect was the 216 cases of bowel disorder and temporary incontinence. Who said war was not fun?
Our next patrol was to see the effects of a severe winter.
It was believed to have been the coldest winter for ten years. I suppose it was, seeing that we were in the middle of it. It was fascinating by day, to see the ocean frozen over for miles in all directions, with ice floes of very large dimensions looking very ominous indeed. At night, it was a case of maintaining way all the time, or risk being frozen in and at the mercy of tides and currents. At night lying in the hammock, listening to the floes scraping along the side for all the world like a great tin opener, made one thankful to the naval architect who had specified 3/8’ plating for the construction. No doubt, the occupants of the lower seamen’s and stokers’ mess had very similar thoughts.
One night we ran into a snowstorm and woke to a mantle of snow some 3’ thick on the upper decks and our guard rail wires caked in ice nearly 4’ thick. That had to be cleared quickly on account of topweight considerations.
As a result of a recreation run ashore on one of the islands the plight of a group of orphans was noted. They did not appear to have any prospects for the future, so a committee of four, under Mr. Frank Stubbs, R.N. our gunner, was formed to organise the collection of money and the purchase of toys and other goodies to help brighten up the orphans’ Christmas. This was duly done and the looks of joy on the kids and the orphanage staff faces when the toys, etc. were handed around, made it all worthwhile. We earned the title of the Christmas Ship for that effort.
Condamine spent Christmas at sea, with a quiet day for a change, although the Sydney newspapers knew better. Cuttings sent to us indicated that we had spent Christmas day slugging it out with communist shore batteries and that we had inflicted heavy damage and casualties. Of course, we did not realise that we had been subjected to so much excitement. It must have been the Ballarat beer the RSL sent us for Christmas that caused it. Nevertheless, the parcels of goodies sent to us by the RSL, the gifts from Lord Nuffield, the rations of barley sugar, malted milk tablets and cod liver oil capsules combined with the Christmas dinner made it a pleasant day. We had received the barley sugar, malted milk tablets and cod liver oil as a result of a tuberculosis scare on Arunta. For the first few issues, it was a real novelty. After that you could not give the stuff away, although there were some suspiciously similar products on sale at some of the food stalls in Kure the next time we were there.
We engaged in routine patrols, escort duties, bombardments of varying success and generally made a good reputation for ourselves as a reliable and competent unit until 15th March 1953 when we completed our final operation.
During her time in Korea, Condamine steamed some 22,000 miles on operations, fired a considerable number of 4” rounds, expended some Bofor ammunition in sinking stray boats and mines and on one hilarious occasion, we fired off some hedgehog projectiles when LEM Onley tested the firing circuits while they were open and ready for firing. He thought it was funny, but the sailor who had been sunning himself at the front of the hedgehog mounting did not agree.
On 20th April 1953 Condamine returned to Sydney via Hong Kong where she had been relieved by HMAS Culgoa. We steamed nonstop from Hong Kong to Cairns where we picked up Customs and our navigator conveniently dropped the Barrier Reef chart over the side, only to see it sucked into the condenser intake. We made the passage safely however.
You will recall that I mentioned earlier about getting some shoring timber, which came in useful at a later stage.
This was the occasion when we met HMS Cossack who had some mail for us. In going alongside for a heaving line transfer, the wind caught us and we bumped Cossack damaging our bow. Cossack threatened to open up on us if we tried it again and consequently, we got the mail some time later from a tanker. Anyway, as a result of the damage to our bow, my ignorance of damage control came to the fore and with the assistance of Stoker John McHugh, I proceeded up into the cordage locker to plug up the hole.
We used a bale of rags and a wooden pad that I had fabricated to plug the hole and I told the Stoker to go down to the ship’s office flat and bring up a couple of lengths of the shoring timber. The Executive Officer, who was crowding the available space and who would have done a better job than the bale of rags, said, and I quote, ‘What are you going to do with those?’ To which I replied ‘I am going to cut them up and shore the bale and pad into place.’ ‘You can’t do that,’ he said, and to my reply of ‘Why not’, he informed me that he had had them cleaned up for captain’s rounds on the following Saturday. That was when I spoke the series of four letter words that I had picked up along the way. The shoring was cut up and did the job until we returned to Kure when repairs were carried out by the Dockyard.
Condamine returned to Korea for a second tour of duty until the Armistice, under the command, I believe of Lt. Cdr. B.S. Murray. In 1954 she was based in Darwin on pearling and fishing surveillance duties and returned to Sydney on the 14th of November 1955. She paid off into reserve on the 2nd of December 1955, having steamed some 180,000 miles since commissioning. She was never recommissioned and was sold out of service in 1960.
Thus ended Condamine. She had served the RAN for a period of nine years. Hardly out of warranty. But she joined her sisters as probably the most under utilised class of ship ever to have served the Royal Australian Navy. These ships deserved better.