A View from the Accounts Branch
IT WAS IN 1933 that I first became acquainted with the Royal Australian Navy and HMA Naval Establishments at Garden Island. At that time I was a very young reporter on the Southland Times in Invercargill. New Zealand, and I planned a visit to Sydney so that I could have a look at the two fine cruisers HMAS Australia and HMAS Canberra. I also wanted to see Garden Island because the year before I had visited HMS Philomel at the Devonport Naval Base at Auckland. My written request to visit either Australia or Canberra was approved, and in April 1933, the visits were made as scheduled.
To say that I was pleased that these doors were being opened for me would be an understatement. I was very ‘navy conscious’, having read the history of the RN and RAN in the 1914-18 War. The victory of HMAS Sydney over the Emden in November 1914, and Vice-Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee’s revenge at the Battle of the Falkland Islands in December 1914, together with the action off Jutland, were the prime events of my life. I wanted to join the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy, but vacancies were few and I had no family support; I had to be content with reading accounts of actions at sea, and visiting ships and establishments when the opportunity offered. I was, therefore, delighted to be taken over Canberra, secured to a buoy in Farm Cove, and later, to walk around Garden Island, full of history and with buildings dating back to the 19th century.
In 1936 I spent three months in China and Japan, and on my return I became acquainted with people who lived in the venerable mansion on the end of Potts Point called ‘Tarana’. As we looked over the harbour, little did any of us realise that in three short years World War II would completely change the character of the land and seascape, and that Garden Island would become part of the mainland, and an immense graving dock built between the Island and Potts Point. The rooms in which we were enjoying the winter sunshine were destined to become the administrative centre of the Flag Officer-in-Charge, East Australian Area, and accepted as an integral part of the proud tradition of the Royal Australian Navy. If anyone had said to me then that I would spend twenty years of my life at Garden Island I would have dismissed it as the wildest sort of fantasy, but this is what happened, and early in 1943 I commenced duty as personal assistant to John Dillon Keating, Accountant and Officer-in-Charge of financial matters affecting the NSW area. I was in the Navy at last, but under very different circumstances from those imagined in my youthful dreams and aspirations.
This article deals with my first three years at Garden Island. It was the end of a historic era that had commenced in 1914. The post-war years at Garden Island saw the introduction of new ships, both in design and construction, new techniques and new weapons. Electronic equipment turned fighting ships into EDP units; now both officers and sailors are highly trained specialists in their own departments – the survival of a navy today depends upon a supply of dedicated personnel.
When I came to Garden Island the Flag Officer-in-Charge, Sydney, was Rear-Admiral G.C. Muirhead-Gould, a strict disciplinarian and able administrator from the RN. He had achieved distinction by being selected as one of a three-member Board of Enquiry to investigate the sinking of the battleship HMS Royal Oak in the heavily defended harbour of Scapa Flow on Saturday 14th October 1939. It was a tragedy; of its crew of 1,200 men only 400 survived.
The Board of Enquiry, which comprised Captain G.C. Muirhead-Gould, Vice-Admiral R.H.T. Raikes and Admiral Sir Reginald Drax (President), met on Wednesday morning, 18th October, 1939, in a rude corrugated iron shelter, the paravane shed at Scapa Flow.
For more than thirty years, under the terms of the Official Secrets Act, the proceedings conducted by these men remained closed to public scrutiny, and stories were circulated from time to time that in the locked files of Whitehall there remained hidden away details of a sabotage plot too scurrilous ever to be admitted by the Admiralty.
These facts have only become available in recent times. Extracts from the Most Secret Board of Enquiry, (written in 1939), disclose that the Board members were of the opinion that HMS Royal Oak was sunk by torpedoes fired by a submarine.
History plays strange tricks and it was Rear-Admiral Muirhead-Gould’s fate to be involved in yet another submarine assault, this time in his own territory, when the Japanese midget submarine raid on Sydney Harbour took place on 31st May-1st June 1942.
Writing about this Japanese attack, G. Hermon Gill states in Vol. II Royal Australian Navy, 1942-1945, that ‘. . . luck was certainly on the side of the defenders, and was undeserved in the early stages when inactivity and indecision were manifested – the disregard of the aircraft reconnaissance of the Harbour on 30th May as possibly presaging an attack from the sea though it was known to be a ship-borne float-plane, and the failure promptly to react to the discovery of Midget No. 14 caught in the anti-torpedo net’.
I was certainly privileged to be at Garden Island during the term of office of a man like Rear-Admiral Muirhead-Gould, who figured prominently in both RN and RAN history, and I was also favoured by serving directly under Mr. Keating, who laid the foundations, and established unassailable ground, in the Finance Branch which paid wages and salaries, amounts owing to retail firms, contractors and shipbuilders, and made cash advances to ships and collected monies owing to the Department of the Navy. The Accounts Branch was never mentioned in despatches, never received praise from anyone, but without it the dockyard could not have operated for one week.
At the outbreak of war in 1939, the Accounts Office was a peaceful, worry-free haven. There was plenty of time for morning and afternoon tea, and no-one bothered unduly if one went ashore a little ahead of closing time.
Hitler’s march into Poland changed this situation; the huge task of organising ships and men for the new war at sea began; work commenced on the construction of the Captain Cook Dock, and a gigantic ship-building programme was put into operation.
Few people today under the age of 50 have any idea of the nature of this nation-wide construction plan. In Queensland, Walker’s Limited of Maryborough built frigates and corvettes; Norman Wright of Bulimba constructed Fairmile motor launches; Evans Deakin and Co., Brisbane, built frigates and corvettes.
In New South Wales the list was: Cockatoo Dockyard, Sydney, (Tribal destroyers, frigates, corvettes); Morts Dock and Engineering Co., Sydney, (frigates, corvettes); Poole and Steele, Sydney, (corvettes); Lars Halvorsen and Sons Pty. Ltd., (Fairmiles); NSW State Dockyard, Newcastle, (1 corvette, 1 frigate).
The Naval Dockyard at Williamstown in Victoria built corvettes, while at Whyalla in South Australia, the Broken Hill Co. Pty. Ltd. built corvettes.
Garden Island played a major part in the payment and scrutiny of accounts relating to this construction programme. Mr. Keating organised a team of Accounts Inspecting Officers who spent their time from Monday to Thursday at the yards of the contractors. On Friday they returned to Garden Island with the result of the week’s work. The AICs worked under the direction of Mr. R. Bennett, a brother of Major-General H. Gordon Bennett, who had been the General Officer Commanding Australian Imperial Force, Malaya, and author of Why Singapore Fell (Angus & Robertson, 1944). Like his brother, Mr. Bennett was a talented man of great ability; his contribution towards the shipbuilding programme was immense.
War also brought unparalleled expansion to the Naval Stores, the Royal Edward Victualling Yard at Pyrmont, and to the Armament Depot at Spectacle Island. The expenses incurred in these vastly increased activities all came to the Accounts Branch for payment.
In 1943 Mr. Keating’s workload became intolerable; he was snowed under with files and papers. He sent a SOS to the Public Service Board and asked for someone to be sent to relieve him of the burden. I was selected as a person likely to help, and an interview was arranged. The Accountant apparently liked the look of me, and I remained with him until he was transferred to Navy Office, Melbourne as Director of Navy Accounts at the end of the war.
The Accountant was a sturdy man of middle height with greying hair and steel blue eyes which intimidated the most hostile opponent. He was a strong individual, both physically and mentally. He rode around Lane Cove, the suburb in which he lived, on a bicycle, and chopped down trees on his property for exercise.
I never saw him lose his cool, or waver in one decision he made. No-one took any liberties of him, he did not tolerate fools gladly. He had an astounding knowledge of accounting procedure as practiced at Navy Office, and was an able authority on the Navy Accounts Manual, and Treasury and Public Service Regulations. His branch operated on a set of instructions written by himself, and which covered every aspect of accounting work likely to be encountered in the NSW area.
Mr. Keating led an isolated life, like a ship’s captain, and rarely spoke to anyone in the branch, apart from his immediate circle, which consisted of Mr. Guerin (who made the presentations, listened to staff complaints, and generally shielded him from all the minor pressures of the day), myself and Mr. William Benny, his personal messenger, a wise old Cornishman who had been a bandsman in the battle-cruiser Australia (1913-1924).
The other pillar of strength in the Accounts Branch was Michael Wolfe Tone Guerin, the Cost Accountant, who was Mr. Keating’s deputy. The Accountant leaned heavily on Mr. Guerin, who was an authority on cost-plus and ship construction accounts. He made the financial arrangements in connection with the requisition for naval purposes of small craft in NSW. This was a formidable task. My desk was always packed with files relating to the ‘little ships’ whose disgruntled owners were never satisfied with the compensation offered.
Mr. Keating, Mr. Guerin, and Mr. Benny figured in the book written by the noted Australian writer Nancy Keesing, who had spent some time in the Accounts Branch in the days of her youth. The book was called Garden Island People.
I remember Nancy well. She was a good looking girl and was attached to the Rating Section run by Mr. Bert Bootle. I regret to say I don’t think I ever exchanged one word with her. My association with Mr. Keating made the staff very wary of me! Garden Island was a soul-destroying experience for Nancy, who had considerable literary gifts, and who is now regarded as one of the major poets of Australia. To spend five and a half days a week searching through naval stores bundles, and writing meaningless fixtures into a rating ledger must have been frustrating to say the least.
In her book Mr. Keating is called Mr. Keeling, Mr. Guerin Mr. O’Brien and Mr. Bootle, the book’s hero, Mr. Tapple. Garden Island People is a true and accurate account of day-to-day life in Canary Cottage, as the fibro finance building was called, and Cedric Emanuel’s drawings are a delight. This is an important book and a worthy contribution to the history of Garden Island.
At the period about which I am writing Garden Island was (with reservations) a ship-watcher’s paradise. Vessels arrived and departed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Every sort of activity took place – repairs, refits, reconversions and dockings. Had I been able to carry a camera, a notebook, and had access to ships around the waterfront what a story I would be able to tell today. Because of the news blackout, arrivals and departures were known only to those at NHQ, and we, safe on the jetty, had no idea where a ship came from, or when it left, or to what destination or sphere of operations it was bound. Under these conditions operations in the north had little meaning or direction for the wharf bound Islander; it was only years after, when official histories were available, that one was able to get a clear and accurate picture of what took place. The anonymity relating to ships, and the personnel in them was, to me, the most frustrating feature of life at Garden Island.
In this connection, I remember reading with pleasure in the book on HMAS Australia that in February 1944, the ship spent a month under refit at Garden Island. The work involved the fitting of new radar, changing all the 8 inch guns and the fitting of tripod masts.
I recollect seeing the new masts being fitted. This was of great interest to me, and each lunch hour I went to see the progress being made with the fitting of the masts. But I had no idea where the ship came from, or where it was going, or the name of the commanding officer. Many years had to elapse before I secured the answers to these questions. This is why for the concerned, naval history, clearly and concisely stated, has such a powerful attraction. Questions are answered, doubts dispelled, and the Kings, Queens, Bishops, Rooks, Knights and Pawns go to their allotted squares on the board.
I could follow the conversion of the AMCs Westralia, belonging to Huddart Parker, Manoora belonging to the Adelaide Steamship Company, and Kanimbla belonging to Mcllwraith McEacharn – to Landing Ships Infantry (LSI) with more intelligence than the naval refits because I knew these vessels and had travelled in them at one time or another.
It grieved me to see the interiors of these ships dumped on the wharf leaving only bare steel open spaces. They were converted on the American plan with installed bunks, and a cafeteria messing system, by which means troop capacity was increased.
It was a shock to see what had been done to the beautiful dining room of the Kanimbla. It was just a great steel vault lined either side by gaunt portholes. Where were the coloured lights, the wood panelling and the graceful decor? There was only stark reality on the Garden Island cruiser wharf in those days.
In this connection, one of the saddest relics I ever saw on a Garden Island Wharf was a heap of twisted metal, the remains of an Admiralty 3 drum boiler, which had been operated with an empty water drum.
Many years after the events chronicled in the proceeding paragraphs, I read a book by Lieutenant-Commander W.H.N. Swan, called Spearheads of Invasion, which was an account of the seven invasions carried out by the Allies as seen from HMAS Westralia.
I did enjoy reading this book which started off with a detailed description of the conversion of the Westralia at the Cruiser Wharf in 1943. A whole army of dockyard employees swarmed aboard – plumbers, joiners, shipwrights, electricians, boiler-makers, painters and riggers – and slowly tore the ship to pieces, or so it seemed to the crew who had to live and work in her.
I recalled my dismay at the stripped dining room in the Kanimbla when I read the able author’s account of similar acts of ‘vandalism’ in the Westralia. ‘Several engineer officers aboard,’ he wrote ‘who had served in the ship in her passenger carrying days, groaned audibly when they saw the ornate plaster ceiling over the first class dining room being taken down strip by strip and taken ashore.’
The entry of the Royal Navy into the Pacific was an event of great historical significance which, even at this distance of time, lacks appropriate recognition and evaluation. The parent navy came face to face with its Australian offspring, and revived a spirit of co-operation and mutual trust.
A British Pacific Fleet was formed on 22nd November 1944 under the command of Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, and HMS Howe, his flagship, arrived in Fremantle on 11th December, on her way to Sydney. On 15th January 1945 Admiral Fraser signalled from Sydney to Admiral King in Washington: ‘I hereby report for duty in accordance with the ‘Octagon’ decisions. The British Fleet will look forward to fighting alongside the US Navy in whatever area you may assign to us’.
Like the other departments on Garden Island, the arrival of the British Pacific Fleet made a spectacular impact on the Accounts Branch. Overnight the workload vastly increased; ships and the men serving in them, appeared in a seemingly endless line, looking for cash advances, and advice and assistance on how to meet the expenses incurred. Civilians to man the RN storehouses arrived in steady numbers, and it appeared that no provision had been made to pay salaries to these people. Until it was finally sorted out we went from one crisis to another.
This story of inadequate planning was a common one with the British Pacific Fleet. Captain S.W. Roskill, DSC, RN, states in Vol. III, Part II, of War at Sea that, ‘It was obvious that the supplies needed by the BPF had to be built up in rearward bases in Australia well before its arrival: and that our Fleet Train had to be completely loaded and ready before the fighting ships could undertake their first protracted operation. Yet the ugly truth was that even after we had cut British imports to the unprecedently low rate of 24 million tons annually, and had rationed all foods and goods needed by the civilian population more stringently than ever before, we could not produce all the ships needed, nor find the men to man them; for, as mentioned earlier, by 1945 Britain was experiencing an extremely acute manpower crisis’.
These are sober words, and as the Fleet and its attendant ships became more involved in the Pacific operations, the shortcomings emphasised by Captain Roskill became even more apparent.
Captain Roskill further states that Admiral Fraser doubted whether Australians had any idea of the implications behind the basing of the Fleet in their country. He highlighted this statement by mentioning that Vice-Admiral C.S. Daniel, who came to Australia after a visit to the United States, where he had consultations on problems concerning the supply and administration of the Fleet, and who assumed the title of Vice-Admiral, Administration, British Pacific Fleet, occupied a position that ‘. . . was certainly one of the most arduous to be allocated to a British Flag Officer during the entire war’.
Even my restricted viewpoint from the Accounts Branch enabled me to appreciate the significance of this summing-up of Admiral Daniel’s task. Between December 1944, when the ships began to arrive in Sydney, until 28th February 1945, when the fleet sailed for Manus to participate in operation ‘Iceberg’, the invasion of Okinawa, activity in every naval and civilian department in Garden Island surged forward with a new emphasis. This continued until well after the Japanese surrender and aftermath, August-September 1945.
This was Garden Island’s ‘finest hour’. Never before, nor since, has the Island seen such an assemblage of ships and men and women. By day and by night, cars and jeeps communicated to and from the mainland, now attached to the Island by reason of the reclamation work associated with the construction of the Captain Cook Dock, which was opened by the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester on Saturday 12th March 1945.
It was the invasion of the WRANS who added the final touch of colour to the functional Garden Island scene. At this time there were about 600 WRANS scattered around the Sydney establishments. Large numbers were absorbed by the BPF, some for long periods, and others in emergencies. The Accounts Office was situated opposite the Garden Island Post Office, and WRANS on postal duties often called seeking directions to officers and buildings on the Island. I often wondered if these girls got into the WRANS because of their comely faces and figures for there were some remarkably good looking ladies serving in the RAN, and I must confess that I generally found their efficiency matched their smart appearance; they were dedicated people, and I wonder today if the liberated ladies of the eighties could measure up to the standards of the WRANS in World War II.
The acute manpower crisis in Britain mentioned by Captain Roskill was readily apparent in the personnel manning the battleships. It was evident that the high physical standards for entry into the RN had gone by the Board; I saw many men in these ships with physiques below normal standards. It brought home to me just how Britain had been tried and tested in the war with Hitler, and how we in Australia had really no conception of the crisis through which the people in the British Isles had passed. This is one reason why the effort made by the Royal Navy to bring their fine ships into the Pacific at the end of a long gruelling fight for survival was such a superb achievement; the criticisms of lack of planning and forward support were nullified by the supreme gesture to take part in the fight.
The Captain Cook Dock, which played such an important role in the Pacific War, does not get a mention in the two official naval history books, namely, Royal Australian Navy, 1942-45 by G. Hermon Gill, and The War at Sea Vol. III, Part II, by Captain S.W. Roskill. This is an extraordinary fact because the Captain Cook Dock came into operation just when it was needed to dock the battleships and carriers of the RN Fleet. In actual fact the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious made an emergency docking on 2nd May 1945, ten days before the official opening, and was therefore the first ship to be docked in the Captain Cook Dock.
Clearly the time is opportune for the Captain Cook Dock to be featured in a hard cover book. Men alive today saw the dock rise from the Sydney Harbour bed, and their experiences and recollections should be recorded now while there is time.
When the Fleet departed in February we congratulated ourselves that up to date we had dealt with the problems associated with our visitors in an expeditious manner, and that henceforth the going would be less arduous. However, this assumption proved to be the calm before the storm; March turned out to be a very difficult month.
The story commences with the fact that every morning the signals delivered to my desk contained long lists of storehousemen arriving from the United Kingdom to man the RN storehouses established in the Randwick area. We at Garden Island had no authority to pay these men, and the accountant waged a continuous battle with RN Headquarters, up to the level of Admiral Fraser himself, in connection with funds, and the authority to use them for the benefit of RN personnel.
In due course we got Navy Office approval to make payments and eventually a pay section was established in the Grace Building in Sydney to deal with the salaries paid to RN storehousemen and local people who got jobs in the RN’s fleet storehouses.
The most memorable and pleasurable aspect of my first years at Garden Island was the presence of the King George V class battleships. I saw them all, except for Prince of Wales which ship was sunk on 10th December 1941.
One day early in 1946 I stood on the top of the hill at Garden Island and watched the magnificent HMS Anson, wearing the personal standard of the Duke of Gloucester, move down the harbour. It was an inspiring sight to see this beautifully constructed ship slowly making her way towards the sea. I thought ‘Well, this is it. I have seen the last of the RN battleships’. I felt I had been present at a historic occasion, and when I walked down the hill after watching Anson disappear from sight, I became aware that I had been overtaken by a feeling of great sadness at the departure for ever from my gaze of the now displaced symbol of Great Britain’s might on the oceans of the world.