- William F. Cook, MVO, Captain, RAN (Rtd)
- Biographies and personal histories, Ship histories and stories, History - Between the wars
- RAN Ships
- HMS Amphion (HMAS Perth)
- March 2004 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
This is part 1 of an hitherto unpublished personal account was given to the Editor shortly before the death of the author, together with several other brief accounts of his wartime experiences.
I joined Autolycus in Melbourne on 18 May 1939. Alfred Holt & Co., Blue Funnel Line, 7,000 odd tons – dirty, but flying the Red Duster. I thought of my old RANR(S) friend who loved to quote:
Ship’s Articles read;
She’s short of red lead;
And the mate’s a bastard.
But Autolycus was not so; her officers and men were competent, most pleasant and entirely delightful shipmates. The voyage to England, particularly in the conditions under which the sailors lived, could have been a difficult and unhappy experience, but instead it was a memorable and rewarding trip. This was due in no small measure to the co-operation and help of the ship’s crew. We sailed from Melbourne on 20th May (after embarking the beer) – with no absentees, but one stowaway who was subsequently landed at Albany.
We made this unscheduled call on 24th May and, thereafter, in merchant service parlance, proceeded ‘fullaway’ for Durban, South Africa.
Life in Autolycus had its moments. The six RAN officers, Commander D.H. Harries, Lt. Cmdr. H.C. Wright, Lieutenant A.S. Storey, Lieutenant W.F. Cook, Lieutenant (E) L.N. Dine and Surgeon Commander C. Downward lived in the passenger accommodation which that class of ship boasted. ‘Clean but adequate’ as the Michelin guide might comment. The food was, on the whole, better than that in HMA Ships, but because of the long periods at sea, the variety was limited. The sailors, however, fared badly as to their accommodation. The ship was a tramp and the Naval Board, faced with the expense of sending most of a cruiser’s complement to England, compromised by ‘building’ messdecks in the forward holds, each of which was half filled with cargo – wool, I believe.
They were grim quarters and I was full of admiration for the morale and spirit of the sailors, who accepted the situation with unusual sang froid, and made the best of it – no doubt they took the long term view; England, a new ship, a bit of leave and then a marvellous cruise back to Australia via the USA (both east and west coasts), Jamaica, Fiji etc.
There was little or no room in the ship for any sort of drills, but most forenoons were taken up with lectures, and in the hot weather, ‘make and mends’ were the order of the day.
Deck tennis nets were rigged on the cargo hatches and there was just enough room between the hatches and the ship’s side for skipping, medicine ball, boxing, and for a few, fencing. And room was found for table tennis below decks. Our PTI was Petty Officer ‘Judy’ Patching. He was indefatigable in his endeavours to keep morale high by organising, within the restrictions posed by the ship, as much sport as possible. His happy and cheerful personality and his efficiency made him the most popular figure on board. His attributes enabled him to serve Australia well in post war years in another field, namely as manager of our Olympic Games teams.
The usual bad weather in the Roaring Forties caused the ship to reduce speed to 7 knots for several days and she did not arrive in Durban until 8th June. Autolycus was a coal burner, and she had to coal ship in Durban. Because of the long haul to Portsmouth, extra coal was stowed on deck between hatches and this reduced recreation space temporarily.
Everyone seemed to enjoy the two days in Durban, where the local people were most hospitable. We sailed on 9th June, again without absentees.
The usual skylarking took place when the ship crossed the Equator on 19 June. Again, considering the limited space, the sailors made great play of the traditional ceremony. Lieutenant Dine did not appear to King Neptune’s subpoena. He hid on the siren platform and so fooled the Royal Bears.
Autolycus called at Funchal for water on 25 June but leave was not piped. However there was much trading over the side in souvenirs from bumboats. On our last Saturday night at sea the RAN officers ‘dined’ the ship’s officers. Our band provided the music, the toast of Sweethearts and Wives was honoured in traditional style with the junior officer responding on behalf of the ladies, and the concluding touch was Captain Hetherington of Autolycus conducting the band playing the Maori Farewell.
On arrival in Pompey on 29 June, we proceeded alongside the light cruiser HMS Amphion at North Wall and sailors and gear were discharged directly to the new ship.
She was just completing a refit, so the first two weeks of July were busy with cleaning up, painting, hoisting in boats etc. and all the bustle of commissioning.
The new 35 foot fast motor boats excited the boat’s officer, who was familiar only with the old type carried by Australia and Canberra.
At this time the Duke of Kent was expected to be the next Australian Governor General. Marina, Duchess of Kent, came on board at 1.40 p.m. on 10 July and after lunching with Captain Farncomb, renamed the ship Perth in a ceremony on the quarterdeck. Mr. Bruce, Australian High Commissioner in London, and Admiral Sir William (Bubbles) James, C-in-C Portsmouth, were notable guests.
HMAS Perth sailed on 11 July for commissioning trials at Spithead and adjacent waters. A few days leave was managed as men could be spared from their commissioning tasks.
Finally, Perth left Portsmouth on 26 July and set course for New York. Days at sea were spent in shaking down. As no time was allocated for us to work up in the UK, we were a pretty raw ship’s company. After firing a 21 gun salute off the Battery, we secured alongside Pier 53 on 4 August.
The weather was hot and steamy, typical for New York at that time of year. Some of the ship’s company, disenchanted with the thought of the state their white uniforms would be in after many hours ashore, and having been refused permission to wear blues or half blues, decided to protest by not ‘clearing lower deck’ when ordered. This small but nevertheless regrettable incident received more publicity than it deserved, for the trouble quickly blew over. People didn’t take liberties with impunity with Captain Farncomb!
The sights and pleasures of the great city of New York and of the World’s Fair in particular soon restored the equanimity. Highlights for one young officer included a police motor cycle escort (sirens blaring Hollywood style) to march at the World’s Fair; driving back (from the reception which followed the march) with Sir Hubert Wilkins; Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan) and Esther Williams and the Aquacade; and landing one day in jodphurs and riding boots to find that the ‘riding’ invitation we had accepted was for an auto ride – and we ‘rode’ through Westchester County in a 1939 Chevrolet instead of on horseback. I often wonder just what our hosts thought of our strange gear!
Lunch with the American Admiral of Brooklyn Navy Yard. Beautiful dessert in a long stemmed glass which had obviously been kept in the fridge. It must have been brittle with the cold, for when I touched it, it disintegrated on the plate in front of my embarrassed eyes! The host very graciously exonerated me, but I felt very small.
The Americans were most hospitable and we were regally treated by expatriate Australians and Englishmen.
A night at Billy Rose’s famous (or infamous) ‘Diamond Horseshoe’ cabaret ended in a scramble up the gangway three minutes before ‘Hands Fall In’ at 0600.
We sailed on 16th August leaving our painter, Chief Petty Officer Kinsella, ashore in Brooklyn Naval Hospital.
The West Indies cruise to Jamaica was leisurely. Very much peacetime, and yet we were less than three weeks from a most calamitous war.
Looking back after all those past years, one is amazed at, and somewhat ashamed of, the lack of foresight any of us had, serving in the latest addition to the RAN had of coming events. Perhaps the false alarm of the Czechoslovakian crisis of 1938 had dulled our perception. If Chamberlain and his umbrella had bought ‘peace in our time’ at Munich, why couldn’t he do it again? How naïve we were.
Our efforts in Kingston, Jamaica, were directed to the pleasures offered by that fabulous country and many of us (like Harry Belafonte) ‘left a little girl in Kingston Town’. But awareness of the world situation began to dawn towards the end of August, and on the last day of that month, amid a welter of ‘buzzes’ as to our destination, we sailed from Kingston.
During the forenoon of 3rd September 1939, Lower Deck was cleared and hands mustered on the quarterdeck. Never a man for long speeches, Captain Farncomb told his ship’s company the news thus: ‘We have just received a signal from Admiralty which reads TOTAL GERMANY TOTAL. We are now at war with Germany. Three cheers for His Majesty the King!’
A tense and dramatic announcement which provokes poignant memories still. Unlike their First World War fathers, the officers did not throw all the wooden wardroom furniture overboard (a fire risk?) nor sharpen their swords (to repel boarders?)