By MIDN Mollie Burns, RAN – NEOC 54 Naval Historical Society Prizewinning Essay
The collision of HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Voyager remains the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN) worst peacetime disaster. Occurring off the New South Wales coast in 1964, the aircraft carrier Melbourne and destroyer Voyager were engaged in night flying exercises when Voyager inexplicably turned in front of Melbourne’s bow. The destroyer was cut in half and sank; of a company of three hundred and fourteen, eighty two men were killed (Spicer 1964). For the flagship and escort to collide in home waters and calm conditions with such heavy loss of life shocked the RAN and Australia.
The collision heavily damaged trust in the RAN and its standing with the Government and Australian public. Two Royal Commissions were convened over the incident, however, the investigations were poorly handled and compounded the detrimental effects of the incident.
The collision and its aftermath is of massive significance to the RAN and eventually led to large training, operational and cultural changes. This essay examines the impact such serious incidents have on the public and parliamentary perception of the RAN, and the impact it had internally. It also reviews improvements to Officer of the Watch (OOW) standards, Command Team training and operational procedures.
Impacts on the RAN’s Reputation
Serious maritime/naval accidents can cause immense damage to the public and government perception of the RAN and the trust placed within the organisation. This damage comes from various sources.
Faith in the RAN’s competency is lessened when serious incidents occur. A key factor is what errors, failings or lack of knowledge may have led to the event. This has widespread implications up to the international level; a finding of negligence would impact standing with allied naval forces.
Secondly the handling of the incident affects public perception. This involves how information is communicated immediately after the incident, the transparency of the investigation process and any actions taken as a result.
Finally, the RAN is judged on the manner in which it treats individuals involved. This includes post-incident care and ensuring a fair review process for members.
Even prior to the collision, the RAN was under increasing public and parliamentary scrutiny (Frame 1992). The service was balancing multiple goals, struggling to define its organisation and role in post-war Australia and had suffered multiple serious incidents.
The RAN was compromising between several constraints and aims. Firstly, the fleet had been in material decline since the Second World War and was aging rapidly (Frame 1992). Whilst rising tensions in Indonesia had resulted in some investment, it was also forcing ships through rapid work–up exercises such as those Melbourneand Voyagerwere engaged in (Frame 1992). In addition, Frame (1992) states the RAN was under pressure to prove herself to the two major allies, the Royal Navy and United States Navy. Finally, questions were being raised in Australia about the role and relevance of the RAN.
The RAN had not assisted itself in responding to these queries by becoming an increasingly insular organisation (Frame 2005). The ‘silent service’ was still a very British institution, particularly in the officer branch. Inherited traditions shaped the culture and young adolescent officers were indoctrinated into the naval way of thinking and acting during their four year education at the Royal Australian Naval College. More advanced training was generally undertaken at similar British institutions. Consequently, RAN officers were very familiar with naval practices but less so with civilian procedures. The Navy itself was primarily directed by the increasingly powerful Naval Board (Frame 1992). Frame (1992) highlights the separation of the RAN from government; independence the RAN viewed as strength. However this clear divide between RAN leadership and government led to RAN officers and the Navy being viewed as arrogant and unwilling to accept external review (Frame 1992).
The harshest scrutiny, however, arose from a series of escalating incidents and the associated fatalities (Frame 2005). This culminated in 1963 with the drowning of five junior officers who were sent on a twelve hour, out–of–sight sailing exercise in dubious weather (Frame 1992). While the Captain involved was initially convicted at the resulting court martial, this was overturned by the Naval Board who effectively sent the Captain on a promotion course (Frame 1992). The lack of accountability and action by the RAN disgusted Parliament and the public. Trust in the organisation and its self–management was quickly eroding.
Into this environment, the Melbourne–Voyager collision stunned Australia and further damaged the failing reputation of the RAN. That one RAN ship could effectively slice another in half with such a loss of life in home waters during peacetime was shocking (Four Corners, ABC Television, 10 February 1992). Furthermore, these deaths were not ‘a sacrifice for the country’s defence … [but resulted] from human error or negligence’ (Frame 1992).
The consequential falls in recruiting demonstrated the lack of faith in the RAN (Frame 1992). Despite a heavy recruiting campaign commencing almost immediately after the incident, numbers were significantly lower and did not recover for several years indicating the persistent nature of the damage to the RAN’s reputation (Frame 1992).
The negative perceptions of the RAN and their longevity were compounded by the handling of the collision.
While the RAN expected a Naval Board of Inquiry, public and parliamentary mistrust, frustration at the information flow and the need for an impartial review resulted in a Royal Commission being convened (Frame 1992).
The Commission was characterised by a hostile approach to witnesses and the initial report is poorly regarded (Frame 1992). It highlights the unsuitability of a Commission as means of investigation and lack of naval knowledge held by the civilian investigators (Frame 1992, Ferry 2014). It also contentiously held Melbourne’s Command Team partially responsible for failing to prevent the collision, leading to the Captain’s resignation (Spicer 1964). , a finding overturned in the second Royal Commission after the resignation of the Captain involved (Hall 1982).
The second Royal Commission was driven by parliamentary backbench campaigning against a reluctant Government and Naval Board (McCarthy 2015). It overturned the Melbournefinding but, again, was unable to determine the cause (Hall 1982). Both investigations were drawn out, controversial and a source of additional pain (Frame 2005).
Internal relationships within the RAN were also damaged by the treatment of members involved.
Voyagersurvivors, who had been through a horrific experience, lost the ship that they lived aboard and any possessions, were granted a week of leave to return home before being posted to a sister ship (Four Corners, ABC Television, 10 February 1982). There was minimal post-collision mental care or recognition of trauma. In later years, many compensation cases were raised and, since 1964, the RAN has improved greatly in this field (Anderson 1993).
Tension also arose from the treatment of members during the investigations, particularly the Melbourne Command Team. They were viewed as scapegoats and the Naval Board was seen to have abandoned or sacrificed its members (Hall 1982). This view was compounded by Captain Robertson’s resignation and Hall (1982) describes the tension caused within the mid-officer ranks.
As with any serious maritime/naval accident, the Melbourne-Voyagercollision significantly damaged the RAN. It also highlighted numerous deficiencies, particularly those occurring on the ship’s bridge, and forced critical review and improvement.
Impacts on OOW standards and Command Team training
When Melbourne and Voyager collided, both bridges were manned by their respective Captains, navigators, OOW and various lookouts. Whilst the exact cause of the collision has never been determined, it is clear there were multiple failings on one or both bridges.
Oxenbould (2004) asserts that the insufficient lookout onVoyager, criticised in both Commissions, was the main reason the ‘collision was not prevented’. Voyager’s most experienced watchkeeper was absent, their OOW was inexperienced and the key lookout was on his first sea voyage (Oxenbould 2004). Furthermore, Oxenbould (2004) argues the inexperience of the both bridge teams in working together on their respective ships also contributed. On that night, Captain Stevens aboard Voyager was the only “old hand” on either Command Team (Frame 1992). Every other officer had been recently posted onto Melbourne or Voyager and this was their first night at sea in company in over five months (Oxenbould 2004). It is likely this inexperience and unfamiliarity contributed in some way to the collision. Hence, while the primary cause can only be speculated on, the collision had clear implications for the standards of the OOW and Command Team training and preparation.
A range of measures were introduced after the collision to address the deficiencies that became evident.
There was a lack of formal qualifications for an OOW on given platforms and different evolutions, and no measure of their experience, platform training and currency (Ferry 2014). Objective platform qualification and periodic retesting combined with the use of advancing technology in the Bridge Simulator have greatly improved OOW training (Oxenbould 2004). Complex evolutions can now be simulated for practice and the ‘inexperienced [who] must gain experience’ (Spicer 1964) can first do so in simulated settings.
Furthermore, alterations to workups ensure they are of structured to progressively build up; close-quarters night flying exercises would not occur on directly after a long refit with new command teams (Oxenbould 2004). Such exercises would be practiced in the daylight hours initially after graduation from simpler manoeuvres; from this perspective the Melbourne-Voyagerexercise program has little apparent preparation and seems overly ambitious.
Independent trials and tests are also conducted before operational workups to assess basic drills and safety procedures (Oxenbould 2004). Following any major change in Command Team, such drills are conducted before a ship goes to sea to ensure cohesion, competency and efficiency on the bridge (Oxenbould 2004).
Operational and Procedural Changes
In addition to improved OOW and Command Team training, practices relating to communications, escort ships and rescues were refined.
In regard to ship-to-ship communications, speculation that the collision may have been caused by misinterpreted signals resulted in the confirmation of ambiguous signals being encouraged (Frame 1992). Quick challenges were made mandatory if a ship’s course was not understood or caused concern (Oxenbould 2004). Ships conducting similar evolutions were also to be assisted from their Operations Room, something that did not occur on the night (Ferry 2014).
Furthermore, rigid regulations for operating with Melbourne were released (Hall 1982). For example, a clear zone was established 2000 yards ahead of the carrier which escorts were not to enter without express permission and turns toward Melbourne to take up station were prohibited (Oxenbould 2004).
Safety and rescue also became a higher priority; on the night, poor swimming ability likely led to several deaths and helicopter rescue was underused (Ferry 2014). Furthermore, some escape hatches on Voyagerfailed to open and lifejackets were not readily available (Chapman 1979). The RAN swimming standards were raised in response and escape and rescue procedures strengthened and practised (Ferry 2014).
In addition to procedural changes, the collision eventually forced the somewhat-reluctant RAN through positive cultural change (Chapman 1979). Safety, constant improvement and professional discipline became key goals.
Improvements in Command Team training also shifted the responsibilities of the Captain and surrounding officers. Whereas previously a Captain was rarely questioned and had almost autonomous power, all members of the bridge were encouraged to raise any concerns (Ferry 2014). Similarly, Captains were under more stringent medical reviews (Frame 1992). The Captain did not lose responsibility, but was more accountable and supporting members were empowered.
This was only one aspect of the significant cultural change the RAN underwent. Prior to the collision, the RAN was relatively isolated and self-contained; this led to a glaring cultural clash during the Royal Commissions (Frame 2005). The RAN officers lacked knowledge of the process, deferred to rank and honour while failing to raise key points and were often naïve in the face of a hostile investigation (Hall 1982). The need for the RAN to have stronger relationships with government and be more aware of civilian processes was evident. It would also need to become accustomed to external reviews. In building these connections, the RAN became a more open and transparent organisation with greater public and parliamentary accountability.
The Melbourne-Voyager collision is one of the RAN’s most devastating disasters. For so many men to be killed in a training exercise severely damaged the RAN’s standing with the Australian Government and public. It also highlighted numerous weaknesses and OOW standards, Command Team training and operational procedures were improved as a result.
The collision also spurred the inertial RAN through significant cultural change with an increased focus on safety and the correct following of procedures. These reforms eventually led to the RAN becoming a more open and accountable organisation. Whilst the collision itself is one of the service’s most damaging events, it and the resulting alterations laid the foundations for many practices of the modern RAN.
Anderson, D., 1993, The Voyager disaster: a 30 year saga, Issues brief number 6, Parliamentary Research Service, Canberra.
Chapman, A.I., 1979, The ‘Melbourne’ collisions: ‘Voyager’, 10th February 1964, ‘Frank E. Evans’, 3rd June 1969, a treatise of analysis and opinion, Department of Defence, Canberra.
Ferry, D., 2014, HMAS Melbourne/Voyager collision: cause theories and inquiries (with aspects of the HMAS Melbourne/USS Frank E. Evans collision), Headmark, 151, p 2-16.
Frame, T., 1992, Where Fate Calls: the HMAS Voyager tragedy, Hodder & Stoughton, Sydney.
Frame, T., 2005, The Cruel Legacy: the HMAS Voyager Tragedy, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW.
Hall, T., 1982, HMAS Melbourne, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.
HMAS Voyager: the cruel legacy, 1992, Four Corners, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
McCarthy, E., 2015, John Jess, Seeker of Justice: the Role of Parliament in the HMAS Voyager Tragedy, Sid Harta Publishers, Victoria.
Oxenbould, C., 2004, The Sinking of HMAS Voyager: What Happened?, The Sydney Papers, 16 (2), p 103-110.
Spicer, J., 1964, Report of Royal Commissioner on loss of HMAS Voyager: Melbourne, 13th August 1964, Commonwealth Government Publisher, Canberra.