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- June 2018 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Lieutenant Commander Don Wilson had a remarkable wartime career but as this was mostly spent on loan to the Royal Navy, there is little mention of his exploits in our literature. He was one of a handful of Australian naval officers to achieve a submarine command during WWII. This article has been compiled from a number of sources including the kind assistance provided by Don’s second wife, Mrs Joan Wilson OAM.
Donald Rupert Wilson was born in the northern Sydney suburb of Chatswood on 9 June 1917. He attended the Sydney Church of England Grammar School where he was a fine student, excelling at sport, especially rugby and rowing, and he was a member of the school cadet corps. However the Great Depression took its toll on family finances and Don was forced to leave school at age 16 at the end of 1933. He then completed his studies for the Leaving Certificate part-time and at night, with a day job delivering gas bills. In 1937 he found a position in Tasmania with the British General Electric Company and for a while boarded in Launceston.
In 1939 his father, a Gallipoli veteran, died and Don returned to Sydney. The same year he entered the Citizen Military Forces (CMF) and after initial training was destined for the artillery. About this time the beautiful Phyllis Westbrook entered the scene and after a whirlwind romance they were married in June 1940. With his spirit of adventure showing he was able to exchange khaki for navy and was accepted for entry as an Acting Sub Lieutenant RANVR on 20 May 1940.
After initial training at HMAS Cerberus he undertook the Anti-Submarine Officers Short Course at HMAS Rushcutter. Don and three other new boys sailed for England via Cape Town in the old liner SS Themistocles for loan service with the Royal Navy. This was an unaccompanied posting so young wife Phyllis remained behind and it was several years before they reunited.
On 15 February 1941 Don was posted to the minesweeping base HMS Badgerat Harwich on the east coast of England. Coming back down to earth, his first ship was the ASW trawler HMS Agate which ran aground in heavy fog and was wrecked, with Don and his fellow crew members taking to lifeboats before they were rescued. He then joined a similar ASW trawler HMS Turquoise and remained in her on convoy work in the North Sea.
When a call went out for volunteers for submarines Don was one of the first to apply and in January 1942 he was posted further up the east coast to Blyth in Northumberland to join HMS Elfin, the depot ship of the 6th submarine flotilla. Here he undertook two months of intensive Submarine Officer Training and, coming second in his course, was given second choice of which flotilla be would like to join. The die was cast when he chose the 10th submarine flotilla based at Malta.
But Malta would have to wait a while. Vickers had just completed building a new S-class submarine Murat Rhys for the Turkish Navy and it was undergoing work-up on the Clyde. Don was part of a delivery crew taking her to Gibraltar where she was handed over to her new owners.
Then in March 1942 he flew to Malta and joined the submarine base HMS Talbot. A few days later he joined HMS P31, which was one of a few RN WWII submarines without the dignity of a name. She was of the U-class, which comprised 49 small wartime submarines and she was 200 feet long, with a crew of 34 men and carrying eight Mk 8 torpedoes of limited range, plus a 3-inch gun. Don was navigator in her during two patrols (a U-class patrol was restricted to about 3½ weeks) and on the second they torpedoed the Italian heavy cruiser Trieste which was put out of commission for a year.
At this stage Malta was an uncomfortable base subjected to constant Italian air attacks, frequently requiring them to submerge when in harbour. The dockyard was running out of fuel and stores. With boats being lost and returning damaged with increased casualties the flotilla, now comprising just six boats, was sent to Alexandria but only five made the perilous passage.
At Alexandria they first lay alongside the depot ship HMS Medway but P31was sent to Port Said for further repairs. On return they found the situation dire with preparations being made to evacuate Alexandria because of the expected assault by Rommel’s feared Afrika Korps. Accordingly, P31 was ordered to sail independently to Haifa. Here they were met on the wharf by the flotilla commander Captain George (Shrimp) Simpson with the news that Medway had been sunk. This was a disaster as she had most of the flotilla’s stock of over 100 torpedoes on board. Along with many others Don lost most of his personal gear, including his beloved gramophone and records.
In June 1942, to provide essential aid to the stricken Maltese garrison, two major Allied convoys were assembled, Operation HARPOON travelling from the east and Operation VIGOROUS sailing from the west. Eleven merchantmen were at the centre of the western convoy which included two tankers, escorted by just about every ship the RN could muster, including the RAN destroyer HMAS Nestor. At this time British naval forces in the eastern Med were severely stretched as its two capital ships, the battleships HM Ships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant, were out of action having been severely damaged by mines laid by Italian frogmen in a daring attack from a submarine. Even Churchill, not known for his admiration of Italian military prowess, described this feat as demonstrating extraordinary courage and ingenuity.
P31 sailed from Haifa to join with the rest of her flotilla and the large Allied fleet, now led by cruisers. On the fifth day out information was received of an approaching Italian battle group and course was made to intercept. Three submarines P31, P34 and P35 were all on the eastern wing. Early the next morning smoke was seen and then the enemy came into view, a magnificent sight with the huge battleship Littorio, two cruisers and at least six destroyers all proceeding at high speed, rushing to intercept the convoy.
The battle raged for many hours with considerable losses on both sides which included Nestor. The heavy cruiser Trento, a sister ship of Trieste which had earlier been taken out by P31, was first damaged by a torpedo fired from a Malta based RAF Beaufort torpedo-bomber. P35 then delivered a fatal blow with another torpedo leaving the enemy cruiser disabled. After dusk, and without the benefit of radar, the Italians headed home.
Eventually the way was clear for a return to Malta where P31 carried out patrols to intercept vessels approaching Tobruk and sank one three-masted vessel carrying Axis stores to the North African coast. P31 was next ordered home for much needed maintenance at Chatham. Don remained on board but developed pneumonia and spent time recovering in Haslar Naval Hospital at Portsmouth.
Churchill did not care for the numbering of submarines so P59 became HMS Untiring. On 18 February 1943 Don rejoined the Portsmouth submarine base HMS Dolphin and was appointed First Lieutenant of Untiring which was then being built at Vickers Shipyard, Newcastle on Tyne.
With building completing in April 1943 there was workup followed by exercises. Finally came patrols to the Norwegian Coast, partly in pursuit of the big German battleship Tirpitz which was tying up almost the whole of a British Fleet at Scapa Flow. They went as far as North Cape covering the track of British and US convoys carrying aircraft and munitions for USSR forces at Murmansk. Don recalls it was incredibly cold – absolutely freezing.
They sank a fishing vessel by gunfire, as it was thought to be sending weather signals and shipping reports to Germany, and took on-board the six Norwegian crew. Three were pleased to be captured, but the others were annoyed. They suffered from extremely heavy seas. On one occasion, when charging the batteries, it was necessary to have one man permanently standing alongside the conning tower hatch to jump on it when following seas broke over the conning tower. Both Able Seaman Oldham and Don were tied on, when an enormous wave passed over them. The submarine registered 28 feet on the control room diving dial, which meant their heads were 14 feet under water. The Norwegian prisoners were put ashore at Lerwick in the Shetland Islands and Untiring returned to Dunoon on the Clyde.
Untiring was next sent to the Med and when patrolling off Toulon in the south of France came across her first target, a 3,000 ton ship in ballast. To much disappointment the torpedoes were set too deep and ran under the target. The next day at breakfast, on hearing a faint hydrophone effect they came to periscope depth to see a large U-boat 5,000 yards off Cape Hyeres. She was doing 13 knots, they fired four fish which the German heard coming and managed to comb the tracks. A period of cat and mouse followed and the enemy eventually made the safety of Toulon harbour.
An addition to this episode came twelve years later, when Don visited the submarine museum in Portsmouth. He was told by the curator that the captain of this submarine (U‑466) had visited the previous day, enquiring about the engagement, whether the sub involved had survived the war and requesting its whereabouts. Don later wrote to Siegfried Koitscha, the commanding officer of the submarine, and kept up a correspondence. Finally in May 2002 there was an extraordinary meeting in Frankfurt, when Siegfried met his ‘neighbour in the deep’. It was also the actual anniversary of the day Siegfried’s own submarine was sunk by the British, but all the crew was saved. He said: I was not proud of everything in the war, but proud of the fact that I saved all my crew. That evening proved to be his last, as after returning home he passed away.
Another attack of interest was on 14 December 1943 on a German mine laying vessel, the ex-French ship Henreux lying alongside the International Geographical Society building in Monaco. She was loading mines when Untiring managed to fire two torpedoes through the harbor entrance; one torpedo hit the side of the entrance, however the other hit the vessel midships causing great damage. The exploding mines broke nearly every window in Monte Carlo and so Don is ‘The man who broke the bank in Monte Carlo’.
There were now two Polish submarine crews at Malta, who had escaped to Britain before the Germans overran their country. They were given two RN boats, renamed U‑class boats Dzikand and Sokor, also known as the ‘Terrible Twins’ which compiled an astonishing list of kills. They were both skillful and fearless and when the rest of the flotilla was on the surface at night quietly recharging batteries, the Polish crew went over the side for a swim.
After completing six patrols from Malta, in September 1943 Untiring was relocated to Maddalena in Sardinia. This base was much closer to their new patrol zones off the south coast of France and west of Italy. They had quite a lot of success sinking 16 vessels including an important looking ship leaving Toulon. She had a large escort and was flying anti-aircraft balloons. A salvo of four torpedoes fired at her claimed one hit. They then went deep down below a thermal layer to slowly make their escape. After half an hour all seemed quiet and the boat was approaching periscope depth, when the Asdic operator reported fast hydrophone effect astern and in contact. We were returning to 250 feet when the first series of depth charges with five in the star pattern exploded. They were very close and lifted the boat to 160 feet in a matter of seconds. All lights went out and the damage was significant, including the port propeller, which was singing, ensuring that it had to be stopped. The attack continued, forcing us to remain submerged for many hours. Eventually when the electrics were repaired, we made our escape.
After returning to Maddalena it was back to Malta for dockyard repairs. A large chunk had been knocked out of the port propeller but there was no evidence of any part of the casing being damaged. Following repairs Untiring went into the Aegean where she sank a destroyer. But when near Santorini they entered a minefield and had a lucky escape when a mooring wire from a mine passed down their side. Fortunately they managed to untangle it.
Another attack occurred on 18 March 1944 whilst patrolling off the coast of the Italian Riviera. Two slow-moving merchant vessels were sighted, escorted by a frigate and four E-boats. A salvo was fired at the obviously high value targets, one was hit and the second made for shore. The E-boats followed the tracks of the torpedoes and immediately commenced a depth charge attack. The sound of the explosions was deafening but after a while they were able to clear the area.
On return to Malta, three more patrols were completed before Untiring was ordered back to her homeland. Information had been received that the Axis ship Astree of 2100 tons had taken on board heavy explosive cargo somewhere on the west coast of Africa below Sierra Leone. It was surmised that this cargo might be related to atomic bomb warfare. She was travelling northwards only by night and went through the Straits of Gibraltar at night. The next morning she was observed to put her nose on the beach in Spanish waters where she could not be attacked. Updated advice said she might be making for the nearest French harbor at Port Vendres. Untiring was covering the harbor entrance when at about midnight Astree was sighted. Two torpedoes were fired and she sank right across the harbour entrance. This was to be Untiring’s last great adventure.
In July 1944 Don was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for outstanding courage and devotion to duty while on submarine patrols. Later that year came another accolade when he was selected for the Submarine Officers Command Course, the famous ‘Perisher’. The course began in January 1945 at Port Bannatyne on the Isle of Bute where their chief instructor was Commander Edward (Teddy) Woodward DSO and 3 bars. Teddy was a legendary submariner who spoke his mind, perhaps too freely, as he retired from the service in 1946 and migrated to Adelaide with his Australian born wife.
The submarine HMS Tactician was used for practice by the new chums. One day a practice attack was carried out on a fleet unit which included the battleship Nelson. A Canadian destroyer which was unaware of the exercise approached at full speed trying to ram Tactician and then attacked with depth charges. Luckily no damage was done and when they finally broke surface a large Union Jack was raised from the conning tower.
In May 1945 Don successfully completed his course and was appointed in command of HMS Voracious. As she was then based in Trincomalee in Ceylon he was obliged to travel by the troopship Aorangito to take command. The first patrol as part of a flotilla of three RN boats was past the Sunda Straits where all was quiet, then to Fremantle and eventually to Sydney to join the British Pacific Fleet. They were heading for Manus Island, New Guinea on their way to Leyte Gulf when ‘Peace in the Pacific’ was declared. Voracious then returned to Sydney and proceeded on a ‘showing the flag’ cruise to Melbourne and Tasmania.
Don was discharged ashore in Sydney in March 1946. On the retired list he was promoted Lieutenant Commander RANVR in June 1950. Don and Phyllis bought a property at Wildes Meadow in the picturesque Southern Highlands of NSW, where they grew cabbages and potatoes. Later they were allocated a Soldier Settler Block, ‘Bairnsdale’, part of Bowlie near Gundaroo. They developed the land, planting many trees, and Don won an award for Best Soldier Settler in southern NSW.
In 1965 they sold Bairnsdale when a new adventure beckoned, looking after Burns Philp properties in New Guinea. In 1970 they purchased the balance of a 99 year Crown lease (issued in 1909) over the small, two square mile, island of Muwo in the Trobriand Group. Here they lived and grew copra. Don also ran a store and looked after the medical needs of the local people. Owing to the remoteness they later bought an apartment at Mosman where Phyllis could spend time as well as visiting the island. Don recorded much of the native music and donated part of this collection, including many artifacts, to the Australian Museum.
Don was perhaps the last of a romantic breed of white planter whose time had passed when meeting with a younger generation of Melanesian nationalists. With a growing independence movement there were dangers in living in remote areas of New Guinea. Several incursions were made with attempts on Don’s life but his island community remained loyal. Independence came to PNG in 1975 which changed the political dynamics with the stress proving so great that in 1981 Don was medically evacuated from the island, never to return. In the late 1990s the remainder of the island lease was eventually sold to a local family.
Don and Phyllis finally set up home in Cremorne. Sadly Phyllis died in February 1994. A few years later Don married a family friend, Joan Scharkie nee Tebbutt, and they had a happy time together. When he was well over 90 Don and Joan were still sailing together in Fiji. Don finally passed over the bar on 22 July 2009, completing a well lived 92 years.
A wreath laying ceremony and memorial service was held at the 39th International Meeting of Submariners at Passau, Germany in May 2002. In front of the vast Cathedral, each representative of the fourteen nations attending, accompanied by a standard bearer with their national flag, in turn made a prayer for those submariners from their own country which had lost their lives in service.
The following is the prayer given by Lieutenant Commander Don Wilson DSC RANVR Rtd. on behalf of Australian submariners.
Let us pray for the souls of those Australian Submariners, who lost their lives in service.
At this time let us also give thanks for the manly virtues of bravery, loyalty, steadfastness, comradeship and self-discipline, which we found in our shipmates, in the time of our youth.
Let us pray that these qualities are not lost from the world, by the young people of today.
Let us ask also, that these qualities may still be found amongst us, for the battles we are personally fighting, against the frailties of approaching old age. Amen