- Scrivner, R.
- Biographies and personal histories
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Albatross, HMAS Protector I, HMAS Hobart I, HMAS Perth I, HMAS Brisbane I, HMAS Canberra I, HMAS Huon I, HMAS Yarra II, HMAS Vampire I, HMAS Tasmania, HMAS Hobart II, HMAS Penguin (Shore Base - Balmoral), HMAS Sydney I, HMAS Sydney II
- December 1974 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Four memorable experiences are worthy of telling, one which surely influenced his early promotion to Commander, others which were to prove his ability to act independently of his fellow-man. To everyone’s surprise, at morning prayers on the quarterdeck one Sunday, Commander Howden announced his banns of marriage. Later, and while still in command of Mantis, his marriage took place, his First Lieutenant acting as best man – and later on in life godfather of his second born.
Speaking on the things unique in this man’s life, typical was his attempt, successfully, at organising a one-boat regatta (on the Yangtse River). His Notice announcing the plan called for as many of the crew (officers and ratings) as possible to participate. In fact, thirty finally turned out. Times were taken of each ‘dash’, the winning time of the three separate events producing good times. One event, the ‘Random Skiffs’, crewed by Commander Howden, his First- Lieutenant and a Chief Petty Officer, was timed at one second faster than the previous best time. It can be seen that Harry Howden’s love of boating as an exercise was to his advantage.
By far the most exhilarating experience was when, in December 1930, Howden took Mantis 129 miles up river from Hankow (on the Yangtse River) to release two Irish priests from captivity by Chinese Communist bandits.
The release was made only after numerous incidents worthy of high praise. The river was not fit for night navigation, as no depths were marked on the small, unsatisfactory chart used, the beacons were not lit, and the searchlight was no use, neither were the torches. Fog added to the difficulties, and Lieutenant-Commander Howden had not made this trip before, either during daylight or night. In fact, all ships anchored at night on normal trips up river, but not so this one. The captain remained on the bridge all night, his First Lieutenant in the bows, and Chinese boat boys taking sounds with bamboo poles. At daybreak, the arrival was effected, the (then) huge sum of four thousand dollars paid over and the fathers released. This, however, was not as easy as sounding, for the bandits had moved inland some forty miles, on their way to a distant ‘base’. Had not the ship arrived when she did all chance of release, if ever the fathers were to be found, would have been negated.
The bold move of overnight steaming had paid off, through the determination and audacity of the Commander. One need not contemplate too deeply to understand the respect gained by Howden and his officers. To quote the final paragraph of the signal sent by RAY (Rear-Admiral, Yangtse) on this occasion: ‘. . . I have the honour to request that, if you see fit, the officers concerned may be brought to the notice of their Lordships.’ And a previous paragraph, in part: ‘. . . and has enhanced the good name and respect in which His Majesty’s Navy is held along the banks of the river.’ A memorable adventure, carried out with courage of the first order.
Prior to this trip, and while on escorting duties along the same river. Mantis found herself well within Communist-held territory, with Red flags on the river bank for all to see. Lt.-Commander Howden decided one day to claim one for himself. So, having refused company for protection, he donned a steel helmet, issued himself with a service pistol and, having secured Mantis alongside the river bank, proceeded ashore and ‘captured’ his flag. Although machine-guns were manned on board Mantis, the observers on board could not see over the bank. Fortunately no bandits were to appear.
So drew to a close that period in which it is felt the foundation of a thoroughly respected future was laid.
Over the years preceding China command, Howden was favoured by the organising powers within Admiralty and Navy Board on a minimum of occasions. The big moment was when he was selected for studying the Asiatic mind for use in Intelligence operations. During 1928 he was found established in the British Embassy, Tokyo, there to learn deeply the Japanese attitudes to warfare, also the personalities of the people. Little was thought then about his unfolding future regarding the abilities of, and thoroughness of the Japanese serviceman. This was to stand him in good stead during the campaigns centred around Singapore and even closer to his adopted homeland. Previous to this, in 1925, Howden had attended an Intelligence course in Great Britain and again during 1937-38. Such was Admiralty’s impression of this Officer.
Back through the years, Harry Howden served in units of the Australian Fleet from junior officer rank through to captain, and was in command of six ships altogether, with on one occasion (that of Gunboat Protector) the rank of Lieutenant. Other commands were of Huon, Tasmania, Vampire, Yarra and finally Hobart. It must surely be a proud honour to have captured a warship at the age of twenty-four, and after only six years in the service.
His reputation as a severe authoritarian, fair but demanding, could be seen emerging once Harry Howden gained his third (Commander’s) ring, and it was during his period as Commander, HMAS Canberra, especially during the occasion of the visit to this country of HMS Sussex – carrying HRH the Duke of Gloucester – that his power of command became evident. As Canberra carried the flag of Australia’s sea-going Admiral, things had to be shipshape, and the occasion for which Commander Howden is renowned is when the Captain of Sussex was to pay a visit to Canberra.
All available hands were allocated to part of ship cleaning, and with stanchions, bollards and other areas specially burnished (some at Howden’s expense) the ship looked well; but, to be convinced nothing better could be done, and to be certain all things had been done, he tucked his telescope under his arm, summoned the Captain’s barge crew and had himself circling the ship at a distance, inspecting every square inch to be certain there were no holidays in the painting and/or cleaning.
The visit was duly conducted by the Royal Navy Captain and his subordinates. So impressed was he with the parts of ship that he had his own captains of tops visit Canberra to see just how clean a fighting ship could be – and Canberra’s captains of tops had previously remarked how clean they considered Sussex was! To illustrate the efficiency he had developed within his crew, one of the captains of top was a twenty two year old Petty Officer, later to become Chief Gunner’s Mate aboard Hobart.