In 1970 Sir Victor Smith spoke on personal recollections of his career in the RAN when he accepted an invitation to address the newly formed Naval Historical Society of Australia, at Royal Australian Naval House, Sydney. In a 45-minute speech Sir Victor Smith traced some of the interesting years of his service life. In his recollections he told of some of the lessons which could be learned from these. and the changes that have taken place. He told of his formative years in the Royal Australian Naval College, which he entered in 1927 and said the curriculum at the College in the 1930’s was vastly different to that of today.
“As you know, the latest scheme is to have a joint Service academy which would be devoted almost entirely to tertiary studies with professional training following,” he said. He thought that there should be two principles, firstly that every senior officer should have the opportunity to get a degree and secondly that not every service officer must have a degree. The first principle needed no amplification, but in respect of the second, he would say that not all good naval officers had the bent to achieve some academic letters after their name.
Sir Victor Smith told the gathering that in 1931 he began to specialise as an observer in the Fleet Air Arm because he believed that naval air power would become increasingly important in the future. “Thirty-three years ago, flying in a service aircraft was rather rougher than it is today, but it had its humorous moments. For instance, one method of finding the wind involved throwing a block of aluminium dust over the side of the aircraft to act as a marker on the sea, he said. He recalled, too, that his first five training flights in a Shark biplane ended in forced landings, Sir Victor Smith served in a fighter squadron in the aircraft carrier Ark Royal throughout 1941 until she was sunk is November of that year.
In speaking of the value of aircraft for reconnaissance, and ASW, Sir Victor said he considered the seaborne helicopter to be of great value, “If you were to ask any submarine Captain what ASW search system he dislikes most, he would almost certainly say the helicopter. He gets warning if there are ASW ships nearby, but the first he knows of the helicopter is when he hears the ping of the helps sonar, and he is not sure whether he had been detected if the helo is in contact, the submarine has little chance to escape another value of the helo was its long-range capacity.”
From April, 1942, until she was sunk in the Battle of Savo Island on August 9 of that year, Sir Victor Smith served in HMAS Canberra. In this engagement the Japanese forces also sunk the US cruisers Quincy, Vincennes and Astoria. Sir Victor Smith observed that the disposition of the ships, which were split into two groups to guard twee entrances, led to confusion during the battle. He made the point that, although weapons and tactics changed, the principles of war did not change, and one principle was concentration of force.
In 1943, Sir Victor served in HMS Tracker, a Woolworth type carrier operating in the
Battle of the Atlantic. she also assisted in escorting convoys to Murmansk. The type of carrier was small and carried 15 aircraft, but it paid dividends. particularly in the gap In the Atlantic which could not be covered for some time by shore-based aircraft.
From his experience in this phase of his life, he thought that a mixed bag of surface ships, seaborne aircraft and shore based aircraft was necessary to fight submarines. With the advent of high-speed nuclear-powered submarines, anti-submarines might have to be added to the mix
Early in 1944, Sir Victor was posted to the Staff of the Flag Officer British Assault Area for the Normandy invasion which Winston Churchill described as a “vast and most complicated action”. He recalled that the site of the forces involved meant there were 702 warships, plus 25 flotillas of minesweepers. Then again on an average day in the first week after D-day. 25 Liberty ships, 38 coasters, 9 troopships and 140 landing ships and large landing craft arrived off the Normandy coast.
He said that a great storm occurred during this period and 50 per cent of the 650 LCT’s were damaged. For four days, the armies ashore received only the barest trickle of supplies and reinforcements.
Two lessons remain in his memory. One was the versatility of the naval force it seemed to be able to meet any request, and the second was the importance of joint work in the three Services, they worked closely and harmoniously in an operation of this nature, importance, and magnitude.
SIZE OF RAN IN 1945
When VJ Day came in 1945. Sir Victor Smith was serving on loan to a RN staff, based in Melbourne. He felt very proud on that day to be a member of the RAN, a Navy which at that time comprised 337 ship and 39,600 personnel. It had suffered about 2900 casualties and had maintained a proud record.
Sir Victor Smith said the last war brought a number of changes in naval tactics but none, he believed, in the fundamentals of the exercise of sea power. The aircraft was perhaps the most important developed both as a menace to, and adjunct of, the surface ship. He recalled that in January, 1941, Admiral Cunningham was apprehensive about the development of air power and said the Fleet’s command of the Mediterranean was threatened by a weapon far more efficient and dangerous than any which had been opposed.
Then from the ship borne aspect, there was the successful carrier aircraft attack on Taranto in November, 1940. There was the Battle of the Coral Sea, the first in which a naval action was fought and decided without the opposing surface ships directly engaging each other and finally the Battle of Surigo Strait, in October, 1944 was remarkable in that it was the last Naval battle in which aircraft did not take part.
“I think the lesson to be learned here is that today, despite the advent of missiles, there is still a requirement for a navy to have tactical air power.”
Sir Victor Smith spoke of his appointment in 1955 as Captain (F) of the First Frigate Squadron and Commanding Officer of Quadrant and later Queenborough.
Of the 8 1/2 years he spent as Captain, six years were in command, three sea and three ashore, his shore appointment being in command of the Air Station at Nowra.
“KISSING BEAUTY QUEENS”
“This was a busy and interesting time as in those years there was no Shoalhaven Shire Council so an Administrator was appointed by the State Minister for Local Government. As a result, the Captain of the Air Station performed many duties such as receiving debutantes, kissing beauty queens. etc.
Sir Victor Smith spoke of the cordial relationships that existed between the Air Station personnel, and the local people, and said that when the time came for him to leave Nowra, the local people gave himself and his wife a civic farewell.
VALUE OF PERSONNEL
Sir Victor Smith said he believed the personnel In the RAN were without equal in any navy in the world. The response obtained from sailors was directly proportional to the standard of leadership, in his opinion, that art of command was the art of dealing with human nature. Once the hearts and respects of those who worked for you were won, the greatest achievements became possible. To give strength to his view, Sir Victor Smith quoted extracts from the Report of the Royal Commission which inquired into the Melbourne-Voyager collision in February, 1964. In these, the Commissioner praised the behaviour of all the men involved and said their actions left nothing to be desired as the Royal Australian Navy did not lack quality in its men.
Sir Victor Smith gave some of the impressions he has formed since becoming Chief of Naval Staff in 1960. “The fundamental problem we have to face is how to maintain the security of this country and how best to meet the commitments overseas into which the Government has entered.”
VALUE OF SERVICES
Sir Victor Smith said it behoved Australia to be ready to safeguard its interests as threats to those interests varied from time to time. Looking back into history, it was remarkable how few of the wars in which Australia had been engaged could have been foreseen even a short time before the event. It was a sobering thought for the Service planner that seldom had an intelligence forecast of the course of a war been right, yet and there was therefore no particular reason why it should be right in the future.
Sir Victor Smith concluded by quoting the words of Francis Bacon, which he said he believed were as true today as when they were written some 350 years ago: “He who commands the sea is at great liberty and may take as much or as little as he will. Whereas those that be strongest by land are many times nevertheless in great straits.”