A Middle Class Man: An Autobiography

Chapter 19

My spiritual life had become increasingly nominal and without commitment. Whatever my beliefs were, they did not significantly alter how I lived. I allowed the knowledge of the truth to excuse me for not obeying it.

Mernda and I got on well together, and didn't give our relationship much thought. Married couples were still expected to stay together in sickness and in health, for better or worse; however, a new wartime morality was beginning to emerge as husbands and wives were forced to live apart for long periods when the men enlisted and went to war and the women stayed at home to bring up the children. The moral uncertainties of the Jazz Age of the 1920s and the Depression of the 1930s were challenging the basis of the nominal Christian values which had been accepted without reservation since the Victorian era. Regardless of what the royal families of Europe might do in private, their outward appearance was required to be beyond reproach. The answers to most moral and questions were still either black or white and could not be twisted to accommodate double standards - until the arrival of the 1920s and the age of pleasure. By 1940 the common people, in general, tacitly understood that the public standards they had always been compelled to uphold had been abandoned long ago by the powerful - who had made might the arbiter of right.

The war progressed from very bad to even worse following the Greek and Crete campaigns and the North African defeats; there seemed to be very little time left and even less reason to hope for a successful conclusion - yet we all still hoped.

Although I was both young and extremely naive, Germany's decision to invade Russia in June 1941 did not present itself as a possibility to most of us before it actually occurred. But once it happened, we had to change our beliefs about Russia and start all over again. The United States was becoming gradually embroiled in the tensions, despite its isolationist policies. The Japanese were becoming increasingly militaristic behind their cloak of eastern culture. All this veneer, however, disappeared in a moment on the fateful Sunday morning in Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, when five American battleships were sunk by a Japanese carrier-based air attack, altering the balance of maritime power worldwide. Australians were now also on the frontline. We could no longer point to our fighting men: we ourselves had to take our place alongside them, for it now seemed probable that Australia would be invaded.

The sinking of two British battleships - The Repulse and The Prince of Wales - a few days later by Japanese aircraft drove home the lesson even harder. Our Malayan forces were in contact with the Japanese when it was discovered that the impenetrable Malayan jungle could be penetrated by them. Our low opinion of them as a fighting force was quickly reversed when we watched in stunned disbelief as they approached Singapore at great speed and - when had they reached the island fortress - we finally became aware that it was not defendable because all the guns faced seaward. At home we were blacking out our windows in anticipation of air raids, and bomb shelters were suddenly appearing in every backyard.

The bank continued its personal war against Japanese aggression by refusing to release any of its protected employees to join the armed forces. In 1942 I realised for the first time just how useless I felt: I was counting pennies in the bank at Preston while the enemy was holding victory marches in Melbourne. The Coral Sea Battle brought the invasion close to home with great clarity. It was fought to the northeast of the continent, and was the first battle in history where a large naval engagement took place without the opposing fleets ever getting close enough to fire at one another. It was entirely a struggle between aircraft and their carriers. The U.S. carrier Lexington was sunk, and the Yorktown suffered damage, as they dispatched two Japanese carriers to the bottom. The result was inconclusive, but it did provide a moment for us to consider our next move. The best the Menzies Government could come up with was the Brisbane Line - which would, in effect, leave the whole top third of Australia to be taken by the enemy as a gift!

I had never been the heroic type, but this situation called for survival thinking only; I decided to join the defence forces. I was too old for air crew; so I turned my thoughts to the navy to find that, even there, age prevented me going to sea. The army was the last place I wanted to be, and then I got wind of the Naval Auxiliary Patrol (NAP), for which one could only volunteer if he were thirty years of age or, alternately, a professional fisherman. This branch of the service was concerned with small vessels, each manned by four or five men. In the early stages the work mainly involved harbour defence, and it was looked upon by those who had risked their lives daily in the Mediterranean for the past three years as a kind of Dad's Navy - just another way of doing nothing. I dutifully filled out my application, only to be refused by the bank. The matter was then taken up by the Navy Office, which quickly reversed the bank's decision and left me free to enlist. I found out that they must have thoroughly scared the bank's executive because he then released another fifteen bank officials who had previously tried to volunteer. Most of these 'fighting' men liked the sound of the NAP and the look of the square-rig uniform I was wearing, and, as a group, they joined up with it to form the class after mine.

The NAP was unexpectedly good fun at first. We seemed to get every second night at home because we did our training at HMAS Lonsdale, the old Port Melbourne depot. Had we been drafted to Cerberus at Flinders, we might have found those early days far less agreeable. HMAS Cerberus was all spit and polish and stopped leave, whereas Port Melbourne was largely a bypassed depot full of old men, amateur peacetime officers, and seasoned ratings returned from world-wide theatres of war in a 'troppo' condition. The RAN had lost sixty-five percent of its total personnel in the first two and a half years of hostilities - the highest casualty percentage-rate of any service anywhere in the war. We never discovered whether this was due to bad seamanship, or to their prolonged activities in the Mediterranean. What stood out among the ratings was their casual bravery, their loyalty, and their stickability. I saw immediately that their fearlessness in the face of death did not diminish when they came ashore. They were simple men with lurid vocabularies and an instinctive ability to discern the true from the false: it was futile to try to be, in their presence, what you were not. If you had pretentions of any sort about any subject, you said nothing and got rid of them as quickly as possible.

We all found the three months' initial training fascinating. The Seamanship Manual, Volume 1, became our bible, and all around us the most familiar objects became part of a ship. We slept in hammocks hung high up in the mess decks over which we lived; this gave us a new dimension of tidy homeliness which we greatly appreciated. 'The floor' became 'the deck', and 'the ceiling' the 'deck head'. The 'door' which led to and from the depot to the street was the 'gangway'; we saluted it every time we came 'aboard', in memory of Admiral Nelson. We caught the liberty boat every time we went ashore even though it only opened onto Rouse Street, Port Melbourne. Owing to our age we were of a vintage quite distinct from the usual 'matelot' who joined up in his teens. The complete change of environment was wonderfully liberating, especially after all those years in the schoolboy syndrome of the bank. Most of us changed into different characters very quickly; and as we found ourselves increasingly accepted by the true professional sailors, we blossomed into a period of delayed adolescence and made our own minor contribution to the great naval tradition. We took our training very seriously because we believed we would be promoted by ability and had something like a one-in-six chance of being given the control of a converted peacetime-auxiliary yacht from forty to eighty feet in length. The problem was that the supply of suitable craft was to give out before we became eligible.

Each day we were instructed in every aspect of seamanship, to say nothing of having to endure long sessions of rifle drill. We spent days rowing and sailing up and down Hobsons Bay in thirty-foot Montague-rigged whale boats; there I discovered how little things had changed in that activity since Captain Ahab had chased Moby Dick, the Great White Whale. This world of tradition and British supremacy of the sea was fascinating. Saluting, standing to attention, and saying 'Sir' would have no place once we were finally drafted onto our tiny commandeered auxiliary yachts; but in our training days these formalities were both necessary and absurd, and we didn't want to change a single bit of it.

'Division' was a major activity conducted each day at 9 a.m. It consisted of marshalling the ship's crew for the reading of prayers. The different divisions of HMAS Lonsdale - the official name of the depot - were seamen, stokers, and supernumeries. They marched in separate groups to the new drill hall five hundred yards down Rouse Street in correct order, all under the command of aged chief petty officers who were too far gone for anything better. Once they arrived in the hall, the shouting of orders would rise to a crescendo as the seamen and stokers took up their positions, were numbered and given the command to 'Open Order March', which meant that 'odd' numbers stood still and 'even' numbers marched two paces forward or backward, depending on which rank they were in. At about this moment the NAPs - the supernumery rank - could be heard entering in strict time at the double, accompanied by the only young petty officer in the depot. They would be directed by his sharp, rhythmic 'Left, Right, Left' as they circled and manoeuvered into position like corps de ballet wearing sailor caps and heavy boots. They were halted, left-turned, numbered, and called into open order, and the scene for the performance was set: it was like a religious charade to end all religious formalities. The first lieutenant would then step forward and bawl out, 'Roman Catholics fall out! The remainder, off caps!' The RCs would disappear from sight and the officer would open the Church of England prayer book, generally to the psalm which refers to those who go down to the sea in ships and have their business in great waters: 'These see the glories of the Lord and the wonders of the deep'.

The officer would occasionally glance up, and if he saw any visible inattention in the ranks he would shout out, 'For Christ's sake, shut up! I'll use your balls for a necktie!' He would return to the prayer book for a minute or two, oblivious of his blasphemy, and conclude with a loud 'Amen!' The Roman Catholics would clatter back to their positions, and the order to close ranks would be announced. The ship's company would then depart for the main depot, and way out on the right the trainee NPS could be seen trotting past in perfect time and making for the boatshed or some other activity as they had been assigned to for the day.

The most eccentric person in the whole depot was old Benbow, who spent his time in general oversight of its activities. He was a commissioned warrant officer and a man of practical experience with none of the graces of the younger commissioned men, whom he refused to join in the ward room; instead, he would have a meat pie in his office for lunch. Benbow must have been the last man left over from the Victorian Navy, which existed before Federation in 1901; in addition, he had served some time on sailing ships. He must have been at least sixty years old, and he certainly knew more about most practical seamanship than all of his commissioned brethren together. He was the only member of that particular fraternity the ratings did not refer to as 'Pig' behind his back.

After supper and evening rounds at 9 p.m., we would sit at the mess decks practicing knot-tying and talking about our families and ourselves. One night Ern Legge, a short, curly-haired, freckle-faced Scotch type, looked up and said out of the blue, 'Knoxie has the art of saying a very little in a lot of words. Let's call him "Nattering Knox"' - a nickname subsequently shortened to 'Natters', by which I am still occasionally remembered.

When we enlisted, the bank made up the difference in war pay - which continued for the duration regardless of any increase in our service allowances. We were all Ordinary Seamen (OD) at first, with the exotic pay of 4/6d. per day, plus a daily allowance of 1/6d. for victualling, and about 11d. for uniforms and the like. After we completed three months' training, we were promoted to Ableseamen (AB), with our daily pay raised to 7/6d. We were then transferred to Williamstown, on the other side of Hobsons Bay, to take up our appointed berths on one of a number of small vessels to become part of the defence of the Commonwealth. This was around the time of the midget-submarine scare in Sydney Harbour, so we were equipped with small depth-charges which would explode in as few as four fathoms of water. Our only other defences were service rifles and Mills bombs, used to fend off the devilish attempts of the Japanese to sink our ships. I was drafted onto HMAS Nordecia under the command of Petty Officer Brown, a middle-aged fisherman; we did the Outer Harbour Patrol. Williamstown looked directly across the bay to Middle Park. As we cast off at night without navigation lights to make our way out from the jetty into the channel, tugs and other duty vessels would come and go around using odd directions like ghosts, and we had to keep a sharp lookout to ensure we did not become the victims of our own devices. Standing on watch, I felt some satisfaction in looking back over boyhood recollections to realise that even if I were not yet bound on a world tour, I had at least left the land and was at sea. Melbourne enjoys nights of pure magic that take the mind out into the eternal. To watch sweet Pleiades twinkling indecisively, or to trace the Milky Way across the broader heavens and meditate on the Southern Cross and its points defining the South Pole - this creates a dimension in which every true sailor becomes aware that there actually is a Creator.

In reality the patrol was a useless procedure - except for training in proper seamanship - and its excitement soon palled. Its major advantage to me was that no matter how cold, wet, or inconvenient it may have been at times, it was so much better than the bank. I realised I was still only trying to decide what to do with my life at an age when most men were already halfway through their careers.

19

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