A Middle Class Man: An Autobiography, Chapter 20: Training at the Williamstown Naval Base

Chapter 20: Training at the Williamstown Naval Base

Author: Alistair Knox

The Japanese armies quickly proceeded south, east, and west after the conquest of Malaya and the Philippines moving towards Burma and India lay to the west the Pacific Ocean and its strategic islands to the east, Borneo, Indonesia, New Guinea, and Australia to the south. It was all carried out with bewildering efficiency. The possibility of my ever achieving a private career now seemed extremely remote. In reality, all I was doing was escaping from the tyranny of the bank and discovering a sense of freedom, despite the remote possibility that I might eventually be confronted by an enemy who would kill me if he could. Life in the Naval Auxiliary Patrol in Melbourne was so remote from that possibility that it gave rise to the development of the 'dit', a colloquial term used for 'rumour'. There was time for stories of all sorts. Our small contingent realised that something must happen one day, and we left no stone unturned to find out what it might be. When I was training at Port Melbourne, I found out that one of the tasks between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. was clean-up the NAP office. I managed to get myself assigned to this chore, and it gave me a full half-hour of privacy each morning to investigate the administrative decision making and manoeuvres of our whole operation. Sherlock Holmes himself would have approved some of my methods: they ranged from the elementary examining of signals which had been screwed up and thrown into the waste-paper basket, to forcing open the confidential files of each enlisted rating and going over every notice board that specified the ships they were sailing in.

The executive, by now having sensed our curiosity, would employ all sorts of methods to put the amateurs off the scent. One day I noticed small pencil-point marks next to the names of nineteen members of our whole strength of about one hundred. This was unusual, because it included both ODs in training and ABs on ships. I looked for some corroborating evidence in vain. I was particularly anxious because I was one of the nineteen. I felt certain it must have to do with a draft, but that number was far too large for one ship: it almost amounted to a flotilla. I waited with bated breath, but nothing ever eventuated. It was some months before I learned that the number referred to those men selected for the 'Z' force. 'Z' force was a group of men attached to small craft; they were to be trained to steal into Japanese-controlled harbours, dive overboard, fix limpit mines to anchored ships, and then return to make their way out to sea again before the mines went off. This had been done successfully once - at Singapore - when it was first conceived by the Kraat, a small ship which still lies at a mooring in Sydney Harbour in recognition of its wartime heroism. Any further attempts at this kind of mining had resulted in annihilation. The 'Z' force was not a very friendly organisation to belong to. What stopped our plans to take a fleet of pearling luggers up the West Australian coast was a lack of manpower. It was probably the closest I ever came to being killed at sea, except for occasionally nearly being run down by other ships in the night.

HMAS Cerebus at the Williamstown Naval Depot "HMAS Cerebus at the Williamstown Naval Depot

The next stage of my naval experience involved becoming a depot stanchion - a 'permanent fixture' - at the Williamstown depot, while other men were being drafted to New Guinea. Williamstown was no ordinary naval depot. It had originally been the headquarters of the Victorian Navy in the nineteenth century. The character and tradition of the great wooden drill hall and the officer's wardroom regulating and working quarters were as Victorian as the Lady Queen herself. Williamstown is a natural isthmus about two miles long which divides Hobsons Bay from the north end of Port Phillip Bay, and at some points the sea can be seen from three sides at once. It had once been considered a more suitable candidate for the capital of the State than Melbourne, but when this did not happen it gradually became a historic backwater. There were grand houses on the Strand, the road which bounded the sea on the north side of the town. The Customs Office and the 'Gem' Pier which berthed the ferry plying between Williamstown and Port Melbourne made it the focal point. All roads appeared to lead to it. The inhabitants were a distinct social group which included sailors, ships' artisans, boiler-makers, and the like, held together by the isthmus as a single maritime entity. During the war, it was a home away from home for any naval rating. I grew to love the old-world tempo and the unpretentious community. We would go dancing at the Town Hall some nights and the Flying Angels Club on others. The depot itself was basically controlled by two men named Jock and Joe, each of whom was about sixty years old. Joe was a chief petty officer known as 'the Buffer'; he was the means of communication between the ranks and the ratings. He was English and had a loud voice of command, bad grammar, and a profound understanding of the vast social difference between an officer and a rating.

The commanding officer issued all his instructions to Joe to negotiate with the ship's company. Joe was a good, simple man who was so far out of date he thought the new radar equipment that was now going up on the ship's masts were 'extry' searchlight towers. Neither he nor Jock left the depot during the entire war, and between them they made Williamstown the best-loved establishment in the navy. Jock was the Master-at-Arms, or the Jonty, who regulated the ship's watches as well as administering the crime-and-punishment detail. He was the ship's policeman! He was as cunning as Joe was simple, and because Williamstown was a Stoker's Drafting depot where men were held pending their sea-posting, he made all things work smoothly for an easy time. It was quite remarkable how he could keep us in three watches so that we had two nights off out of every three. Even when you had your shore leave stopped for some misdemeanour and were called a 'chook' because you had to stay aboard and sleep up in your hammock, there was an unofficial but distinctly viable 'chook' liberty boat that left twenty minutes after late rounds: the Williamstown-to-Melbourne train at 11.20 a.m. No questions were ever asked, no traps ever set. It worked on the honour principle of being back on board in good time in the morning. On occasion a Saturday afternoon, the duty chief would have to bicycle down to the Bristol Hotel two miles away to detail the roster for night duties because there was no one remaining at the depot to speak to.

I became a stanchion because I had been selected to do a course in instructing personnel in Motor Vehicle Technical Training. It was an army course comprising two weeks of concentrated information on internal-combustion engines, a subject about which I knew nothing until that fortnight began. The army sergeants who conducted it were excellent instructors, and one could learn every nut and bolt twice over in those two weeks; we all aimed to excel at this because we hoped for a promotion which would eventually give us control of a coastal-patrol boat.

I was one of three appointed to take the next NAP class, which consisted mostly of my old bank mates who had followed my lead. I soon found that the foolproof system of army instruction suitably agreed with my limited intelligence and undoubted 'nattering' ability; it all went very well. Meanwhile, however, I found myself confined to the mess deck - a lowly cleaning occupation presided over by Petty Officer Swain, who had lost an eye in combat in the Mediterranean, where he had also accumulated the most lurid stories and embarrassing anecdotes, all of which he would recount to us without any embarrassment. It was surprising how quickly you lost your bank accent in that climate. Since it was obvious that Swain - unlike Nelson - would never return to sea again because of his blind eye, he put his best foot first forward to retain his sinecure at Williamstown.

Officers and men in the Parade Ground of the Williamstown Naval Base Officers and men in the Parade Ground of the Williamstown Naval Base. Photo: John Underwood

The commanding officer of the depot was a medico in private life and had obviously joined the navy part-time in the peace years preceding the war. He had an imperious, quick tongue which seldom failed to administer a sharp cut as one passed by him. He was tall, good-looking, and sure of himself, especially as he too had not yet left his home depot. His pursuit of cleanliness amounted to religious fanaticism. Williamstown was probably the least-changed naval establishment in the history of Australia, but its standards of cleanliness were unquestionably the highest in the whole world. The extremes this officer went to on his Saturday rounds - he would reveal a smear of dust on the top of a door, or the irregularity of a bent prong on a fork - were beyond comprehension. Under his religious fervor, the whole operation became an open competition between Joe and himself, and the methods they set about to win were as different as the men themselves. Everyone in the depot called it 'Joe's Water Carnival' because Joe used to appear in gumboots and begin cleaning out the drill hall by hosing down the lower half of the walls and the timber deck with a great canvas fire hose until water ran out the doors and into the parade ground with the force of a small waterfall. He detailed about ten hands to initiate this manoeuvre, each armed with a long-handled scrubber. They would line up against the far wall, and then the leading hand would spread kerosene tins of well-prepared 'strongers' across the whole deck. Strongers was a mixture of soft soap and washing soda which was left to stand overnight until it formed a thick, unctuous jelly. Joe would then turn his scrubbers about and at his command, they would start scrubbing with an urgent, rhythmic, left-and-right action as they slowly backed away from the wall for a short distance. Joe would order them to turn about once more, and they would head off in a straight line towards the big doors. At a certain point, he would order the men to left-incline; they would then swing around with ballet-like precision. His incessant 'Left, Right, Left, Right' orders to the long-handled scrubbers carried the soapy water before them with the skill of Tibetan priests performing an ancient eastern ceremony.

Meanwhile another seven ratings, under the direction of the one-eyed Charlie Swain, were busily preparing the mess decks. Charlie was even more conscientious in some ways than Joe. He would start rounds on a Thursday by scrubbing the deck to within an inch of its life and finish up by sending men equipped with table knives to scrape into the corners lest a skerrick of strongers or goo remain to marr his perfection. Fridays were given over to making sure the silver, the cutlery boxes, and the windows and architraves were thoroughly cleaned and that no crevice remained which was not equal to the commander's most determined inspection. When the 'pipe' was sounded to stand by for rounds on Saturday, it was as though we were well enough prepared as for a naval engagement.

The commander would then sweep out of the drill hall onto the parade ground and head for the mess decks. Behind him would come a commissioned officer or the master-at-arms, and other appendages. Charlie Swain would be in a cold sweat, waiting to report, and would then join the entourage as the commander went from table to table. He always carried a torch to look into dark crannies. He shone it into the drinking mugs. If he found a grain of sugar, the penalty was two hours' stoppage of leave. Eventually he would examine the taps, the light switches, the window-glazing bars, and other trivia - all in pursuit of his undying enemies: dirt and dust. The first time he could find no fault he said to Charlie Swain, 'Mess decks excellent, Chief'; we thought our one-eyed leader would die of pride. Even we felt as though we had won a famous victory. I never thought this cleanliness fetish was too much overdone. When we went on a draft, we learned what a half-clean ship was like - and that our own homes were even worse.

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