The Good, The Bad & The Unknown: Understanding Syria (Part 1)

Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Bashar al-Assad

Filed in: Geopolitics  Author: Brendan R Hay

Given the alarming escalation of international tensions over the Syrian conflict following the alleged chemical weapons attacks in Idlib and the United States’ subsequent missile strike on Syrian Air Force bases, it is time for a review of the situation that has now been presented to Western populations through mainstream newsmedia once again as grounds for war.

According to the narrative that we are given, it is religion – specifically, the internal divisions of Islam – that drives both pro-Assad and anti-Assad forces in Syria in what seems to be a Sunni vs Shia/Opposition vs Government ‘civil war’, and not a regional battle to get rid of an international coalition of terrorist factions decimating secular societies.

This analysis targets a narrative common to most Western media. Our Australian counterparts are similarly shallow and disaffected, and rarely research their own articles on foreign conflicts, rather importing them, for an even more homogenized mass world coverage. Because the supposed facts being paraded in this – or any – inflamed crisis imported from the Western intelligence organisations and mainstream media outlets are misleading, fallacious or wrong, any reader searching for truth or an honest interpretation based on facts regarding the conflict may find themselves more confused or, worse, completely deceived about its nature.

The leading news corporations of countries like the US, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Canada, Australia etc are holding to the agenda that supports the “we’re fighting ISIS,” and “Assad must go” group think. It can be outlined as follows:

  • The Syrian uprising was purely civilian, with terrorists groups entering the ongoing conflict later, taking advantage of the situation
  • The regime started the conflict by using violence against peaceful protestors, who then started “arming themselves” to fight back
  • To overthrow Assad The US and its allies fund, arm and train “moderate” Islamic rebel factions only
  • With complete disregard for international law and its institutions, the Syrian “criminal regime” must be toppled by an international coalition in its “Responsibility to Protect” civilians

Let’s take a look at these claims to see where they come from and what their intentions in terms of forming public opinion are.

What started as a peaceful civilian uprising against the Syrian president, turned into a bloody, armed civil war

This statement is the most important platform in the Western narrative regarding Syria, setting the stage for endless demonization of al-Assad and the Syrian government. The reality is that an opportunity was sought by the Sunni salafist regimes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to overthrow the secular Syrian state, which was an agenda that brought them into aligment with right-wing elements of the states of Israel and Turkey, who sought a territorial foothold in the Golan Heights and Northern Syria. This, in turn, brought the support of the US and its allies to the anti-Assad coalition, and into direct opposition to the Syrian allies of Russia and Iran.

A 2006 diplomatic report by US chargé de affaires William Roebuck shows a clear intention of State Department officials regarding the regime and its ‘vulnerabilities’:

“We believe Bashar’s weaknesses are in how he chooses to react to looming issues, both perceived and real, such as the conflict between economic reform steps (however limited) and entrenched, corrupt forces, the Kurdish question, and the potential threat to the regime from the increasing presence of transiting Islamist extremists. This cable summarizes our assessment of this vulnerabilities and suggests that there may be actions, statements, and signals that the USG can send that will improve the likelihood of such opportunities arising”.

As Robert Naiman wrote in the WikiLeaks Files: The World According to US Empire, “In public, the US was opposed to Islamist ‘extremists’ everywhere; but in private it saw the “potential threat to the regime from the increasing presence of transiting Islamist extremists” as an “opportunity that the US should take action to try to increase”. Along with other advice, Roebuck suggests “playing on Sunni fears of Iranian influence… thought often exaggerated”, adding that both the “Egyptian and Saudi missions in Syria are giving increased attention to the matter and we should coordinate more closely with their governments on ways to better publicize and focus regional attention on the issue”. Fanning sectarian tensions is an old ploy, especially within strategies unconcerned by their effects on civilian societies.

Other formerly classified documents also look back into the moments before the 2011 uprising, as this heavily redacted US Defense Intelligence Agency document obtained via federal lawsuit, states: “AQI (Al-Qaeda in Iraq) supported the Syrian opposition since the beginning, both ideologically and through the media. AQI declared its opposition to the Assad’s government because it considered it sectarian regime targeting Sunnis”.

Frans Van der Lugt, killed by extremists in 2014 in Homs, suggested , in a series of formerly classified cables that the beginning of the conflict was not as simple as mainstream media states:

“I have seen from the beginning armed protesters in those demonstrations … they were the first to fire on the police. Very often the violence of the security forces comes in response to the brutal violence of the armed insurgents.” There were indeed anti-Assad protests, sometimes clashing with pro-Assad protests, but they were in many cases infiltrated or even promoted by elements with very different goals, mainly not Syrian in origin, and used for violence against civilians and peaceful protestors, policemen and soldiers. “Many opposition sympathizers started to arm themselves, first as protection and later to expel government’s forces. (The conflict) soon acquired sectarian features… this dragged into the conflict other regional forces…”

Here the article refers to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, among others. These ‘other regional forces’ became increasingly involved in a more covert fashion as the ‘uprising’ took hold.

The US and its allies fund, arm and train “moderate” Islamic rebel factions only

Earlier in the Syrian war, US officials had at least maintained the pretense that weapons were being funneled only to so-called moderate opposition groups. But in 2014, in a speech at Harvard, Vice President Joe Biden confirmed that we were arming extremists once again, although he was careful to pin the blame on America´s allies in the region, whom he denounced as “our largest problem in Syria.” In response to a student’s question, he volunteered that our allies “…were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis (sic) coming from other parts of the world.”

Biden’s explanation was entirely reminiscent of official excuses for the arming of fundamentalists in Afghanistan during the 1980s, which maintained that the Pakistanis had total control of the distribution of US-supplied weapons and that the CIA was incapable of intervening when most of those weapons ended up with the likes of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

As an example, the “moderate” rebels from Nour al-Din al-Zenki are one of the groups supported by the CIA, who beheaded a Palestinian boy last July for the cameras and took ‘selfies’ of themselves while doing it. A few months later another incident, this time covered ‘Aleppo Media Center’, showed the world a wounded child by the name of Omran (Aylan in other reports), who then became the poster boy for the Syrian conflict by means of media exposition. The connection between this two apparently dissociated incidents goes by the name of Mahmoud Raslan, one of Omran’s rescuers and photographer, seen in the video footage of the rescue outside the ambulance holding a camera with members of the White Helmets (civilian rescuers). This individual is also in pictures with the ‘moderate’ beheaders of the Nour al-Din al-Zenki mentioned above, posing like friends on a weekend trip, blurring the already thin line between moderates, extremists and even the so-called non-partisan civilian rescuers (USAID-funded) White Helmets.

The US-led coalition in Syria claims divisions between the Sunni majority and the Alawite Shia have provoked both sides to commit atrocities that have caused not only an enormous loss in lives but the destruction of communities, strengthen positions and reduce hope on a political solution. However, the majority of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) is Sunni, and has included in the past a few Christian generals. As Kamal Alam writes for The National Interest:

The fact remains: The moderate Syrian opposition only exists in fancy suits in Western hotel lobbies. It has little military backing on the ground. If you want to ask why Assad is still the president of Syria, the answer is not simply Russia or Iran, but the fact that his army remains resilient and pluralistic, representing a Syria in which religion alone does not determine who rises to the top.
Deir-Ezzor, an entirely Sunni city which has held out against ISIS encirclement for two years—and is commanded by the Druze General Issam Zahreddine, was attacked by the US Army, who targeted an SAA base killing 62 soldiers and wounding several more, in the first direct attack from the Pentagon on a Syrian Government facility or its forces. This incident happened on September 17th and ended the ceasefire, and not the alleged Russian attack on a UN aid convoy that allegedly took place two days later.

Taking in consideration the secular character of the Syrian society and its government, all bets on sectarian originated violence should be on the rebel side, also known for establishing Sharia law courts in controlled territories.

The Syrian ‘authoritarian regime’ must be toppled by an international coalition in its ‘Responsibility to Protect’ civilians

The often-quoted Syrian Observatory of Human Rights indicates that up to September 2016, the number of deaths is 301,000. These estimates put the numbers between 250,000 and almost 500,000 victims and several millions displaced and surviving as refugees mainly in neighbor countries and Europe.

However, the sources of this information are not without an allegiance either. The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights is a one man operation located in Coventry, England. It is run by Rami Abdulrahman, a declared member of the opposition: “I came to Britain the day Hafez al-Assad died, and I’ll return when Bashar al-Assad goes,” he told Reuters in 2012. It was also revealed by the New York Times that the SOHR is funded by subsidies from the European Union and a certain European country he won’t disclose.

As geopolitical researcher and writer Tony Cartalucci notes: “…it is beyond doubt that it is the United Kingdom itself – as Abdul Rahman has direct access to the Foreign Secretary William Hague, who he has been documented meeting in person on multiple occasions at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. The NYT in fact reveals that it was the British government that first relocated Abdul Rahman to Coventry, England after he fled Syria over a decade ago because of his anti-government activities.”

John Kerry and Samantha Power reduced themselves to advocates for terrorism by campaigning against Syria and Russia in their efforts to regain Eastern Aleppo from forces made up of 50% al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. Who are also said to dominate any other faction fighting on that side. The phrase “rebel-held Aleppo” is a mainstream media fiction fostering support for terrorism among world public opinion.

Across Syria, rebel-held areas are dotted with Islamic courts staffed by lawyers and clerics, and by fighting brigades led by extremists. Even the Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization whose formation the West had hoped would sideline radical groups, is stocked with commanders who want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government. Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.

While honest, ethical news outlets would denounce the audacity of a government whose officials advocate for human rights and point fingers at Russia for alleged war crimes while at the same time supporting terrorism as a manner of proxy army against Syria, Western mainstream media instead acts as a sort of PR asset for power. It’s not surprising to find recent cases when high ranking diplomats and politicians are caught lying to the public, even about supposed war crimes, to be then whitewashed by media giants as the New York Times or the BBC, like the fallacy of going to war with Iraq over it’s weapons of mass destruction – a term resurrected in demonizing Syria. Sadly, this is the kind of news available to most people in the world. It is in the interests of all peaceful and reasonable people worldwide to seek a deeper understanding of the truth, when so much is at stake.

The Golden Eagles – RAAF Pathfinders

On May 30, 1942, the people of the German city of Cologne heard the wail of the air-raid sirens.  Cologne had been raided before, many times, and its people were as accustomed as anyone to the terrors of air raids – but this night was different. Above the din of the flak batteries came an awe-inspiring, terrifying engine roar. For the first time in history a thousand bombers were airborne with a single purpose: the obliteration of Cologne.

Handley Page Halifax, a Pathfinder Force B.II Srs IA from No 35 Sqn at RAF Graveley in 1943

RAF Handley Page Halifax, a Pathfinder Force aircraft of No. 35 Sqn at RAF Graveley in 1943 [image via aviation-news.co.uk]

An extraordinary, unprecedented fireworks display was the first introduction the people of Cologne had to a new era in a form of war the Luftwaffe itself had developed – saturation or ‘blitz’ bombing. Brilliant white flares cascaded down, red floating in the clouds above, yellow penetrating glares from where they settled on the ground. RAF and RAAF Pathfinders were at work in strength for the first time, marking the target for the stream of heavy bombers which followed close behind.

The Pathfinding technique was one of the great Allied triumphs of the war, and many Australians took an important part in its development. During the war the Pathfinder squadrons were designated No. 8 Group RAF and their work was so secret that no member of a Pathfinder crew could be named as such. Below their aircrew badges the men wore the covetedf Golden Eagle, the sign of the Pathfinder, however it was never worn on operations. The intrepid pilot chosen to command the first Pathfinders was an Australian, Air Vice Marshal Donald Bennett, CB, CBE, DSO.

This pre-war airliner pilot, who hailed from Toowoomba, Queensland, was also famous Australian aviation pioneer. In July 1938 he piloted the Mercury part of the Short Mayo Composite flying-boat across the Atlantic and was later co-founder of the Atlantic Ferry Organization, an important wartime delivery service.

In December 1941 Bennett was made wing commander of No. 77 Squadron based at Leeming in the United Kingdom, flying Armstrong Whitleys (the first allied military aircraft to fly over Berlin) as part of the No. 4 Group RAF Bomber Command, in December 1941. Then in April 1942, No. 77 Squadron was transferred to Coastal Command where Bennett was given command of No. 10 Squadron (Handley Page Halifax) and shortly afterwards led a raid on the German battleship Tirpitz. Shot down during that raid, he evaded capture and escaped to Sweden, from where he was able to return to Britain. Bennett and his copilot were awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in 16 June 1942.

Air Vice Marshal Donald Clifford Tyndall Bennett, CB, CBE, DSO

Air Vice Marshal Donald Clifford Tyndall Bennett, CB, CBE, DSO [© IWM CH13645]

Regarded as a superb navigator  – he authored two books on air navigation – it was Bennett who first suggested that a team of expert navigators should be formed into a force that could go to Germany in any weather, pinpoint a particular target, even through unbroken cloud or fog, and mark it for the bombers with special coloured flares and markers.

A top-secret report issued by German Air Force Intelligence Operations (Luftwaffenführungsstab Ic.) in March 1944 refers to the Cologne raid and the importance of the Pathfinders. “The success of a large-scale night raid by the RAF is in increasing measure dependent on the conscientious flying of the Pathfinder crews,” the report states. It also goes on to mention Bennett by name. “This 35 year old Australian – known as one of the most resourceful officers of the RAF – had distinguished himself as long ago as 1938 by a record long-range flight to South Africa in a four-engined seaplane launched in the air from a Sunderland flying boat.”

The Pathfinder Force (PFF) used fast-flying Mosquitoes and specially equipped Lancasters and Halifaxes; Australians flew in all types. As Commander Bennett never suggested more than he would do himself, he was, therefore, the first Pathfinder to fly. The Pathfinder technique enabled the greatest possible tonnage of bombs to be dropped in the shortest possible time. With the target clearly and exactly marked in advance the swarm of heavy bombers could now fly directly to the aiming point and cascade their loads.

Pathfinders were specially chosen from the most experienced bomber crews. They were chosen chiefly for their skill in navigation, the most important requirement in successful Pathfinding, and for tenacity and determination. They would be first at the target and at exactly the time decided before takeoff. Saturation raids, in which  hundreds of heavy bombers dropped their loads in a few minutes, hinged on accurate timing and no timing must be more accurate than that of Pathfinders.

The nature of night bombing raid would be changed, as well. The Pathfinders would find a target and mark it in conditions which helped the bombers evade not only night fighters but also searchlights and anti-aircraft guns by using cloud cover. On normal nights the markers were dropped on the ground with a few flares in the sky, but when cloud obscured the target entirely the markers were hung in the cloud blanket and the target area marked just as accurately as ground flares. In this way the Pathfinders made possible the first successful attack on the vital Krupp steel works in Essen. Before this it had been impossible to make an accurate and concentrated attack on the Ruhr because of the industrial haze in the valley, but when the Pathfinders went to work no smoke could hide the targets.

Group portrait of the Blind Marker crew of 35 Squadron, RAF, No 8 Pathfinder Group, based near Graveley, England.

Group portrait of the Blind Marker crew of 35 Squadron, RAF, No 8 Pathfinder Group, based near Graveley, England. [AWM P08504.001]

The use of flares as markers was by no means new, but the way the Pathfinders used them was unique. Pyrotechnic experts provided a remarkable variety of markers and, by continually changing the colours and the patterns of the flares which mark the targets, they were able to confuse enemy defences. British scientists also provided markers which could be dropped accurately, had exceptional ballistic qualities and exact fusings.

Soon after D-day, June 6th, 1944, when night bombers were turned into day bombers, Pathfinders were ready with a method for marking targets by day just as successfully as by night. Weather made no difference to the accuracy of the technique and when targets began to burn, obscuring the aiming points with heavy smoke, the Pathfinders sent down more indicators and kept the target accurately marked throughout the attack.

Strong criticism from British Air Force heirarchy and from amongst their own units was at first levelled against the Pathfinder Force operations, but they were able to prevail because of the successes achieved during the years 1943 and 1944. The efforts of the PFF crews increasingly helped to sharpen the edge of Allied air supremacy in the skies above Europe as the tide of the war turned.

Dancing With The Devil: Australian Uranium in Ukraine

Filed in: Geopolitics Author: Brendan R Hay

In November 2016, a group of Australian federal politicians gathered quietly to take a very quick look at an issue with very long consequences. The outcome was an agreement that has now seen Australia sign a deal to sell uranium to a nation at war with Russia.

Zaporizhia, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, is in southeast Ukraine on the banks of the Dnieper River. © Wikicommons

Zaporizhia, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, is in southeast Ukraine on the banks of the Dnieper River. © Wikicommons

There has been a lack of detailed information to support the safety and safeguards assumptions underpinning the proposed treaty action, and according to some sources the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s (DFAT) National Interest Analysis of the plan is deeply deficient, especially in relation to key safeguards and security concerns and the implications of the Russian conflict. The NIA’s under-stated noting that ‘political tensions currently exist between Ukraine and Russia‘ completely fails to recognise or reflect the gravity of the situation.

Any plan to supply Australian uranium to such a fraught region deserves the highest level of scrutiny.
Instead, we have tick-a-box paperwork and cut-and-paste assurances.

Just over thirty years ago, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster spread fallout over vast areas of eastern and western Europe and five million people still live in contaminated areas in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. Serious containment and waste management issues remain at Chernobyl with a massive concrete shield now under construction in an attempt to enclose the stricken reactor complex and reduce the chances of further radioactive releases.

Against this ominous backdrop there are deep concerns over those parts of the Ukrainian nuclear sector that are not yet infamous names, including very real security concerns about nuclear facilities being targeted in the current conflict with Russia.

The Zaporizhia nuclear facility is Europe’s largest and is only 200 kilometres from the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine. Some commentators have described the nuclear plants in the region as pre-deployed nuclear weapons, and there have already been armed incursions during the recent conflict period. Acts of apparent sabotage have already seen the dangerous practise of emergency power unloading at nuclear power plants in Ukraine– including the Zaporozhskaya and South Ukrainian reactors.

Australia has already suspended uranium sales to Russia and it makes an interesting political point to start selling uranium to the Poroshenko regime in Ukraine now. Along with security concerns there are serious and unresolved safety and governance issues with the proposed sales plan. President Petro Poroshenko still refuses to combat the endemic corruption that infuriates Ukrainians and strangles their economy.

Ukraine has 15 nuclear reactors, four of which are currently running beyond their design lifetime while a further six will reach this state by 2020.  That means two thirds of Ukraine’s nuclear reactors will be past their use-by date within five years. The currently contested series of license renewals and the related European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) financing of a program to upgrade safety features at Ukrainian nuclear facilities has highlighted serious deficiencies in governance, operations and compliance with contemporary international standards.

On top of that, there is growing regional concern over the risks associated with the Poroshenko administration focus on keeping the reactors running. In rushing to extend operating licences Ukraine is cutting process and safety corners and not complying with its obligations under the Espoo Convention – an international framework agreement around transboundary environmental impact assessment. In April 2013 the UN Espoo monitoring group found that license renewals at the Rivne nuclear facility were not compliant with Espoo procedures.

New life for Ukraine’s aging nuclear power plants?

New life for Ukraine’s aging nuclear power plants?

In 2013 the Eastern Partnership, a leading East European civil society forum, declared that the absence of environmental impact assessment for nuclear projects posed ‘a severe threat to people both in Ukraine and in neighbouring states, including EU member states’. Nearby nations including the governments or Slovakia, Romania and Hungary have formally and unsuccessfully called for Ukraine to provide further detail on its nuclear projects and to facilitate increased regional dialogue on this unresolved issue of concern.

The Ukrainian government’s response to continuing domestic and international disquiet over the operations of its nuclear sector was a 2015 government decree preventing the national nuclear energy regulator from carrying out facility inspections on its own initiative. This coupled with increased pressure on industry whistle-blowers and critics has done nothing to address the real risks facing the nations aging nuclear fleet.

Apart from any other reason, the Ukraine sales deal should not be advanced in the continued absence of any meaningful Australian government, agency and uranium company response to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident, which was directly fueled by Australian uranium.

None of these issues have been meaningfully identified, let alone addressed, in Australian treaty action or analysis to date. The Australian government and the rest of the West must recognize this danger, drop its charade of portraying Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko as a paladin of democracy, and start forcing him to enact visible, tangible reforms. Anemic recommendations, such as the  US State Department’s vague wish for ‘a new cabinet that is committed to implementing needed reforms,’ aren’t going to cut it. The overturned states of Syria and Libya are straining Europe to the breaking point – consider what a failed state of 45 million people in the middle of Central Europe could do.

Lost to the Night: The Lancaster Crew

Lancaster Crew by Stella Bowen

Lancaster Crew by Stella Bowen

Filed in: War History  –  Author: JF Dowsett

At the Binbrook RAF flying base in Lincolnshire, Britain during April 1944, the crew of a Lancaster bomber were posing – in their spare time – for Australian War artist Stella Bowen.

One of the first women artists to be appointed, Esther Gwendolyn “Stella” Bowen (b. 1893) was an Australian artist and writer. In 1944, she had been appointed an official war artist by the Australian War Memorial. Bowen’s brief as a war artist was to depict the activities of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) stationed in England. She also painted portraits of military commanders and Australian prisoners of war who had recently been repatriated from Europe.

Lancaster bomber maintenance at RAF Binbrook Bomber Command

Lancaster bomber maintenance at RAF Binbrook Bomber Command

For the Lancaster painting, and as opportunity offered, the six Australians and one Englishman would don their flying kits and look “business-like” for an hour or so while the artist worked on a painting intended to portray the typical crew of the giant bombers which were so successfully pounding targets in Europe, paving the way for an Allied invasion.

It  was a slow job though, with not much more than an outline completed by 27th April.

Shortly after nine o’clock on the night of the 27th the bomb-laden planes of 460 Squadron waddled down the dimly lit runway and roared away  into the darkness. The target was Friedrichshafen – a vital industrial centre on the shores of Lake Constance. There was nothing to make the operation any more exciting or spectacular for the crews: it was just another night raid.

But, by morning, the subjects in the unfinished painting had been reported missing.  Nothing more was known. Hope of the aircraft limping home gradually waned… then disappeared.

Bowen continued work on her picture and eventually completed it, with the aid of a few photographs of the airmen and an artist’s faculty for remembering detail.

Later, in September of that same year, came the  first news of the fate of the crew. The parents of Flight-Officer T. J. Lynch of  Queensland – the tail gunner – received a small postcard from Dulag Luft camp in Germany.

It was in the unmistakable handwriting of  their son – he was alive and a prisoner of war.  He was subsequently repatriated in the fifth exchange of prisoners arranged between the Allies and Germany, and arrived in England at Liverpool on 5 February 1945.

Their aircraft, he said, was shot down in  the vicinity of Lahr near the Swiss border that night in April. Lynch was unable to remember whether or not he had jumped from the plane. In fact, he remained unconscious until the 4th of May, when he awoke as a patient in a German Luftwaffe (air force) hospital at Baden-Baden.

Stalag IX-C

Stalag IX-C, German POW camp

A German doctor answered his anxious  inquiries concerning the fate of his comrades  and told him that all had been killed.

Lynch himself was badly injured and spent  many weary weeks in various hospitals. Following the amputation of his right leg, he was then sent to another large hospital at Nemmingen near Frankfurt, after which he was posted to Stalag IXC to await repatriation.

Information regarding the other crew members was vague and sketchy; but even before the war had ended it was evident that  Flying-Officer Lynch was the sole survivor. The crew, in addition to Lynch, was:

Squadron-Leader E. D. Jarman, DFC
Flight-Officer M. W. Carroll, D.F.C.
Flight-Officer R. L. Neal
Flight-Officer H. R.  Harrison
Flight-Officer F. G. Jackson, D.F.C.
Sergeant D. G. Champkin (RAF  MHS)

Lest we forget.

Making Maps Under Fire: Surveying New Guinea in World War II

Filed in: War History  –  Author: JF Dowsett

HMAS Whyalla in camouflage in New Guinea

HMAS Whyalla in camouflage in New Guinea

On January 2nd 1943, the Australian Navy corvette HMAS Whyalla was anchored deep in the Maclaren Harbour inlet on the Cape Nelson Peninsula in New Guinea. She had been brought in close to the shoreline and camouflaged with a bewildering array of branches, vines and bushes that were doing their best to hide 730 tons of steel ship from the Imperial Japanese Air Service, who at that stage still menaced Allied naval operations in the area.

Like a lightning storm a force of 18 Japanese dive bombers approached undetected and attacked in a terrifyingly determined manner. The Whyalla had field survey parties out on duty and her two tenders, the requisitioned trawlers HMAS Stella and Polaris, were sounding off the harbour entrance. Several bombs narrowly missed the Whyalla, which suffered damage from debris and two casualties – members of the bridge Oerlikon gun crew who were seriously wounded.

The splashes from these near-misses raised several tons of water which deluged the bridge and washed the commanding officer’s map sheets overboard. They were found floating on the surface sometime later and, although legible, the accuracy of the drawings was ruined and the work had to be replotted – an intolerable labour which evidently was only remedied by violent expletives against all Japanese and a torrent of oaths that promised the inflicting of epic reprisals.

The Royal Australian Navy Hydrographic Survey Service

RAN Hydrographic Branch Dept. September 1944

RAN Hydrographic Branch Dept. September 1944 [Image courtesy Dowsett Memorial Library]

In September 1942 when the operations to evict the Japanese from their foothold at Buna were being planned, it was found that to reach Buna was no simple task. It was not possible to carry heavy equipment over the difficult Kokoda Trail, and seaborne transport was considered the only practical method for carrying sufficient men and equipment to the fighting area. Two sea routes were open to use by Allied shipping, one to the east and north of the Trobriand Islands was a deep-sea route, fairly clear of navigational dangers, but could not be used at that stage without exposing Allied forces to disastrous attacks from enemy aircraft and submarines. In addition, it was necessary to wait until sufficient amphibious craft were available in the area, as an attack to the north of Buna could only be made in force.

HMAS Stella (later Warreen)

HMAS Stella (later Warreen)

The duty of surveying the northeastern New Guinea coastline in preparation for the future campaigns was undertaken in November by two small vessels, HMAS Polaris and Stella, under the command of Lt-Commander G. D. Tancred and Lieutenant J. Cody, RAN. These two ships were joined shortly after by HMAS Whyalla, under the command of Lt-Commander K. E. Oom, RAN. On the personnel of these three vessels fell the arduous duties, during the following six months, of fulfilling the requirements of this surveying program, during which the surveyors and men worked hard for long hours, fixing and running lines of soundings, erecting beacons, and observing under hostile conditions.

As operations advanced northwards, the strength of the surveying service was augmented by the addition of HMAS Shepparton, and later in June 1942 by HMAS Benalla. In addition, a number of requisitioned tenders was assigned to the group and at the end of 1943 HMAS Moresby was commissioned for surveying duties. Thus, as time went on, the force increased considerably in numbers, with the consequent increase in the scope of the service’s abilities.

Cape Ward Hunt, Papua. 1944-05-20. Mitre Rock north of Cape Ward Hunt. The survey vessel HMAS Moresby was despatched to repair the navigation light that had recently been placed on top of Mitre Rock. A party from the Moresby repaired the light and the vessel remained at anchor overnight to ensure the light was operating.

Cape Ward Hunt, Papua. 1944-05-20. Mitre Rock north of Cape Ward Hunt. The survey vessel HMAS Moresby was later despatched to repair the navigation light that had recently been placed on top of Mitre Rock. A party from the Moresby repaired the light and the vessel remained at anchor overnight to ensure the light was operating.

Once during late 1942, HMAS Cape Leeuwin had been assigned the duty of erecting the light on Mitre Rock, a notorious landmark on the northeast coast of New Guinea. This imposing rock, which is forty feet high, is practically inaccessible and only by erecting special ladders could the upper portion of the stone cliff be reached. A midshipman was sent to get up through the undergrowth and secure a rope to the summit by which access could be achieved. He had not penetrated far before he became aware of the million or so local inhabitants – a particularly vicious type of ant rare to the coast region which set upon him with carnivorous enthusiasm, being the first meat they had encountered on that barren rock in aeons. In order to get down he had first to secure the rope, and thus was forced to carry on to the top. When this excruciating task was done, the watchers below were startled to see the midshipman fling himself out of the undergrowth, shoot down the rope in a skin-burning slide and then, without pause, dive headlong into the sea. It was quickly discovered that no man could work on the top, and that even the locals, who were requisitioned to cut down the undergrowth, went on a sit-down strike and refused to do “work belong bloody Navy”. Finally the ants were only culled by burning off the rock’s top with the assistance of fuel oil, petrol and cordite.

The survey of the extraordinarily deep gulf of Milne Bay was also undertaken by the Whyalla and the other vessels. Some parts of Milne Bay had been surveyed by the surveyors of HMS Dart as far back as 1885, but much of it required re-examination by modern methods. This was especially emphasized by the most recent survey of the Killerton Anchorage, which had previously been examined by Lieutenants Dawson and Messum of the Dart in 1886. In the southern entrance, right on the leading line, a rock with only eight feet of water covering it was discovered.

HMAS Shepparton (J248)

HMAS Shepparton (J248)

On weighing anchor next morning and proceeding out through the eastern entrance in the first light of dawn, the Whyalla discovered an extensive reef by running aground on it. Where the previous surveyors had marked thirteen fathoms, was indeed a reef a hundred yards in width with less than three feet of water covering it. During the next forty-eight hours, until the Whyalla floated itself off the reef unaided and undamaged, the surveyors had time to ruminate on the problem: “…did the coral grow out of over seventy feet of water in that time, or were the oysters on the reef so good that the earlier surveyors wished to keep the news hidden from other hungry seamen?” In honour of this unique event the two discoveries were called Messum Rock and Dawson Reef, which – although contravening accepted principles in nomenclature and awarding honour to whom it was least due – gave a subtle feeling of satisfaction, if not an answer to the conundrum in question.

The part played by the Surveying Services of the Royal Australian Navy was acknowledged by the Allied leaders of the Southwest Pacific Area as an integral factor contributing to the success of their campaigns in New Guinea. These surveys were later published in a set of charts that would also become vital to the safe navigation of ships in that area, both during the period of amphibious naval operations and equally important in guiding merchant ships supplying the varied units in forward areas.

The survey group continued to work between the New Guinea mainland and the D’Entrecastaux Islands where they were within 11 miles of Japanese forces and under frequent air attack, taking shelter in the mangroves. HMAS Stella and Polaris also went on to survey the landing routes at Salamaua and Finschhaven under covering fire from the corvettes Shepparton and Benalla.

The group was much decorated for these ventures; receiving the battle honours Pacific 1942–45, New Guinea 1942–44, and Okinawa 1945.

 

“Stand by, I’m coming round!” – The HMAS Nepal

Filed in: War History  –  Author: JF Dowsett

'HMAS Nepal in Colombo' by Roy Hodgkinson

‘HMAS Nepal in Colombo’ by Roy Hodgkinson

This thrilling first-hand account of a high-seas rescue takes place aboard the HMAS Nepal (G25), an N-class destroyer of the Royal Australian Navy.

Originally built as the Norseman at the John I. Thorneycroft shipyard at Woolston near Southampton in the UK, the 1,760 ton destroyer was one of two initially destined for the Royal Netherlands Navy, but when almost complete was she was virtually blown in half on the slipway by a direct bomb hit during a German air raid in December 1940. As a result, the ship was finally commissioned as HMAS NEPAL by Commander R.B. Morris RAN on May 1, 1942 – the last of the RAN ‘N’ Class to come into service.

In this account, we meet the Nepal in the Indian Ocean sometime in mid 1943, conducting operations with the Eastern Fleet out of Trincomalee in Sri Lanka.

The seaman telling the story is known only to us as ‘Maintop.’

nepal-01

HMAS Nepal (G25)

“The Navy always has, and still does, rate seamanship well above gunnery. Our captain’s steward can thank his stars for that. Destroyer Nepal in the Indian Ocean during the war was running before a sea that looked like an immense waterfall: one enormous roaring mass of foam. Occasionally, from out of this cataract, a Himalayan sea would gain on her and dash itself against her sides in a smother of green and flung white.

Down aft the captain’s steward was trying to get for’ard. He waited for a lull, found it, stepped from shelter and ran into a liquid wall that crushed him through the port rails and over the side. The lifebuoy sentry saw him go.

In such a sea the Old Man was, of course, on the bridge. Through speakers he ordered the first lieutenant to prepare lines and a buoy; the engine-room to be ready with full power. Then, conversationally, he said: “Stand by, I’m coming round.”

Five degrees at a time the destroyer edged round to meet the frenzied seas. She rolled and shuddered as her propellers raced. Then over again, until the torn seas raced level with her rails. A final hammer blow against her bows and she was round, slicing confidently into the troughs. Such was the skipper’s judgment that no line was needed; the steward reached out and grabbed the lowered scrambling net.

Half an hour later the Surgeon Lieutenant, one hand braced against the swaying bulkhead, was operating on a compound fracture of the rescued man’s right leg.”

HMAS Ballarat

HMAS Ballarat (J184)

Naval records indicate the ‘Old Man’ in question was Commander Franklyn Bryce Morris, RAN from Wycherproof in Victoria, Australia. He commanded the Nepal from May 11, 1942 to March 30, 1944. Little is known of Commander Morris apart from his next commission which was the HMAS Ballarat (J 184), which was his charge from December 1, 1944 to June 18, 1945.

At the end of February 1945, Nepal was assigned to the British Pacific Fleet until after the end of World War II. She earned four battle honours for her wartime service:

Indian Ocean 1942–44  / Burma 1944–45 / Pacific 1945 / Okinawa 1945

ANZAC Day Edition: Dowsett’s War, Part 7 – The Lighthorseman

Anzac Day, 25th April 2016 – Lest We Forget

“At a mile distant their thousand hooves were stuttering thunder, coming at a rate that frightened a man – they were an awe inspiring sight, galloping through the red haze – knee to knee and horse to horse – the dying sun glinting on bayonet points…” Trooper Ion Idriess, 5th Light Horse Regiment AIF

For the other chapters of Dowsetts War, click here.

horseAs mentioned in Dowsett’s War – Part 3, discovering family service records from the First World War – beginning with the Gallipoli records – opened up not only a whole new area of family history but also offered a new perspective on the war itself, especially as the research that I was doing coincided with the 100th anniversary of the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli. In fact, 2015 was celebrated as ‘100 Years of Anzac’ throughout Australia with many related events throughout the year. The knowledge of my grandfather’s service had already been a source of immense pride, but finding out about the World War I stories took me on an amazing journey of historical discovery.

While doing genealogical research last Christmas I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of Anzac Treasures – The Gallipoli Collection of the Australian War Memorial and as I was already looking into the service records of the family’s WWI veterans, it was a scintillating read. More of a photographic tome showcasing the War Memorial’s Gallipoli collection, it served to encapsulate the campaign as it was seen and experienced by the Australians that were there in a way that showed me exactly what was missing from my own understanding of the AIF in WW1.

In addition, the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s (ABC) website features a Gallipoli – The First Day 3D interactive experience which I viewed along with the Gallipoli miniseries aired on the Nine Network in April 2015 as the 100th anniversary of the ill-fated beach landings grew closer. Saturating myself in this high quality historical research and entertainment which has been on offer this year while simultaneously following my own family’s path through the Great War increased my interest and changed my perspective on the war and on that period of history in general.

So it was with renewed clarity and insight into the Great War period that I began to look at the story of Jack Arthur Dowsett, a Lieutenant with the 7th Light Horse Regiment.

Enlistment

Born to James Francis Dowsett and Eliza Hannah Dowsett of Oxford Street, Paddington, New South Wales (NSW) in Australia on the 15th of December 1895, Jack Arthur Dowsett was already a military man when war was declared. A carpenter by trade at age 19, he had already served 18 months with the NSW 11th (Australian Horse) Australian Light Horse Regiment and 3 months with the NSW Light Horse Militia. The Australian Light Horse brigades were mounted troops capable of fighting both as cavalry and mounted infantry, who served in the Second Boer War and World War I. During the inter-war years, a number of regiments such as the ones of which young Jack Dowsett was a member were raised as part of Australia’s reserve military forces.

The light horse troops were like mounted infantry in that they usually fought dismounted, using their horses as transport to the battlefield and as a means of swift disengagement when retreating or retiring. A famous exception to this rule though was the charge of the 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments at Beersheba on 31 October 1917. In 1918, some light horse regiments were equipped with sabres, enabling them to fight in a conventional cavalry role in the advance on Damascus. However, unlike mounted infantry, the light horse also performed certain cavalry roles, such as scouting and screening, while mounted.

Jack was immediately assigned to the newly formed 7th Light Horse Regiment which was officially raised at Sydney in October 1914 with personnel drawn predominantly from the Light Horse Militia of the state of New South Wales. The 7th was made up of 25 officers and 497 other ranks serving in three squadrons, each of six troops. Each troop was divided into eight sections of four men each. During battle, a trooper from each section was nominated as horse handler, which ultimately reduced the regiments’ active rifle strength. Once established, the regiment was assigned to the 2nd Light Horse Brigade, serving alongside the 5th and 6th Light Horse Regiments.

HMAT A33 Ayrshire, in dazzle camouflage livery

HMAT A33 Ayrshire, in dazzle camouflage livery

On 21 December 1914 7th Light Horse Regiment departed Sydney on the HMAT Ayrshire, a 7,750 ton cargo steamship leased by the Commonwealth of Australia from the The Scottish Shire Line Ltd. The A and B Squadrons of the 7th sailed on the Ayrshire to Egypt and disembarked on 1 February 1915. Jack Dowsett was with the B Squadron.

Gallipoli

J06251

Members of the 7th Light Horse Regiment on the front line at Anzac in August 1915. [AWM J06251]

The light horse were considered unsuitable for the initial operations at Gallipoli, but were subsequently deployed without their horses to reinforce the infantry. The 2nd Light Horse Brigade landed in late May 1915 and was attached to the 1st Australian Division. The 7th Light Horse became responsible for a sector on the far right of the ANZAC line, and played a defensive role (until it finally left the peninsula on 20 December 1915).

 

 

Disembarking from HMT Lutzow on May 15th 1915 Jack Dowsett became part of the Australian Middle Eastern Forces. According to his AIF records, he was severely reprimanded at Anzac Cove for disobeying an order from a senior non-commissioned officer on June 30th. However, his skills as a soldier must have outshone his belligerence and he was made made Sergeant in August 1915. Like many at Gallipoli, Jack would succumb to dysentry the following month.

 

Egypt and Sinai

After the return to Egypt, the 7th Light Horse Regiment reformed and re-equipped. The reorganisation of the Light Horse led to the formation of the ANZAC Mounted Division to which the 7th Light Horse Regiment became a founding contingent. On 28 February 1916, the 7th moved to join its parent brigade, the 2nd Light Horse Brigade, which was taking part in the defence of the Suez Canal. The work was extremely hot and monotonous. They remained here until later being transferred to the Romani region to bolster the defence of that area. According to Lieutenant-General Harry Chauvel, Commander of the ANZAC Mounted Division, “it was largely due to (the 7th Light Horse Regiment’s) stubborn defence and spirited counterattack, under the Leadership of Lieutenant-Colonel G. Macarthur Onslow, that the victory was so complete.”

They fought at the battle of Romani on 4 August, at Katia the following day, and were also involved in the advance that followed the Turks’ retreat back across the desert.

Palestine

The regiment spent late 1916 and early 1917 engaged on patrol work until the British advance into Palestine stalled before the Turkish bastion of Gaza. During this period Jack Dowsett was enlisted at Cavalry School of Instruction at Mazar in January and later with the 2nd Light Horse Training Regiment El Fukhari. In March 1917, the 7th Light Horse Regiment found itself taking the lead role during the First Battle of Gaza. It was the 7th that led the ANZAC Mounted Division through the night to its position in the rear of the city, and which captured the Commander of Gaza Defence. While involved in the encirclement of the city as a prelude to its capture, the 7th Light Horse Regiment received the order to withdraw and return to the starting line. Grudgingly they did so, realising that the order had given the Turks a chance to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat.

The 7th Light Horse took part in the Second Battle of Gaza on 19 April 1917 and consequently suffered its heaviest losses since leaving Australia. Although the 2nd Light Horse Brigade was to be prepared for such a mounted attack, the 5th and 7th Light Horse held a wide stretch of the front line south of the Wadi Imleih. Here they were attacked by a squadron of Ottoman cavalry, supported by another cavalry regiment and a force of Bedouin. With their rifles on their backs the light horsemen were defenceless in mounted attack and they were forced back under cover of their machine gun detachments before eventually halting the Ottoman advance. Near dark, a threatened counterattack by infantry from Beersheba on the extreme right of the line failed to develop. The Anzac Mounted Division retired to water in the Wadi Ghuzzee at Heseia where they were shelled, causing many casualties.

Group portrait of men of the 7th Australian Light Horse Regiment, resting in the sand near Asluj before the charge at Beersheba

Group portrait of men of the 7th Australian Light Horse Regiment, resting in the sand near Asluj before the charge at Beersheba. [AWM P11464.047.003]

With the fall of Gaza on 7 November 1917, the Turkish position in southern Palestine collapsed. The 7th Light Horse Regiment also took part in the famous Battle of Beersheba, sustaining its “tradition for dash and gallantry” and then was involved in the follow up actions that lasted until early January 1918. After the fall of Jerusalem the 7th moved to the Jordan Valley and took parts in operations in this region. This included the taking of Jericho, the attack on Amman during 27 March – 2 April 1918 and the Es Salt Raid of 30 April – 4 May 1918.

Commendation

It was during the Es Salt Raid of 30 April – 4 May 1918 that Jack Dowsett received his commendation for devotion to duty.

Jack Dowsett's commendation record

Jack Dowsett’s commendation record

2nd Light Horse – A. & N.Z. Mounted – Desert Mounted

6th May 1918
7th A.L.H. Regiment

2nd Lieutenant Jack DOWSETT
Operations 29th April to 4th May 1918.

Devotion to duty, in that he was in charge of one of the troops detailed to carry out the assault on KABR SAID on the night of 29/30th April 1918. Owing to his careful reconnaissance of the position he was able to get his troop to within 300 yards of the enemy’s position and at the appointed time rushed the position together with Lieut. C.E.tanley’s troop, driving out the enemy and occupying the ridge.
On the night of the 3/4tth May 1918 the Regiment was ordered to leave the firing line at 2000 and take up a position forming a road head to cover the withdrawal of troops by No. 7 road from ES SALT. The Regiment moved up a track from the ES SALT-SHUNET NIMRIN Road and encountered a very difficult and bad patch of road about 30 feet long, which looked almost impossible to get the horses up, especially as the night was very dark.
Realising the urgency of getting everyone through, Lieut. Dowsett stayed at this place and by his personal exertions and disregard to the great danger to himself led every horse which gave trouble over the dangerous portion of the road. Some 15 to 20 horses slipped in their first attempt to get over and fell down a cliff of rock some 12 to 15 feet to the bottom. These Lieut. Dowsett got up again and got them safely over the bad portion of the road. In one case a horse fell three times. He was so exhausted at the end of three and a quarter hours that he was unable to walk up the road to rejoin his unit.

The 7th also helped defeat a joint Turkish-German attack launched on the Jordan bridgehead around Musallabeh on 14 July.

The next major British offensive was launched along the coast in September 1918, and the 7th took part in a subsidiary effort east of the Jordan. It was part of the force that captured Amman on 25 September, which proved to be its last major engagement of the war; Turkey surrendered on 30 October 1918.

Return to Australia

After the conclusion of hostilities, the 7th Light Horse Regiment was selected for to return to Australia. However, before they were able to depart one of the saddest events took place for the Australian Lighthorsemen: they had to farewell their best trusted steeds, the Australian Waler warhorses. All the Regiment’s horses had to have their health checked carefully with only the fittest horses being transferred to the Indian Cavalry while those in poor condition were all destroyed by the AIF Veterinary units.

On 13 March 1919 the 7th Light Horse Regiment was deployed as infantry to assist in suppressing a revolt during the Egyptian Uprising. This was to be their final assignment. After the revolt collapsed, the Regiment left Egypt on 28th June 1919 for the long voyage back to Australia.

Jack Dowsett was one of those who came home.

Dowsett’s War, Part 6 – Changi Prisoner

Three prisoners at Shimo Songkurai in 1943. The effects of malnutrition can be seen in their skeletal frames and the stomach of the man on the right, distended by beri beri. The photograph was one of the last to be taken by George Aspinall on the camera he smuggled up to the Thai–Burma railway from Changi. [By courtesy Tim Bowden]

Three Australian prisoners at Shimo Songkurai in 1943. The effects of malnutrition can be seen in their skeletal frames and the stomach of the man on the right, distended by beri beri. The photograph was one of the last to be taken by George Aspinall on the camera he smuggled up to the Thai–Burma railway from Changi. [Photo by G. Aspinall]

“The place earned the title of Hellfire Pass, for it looked, and was, like a living image of hell itself.”
Jack Chalker, Burma Railway: Images of War, London, Mercer Books, 2007, 59

For the other chapters of Dowsetts War, click here.

Douglas France Dowsett, a driver with the 22nd Infantry Brigade Australian Army Service Corps Supply (AASC) Section was held along with roughly 15,000 other servicemen of the Australian Army’s 8th Division in the British Army’s Selarang Barracks, Changi. It was a prisoner of war camp holding some 50,000 Allied – predominantly British and Australian – soldiers captured after the Fall of Singapore in February 1942. From 1943 the prison also included Dutch civilians brought over by the Japanese from the islands from what is now Indonesia, then part of the Dutch East Indies. The name Changi has become synonymous in the UK, Australia, The Netherlands, and elsewhere with the horrific treatment suffered at the hands of the Japanese in the POW camps.

Extract from NX58454 D F Dowsett’s war service records. [© Dowsett Memorial Library]

Doug’s army war records are notable in that the pages are bare of much detail, essentially just a few lines recording his status as “missing” and then POW. It’s as if the silence of his service record speaks loudly of the suffering in the prison camps, such a long way from home and long way from the protection of his own unit. What we now know as the history that occurred between the dates recorded on those cards haunts the unknown time in between.

Newspaper clipping from The Australian Women’s Weekly society pages, Saturday 29 June 1946 reporting the wedding of Doug Dowsett to Milicent Sutton in Randwick, New South Wales. The officiating minister was former army chaplain George Polain, who was a POW alongside Dowsett in Shimo Songkurai and would later go on to give evidence against the Japanese war crimes in the labour camps. [© Dowsett Memorial Library]

The conditions experienced in the Changi camps by Australian soldiers have been memorialised in poetry, books and film by the number. The very name Changi immediately conjures emtions of dread amongst all who know anything of the horrors lived by the wretched souls sent to build the notorious Thai-Burma Railway. In his 1980 book One Man’s War, Stan Arneil quotes from his diaries: “If ever I see home again …I want nothing more … than to forget these awful days—swollen bodies, bloated from beri beri, walking skeletons from dysentery, eyesight becoming universally bad, malaria rampant. Surely this cannot last..?”

The Thai–Burma railway was built in 1942–43 to supply the Japanese forces in Burma, bypassing the sea routes that were made vulnerable when Japanese naval strength was reduced in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in May and June 1942. Once the railway was completed the Japanese planned to attack the British in India and the road and airfields used by the Allies to supply China. Begun in October 1942 and completed on 16 October 1943, the railway stretched 415 kilometres between Nong Pladuk in Thailand and Thanbyuzayat in Burma. It wound not only through gentle plains but also jagged limestone hills, interspersed with streams and gullies. During the monsoon season, the land became waterlogged and unstable. Where the railway met unavoidable hills, cuttings were dug to allow the line to proceed. Often the line emerged from a deep cutting onto a series of embankments, and bridges. In all, 688 bridges were built along the railway system.

In order to complete the works in record time, more than 60 000 Allied prisoners of war were employed in the construction of the Thai–Burma railway, including British Empire troops, Dutch and colonial troops from the Netherlands East Indies and a smaller number of US troops. About 13,000 of the prisoners were Australian. Over 12 000 Allied prisoners would die during the construction of the railway, including more than 2700 Australians.

The isolation hospital area for cholera sufferers, Shimo Songkurai. The patients were housed under canvas to the left of the photo. In the centre is the operating table used for amputations, ulcer treatment and post-mortems. [Photo by George Aspinall, by courtesy Tim Bowden]

The isolation hospital area for cholera sufferers, Shimo Songkurai. The patients were housed under canvas to the left of the photo. In the centre is the operating table used for amputations, ulcer treatment and post-mortems. [Photo by George Aspinall, by courtesy Tim Bowden]

The required POW labour force was systematically transferred from the Changi barracks camps to various labour camps outside Singapore, including the Burma Railway and the Sandakan airfield. ‘D Force’, consisting of over 2220 Australians and some 2800 British, was sent from Singapore to Thailand in mid to late March 1943. ‘F Force’ was 7,000 strong; there were 3,338 British and 3,662 Australians and the first train left Singapore on the 18 April, 1943.

Doug Dowsett was transferred to Changi with ‘H’ Force in May 1943. This group consisted of nearly 3300 men including 600 Australians commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel R.F. Oakes. Arriving at Ban Pong from Singapore in mid-May 1943, ‘H’ Force then had to walk to various work sites along a twenty-kilometre stretch of the railway between Tonchan and Hintok. Given the heat and the fact they were carrying too much equipment, men arrived at their destination in the last stage of exhaustion, staggering and swaying like drunks.

The bulk of the workforce arrived utterly exhausted in mid-May at Shimo Ni Thea, which became the local headquarters. Most of the Australians under Lieutenant-Colonel C.H. Kappe were then put to work at Shimo (Lower) Songkurai and Kami (Upper) Songkurai. In these remote and primitive camps, the acute supply problems were aggravated by the fact that F Force was under the administration of the Imperial Japanese Army Malay Command rather than the Thailand administration that controlled most other POWs in the region. The arrangements for these forces were inferior and the two administrations competed rather than cooperated in managing the workers under their control. Profoundly malnourished, overworked and ravaged by diseases, including cholera, F Force suffered one of the highest death rates on the railway: some 1060 Australians and 2036 British.

Working on a Thailand Railway Cutting, July 1943 by the official war artist Murray Griffin. This has become one of the most famous images of the hellish conditions experienced when constructing the Thai–Burma railway, though Griffin painted this from accounts by other POWs. He spent the whole of his captivity in Changi. [AWM ART25081]

Working on a Thailand Railway Cutting, July 1943 by the official war artist Murray Griffin. This has become one of the most famous images of the hellish conditions experienced when constructing the Thai–Burma railway, though Griffin painted this from accounts by other POWs. He spent the whole of his captivity in Changi. [AWM ART25081]

What is now known as ‘Hellfire Pass’ is a dramatic cutting some 75 metres long and 25 metres deep. It was the deepest and longest cutting along the entire length of the Thai–Burma railway which over the years came to symbolise the suffering and maltreatment of Australian prisoners of the Japanese across the Asia–Pacific region. The name ‘Hellfire Pass’ came from the appalling working conditions at and around this site, some 150 kilometres from the start of the railway at Nong Pladuk. In mid-1943, when the Japanese introduced impossibly fast work schedules to meet tight deadlines for completing the railway, prisoners were forced to work long hours into the night. Their work site was lit by oil lamps and bamboo fires. This flickering light, the noise from the drilling of the rock and the shuffling of hundreds of poorly fed prisoners seemed the very image of hell.

“Our emaciated, cadaverous bodies were covered in rags, we were all barefooted with bandages covering our ulcers and we were almost all rotten with malaria and beri beri. … our own Black Jack Galleghan, the Iron Commander of the A.I.F. at Changi … was shocked to the point of silence and tears.” – Stan Arneil, describing the return of F Force to Changi in December 1943, One Man’s War, Sydney, Alterative Publishing 1980

Hellfire Pass was lost to the jungle in the years after the war when the railway was demolished. But it was rediscovered in the 1980s. It is now the site of Anzac Day ceremonies and the location of the Australian government’s Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum and a walking trail for visitors.

 

Stones From the Glasshouse: The West and the Syrian War

Filed in: Geopolitics  Author: Brendan R Hay

The West is suffering a crisis of credibility over the Syrian War.

While the governments of the Coalition of the Willing – now invested in the latest Middle Eastern crusade nobly called Operation Inherent Resolve – conduct a behind-the-lines media war on Moscow, the Russian military continues the only real war against terror in Syria in partnership with the Syrian Government, as ironic as history would have it.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov [Reuters]

Our claims to the lofty notions of a free mainstream press have now become a hollow fraud, thanks largely in part to conflicts of corporate and political interests. It seems that Putin and Lavrov’s tactic of letting the West and its media bash away at Russia endlessly seems to have worked, because the West is losing the credibility war.

This is no more obvious than the reporting of the direct bombing of Syrian soldiers at Door Ez Zair, by US and Australian air strike elements that was portrayed as “mistaken.”

That the bombing was not a mistake but rather, as several commentators have pointed out (although never in the Australian media), was much more likely to have been a deliberate sabotaging by US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s Pentagon element of the American war machine of the Kerry-Lavrov negotiated partial ceasefire.

US Secretary of State John Kerry opined (in an October 7 appearance with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault) that Russian military actions in Syria “beg for an appropriate investigation of war crimes.” French President Francois Hollande echoed the sentiment.

Secretary Kerry’s conscience apparently went untroubled by possible war crimes repercussions when US forces killed at least 42 civilians in an AC-130U gunship attack on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan a year ago this month.

 The charred remains of the Doctors Without Borders hospital hit by a U.S. airstrike in Kunduz, Afghanistan, is pictured on October 16. Najim Rahim/AP

The charred remains of the Doctors Without Borders hospital hit by a U.S. airstrike in Kunduz, Afghanistan, is pictured on October 16. [Najim Rahim/AP]

Coverage on the Aleppo battle, especially in Australia and the US, can only be called hysterical. To sample across the mainstream, one would think that East Aleppo is the only part of the city being attacked, despite the city now having been a battleground for several years due to the ISIS/ISIL and non-ISIS jihadis, who have even mined the escape corridors the Syrian army set up for civilians to get out. These jihadis are forcibly using the local population as human shields now, with not a word of this in the Western press who falls prey to the psy-ops used by both sides in Syria.

The New York Times routinely portrays the battle for East Aleppo as simply a case of barbaric Russian and Syrian leaders bombing innocent neighborhoods with no regard for the human cost, operating out of an apparent lust to kill children.

Aftermath of air strike on Qaterji in rebel-held east Aleppo.

Aftermath of air strike on Qaterji in rebel-held east Aleppo. [Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters]

Going along with Al Qaeda’s propaganda strategy, the Times and other mainstream U.S. news outlets have kept the focus on the children. A Times dispatch on Sept. 27 begins: “They cannot play, sleep or attend school. Increasingly, they cannot eat. Injury or illness could be fatal. Many just huddle with their parents in windowless underground shelters — which offer no protection from the powerful bombs that have turned east Aleppo into a kill zone…”

The reality is that US-led coalition Islamists of Al Qaeda/Al Nusra fire mortar shells into the government-held part of Aleppo every day, mutilating Syrian children as young as six, while doctors lack the medicine to relieve their pain. “What concerns us is that all parties to the conflict are committing violations against children,” UNICEF spokesperson for the Middle East and North Africa Juliette Touma told RT the previous week. “Violations against children in Syria should come to an end.”

And yet, the violence continues, despite the best efforts of those who consider it their “Right To Protect”:

  • Two children were killed and 5 others were injured as the terrorist organizations fired a rocket shell on al-Sulaimaniyeh area in Aleppo city.
  • Several children dead in Aleppo bus station shelling by rebels. A mortar shell landed right next to a bus station in the government-controlled al-Hamadaneyah neighborhood of Aleppo.
  • Terrorists of “Jaish al-Islam” and “Al-Rahman Legion” targeted on Wednesday Damascus city with mortars, injuring a child and causing material damage in the areas where the shells hit.
  • Five killed, 13 others were injured due to terrorist attacks with shells on the residential neighborhoods of Aleppo city.

In the meantime, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced a 48-hour ceasefire in the embattled city starting on Thursday to allow civilians to leave Aleppo and pave the way for aid deliveries. “The goal of this work is to separate the terrorist from the ‘moderate opposition’ and get them out of Eastern Aleppo,” the minister said.

Aside from using the humanity as more pretense, another ceasefire will mean nothing to the West. The US ended all pretense of seeking a Syrian war resolution by announcing it would discontinue joint efforts with Russia in Geneva. To embarrass the country even more, US officials once again attempted to blame the failure on Russia by claiming it was violating the ceasefire with its bombing missions to support ending the terror siege in East Aleppo.

This determined demonizing of the Syrian coalition campaign to free Aleppo has been spun as a campaign to kill the civilians when they are no threat because they are unarmed. The Russians are cast as the aggressors from the East, despite Moscow being the only nation legally operating inside Syria under international law, while the Syrian Army is portrayed as the hired goons of Assad. Left out of all those reports is any mention of the East Aleppo civilians being used as human shields, or of their corpses being used as anti-Assad propaganda. And never a word is mention that mercenaries from over sixty countries have fighters in Syria.

Blurred lines: members of Free Syrian Army or ISIS?

Blurred lines: “moderate rebels” or ISIS/ISIL? [syrianfreepress.wordpress.com]

These “rebels” are portrayed as local heroes, rather than the collection of jihadists from both inside and outside Syria fighting under the operational command of Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, which recently underwent a name change to the Syria Conquest Front. The name change and the pretense about anyone being “moderate” rebels are just more deceptions in the fog of war. The spectrum of opposition groups ranges from “moderate” brigades, backed by the US, to an alliance called Jaish al-Fatah – Army of Conquest – made up of hardline groups.

The Jaish al-Fatah group includes Jabhat al-Nusra, aligned with al-Qaeda, so they are formally designated by the United Nations as terrorists.

As journalist/historian Gareth Porter has written: “Information from a wide range of sources, including some of those the United States has been explicitly supporting, makes it clear that every armed anti-Assad organization unit in those provinces (of Idlib and Aleppo) is engaged in a military structure controlled by Nusra militants. All of these rebel groups fight alongside the Nusra Front and coordinate their military activities with it.” This reality – the fact that the US government and its allies are indirectly supplying sophisticated weaponry to Al Qaeda – is rarely mentioned in the mainstream U.S. news media, though one might think it would make for a newsworthy story. But it would undercut the desired propaganda narrative of “good guy” rebels fighting “bad guy” government backed by the “ultra-bad guy” Russians.

The War on Terror has become a War of Terror being waged in Syria where the Western media has crossed over the line into aiding and abetting that effort, with the respective governments leading the way as flag bearers of regime change by any and all means necessary.

 

Diving Into Danger: Australian Navy Undersea Clearance in WW2

Filed in: War History  –  Author: JF Dowsett

Of all the stories of the Royal Australian Navy during the Second World War, few have explored what went on beneath the sea; not well-known drama of submarine warfare, but the first-hand fight with sunken wrecks, enemy mines and unexploded torpedoes. This was a war waged by the Navy’s own fearless clearance divers from beginning to end. It was a dangerous game, played with full knowledge of the frightful consequences of the slightest false move.

RAN divers in Darwin in 1942

Royal Australian Navy divers in Darwin in 1942. (Image via RANCDA)

In 1941, during the Battle of Crete, a German torpedo bomber swept in low over a harbour mouth in Malta where the light cruiser HMAS Perth was moored and launched its deadly load. The torpedo struck at such a sharp angle that it plunged straight through the water and ploughed into the muddy bottom without exploding. The ‘fish’ – as naval servicemen called them – was still live, its nose propellers having had time to revolve and screw the detonator hard up against the 500 lb (220kg) of explosive primed within its warhead. The smallest shock, even the concussion from another exploding bomb, would have set it off with the same devastating effect as a naval mine.  It had to be removed, and the Navy called for volunteers.

Light cruiser HMAS Perth.

Light cruiser HMAS Perth. (Image via RANCDA)

A petty officer from the Perth took the job. He clambered stiffly over the side of the diving boat and dropped expertly from the rope ladder into harbour waters stirred to murkiness by the raid just over. Being an experienced clearance diver, he’d seen what the savage concussion of depth charges had done to a submarine’s steel hull, their enormous force transmitted through and augmented by the water.

He found the torpedo easily enough, its nose embedded in thick glutinous mud, and set to work attaching the lowered grappling hook. Working against time, every moment tense with the possibility of being blown to pieces, the diver secured his hook and ordered the surface crew, “Hoist carefully!” As they took the weight up top, the long shape eased slowly from its sheath of slime. He backed away as the blades of its propellers swung towards him: the least touch would mean oblivion. Just as the torpedo swayed up through the water, the dread words came over his phone: “Air-raid, red! Air-raid, red!” Yet another air raid was imminent. They hauled him in over the side as the first bombs fell and headed for the shore, the diver sprawled in the bottom of the boat still helmeted and shod.

Bandar Shapur, Iran. c.1941-09. A tug helps to position the German ship Hohenfels to anchor next to HMS Kanimbla. This was part of an operation by Force B, in which HMS Kanimbla took part, manned by RAN personnel. (Donor W. L. G. Adams)

Bandar Shapur, Iran. c. September 1941. A tug helps to position the German ship Hohenfels to anchor next to HMS Kanimbla. This was part of an operation by Force B, in which HMS Kanimbla took part, manned by RAN personnel. (Donor W. L. G. Adams)

Aboard the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMAS Kanimbla in the Persian Gulf, Petty Officer and clearance diver JT ‘Jack’ Humphries would be awarded the George Medal for his work in salvaging the submerged hull of the scuttled German merchantman SS Hohenfels. Humphries ventured alone into the bowels of the ship to close all openings and valves which the vacating sailors had left open. Here existed circumstances which called for the highest degree of cold courage to overcome them. The fearless diver, because of the innumerable obstacles to his life-line in the engine room, had to secure it to a stanchion and thus work entirely alone. He now had no means of signalling if he were in trouble. Stumbling over greasy engines and boilers into every corner where there was likely to be a valve – necessitated by the Germans deliberately falsifying their ship’s plans – Humphries groped his way as the tide threatened to run out. Streaming through bulkheads and passages at seven knots in this narrow neck of the Gulf, it threatened to roll him to his death. To prevent being washed away, he gripped stanchions and cylinder pistons with both arms; then, when the tide slackened again, he resumed work. Due almost entirely to the efforts of Petty Officer Humphries, that valuable ship was floated and reclaimed.

Aboard the HMAS Hobart in Alexandria, the crew watched a huge black shape, swinging slowly beneath its parachute, drop from an unseen bomber above the clouds and plop into the harbour. It was a parachute mine; there were seven different ways it could be exploded, and as they watched they knew its delayed action fuse timer was ticking nearer to zero. The Navy diving boat darted quickly but carefully over the spot and killed its engine, as even the pulsing beat of its propeller transmitted through the water could have exploded the menacing payload of high explosive. The diver had no means of knowing if the mine was rigged to detonate on an attempt to lift it. He found the mine lying in two feet of sediment and, up to his knees in mud, worked carefully towards it. The mine had to be hoisted or exploded under water. He found it was too precarious and would have to be the latter. So, in imminent danger of going up with the mine, he scooped a shallow trench beneath its belly. He then placed in the trench a tube of gelignite and signaled to be hoisted up himself.  They drew back, paying out the battery wire as they went, and pressed the plunger. The mine exploded with a roar and tore itself apart in a spreading cascade of water.

There were not only the hazards of warfare to contend with. Always present, always in the forefront of the diver’s consciousness, was the natural danger from the pressure of tons of water around him and the strange tricks that not a lifetime of experience could completely nullify.

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RAN clearance diver testing an American dive suit. HMAS Madang, 1945

Once while testing a new dive suit, an Australian diver was working on the bottom of the hull of a British submarine. Working busily a hacksaw, he failed to notice a small hole that started in his suit under the left arm. Gradually, with the pressure of air from within, the slit widened and the air streamed out in increasing volume. In less than a minute the diver found the greater mass of air in his lower body swiftly lifting his legs above his head. Soon, completely helpless, he was hanging upside down in thirty feet of green water. Then the sea began to trickle slowly through the exposed hole, past his chin and eyes, inexorably filling the top of his helmet. Seawater dangerously short-circuited his telephone line, leaving him without communication, and in his strange upside-down orientation he found it impossible to find his signal line. He felt the cold of the water creeping up around his head, up to his ears. In a minute it would fill his nose and mouth. Then the attendant up top, having lost communication, decided to haul him up. The diver, half-conscious, managed to grasp his shot-line as the strain came on his rope, and hoist his head above the level of his feet as the water fell over his shoulders to the bottom of his suit.

The Clearance Diving Branch of the Royal Australian Navy was officially formed after the war in 1951. During the Branch’s formative years, the divers developed their ‘can do easy’ attitude performing a diverse range of diving, Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) and salvage related tasks. With obsolete equipment and limited support from the Naval command structure, they had to develop and hone their skills in house. This necessitated an extreme level of improvisation which led to developing skills and breeding an independence in the Clearance Diving Branch which makes the Australian Clearance Diver of today quite unique in the world of Military Diving.

Indeed, as a result of this demanding selection and training, modern Clearance Divers have served in the counter-terrorist Squadrons of the Australian SAS Regiment and continue to serve in that role with the Commando Regiment, 4RAR (TAG East). Small numbers of divers currently serve as EOD specialists in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the globe. Clearance divers are also used in high risk ship boardings, such as suspected pirate vessels in Somalia and those used by human traffickers in Australian waters.

These are the men who voluntarily add the perils of underwater work to the scales already weighted against them.

100th Anniversary of Jutland – The Australians who served

Filed in: War History  –  Author: JF Dowsett

The British Grand Fleet sails. The Battle of Jutland, May 31st 1916

The British Grand Fleet sails. The Battle of Jutland, May 31st 1916

May 31st, 2016 marks 100 years since the Battle of Jutland, a naval battle fought between Britain and Germany during the First World War. It was the largest naval battle and the only full-scale clash of battleships in the war.

Over 200 ships, ranging from destroyers to battleships, and 60,000 men took part in the battle in the North Sea just off the Danish coast at the Jutland Peninsula. By the end of the day over 9,500 British and German sailors were dead and 25 ships (14 British, 11 German) were sunk with many others badly damaged.

Whilst this was the largest engagement at sea during the war it has been considered by many historians and naval officers to have been strategically inconclusive. Germany claimed a tactical victory due to the simple arithmetic of ships sunk and lives lost while Britain claimed a strategic victory, as the German High Seas Fleet never sought to challenge them again and stayed in port for the remainder of the war.

For the British, the day was marked in particular by the losses of the battlecruisers Indefatigable, Queen Mary, and Invincible, all of which were destroyed in spectacular style after German shells caused catastrophic damage to the vessels’ magazines, which subsequently exploded and sank the ships.

A little-known fact is the stories of a handful of Australian naval men who were involved that day – many of whom became casualties of the battle.

Australians at Jutland – The Sinking of the HMS Defence

HMS Defence, sunk on 31 May 1916 during the Battle of Jutland. There were no survivors.

HMS Defence, sunk on 31 May 1916 during the Battle of Jutland. There were no survivors.

While no RAN ship took part in the action this does not mean that the RAN, and Australia, was not represented at the battle. At least four members of the RAN were at the battle and another Australian serving in the Royal Navy was also present (and there may have been more). In the grim irony of war, of the five Australian’s known to have served at the Battle of Jutland; three were to lose their lives and all from the same ship.

Chaplain Patrick Gibbons was a Roman Catholic Chaplain serving in HMAS Australia and following the collision he was loaned to the old battle cruiser HMS Indomitable which was part of the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron attached to the main Battleship Squadrons. Indomitable survived the battle with no damage or casualties but Gibbons later ministered to the dying and wounded Catholic sailors from the fleet.  Gibbons had joined Australia in 1913 and, apart from his brief sojourn in Indomitable, served in the Australian battle cruiser until 1920 when he resigned from the RAN.

Another Australian officer on loan to the Royal Navy was Gunner (Warrant Officer) John Henry Gill who served in the Battleship HMS Benbow which was the flagship of the 4th Battleship Squadron under the command of Vice Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee (who had destroyed the German East Asia Squadron at the Battle of the Falklands in 1914).  Benbow fired about 100 rounds during the battle with little or no effect and escaped without damage or casualties.

HMS Warrior. She was heavily damaged during the Battle of Jutland in 1916, after which she withdrew and was later abandoned and sank in a rising sea.

HMS Warrior. She was heavily damaged during the Battle of Jutland in 1916, after which she withdrew and was later abandoned and sank in a rising sea.

The three Australians who lost their lives at the Battle of Jutland were all serving in the armoured cruiser HMS Defence which was part of the 1st Cruiser Squadron. At 1800 the Squadron, under the command of Rear Admiral Sir Robert Arbuthnot, spotted a group of German cruisers and turned to engage them, but a few minutes later German battle cruisers appeared through the haze and opened fire on the leading British ships (Defence and Warrior). Warrior was badly damaged, set on fire and had over 100 men killed or wounded but managed to limp away.

Defence was less fortunate. One eyewitness later wrote:

The Defence was heavily engaged, salvos dropping all around her. At 1815 a salvo hit her abaft the after turret and a big red flame flashed up. The ship heeled, then quickly righted herself and steamed on. But almost immediately another salvo struck between the forecastle turret and the foremost funnel, and she was lost to sight in an enormous black cloud which, when it cleared, showed no signs of a ship at all.  Defence was sunk with the loss of her entire crew of 903 men. Among those killed were Sub Lieutenant George Paterson, RAN (a 20 year old who had been born in England but had joined the RAN in March 1914) and 19 year old Midshipman Joseph Mack, RAN who hailed from Berry Bank, (near Lismore), Victoria. Both men had joined the RAN but were loaned to the RN for further training. Also killed in the sinking of HMS Defence was Stoker 2nd Class Mortimer Hugh Froude.

Froude, from Balmain, had joined the RAN on 1 June 1912 as a 14 year old Boy 2nd Class and received his initial training in HMAS Tingira before being posted to HMAS Australia. He was an Ordinary Seaman when he deserted from the RAN in June 1915, when Australia was in British waters. He tried to join the British Army but was rejected due to his height. Froude then joined the Royal Navy as a Stoker and was posted to the cruiser Defence. On 31 May 1916, when the smoke cleared Paterson, Mack and Froude had simply ceased to exist.

The Australian Admiral at Jutland: Sir Ernest F. A. Gaunt (1865-1940)

Rear Admiral Sir Ernest Frederick Augustus Gaunt

Rear Admiral Sir Ernest Frederick Augustus Gaunt

Ernest Gaunt was born on 25 March 1865 at Beechworth. In 1877 he went to England to join HMS Britannia as a naval cadet, serving on the Australia Station from 1880 to 1884; as sub-lieutenant on HMS Nelson, he hoisted the British flag when the British Protectorate over New Guinea was proclaimed. In 1896 he was promoted first lieutenant of the armoured cruiser HMS Narcissus, and in China in 1898-99 served in administrative posts; he was thanked by the Austrian and German Commanders-in-Chief for his services during the Boxer Rebellion. In early December 1903 he was severely wounded when he commanded a landing party to avenge the death of an Italian naval officer in Somaliland; in December that year he was promoted captain and subsequently commanded the battleships HMS Majestic, HMS Queen and HMS Superb.

In 1913, he became Commodore of the Royal Naval Barracks in Chatham, England, and in 1913 and 1914, he was aide-de-camp to King George V. Then, in 1916 during World War I, he served as second-in-command of the 1st Battle Squadron at the Battle of Jutland as Rear Admiral – his ship was the HMS Colossus. When the war began in August 1914, Colossus became the flagship of the 1st Battle Squadron. While commanded by Captain Dudley Pound she fought with distinction at Jutland, taking a number of German shell hits which caused minor damage and six casualties.

He was promoted vice admiral in February 1919 and admiral in June 1924 before retiring in March the next year. He was appointed KCB in 1919 and KBE in 1922. He retired to London, where he died on 20 April 1940 at Westminster Hospital, survived by a son and two daughters.

Knighthood on the Quarter-deck

Filed in: War History  –  Author: JF Dowsett

On the 4th of April 1581 Queen Elizabeth went down to Deptford where the English galleon Golden Hind had been taken and, after a magnificent banquet on board with Francis Drake as host, she made him kneel before her in full view of the people. She told him that the King of Spain had demanded his head and then continued, “I have a gilded sword with which to strike it off.” Instead, the Admiral received the flat of the blade on his shoulder and rose Sir Francis Drake, Knight.

Admiral Sir George Patey, KCMG, KCVO [by H.S. Power]

Admiral Sir George Patey, KCMG, KCVO [by H.S. Power]

Though it had long been the custom for distinguished naval oflicers to have conferred upon them the high honour of knighthood, either at an investiture at Buckingham Palace by the King, or abroad by their representative at an investiture on shore, it was not without precedent for the ceremony to take place on board one of His Majesty’s ships.

It was a rare distinction indeed, however, to receive the accolade on the quarter-deck.

It would be another three hundred years before a British Admiral was again to kneel on the quarter-deck before the Sovereign. This historic occasion is one of peculiar interest to the Royal Australian Navy because the rare ceremony took place on the quarter-deck of the battle cruiser Australia in the presence of the Prince of Wales, Sir George Reid (High Commissioner for Australia), and the ship’s company.

On 30 June 1913, King George V honoured the Australian Commonwealth by visiting the first flagship of the then newly-constituted Australian Fleet. Australia had shortly before commissioned at Portsmouth and was preparing to sail for Australia with the first HMAS Sydney. His Majesty was received on board with a royal salute, the officers were presented to him and, after inspecting the ship’s company at divisions, the King proceeded between decks to inspect closely the living quarters and internal arrangements of the battle cruiser.

On return to the quarter-deck King George was photographed with the ofiicers and then in the presence of the officers and crew, commanded Rear-Admiral Patey, the first commander of the Australian Fleet, to kneel before him. An equerry handed the King a sword, Admiral Patey received the accolade and rose Sir George Patey, Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order.

HMAS Australia passing under the Forth Bridge in Scotland.

HMAS Australia passing under the Forth Bridge in Scotland.

As the commander of the Australian fleet, Admiral Patey is remembered chiefly for his part in the Australian occupation of German New Guinea – the takeover of the German Pacific colony of New Guinea in late 1914 – and in the events leading to the destruction of German Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee’s squadron at the battle of Falkland Islands in December 1914.

In September of the same year he received the intelligence that the German cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had appeared at Samoa. Australia, with Montcalm, was charged with covering Encounter and the New Guinea Expeditionary Force from probable attack by the enemy cruisers, and it was not until this and subsequent tasks had been accomplished that Patey was free to consider the Gneisenau and the Scharnhorst his immediate quarry.

Patey made his base at Suva, but when finally he was released to pursue the enemy ships it was too late for, fearing the approach of the battle cruiser, they decided to run for their home port. Passing through the Straits of Magellan they ran into the trap that had been set by the Royal Navy and were destroyed.

Admiral Patey remained in command of the Australian Fleet until 1915. He died in 1935.

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