This week commemorates the end of the Second World War in Europe, seventy-two years ago, when after six long years, the Allies were victorious. The ‘Gentlemen Yachtsmen’ who had been requested by the Admiralty to be trained as officers to serve in the Royal Navy and whose service we are remembering today, had spent over four years coping with the harsh realities and dangers of the war at sea, far away from homes and loved ones in Australia.
On VE Day, 8 May they were scattered all over the world. Many had already been posted back to Australia for further service in the RAN. Lieutenant Keith Nicol was in the Red Sea and Lieutenant Ted Gregg was celebrating with the partisan leaders in Athens. He said he had never been kissed so much in his life!
In 2000 I interviewed several of the Yachtsmen Scheme veterans as part of an oral history project of World War II veterans for The Naval and Military Club in Melbourne. The three ‘Yachties’ as their contemporaries referred to them, were Lieutenant Commander Bill Wallach, Lieutenant Commander Clive Tayler and Lieutenant Keith Nicol.
Bill Wallach was thirty-three when he enlisted, having passed the Coastal Navigation course on his third attempt. He survived the St Nazaire raid and was awarded a DSC for shooting out a German search light. Clive Tayler volunteered to serve in ‘boats’ – he was interested in ‘the electrics’. He was First Officer in HMS/M Vivid in the Mediterranean for the last years of the war and Keith Nicol served in 3 ML Flotilla based in Malta and was involved in pre-assault minesweeping along the southern Italian coast, southern France and the Adriatic.
Clive Tayler and Keith Nicol asked me if I would write the story of the Yachtsmen Scheme and I subsequently went on to interview another twenty-odd ‘Yachties’ as well as some of their widows, for my MA thesis. Through the interviews, I became aware of the sadness and melancholy that most of the men carried within them about their war service. They remained scarred by what they had endured and witnessed during those terrible years of service and by grief for the friends and others they had seen maimed or lost. Lieutenant Max Germaine who spent much of the war in Valorous in the East coast convoys, never forgot the trauma of seeing sailors who had been torpedoed, waving in the water because they thought the ship had come to rescue them when it was in fact obeying orders to chase a U-boat. OS Bob Fenwick survived the sinking of Kashmir in the Mediterranean as did Geoff Danne, Bill Franklin and Rodney Rhodes who was awarded a CGM (the only one ever awarded to an Australian) for shooting down a Stuka strafing the survivors. Sub- Lieutenant Ellison Hawker was posted to the Corinthian , an old fruit boat, used for shipping oranges. They were stationed at Freetown, one of the collecting points for thirty to forty ships to be escorted across the Atlantic. When the Duchess of Atholl was torpedoed, the Corinthian arrived shortly after and picked up 825 survivors. They also rescued survivors, mostly women who had been in the sea for four days, from the Empress of Canada.
Many of the men felt that on return to Australia there had been no public acknowledgement or understanding about ‘their’ war. Their war record was a miniscule undifferentiated part of the huge history of the Royal Navy during World War II. At home in Australia however, their war service slipped from memory and proper commemoration as the two countries, so bound to each other by strong imperial ties at mid-century, had by the century’s end, become distanced by competing national interests and the resurgence of an independent Australian nationalism.
This plaque also honours the service of other Australians attached to the Royal Navy. The RAN veterans may have served through the cadet Midshipmen’s Scheme. ADM Guy Griffiths spent most of the war in RN ships and survived the sinking of the Repulse at the fall of Singapore. RADM Geoffrey Loosli, one of fourteen newly promoted midshipmen in September 1943, spent most of his service with the RN in the Arctic convoys. CDRE Dacre Smyth, a direct entry into officer training, was posted in 1942, to RN following the Battle of the Coral Sea. He served in Motor Gun Boats in the English Channel. In 1943 he was posted to HMS Danae as Gunnery Control officer. One of his jobs following the D-Day landings, was to supervise a party of Royal Marines to assist the Beach Master on Sword Beach.
Many RANR served as gunners in Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (DEMS), sailing between Australia and the UK. Some of the Yachtsmen Scheme casualties were lost in these ships, returning to Australia in SS Ceramic, Melbourne Star and Nellore.
The Yachtsmen Scheme ran concurrently with the Anti- Submarine (A/S) and young officers trained at HMAS Rushcutter in Sydney could volunteer for service with RN. Lieutenant Bob Greig was one of only two A/S officers to volunteer from his class of eight. Lieutenants Max Shean and Ken Hudspeth both achieved fame serving in ‘special operations’ namely X-Craft (midget submarines) for penetrating German defences in harbours and anchorages. For their incredibly courageous work, Hudspeth was awarded DSC and bars, one for landing a COPPs party, to investigate the suitability of Normandy beaches for the D-Day landings. Max Shean was awarded DSO and bar for his service in the Northern hemisphere and for finding and cutting the two submarine cables linking Singapore and Hong Kong.
Some individual Australians in UK at this time, also served in the RN. Lieutenant Noel Buckley was completing a post-graduate law degree at Cambridge and when France fell, he went to Australia House to see whether he could join the RAN from London and ‘the answer was a big No, No!’ He completed his officer training in mid-1941 and in December was posted to a small anti-submarine convoy escort vessel which was a converted Arctic Ocean trawler, HMS Northern Wave. They undertook two return journeys with Arctic convoys between Iceland and Murmansk. Another Australian, Michael Thwaites studying at Oxford also volunteered and served in an anti-submarine escort trawler. His book, ‘Atlantic Odyssey’ was published in 1999.
All the Australians were spread across the RN in a variety of ships ranging from battleships and aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, corvettes, minesweepers and light coastal forces craft and submarines. Many were involved in Combined Operations and twelve of the Yachtsmen Scheme men, were engaged in RMS (Rendering Mines Safe).
Usually the men were the only Australian on board. Most participated in convoy work in the Battle of the Atlantic, the Arctic seas, around England and the west coast of Africa to beat the U-boat campaign that nearly brought Great Britain to defeat. Other theatres of war in which they served were the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, possibly over three hundred ‘Yachties’ were involved in the landings on D-Day while many served in South-East Asia.
Thirty-six Yachtsmen Scheme volunteers lost their lives in many theatres of war. Some comparison can be made with the Australians who served in Europe with the RAF. While the number of RAAF casualties in Bomber Command, some 4050 dead, were far higher than the ‘Yachties’, the proportion of deaths, at 7.3 per cent of the number of Yachtsmen Scheme enlistments in the RN, was similar.
As Australians in the RN they developed a strong sense of national identity and were proud that they were accepted by their fellow officers and men and the British people. In 1948, back in Australia, Lieutenant Richard Mims, formerly Naval Attache at Australia House throughout the war, organised an annual get-together. The group operated informally as the London Naval Officers’ Dining Club and met for dinners and later, lunches as the men aged. The ‘Yachties’ were about sixty percent of the group but others who had also used Australia House for various support services during the war were also frequent attendees. The LNODC operated for over sixty years.
It is very suitable that today we are here to recognise the service and sacrifice of a very special group of Australian naval veterans. Over recent years, the symptoms and subsequent behaviour of Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder in relation to veterans has been recognised. It has been noted that the lack of public and personal recognition in relation to the veteran’s service is a major contributing factor. Certainly, many of the men suffered with PTSD which their families would now recognise. It is very poignant and I feel very sad that they are unable to be with us today to know that at last, they have achieved by this plaque, formal recognition and therefore validation of their service.
Thank you all for coming to the AWM to commemorate them.
In conclusion, I would like to read a short poem written by Lieutenant Noel Buckley. It is called ‘Philosophising’ and was written in a serious mood when the anti-submarine war was at its peak.
If a man be happy, then who dare say him nay?
But wait, how came he happy – at whose expense, delay?
We cannot live in isolation; we are members of a whole
Community and nation, of a world that seeks its soul.
Janet Roberts Billett