There is a tendency in Australia for (small m) military history to be regarded as (Big M) Military History – that is, the history of Australia’s land forces. Leaving historians of Australia’s flying forces to defend their own territory, the extracts in this section are designed to demonstrate that soldiers might fight battles but navies fight wars, including getting the Army where it needs to go, supporting it while it is there and then bringing it home again. Navies also get involved in battles, of course, but they don’t all involve huge ships pounding each other to establish supremacy at sea. And in situations short of war, the Navy can operate to affect events distant from its scene of operations – which armies can’t do. Navies don’t need ‘boots on the ground’ to do their job.
From Bravo Zulu Volume 2, to be released soon:
‘During Adelaide’s 2004-05 deployment on SLIPPER Rotation 9, a second incident occurred in the shallow tidal reaches of the Shatt al Arab. A merchant vessel became stranded near the line demarcating the Iran-Iraq border – the ‘Red Line’ – and the frigate’s boarding party was dispatched by RHIB to investigate. Given the sensitivity of the location and the uncompromising attitude adopted by the Iranian Revolutionary Council Guards (a separate force from the regular Iranian Services), Adelaide took precautions, including having a second RHIB shadowing the first and her Seahawk helicopter overhead for the initial boarding. Led by Petty Officer Andrew Keitley, the boarding party was appropriately received by the crew and the helicopter left to conduct a surface surveillance patrol but, as the inspection of the ship continued, six Iranian boats approached at speed. Configured to ‘swarm’ over targets, the Iranians had an assortment of hand-held or shoulder-launched weapons and their first aim was to force Adelaide’s RHIBs away from the ship by threats and manoeuvres. For their safety these moved out of danger, isolating the lightly-armed boarding party. Earlier that year Revolutionary Guards had forced their way onboard a merchant ship in similar circumstances and taken a RN boarding party hostage. Andrew determined that this was not going to be the fate of his people and put the merchant ship into a state of defence, assisted by the shallow water which prevented the Iranian craft from coming alongside. He rejected shouted Iranian demands to be allowed onboard and, with Adelaide summoning what assistance she could from national authorities, he steadfastly held his position as Iranian gestures became more threatening. The issue now was to evacuate his people safely; helicopter extraction offered the only way but would potentially expose the aircraft to Iranian fire. As well, on completing its patrol, the helicopter had been taken off-line for routine servicing, and thirty minutes hard work was required to bring it back into operation once evacuation had been decided upon. Commanded by Lieutenant Commander Tony Johnston, the Seahawk assessed the situation at the scene and a winching recovery was agreed on. By superb flying, which kept the Iranians unsure of his intentions, and in a supreme test of moral authority, Johnston and his crew recovered the boarding party in a very low hover over the merchant ship in two lifts, despite threatening responses from the Revolutionary Guards.
Both Andrew Keitley and Tony Johnston were awarded DSMs in January 2006, Keitley for distinguished leadership in action as leader of the Adelaide boarding party during a confrontation with heavily armed militant forces. ‘Keitley showed exceptional leadership, courage and composure when a heavily armed and aggressive force confronted his team during the routine boarding of a foreign vessel. Obliged to withdraw to a more defendable position in the recently boarded vessel by overwhelmingly superior firepower and threat of capture, a tense situation developed that could have easily escalated. Petty Officer Keitley’s command of the situation and his team led to a de-escalation of tensions and eventual safe extraction of the boarding party more than four hours after the impasse began’. Andrew joined the RAN from Warburton VIC in 1988, trained as a Quartermaster Gunner, qualified as a Clearance Diver, and before joining Adelaide in 2004 had served at sea and ashore, including in Sydney, Adelaide and Canberra. He was promoted Petty Officer in 2003 at the Diving School. On leaving Adelaide he served in Clearance Diving Team Four, was promoted Chief Petty Officer in the Diving School, and deployed to Afghanistan on counter-improvised explosive devices duties in 2010. In 2014 he became Coxswain in Huon.
Tony Johnston’s DSM was also for distinguished command and leadership in action. As the citation states, ‘…facing overwhelmingly superior and hostile forces, and without the support of coalition aircraft or firepower, Lieutenant Commander Johnston showed exemplary leadership, courage, composure and determination as the Mission Commander and Scene of Action Commander to facilitate the safe extraction of Adelaide’s boarding party from perilous and harmful circumstances’.’
From Under New Management:
In September 1914 with a fleet ready to move wherever it might be required, Admiral Patey returned to the four possible courses of action he thought the Germans might consider. The route westwards via the Java Sea seemed improbable. The area was flooded with Allied ships and the best von Spee could hope for was internment in the neutral Netherlands East Indies. Moving westward south of Australia or undertaking operations to the east of Australia and New Zealand were possibilities, but with diminishing returns for the Germans, especially with the battle cruiser Australia and Japanese squadrons now available to hunt them down. This left withdrawal eastward to the American coast as the most likely option, but Patey had no orders to pursue this course. He elected to search northwards from Rabaul into the Pacific, which would also give him the opportunity of making wireless contact with the Japanese First Detached Squadron which had been tasked with tracking down the Germans, and he took the flagship to sea with Sydney, Encounter and Montcalm on 1 October.
That he was looking for needles in a very large haystack was demonstrated to Patey when he received advice from the Naval Board on the following day that New Zealand had been told of Von Spee’s 23 September raid on Papeete. He had been planning to raid the French colony’s coal dumps, but the senior officer there, the Lieutenant commanding the old cruiser Zelee, had done what could be done to disperse his guns to defend the harbour and to ignite the coal stacks should the Germans appear. Zelee and an interned German merchant ship were sunk during the attack, but von Spee got no coal and withdrew. He had also diminished his irreplaceable stocks of ammunition.
This information was now ten days stale, but it did validate Patey’s assessment of the direction in which the Germans were moving – eastwards to America. More recent intelligence of the Germans was soon to hand. The Japanese had not found them at Jaluit on 29 September, while a cruiser and a collier had apparently been sighted off Tutuila in Samoa the same day. This was erroneous: Scharnhorst, Gneisnau and Nurnburg were in the Marquesas preparing to steam to Easter Island. Leipzig, which had been attacking shipping off the American west coast, had coaled at Lobos de Afuera off Chiclayo on the coast of Peru on 28 September and had sailed southwards. A three-funnelled cruiser had been sighted off Valdivia on 25 September, and off Valparaiso in Chile on 29 September. She was tentatively identified as Dresden, which had entered the Pacific via Cape Horn on 16 September to join von Spee.
Despite this information indicating a probable shift of the German squadron to American waters, the Admiralty thought otherwise. On the evening of 3 October, Patey received the following telegram from Whitehall:
It is very probable that Gneisnau and Scharnhorst may repeat attack similar to that at Papeete, therefore they may be expected to return towards Samoa, Fiji or even New Zealand. Make Suva your headquarters, search for these cruisers in these waters, and leave Simpsonhafen as soon as possible to search.
It was possible that the Admiralty had better intelligence than Patey and an order is an order. By 2300 Australia, Montcalm and Sydney were off, bound for Suva. Unnecessary ships had to be sent to safety and Berrima, Fantome and Protector were sailed for Sydney the following morning, with Yarra, which had damaged her propellers on a reef, in company. Aorangi, the tanker Esturia and collier Kauri and the submarine depot ship Upolu were also to leave Rabaul the following day escorted to Suva by Encounter, Warrego, and AE-2. To fuel his ships, Patey called forward the collier Wimbledon and tanker Elax from Port Moresby to Suva and sent collier Waihora off to Westport for some of that good New Zealand coal. By 1630 on 4 October, the remaining ships of the fleet had vacated Simpsonhafen, which was empty except for the local craft captured and converted for the use of the ANMEF, including Madang and Nusa and the hospital ship Grantala, which would leave for Suva shortly.
From The RAN and General MacArthur:
Under the urging of Admiral King USN, Admiral Nimitz responded to signals intelligence of impending IJN operations directed at several targets by sending two of his precious aircraft carriers and supporting ships to the Southwest Pacific as Task Force 17. Rear Admiral Crace’s Australian force was sent to assist and became Task Group 17.3. The battle is chiefly remembered as a duel between carriers, but the actual purpose of TF17 was to prevent the Japanese landing an invasion force at Port Moresby. This was only fortuitously achieved, because Commander TF17, Rear Admiral Fletcher, USN disdained his ally and sent Crace off to guard the entry strait for the Japanese into the Coral Sea, while he personally prepared to take on the IJN carriers.[i] The IJN won the battle of the carriers but turned its landing force back, apparently because of reports that Crace’s force contained battleships. In the process TF17.3 was bombed by both the Japanese and MacArthur’s B-17s. It was a lucky but inauspicious start to USN-RAN (and navy-army) cooperation in SWPA.
However, the command and control arrangements for the naval forces in SWPA generally worked well, and relations between the two navies were cordial. The US admirals on MacArthur’s staff apparently recognised the reality of their position and sought to employ the RAN’s strengths to best effect. These included the hydrographic knowledge and experience of the future operating areas, operational experience against the French, Germans and Italians, the steadily improving support base for both RAN and USN ships, and the professionalism of RAN personnel generally in hydrography, navigation, gunnery and small ship operations. These became particularly important as the experience levels of USN personnel and ships trickling into SWPA were not high, and during the Allied reaction to the landings by the Japanese in Buna in an attempt to take Port Moresby by land assault.
There can be no command and control without the communications channels to support it. RAN long range communications were part of a world-wide network directed by the British Admiralty, so that messages to RAN ships could be relayed through other British shore stations, and the reverse was true. The two Australian stations – Belconnen in Canberra and Coonawarra in Darwin – were highly important in filling the gaps left in the USN Pacific network by the loss of its own stations in Guam and the Philippines. Again, the degree of cooperation between the communicators of the two navies was high, and, with the exception of highly classified US material, which was always encoded and decoded by American officers, traffic to and from ships of both navies passed freely over each other’s circuits.
[i] Following an aborted attack on Rabaul in March 1942, Fletcher told one of his cruiser captains that he disliked what he called ‘mixed command’, and advised that for future operations he would give Crace an independent command’. [Smith, Midway, 22.]