The World at War

Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve
adapted from Lt-Commander Blackie by Graham Donaldson

     From its earliest days of sail and steam the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), while inevitably acquiring a history for itself, has always sought to absorb and profit from the rich traditions and heritage as an integral part of the Royal Navy (RN). Sea warfare can know no boundaries, and no matter who the enemy may be Australian waters are not always the logical place to defend Australian shores. Thus for many decades the RAN has a certain number of permanent naval officers serving with the RN, gaining valuable experience in all facets of projecting sea-power.

     While in exchange an appropriate number of RN officers bring their experience and training to the Australian fleet. At the outbreak of WWII the Admiralty accepted the Australian Naval Board's offer to provide personnel to serve with the HM Navy. The "Yachtsman Scheme" of volunteers, as it was termed, divided these wartime recruits into two age groups. Those over thirty were required to pass the navigation tests for a Yachtmaster Certificate, and were granted commissions before they left Australia. The younger volunteers reached the UK as ratings and were trained on watercraft from destroyer downwards, then entered HMS King Alfred training establishment to complete the courses for their commission.

     The first shipment of volunteers under the "Yachtsman Scheme" left Australia in January 1940, with the largest group of RANVR's sailing in February 1942 for Britain. There were approximately five hundred Australians representing a small proportion of the Australian Navy on loan to the RN and most of the members were RANVR. They served on a variety of warships, from the big battle-line vessels to the littlest landing craft. In command or first lieutenancies in submarines to instructing in navigation or anti U-boat work at shore bases, from gunnery to salvaging they carried out every type of duty. The Admiralty deliberates carefully in selecting officers to command warships, yet there were commands held by RANVR officers. One in command of a destroyer, another of a frigate, one fleet mine-sweeper, captains of two corvettes, one submarine commander and Australian naval volunteer officers leading four flotillas of tank landing craft. The command of a flotilla of LCT's is a position of far greater responsibility and importance than is generally accepted. Senior RN officers closely connected with Combined Operations have expressed the immense difficulty of flotilla officers, in some respect, more difficult then that of a captain. Add to the list the considerable multitude of little boats, the other types of landing craft, attack torpedo and rescue vessels.
     Up until 11 July 1944 Australian volunteer personnel have received eighty-six decorations and awards had gone to seventy-two of the Royal Australian Naval Reservists serving with the RN. They include two George Crosses, seven George Medals and three bars, three Distinguished Service Crosses and three bars, and one Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. Other prestigious accolades include the Greek Cross and Pres. Citation.
     There have been few naval engagements by the RN, great or small, in which the RANVR have not participated. From patrols in the waters around Great Britain to the blockade of the European coast, from Murmansk and the Atlantic convoys to the Allied landings in North Africa, Sicily and mainland Italy. At the evacuation of Norway in 1940 individual Australian volunteer sailors were there, RANVR represented the navy at the maelstrom of Greece and Crete 1941 alongside Australian warships in those waters. There were Australians in HMS Enterprise and HMS Glasgow as they sunk three German destroyers in the Bay of Biscay and Australians in the group of HM sloops, which destroyed six U-boats when escorting a convoy across the Atlantic.

     By early 1941 training in the use of landing craft was under way and a substantial number of RANVR arrivals in Britain began active service in this early scene. A number of whom adapted to amphibious warfare rather quickly and became senior officers, commanders of important individual sea-craft, or instructors to British, other Dominion and US personnel in the fine arts of lessons learnt in the application of amphibious assaults. Australians commanded positions of the first wave of tank landing craft in the ill-fated raid at Dieppe in August 1942. In the Mediterranean RANVR's were with landings at Sicily, Messina and Salerno most of the tanks and other armoured fighting vehicles were taken to the assault beaches by participating Australians.
     These wide multitudes of tasks prepared the Australians for their part, plus other allied sailors and naval officers, in the Navy's vital role in the upcoming invasion, and liberation of, Nazi Occupied Fortress western Europe. For all the sailors, soldiers, aviators, men and women, D-Day represented the climax of years of tenacious training and still more arduous actions.

     The Royal Naval seaman of yesteryears may have looked with inspired awe at the great Armada gathered at the invasion assembly ports. As long ago, far back in history the Normandy beaches were the goal of HM Henry V's fleet, English clinker-built ships to the practical design set centuries before by the Vikings in their amphibious hit & run raids. Now the Navy's allied ships of steel were to attempt the time and time repeated feat again, against Nazi Germans with the largest amphibious invasion army you'd ever read about in the pages of history books. The work towards the actual invasion beaches commenced on the morning of the day before the landing date. Minesweepers of every type were employed from big fleet sweepers to small motor craft clearing their allotted areas.

     Before dawn the clear laneways had been widened and the minesweepers had worked so thoroughly on the channels that there were no casualties from marine mines up to and during the initial landings. Australians were well represented in this dangerous task under the guns of the enemy with one Australian in command of a fleetsweeper and others scattered amongst the many anti-mine flotillas. One Australian Reservist, on the night of 6 June, reckons that an enemy shore battery shell whistled over the bridge of the ship he was on and smashed through the quarterdeck of the accompanying sweeper. The shell ploughed through into a cabin, burst steampipes, cut electrical cords, buried itself into a pillow and bounced into the wardrobe. The crew held its breath, waiting, listening for that dynamic explosion yet none came. The crew dashed below into the steam and feathers, dragged the unexploded projectile up on deck threw it overboard and continued on with their minesweeping action.
     An Australian was in command of one of the flotillas that swept the sea of mines ahead of HMS Arethusa carrying the King across to see Normandy. Another Australian Navy person had duties on board a motor minesweeper, which was ahead of the bombardment flotilla pounding the eastern section of the beachhead area during the early stages of the invasion. For eleven days a RANVR officer had continuous sweeping in the English Channel and off the enemy occupied coast. In two days on board that rocking boat the detonated sea-mines had through concussion shattered ninety-three lamp globes. Several Australian navy officers were in the first wave of landing craft to reach Normandy beaches on D-Day. One of them being senior officer of a flotilla of tank landing craft. His Normandy experience, with the Dieppe seasoning behind him behind, and those of many Australian volunteer veterans at the foreshore fighting are summed up in these words he wrote. "The weather was our worst enemy, I have never seen the Channel on worse behaviour. But the organisation behind the invasion was just superb. No one can have hoped it would be so successful." He also complained that he missed the first and only enemy air raid because the noise of the airplane attack was blotted out by the big ships' bombardment and by the obliteration of enemy shore obstacles and bunkers.
     Again, another Australian, a veteran of Sicily, Reggio, Salerno and Anzio landings, described D-Day as the "tamest" amphibious operation he'd been in action with. Through out the bleak clouded day he saw no German aircraft, no trace of the German Navy and no shore bombardment was aimed his way. In fact after his experiences in the other theatres of war he remarked that the sailors and troops felt "almost insulted at the way we were completely ignored by the Luftwaffe".
     Not all Australians were so fortunate, there was one sub-lieutenant RANVR, whose craft was holed by an undiscovered underwater obstruction, one of Rommels' revenge for Tobruk no doubt, and returned to a British port after receiving six tows in thirty hours.
     The Australian Navy is represented in the warships of battleships and cruisers firing steel tonnage broadsides at the enemy strongpoints on the coastline and inland. They were also in the destroyers and smaller craft escorting the merchants, Liberty Ships of equipment, stores, ammunition and more troops to Normandy, France. One RANVR in command of a destroyer on his first trip to Normandy had E-boats attempt to make two night attacks but the armaments officer shot a star shell illuminating the enemy vessels and the determined destroyer gave chase. At close to half a dozen trips to France and back, this captain only sighted two German aircraft.

     HMS Ajax had three RANVR lieutenants on board helping with the rest of the crew to destroy planned particular targets on D-Day morning. One as Officer-of-Quarters of a 6inch gun turret, the second was in charge of high angle anti-aircraft armament and the third as action Officer of the watch, important jobs nonetheless in the running of a tight fighting warship. The Navy's task in an invasion of enemy occupied coastal territory does not finish with the end of successful establishment on the beaches and beyond.

     The naval operations continue as long as the campaign lasts, as long as men and material have to cross the water. Many RANVR personnel are participating in this part of the battle during the following weeks since the 6th June 1944. In this case it's the smallcraft, motor torpedo boats, motor gunboats and other similar categories.

     A class of speciality derived from the time Australians began arriving in the UK and set the task of guarding Britain's coasts, and carrying the war into enemy waters. The invasion gave these traditional buccaneers the vital defence of countering E-boats and other forms of surface enemy interference. Escorting for minesweepers that commenced trans-Channel sweeps, served as special fast screen for convoys and the big bombardment warships. The success of the landings only brought them no respite, constantly moving, thwarting German attempts to counter attack by sea, or escape from southern French through the English Channel to ports in the north. One RANVR lieutenant who captained a MTB was stationed on the western flank and for ten days there were daily and nightly battle station actions with E-boats attempting to flee Cherbourg to the Channel Islands, of Guernsey and Jersey.

     The peacetime yachtsmen who answered the call of war by joining the RANVR, they like their countrymen and colleagues of the RAN fought and died on the seas across the oceans of the world. For those who were with the RN in British waters during the invasion, and those who earlier returned to Australia have gained the multitude of experiences in the implementing of seapower which has paved the way for an amphibious assault onto a heavily defended coast. They will return, or have returned with a wealth of knowledge in many branches of naval warfare and to those Australians who follow in their cutting wake will be equipped with an immense fund of information applicable to the defence of their island nation continent.
     To project seapower and protect a land mirth by sea dotted with a chain necklace of a thousand & one islands and islets, which is a task of the Royal Australian Navy for the 21st Century.

by Graham Donaldson

UP - Article Index - Homepage