I served under four flags

(As published in The Log 45(3):148-151, 2012)


Throughout my childhood my sole ambition was to join the Royal Australian Navy. I achieved this at the age of 16 and spent six years with the Grey Funnel Line (aka the Royal Australian Navy). I can’t explain how this sea-going desire arose: I come from a very long line of farmers (5 generations in Australia), so I grew up in the country. Until I was 11 years old this was in the Hunter Valley of NSW; and then, in 1956 my parents moved to a dairy farm just south of Echuca, in Victoria. In 1960 they gave away country life and we moved to Melbourne.

Royal Australian Navy

Toward the end of the school year 1961, when I was doing the old Intermediate Certificate (Year 10), I sat the examination for entry to the RAN as a Junior Recruit. This entry stream was aimed at boys aged between 15½ and 16½. I subsequently failed Intermediate dismally, but was accepted into the RAN. On 7 January 1962 I took the oath at HMAS Lonsdale in Port Melbourne and was given the Official Number R93566. That same day I flew to Perth for a twelve months’ posting to HMAS Leeuwin, the Junior Recruit Training Establishment, near Fremantle.

At the end of that year of schooling and marching I was selected for training as a radio technician, and transferred to Flinders Naval Depot, at Hastings on Westernport Bay. In August 1963, having successfully passed the basic course in radio technology, I was posted to HMAS Vampire, at that time undergoing a refit at the Garden Island Naval Dockyard in Sydney. A Daring-class destroyer of 2800 gross tons, Vampire had been built at that dockyard, and commissioned in 1959. She was about 370 feet in length and 43 feet wide, and had a crew of 327.

Over the following two years, I completed two period of overseas’ deployment, during which Vampire was engaged in the only two military actions of its service.
The first of these periods ‘up top’ began in March 1964 when the ship left Sydney on a six-month-long tour of South East Asia. The first stop, after a few days’ sailing, was Manus Island, in the Admiralty Islands group, where the ship stayed for a couple of days. We then carried on to the Philippines, where we docked in Subic Bay. That trip also took Vampire to Manila, Singapore and Hong Kong.

In April 1963, a small number of Indonesian troops had landed on the Malay Peninsula for the first time. This was the beginning of an on-going series of such incidents that continued for the following couple of years. In most cases the troops were soon captured – either by local forces or by the foreign troops stationed in Malaya for the purpose. Sometimes the Indonesians were killed and thrown back into the Strait, for the sharks and fish to dispose of. Some Commonwealth countries, particularly Britain and Australia, were supporting Malaya (which, at the time, included the island of Singapore) in its defence against the aggression of Sukarno’s troops. The British Army operated on the Peninsula, the RAAF at Butterworth on Penang Island just off the Malay coast, and the RAN in the waters of the Malacca Straits, between Malaya and Indonesia.

Gary at 18

Gary at the age of 18

For the best part of a month during that six-month tour in 1964, Vampire patrolled the waters between the Peninsula and the island of Sumatra. Back and forth we steamed the 800 km length of the strait, day in day out, keeping watch for Indonesian fishing boats and other small craft that might be carrying small numbers of invading troops and/or arms. Every boat we saw, we stopped and searched. On more than one occasion we recovered from the sea the bodies of failed invaders, sometimes in an evident state of advanced decay.

Back in Australia in September, Vampire went into the Garden Island Dockyard for another major refit.

In late April 1965 Vampire sailed for the Far East again, on a two-month tour of duty. This trip once again took the ship to Manus Island, Manila and Subic Bay. In addition we went to Bangkok and Singapore, as the places for recreational leave. This trip has been well described by Dave Rickard, a young stoker who was on his first posting at sea (Rickard 1999).

The trip was without notable incident until near its end. Late in May, the ship was on its way back to Australia, somewhere near the Philippines, when we received orders to rendezvous with HMAS Sydney. The elderly aircraft carrier had sailed from Sydney carrying the first contingent of Australian Army forces to serve in Vietnam. The Vampire‘s role was to meet up with the troop ship and escort it to within air cover of Vietnam. We rendezvoused with Sydney early in June and stayed with her for six days until she turned for Vung Tau. That done, we set sail back to Australia in company with Melbourne: we arrived in Sydney on 22 June 1965.

The remainder of my 6 years in ‘Pussers’ was spent at naval radio stations , where many more radio technicians were required, to operate and maintain the worldwide communications network of the day. After one year in Darwin and another in Canberra, I was medically discharged from the RAN, in March 1968.

Australian Merchant Navy

Although I was no longer in the RAN, it seems I still had salt water in my veins, and wanted to go back to sea. I decided to make use of my radio training, and enrolled at the Marconi School of Wireless in Sydney. This had been established by AWA in 1913 for the purpose of training marine radio officers. It was AWA that had the contract with most of the Australian shipping companies, to supply marine communications equipment and operators for their ships.

Toward the end of 1969 I had confirmation of having passed the examination for the Radio Operator’s ticket. I approached AWA and within a short time was offered a post on the MV Nilpena. This ship had been built in Port Glasgow in 1954 and was operated by Australian Coastal Shipping Commission. At that time it was the smallest ship on the Australian coast, at about 243 feet long, 37 feet beam and 1465 tons deadweight (Berger, 2007). Rivet for rivet the ship was the same as Noongah, which until recently had also operated on the Australian coast. That ship was in my mind when I took up the post, and became a significant consideration early in the new year, because it had sunk in a heavy sea off Smoky Cape, south of Coffs Harbour, earlier in the year.

In the early hours of Tuesday 26 August, Noongah transmitted a distress signal saying that the vessel was listing badly and sinking in heavy seas. Shortly afterwards all crew abandoned ship. Of the crew of 26, 21 men were lost, including the Radio Officer. The loss of any life in such circumstances is tragic but it seemed especially so in this instance because that voyage was both the first and last that the Radio Officer ever made.

Stephen Pedemont was a contemporary of mine at the AWA school. He was young, so young indeed that, at 17, he was not old enough to be awarded the Operator’s Certificate (First Class), although he had successfully passed all of the examinations. He had to wait until he turned 18. Shortly afterwards he picked up Noongah in Port Kembla and sailed to Newcastle. On 25 August 1969 the ship left Newcastle with a cargo of steel for Townsville. She struck bad weather off Smokey Cape near Kempsey on the northern New South Wales coast. The vessel developed a list and sank with the loss of 21 members of the crew. One of those members was Stephen who stayed with the ship, sending distress signals to the end.

As a coastal ship, Nilpena had a dream run, offering a variety of ports at a leisurely pace. The usual schedule was to load with iron products from the BHP works in Port Kembla, sail north to Newcastle to take on more of the same, before heading to Townsville. On some voyages, depending on contractual arrangements, the ship went on to Mackay and/or Cairns, which made that particular trip even more enjoyable. What made the whole exercise so enjoyable was that, being a small general-cargo vessel it took three or four days to empty the cargo and re-load.

On 18 January 1970 Nilpena was coming out of Townsville, heading south, when we were overtaken by tropical cyclone Ada. I was asleep in my bunk at about 1.00 in the morning when the distress alarm went off. I raced to the bridge in my pyjamas, to discover that it was a false alarm, probably triggered by static electricity. The situation was pretty chaotic, with loose bits of equipment flying around the radio shack because of the enormous movement of the ship. I decided to stay on deck and fired up the receiver in order to pick up weather broadcasts. The weather conditions continued to deteriorate and, rather than receiving information, I was sending wind speed and wave conditions to the shore station. As the only ship in the area of the eye of the cyclone, we were well placed to keep tabs on the situation.

The ship was lashed by wind at up to 100 miles per hour (160 km/h) which striped paint off the side, bent the TV antenna horizontal, and broke the transmitting aerial. In an attempt to effect some communication with the outside world I rigged up a makeshift aerial and with the assistance of one of the deck officers managed to get it up. The ship’s engines were not powerful enough to save the ship from being at the mercy of the elements. At one stage the captain was contemplating deliberately grounding the vessel, in order to prevent it being driven before the waves, but couldn’t command enough power. Eventually the cyclone simply passed over us and we proceeded south to Port Kembla.

The full devastation of Ada only became apparent in the next few days, as reports came in from the area and were published in the dailies. The cyclone had wiped out 75% of the facilities on Hayman Island, and completely destroyed the resort on Daydream Island. The latter resort had been open only eighteen months at the time. The eventual death toll was 8.

After six months on Nilpena I was sent to Iron Knight, a BHP iron ore carrier colloquially known as ‘Iron Fright’ (Steverson, 2008) It was quite old as ships go, having been built in 1948, and purchased by BHP August 1955. Being an iron ore carrier, there was sometimes difficulties operating the radio equipment because of the amount of iron dust in the air, which interfered with transmission and reception. After a few months on Iron Knight I was transferred to SS Minkara , an Adelaide Steamship carrier transporting gypsum, among other things, around the coast. We docked in places like Stenhouse Bay at the end of Yorke Peninsula and Georgetown in Tasmania.

SS Minkara

British Merchant Navy

In July 1970, I travelled to Europe on a protracted holiday with Geoff Cave, a Third Engineer I had met on Iron Knight. By late November our funds were getting thin, so we made a beeline for England, where Geoff was able to get a position almost immediately, with a South African shipping company. I went to Marconi International Marine in Chelmsford, who offered me a job on a tanker, operating out of Singapore. A couple of days later I flew out of London as one of a group of about twenty men who were replacement crew members for Clymene.

This ship was an A Class tanker of 12,251 gross tons, 18,500 deadweight, completed for the Hadley Shipping Company by Hawthorne Leslie in 1961. Throughout its 15 years’ of service Clymene was leased to Shell and mostly carried white oil—kerosene, turpentine, etc— in its 33 tanks, and in drums on deck (www.shipsnostalgia.com). Her great advantage as a ship (from the crew’s point of view) was that, at about only 560 feet long and 70 feet wide, she was small enough to go into any port.

Clymene was based in Singapore and operated over a very large area. The first trip I did on board was from Singapore to Chittagong in West Pakistan (now Bangladesh). From there we went on to the Arabian Gulf and returned to Singapore, loaded and went on to Bangkok. During my time on Clymene we also visited Wellington and Lyttleton in New Zealand and Port Hedland and Geelong in Australia. The most interesting voyage was to Hawaii. Crossing the Pacific from Singapore to Honolulu was a 14-day trip. Carrying predominantly liquid cargo meant that periods in port were generally short; in this case it was 36 hours. The ship then headed back to Singapore, on the way making a detour to call into the port facilities at Tacloban in Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. So in a period 30 days, the ship spent only 1.5 tied up.

When Clymene docked in Geelong, in June 1971, a replacement Radio Officer was on hand to relieve me of duties. I had been on board for about six months and wasn’t sad to see the end of the ship. In an unfortunate sequence of events, each piece of the communication equipment had developed problems at some time during my period as Sparky. Technical fault-finding was never my forte, so I spent a large proportion of the voyage puzzling over technical issues of which I had only a basic understanding.
Having been hired in England I was entitled to a return flight to London, which I was happy to take. But I’d had enough of the sea-going life; as soon as I got back to England I resigned and never went to sea again.


Although I served in three fleets, there were four ensigns involved — largely because of the timing. It was during my service with the RAN that a change was made in the Australian White Ensign. Prior to 1967, the RAN used the British White Ensign. With the involvement of Australia in the Vietnam War from 1965, disquiet was expressed in parliamentary circles about the use of a naval ensign that could be mistaken for that flown on British warships.

With Federal Government backing, 2 new designs were proposed by Chief of Naval Staff, Sir Allan McNicoll. The design originally submitted by Commander G.J.H. Woolrych RAN was the preferred model and this was formally announced by Prime Minister Holt on 23 December 1966. The official changeover occurred on 1 March 1967, almost exactly a year before I was discharged from the RAN.

The other two flags of the title are, of course, Red Ensigns: the Australian model, as adopted in 1901, and the British model, the ‘Red Duster’, British Red Ensign.in use for British merchantmen since 1864.


Berger, P. (2007) ‘Nilpena’ The Log 40(2): 75-78.
Carolin, M. (2010) ‘ANL cargo vessels’ The Log 43(1): 17–22.
Rickard, D.R. (1999) In the Navy (Adelaide: The Author), pp. 18-32.
Steverson, I.G. (2008) ‘Interesting ships of the Australian coast, no. 26: Iron Knight’ The Log 41(2):75–79.
Website: ‘Ships Nostalgia’ www.shipsnostalgia.com; thread on Clymene