HMAS Curlew, Anecdotes from "Up Top">
Anecdotes, some funny, some serious but all mostly true, from "The Real Up Top", a personal view from the decks of HMAS Curlew, a Royal Australian Navy Minesweeper during the Indonesian Confrontation, October 1965 to April 1966.
The only Official History of the Australian involvement in Southeast Conflicts 1948 to 1975 and relevant to operational service by the Ton Class Coastal minesweeper HMAS Curlew (M1121), is a book by Jeffery Grey titled "Up Top". In my opinion, as a political reference it is alright but as a general reference with respect to daily operations and the nitty gritty of patrol work, this book is sadly lacking.
The minesweepers were based at HMAS Waterhen on Kerosene Bay, Sydney, which was west of the "big coathanger", a slang term for the Sydney Harbour bridge. When ships were in refit accommodation was provided in an old River Class frigate, the HMAS Culgoa alongside the wharf. Conditions were average, but there was a "wet canteen". Some of the boys enjoying a beer as was the custom. Waterhen was at the bottom of the cliffs and to go ashore, one had to climb a couple of hundred steps up to North Sydney, but the train then went accross the harbour to Sydney or further to central near Souths Football Club.
Having spent many months in drydock, then alongside at Waterhen and worked very hard making the ship look spic and span (going so far as to paint the superstructure then polish it with "Kitten Car Polish") the Captain thought we should show off our prowess at Divisions so prior to departing from Australia, divisions was held at HMAS Waterhen on the wharf. - what a mistake that was! We had a reserve officer drafted to the ship for his two weeks duty and he led the march past. A more untidy and slack squad could not be imagined! Within weeks of sailing the crew of Curlew was a fit, united and highly efficient fighting unit of the Royal Australian Navy and subsequently proved itself in Singapore, Malacca and Borneo waters. We never held Divisions again!
The ship was ammunitioned and swung at No. 4 buoy, Sydney on 6th. September 1965 prior to workup in the Long Reef area, returning to port each night. Flag Officer Commanding the Australian Fleet (FOCAF), Rear Admiral Morrison, walked round the ship before departure and the Staff Officer to the Flag, Captain PH Doyle, RAN gave the crew a briefing on board the ship at Waterhen in the forenoon of Friday 24th. September 1965. The prospects for an engagement/s with Indonesian Forces was given as highly probable. On another occasion the crew was bused to Woolloomooloo to "Number 4s" (base for RAN Naval Police), where in a secret bunker deep in the cliffs another briefing was given by the spooks.
Passage to Far East Strategic Reserve (FESR)
As normal sea passages to Singapore through Indonesia were not available (because we were fighting with the Brits. against Indon.), Curlew proceeded there via Townsville and New Guinea calling at Madang and Manus Island. We saw warships in the FESR and returning from the Far East with red kangaroos painted on the funnel. These were immediately painted out after berthing back in Australia as they were "non-standard" or "Irish Pennants" however seeing one kindled an idea. Two maps of Australia were cut out in the sheet metal workshop at Garden Island Dockyard and painted Aussie green. The "one penny kangaroo" was then painted onto each in yellow and grey. Our new funnel emblems were hidden in the sweep store away from officers eyes until the ship arrived in Townsville. As soon as the funnel cooled the emblems were bolted to the joining band of the funnel where they remained for the duration of the deployment. They were not taken down until the ship returned to Sydney in December 1966.
Shortly after our arrival in Madang the MV Stanos ,a merchant ship berthed alongside the main wharf and during unloading, a cargo net containing good Australian XXXX beer fell into the water. Madang is a very deep harbour and although the natives were able to free dive to recover some of the beer there was still a lot left down below. I asked and received permission to dive to recover some beer for our ship as it was fair game but the recovered beer was only allowed to be consumed in place of the normal beer issue which was 2 stubbies per man per night, but at least we did not have to pay for it.
When the ship put in to HMAS Tarangau, om Manus Island, part of the Admiralty group, for a couple of days we took the opportunity to catch some fresh fish and one day the skipper arranged for two PNG sailors to come in our motorboat with me as coxswain to seek a likely spot to throw a few scare charges over the side and gather the stunned fish. We went to a lagoon in the Tingau River, where there were over a thousand old derelict WW11 landing craft beached and dropped a couple of charges. The boys immediately dived in and picked up the floating fish before going for those stunned on the bottom. After we had a couple of buckets full the procedure was repeated in a different spot. We did very well and headed out to sea to return to Tarangau. The skipper had brought some beer in a bucket with a wet bag for cooling so we set about drinking them on the way back. It was late afternoon and there was a fair storm brewing ahead and as we approached, a waterspout formed and headed straight for us. The boys went white! really, and I was not feeling too comfortable either. I headed for the shore so at least we could be in shallow water if the waterspout actually hit, but luckily it passed a few cables away and we proceeded to port albeit a bit frightened. The fish were very welcome on board.
Rendezvous with RFA Gold Ranger
Having sailed from the Admiralty Group in Papua New Guinea (PNG) the ship proceeded north into the Pacific and on 16th. October, 1965 met up with the RFA Gold Ranger (A130) in the Moro Gulf (off Philippines East Coast) for fuel and water, before proceeding through the Basilan Strait during darkness to cross the Sulu Sea and reach the Balabac Strait, North Borneo and our next fuelling stop at Labuan. Because of the Indonesian Confrontation and Phillipines being so close to Borneo, none of the navigation lights (lighthouses) were turned on at night so the bridge team, me included, performed three "parallel index" evolutions to navigate the Basilan Strait. At some time during the afternoon of the 16th. the ship stopped for "hands to bathe" where the water was over 5000 metres deep.(5000m = 16500ft. or 2.75nm. deep)
After leaving Australia one of the first tasks was to refurbish the motor boat which was in a state of neglect. The sweep deck crew scraped the hull back and repainted the boat inside and out. In view of the rebuilding of the ships hull in Sydney and the refurbishment of the boat, I couldn't resist painting a motif on the engine box. It was a source of amusement where ever it was seen.
Beards are traditional in the navies of the world so a beard growing competition was held during passage to Singapore with some pretty horrible examples of "beards" being produced. After berthing in Singapore the CO judged the results. Those with passable beards were allowed shore leave however those without a suitable beard had the option of another 2 weeks on board without leave or shaving off and having leave; most shaved off as the first night in "Singers" was not to be missed!
Workup with "Bert"
Bert was an outboard powered sampan used as a training aid in Singapore and during the night exercises in Singapore to apprehend a sampan, Bert ran rings round Curlew because it was highly maneuverable & fast, and as Bert ran in under our guns and down the ships side the crew would throw a thunder flash or two up on our sweep deck. The thunder flashes were imbedded in potatoes so my clean upper deck was soon covered with mashed potato. We were not happy with this so pinched a carton of eggs from the vegetable locker and after rigging a deck hose waited for Bert. As Bert came along the side, the deck hose was turned on and lots of water filled the sampan and drenched the crew, while the rest of us pelted the enemy with handfuls of eggs. When Bert returned to the ship, the crew (Lieutenant P.R.Millikin (SD) (G), who was Singapore Dockyard Gunnery Officer and two Gunnery POs), who thought they were so superior to the newly arrived convicts from the penal settlement down under, were not very happy little vegemites!
Next came the "prisoner handling exercise", first carried out on two of our crew before a more aggressive run through on the two RN Gunnery POs. After they struggled and threw a couple of punches we managed to handcuff them and tie their feet up. Exercise over, so take the cuffs off! Oh Dear, No one could find the key to the handcuffs!! Sorry, have to stay trussed up while we search for it.!!! Took ages for Sam S, the XO, to find the key in his pocket!!
Admirals Informal Inspection
In the early period of our duty, on the 29th. October 1965, Vice Admiral Sir Frank Twiss, KCB, DSC, RN, the Chief of Naval Staff, Far East Fleet arrived at the gangway and announced he wanted to walk round the ship. We had no warning however he waited patiently while the Captain was called from his cabin and after receiving "permission", then proceeded to inspect the ship. Thankfully we took pride in the appearance of Curlew and the morning "Hands to Cleaning Stations" and washdown had been done. After wandering round the decks the Admiral climbed to the starboard wing of the bridge only to find his access to the compass platform blocked by our TO, Bob D. Bob had not done the bright work in the bridge and the place was a bit untidy, so he kept standing in the doorway until Admiral T turned round and wandered back below to the forecastle. The CO offered "morning tea" and the Admiral accepted saying "Thank you, I will take it here" as he promptly sat on a mushroom vent and indicated that we should all relax, something that is particularly hard to do in the presence of ones CIC and an Admiral with a reputation of being "as tough as nails" to boot!
The first patrol for HMAS Curlew during our tour was in Singapore Strait on 7th. November 1965: "commenced patrol 1745, patrol line 110 degrees, 290 degrees with Sultan Shoal Lt. abeam at 1.7 miles. Line 3 miles long" Soon after the ship was assigned to the Malacca Strait area near Port Dickson where the Dutch owned Shell Oil Company had a refinery, considered a likely prime target for the Indon.
Night patrol in the Malacca Strait during a high alert off Port Dickson, opposite known Indonesian infiltration bases on Palau Rupat and another further north at Tanjung Medang, there was a large number of drift nets. The poor fishermen of the area refused to obey the curfew and continued to run out their drift nets. As they were generally poorly marked or unmarked it was not always possible to avoid running through them. The policy on Curlew was not to deviate from the allotted patrol line unless the distance was very short or if at Approach Stations in pursuit of a suspect vessel. There was always conjecture that some nets were deliberately placed to try and snare the patrol vessel and render it inoperative for a time so a force could penetrate the waters and land in Malaysia or alternatively, attack the stationary minesweeper. The bay at Selat Rupat is quite deep and could contain Indonesian Naval forces ready to pounce on a disabled minesweeper.
The ship began to vibrate rather badly and the Captain sent me (I stood watches as the 2nd. OOW on the bridge with the CO) below to check the mess decks. I found the vibration much worse below decks and a fridge in the mess deck had come loose. I reported back to the bridge and after some discussion the decision was made to put a diver down. Clearing the screws had previously always been done in daylight. As I was the next senior diver on watch after the CO, I was ordered to take the dip. The watch on deck and I set up the diving compressor and one set of hooker gear and when ready the ship was stopped. As we were on operations and running darkened (no lights of any sort including navigation lights) the Captain denied me the use of under water lights. I went below and turned off and locked the ship stabilizers and geared up before entering the water via the port bulwark door.
I swam to the port propeller and found a synthetic rope tightly wound and jammed between the propeller bracket and the propeller boss. My knife would not cut it, so I returned to the surface and called for a hacksaw. I swam back to the port propeller and quickly cleared the rope. I then crossed to the starboard propeller to find it was also very badly fouled. I positioned myself astride the propeller shaft and cleared the rope. My first night dive in the war zone!
The log book of the HMAS Curlew for Tuesday 8th. February 1966 has the following entries:
0001 to 0200 Co & Sp as necessary to carry out patrol, patrol line 125 degrees, 305 degrees, 6.9 miles abeam Pulo Arang Arang, 5.6 miles long.
0230 sp 13 on port engine.
0230 shut down stbd engine due to unusual vibrations.
0235 Stopped, shut down port engine.
0235 Stopped to clear fishing nets from propellers.
0237 diver entered water.
0259 diver left water.
0300 started port engine.
0301 resumed patrol.
0301 Co & Sp as necessary to carry out patrol.
Self Maintenance in Hong Kong
In March 1966, Curlew proceeded to HK for a break and self maintenance. We engaged the Suzi Side Party to paint the outside of the ship in exchange for our food scraps (as was the practice) and for the period the crew just took things easy. Because I was buffer Suzi woke me every morning with a cup of char and the morning paper which was just part of the Colonial tradition instilled by the British upon lesser human races in an outpost of the Realm.
One of the engine room ratings (who shall remain nameless) had a very torrid relationship with a female Pommie schoolteacher and when the ship sailed to return to Singapore it broke down within a few hours of departure on 17th. March. I came on watch at midnight for the "guts" only to find the ship stopped and the anchor down. Although the anchor was out to the bitter end the water was too deep for it to hold and the ship was drifting slowly towards the territorial waters of Communist China. Thankfully a Hong Kong based minesweeper returning from patrol in Borneo, HMS Dufton arrived and towed Curlew in tandem (as in graunch) back to HK. I don't know who was the most embarrassed, our skipper for breaking down or the one of our lot who had been playing "hide the sausage" with one of the Dufton officers wife! The tow damaged the new paint job on the ships side.
An examination revealed that the main engine gear boxes had been topped up with salt water and the repair would involve draining them, flushing with seven fills of clean oil before sea trials. The Report of proceedings for March stated: "The fault was diagnosed on both engines to be the failure of internal seal in the salt water circulating pump for the engine heat exchanger". Funny that both engines suffered the same fault at the same time, anyway the crew had another 2 nights in HK! Following successful sea trials and a good effort by the Suzi side party to repaint the ships side damaged during the tow, the ship finally sailed for Singapore on 22nd. March. Shortly after sailing the Captain announced that all the officers had a life threatening illness and were unfit for duty.
Exercise Officers Play Dead
In 1961 HMAS Quickmatch exercised "Officers play dead" and that was the only other time that I saw it happen, the exercise was a leftover from WW11 where lower ranks had to assume control of a warship in the event of death and damage from action. As the ship left HK, the CO announced that all the officers would play dead until Horsburgh Light which is at the eastern entrance to Singapore Strait. (the officers had to become "live" to berth and fuel in Labuan before again being struck down). The coxswain became Captain, gunnery leading seaman, Jimmy and I was Pilot. Neither of the other two had kept bridge watches so we did a quick refresh of coastal navigation and bridge watchkeeping. The officers took full advantage of their death and after tea were all sitting on the forecastle drinking a bottle of white wine!
On passage along the coast of Borneo during a boring middle watch I saw a vessel coming towards us. It was lit with port and starboard navigation lights, a single steaming light (vessel under 150 feet in length) all close together and I assumed a fishing boat or small trader. I altered the ships course to pass close down the starboard side and intended roundup up onto a parallel course to have a look at the other boat. As I saw the overtaking light appear (usually affixed to the stern of a vessel) close behind the steaming light I had the wheel put hard over to starboard. As the ship began to turn I went to the 10inch and turned it on. Much to my surprise and horror the other ship was a submarine and Curlew was about to collide with the aft casing! I shouted down the wheelhouse hatch to take the wheel off and watched in awe as Curlew responded and passed within a hair of the submarines propellers, rudder and hydroplanes. I reset course for Singapore and then noticed that the sub was signaling. I was in a fix, however reasoned that if I did not call a TO to answer the signal and just bolted, I would be saved the embarrassment of explaining my err.
Sex in the Far East
Singapore and indeed Hong Kong in the middle sixties was a source of sexual delight, depending on ones taste. The famous Bugis Street in Singapore (which was forever being moved) was full of children touting for business and offering every sexual delight provided by themselves or perhaps their mother, father or sister. Transvestites were plentiful as were bennie-boys if that was your thing. Hong Kong was in the grip of gross overcrowding from refugees from the revolution in Communist China and the independence of Formosa, so there was cheap sex to be had everywhere, in particular The Roof Tops and the North Point slums.
For those with a sense of adventure there were officers wives, particularly British types in Singapore and Hong Kong who had the itch when their man was away in the jungle fighting or on patrol and some very discrete pickup places received special attention. Following the Singapore race riots in July and September of 1964 (said to be planned and initiated by Indon) and during the Confrontation sailors were not allowed to go ashore in uniform (excepting to Naval "wets") but had to wear civvies so as not to attract attention and be singled out (a young white man in a crew cut would not stand out in a crowd of Malays or Chinese??!!). This made the task of meeting a Pommie officers wife or a school teacher much easier. The more notable pick up places in Singapore were the Changi Yacht Club, Cricket Club, Raffle Hotel lounge and the Kangaroo Bar. In Hong Kong we had the Cricket Club (very pukker), Dragon Bar at the new Hilton Hotel, Crows Nest at the Mandarin and in Kowloon, downstairs at the Imperial Hotel and the foyer bar of the Peninsular (If you could afford the drinks). Very late at night the beach tents at Repulse Bay in front of the Repulse Hotel were very popular.
Repulse Bay Beach needs special mention as the beach in front of the Repulse Bay Hotel, a grand old colonial building (now demolished), had fifty or so small jousting tents for people to change into their swimming togs during the day however late at night they were used for other jousting!! One would taxi over to Repulse Bay and locate any group of midnight swimmers and join them. The females were there for one reason only and any dialogue struck up was sure to pay off, usually quite quickly. Repulse Bay Beach was too good to be true and I never mentioned it to another sailor nor took anyone else over there. Trip after trip to HK on various warships would find me going over there after midnight!!
In 1980, when working in a "box boat" on the Singapore run, I asked a young taxi driver in Singapore if a place called "Song Ling Pung Long" still existed. He asked me if I ever went there and when I said "yes, many years ago", he laughed and remarked "you must be dirty boy!!!" Does anyone else remember "Song Ling Pung Long", off the East Road??!! And then there was the corrugated iron shed in a timber yard at Neesoon where old molls dressed in pinafores and pretended to be school girls!!
Jaguar class fast torpedo/gunboat
I was 2nd. OOW while steaming at night, darkened, in Malacca Strait near Raffles Light, when a radar contact was noticed approaching at high speed from astern. Curlew was probably cruising at 13 knots and it was obvious that the other vessels were very fast. No ships could be seen so we assumed that they too were darkened. Because of the speed and the fact that we had not been advised of any movements, we reasoned that it could not be a ship of the BCFESR. As a precaution the forward bofors was closed up, loaded and trained to port. One of the other vessels came alongside and slowed to a similar speed to Curlew and it was about a cable off on the port beam.
After several minutes in total darkness with no action, The CO ordered the 10 inch lamp be used to illuminate it and there in the light beam was an old Indonesian Navy German built Jaguar class fast gun/torpedo boat with all guns trained on our ship. It illuminated Curlew with a lamp and undoubtedly could see our bofors pointed back. After several minutes of brinkmanship, with the two ships steaming alongside each other, the Jaguar speeded up to be lost in the darkness as it moved away at very high speed. The Captain considered the situation was so serious as to request assistance and a Canberra bomber was dispatched from Butterworth and a destroyer (possibly HMAS Vendetta) was sent from her patrol in Singapore Strait. After the Jaguar departed the request for assistance was cancelled.
The British Navy had a number of hovercraft stationed in Borneo and in Singapore dockyard astern of where the minesweepers tied up. We watched with amusement as they exercised in Johore Strait near the dockyard. The first hovercraft flew in 1955 so the concept of flying on a cushion of air was only new being less than 10 years old and control of the craft when it was flying was difficult and often the pilot would lose control, particularly in a turn and do a 360. In close quarters in a small river or creek this often resulted in the hovercraft crashing and ending up stranded in the mangroves or on the bank. These hovercrafts were able to carry 30 armed and equipped soldiers so were not small. On more than one occasion Curlew had to pull a stranded hovercraft from the mangroves. During passage along the coast of Borneo we also delivered stores and mail to them. The ship would steer a steady course and the hover craft would approach from astern until the front of it rested on the tuck. We then passed two mooring ropes and tied it up to the stern. The two vessels proceeded along joined together in line astern, the forward hatch on the hovercraft was opened while the transfers were made. The interior of the hovercraft was small and often crowded and had a stench of unwashed bodies which one would expect from the Poms.
Racing to Port
During patrol work in the Singapore Strait area it was the custom to return to Singapore Naval Dockyard at dawn and return to patrol the same night. There were always other minesweepers in the area so a race would be held. As Curlew had been fibreglassed in Sydney, had a clean bottom (courtesy of the diving team) and the ships engines were Napiers we were top dog in the races for the dockyard. One RN minesweeper fitted with Merlees engines blew a motor during a race and the practice was abandoned in Singapore. (NHQ could easily identified a group of minesweepers tearing up towards the dockyard belching forth black diesel smoke from engines that were flat out, as racing) The practice continued in Malacca in the faraway unseen waters around Port Dickson when boats not engaged in day patrols vied for the only small wharf in Port Dickson (Shell Wharf). At full speed Curlew managed a touch over 16 knots and was the fastest ton on the station.
When the practice of racing was banned in Singapore, Curlew rarely returned to the dockyard, accepting to replenish, but instead anchored amongst the merchant ships in Singapore Roads or just off the Singapore main town wharf. There was no shore leave but a lot of work was done here on burning back the ships side.
HMS Manxman did the odd patrol in Singapore Straits and one afternoon after sailing from the dockyard, Curlew had to deliver the official mail bag to her. Manxman was stopped and we went in on her quarterdeck, however the skipper made a mess of the manoeuvre and we hit Manxman rather heavily wiping off a couple of the quarterdeck guard rails on the starboard side, with minor damage to our wooden hull. We never did that job again.
Heaving Line Transfers
When transfering between ships of a different class and size the "Heaving Line Transfer" was the preferred method for mail, movies and patrol orders. Throwing a heaving line on a windy day when underway was not always successful so we took notice of the Mexicians and made a bolo. A bolo was made from a stolen coston gun line, which was a thin nylon line usually fired from a .303 rifle. The spear was replaced with a monkeys fist containing a lead anchor cable pellet for extra weight, the line was coiled into a bucket and was thrown like a bolo. We became very expert in using the bolo.