HMAS Curlew, More 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 sister ship to Curlew was HMAS Snipe (M1102) and because Curlew was delayed leaving Sydney there had been no opportunity for the two ships to work up together. For most minesweeping exercises this was not a problem however there had been no exercises in team sweeping. The team sweep involved two or more sweepers joining their inboard sweep wires together using an Oropesa float and pennant, as well as deploying a normal wire sweep on the outboard side. The sweepers then steamed along side by side. As soon as Curlew came out of refit in Singapore she and Snipe went into Malacca Strait for a few days of team sweeping. The pic shows an "O" float with port sweep wire attached ready to be deployed once Snipe came alongside from astern and passed her starboard sweep wire over to be attached to the float. More than two sweepers could be joined together in a "Team Sweep".
A graunch transfer was when one minesweeper tied up alongside another while under way at cruising speed (usually 14 knots on both engines) and could only be
attempted in calm seas. The procedure involved the senior minesweeper maintaining course and speed while the second ship came alongside and graunched
(collided). Both ships then put on some inboard wheel and mooring ropes were passed to secure the two ships together. This method of transfer was usually for
light stores (movies), revitualling, mail and patrol orders. Often the two COs would meet on deck to discuss patrol orders etc. The ships dogs usually met at the
Being relieved by her in Sabah, Curlew is seen coming alongside HMNZS Hickleton for a graunch with most of the crew on deck to receive mail and movies. The Jack staff is removed and replaced by the Vickers in the bow and the forecastle guard rails are down as was the procedure on patrol. The guard rails were struck so the forward bofors could elevate below the horizontal if engaging a small surface craft at close range.
Collision with HMAS Ibis
While departing from Singapore for a patrol, the ship went ahead instead of astern and collided with the HMAS Ibis rolling her over on her starboard side while she was alongside a pontoon (15W) and at right angles to our mooring outboard
of HMNZS Santon. The Ibis was hit so hard that from my position on the sweep deck I could see part of her port propeller. Curlew then came astern and hit the Santon and gouged a couple of planks on her port side. When the ship was going ahead the spring was bar taught and I thought that if it broke and whipped there would be injuries to our mates on the forecastle (Another of my friends AB (RP) Bob K. lost an arm and leg in 1961 on board HMAS Melbourne when a line parted).
Both the coxswain and the CERA had been to the NAAFI and most of us knew they were pissed. There was an inquiry into the collisions. Being in this situation was not reassuring as these two, the Coxswain and the CERA were the most senior NCOs and should have been more responsible. They were always called to approach stations, the coxswain to take the wheel and the CERA to be in charge of the engine control room and in important positions of trust such as these, were not well liked nor trusted by the crew who knew that both smuggled grog on board for drinking at sea. No charges were laid, however there was an immediate onboard inquiry. Following this incident we all felt apprehensive about night maneuvers and that is probably why I always woke up when I sensed the ship maneuvering.
Some log entries from Saturday 20th. November 1965:
1450 SSD closed up.
1500 cast off and proceeded.
Co & Sp as necessary to clear Naval Base.
collided with IBIS on leaving berth, own damage only superficial.
Following an onboard inquiry, there was another inquiry on our return to Singapore which involved the CO's actions. Still another inquiry was held in Australia after the ship returned in December, 1966. The CO was wrapped over the knuckles for not ordering "stop both engines" when everything was going pear shaped. The real culprits were let off scot-free!
One night when Curlew was not on Operations, the ship was tied up alongside our mother ship, in Singapore Naval Dockyard when at some time early in the night action stations was sounded, even though a lot of the crew would have been ashore on the piss. When I came on deck the basins of the dockyard reverberated with explosions and lights were playing on the water in every direction. Dockyard workboats were towing snares, consisting of a heavy rope fitted with many shark hooks and a shot weight to catch underwater swimmers. This was a real Operation Awkward to defend anchored/moored ships from a hostile diver attack and we was part of the target.
We were outboard of Mull, so our "scare charge" locker was immediately opened and the duty watch plus anyone else onboard, proceeded to throw scare charges over the side at regular intervals, as was the laid down procedure, for about an hour. As the scare charge locker was rapidly being emptied a case of unprimed charges was brought on deck and I sat on the deck with it beside me and a tin of detonators between my legs and made up more charges. Safety procedures were overlooked for a short period before the situation calmed and the Operation awkward was terminated.
The next step was to put divers down to search the ship's bottom for limpet or similar charges. (Limpets would not have stuck to any of the minesmeepers as they mere made of wood planking and the propellers and shafts were of phosphor bronze - however charges could be tied on to the rudders, propellers, propeller shafts, propeller brackets and stabilizers.) The Captain was a diving officer and he made the search. Next day we were informed that a dead Indonesian frogmen had been found draped over the propeller shaft of a RN or RNZ frigate in the stores basin to the east. Although being in Singapore Navel Dockyard was considered a well defended safe port, it proved not to be the case on this occasion as it was infiltrated and attacked.
The night we shot up Raffles Light
Raffles Light was, still is, a concrete lighthouse that marked the junction of Singapore Strait and Malacca Strait - it was quite close to Indonesian waters as well so this area was heavily patrolled at night. The ship had stopped a junk and captured the crew but there was no Police Boat available to take them away and tow the junk to Singapore. "Sink the bloody thing" was the call so every available gun opened fire on this junk trying to sink it. Unfortunately for Raffles Lighthouse it was in a direct line behind the junk and copped a peppering from over enthustic gunners - it wasn't until the next day that we realised just how much damage we had done to the lighthouse - it had more holes in it than the cook's collander!
On a dark night off Raffles Light, just after the high tide, a succession of merchant ships began to arrive in the area from Singapore Roads, to round and set course up Malacca Strait. Curlew was at the western end of the patrol line and came about with a merchant ship approaching from the east. I had the con and informed the CO that I would come about in time to avoid any close quarter encounter with the other ship and return to the western end of the line. He decided that we would be too long away from the eastern end and took the con to steam close in to Raffles Light and inside the other ship. At this point when the skipper took the con I was powerless to act even though I believed that the action of trying to pass inside the other vessel was a mistake. Remember that we were darkened on patrol, then at a critical moment, before we passed, the other ship went hard over to alter course up Malacca Strait, unaware of our presence and this put Curlew in a very dangerous close quarter situation. We immediately switched on our navigation lights, but they probably were not seen as we were under the bow of the other much larger ship. It looked very likely that a collision was possible as the ship had us plumb amidships. The CO jumped to the engine room controls (the ship was in bridge control) and stopped the starboard engine, increased the port engine to full revs, I ordered the wheel put hard-a-starboard and we both counted the dwell period of 10 seconds before the starboard engine could be put astern. Finally after a terrifying few seconds, the starboard engine could be felt going astern and the ship gradually turned enough to avoid the collision. The distance between the two ships as we passed was only an arms length and the time factor between collision or not came down to seconds. This demonstrated the hazards that we incurred every time we carried out operations at night, unlit, in busy shipping channels and with no right of way, such was the nature of those operations. On three separate occasions the Curlew came within a hairs breadth of being run down.
There were two illuminating 3 inch rocket launchers fitted to the aft end of the forecastle deck and they were fixed pointing 2 degrees outboard and fired by the operator on command from the bridge, while hiding behind the bridge superstructure. One had to hide from the rear of the rocket launchers as the backfire was worse than a dragons breath, scorching the deck and paintwork nearby. The electrical contacts between the rocket and the launcher were exposed to the elements and when wet, which was often the case in the tropics, would misfire. The routine for a misfire was to wait 15 minutes as a safe period before checking the launcher and refiring however as we really had no time to wait at night and needed illumination one assumed that the rain was the problem and withdrew the rocket, wiped the contacts and reinserted it in the launcher before refiring. This usually did the trick. The forecastle deck crew had a daily task cleaning up the deck and scrubbing black soot from the deck and paintwork to keep it clean.
Refurbishing the Ship Side
The ships side was covered in countless layers of paint from a long life in the RN and the RAN and I decided that we would burn the paint off using blowlamps at every opportunity, the crew responded well and this work was done voluntarily in the afternoons during make & mend when at anchor (Curlew had "makers" every afternoon when and where possible). Because of boredom, particularly in Borneo it was not uncommon to find a non-executive rating, an officer or a senior NCO sitting on the shipside stage using a heavy blowlamp and scraper. Of course the occasional swim complemented the activity during make and mend.
When on an extended patrol in Singapore Strait the burning back of the side progressed well and there was a patch about 6 feet x 8 feet that was back to bare wood. The day before Curlew was due to return to the Dockyard we primed the side with pink wood primer, with the intention of completing the painting with a coat of grey undercoat followed by a top coat of good old RAN ship side grey. Before the pink primer was fully dry the weather changed and in came drizzling rain, which is most uncommon in the Singapore area, as usually there is a 1500hrs thunder storm (set your watch by it) followed by some torrential rain and the skies are generally clear in a couple of hours. Unfortunately on this occasion the rain persisted all night and by morning the ship was proceeding to the Naval Dockyard with the ships side displaying a large area of bright pink. Had the pink patch been on the starboard side it probably would not have been noticed however it was to port and easily seen from NHQ as we approached the berths.
The CO was summoned to NHQ, fearing a repremand regarding the pink side of his ship, however that was not the case. The Admiral apologised for sending us back out on patrol although we had just berthed after being up in Malacca Strait for a week, saying that Curlew had a smell for trouble and there was a red alert. We hastily refuelled and restored for an immediate sailing back out on patrol.
The Admiral's parting comment to the CO was: "by the way - your ship looks positively agricultural!". Which is officer talk for "different".
Lost Wedding Ring
When alongside 15W in SND, there was an effort to burn the paint back on the port aft side of the sweep deck working from the pontoon and one afternoon the L/TO came down to give us a hand. Unfortunately he dropped his wedding ring into the brine and was in a state of despair at losing it. We organised to have a dive and try to find the ring (Divers were paid an extra five bob a minute when in the water and the little bit of extra cash was needed ashore, so we dived or swam as often as possible). The bottom in Singapore was just like GI in Sydney; covered with bits of wire and cordage but most of all, cutlery. Knives, forks, spoons, cups, duff bowls and plates either whole or broken covered the bottom. The prospect for finding the ring was not good. I was third diver down, the water was as black as a ducks guts and remembering the words of my instructor (Fitz) immediately felt under the shot and sure enough there was Jack's wedding ring. It went into the pocket of my overalls and then I just sat on the bottom waiting for the call to surface. Now Jack H was known to be pretty tight when it came to having a shout, but that night in Bugis Street he was forced to loosen his purse strings!!
Pirate & Murderer
One night patrolling north of Port Dickson in the vicinity of Port Klang, opposite known Indonesian infiltration bases on Palau Rupat and another further north at Tanjung Medang, the ship stopped and processed a vessel of about 30 feet. The crew were called on board one by one and processed as prisoners, before being taken to the Port of Penang to be handed over to the custom/water police launch, which met the ship outside the port. Several days later the word came to us that one of the captured Indons was a most wanted and dangerous pirate and multiple murderer. Because of the efficient way prisoners were handled (as previously described in "The Real Up Top") on board Curlew, probably resulted in there being no opportunity for the group and this fellow in particular to attack any of us or to resist. This underlines the risks from non military personal that may be encountered. Much time was spent on anti smuggling and anti pirate operations, as the Chiefs of Staff believed they could be part of the Indonesian offensive.
Within Range of Enemy Guns
The Indonesian shore batteries and major infiltrator training bases on the Rhio Islands were always considered a threat to operations especially when patrolling Singapore Straits. Curlew was never fired on in that area, however another Australian ship, HMAS Hawk was brought under fire in the same area. Two salvos, totaling 11 HE rounds fell within a cable of the ship. No hits were sustained and Hawk withdrew. This action confirmed the danger posed by the gun batteries on the Rhio Islands to all the ships patrolling this area. Curlew carried out many such patrols in 1965 and 1966 so the risk in Singapore Strait of being ranged by hostile enemy forces was very real.
From Grey's book: "Throughout Confrontation the small Ton Class Minesweepers proved to be a worthy patrolboat with a useful all round capability. However it came as no comfort to those onboard to know that they were out-gunned by nearly every Indonesian warship and shore batteries in the region."
Funny part of all that is - We never really gave it a thought!
Russian built Riga
During a night then day patrol south of Raffles Light protecting the channels into the oil terminals, a Russian built RIGA class destroyer of the Indonesian Navy appeared from the Rhio Islands during the morning watch (0400 to 0800) and began shadowing the Curlew.
Each time our ship approached the western end of the allocated patrol line, the Riga came closer to a point of intercept and was thought to be trying to get between us and Singapore waters. This game continued for most of the day. Being stalked by a fully armed enemy destroyer put all the crew under considerable additional pressure during that period of operations. By deviating closer to Indonesian waters it was possible to draw the Riga into a position so that when it eventually did attempt to cut Curlew off, it went up on a mud bank and was there for several days before being refloated. The point of real danger was when the Riga went aground as we thought that it may have opened fire on us then. The Indonesian Navy was not too smart then, or now, as this demonstrated, however there was potential for extreme danger from them.
Some of the following log entries were written by me, as I was on watch from 0400-0800 and 1600-1800 for 21st. November 1965:
0750 sp. 16 (Knots)
0755 Sighted Kronstadt class (Riga) 5 miles to south.
0800 sp. 14
0801 to 1200 Engaged in day patrol from Sultan Shoal to Raffles Light to Tg. Locos.
1201 to 1600 Engaged in day patrol from Sultan Shoal to Raffles Light to Tg. Locos, courses and speeds to investigate contacts and avoid shipping.
I came on watch at 1600 for the first dog watch, during which Curlew drew the Riga into a position where it ran aground on a mud bank and where it remained for several days before being refloated. Commonwealth Warships going past on patrol would sound their sirens and wave which was plainly insulting to the Captain of the Riga.
Collision with Junk
Early in our deployment, while on passage up Malacca Strait at night and darkened, the ship collided with the boom of a large sailing junk and the impact sounded like an explosion. The ship turned about and investigated and found a very large junk with a weak lantern hanging in the rigging and as we had approached from astern it (lantern) was shielded by the sails. The collision was heard and felt throughout the ship and awakened everyone. We, the down below, all thought that the ship was being attacked! Following this collision I slept on a "short time mat" under the motorboat on the sweep deck, rigging a small canvas awning to protect me from the rain.
Delivering Fresh Meat
With a 3 day stopover in Labuan without any officers (5th. - 7th. March 1966), I visited the Gurkha wet canteen for a night of drinking and was invited to go with them the next day dropping live cattle from an RAF Beverley transport plane. As we had no officers to seek approval I accepted the ride. The 4 engined Beverley, which looked like a large flying box, was in 1965/66 the British alternative to the American Hercules and in the cargo hold there were a number of bamboo crates each holding a live cow. The plane took off and when over the drop zone somewhere in Borneo, the cargo rear doors opened and we waited for the order to push out a crate of cow. The pilot flew over a rice paddy as low as 10 feet above the rice and we pushed the crate out the door so it fell into the rice paddy. After several drops we gained altitude and proceeded to another drop zone. Remarkably all of the cattle survived the landing without being hurt. I was told that if one of the cows broke a leg on landing it would be killed and eaten immediately, as the Gurkha loved fresh meat! The killing of the cow was done as part of a Gurkha ritual.
Visit from Flag Officer Commanding the Australian Fleet
On the 12th. April 1966 at 0740 Curlew was employed in a check sweep off the entrance to Johore Strait when we exchanged identities with HMAS Melbourne arriving from Australia and entering the Strait heading for SND and a 0800 berthing. Although Melbourne was allocated to the FESR she was not allocated to an operational area, thus took no part in the defense of the Federated States of Malaysia, but could respond if attacked. She carried the flag of Flag Officer Commanding the Australian Fleet (FOCAF) Rear Admiral V.A.T.Smith. After berthing on 13th. the CO called on FOCAF and the following day, the 14th., FOCAF inspected our ship before departing in the Admiral's Barge. There was some disappointment on board as we had expected the Admiral to have presented us with our General Service Medal for service in the war zone. Two days later most of our crew flew home to Australia and later Melbourne proceeded to the South China Sea to exercise SEATO (Exercise Sea Imp), keeping well away from Vietnam waters.
Takeoff for Australia
On 16th. April 1966 part of the crew changed using fly in/fly out. Those of us returning to Australia piled our baggage and rabbits up on the wharf and everything was transported to the airport and placed in a secure room until just prior to boarding the QANTAS 707 for the flight to Sydney. (rabbits is a term used widely however in the navy it means things that you have purchased to take home - they have to be rabbited somewhere in the ship.) We went into Singers with some of those remaining in the ship and got on the piss eventually arriving at Changi Airport to organise our baggage and board the plane.
One of the gunnery ABs, Bomber B, had brought a .22 semi-auto rifle, a Remington Nylon, from Australia and I had a bundle of game fishing rods in a cloth bag and we staggered off over the tarmac towards the plane occasionally turning and waving the bare rifle and bag of rods as a farewell to our mates. Suddenly a policeman arrived pointing a submachine gun with some airport staff and it looked as if there was going to be trouble. The pilot of the 707 came down and agreed to let us board providing the rifle was shown to be unloaded and both the rifle and my bag of fishing rods (really dangerous stuff) were placed in the cockpit with him. We agreed! anything to get home to the land of the round eyed white trash.
As our QANTAS 707 aircraft lifted off from Changi, one of the ROs had a large 8 cell flash light and was signaling out the port side where he thought one of his mates on Snipe would be on patrol in Singapore Strait. The signaling must have been seen from the Indonesian Rhio Islands because several batteries opened fire in the direction of our plane and the pilot stood the 707 on its tail, poured on the power and banked steeply to starboard to get out of range of the firing. We all thought it was a huge joke however some of the passengers particularly the whinging Poms thought otherwise and called on me to settle our mob down but I just laughed at them!!! I remember a Pom saying to me in a most pukker voice (you know, a pineapple up the rectum type) "are you in charge of these drunken ruffians"?, to which I replied "sport, no one is in charge tonight!!" Thankfully we drank the plane out of grog in a couple of hours or so and had to settle for a sleep all the way to Sydney. At some point the pilot came back to talk to us and we told him about signaling out the window of the plane which drew the fire and he was quite amused saying "we were out of their (guns) range and anyway I do not get to fly like that often!"
Touch Down at Sydney
When the QANTAS 707 arrived in Sydney around 0400 we were met by a Supply Bob (RAN Officer from supply branch) who gave each of us a large brown envelope containing holiday pay, travel documents and in the bottom a small cardboard box containing a medal, the General Service Medal with clasp Borneo (GSM Borneo, which we had expected to have received two days previously in Singapore, presented by the RAN's supreme commander.) and a Returned from Active Service Badge (RAS Badge). I remember he did not stop complaining about having to arise early to meet the plane so there was no "welcome home, job well done" for us, no welcome march, no medal pinning parade and if you can find a mention of our war on a war memorial, including the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, or any cenotaph, then it is extremely rare. The Australian Government probably believes and hopes that we are still Up Top lost in the jungle.
No Australian Government has ever officially recognised the contribution that Australian troops, airmen and seamen made in the war to protect the freedom of the Federated States of Malaysia and Singapore during the Indonesian Confrontation.
As an example of the governments indifference to servicemen that it had committed to a war, after the two minesweepers Curlew and Snipe left the FESR, they arrived back in Australia and entered Sydney Harbour during the silent hours and berthed at HMAS Waterhen at 0200 on 12th. December 1966. There was no one to meet them excepting the duty watch to help with the berthing. The next day most of the crew members from both ships proceeded on leave and received their General Service Medal clasp Borneo and RAS badge in the mail. It is no wonder that ex sailors from the "Silent War" feel so badly let down by the uncaring attitude of the Australian Government of the day and successive Australian Governments.
Pingat Jasa Malaysia
Over 40 years since the defense of firstly Malaya during the Malay Emergency and Malaysia during the Indonesian Confrontation, the Malaysian Government has awarded a medal for service of 90 days or more in the defense of Malaya & Malaysia. The 90 day qualifying period has many veterans claiming that the period is too long and many are excluded from applying for the Pingat Jasa Malaysia, however as the GSM (qualifying period was originally 30 days continuous then amended to 30 days accumulated) and the Australian Active Service Medal (qualifying period 1 day) became "Mickey Mouse" medals, this Malaysian medal recognises those that did the work and took the risks! (Mickey Mouse Medals are also known as Corn Flake Packet Medals - the inference is easily understood) Better late than never but the Australian Government will never follow suit and strike an Australian medal for the same war.
There is a plaque in the west court at the AWM, but that was put there by the 16th. Minesweeper Squadron, that is the crew members themselves. Inside the AWM there is a small section which remembers the Korean War, Malay Emergency and the Indonesian Confrontation and the participation of all three Australian Services in Confrontation is commemorated in a space as big as a small shoe box!