The Real "Up Top"
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
From Sydney to Singapore
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".
Many accounts of on board incidents, engagements or just routine activities were either not recorded, recorded so as to please Navy Office (Monthly Reports of Proceedings written in officer talk, mostly about ceremonial visits and cocktail parties, being a case in point) or have been lost or destroyed. No little wonder that the only Official Records of operations by Australian Minesweepers appear in a book written by an academic with no actual experiences in any of the services, in particular the RAN and in one of HMA ships, Curlew. From a private point of view the book is somewhat lacking when dealing with ship procedures, activities, standing orders and on board day to day events! There is no mention nor understanding of the stress imposed on the crew of a warship that occurs when the ship goes away overseas for any length of time, let alone the increase in that stress when one goes to a war.
HMAS Curlew, pennant M1121
HMAS Curlew was one of 118 Ton Class Minesweepers, she was built at Montrose in Scotland for the Royal Navy as part of the British commitment to NATO during the cold war against Russia and was launched 6th. October 1953 to join 101 Minesweeping Squadron, RN.
Indonesian Archipelago, right of sea passage
Grey makes the point that the HMS Victorious challenged the right of sea passage through the Indonesian Archipelago during Confrontation but is unaware or did not see fit to mention that HMAS Melbourne was allocated to the FESR in 1962 & 1963 and challenged the right of sea passage through the Indonesian Archipelago. The Federated States of Malaysia which originally included Singapore was first proposed in 1960 and prior to the "official" period of the confrontation was opposed by Indonesia to the extent of threatening free passage through the waters of the Indonesian Archipelago. HMAS Moresby, a virtually unarmed survey ship of the RAN, painted white, also challenged the right of innocent passage in late 1965 by steaming from Australia to Singapore and return via the Indonesian Archipelago.
Joining HMAS Curlew
I drafted from HMAS Gascoyne to HMAS Curlew at Garden Island Dockyard, Sydney, on 31st. March 1965. The Curlew was in the floating dry-dock at Garden Island Dockyard when I joined but there was no crew on board. I moved into a mess deck as I had no idea that the crew was billeted at HMAS Waterhen, North Sydney. HMAS Curlew was to work in pair with the HMAS Snipe, however Snipe completed refit and departed for the Far East to take part in operational duties in Malaysia. Curlew had a hull problem, the original dynal sheeting was removed, rotten planks replaced and she was fibreglassed up to the waterline, the first RAN ship to be so treated. The repairs took several months and during that time the crew traveled daily by workboat from HMAS Waterhen. After undocking early in September, the crew moved onboard and Curlew proceeded to Waterhen for the rest of her refit.
The Captain, a Clearance Diving Officer (CD), decided that the time in Sydney would be better spent if the crew undertook a diving course and on a bitterly cold morning in the middle of winter, the workboat took us to HMAS Rushcutter for our first dip. It was so cold I remember only six or seven actually got off the workboat and started the course. After two weeks all those attempting completed the divers course and qualified as CABA or "cuff rate" divers (Compressed Air Breathing Apparatus, shallow water, 66ft. limit, part time divers used mainly for ships bottom searches. It should be pointed out that cuff divers are not clearance divers (CDs) and receive no training in underwater explosives, mixture breathing or free swimming). I qualified top of our group and as I was Chief Bosuns Mate (Buffer) on the Curlew I mostly organized and looked after our diving gear and the Navigating Officer, also a cuff diver, looked after our record books. (With instructor "Pony" M on GPV Walrus.)
Curlew came out of dockyard hands on 27th. September 1965, and the ship operated daily from Waterhen to the Long Reef area to calibrate our minesweeping gear and practiced setting multiple sweeps and recovering them.
Allocated for Operational Service
Finally on 1st. October 1965, Curlew sailed from HMAS Waterhen, Sydney (Photo: leaving Sydney) for Townsville and the Far East. After refueling in Townsville, replenishing stores and carrying out some practice dives to search the ships bottom, Curlew sailed for Madang in PNG. During the dives in Townsville we experimented with a hydrophone to listen for underwater diver/s that could be attacking the ship, however the hydrophone proved to be a complete failure. The only sound that was heard was when I went up to it and shouted "get *ucked", fortunately the words were not understood on board.
Townsville was the last port of departure in Australia and the ship was deemed to be allocated for operational service in the defined areas of the FESR from that date. (see VEA 1986, Sect. 6C para (3)a.)
Because of the Indonesian Confrontation of the Federated States of Malaysia, the usual shipping routes through the Indonesian Archipelago via Lombok or Sunda Straits was denied and Curlew sailed via Madang and Manus Island to station through the Philippines, arriving in Singapore on 23rd. October 1965. HMAS Curlew served in the FESR until 14th. September 1966, however a partial crew change took place on 16th April 1966 and some of us flew to Sydney that night, arriving on 17th. April 1966. We were no longer allocated for operational duties on that date. (see VEA 1986, Sect. 6C pare (3) e.)
Ship Daily Routine
I was still training for my Bridge Watchkeep Certificate so I was 2nd. OOW on the bridge mostly with the Captain. We talked at length about the prospect of everyone being tired from night patrols etc and he suggested that I come up with a shipboard routine so as many people could sleep to refresh yet the ship would be kept in good order and sparkling clean. After some thought I recommended a modified Tropical Routine - there was a routine that already existed in some ships standing orders for those operating in the tropics. The only significant change was that our ship went to "cleaning stations" at 0600, and the ship was cleaned below and on deck before breakfast. The idea then was to work until lunch at 1200 and then "make & mend" every afternoon. Worked well!
The crewing of the minesweepers made no allowance for lengthy patrol work so there were no allocated Radar Plotters (RPs) in the crew. The radar, a Type 975, was used for navigation and was positioned in the chart room. During night patrols when the ship was darkened a blackout curtain divided the chart room from the bridge and it was not good for the OOWs to be continually moving in and out of the chart room as night vision was impaired. During our passage to Singapore, the Jimmy suggested that he train three noncombatants from within the crew to act as permanent radar operators during patrols. Don't tell the PRs, but operating a 975 is not a particularly difficult task although needs an alert operator during the night. The AB (CK), AB (STWD) and the AB (SBA) were chosen as radar operators and they became very proficient and did a particularly good job. The SBA had already asked to keep watches with the "watch on deck" as a non-combatant and on the way up top from Manus Island achieved his helmsman certificate. The watch on deck was only 4 sailors so we rotated through the wheel, lookout, radar and stand down every half hour when on patrol. When on passage the OOW looked after the radar.
Arrival in Singapore
On arrival at "Singers" on 23rd. October 1965, HMAS Curlew proceeded up the Strait of Johore towards Singapore Navel Dockyard. Between the Changi Yacht Club and the dockyard were several batteries of Bloodhound surface to air guided missiles, pointed roughly in a southerly direction. The missiles were quite large for that era and were strategically placed to protect both the Naval Dockyard and the Changi Airport, which was used by both civilian and military aircraft. We learned that there were other batteries on the Island which were out of our sight, but part of the air defenses of Singapore Island against the Indonesians. I had been there in 1963 and there were no missiles there then - looked serious! HMAS Curlew berthed on HMS Manxman at 0815.
HMS Terror and HMS Mull of Kintyre
HMS Terror & HM Dockyard, Singapore, existed in their own right within the greater HM Naval Base. Terror, the barracks, provided the offices and accommodation necessary to sustain the Royal Navy presence whilst the dockyard provided all the civilian skills and materials to keep the ships serviceable. HMS Mull of Kintyre, called "MOK" or "Mull" (image), in Singapore Dockyard was an adjunct to HMS Terror. She was securely moored adjacent to King George VI dry-dock from 1961 until 1967 and provided a mothering and repair service to the Ton class minesweepers on the station, particularly during the Confrontation. When Curlew arrived in Singapore HMS Manxman (WW11 minelayer) was outboard of Mull of Kintyre, having been used as a Headquarters Ship since 1963, and we berthed on Manxman. Being a mine warfare specialist I had never seen a minelayer and found a tour of this ship interesting, even though one set of mine rails had been removed.
After berthing on Manxman, HMAS Curlew immediately went into dockyard hands to have extra weaponry fitted:
1. A mounting was fitted to the bullring to accommodate twin Vickers air-cooled machine guns complete with spider ring sights. (These guns were relics of the air war in WW I, however they fired a universally used round, the .303)
2. A mounting was fitted to the port wing of the bridge to accommodate a .303 bren gun.
3. A mounting was fitted to the cap of the bulwark on the sweepdeck, outboard of the hatch to the engine room to accommodate a bren gun.
4. A 3 inch rocket flare launcher was fitted on either aide of the forecastle deck adjacent to the operations room (used to fire 3 inch rockets with illuminating parachute flares).
5. A 3 inch rocket magazine locker was fitted each side of the aft forecastle deck.
6. A 2 inch hand held mortar, used to fire illuminating parachute flares, was put on board.
7. A dozen or so 9 mm. Owen sub-machine guns, 3 x .38 S&W revolvers and a full wood .303 rifle (the Sniper rifle) were put on board. One of the .38 pistols was kept loaded in the Engine Control Room in case the personnel there had to fight their way out in the event of the ship being overrun. The engine room door was kept locked from the inside.
8. Bullet proof (?) mattresses (similar to splinter mats) were hung round the outside of the bridge and wheelhouse.
The Vickers Machine Gun
The ship was fitted with a twin machine gun in the bow to be used stopping Indonesian infiltrators in the waters round Borneo and the Singapore/Malacca Straits areas. The bow chaser was also known as the "Vickers" or "Fort Knox". The mounting was not a twin as such however two single machine guns were bolted together on a bracket to be operated as a twin. Although it never happened to us, if the triggers were not pulled simultaneously the uneven recoil of the two guns would shear the mounting bolts and the gunner would be confronted with two machine guns running amuck.
During workup it was soon evident that the Vickers was a beast from the past and some modifications were needed. First off the expended rounds ejected into a canvas bag under the gun and it only held 100 empty rounds which was equal to a full magazine. Changing two magazines and emptying the two pouches was frustratingly slow so after some discussion the pouches were cut off. The spider sights were OK if sitting or kneeling down on the deck however the hot rounds from the guns made this impossible. As it became dark the spider sights were useless so they kept folded down. How to sight the machine guns was the next problem but our gunnery L/S already had it solved. The armourer in Singapore dockyard told us that we could only load tracer one in six as any more caused barrel burnout. We found if we loaded one in three, the "trail" could easily be walked onto the target. Burning out the odd barrel was neither here nor there to us, so all the magazines including the brens were loaded one in three with tracer.
The Vickers magazines were round and held 100 rounds. They were stowed in a box next to the anchor winch with 3 or 4 standing on edge in the starboard hawse. The guardrails round the forecastle were also struck.
The machine gunner on the Vickers fired the weapon by standing upright, with bullet proof vest and tin hat on and walked the rows of tracer onto the target, while doing a little dance in bare feet to avoid burns from the hot ejected rounds hitting his feet or the deck. When entering port the Vickers was covered and the top half of the steel shields were unshipped and stowed.
Most members of the crew learned to fire the Vickers and for good reason. If the ship went to action stations all the gunners were required to close up on the two bofors thus another rating had to man the Vickers. The TAS ratings were not required to put out sweep gear so they took on other tasks including the Vickers, 2 brens guns, 3" illumination rockets, 2" mortar and the sniper position atop the bridge.
During Approach Stations the Fwd. bofors was always closed up and there still needed to be a rating on the Vickers so he would be one of the watch on deck. At one time or another we all manned the Vickers. Depending on circumstances the person on the Vickers may have had to go to join the prisoner reception party in the port waist once the machine guns could no longer bear on an apprehended vessel ie. a vessel close in on the port side.
Owen Sub-Machine Gun
The Australian designed and made Owen sub-machine gun was the best in the world at the end of WW11 as it was a simple design with only a couple of moving parts and could be submerged in water or mud and would still fire with out splitting the barrel. Firing a 9mm. short round, either single shot or in auto, it was an ideal weapon for the minesweepers to carry. So we would not be caught short of ammunition the practice was to use electrical tape and tape three magazines together with the centre one down and the outside two facing up. When we went on board barter vessels to search, where they was often no room even to stand upright, the butt was withdrawn so the weapon could be operated in a confined space as a machine pistol.
The ship was fitted with two bren guns firing the universal British .303 round and the magazines which held 30 rounds were loaded with tracer 1 in 3 to assist with aiming at night. There was one on the port wing of the bridge and another on the aft capping outside the engine room door. Bullet proof vests weighing 36lbs. were worn by the operator and in this photo, one can see the red toggle at the front attached to 2 white straps joined to quick release pin clips at the shoulders (the pins were serviced with white grease (petroleum jelly) every morning to ensure that they would disconnect), which when pulled disconnected the vest at the shoulders and allowed the two halves to fall away. This was a safety precaution in case someone wearing one of these special navy issue vests fell overboard. The ship carried about 10 of these vests. American style "flack jackets" were only seen in the movies!
We worked up with an outboard sampan called "Bert", The crew were experienced RN, a gunnery officer and two commandos, both Petty Officers. During the first day the commandos told us the true story of the HMS Woolaston and that under no circumstances were we to board an apprehended Indon boat or go near the outboard motor.
To further convince the crew of our ship that the situation was indeed very serious, warlike and that if we were to fall into enemy hands we could expect to be treated very badly, we were shown some photographs. The photographs were black and white, of (supposedly) two British Army Sappers captured by the Indonesian Army and tortured before being horribly killed. In 2003 I made contact with an exRN sailor (KF) who was in the shore party that found these sappers, one was still alive and reportedly shot by one of the sailors who was his brother. KF refuses to discuss the incident ant further with either me or one of his friends who tried to find out the true facts for me. This was a real incident.
Following workup Curlew was assigned to patrol duties in Singapore and Malacca Strait during periods of high alert. There was a night curfew in force for all small vessels. Soon after arrival the ship was assigned to the Malacca Strait area near Port Dickson where the Dutch owned Shell Oil Company had a refinery. The first patrol for HMAS Curlew during our tour was in Singapore Strait on 7th. November 1965.