Year 1993 wasn't the
first time Australian armed forces had chivalrously assumed command in
Somalia. Earlier Secret Missions had carbon copied Dunkirk.
Never a sunken failure
or scuttled for target practice, HMAS HOBART was so successful that the
prestigious Canberra War Memorial Archives contain few details of the
extremely cost-effective Cruiser, which served as Australian Squadron
Flagship on five grand occasions.
Yet both this most
battle-tested of Australian vessels and it's skipper Captain Harry L.
HOWDEN are still venerated by the remaining ship's company in the most
famous returned comrades group, The Hobart Association. Hobart's
impeccable war record story reads like an unbelievable action-packed
film script. Among a vast far flung network of islands, atolls and
harbours, Captain Harry could transform an impossible war situation into
inevitable victory - or escape.
From childhood, I
recall the Leander-Class Hobart (third of four namesakes) and her
catapulted Walrus Amphibian bi-plane (a Spitfire genera, but no modern
blowtorch) as formidable fighters: length of 562 ft, weight 7105 tons
and sporting 6x6" and 8x4" guns, torpedo tubes, searchlights,
radar, long-range ASDIC, together with 72,000 SHP engines to give the
craft 32.5 knots. How many modern ferries can outrun that? Once I was ordered
to gather 50 school friends (I never had so many) for my Harbour
birthday party. Ship's company presented memorable Disney movies, cakes,
pinnace trip past Windjammer "Lawhill" and ship tours.
Curiously, both Hobart and I were born 1934, me in Sydney, she (formerly
HMS Apollo) in Devonport UK for £1.4 million.
statistics of 426 heavy bombs released during 40 attacks on HOBART, I
gave up reviewing these near-bomb, torpedo or mine disasters. On 'Black
Sunday', 128 Jap bombers high over Banka Strait, east of Sumatra,
unleashed 600 bombs directly at Hobart. Skies were black with bombers,
six of which were shot down. Shrapnel riddled her funnels and removed
polish during this typically charmed day. "it was amazing the way
he manoeuvred . . Precisely observing bomb bay doors . . Always the last
to duck. He predicted and swung out of their path" - like speedboat
The crew assumed Harry, besides being
a magnificent seaman and navigator, also possessed superhuman insight
guaranteeing them against injury. More likely he simply anticipated
Japanese minds and translated "go get 'em" radio messages
between pilots, because in 1928 Harry especially sought some months with
the British Embassy in Tokyo to study the Japanese people, their
language and lifestyles in order to satisfy his lifelong enthusiasm for
travel and knowledge, especially in Asia - naturally (I have on good
authority) while fraternizing with tea-house geisha girls.
So far as I can
determine both Kiwi Harry (Wellington b:1896-d:1969) and Londoner Vanda
Fiske (b:1904, d aged 90) were from Viking storm-trooper stock. Whilst,
in World War I, pretty teenager Vanda wasn't painting a crumpling
shot-down Zeppelin, she and her bohemian-artist mother could be feeding
soldiers on country manoeuvres - field-cooking London fodder they'd
scrounged. Until recently she lived in a small caravan near my brother
at Port Macquarie, surrounded by 1000s of archival family photos,
historical momenta and a well organized bibliography.
nicknamed "Captain Harry" (sometimes "Den") by the
crew, he had a strict though carefree upbringing under six doting
sisters in the family "Furneaux Lodge" (now an attractive
rustic resort), Endeavour Inlet National forest - Captain Cook's
('Bicentennial Heritage') Main Pacific Base, of 15 January 1770 to 12
After sailing round
many exciting NZ islands with Holm Shipping Line friends, Harry
"escaped" to sea and was turned on to a Navy career by
Scottish uncle Admiral Niblett. World War I commenced whilst Harry
was on a ship north of Scotland. He became a Grand Fleet Naval Reserve
Midshipman serving more than a year on the giant British 10x13.5"
gun Battleship HMS Benbow, patrolling bleak North Atlantic wastes.
Planes were seen on
warships five years from the first Australian 1910 flight by American
escapologist Houdini. With Dusty Rhodes, Pa was among the first to join
RAN via HMAS Sydney of Emden-sinking fame, December 1917 - it's tripod
still decorates harbour foreshores. That same month, HMAS Sydney sported
a wheeled, gun-turret-launched Sopwith Pup bi-plane (later a Camel). In
one spectacular case after winning Jerry bomber shootouts 60 miles
inland, the Pup ditched safely in nearby waves. Obstinately Australia
had rejected Britain's 100-plane offer (June 4, 1919) to start RAAF and
RANAS! Such Fleet-Air activities structured and rehearsed Captain
Harry's entire defence strategy - making him one of the greatest
Naval lifestyle bred in young Harry an
uncompromising discipline, un-nerving curiosity and enthusiasm,
inventiveness, a precision for detail, encyclopaedic knowledge,
unorthodoxy, legendary skills, a loyal duty to King and country, plus
total intolerance for incompetence, which often scared me as a kid
imagining the imminent 'demise' of some young insubordinate subordinate.
One valet - Edwards at at Flinders Depot where Pa was in charge - was
matted 12 times until a perfect 41/2 minute boiled egg arrived !
Harry had a short
temper, foul mouthed in the extreme at times with an unprintable
vocabulary. Despite this, he was a thoughtful and kindly person, an
interesting host with scads of friends and a flair for exotic food and
liquor. Women adored this little guy who was inches shorter than his
wife. Between famous sea battles, he must have enjoyed many balmy nights
of hanky-panky at favourite watering holes, such as the Blue Mountains
Lapstone Hotel west of Sydney.
He was a great fun
lover and sportsman, always attracting affection, popularity and
devotion whether at 'wild' Navy flings or under white hot battle
However, to this
high-living, religious Presbyterian, ostentatious even foppish
philanthropist, the safety, welfare, performance and pleasure of all
those under him was top priority. Beer would appear miraculously and
morale-boosting relaxation would be granted during a break in some
fiendish Red Sea campaign, or after an exhausting amphibious landing. He
was not averse to deliberately disobeying High Command when necessary,
much to Admiral Collins chagrin!
For years Harry
drifted through armadas of ships: Protector, Platypus, Brisbane,
Parramatta, Huon, Anzac, Tasmania, Australia, Albatross, Vampire,
Canberra, Yarra, and Adelaide. Twice he managed immense Flinders Naval
Depot and Commanded Cerberus Training. Shipboard experiences produced
keen "observational powers" and quick-reaction for outstanding
wartime success, especially on one massive secret mission to be
described, The Berbera (Somaliland) evacuation - a Dunkirk carbon
It was natural he be
loaned to and rapidly promoted in the Royal Navy as an enthusiastic
Commander of River Gunboat HMS MANTIS (INSECT Class built 14/9/15, 625
tons, 230 ft long, 14 knots, 2000 HP, twin screw, 55 crew; was for sale
in Shanghai January 1940 and still there when the Japanese attacked)
from 1930-32, during the heady days of "Gunboat Diplomacy" on
the Yangtze Kiang river. In part, China was 'frightfully British' those
days. There were Brit Rail, horse races, tennis, golf, fish and chips,
hotels and tourism, Anglo trade shipping, colonial shops, churches,
clubs and night clubs serving true British stodge, many industries,
English Schools for scads of expatriate kids, the British Municipal
Police, a Shanghai International Settlement. Japanese bombing of
Shanghai in 1937 was a Pearl Harbor blueprint.
China wasn't all navy
slog. Captain Harry led an exciting life in China and received the OBE
when he disguised an armed boat as a sampan to rescue two missionaries
and a Roman Catholic Bishop from bandits. However the Chinese often got
the upper hand when hiding opium in the least logical place - under the
Vanda's family were
great ocean liner world travellers, as I was before 1976. I'm sure they
must have visited more than my 76 countries. During these Asian tours,
she met Harry a second time since their first Swiss ski encounter years
before. On her return to England, he would write often until finally, on
China duty, he sent her a cable proposing marriage. This she received
whilst waiting two days in Dartmoor for spare Sunbeam Roadster parts to
arrive. Those days, a country motoring lady wasn't smart if she couldn't
do major repairs herself! Her father sanctioned a visit-to-be-sure trip
(after which he promptly died), but she already was sure and
packed everything for the China voyage, via Canada - in thick freezing
After parties, dances
and a steamer trip upriver to Hankow during Harry's leave week, they
were married, honeymooning in a small missionary hotel. Travelling on
Mantis (unheard of for a woman on a British ship), often grounded on
shallows, they reached Changsha where Vanda stayed on an island. There
followed for her many adventures and survival ordeals, long treks
frequently caught in bandit traps or between Chang Kai Chek's army cross
fire, or stranded ill, abandoned and terrified.
Once free, she shipped
to Sydney. Their travelling continued one baby later, but usually
separated since Harry, ordered to King George VI's Coronation,
was still on Royal Navy loan, albeit in Admiralty Naval intelligence
from 1937-38. Doing what, I wonder. Bucking MI5 and their German/Russian
friends whilst Neville Chamberlain placated Munich, and Hitler was
calling the shots, playing merry hell in Europe.
accelerated Hobart's transfer to RAN. Seaplane carrier HMAS Albatross
was part payment for and supplied crew to Hobart. In London 30 June 38,
Harry became RN Captain, desperate to convince Australia of the urgency
for war preparations, contrary to bumbling Australian top brass.
Because after World
War I Dusty Rhodes and Harry had toured Germany 'for fun', thus
adding further background, Harry was ordered to middle European
countries with which he was involved - Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia,
Czechoslovakia, Germany. Together again, my folks received vital
knowledge of Hitler's performance, witnessing a city grand tour.
Clandestine meetings were held, such as in a Romanian park where Vanda
was obliged to translate a covert French Naval contact's information
concerning new Destroyers - - -
On another visit
during threatening pre-Holocaust days, with Harry in Australia, nervous
Vanda had to back out of Europe alone via Germany in a gale-tossed Nazi
plane. Then a Norwegian freighter, having dodged storm troopers and
suspicious Japanese officials.
September 3 1939,
21.15 EST,: The Australian Naval Board, Melbourne, received the fatal
telegram "Total Germany repeat total Germany"!! 50 minutes
earlier, Britain's ultimatum to Germany had expired.
brother and I had been 'farmed out' to a Cronulla kids home near Sydney.
We returned on the day before World War II to the folk's house at
Point Piper, Sydney, just in time to wave at HMAS Hobart beginning her
three year stretch with Captain Harry at the helm.
From visiting Hobart
town 17 February 1939 as Flagship at the 101st Regatta, Hobart patrolled
Bass Strait up to the outbreak of hostilities. Then, proceeding North
for the Indian Ocean Convoy duty after secret preparations, she escorted
the Middle East-bound 1st AIF Contingent. A lanky Midshipman
take-it-easy consistently refused to de-hammock, getting most irate when
forcibly decked. His name? Prince Philip!
'Lucky' Harry was
about to enjoy other 'finest hours' as skipper in the toughest battles:
Indian Ocean, Red Sea, the Med', SE Asia, SW Pacific, Java, Singapore
where HMAS Hobart together with many other ships should have been
allowed to evacuate all doomed forces, and the Coral Sea Battle which
thwarted Jap plans to seize Moresby or the Australian mainland. Besides
HMAS Australia, Harry's Hobart was one of only two non-American Coral
Sea battle veterans and scored 3 Jap bombers. Finally in the China Sea
he was frequently Mentioned-In-Despatches for bravery and endurance on
Convoy duty in the face of routine and sustained enemy attacks.
Just minutes before
Singapore fell, Ah Yong, our Chinese wartime nanny (still healthy in
China during my niece's 1995 visit) was rescued by Hobart, along with a
1939 Austin tourer for home use, plus 100 gallons of petrol. However Dad
made lower deck hands return 500 looted sewing machines among many
'thefts'. Sailors ditched some loot over the pier to prevent enemy
access. Commandeering Parties were astonished to find only two allied
machine gunners able to point their weapon towards an entire Japanese
army advancing up the Causeway!
These were lonely and
trying times for Mum, though pleasantly punctuated with culture,
war-effort voluntary work and Navy wife socializing, particularly Elaine
whose engineering husband Captain Hutcheson managed Garden Island
Dockyard. Infrequently Hobart returned for a short sad reunion.
April 1940: War with
Italy looming. It was decided to form a Red Sea Force based at Aden,
Yeman. Initially Hobart was the only ship to patrol the region. Then HMS
Liverpool, followed by a large flotilla. Italy commenced hostilities -
rehearsals for Pearl Harbor - on June 10, 1940 by air-raiding Aden and
losing some bombers, one to exhilarated Hobart gunners. I think Perth
was there too.
Next week, Hobart's
ungainly 3-place Amphibian biplane, loaded up with 20 and 120 pound high
explosive bombs, catapulted off and severely damaged the Italian
wireless station and pier of Centre Peak Island near Massawa - without
opposition. Later that port would present a strange sight of scuttled
merchant ships and a crane in fantastic positions. Vital reconnaissance
flights were made by the Walrus for Harry's future reference data.
began with a crowded deck-passage of 687 Punjabi soldiers en route to
Berbera, a crude hot British Somaliland port of two small piers opposite
Aden. With only 650 Somali Camel Corps troops for defence and without help
from French Somaliland (Djibouti in enemy hands), land positions
deteriorated, although seas were Navy-held. Hobart learnt about Berbera
harbour whilst escorting troop reinforcements, despite vicious Italian
raids from some of their 200 aircraft. Italy couldn't relax - because
cutting long Med' supply lines constantly challenged the Allies.
Mountain-fringed Berbera is
nightly prone to violent dust-laden Kharif gales from June-September. Lighters
only operate depending on conditions - Hobart operated any time, air-raid or
no. One ugly night of August 1, while Hobart crew ferried Indian troops
ashore in lifeboats, wind fury increased causing the pitching ship to drag
anchor and grind ignominiously on mud banks. Damage-control parties on
requisitioned tugs, one of which grounded, were powerless. She was sitting
duck to Italian bombers. Eight hours later "lucky" Hobart refloated
unaided, undamaged - probably using Harry's tons-of-jumping-crew method
employed earlier when his HMS Mantis had foundered on Chinese Yangtze Kiang
August 3, Italians invade:
British Somaliland Command, desperately short of artillery and anti-tank
weapons, realized that, against overwhelming forces of infantry, tanks,
armored cars plus air support, they had to evacuate or surrender and be
Sea Dog Harry knew the
safety of all British Forces was in Naval hands, so Hobart patrolled the coast
seeking bombardment areas to slow those columns. However a Blackwatch Regiment
with stores must be landed at Berbera from Armed Merchant Cruiser Chantala.
Hobart undertook unloading when native porters went on strike from the terror
of watching air-raids decimate their numbers.
August 8th, 1940: three
Italian CR42 fighters strafe RAF Gladiator biplane fighters and a bomber at
Berbera airfield, destroying one Gladiator. Secret Intelligence indicated
Italians were based at nearby Zeila airfield. Accordingly the flimsy little
Walrus, bomb-laden with 112 pounders, catapulted off.
Sadly the Zeila field was
deserted of refuelling planes so a good time was had in shooting up the
Residency, army vehicles, staff cars and in changing the attitude of
several machine gun and ack-ack posts. Wing battle scars showed as a first
for Hobart when the plane settled in adjacent water.
Hours later Italians
responded to this impertinence with two air attacks on the cruiser -
attracting fiendish fire. Harry hadn't the heart to let protesting Walrus
pilots counterattack such vengeful forces single-handed.
August 10th: Enemy
engaged, with 3 Italian advancing columns, two over mountains, one
coastal. At Mountain Gap, huge Italian forces were massing against
handfuls of defenders. Next day, Army HQ ordered an anti-tank gun from
Hobart. Laughably, the only weapon was a 3-pound 1891 vintage
Hotchkiss Saluting gun mounted on an old reinforced 44 gallon drum! How
could that hold 'em off at the pass? And who would fire with only 64
251 officers and men
volunteered from Harry's call. Scaling chilly mountains at 04.00, 10th
August, the selected trio (two of whom I met at a Hobart reunion) with
Army Uniforms and Gun would write a Navy/Army saga not seen for some
Over five days the tiny
Army detachment of 162 were whittled to a mere 26 until over-run; yet
morale contributed by the Navy's 'Secret Weapon' was extraordinary. Camel
Corps Captain Wilson was posthumously awarded a VC.
All three Hobart gunners
were "missing, believed killed", but were actually captured by
Eritrean Italians led by a kindly Colonel, and released months later (1
April 1941), earning General Wavell's highest praise. Italian reaction on
examining the most 'secret weapon' remains unrecorded.
August 15: Wavell,
Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, orders British Troop evacuation - all
38,000 - including their elegant mess silverware! With it's special area
knowledge, Hobart would act as Combined Operations HQ. Harry was Supreme
Commander over entire civilian and military operations including a
Squadron of Warships, Armed Merchant Cruisers, Transports, Auxiliaries and
Hospital ship, a multinational Task Forces size-equal to 77% of
Australia's then total effective Navy!
disputes or restrictive practices, Hobart's shipwrights and joiners
completed an additional embarkation pier. Signal Staff provided
ship-to-shore communications. Ship ack-ack and heavy gun crews remained
posted 24-hours to forestall air-land attacks. Beach and Wharf Masters
controlled troop and civilian embarkation, whilst Security Platoons
maintained order in the town. Crews volunteered on two tugs and a flotilla
of storm-tossed motorboats. Paramedics hovered. Urgency was infectious.
Battle wagons guarded harbour entrances against Italian fleet surprise
attack. Coastal mine-sweeping continued. Bomb damage was minimal as noisy
gunners were deadly accurate.
By noon next day 1100
evacuees, mostly women and kids, boarded one Aden-bound ship, the enemy
only 40 miles up Berbera coast road. Cruiser Ceres despatched to bombard
columns, completely halted advances, giving brief rearguard respite. Next
afternoon the killer kharif came howling out of nowhere and immensely
complicated the night evacuation as small boats jumbled all round the bay
ferrying out soldiers of five nations, many hundreds wounded.
The following day:
Italians disrupted transport by blowing a bridge. Captain Harry
characteristically lands and personally takes charge. He organizes Hobart
sailors and Somalis (for baksheesh Aden passage) as convoy truck drivers
to fetch King's African Rifles stranded way beyond another bridge, many
wandering desert-dazed without food or water, not knowing what was
All manoeuvres were
coordinated and observations of the advancing enemy and raiding bombers
were communicated to Hobart via ship's officers atop Government House
tower. Sadly, a 25-plane and 100-troop reinforcements never appeared.
Early afternoon 18
August: Demolition parties land to scorch-earth all valuable facilities
including piers, ammo dumps, stores, warehouses, transport . . . By dusk,
black smoke drifts ominously across the doomed town. Tug "Queen"
was lost. A lone wheeling kestrel, the Amphibian circles quiet plains
around town, finding them hauntingly empty of enemy presence.
Screaming gales next
day: having been the first to arrive and now the last to leave, Hobart
crashes six-inch salvos into near-demolished areas. Two exhausted
stragglers, then another observed on storm-tossed beaches. Boat pickup in
that surf was impossible, so two crewmen swim and help three soldiers to
waiting boats. With most eyes gazing anxiously at morning shores for
survivors, Hobart hastily weighs anchor, retreating to Aden - successfully
ending the Tugargo Gap Battle and Berbera Evacuation. The port was in
Italian hands - until RN recapture, March 1941. Thus ended Australias'
involvement in Somalia, at least until recent 1993 peace-keeping attempts
at preventing chronic starvation there.....
service with the Somaliland Force", Harry was awarded Commander of
the Order of the British Empire. I clearly recall Sydney Admiralty House
investitures - though hated dressing up.
Hobart was due for
refit, December 1940 and Crew overdue for Colombo R-and-R. So Harry cabled
Vanda to fly over for tropic romance - leaving us 'farmed' again (UGH !).
Air travel at best was precarious and Pre-Pearl flights so dodgy that
Vanda was persuaded to ship from Singapore. It wasn't all kisses and
mountain whizziness - visiting Aussie Regiments desperately needed welfare
Duty recalled the Sea
Dog. He found pregnant Vanda a berth on some captured Melbourne-bound
freighter without passengers. Only the skipper spoke English. The trip was
an anxious lights-off nightmare, worsening when the ship broke convoy,
continuing solo at only 12 knots. On arrival, she discovered the shipping
office assumed Westralia and every convoy ship had sunk - all hands!
Needless to say, Vanda
continued home to Sydney by train.
Dramas of Hobart and her
Master continued. 45 countries were visited - or invaded.
After Harry departed
Hobart her luck failed under Captain Showers. From a 10-mile rogue Jap
torpedo she limped home, crippled for months. However, these brief notes
can't do justice to his gross influence which persisted long after he
relinquished command in June 1942 at Brisbane. "Charmed-life"
battles and landings - probably more than any other ship had seen in
history - included: Tobruk and Cyprus; Malay air attacks; Tanjong Priok;
Banka; Sourabaya and Sunda Strait where HMAS Perth last cruised; Leyte;
Cebu City; Savo and Labuan Islands; Guadalcanal; Tulagi; Tarakan and Sadua
Islands; Wewak; Brunei; finally Balikpapan where Hobart fired it's last
On shore he established
his tribute, the great Sydney Base HMAS Penguin. Glory hours ended - - -
Harry retired in 1951 from five years as Naval Officer in Charge of
Western Australia, based at salubrious HMAS Leeuwin, Fremantle. During
1951-52 he was ADC to King George VI (see Who's Who 1969).
As Squadron Flagship
representing all Australia, Hobart enjoyed monumental moments at the Tokyo
Bay Surrender, 2 September 1945 - followed by three Allied Occupation
visits until 2 August 1947.
The get-togethers with
his crew and friends would never be the same without him - especially
those during the Brisbane wartime MacArthur era in a lively hotel,
formerly on Queen Street Mall . . .
March 3 1962 ended a
long period of expensive futile refits: Tears flushed the deck as the
Captain addressed Old Comrades and many wives. A single wreath decorated
that venerable battle wagon's Ensign Staff. The haunting Last Post sounded
as she was slowly and silently towed from Sydney to her final resting
place - breaking hammers - a lifeless pile of scrap iron, yet trailing in
her wake a proud everliving tradition for the RAN . . .
Over the years my
parent's straight faces couldn't hide their slow drift. Vanda valiantly
tried marriage-rescue from the end of 1945 by shipping us to England,
hoping Anglophile Harry would follow in retirement. Adventure-laden from a
mutinous captain and officers, the terrifying trip failed. We tried a more
civilized post-war haven, South Africa . . . Neither faultless, their
bitter divorce came in early 50's. My American son Mark and I would also
Through postwar years
before remarrying a charming little retired English lady Freda (now
deceased), who still commuted from London to his Perth riverside home, Old
Harry would shrewdly and discreetly hitch-hike in plush Admiral's Quarters
with Officer friends who had meantime become Captains of ocean liners,
warships and even of an aircraft carrier. Harry could be a very frugal
My sail chartering,
Computer Control Research and Apollo (wasn't that Hobart's original name?)
Man-in-Space career were parallel through seven Californian years.
Escaping a frightening divorce suit, I'd sailed the 30 ft. schooner
home via Hawaii, when shortly later Pa became MY crew on a 1965
Sydney harbor cruise. "If you're so bloody keen on sailing, why not
become Naval Captain instead of inventor and academic?". Laughingly I
replied that for $5000, I already WAS a Sea Captain AND a pacifist . .
'66 - '67 for the first
time my father and I took a mutual concern for each other - he visiting my
electronic research activities at Sydney University and my off-hours
voluntary social work with The Wayside Chapel, Kings Cross, Sydney.
1969: During typical
Euro-China-Russia holidays, after an incredible 35-year career, Harry died
in a St. Barts London hospital from years of worry, brain clots and from
excessive alcohol, salt, smoking, fat, sugar and spices in his diet -
perhaps from feeling lonesome, useless. We contested parts of his estate
($2.7 million) against the Salvation Army, hunt clubs and others,
because single-handed over all those war years and beyond, my mother had
supported us from the remnants of her father's estate, which fortunately
survived the London blitz. But little remained after costs.
Pa would go berserk
knowing I publish a Mathematics Computer Library in Japanese! Yet nobody I
visited from Mitsui Computers at the November 1988 Brisbane Computer Expo
knew that in 1962 they once owned HMAS Hobart
Japan had BOUGHT
her - for SCRAP. . .