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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.

 After counting 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 chases.

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.

Affectionately 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 February 1777.

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 all-time Yen-wasters.

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 droppings.

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 copy! 


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 skipper's bunk.

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 fog.

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.

'Munich crises' 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.

Meantime orphaned 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.

 Slowly conflicts 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 river mud.


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 annihilated.

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 rounds?

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 hundred years.

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!

Without demarcation 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 happening.

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.....

For "Distinguished 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 care.

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 angry shot.

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 divorce.

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 fellow.

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. . .

 

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