When I was young and naïve I believed a ship was something constructed from materials such as wood or metal designed to float on water. Nothing could be further from the truth as I was to discover in mid-August 1970 when four 77 Squadron Mirages were detached to the Naval Air Station at Nowra to exercise with the navy’s A4 Skyhawks for five days. Now HMAS Albatross and the Naval Air Station Nowra are one and the same establishment.
Col Winter and I got a lift down on the Sunday afternoon with Peter Samusew – I think there may have been one more of us. While my memory is rather vague given the passing of the years I feel almost certain that before we arrived at the base we checked out the local RSL. It was a good thing that we did as we certainly had need of the facilities on more than one occasion over the next four days.
It was only as we went aboard – correct terminology – this rather large block of dirt that was occupied by barracks, hangars, an airstrip and more, that we realised it was one of Her Majesty’s Australian Ships. First lesson – always salute the Poop Deck when you go aboard.
The base commenced life as RAAF Base Nowra in 1941 and was transferred to the Royal Navy in 1944 as HMS Nabbington. It was decommissioned at the end of the war only to be recommissioned in 1948 as HMAS Albatross to be the main shore base of Naval Fleet Arm.
On Monday morning we were rudely awakened at some indecent hour of the morning by a strange sounding alarm and an announcement over the PA that it was so many bells and that the dress of the day was who knows what. Our dress of the day was a pair of overalls and that’s all we needed to know. Fortunately one of our number worked out how to disable the alarm and it remained that way until Friday morning.
Next lesson – the footpath was a gangway. If you stepped off the gangway onto the grass – correction, fell into the water – someone would raise the alarm with the cry ‘Man overboard’. As you would expect life jackets were placed at strategic points around the ship to prevent the victim of such an unfortunate accident from drowning.
The mess was memorable for all the wrong reasons. Each meal you could pile your plate as high as you liked with cold, greasy potato chips, which was a good thing. Nothing else was palatable. I had an older cousin somewhat removed who joined the navy as a cook that discharged before I left home. He took a job with Qantas, which probably helps explain the quality of Qantas in-flight meals.
Now you understand my comment above regarding our frequenting the local RSL. And I bet you thought we frequented the establishment for some other purpose.
After we saw the Mirages off on Friday morning it was time to head back to Williamtown. We jumped in the car only to find a long queue of cars lined up on the main road. ‘What’s the hold-up’ we asked? ‘You can’t go ashore until the ship docks’ came the reply.
We pulled out and drove to the front of the queue. When we got to the gate we called to the guard ‘We’re air force and we’ll fly ashore’. And so we did.
My only other up close and personal encounter with a naval establishment was an overnight stay on a base on Mannus Island. Here we were given etherised eggs for breakfast. Evidently ether was used as a preservative. I will probably also remember that experience until I die. And it is an experience I don’t want to repeat.
A popular Australian Book from the late 1950s that also became a successful movie was ‘They’re a Weird Mob’. The same could be said of the navy. What else could you expect of men who dress all in white?