The Relevance of Innocence (HMAS Sydney)

From Don of Lodge Devotion

Sometimes Lodges look for a theme for their ANZAC Day meeting.

Some people are lucky as they never “loose their innocence”: they end up being like The Young Mr Grace in the TV series “Are You Being Served?” – “….you are all doing very well”. They are almost invariably the “Doctor’s Wives” in society (this is not a sexist term as there are probably more males among them than females!) and do not even have the excuse of dementia. During the Industrial Revolution most of them would have been “luddites”. They are lucky because they can skate through life never facing up to the reality of change, the needs of the future and the responsibilities and accountabilities that should be borne by governments and commanders in war.

One thing that makes you loose your innocence quickly is participation in combat operations and I am not referring to most of the engagements that we have had since Vietnam which have not resulted in any, or any significant, causalities. ANZAC Day, which is usually recognized in lodges, is an opportunity, not just to remember our “heroes” (that dreadful superlative as the majority now have not seen a shot fired in anger!). It is a time to think about how things could have been better managed to avert another sinking of HMAS Sydney, for example, a matter on many minds since the recent discovery of the sunken vessel off Western Australia.

“Rules of Engagement” and contact procedures - “Action Stations”, bulkheads sealed, a shot over the bow from a safe range, a boarding party in a fast boat and so on, are laid down these days which would have prescribed what HMAS Sydney did when it approached the disguised raider. They are written or at the very least approved by the heads of each Service, senior officers you hope would know from personal experience what should be done and their approval not just being a clerical exercise. (I have just looked at the CVs of new appointments made by Government and I am not filled with confidence but recognize that they may be politically suitable). The problem is that most of one’s personal combat experience is likely to occur with the first 10 years of your service life and it takes about 20 years or more to become a senior officer.

The sunken Sydney’s Captain seems to have been a splendid chap: played a good game of rugby, was well liked, served as a subaltern at the tail end of WW1, was with the Royal Navy for a while and held some senior staff appointments before his command. But there seems nothing that would give him the hard edge required of a warrior. His superiors were probably not much better – remember the stories of Haig, that dreadful British General in WW1 in France whose principal previous “combat” experience was in such places as Colonial India. It is unlikely that viable “Rules of Engagement” and contact procedures were provided and it looks as if the Captain had not remembered the story of the Trojan Horse. Would we do better now in a real war – I am not sure.

In the commentaries about the sinking of the Sydney there is surprise by some that it was done by a slower, more lightly armoured and under-gunned vessel. Any military historian will know that there has always been a compromise between armour, fire power and mobility. So why the surprise? Sydney did not use its firepower superiority for a long range engagement, it approached exposing its broadside vulnerability and the largest possible target, it reduced its speed to 14 Kts not using its superior speed of something like 32.5 Kts (60 kph) compared with the raider speed of 19 Kts and it did not use the flexibility and speed of its aircraft for reconnaissance. Everybody should have known of the raider: it had already sunk 9 ships and captured 2 more. It had been coded by the Admiralty. I know little about naval warfare but as an infantryman I always stressed that combat was about “move, communicate, shoot and kill”, and that no action like the one with the raider was worth one Australian life.

Some people laud our wartime Government but I have severe reservations. I do not applaud concealing the extent of the Darwin raids from the people of Australia. Concealing information about the sinking of the Sydney by the same Government seems outrageous, too, and may have cost the lives of many of the Sydney’s survivors. It was “doves” in denial.

The ship was sunk on the 17th November 1941 but the Australian people were not told until the 1st December. This must have constrained the search effort. Every trawler and launch on the west coast should have been mobilized at sea within hours as was done at Dunkirk in a search effort. The raider’s captain at the time gave the exact coordinates of the scuttled ship and where the wreck was found, and where Sydney was last seen, still afloat sailing only a short distance away. One survivor, although later deceased, ended up on the Christmas Island. There must have been more. But it seems now politically convenient to say all the crew perished in the sunken ship. Do you believe that? I don’t because I have lost my innocence. The attack on Pearl Harbour only three weeks later on 7th December was another tale of audacity and innocence resulting from a lack of readiness.

There are those people who say there should never be war but do nothing about stopping it. Then there are people like me who also say there should never be war but try and stop it occurring. The greatest deterrent to conflict is preparation – potential opponents know that they will get a bloody nose if they try. That’s the “street fighter” in me, my loss of innocence and survival instinct. Some people never have it, lucky individuals.

Senior officers appointed by Government need to have lost their innocence and have been battle hardened. Senior officers dressed up like Mussolini and Idi Amin with combat medals and decorations that devalue combat experience and heroism of the past are dangerous irrespective of how well they get on socially with Ministers of the Crown and senior public servants in Canberra. We do not need more wars to provide our potential military senior officers with combat experience. Nevertheless, every opportunity should be taken for deployments in the national interest and secondments with our allies and to gain this experience.

So when we take time to reflect on our past military conflicts and the supreme sacrifice made by so many, think about how we can avoid military disasters in the future.

Lest we forget.

(Note from the Editor; Col Don served as a Combat Infantry Solider in Vietnam and graduated The Royal Military College, Duntroon. He also attended Australian Staff College, Queenscliff and the United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College, Qantico, Virginia. )