By Graeme Andrews

 

For more than 20 years the heaviest ship in the Royal Australian Navy was the Tide class fast fleet tanker, HMAS Supply, ex RFA and HMAS Tide Austral.

During the early 1950s it became apparent to the leaders of the RAN that there was a need for a ‘Force multiplier’ to allow the generally short-legged ships of the RAN to work further and longer at sea. The light fleet carrier HMAS Sydney was capable of refuelling her escorts as was the later carrier HMAS Melbourne. Using the carrier to top up the smaller ships had the effect of reducing the carrier’s fuel range. Thus, the idea of a fleet replenishment tanker, as was used during the Second World War by the US and German navies was well received.

For more than 20 years the heaviest ship in the Royal Australian Navy was the Tide class fast fleet tanker, HMAS Supply, ex RFA and HMAS Tide Austral.

During the early 1950s it became apparent to the leaders of the RAN that there was a need for a ‘Force multiplier’ to allow the generally short-legged ships of the RAN to work further and longer at sea. The light fleet carrier HMAS Sydney was capable of refuelling her escorts as was the later carrier HMAS Melbourne. Using the carrier to top up the smaller ships had the effect of reducing the carrier’s fuel range. Thus, the idea of a fleet replenishment tanker, as was used during the Second World War by the US and German navies was well received.

 

The result was Supply. Laid down at Harland and Wolff, Belfast on August 5, 1952, the new ship was launched by Mrs Foley, wife of Captain J. B. Foley RAN, on September 5, 1954. Supply was completed by May 17, 1955 but by then, it seems the RAN was undergoing one of its regular political and financial down grading and could not afford to operate the ship.

Supply was leased to the British Admiralty and went into service as RFA (Royal Fleet Auxiliary) Tide Austral. The Royal Navy worked most of its supply train from ships manned by merchant seaman and in the case of Tide Austral she was crewed mainly by Maltese seaman. RFA Tide Austral was used in the Atlantic and the ‘Med’, often based in Malta, but made a couple of voyages to the Far East, taking part in SEATO Exercise ‘Jet’ in 1961.

 

 RFA Tide Austral refuels HMS Yarmouth in 1961

RFA Tide Austral refuels HMS Yarmouth in 1961

 

Early in the 1960s the Australian Government reclaimed Tide Austral and a small naval crew was sent to the UK to learn how to work a naval tanker. I was in the second or third group, officers and senior sailors having gone somewhat earlier.

The flight was something of an adventure. In the 1960s, most travellers still travelled around the world on passenger ships but this delight was denied us. We flew to the UK in a BOAS Comet jet airliner. The trip was both exciting – and worrying. Exciting because the Comet was the first jet airliner and very fast. Worrying because half a dozen of them had crashed within the previous few years!

The short-legged Comet took us across the world in roughly four hour hops with 40 minute fuel stops at Darwin, Singapore, Calcutta, Tehran, Istanbul, Dusseldorf and Gatwick.

After surviving a sudden capsize into a ditch, courtesy of an over-enthusiastic bus driver, our group reached the correct wharf at Southampton, only to wonder where our ship was.

Tide Austral had been out in The Solent, her skeleton crew learning the ropes, then, suddenly there she was, an immense grey shape, high in the water towering over the rain-soaked newcomers on the wharf.

For a few days while the new crew worked out what was which way, Tide Austral was based in Southampton. She was commissioned HMAS Tide Austral in a brief ceremony on board and then we got on with the job of re-fitting a filthy and badly neglected ship.

 

HMAS-Tide-Austral

 

From time to time the great passenger liners of the North Atlantic came and went – Queen Elizabeth, Queen Mary, France and the incredibly fast, 35 knots plus, SS United States.

Tide Austral, being fitted for merchant seaman had much better accommodation than we were used to. As an Able Seaman, I occupied a small, leg of lamb-shaped cabin, complete with porthole, which I shared with another AB. Memory suggests we had a ship’s company of about 90, all under the command of Captain G.V. Gladstone RAN, known affectionately to his sailors as ‘Paddles.’

After more than 40 years since we took over Tide Austral, I have trouble with most of the names of my shipmates, but the commander was Commander Goebels; known to the lads as ‘Twitchie’, the navigator was Commander Tulip, and the supply officer, not generally admired, was Lt. Cmdr. Smack (?).

Petty Officer Jack King was in charge of the Replenishment At Sea deck equipment (RAS deck), the shipwright was PO Vince Fazio, the sick bay man was named Still and known as ‘Lofty’ and various seaman were Harry Goodall, ‘Tex’ Moreton, Barry Brownrigg and Neil Bickford. I apologise to those I have forgotten.

After some days at Southampton we moved to Portsmouth and here, on June 7, 1962, we went though a full commissioning ceremony to emerge as HMAS Supply.

 


 
Mrs Becher, wife of Rear Admiral Otto H. Becher, did the job and was at pains to debunk a story, current aboard ship, that the first HMS Supply was also a convict ship! Then it was back to trying to make the ship seaworthy.

HMAS-Supply

Many years later I read that the Naval Board was dubious about accepting the ship because of the filthy, run down general condition.

Standing and running rigging was tattered and often dangerous to use. Rust was everywhere and a quick coat of spray paint had done did little to conceal the mess from the new crew. A mysterious lump atop the air trunking in my cabin turned out, after much prodding, to be a well-dried rat and a well-chewed chop-bone – all coated with many coats of paint.

Elsewhere in the UK a couple of hundred other RAN men were learning the ropes of the six near-new wooden Ton Class minesweepers also acquired by the RAN.

Crews of the ‘Bird’ boats saw much of Britain and something of various European ports, but the Supply’s stayed in the south of England and worked very long days, including weekend.

The naval base at Portsmouth was something of an eye-opener for most of us. As we moved in, through the very narrow entrance in late August, the fore deck party was rugged up with plenty of clothes. Laid out, most fetchingly on the granite pebbles of the beach were English ‘dolly birds’ in bikinis. Brrr! Keeping Nelson’s Victory to starboard and passing the old wooden waller Foudroyant off the Gosport shore, we berthed in Portsmouth. Ahead, the never-commissioned sister of HMAS Melbourne, the unfinished carrier Leviathan. Near her, were some old Second World War cruisers, fast minelayers and nearby all the large and small ships of a Royal Navy that still had some muscle.

So many of the buildings and the graving docks of the base dated from the 1700s, perhaps some of then even earlier. There were sail lofts and rope lofts and magazines and graving docks of great age one of which enclosed Victory. Crossing the entrance of the harbour were small steam ferries that carried people and bicycles and which offered few if any seats. Vehicles used a steam cable ferry. Also working from near the harbour entrance, were the paddle steamers that provided passenger voyages to and from the Isle of Wight.

The gentlemen of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, who had looked after Tide Austral so very well, were not encouraging. It was their opinion that naval sailors would not run the ship as well as merchant seaman could. Perhaps they hoped we could not in case the RN thought it was a good idea and tried it out. Initially it seemed they might have been right.

Our first trial fuel transfer at sea off Portland Bill, was a disaster. The idea was that the two tankers would pass an amount of fuel to and from each other. A “Ranger” class RFA tanker came alongside and pumped about 40 tonnes of Furnace Fuel Oil to Supply. It seems that the Ranger’s pumping rate was less that that of \Supply, although just what that rate was I do not recall. A minute or two after Supply started pumping back, there was a great bang and the Ranger turned Black! The immaculate white dressed RFA officers could be seen slipping and sliding in the ooze. Supply’s name was MUD – all around the waterfront. Nobody had told us about differing rates.

A week or so later came our first real fuelling at sea. Along came one of the RN’s Bay class frigates. It seems she sent a radio signal explaining what rate she could take. She also flew a flag hoist, sent the message by light, hung a banner over the hull with the details on it and then passed the message by loud hailer. All went well. Eventually it was time to leave Britain.

In company with the six minesweepers, now known as the 16th Minesweeping Squadron we left Portsmouth on October 1, 1962. Our path led across the Bay of Biscay, and one ‘sweeper, HMAS Curlew, was running on only one engine as a mismanaged slipping, had caused a misalignment of one shaft. In company with Curlew, were Hawk, Gull, Ibis, Snipe and Teal.

Supply was to act as a ‘Mother Duck’ for the voyage, which was the longest trip ever attempted by the400 tonne sweepers. Every vessel had to be fuelled every two or three days and a special, small diameter fuelling rig had been established on the Supply’s starboard side. The hose was only about 50 or 60mm in diameter, no 50 tonnes an hour for the ducklings.

Scheduled speed for the trip was 14 knots. Top speed for the ‘sweepers was about 15 knots and on only one engine, Curlew could make just over 13, flat strap. At that speed on one engine, Curlew used almost as much fuel as the others using two engines. Her steering was erratic and Supply used all her heavy duty cane fenders to try to fend the small ship off as, sucking on the teat, she veered out to hose stretch and then surge into cannon off the tanker’s side before doing it all again, and again. We needed new cane fenders in Gibraltar and at Malta.

In Gibraltar, the RN dockyard tried to fix Curlew but failed. Meanwhile, having toured the ‘Rock’ by taxi and still looking for something new, some of us borrowed a 70ft Motor Fishing Boat from the RN and then took passage across the Straits to Tangier in Morocco. The passage took about three hours each way, and without Visas or other special documentation we berthed in Tangiers, just astern of a brace of 40m, dark blue, lethal looking smuggler’s craft. These armed craft were readying to run the Straits that night into Franco’s Spain. There was no-one aboard and we were ignored except by the local touts who were confused between Australia and Austria.

A couple of hours in the Casbah and back home we headed – losing no-one. One wonders how such an expedition could take place 40 years later – it could not. Off to Malta for three days – but actually eight or nine. It seems that while we were shepherding Curlew and her mates through the ‘Med.’ A couple of intransigent politicians by the name of Kennedy and Khrushchev were discussing whether they might turn the Third World War control switch from Cold to Hot. We innocents afloat spent the time exploring the waterfront cafes of Valetta Harbour and learning about cheap red wine.

 

 

HMAS Supply

 
HMAS Supply

For me it was fascinating to wander around Valetta and nearby, looking at the places where the RN battled to survive between trips to and from Malta with supplies. A storeman at Fort St. Angelo pointed out that the walls were 10m thick, that the Knights of St. John’s fortress had not been seriously damaged by anything the German Luftwaffe had dropped. The extra time at Malta allowed that Royal dockyard to fix Curlew.

Away we went, to Port Said, through the canal, through the Great Bitter Lake, to Tewfik and down the Red Sea to Aden. The Royal Air Force ran Aden and it was explained to us that the local Arabs were keen to kill Europeans and almost as keen to kill another Arabs whose version of Islam differed from theirs. Little has changed over more than 40 years – and most of us drank beer and swam at the RAF Club. No-body wanted to jump ship at Aden.

Next stop was Colombo. Here it was revolution time. Mrs Banderanaike had won the Prime Minister’s job because her murdered husband had had it. There was political chaos and a fair bit of physical confusion too. As one elderly Ceylonese said, ‘I miss the British. When they were here everything worked. Now everyone wants to be boss and no-one wants to sweep the street.’ Forty years later the Banderanaike family was still fighting Tamils – or vice versa.

In Colombo’s teeming port we saw our first Soviet cargo ship. It was astern of three space age looking Canadian frigates. They must have been very good because the Canadian Navy used them for well over 30 years. From Colombo to Sydney via Singapore and Darwin it was back to familiar ocean once more.

Supply arrived in Sydney on December 6, 1962 and it was time for leave, to finish off a most interesting, often frustrating and, for the RAN, very unusual deployment.

Background:

Supply:
AO195, later O195, later A195.
Displacement, c15,000 tonnes.
Full load about 26,000 tonnes
Length overall: 177.7m/Beam: 21.7m
Max. speed, about 17.5 knots, orig
Final entry to Port Jackson November 11, 1985.
Paid off December 16, 1985
Left Sydney for ship breakers, January 1987.


© Graeme Andrews OAM – RAN retired – and published by International Navy News – Warship No 17 dated 2003.

 

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