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Depot in Uniform

Information about RANAD Darwin/Snake Creek in the Northern Territory is difficult to come by. The following account provides an eyewitness perspective on the operations of the depot during World War 2. It was originally published in the Naval Armament Journal, Volume 2 No. 10, April 1967.


By C. P. Costeloe

A fortuitous cross posting prompts the writer, before his memory of Armament Supply matters dims entirely, to record recollections of what is possibly, for an R.N.S.T.S. Officer, the unique experience in World War II of being in charge of a British (sic) Naval Armament Depot ashore operated entirely by uniformed staff.

This was R.A.N.A.D. Darwin which was being built up in 1945 to support a planned future thrust from Australia north to Singapore through the Islands, some already wholly or partly in allied hands. In those days, as now there was the closest cooperation between the Australian "Armament Suppliers" (then headed by the Australian Director of Ordnance, Torpedoes and Mines), D.A.S. in the U.K. and the latter's representative in the Theatre itself, A.D.A.S. (Pacific) our first H.S.T.S. (N) - Mr. Luscombe. This, so far as shore Armament Supply facilities in Australia were concerned, led in late 1944 to a most amicable and efficient arrangement whereby personnel and material becoming surplus to requirements in the European Theatre were deployed to the Pacific wherever required in support of the British Pacific Fleet, which at the time was also being rapidly and similarly augmented from Europe where it had become clear that Germany's surrender was not far off.

Early 1945 therefore saw me in the full fig of a Lieutenant Commander (Sp) R.N.V.R. reporting to the R.A.N. Captain-in-Charge at Darwin and relieving a Lieutenant (ex Gunner) who was in charge of Armament Supply activities in and around Darwin; and I was followed at short intervals by Lieutenant (Sp) Bill Cope R.N.V.R. (H.C.O. to run the office), Lieutenant (Sp) Bill Smith R.N.V.R. (F.S.) to run the store Division) and Lieutenant (Sp) Cliff Anstis R.N.V.R. (F.L. to run the Laboratory Division). The remaining staff numbered some ninety R.A.N. ranks and ratings operating a Main Depot at Snake Creek some 90 miles South of Darwin and rather resembling R.N.A.D. Dean Hill in size, a small depot at Francis Bay a few miles from Darwin and then shared with the R.A.A.F. and U.S.N - the latter mainly on Aircraft Mine preparation, plus offices, non explosives stores, depth charge pistol, ordnance and optical workshops in requisitioned buildings in Darwin itself. The R.A.N. contingent included Petty Officers, leading hands and seamen to fetch and carry for guard duties, stokers to operate transport, writers for office duties, engineer and ordnance artificers for workshops, not forgetting a most massive, tattooed and hirsute blacksmith plus a contingent of store assistants (A.S.). The latter a specialisation peculiar to the R.A.N. developed during the War, and recruited in some measure from civilian staff in R.A.N.A.Ds, these S.A. (A.S.)'s provided Storehouse and Laboratory skills at working level.

Darwin was at that time deemed a Military zone from which most civilians had been evacuated South to civilisation. This is why we were in uniform; the largest civilian contingent left was the Australian Department of Public Works for whom there was apparently no uniformed substitute.

A novelty to us Limeys was that R.A.N.A.Ds took care of gun mountings including sights, and also "Naval Store" smoke floats - the shape of things to come? We certainly found ourselves thin on the ground for the increased task and our only source of additional hands was the local Naval Barracks, H.M.A.S. Melville, whose Ist Lieutenant, after some judicious supplementation of his beer ration (yes, it was rationed, and eggs too) might perhaps provide a working party of ten to twelve ratings for some special task. However most of the time the ninety "did it" and when a Hickory Boat - the Forts of that era - called in to build up our reserves all hands went into three watches, each in the charge of one of the Limeys mentioned above, relieved on occasion by Warrant Officer Rayner R.A.N., a real character, an ex Royal Marine who had settled in Australia and who normally did day duty as a kind of Sergeant Major/Establishment Officer or Sub-Lieutenant (A.S.) MacEachern n R.A.N. commissioned from Store Assistant (A.S.), a Tasmanian who normally worked in the Office with Bill Cope and also acted as a kind of general trouble shooter. This arrangement sprang from the fact that Darwin at that time had only one useful jetty with a deep berth and any ship alongside was worked round the clock to a finish by the Australian R.A.S.C. (Dock Operating Company) and they certainly worked with a will with a result that their 7-ton trailers appeared at Francis Bay with such monotonous and rapid frequency that they were more often than not, unloaded on to any convenient bit of deck in the open in order to keep the turnround going. Some interesting aspects of this evolution were the reduction of guarding to one rating on the main gate, preferably one of those least fit at the time, and the measures necessary to retrieve any cargo that fell off the trailers en route, on one occasion a 1,000 lb. bomb which rolled a long long way into the outback before finally coming to rest.

My main recollection of this and similar periods was the way everyone pitched in like the coaling ship evolutions of the Navy in years long past. Writers, O.A's, the whole watch, worked to see who could unload the most 7-tonners in their 8 hours and there was the keenest competition to chalk up a higher figure than the previous watch. The less said about the handling of packages under these conditions the better.

Here is probably the most appropriate place to mention the conditions of Service life at Darwin. Most Officers were allocated to rooms in somewhat decrepit requisitioned Bungalows in Darwin Town itself but ate and drank in the Wardroom which was, pre-war, the Darwin Hotel operated by Qantas Airways. The general standards were very much an anticlimax after an all too brief sojourn sniff at the flesh pots in that Australia 1500 miles to the south. A most poignant memory for all Ranks and Ratings was that of the wash houses near each bungalow where one spent a substantial portion of Saturday or Sunday doing one's weekly washing and ironing, that is after one had boiled it up in a primitive wood fired copper.

This exercise did not exclude Officers and certainly brought home to us Limeys in full measure that Australians do not pay lip service to democracy. A tribute to a wrist watch bought locally by the writer is that it survived prolonged boiling in a pants pocket and is still going strong in 1967. To those who have served in Hong Kong it may also be news to know that in those days an equivalent nightsoil operation took place in Darwin and the "Coolies" concerned were R.A.N. sailors; somewhat of an anticlimax I fear for these chaps who were all volunteers and imagined their first draft chit to an Australian Tribal creaming through the Mediterranean and then finding themselves transported, without the option, to a night-soil party not even beyond their own shores.

Two final reminiscences that are likely to bring further twinges to all old-A.S. stagers. The first the very necessary destruction of the long (6 to 8 ft in places) grass at Francis Bay when the wet season turned to dry. During burning the wind changed suddenly and what started as a minor evolution became a somewhat hideous holocaust which rapidly spread quite uncontrollably across the entire area in just over 10 minutes flat and burnt itself out in mangrove swamps, fortunately only to the detriment of grass hoppers, praying mantis, wallabies and other wild life. This was indeed how to be hotter than hot in the Tropics.

The second incident arose during the final destoring of Darwin some time after Hiroshima. In order to accumulate sufficient stores in Darwin itself to keep the R.A.A.S.C. loading cycle in full swing it was necessary to use most of the environs of Darwin railway station literally as an ammunition dump of almost all Groups. For the nights this dump existed it was guarded by an R.A.N.A.D. Sentry and lo and behold one night when the Duty Officer visited, the sentry had a glorious camp fire going in the midst of the dump to keep himself warm. The Officer having had kittens and furthermore suspecting an early visit from N.A.S.O., spent the next half hour with the sentry getting rid of the fire ashes and all trace of combustion. Sure enough, N.A.S.O. did appear, was challenged and suspected nothing, remarked on the alertness of tile Sentry and the general shipshapeness of the area which was giving him some heartburn too. The inside story never came to his notice for many years and in conclusion he wonders how many other scarifying instances both he and other Officers in Charge have been spared by their staff during those past years when the pressure to obtain H.Q. blessing and the means to do so (fortunately) are not so strikingly in evidence as they are today."

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Robert Curran
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