Archive number: 121
Preferred name: Don
Date interviewed: 12 May, 2003
You are listening to the interview audio
Interviewee: Donald Wilson Archive ID 0121 Tape 01
So I’ll just basically ask you can you tell me from the very beginning about your life? Tell me where you grew up and about your family to start with?
Well I was born in 1917, June 1917. My father was still at the war and I saw him for the first time I think a year later
when he returned. I was educated at Shore at North Sydney and I spent some time in the Cadet Corps, not very successfully. I didn’t quite understand the discipline of it and I was often attacked
by the corporal in charge for talking in ranks. I remember this quite well. In fact, I got four across the bottom from the corporal who was a sub prefect at Shore.
How old would you have been then?
I suppose I was about 15, 14 or 15. 15, I think
and after leaving school I went to live in Tasmania where I had work with the British General Electric Company mostly involved with the development of the generators and everything in the Highlands
up near the Great Lake and that gave me at least some knowledge of electrics. When I came home my father died in 1919, when I was
17. I returned to New South Wales and I joined the artillery at Willoughby. It was a battalion of light guns. I forget what they were actually.
This was before the war had broken out?
This was before war had broken out yes, but it was they were just small battery of comparatively small guns, I think. 12 inch, I think they were, what’s that, that’s probably a large 8 inch. That was good, it was. I enjoyed it as far as it
went. I became a gunner and I even forget what the title was but it had two stripes. The war came and I certainly didn’t want to spend the war fighting with the artillery and I heard that
the submarine, the anti submarine school at Rushcutters Bay had started up and they were keen to get volunteers, so I volunteered to join the navy as a sub lieutenant acting on probation - the lowest form of life almost and
I did the anti-submarine course completed at Rushcutter Bays and the sea time we did in HMAS Moresby. The old Moresby was lost I believe in the bay up at, in northern Australia when the Japanese attacked.
The agreement I had was that I’d go away overseas to anywhere I was sent and after I finished the course it didn’t take long for them to decide to send us to
England. We had a berth aboard the, oh I’ll think of the name of the vessel in a moment. Anyway I, we, got a berth,
there were five of us who passed the course to go overseas and we headed for England. We went via South Africa and spent some time in Freetown waiting for a convoy to leave and we eventually arrived in England at Liverpool
there was a very minor attack by a German aircraft, large Junkers. I didn’t know much about it about - who they were or much about them, but we
went ashore, they sent us down to London, we went to Australia House. Nobody knew who we were or where we’d come from and amongst the people we met there was Lord Bruce who was the Ambassador or the senior Australian
representing in the UK. We thought well, “We must surely be sent up to the Clyde”, which was as far away from London as they could think and five of us went up to the Clyde. We got ashore, nobody knew who we were or where we were coming from but then somebody said “Well you must be out on the Clyde River somewhere,
go up to, we’ll send you up to there for and they’ll get a billet for you”. Well nobody knew anything about us. We went back to the Clyde and they said “Well, we’ll send you across to,” I got to remember these words,
what’s the main, what’s the capital of, what’s the capital of Scotland?
Edinburgh, course Edinburgh I was most impressed with, with the castle in Edinburgh. They decided we should go back to London, which took about three days to get us on the train and we arrived in London early in the morning
and they said “Well, you’re going down to Harwich to join some trawlers which are doing convoy work on the east coast from the north up as far as”, well beyond
the, I’ve got to remember this. Anyway, it was two nights trip up there. We were the tail end Charlie in the convoy and our main purpose was to pick up survivors when any ships had hit a mine or had been attacked and pick up the survivors
after; we were not working as anti submarine vessels at all really and I don’t think any of the submarines were there. I think the Germans were concentrating on mining the whole coast, which they did very efficiently.
Were there a lot
of sunken ships that you had to pick up survivors?
Yes, there were a lot of ships. Nothing to get, two and three in a convoy and so sometimes even more, so we were pretty good at picking up survivors and we’d take them either into
where? Big fishing village city on half way up the coast. After a time I was aboard the Agate which was classed as a
a sea going trawler that converted to an anti submarine ship. They were all fishermen aboard. They were good seamen but they knew absolutely nothing about submarines or anti submarine work.
So this was a civilian ship that was under the command of the Royal Navy?
Yes it was a registered Royal Navy vessel and there were a lot of them. They had probably 25 or 30. Agate, I don’t think was particularly efficient. On one occasion we were
stopped in again, this is the harbour and we were stopped waiting for a destroyer and I was on the bridge,
the Captain and we were all up on the bridge actually. It was a bright moonlit night and all of a sudden I looked and we heard an aircraft coming and I looked up to starboard in inland and I said “Oh that poor bastard’s on fire,
he’s going to hit the water”. I could see him coming in towards us at great speed making a lot of noise and I said “We’ll have to stand by to watch him” and the Captain said “Yeah, we’ll get ready to pick him up” and without another word the bullets started to land and they were
all over the boat and fortunately no-one was hurt but it was a lesson, a very quick lesson to know what had happened. Anyway, he went over to us and went on his way and we had lots of bullet holes all over the deck but none on the bridge.
This was your first sort of engagement of war?
engagement and that was that. Agate didn’t last very much longer. She hit a mine and was sunk down near the Wash off Yarmouth, of course a very well known old seaman
was captain of one of the rescue boats working out of Yarmouth and he came out and picked everybody up. I then went to the next boat I had was
Don’t worry so much about names and stuff at this
stage. So after the Agate what happened to you then?
After the Agate I went to Turquoise as first lieutenant.
This was another trawler or….?
Another trawler and a more modern one than Agate and quite efficient, very efficient boat and we were doing the same work. We picked up a lot of people and on one occasion
during a thick fog we had a slight collision with a destroyer which sent us back to dock. It was in the same fog that we had a large
tanker with high, it turned out to have high octane aircraft fuel, who hadn’t obeyed the laws and anchored during the fog when it was too close to move and we could see from the bridge, we could see
the mast of this vessel slowly coming down a hundred to two hundred yards over on our right. She hadn’t gone very far when she hit a mine. This was a very good learning curve. It was a terrible sight. She went up in flames
probably a hundred and fifty feet high and the fog simply lifted all round it with the heat and you could see this beautiful tanker just a mass of flames, all the poor devils jumping over the side. The water was on fire and it was something you never forget.
Did you manage to save most of the crew?
No, we tried to go in and we got as far as the flames and we couldn’t get anywhere near her and a mine disposal craft was fitted with a knocker which killed the
noise that would fire the mine. He went in to try and get alongside them but couldn’t get anywhere near it, so that was the end of the ship. Wasn’t long after that, that a signal came to the boat to everybody, all ships in the east coast I
presume asking for volunteers to, didn’t say what for but for an interesting operations you know and I volunteered. I said I wrote to them and said “Yes, I’m interested”. I had seen
a submarine, the [HMS] Sealion, that had been damaged up in the North Sea and she was being towed, she’d got back to one of the northern ports and was now being towed down the Chatam. She was a lovely looking
boat and I decided that that was good. I’d be in this and I wrote and said I volunteered for it and it came back that it was to go. I was to go down to [HMS] Dolphin which was at the submarine headquarters in Port Smith and report there on
the following Monday. It didn’t take long, you know I packed my bags and left the trawlers and went down to Dolphin. It was quite exciting doing it as a matter of fact and there were submarines down there, boats coming back and boats leaving and it was it
was all go.
How long were you in submarine training?
I was about 10 days down at HMS Dolphin just doing preliminary instructions and giving you an idea of what work was like and what you did, what you didn’t do, and I was then sent up to HMS
Elfin[?], which was a shore base at Blythe out on the coast out from Newcastle on Tyne. I think we had about six weeks there and I did the submarine course. There were 12 of us. I’m pleased to say that I did well. I was second in the class.
The first one was a very nice chap who I can’t remember his name now and I had first. Arthur and I had first choice of where we’d go. Well, he chose to stay in England, in Scotland where the operational
boats were working and I said “I’ll go to Malta”. Malta was just coming into the news then with Rommel really being a great embarrassment and so I found myself, I went to HMS Forth and waited for a boat
to take me down to Malta. I joined the Murat Reece [?]which was a boat built for the Turkish government. She was a an S class boat which was a comparatively new design and
she was one of the trial boats that they’d built before they went into deeper ground with the S boats. She was a very nice boat indeed and we set off for Gibraltar. Going down I had another lesson.
She was supposed to have a diving depth of 500 feet, which in most of our boats that was excessive. We had a delightful Captain who was very keen and he said “Well, we’ll try it out”.
We were down off Portugal and it was beautiful weather. It was calm and he said “Well, we’ll go down and see how she goes”. We did; we set off, went down to a hundred feet, then to a hundred and fifty and two hundred feet, then two fifty, three hundred
and we were going down in fine form actually and we got down to just over 400 feet when there was one almighty crack in the after ends of the boat and everybody said “God, what’s you know, what’s this?” and we thought she was crumbling and in fact she had on the
inside, one inside torpedo tube going out the stern instead of the ones that we had in earlier times had kept the tubes on the deck, the stern tubes were on the deck but this was
a different organisation. You had to bring the torpedo into the boat and load it and so there was no water right bulk head in the after ends and she had these very thick stanchions about four or five inches thick, two of them propping up
the hull, well one of them had buckled and we didn’t go any deeper, we came back up to about periscope depth probably I think, but it was a good lesson, a good lesson indeed and they abandoned that method
of building the boats in the future and that was a very good lesson to the
It was a really good test run and then there was no panic, it was good; it was absolutely terrific and you could still hear the sound of this
enormous sort of, but the stanchion collapsing, so we got to Gibraltar and I hadn’t been in Gibraltar very long when the Captain sent for me. It was a sister ship of the
Forth that was there and the captain sent for me and said “They want you to go out to Alexandria to pick up a boat there”. So I said “Right” and off we went. I waited there and they said “You’re going at six o’clock tonight” or whatever it was. “Be ready to leave
and about six o’clock”, I mounted, I got into the dinghy; we went off across the bay and I was landed into a Catalina sea plane and I was appointed operator of the machine gun on the right
I think the (UNCLEAR) they were called at
Blister, yes and off we took. We went past Malta at about 11 o’clock at night and there was a father and mother of a battle going on there and we
we could hear on our radio the noise of the aircraft flying backwards and forwards but we were right down at almost ground level, which is the safest part to be cause none of these Junkers and Messerschmitts, they couldn’t get down low enough, manoeuvre
to get down to you, so we went straight on our way. Was a Canadian plane and I could see that the navigator was having an awful lot of trouble. The poor devil, he didn’t get away from the hood, where he was taking sights and all night and
anyway daylight came five o’clock or half past five and we said “Well, we’re just off from Alexandria, we’ll turn right and we’ll go in and we’ll be there”. We were heading for Aboukir Bay, which is about 50 miles or maybe not that from
Alexandria. We went in, we looked down and there was the airport and there were all the Messerschmitts, as true as a I sit here there were a dozen anyway and we flew over only at about 200 feet I s’pose and here were all these Messerschmitts and we said “Oh
God.” and there, the old the old aircraft she did a turn almost on one side I think, she got round so quickly. We went back right down to water level and or 25 or 30 feet I s’pose no more and straight out to sea, we went and we got away,
they didn’t come after us.
Bet the navigator wasn’t too popular?
Oh God, no and that was at Mersa Matruh, which it was right almost on the spot where Rommel had got to and this is where the panic started and they decided they were going to
if he wasn’t stopped there they’d have to evacuate Alexandria. Anyway we went out to sea and we went for quite a long while and flew along the coast again until we were off Aboukir Bay, then we went in and landed and the first person I met there when I
put my foot on shore was a fellow called Snow Swift. Snow was flying, he was at school with me and he was flying some sort of fighter aircraft and that was then in Alexandria. I was taken
by car to, and I had an old captain who was going down in the other blister, he was in the port blister and I was in the starboard one. He was going to take over a boat on the Cross covering the entrance to the Red Sea.
It was wonderful to see, to arrive on Medway, the depot ship that had been built for the operations in China. She was built for tropical conditions; she was the most beautiful ship,
lovely ship and she had a magnificent machine room and torpedo storage areas and everything else, so that was our depot ship. P31 was there lying alongside and she’d been sent down there because she’d been damaged
in Malta - sunk - they used to sink or dive every morning before daylight and they’d dive actually at the moorings and it was about 60 to 70, 80 feet of water and it was the only way to get away from the aircraft
bombing the base. They made a hell of a mess of the base. It was a lovely old stone building. It was the Lazaret actually that we’d taken over and anyway P31 had a very near miss and they’d
had a leak, leaks down aft in the hull, which they couldn’t do anything about, mending in the dock yard at Malta, so she’d been sent down to Alexandria to go further down the coast to the dock
yard at, oh on the Canal and that’s where I finished up in P31. We were there for about three weeks and we went back to Alexandria and we stood by to go
with the other U boats, the other U class boats which were P31, P34, P35, and P36 and we were to go out
and cover the tracks of the intended convoy to Malta, because Malta by this time was out of ammunition, out of fuel and out of food and it was absolutely imperative that
we get supplies there and the idea was that the submarines, they were certain that if they send this convoy down even though it was well covered by ships - by large ships - that they were worried about getting them all there and we were put half way between the tracks
of the convoy and the base, where these people came from up on the, I’ll think of the base in a moment and tell you. We got in; we had information that
the battle fleet had sailed and was sailing south towards the convoy. We formed this line across, we were about forty miles apart. Lynch Maiden in P35 was over on the left hand side, then came
P34 and P36 on the other side and we covered the whole, virtually the whole area. We waited and early in the morning we saw the smoke coming and the battle fleet came over the horizon and a magnificent sight it was, absolutely marvellous. They were two beautiful boats.
They were new and they’d never been active before and there were a lot of ships like destroyers and a couple of cruisers covering us. We prepared to attack. We had
four torpedoes all ready in the tubes ready to go and they were approaching, I s’pose they were about 10,000 yards away, which was too far for us to risk wasting torpedoes and because we wanted to get them down to about 5,000 at least before we fired
and they were approaching us at 35 knots, there was enormous wake being thrown out; there were two cruisers and sundry destroyers. We were absolutely ready to fire when there was one hell of a noise
Interviewee: Donald Wilson Archive ID 0121 Tape 02
You were approaching the fleet and there was a tremendous noise?
Yes, do you want me to start now?
Yep go straight ahead, back up and go from wherever you were.
The fleet was approaching at 35 knots and it was the most wonderful sight. They were beautiful looking vessels and they were in very good
order. There was a cruiser on either flank guarding them and destroyers all round them following behind and all of a sudden there was one mighty crack and things had gone absolute haywire somewhere away from, well away from us, we could hear bombs going off and
what had actually happened was that the Royal Air Force [RAF] had come into this. They knew where they’d followed the fleet and they’d attacked it absolutely right over us, so the result was that they turned round with a hundred and eighty degree turn to head back
to the Gulf where they’d come from. The Trento, one of the cruisers, was on the port flank and she did a big sweep round to follow the battle ships when she crossed the path of
Lynch Maiden in P35 and he managed to get four torpedoes away. He hit her then with two and she blew up. The rest of us just stood and looked sucking a tooth out I’d say, to have this wonderful opportunity regardless of what the results might have been after it because
they were very well guarded with their destroyers and everything, but it was an awful shock to see them go and everybody was pretty disappointed. So that was the battle fleet but we did turn them.
But you never got your torpedoes off?
We never got the torpedo, never got the torpedoes away but they were
about 10,000 yards away when they turned and that was it. They headed for home. We returned to Haifa I forgot to tell you that they’d decided Rommel was still advancing and they’d decided to
take Medway and all, a lot of the other submarines there were Italian, there were two Greek submarines there and a couple of other boats that were in dock and all the active boats were ordered to return to Haifa,
which we did. We got to come alongside at Haifa and Captain Simpson, Shrimp Simpson, was down on the wharf to welcome, meet us with the news that Medway had been sunk halfway between Alexandria and Haifa and
she’d gone down with over a hundred torpedoes and everybody’s gear was in the boat and that was a bit of a shock. That was an absolute blow, so we hadn’t used any fish we hadn’t used any torpedoes in that patrol,
so we were still quite capable of going to sea and it was decided that we would then follow the fleet up back to Malta, which we did. Not all the boats got through. I think only two of the convoy got through and
one of those was sunk in Malta after she got there but they were able to get most of the food and the ammunition ashore and there were several submarines, which the big boats had been sent from Gibraltar to
to Malta with - all with the equipment that they could spare from Gibraltar and that’s that, we were back home in Malta. We did two patrols after that. We sank a three mast masted
barque not sailing, but moving under power we sank her and that was all we did, cause we were still in a bit of a mess. I mentioned that we were in the dock yard at the entrance to
the Canal and they did their best in mending the leaks astern and so we were still quite sea worthy.
How long did you end up spending on the P31?
I went back to her when she headed to England and we went
through Gibraltar and refuelled and went straight on to the UK. We went round to Chatham and we started our refit in Chatham. I was the only officer that stayed with the boat. By this time I’d been promoted
to first lieutenant and I stood by the boat while the refit went on. It was a good rest except that it was mid winter and I got the father and mother of a cold and by the time we left Chatham to go round to Dolphin at
Port Smith, I was feeling pretty sick and I had pneumonia and I was taken out of the boat at there I went into hospital at oh the naval hospital and that was that.
I got better fairly quickly, two or three weeks and I was alright again. I think I had about 10 days freedom just doing nothing before I was appointed to building [HMS]Untiring at
the Clyde, on the building, on the river at Newcastle on Tyne. There were three boats, which had been put on the slips there. The first one was a boat that we followed. We were
the second; she was lost almost before she did any work. They had trouble with one of the valves and they pulled it out of the bottom and they couldn’t stop the leak and she was sunk not far from the Clyde in the entrance to the
Clyde. Untiring was a lovely boat; she was well built; she gave no trouble. Bobby Boyd was the Captain and I’d known him in Malta. He was quite, fairly, very experienced; yes, very experienced. He’d been with Dick Kaley in
one of another U boat. We got away from Newcastle on Tyne went round to the Forth in the Clyde and fitted out for our first patrol.
Our first patrol was up off the north east coast of Norway. We sank a trawler type vessel with gunfire purely and because we thought she’d seen us
and didn’t want to get any; we thought she was behaving in an odd manner altogether and we thought she was probably giving information to the shore about what was going on out there and that she may have reported on us, so we sank her. We took,
took ‘em all on board, took all the six chaps on board. Three of them were pretty annoyed and three of them couldn’t have been happier and were absolutely delighted to be in an English boat and knowing full well that they would be landed in England or in Scotland and so
that was that. We went up as far as North Cape to cover one of the Russian convoys. We didn’t see anything and not much came out but the weather was absolutely dreadful. On the way back to
where was it? Where we put them ashore?
Yes, in the islands. In where’s the big naval base north of
where was the battle fleet kept in during the First War? [probably meant Scapa Flow] Anyway, we put these people ashore but before we got down there the weather was absolutely foul. I’d never seen anything like it. The waves were,
well they were 30-40 feet high and we had to stay on the surface because we were charging our batteries and I remember I had a torpedo man Oldham with me on the bridge and his job was to jump on the lid
of the conning tower when the waves broke over us, so that the water didn’t go down below, but when they did that of course, before they could shut off the generators the air in the boat is sucked in and there’s almost a vacuum, so everybody’s ears were going in and out.
I had Oldham up there and we saw this wave coming from the stern and I said “Stand by to jump”. We were tied on I might say and he jumped on the thing and held on and down we went. The wave came right over us. Well they tell me that the diving
wheel showed 28 feet in the control room, which was full sort of depth for the periscope, so I think we were about 14 feet under water up on the bridge and that was another experience
and you didn’t have time to think of what was going on except that you held on like grim death. You got very wet.
How long were you under water for?
Well, it seemed like an enormous time, but it wasn’t, it was 10 or 15 seconds or 20 seconds - I wouldn’t have a clue - but until the boat, the wave went
past us and the buoyancy brought us up again and that was that but.
The crew must have thought they’d lost you for a moment?
Well, they did, yes they did and so we got into the base there, got rid of our prisoners - our six prisoners. Three of them were so keen that you couldn’t possibly call them prisoners
and they were rather nice chaps and we had them even at the steering wheel in the control room, letting them just steer the boat under observation I might say but they were good. Anyway, then back to the Clyde and we prepared to come south to
go to Malta. We set off, there was no incident to it at all. We did about four or five days off the coast, off the French coast trying
to intercept German submarines either going out or coming in but we didn’t see anybody. We were unlucky anyway, we didn’t see any. We got to Gibraltar and we refuelled and refilled and took in a torpedo tube full of
Lareena wine for the base in Malta, which was a must. You were, everybody was expected to do this and it was a beautiful sherry, absolutely the top line and we set off for
Malta via patrol up on the south of France. We didn’t see anything flying up when we were going up. We were up on the surface, well out
for quite a lot of the time. The only thing I had a lucky moment when a canary, a green canary landed on the conning tower and stayed with us until we went past the couple of islands up there.
They went ashore. We thought that was a good omen.
Were you very superstitious about things like this?
No, but I love birds and I always have done and I know nothing superstitious about that, but it was just a pleasant thing to have the bird there with you all day and we shooed him
off when we went ashore and that was that. Almost the next day, the first day we were there we were off to Cape Sea, which is west of the entrance to Toulon, it’s quite a well known
Cape patrolling there and we got word that a ship was approaching. It had two escorts and two trawler escorts. It was a nice looking ship but it was in ballast and I s’pose it was inexperience on our part but we didn’t allow
or we allowed too much setting for the torpedoes and it was absolutely a sitting duck and the torpedoes ran underneath and exploded on the shore and the boat went on and he didn’t have any idea what was going on. I think it thought they’d set a mine
going or something and the two escorts didn’t blink an eyelid, but we saw our target go away and go into Toulon and it was a bit depressing.
You only had the four torpedoes on the Untiring?
No, we had eight.
Yeah. We had eight: four in the tubes and four in the ends,
so we were back to back loaded and that was that. Now we went down further east and were patrolling off Hyeres Islands
with the idea of catching anything coming in from the Italian side or submarines coming in from the Italian coast or again we got information on the radio that a submarine was approaching on a line to go to Toulon
and we dived while having breakfast; we went down to 100 feet at five o’clock in the morning before coming up to periscope depth, where we’d spend the whole day. We dived at 120 feet I think from memory
when dickey bird, our ASDIC [Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee] operator came into the cabin and said “He’s coming in from such and such an angle
and we better have a look at it”. Or he didn’t say that but Bobby boy had said “Well, let’s finish our breakfast and let’s get up to periscope depth”, which we did and we only waited 10 minutes I s’pose before he sighted the boat, this submarine approaching. She was a lovely boat, a big lump of a boat and
she was 5,000 yards away which was a bit far. We had it all our own way. We fired four torpedoes at him and he heard them coming and I was
on the periscope at the time and I looked out and I saw him alter course 90 degrees till he was running absolutely straight away from us and he made smoke, he increased speed and we saw him go virtually into
the blue. He dived and we sort of followed him but it was too late. He got away. Now this was Siegfried Koitschka, who 20 years later went to England
over to England on holiday about ’78, I’d think, was about Christmas ’78 and he went into Dolphin to the submarine museum there and he asked them “Do you know if a submarine that fired torpedoes at us
and so, did they survive the war and if they did, do you know who they are and could I get in touch with them?” Well, as it happened he was talking to a fellow who knew us very well, who’d been a signalman
during the war in P34 had been in the attack against the German battle fleet and he knew exactly who it was and he said “Yes I do, I know Digger’s still alive”. By this time Bobby Boyd was dead and
anyway he gave Koitschka my address. By this time I was farming here in Australia and or up in New Guinea - one or the other - and I got in touch with him when I came to Sydney. I rang him at Christmas time and spoke to him. His English wasn’t
terribly good and my German didn’t exist, but we were quite polite to each other and each Christmas for years we either send him a Christmas card and received one or, and it went on but that was the fellow who Joan and I met
when we went to the conference, the World Conference last year.
That’s a fascinating story. We’ll get back to that as to how you actually met later on. I think we’ll talk about that when we come to the end of the war. Can I ask what year was the engagement with Koitschka boat?
And you were on the Untiring at this time?
I was on the Untiring. I was first lieutenant of the Untiring.
After that you were given your own boat to command?
Well, yeah I stayed in Untiring for the whole year.
Until the end of ’43?
The end of ’43 when I went home, I went back to England and Untiring was finishing
and I went to blockhouse to Dolphin to start my perisher, which is the submarine control captains’ course. Well I got through that alright.
Was that a long
Yeah, pretty long yeah. We were damn nearly killed in that as a matter of fact. We were by this time, I was, Teddy Woodward another old very valued friend, who was one of the best submariners, the most successful submariner during the war.
He was a delightful chap; he was our teacher and quite a hard one too and we were up at north of Scotland working with the British home fleet,
a battle ship the [HMS] Rodney and numerous cruisers and destroyers including Canadians in a very modern destroyer. They were all in it and
they were sort of notified, of course, that we were operating together and I’d had an attack on the Rodney and it finished and the Rodney would go back and turn around and everybody’d turn around and go back in some different direction and the next thing somebody had taken
over and he was doing his attack; when he finished his attack, it was usually the signal you gave when you go up, you have a look around and you go up and break surface on the conning tower. The conning tower everybody can see it. You fire a signal
aft, so it puts smoke up and then you go back down again. Anyway, we did this and we went down the thing and the fellow who’s been doing the attacks said “That’s funny, look”. This fellow’s turned around coming towards us. He’s going to collide with us and Teddy Woodward got on the
periscope and he said “By golly, he is there, no doubt about that”. They sent up a couple more signals with smoke and he said “I think we’d better surface and he’s going to hit
us” and we did and he was just going up when we could hear the Oerlikon shells bursting on the conning tower. “Gosh”, we thought. “Golly… he’s mad!” you know. Anyway, they on Rodney must have
seen what was going on and said “For Christ’s sake, stop this!” you know and they pulled the fellow away, but his crew were terribly keen. They were going to get their kill and at all costs and they wouldn’t stop. He threw his cap at
the fellow on the Oerlikon to try and tell him to stop, but it was a wild five minutes I tell you, but we were damn lucky he didn’t ram us and put a hole through us and so
Brings up some very interesting issues about your relationship with the crews on other naval vessels?
Did the submariners and the other naval crews
generally get on or were there mistakes like this that happened a lot?
Well I s’pose, no I don’t know whether but I had these two or three different occurrences that took place quite a long way apart you know, but it’s inevitable that it does, so anyway
I did my perisher and I got through that and then I got the next boat [HMS] Voracious, which was, by this time the war in the Mediterranean had finished. There was nothing at all going on.
They were still fighting in Europe but the Mediterranean was absolutely dead because we had all the coast including the south of France and the Italians were agreeing to cooperate. Mussolini had been caught I think before he was killed
and the Germans were all out of Italy.
So what did you have to do?
So I got in a vessel and went out through the Mediterranean and I joined what’s a name?
My last boat in Trincomalee I’m sorry about this but I can’t remember it, my memory is it goes to pieces.
It’s OK. Everything we will come back to and I’m sure
And it will be back in no time.
It will be back in no time. How long were you in that last boat for?
nine months I think altogether.
And that was when the war in Europe ended?
That’s when the war in Europe ended and I picked her up in Trincomalee We came out and I came round to join in the British Pacific Fleet in Sydney and was going on the way up to New Guinea to Manus,
where the 8th Flotilla had a base and I was going up there. Well the war finished before I got there.
Were you still in submarines at this time?
Yes, oh yes I was still there, so I brought the boat back to Sydney and we just simply went round the
main ports, went down to Melbourne, to the Melbourne Cup and it was the last time I’ve been to a race course almost and went down to Hobart and showed the flag you know and then back to Sydney and I left submarines.
Did you stay
in the navy or were you discharged?
No, I was discharged. I had the opportunity of getting a soldier settlement block in Canberra, which was too good to miss and so I became a farmer.
Big turn from being a submariner to being a farmer?
It was a big turn. It was
an enormous change really, but oh it was good. I was lucky we did quite well and I sold it about 15 years after bringing, working it up and made quite good money out of it, then I went up to New Guinea.
How long were you there for?
About well, until about two years ago I s’pose. I owned an island in the Solomon Sea in the Islands of Love, the Trobriand Islands and I had this island up there,
which was terrific.
Interviewee: Donald Wilson Archive ID 0121 Tape 03
Before the ship entered Monaco Harbour this is while you are still on the Untiring.
We saw her, yes we saw her enter the harbour. It was a difficult entrance because you have to go in from the east and you do almost a 90 degree turn so we manoeuvred the boat round,
fairly close in to the shore and we were manoeuvring the boat as one screw stopped and the other one just turning over, keeping us moving and we had to hold ourselves. We had a one degree entrance from where we were. Well, there was an old chap fishing out on the
point and we fired and the boat was absolutely still and Bobby said “Fire!” and the first one just ran off a bit and hit the side of the rocks on the side of the entrance, so what happened to the poor old chap it wasn’t really near him but
150, 50 yards or 100 yards away and no doubt he nearly hit the roof or the bottom and the other one ran true and it hit the this vessel and she went up just like a rocket and broke all the windows everywhere. She was berthed right
in front of the International Geographical building, which is just underneath the roadway which goes up on a, have you been to Monaco? It’s still there anyway. The offices of the geographical
society they were built underneath this roadway which goes up on an angle. Anyway it broke all the windows and killed a few people and unfortunately and Lord Haw-Haw got to hear, have you ever heard of Lord Haw-Haw?
Who’s Lord Haw-Haw?
Lord Haw-Haw was an Englishman
who had turned traitor as far as England was concerned and was working as a radio announcer on German radio. Lord Haw-Haw got to know about us and said he knew who did the job and he’d get them but we weren’t really very afraid of Lord Haw Haw
but it did blow the thing up and there’s a photograph of it in the book there I’ll show you.
Just to clarify because it started that story a little before the camera. When was this exactly? This was back in?
Oh that was only a month, couple of months after Koitschka.
And it was in Monaco?
Yeah and we were there and then we left Malta,
went from Malta and we went to Magdalena and Magdalena is in oh God this is getting over the age of 80 I
It’s fine, there’s no problem. Actually we skipped over some of those stories but there was a very good reason why we skipped over them and we will come back to everything again if you can
believe it or not. It seems like we’ve gone through the whole specs of your life.
Well if you tell me
But what we’re, I’m actually going to start asking you questions now because I’ve heard so many things that we will go back to and there is a period of time I think on the Untiring that we haven’t covered in depth. But we’ve come through basically your whole life and your military career up to where you said you were in New Guinea at the end of your life.
I might tell you also I had an altercation with an English
Right now we’ll get back to that. We’ll just move you on right now because I want to get back to everything and in order to do that I want to go right back and just before we get back into the war experiences talk a little bit about your childhood and I’ll lead you through. I’ll ask you some questions and we just want to cover a few things there before we move back into these fantastic stories you were telling us about submarines. You said your father was away
in the First World War when you were away. Can you tell us a bit about him?
I’d rather not I think.
You’d rather not?
I’d rather not.
Can you tell us where he fought?
It was a bit in Gallipoli.
Yes, but he was a bit knocked about and
I’d sooner not sort of discuss it.
He was a very generous man but he was he was a bit of an alcoholic and he caused a lot of problems.
The reason I bring it up is to establish
something to do with the tradition of war. Obviously you knew a bit about it when you were a youngster with your father away?
Oh yes, I did. I was a very keen sailor as a boy and I was taught sailing by an old friend who was a neighbour of my grandmother, a fellow called Will Starkey who was a dentist by profession. He had a boat
called Shona. He only had one son, who was a great friend of mine. At that time I was an only child. I had a sister then and finally I had another brother, who I get on with very well. My sister was very sick and she died but
but my mother had a lot of problems and you know I was a bit inclined to blame my father I think, so I don’t like talking about him.
Did he ever talk to you about his war experiences?
No, he didn’t
but he was, no I can’t say that, he did. He sort of kept it pretty much to himself.
He was obviously greatly affected by the war. Did you have any contact with other First World War Veteran’s while you were growing up?
Oh well, I had a lot
to do with them. One being Joan’s father who I knew years before she was born and it was only by the extraordinary case that I met her.
And what was your relationship to him?
I admired him tremendously and
he was just a very nice chap.
Was he a friend of your parents’ or?
He was a friend of my father’s, yes very much a friend of my father’s and I used to know him when I drove home in the car with him from the city and my father would drive him up to Roseville or Lindfield where he lived
and on numerous occasions this happened and I always admired Bill Tebbutt[?].
What was it that you admired about him?
Oh, he was just a nice chap, very nice fellow and he was a bit of a hero you know. He was very much a hero really.
When you say he was a
hero did everybody in your community know of his exploits in the war or was he just a hero?
Oh I think so, I think they certainly did in the Imperial Service Club in Sydney where he and my father were members but it was
yes, Will Starkey taught me to sail and gave me a great love of the of the sea, which stood me in great stead as a matter of fact when I decided to give away
the artillery at Willoughby and go to the other extreme and join the navy.
What was it that had made you join the artillery in the first place do you think?
Oh, I thought it was the thing to do you know, I admired the
Australian soldier. I had tremendous admiration of him. I think it was deserved too. I think they were terrific.
Did you remember Anzac Days as a boy?
Oh yes I did.
Can you tell us about some of your memories of that?
Well, I never marched with my father but I was very proud of
him you know. I always went in. My mother would take me in but then we hit the depression and that was, well it impressed me immensely. I was very conscious of it.
I worked for the gas company after I left school. I had to leave school because the family couldn’t afford to keep me there and I got a pound a week and I paid board out of that to my grandmother, so things weren’t easy, they were pretty tough
and my father’s business was a failure and that didn’t help him at all.
How old were you when you had to leave school?
17. 16, I think. Late 16 or just turned 17, I think.
Was that a difficult decision? Did you have any plans to go on
at University or?
Well I had, well I did, yes I wanted to be, well I wanted to do a lot of things. I wanted to go to the Antarctic with a group that Mawson was putting together and I wanted, I was going to volunteer to look after the dogs.
Did you know anything about dogs?
Oh yes, I was not bad with dogs as a child yes and I was, well I was 17 or 18 but anyway that was hit on the head by my parents they wouldn’t let me go, so I went and left the gas company and I had a better job in the British General Electric Company,
but not much money really, very little money but I was always a bit adventuresome you know. Have you ever walked underneath the harbour bridge? It’s quite an experience.
How does one walk underneath the harbour bridge?
At night, well you can’t do it now because you’ve got to go through locked gates to get there, but when it opened up,
it was all open on the tram track and you could either walk over the bridge over the top which I did twice and I used to do that on walking home at night when I was doing my Leaving Certificate,
my study at Mr oh Mr somebody’s Academy anyway where I was. I was doing night study after work when I was at the gas company.
Were you a good student?
No, not very good. My powers of concentration and
if I wasn’t interested in it, was pretty low.
Did your adventurous nature lead you to get into much trouble as a lad?
No, I was pretty free of trouble and all my adventure I did myself.
What did you know of the rest of the world? Obviously you wanted to go to Antarctica. Did you
Oh I wanted to go to England too, I wanted to go to England for years and I wanted to travel and it wasn’t till a few years ago, about 10 years ago I really got into travel and we’ve done nothing else.
You must have done a fair bit during the war though?
Oh, yes I did a lot during the war
but I went to China after you know, well as a matter of fact I went to China in the first group of people organised by Rossi what’s her name Pip? Mary Rossi, she made
tours for people quite a long time ago and she made a tour for Ascham Girls’ School with the headmistress going. There were 17 girls and I’d been in hospital with,
I forget what I was there for, anyway I’d been in hospital from New Guinea and I had nothing to do. I came out and my first wife said “Well, let’s go away for a holiday”, so she saw Mrs Rossi, who said they had a vacancy for a couple to go, so
we joined two school mistresses including the headmistress and 17 girls and a doctor and ourselves. We all went to China together and that was a good trip actually.
This was in the 1970s, 1960s?
Yeah about late
Just getting back to your childhood again you mentioned wanting to go to England? Did you feel as a child growing up that that was?
Oh yes, I was always very conscious of my forebears in England.
Did your family talk about England as home?
Yes, oh yes absolutely. You weren’t going to England, you were going home.
Did you feel very strong
involvement in the Empire?
Yes I did. I’m a royalist, very keen royalist. Probably not as much as I was. I don’t think of it as much as I did but
it’s always had a big impact on me. I like England, I love England. It’s not the same place now. It’s totally different but it was a bit of an eye opener to me in
the navy joining an Australian submarine group who were all Englishmen, some were intelligent and others were bloody stupid but I was pretty shattered. I got on terribly well
with everybody in the flotilla when I first went there in P31. Captain Simpson and all these people they were very pleasant
to be with you know but when I came back to the 10th flotilla with the boat, the first thing
the commander, there was a captain with the flotilla and there was the commander who was actually there to run it, stopped me on the balcony. I was walking on top of the balcony, on top of the world, on top of me toes and feeling very pleased with myself that I was back and that I had a boat
down in the water and that was good and he stopped me and I said “Good morning sir”. My best manners and “Are you Wilson?” “Yes sir”. “You’re Australian?” “Yes sir”.
“I want you to know I don’t like Australians”. I said “Sir, I’m very sorry to hear that but I can understand it I s’pose. I’ve met a couple of Englishmen that I wouldn’t pull out of the drink if they were drowning”. “Oh it’s going to be like that?” Well, actually it was a bloody silly thing to say to him. It was stupid but it got me hackles up, right on the spot
and we didn’t get on. We didn’t get on at all.
Was that an unusual incident or do you think that the British commanding officers had it in for Australians to some extent?
No, a lot of them. There were a group who thought that submarines were entirely English
and they were not friendly but very few of them were like that but old Christopher, was a miserable bastard and I just didn’t let him worry me. I didn’t make friends with him. I didn’t make any attempt at,
I was always polite to him but he resented it terribly.
Were the relationships with your crew always cordial as the people who weren’t on your level?
Oh no, they were good, didn’t have any trouble with the boat at all ever and no they were good but
old Christopher just goes to show you, he came out to Australia as a captain and was in charge of the group that was supposed to work together you know with Australia in because the RAN [Royal Australian Navy] had
had broken away from the RN [Royal Navy] very considerably. They did all their own training and they didn’t use the RN terribly much.
During the war?
No, after the war and that’s even now of course
much more so. It’s not as close as it should be but old Christopher came out. I absolutely ignored him actually when I was in submarines in the flotilla and it gave me great pleasure to learn that the admiral in
Alexandria had said one Christmas we had a party and we all drank too much and Christopher said “I’m going to get that bastard.” and he accused me of being drunk and
irresponsible or something and the old admiral said “Look, when it gets down to that it’s time you had a rest.” and it gave me great pleasure to see him moved on. Well, anyway he came out to Australia and was having a hell of a time with this group that were out here because he was
with Canadians and everybody else and just a captain with these other ones and he was not getting on with them very well and I wrote to him one Christmas time and I said “Wishing you a very much happier Christmas than I did in 1943 or ’42.” whenever it was and, “If ever you’re in
Canberra…” he was at that time in Melbourne with his group, said “If ever you’re in Canberra do come and see us and have a meal”. He did, but we never really hit it off you know. I got on much better with his wife,
so it’s a funny thing but he was just terribly difficult. He was terribly religious, his father had been Dean of one of the York Cathedrals and I think he thought we were all heathens and
I didn’t get on with him.
Do you want to tell us that story from the beginning just to give us an example of the relationship between your English naval colleagues and yourself as an Australian Royal Australian Navy representative? Can you just tell us that example?
Well from the beginning when
I first met Commander Hutchinson up on the balcony, he was very hostile. He said to me “I want you to know I don’t like Australians. I hope you’re not going to be as much of a bloody nuisance here as others have”. I said “Well, I sincerely hope not sir but I don’t like,
there are, I understand perfectly what you mean. I’ve met a couple of Englishmen that I wouldn’t save if they were drowning” and he said, I remember him saying “Oh, it’s going to be like that is it?” and I said “Well, I don’t quite know what you mean, Sir.” and I left him and he had it in for me and he just made it known and
that he was going to get me.
What about that particular incident when you were falsely accused of?
Well, he put this notice on the board in the dining room: “A dicer [?] was stolen last night over at Marza Miset [?] and the sulky and
horse were left tied up at the gates. Is the person that did this man enough to come forward and admit it?” I looked at it and I must admit I laughed. I’m sure he saw me laugh but I knew that’s what he meant by it and then
the doc said to me “Oh for God’s sake, go and admit it”. I said “I’m not admitting it. I didn’t do it”. I spent the night in the boat writing home actually to Phyll, my wife, and I was on duty. I went straight down from the dining room. Oh, wasn’t good enough for Hutch and he
just carried on the feud. He was terribly rude and they were all very good to me, excellent.
Can we just go back a little bit before you get to England and you mentioned perhaps
a personal detail which I think is probably of some relevance is it? You were married before you left Australia to go to England?
Yeah, I was only a matter of weeks, a week.
Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Well, we’d been very close friends for a long time and she’d been ill and
we decided to get married and I didn’t know that I’d be five years away. It was a long time and it was good though, we picked up the bits as we didn’t have any children of course and
we decided that we would and we had a wonderful life.
I think that it’s really interesting because you’ve just set off and left, so it’s quite a poignant departure. Can you, do you remember the departure from Australia at that time?
Oh yes it was hard, it was quite hard.
Can you describe
leaving Australia to go to war?
Yes, we went over with a very old friend of mine, Bedford Osborne, and we stood on the deck of the vessel, went under the Harbour Bridge and I remember saying to him “Well, I wonder
if, when we’ll see this again?” It came home very quickly that we were going away and there was a reasonable chance that we wouldn’t come back. I’ve never been stupid to harp on that.
I’ve always, during a severe depth charging, which I can promise you is a pretty unpleasant happening. I never had any doubt that I was going to get out of it
and I s’pose I’m an optimist. I s’pose. I don’t give in too quickly and I think you’ve got to do that. I think you’ve got to be, if you’re playing with fire, you’ve got to be prepared to, you know get bit burnt but not
sufficiently to throw your hand in - far from it.
Was it a sense of duty that you felt when you were leaving Australia or was it more a sense of personal adventure?
No, it was sense of duty. It was really. I s’pose I
was excited by the adventure; yes, of course I was but it was a sense of duty that and it worked, I think it worked very well. That’s why I loved doing what I was doing.
Had you heard much what your training was like before you left Australia?
Well, I was a rower.
I was thinking more in the navy, the naval education, naval training you had before you left?
No, I’d had very little training. The training I had was
in anti-submarine war, which was a technical lesson, showing me how an operator worked the electronics of it and I was intelligent enough to do that and to know what it was all about.
You were setting off for England with the aspiration to join the submarines at that stage?
No, I didn’t think of joining submarines till I saw the Sealion lying alongside. I was getting a bit sick of rough weather, rain and sleet and hail and God knows what else on the east coast in that
first winter. I didn’t realise it could possibly last as long as it did and the seas were rough and it was uncomfortable.
Did you ever get sea sick?
I always get a bit sea sick yes it is at the first hour or so, that was all and then you get over
it. I mean about, when I say always that I lost that altogether after 12 months.
I believe that the first time when you got to England or when you were in training there that you were bombed by Junkers. Is that correct? Was that the first action you saw?
Yes it was. That was in Agate, when we were on the bridge
and I thought it was a plane on fire. I could see these flames all coming round out of the wings.
Yeah, I think you colourfully described that for us
And I was sympathetic towards him. I said “Oh the poor devil, he’s going to hit the drink, we‘ll have to pull him out” and then all of a sudden, all hell let loose when they started to explode
round us and when they hit us, but nobody was hurt.
Interviewee: Donald Wilson Archive ID 0121 Tape 04
We might move quickly towards the submarines. Can you describe the time when you first set foot on a submarine?
When I first set foot on a submarine, I knew I was going to sea, yes it was
in L23 in Elphin, when we were doing our course. Someone who became a very good friend of mine, who died the other day, he was first command in it. We were going out to sea from Blythe
and it was excitement, it was good. I didn’t realise it could be, so the essence of a good efficient submarine is the absence of noise, the absence of people talking loudly and everything else and it impressed me terribly.
If the boat’s working perfectly you can almost do it at a whisper and it’s terribly important actually because it gives everybody a feeling of oneness in the boat, you know if you see people moving slowly and giving an order,
your wheel, ten degrees of wheel just bring her round slowly and just give a simple message to the helmsman steer such and such and if you don’t say “Come on
quickly, steer, come on get it, get on that”, it upsets everybody and the quietness of it all is absolutely essential and it gives you complete control over the whole situation.
Is it a particular temperament to become a submariner?
Oh some are all that. Everybody had their differences but if you can control your temper and your feelings and everything else it’s a good thing.
Do you remember the first time that the sub went under water?
Yes, I do it was in L23 and I was impressed by the lack of noise.
We went underneath slowly and well 15 seconds and the boat’s gone down under water 25 seconds and the conning tower’s under water and there’s no rush to do it as quickly as you can and
the only noise you get is when you blow air into the tanks to bring a boat out of the water or to hold it, stop it from going down any further. It means you’ve got control of it up here, you know what’s going on and you dare not shout or anything like that,
if you do I mean you get a smack in the ear, so no you don’t do that.
What were you being trained? What was your task or your role? What were you being trained to do?
Well I was trained to control the boat and you could only
do this by practise, you can’t really do it in a school room. That’s it. It’s just a very simple operation actually to control a boat to get it balanced. You know
what the trim of a boat, the amount of water that you’ve got forward and the amount of water you’ve got aft in your trimming tanks and it gives you control of the situation without holding a whip in your hands. Admittedly you’ve
got control of everything and everybody depends on you doing the right thing but that’s just training isn’t it?
How long was your training for before you were sent on deployed operation?
Well, we did six weeks of technical learning of
how to control the boat and how to do everything else to set it going. Whatever job that a thing had been put in the boat for that it’s used. You don’t have everything unnecessary. Everything that you’ve got in the boat
is necessary and you’ve got to know what it is, where it is and what it does and it’s common sense really; it’s just intelligence knowing if you want to take a boat down quickly
and she’s in trim you put some extra water in the quick diving tank and then you got to know when to take it out, otherwise you keep going down and if you blow too hard into the diving tank you let people know upstairs where you
are, so you do everything quietly. Everything not necessarily quickly but when necessary you’ve got something - an air tank - to give you buoyancy to push some water out. To give you buoyancy,
to give, to get a trim again, then if you go down you’ve got to know what the effect of temperature, water temperature has on the boat. If it’s cold you go down, so you’ve got to keep a fairly close eye on that but that is an
absolute saviour in a submarine if you fired torpedoes at a ship on the surface they know you’re there because it makes a hell of a noise when it runs and if it hits it makes a bigger noise and as sure as goodness everybody will come back to where they think you fired from.
Now if you go down, if you got a scheme that as soon as you finish firing your fish, you decide where you’re going. We never ever stayed on the surface or stayed at say at surface depth you know.
We always went down as quickly as we could and we worked on the bathy thermograph which tells us the temperature of the water outside and if you’ve got a difference of about five or six degrees you go down and you get underneath it
and five or six degrees of water depth will throw the ASDIC transmission back up on the same degree as it hits
the hard water, the cold water and it won’t tell you there’s a submarine underneath it and it’s a wonderful way of keeping clean of not getting depth charged.
You’re very vulnerable when you’re at periscope depth or anywhere there between, you know, in the first 50 feet you’re very vulnerable to the transmissions, the ASDIC’s transmissions.
What were the ASDIC’s? Can you just talk a little bit about that the ASDIC used in your boats during the Second World War?
Well, the ASDIC is a transmission. You send a signal out, it travels 11,000 feet a second, I think that’s right and it will hit an object and bounce back to you and give you a ping.
You’ll hear a “ping ping” and you can tell the distance away from it from your transmissions in the time it takes for the ping to hit the side of a ship for sake of argument and bounce back to you, so you know exactly what’s up there and if he’s doing it, he knows exactly what’s down there too,
so once you’ve fired torpedoes, it’s no good hanging about. They’ll find out where you are and you’ve got to be terribly careful. We fired fish at
a ship coming out of Toulon one day. There was a lot of activity up there, were ships everywhere and I don’t know how important this thing was but she came out and she was flying two large balloons, anti aircraft balloons, one
forward and one aft to stop aircraft doing a dive over them and bombing them and we saw there was a lot of activity in the whole area up there, so she was important in some degree or whatever it was. We fired fish and we had one hit and we didn’t wait to see what happened to her but
she obviously went back into Toulon and there was so many boats about that we went deep and went to get away from it on an angle, which took us easiest way out to the deep water and that was alright and we stayed
down, we went down to 250 feet I think and we were under a lovely layer there and you could, you can just put the boat underneath it and just where she’s started to go up, start to float, she’ll float up to the hard water and you will just lie there and it’s good. They
can’t ping and they can’t hit you because you’ve got this layer of cold water above you, so we did this and we were down for over an hour, well over an hour, and we had a bit of a conference and we said “Well, let’s go up and have another look and see what we can find, if there’s anything interesting going on
about it”. We came up very slowly and we were up at over a hundred feet, 160 feet, I think we were when Bird said “Somebody
ping almost due astern of us and was increasing in speed all the time” and he said “Getting stronger and stronger” and we were coming up underneath a destroyer that we didn’t know was there. It was only his good luck that
he heard us coming and he increased speed and he dropped a pattern right over us and it lifted the boat from 160 feet up to about 60 in less time than I’m telling you this, just lifted it up bodily. All the lights went out everything
and it was pretty unpleasant I can tell you. They all came into this area. We managed to avoid the four or five torpedo depth charges that they threw at us, went all
round us, and no-one hit us exactly thank God. I had to increase speed to get control of the boat to get down again, so I put all the planes to dive and I went ahead and I did a 90 degree turn
to get out of the area. Didn’t matter, they knew we were there and they knew this kicked up a hell of a noise when with the screws doing this, but I think they thought it was a final burst because we went straight back to being very silent and very slow, hardly any
noise. The one off the port screw was giving trouble. We had two motors - one on each side. The port one was giving trouble and it started to whistle and I had to stop it, so I only had one propeller working and we eventually got
down deep enough to get under a layer. They we stopped counting. Bert Allen’s still alive somewhere down the south coast, an Englishman who came out here to live. He was the signalman and it was his job to report or write down all orders or
all depth charges you know, just a tick or something like that on the page every time one went off. We stopped counting at 300, by which time we were two miles away from them and they went on all
day. It was sheer good luck to get down under the layer, under this thermal layer where those ASDIC pings can’t hit. The ASDIC is very good from a surface ship point of view
it’s very good, you can’t do without it but you can keep as far away from it in a submarine as you possibly can.
How were you feeling after being depth charged so much?
Oh, we were alright. We kept everybody happy. Everybody sat on the deck and shut up and we made fun, you know we shouted at the bastard up top.
What’s your greatest fear at that moment?
I didn’t have any fear. I knew we were going to get out of it. I knew we were going to get out of it.
But generally amongst the crew what would be?
They were pretty good. They were pretty good. They were excellent as a matter of fact.
What is a fear on a submarine? What is the greatest fear though? Is it being depth charged?
I think so, yes I think it is. So makes such a hell of a noise. You know you’re in a metal container and this noise goes on outside and it’s only a matter of you know 50 feet away I s’pose.
How near does a depth charge have to be to
reach the hull?
Well, any closer than 50 feet it should be right, but I was telling you the thing was the port screw was whistling, so we couldn’t use it and the motors had jumped on their bearings and they were loose, so we couldn’t use the screw or anything and
we just cut that out. Well, when we got into dock in Malta we found that the bronze screw, the bronze propeller, had hit something and I think it was the steel container of the depth charge that had burst
of course and thrown at us and it had hit the screw, and it had oh a bloody great hunk of that much not cut right out of the propeller, but it had bent it back and it was acting as a paddle or something like that and every time the screw went round it was making this noise
and that was it.
What was the crew doing during this time?
Well they were very good. They came back and said “Thanks.” you know..
Are they sitting just waiting to be attacked or everyone’s at the….?
No, they’re just doing their, they haven’t got anything to do in controlling the
boat, it’s being controlled from the control room and everybody has their duty. The captain’s there. He’s supervises everything. He’s corrects anybody that makes a mistake I s’pose but
the first lieutenant is there, he is in charge of controlling the boat, keeping the depth, the speed, everything else, noticing whether it’s sinking or rising and it’s all really pretty simple but you’ve got to keep your head, more especially when all the lights go out.
Does it feel claustrophobic?
Well, I don’t know that claustrophobic’s the word cause you get ‘em going as soon as you possibly can. We had two torches, two big hand torches to grab and I had one just in front of me in the panel, the driving panel.
I’m trying to imagine what’s it like. I’ve seen submarine movies and can you just describe is it like that or can you describe that?
No, it’s nothing like that. No, it’s nothing like that Rob [interviewer]. They brought a German thing out about 10 or 12 years ago [Das Boot or The Boat].
I saw it yeah.
And it was the greatest amount of crap that you could ever see. They were shouting and
they were rushing and water was coming in and oh it was terrible. I looked at five minutes of it and….
So water doesn’t come in?
No fear, no fear. Once water comes in you’ve had it and you’ve got to have faith in the boat.
You must have come to know your boat so intimately?
I think I knew every bolt that went into the boat as a matter of fact. I was stood by her while she was being built.
This was the Untiring?
Can you just take us from bow to stern. Just in your mind go back there and just talk us through the boat, walk us through on a tour?
Well, the front ends are four torpedo
tubes and they’re facing forward. They’ve each got an outlet and the torpedo tube has a door on it. The torpedo in the tube is submerged in water without any air at all. Before you fire
you are submerged of course you open the doors and it’s ready to go. Then comes the living quarters of the crew, the sailors of the crew. They have hammocks and a U boat is
small and we had 39 people including officers and crew. We had bunks as opposed to the crew that were in hammocks but hammocks were easy to put up and get rid of you know if you want to work in the
fore-ends. Torpedoes are brought into the torpedo area down a hatch and they come in on an angle and are put on rails into two racks, one above the other, so that’s all there is in that for torpedoes. See you put four into the
tubes and the next four go into the racks and it takes you 15 minutes to re-load four torpedoes, sometime possibly half an hour at the most but 15 minutes is a fair,
pretty good effort, so that you can bring the boat back into operation in half an hour once you’ve fired fish. In that area you’ve got a pumping station and you’ve got a leading seaman who’s pretty good and
reliable in there. He’s down in a little well in the bottom of the boat and if you’ve got to pump on such and such a tank you can send a signal to him by just an indicator telling him what to do. You’ve also got telephone contact with him. Then you come back
to the petty officers and the engine room staff have a compartment each. It’s not a very big compartment. If you get four people in an area from there to here you know two bunks and two bunks,
so you haven’t got much room and a table in between you where you can eat, then you’re into the control room. You’ve got the whole control; you’ve got the panel on one side and the diving panel on the other. You’ve got a fellow, the first lieutenant is there, the helmsman there and
the ASDIC operator behind you and you’ve got everything in that control room. You’re close to everything. If anybody wants to put anything in a quick diving tank or something like that,
all you’ve got to do is push a lever down and the water would gush in you know. You don’t see the water gushing in, but it’ll gush in on a tube and into the tank and it’s all available to operate at a moment’s notice and you don’t abuse it, you ought to be able to put just a trickle in
or a lot, but preferably a trickle which makes no noise. Then there’s the radio cabin and the wireless control, then the engine room
and again U class are diesel electric. They don’t have a clutch to put the screw in or out of gear. You have the motors which are also reversible and they’re much better, much quicker and
I forget the speed of, I can’t remember the speed of a U class screws, but they go like hell when they’re going fast.
How fast can you go under water?
Eleven knots I think but not for very long. Eight knots
for a bit longer and two knots for two days without the battery giving up on you, but of course the U class that I was used to, we had to surface to charge the battery,
which of course is a thing of the past, now with these new boats they can stay down for six months.
What was the longest you stayed down for?
36 hours after that time of 300 depth charges.
There were people all over the water and we just couldn’t take the risk of putting our head above water but we got away, you know we got away at a bit of distance and worked our way out of it.
Have much juice left in the batteries?
They were getting a bit dry by the time
we surfaced but we just started the generators straight as we surfaced and the air was getting pretty thick by then.
What do you mean the air was getting pretty thick?
Well, the oxygen was dropping down below, see we hadn’t been up to get any fresh air.
Are you just using compressed air or do you have
We had oxygen supplement yes, but it gets very hot, the air gets very hot.
Does it get smelly?
What’s it smell of?
It’s hot. I don’t know. I s’pose
human beings’ breath, I s’pose but it’s alright if you lie down, if you have everybody lying down doing nothing and try to keep quiet and sleep or something like that it’s not bad. It lasts.
Is that what you were doing during those 36 hours?
Were you able to sleep?
No I don’t think Boyd or I didn’t sleep. I’m sure.
For 36 hours?
No, but we were getting pretty tired but that only happened once. It’s a good experience
Sounds like a terrifying experience?
Yes, well it was, no it wasn’t terrifying. We were all perfectly confident that we were getting out of it.
Why was that?
Well you’ve got to have faith in what
you’re doing, you know. I think that’s the basis of it without being stupid but it was much better than coming up and being caught.
You must have been happy to break the hatch when you got out of it?
Oh yes, I think
it was very nice to get a guff of fresh of fresh air coming in. Makes you a bit sick.
The fresh air?
Yeah it makes you vomit a bit, but not much and you don’t do that very often, you do it once in a lifetime you know
and when you’re finished and you fill your lungs with air and yes it’s a thing of the past you can’t remember what it was like.
It’s a totally alien world I must admit to many people?
Yes, well I think people do this. I think it’s you know that chap the other day who chopped his arm off because he was going to drown, I think or something only last week.
Yeah he was stuck in a canyon or something wasn’t he?
Stuck in a canyon, yes I mean that’s much worse than that.
To have to do a thing like that I give him
Interviewee: Donald Wilson Archive ID 0121 Tape 05
To much unpleasantness and it really was.
I think you mentioned that yesterday. It’s nice to reconcile those differences after the war.
Yes we did.
There’s a whole lot of after war stories we’ll finish up with
at the end of the interview. What I still would like to talk about and I think is still very interesting for the archive is the technical operating procedures of a World War II navy submarine and some of the things I’d like to talk about and seeing how you operated them in battle. One of the things I’d like to know about is you started up as a navigator. Can you describe how you navigate a submarine under water?
Oh, yes certainly. Do you want me to start now?
On the surface navigation is exactly the same as it is in any ship. We use the same instruments for
taking angles of the stars or the moon or the sun or whatever and we just chart our way day by day. It in this day and age that’s absolutely old fashioned and you can tell
with your electronics, you can tell your position in five seconds exactly where you are, so that’s simple. When you’re submerged you’re travelling at a very low speed. You have if you’re on coast like in France
you have the bearings of the light houses and everything else that you can take at any time during the day or at night.
When you are submerged? How do you do that when you’re submerged?
Just through the periscope and you can take an angle of the bearing exactly where you’re heading and
it just gives you a simple angle to go by. One or two angles and you know exactly where you are.
What if you’re far out to sea though?
Well you can take, if you’re submerged
we could estimate what our speed under water was and it’s never more than four knots and generally speaking two because it’s economical with fuel and everything else and you just estimate the
distance you’ve travelled and the position you are in and when if you go on the surface at noon for sake of argument, take a noon day’s shot of the sun, you can add, you can estimate your position almost to or to a mile and
it’s quite simple. Now of course, you can do it electronically and your position is known 24 hours of the day and the same as it is in an aircraft.
How were you communicating or how were your headquarters communicating with you when you were operating in the sea?
Always at night by radio
and we’d have a period that we kept a shot on the machine probably an hour of when you could get a clear break through and they’ll give you any
messages you’ve got through the day. Very important messages go through ahead of anything else. If you’re waiting on a certain ship or something else coming towards you or what’s happening in the area,
you can learn that in five minutes.
How were the radio instructions encoded?
Oh yes definitely.
Can you describe the encryption procedure? Was it similar to the Enigma system that the German’s had?
No, it wasn’t. I think it was probably advanced.
We carried a radio operator and that was all left to him to; he had his own cabin in the boat and if there were any messages coming through he could take them. Even when we were at shallow depth on
the surface even if you were only down at 28 feet for sake of argument, he could still receive then but there was no problem about that.
And were you the one that held the code and did the decoding or did the radio operator decode?
Well, decoding altered twice a day and all you knew was the code coming through
for that time and that was up to the radio operator to switch over.
Did the code come in numbers and letters and can you describe how you decoded the numbers?
Numbers and letters. No, I couldn’t describe that and
I s’pose to some degree it was complicated but it was very quick to read once you knew what you were doing.
They must have been complicated because the Germans would be trying to intercept it?
And you could be in some difficulty if they intercepted a signal?
That’s right and we were reading their signals, their messages
long before they realised it. That was almost in the last two years of the war, up to the last two years of the war from memory and that of course meant everything to us. I hadn’t told you about the Astrey
that was sank off the bay just north of the Spanish border. She was an old merchantman that the Germans had. I don’t know where they got her from but she’d been down loading cargo
somewhere down by Sierra Leone, Freetown, south of Freetown I think from memory.
You knew this from the message you received?
Well, we knew this from messages that they’d been keeping an eye on her and I s’pose the powers that be had a fair idea what she was loading but it was all terribly secret and
whether it was some rocks we knew that but what they were used for: whether it was some bomb or something that they were making.
There was a suspicion that it might have been uranium is that right?
Yeah, well that was but we didn’t know much about uranium until
the bomb went off. No-one ever talked about uranium; it was something nobody knew anything about. I s’pose they knew it existed but it was a very closely kept and well kept secret I think.
At the time were….?
We certainly didn’t know anything about
At that time when you received that communication where were you?
Well we were up in our favourite haunt. We kept almost entirely in the years that I was there, it was Untiring between the point
on the Spanish border, we couldn’t go below that because it was free country. You couldn’t sink anything in restricted territory and you couldn’t sink anything in Spanish waters for sake of argument once you came into France, they’d been occupied by
Germany and that was open slather, so our area was from the Spanish border right round to oh Italy, even right down until they started to lose territory there
and after the landings in southern Italy, in Cyprus and it was not long before they were being pushed back beyond Naples, beyond Rome and right up into the northern part of the country.
Can you describe that engagement from the start of receiving that communication
that the Astrey was coming, can you describe how you tactically worked out you were going to attack her?
Well, we didn’t know much about it. All we knew was she was only travelling at night. She was keeping into these restricted waters all the way up the coast. She got across the
entrance at Gibraltar at night and we first came in contact with her when she had her nose into the sand into the beach and was lying on this beach with her anchor out, just lying and the next day
or might be two days time she might have changed position and she’d be at a beach further up the coast and we first came in contact with her when she was off, oh what’s the coast, the
big town on the coast there about three quarters the way up the Spanish coast? Doesn’t matter anyway, that’s where she was and we closely watched her from there onward and the time came when she about three or four days later was fairly close to the border
and she had her nose in the sand. I’ve got a photograph of it and that night she came on up and she tried to get into, I’ll have to look at an atlas to tell you
I’ll think of it but anyway she came
round and we were waiting for her off the entrance and I think we fired two torpedoes at her and sank her on the spot but it was after that that we knew, we heard that she was carrying a very valuable cargo now
How do you stalk a boat like that?
Well, you don’t let yourself be seen.
You’re submerged and you can hear hydrophone effect; you can hear the screws of a boat approaching you and from a distance not terribly far but if you’re watching for it, you only just put your periscope up, look and put it down again. You don’t leave it up for very long;
you don’t leave it up for 10 minutes or something like that or five minutes even.
Well if the sun reflects off the window of it or something like that and somebody bright will say “Well, there’s a submarine down there”. It’s up to you to keep it fairly quiet.
How many days did you stalk
the Astrey for?
I think for well over a week; in the last time she was moving and
How did you keep up with her?
We did nothing. Oh, it was no trouble, she didn’t move during the day time. It was only at night that she was moving,
so when it came dark you’d know she was going north, you went with her, you don’t see her but you
Are you able to see her at night time or you’re anticipating where she might be going?
You’re anticipating where she was going, yes.
So tactically how do you, how did you know?
Well now, of course you’ve got radar and everything else that you
can measure it.
But back then it was more an art than a science?
But, you had to estimate and at night of course you might be able to keep following it in the moonlight from a distance.
Were you waiting to get a good shot at her or were you waiting?
Oh no, we were pretty certain that she was going in to,
I can’t remember the name and she was going into there or into Toulon further up on the next leg, so anyway we got her with two hits and she just blew
Was she escorted?
I don’t know. I don’t think she was, no. I think she was on her own but we could see; we saw her turning to go into the harbour and we were we waiting for her and that was it and then
later on Jacques Cousteau, I think it’s Jacques Cousteau. Does that ring a bell?
He’s the oceanographer of the French.
The French oceanographer went and he dived on her after the war and reported on it that she’d been sunk by a Free French submarine which was quickly corrected.
Did he find out what was on board?
I don’t know that he did but….
Can you describe….?
His son came out to the Trobriand Islands where I was.
Can you describe that attack for us? Are you at the periscope or can you give us some details of the attack?
Well, we were up on deck in the control,
yes, now we were up in the conning tower and we had equipment that we could aim and you just wait till she comes on onto line and you fire. You’ve already worked out
her speed on the machine down below and you distance off. How long it takes the torpedo to run and it’s just a matter of pulling the trigger. It’s all fairly simple.
Do you have the trigger there or?
No you just say down below, you just shout down the voice
pipe, down to the control room “Fire one and fire two!” and they’re ready and they do. It’s quite a simple operation.
And what happens after those torpedoes leave the tube. What are you doing?
Well, in that instance we just watched and saw it happen and she blew up alright
very quickly and that was the end of the Astrey.
Did you wait around to see what would happen?
No, there were no survivors, you know, any survivors would be picked up. She was within swimming distance of the entrance to the town.
Did you scarper out of there?
No, I think we dived, just dived and went out to sea, left them to it. You don’t let yourself be seen, if you can avoid it.
Can you describe the atmosphere on the boat after you’ve had a kill?
Oh, it’s good.
Were there any rituals you did on the boat?
No rituals but everybody’s happy, but they don’t shout.
No noise, that’s absolutely taboo and you go away and probably have a cup of coffee or cup of tea or something.
Did you have a rum ration on the boat?
Not under those circumstances no, we
did have rum there, rum rations every day but that was about four o’clock or five o’clock, when the watches were changing and people were coming off watch and there was a rum ration. It was only a small ration. They liked it. A lot of them didn’t
worry about it and we didn’t celebrate by having a rum ration the after the deed is done.
What other ways did you use to keep up morale on the boat?
We had music, we had
a gramophone. I had an old HMV [His Master’s Voice] wind up portable gramophone and gramophone records and they were enjoyed, though it is something you get sick of after a while. We’d only do it every two or three
nights before you bring it out again and very simple recording you know.
Do the crew sing along?
Oh, they know the words yes and they get their favourites. Our favourite was
I like coffee, I like tea, I like the java jive and it likes me.
Can you sing us a few bars of this?
No, I can’t sing it at the moment but I might give you a session later on.
You sure you don’t want to give it a try?
Yes, I’ll do my best.
Ok go on.
there was very little classical music recorded and played. I had some but it wasn’t very popular and I left it behind in the base and I lost all me gramophone
records in the Medway when she was sunk which hurt like nobody’s business. Medway was the depot ship that was sunk going from Alexandria up to Haifa.
That was when you were on the P31?
That was the P31 yes.
What other mementos of home did you have on the boat?
I s’pose clothing. I had a couple of very good sweaters since living in a submarine in the winter over the North Sea is pretty unpleasant, it’s pretty cold. In the Mediterranean it’s not bad, it’s good
and you’re not in trouble about your dress I must admit.
What about other mementos or drawings?
No, we had nobody in the boat that would draw.
There was a Frenchman in one of the Free French boats. He used to sketch all the time. I won’t say he was terribly good but he was amusing.
What about that cartoon you showed me?
Oh that was Jane.
Tell us about Jane?
Jane. Oh Jane was a very famous drawing in one of the cheaper newspapers in London. It was not a serious paper but
Jane and Fritz her German dog were famous and we took….
What was Jane famous for?
Oh she was pretty sexy, extremely sexy really and terribly popular in the boat.
Did she have many clothes on?
that’s it, I mean she was always reasonably covered you know but left little to the imagination and she was very popular. In fact she was our, I don’t know what you’d call her but we were very proud of that and I was given a drawing a,
painting by Pet, who was the artist and I had that up in the boat and she was very good for morale and she was our sort of guardian angel, kept everything above board
but she was really quite famous in the daily newspapers. She was always doing something and it was something constructive and making people laugh or go along the track with her and so I’ve still got my
drawing of Jane and I hung it up on the wall.
Was she there near the periscope when you were attacking other ships?
No, but she was in the wardrobe just above our table where we had our dinner, had our meals and she was very much a part of the boat
and she’d been going in the press in London for oh years and it was no doubt a very big money earner too, so there’s….
Can you cast your mind back and sing us the song
from the boat in the bridge if you just imagine yourself back there with the crew?
Oh yes certainly.
“Oh I love coffee, I love tea, I love the java jive and it loves me.
Coffee and tea and the java and me a cup a cup a cup a cup a cuppa.
Boston beans, Soya beans, green beans, cabbage and greens who cook ‘em.
I love Boston sweet and hot oops, Mr Mojo I’m a coffee pot.
Oh I love coffee, I love tea, I love the java jive and it loves me.
Coffee and tea, the java and me a cup a cup a cup a cup a cuppa.”
That’s wonderful. I can imagine you all on the boat signing that.
The silly old so and so, he’s at it again.
Not at all. I think it must have been incredibly important to have those things to hang on to. How did you deal with the absence of women for such long patrols?
Oh well there’s no place for women in submarines. That’s the greatest mistake that the Australian government have ever made. I thoroughly disapprove and you don’t want it; there’s no difficulty doing that and it’s not good to have them. It’s probably a little bit old fashioned but I’m sure
that you know they make very good artificers or whatever it is they’re doing, but I don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t think it’s a good thing and I think it’s a mistake and even now we’re having trouble you know it’s inevitable that
somebody’s wants to get into bed with them or they want to get into bed with somebody else and make a bloody nuisance of themselves and it’s just not good.
No, that’s fine. I thought a long patrol would be a….?
Yes, I’d yes
The navy means absence I think, doesn’t it?
I don’t, yes it’s
not a lonely job you know, you’re in the boat with 35-38 other people. You’re working together, it works very well indeed. If it doesn’t work every so often
you get somebody who doesn’t fit in who might get nervous or something like that and you’ve just got to put him ashore.
Did that happen to you?
Well it has happened, yes.
Can you describe an incidence of that?
No, I’d sooner not because….
I think it’s actually quite an interesting thing for the archive to know about the fact that not everything was as harmonious as
perhaps some people would talk about?
Well perhaps I had one little bloke and he was only about 17 and he was too young to send there but there were submarines short of crew in the third year of the war. There’d been a lot of boats left lost and they were sending boys, virtually
conscripts to the boat aged 17 or 18 would be an old one and….
Can you describe what happened in this incident with him?
Well we were being attacked and there was a lot of noise and everything going on and we found this poor little devil eating his cigarettes, eating a packet of raw
cigarettes that the coxswain had to sort of hit him and take it from him, you know, not let him do it and send him up and put him into the bunk up in the coxswain’s quarters.
When was the attack?
Oh it happened up off
Monaco, actually a bit further west of Monaco.
That’s when they lost count of 300 depth charges?
Yes it was.
Could you understand his reaction?
I couldn’t understand it. I s’pose I was sorry for him and
we just took him up and he was crying and
How did you calm him down?
Oh well I left the coxswain to do that.
How did the coxswain calm him down?
Oh he just calmed him down and just spoke to him and oh he may have given him a tot of rum. I wouldn’t know but I don’t think he did but
that’s all you could do and it happened to other people much older. We had one fellow who, he volunteered for everything that was a bit difficult. He’d volunteered for
boats that at one stage they were using torpedoes, a torpedo type of vehicle that you sat on was basically a torpedo but you could control it and he volunteered for those then,
he had to get worse, he had to get out of it and volunteer for something else and he eventually came to us and he was a big good looking young fellow about 25 and he just cracked up
but he kept on volunteering to do something else that was worse you know. If you could think of how he could jump out of a plane and not use a parachute could frighten somebody, that would be his aim at doing.
Was he suicidal?
No, he definitely wasn’t suicidal because he
cracked up long before that and I think he cracked up on the other things before he came.
How did you deal with him on the boat?
Well, we just dealt with him. The coxswain was very good and I think he kept him in his cabin in his bunk.
Could you lock people up on the boat?
just keep somebody with them and this only happened about three times in five years.
I s’pose that’s the sort of thing you can’t let go because?
Oh no, you’ve got to stop it at once and you don’t make a fuss about it and you just send him ashore and he’s not doing it purposely.
Interviewee: Donald Wilson Archive ID 0121 Tape 06
Yes I was the only Australian one though but
that was easy enough. The doctor just had a go at him when we got back to port in Magdalena we were then in northern Sardinia.
Could you sedate any crew who got out of hand?
We didn’t, we never had to really, I mean the little fellow was eating cigarettes I think we gave him some.
What was it driving him to do that?
know he was doing it. He didn’t know he was doing it.
Was he in shock?
What was he in shock from?
I don’t know I s’pose probably the depth charges going off and or not necessarily close to the boat but I think in that case they had been close
and it’s nothing that you crave to do I can assure you.
Do you still remember that particular depth charge attack very vividly?
Do you still think about it?
No, I don’t talk about it normally.
Do you have to actively stop yourself thinking about that?
No, I’ve closed it. It’s a closed book.
But you can remember it fairly vividly if you cast your mind back?
Oh yes, I think so, I can but it’s something you can get over so what’s the point?
But is it something you have to get over?
Oh yes, if you want to get through it yes, you’ve got to get over it I think but that’s what happens to you if somebody nearly hits you with a motor car, doesn’t it, and runs in front of you and does something to you,
get over it.
Did you think of your colleagues who did not return from missions who were not as lucky as yourself?
Oh yes, obviously.
They may have been caught in similar circumstances?
Is that how most boats were sunk in the war?
Oh a lot were sunk by mines and depth charging yes but
60 percent of the boats at one stage, which is a big loss but you get over it.
But at the time can you recall a particular loss that affected you?
Oh well, yes I think you always missed a boat if they’re chummy ships you know.
What was that particular boat?
Oh well, I think everybody missed Wanklyn when he was lost,
he was a wonderful chap and it’s just unpleasantness, very unpleasant but you get over it
What happened to Wanklyn?
I don’t know, he just didn’t come home but I think they know that he was depth charged up off Sicily.
Do you remember seeing him off?
Oh I’ve seen him go out yes.
He was a close friend of yours?
No, he was very much senior to me. I was a very junior boy then but you admired those people but there were 10-15 of them of those people that were
in command of those boats that we were in that were most admirable people and you never look on the side of what do you do if? I think you’ve got to put that behind you.
I know it’s very difficult to talk about. Can you explain how you do that
because it seems these are not ordinary conditions people, these are extraordinary conditions and….
I think it’s just…. you’ve got only personal control, I think.
Did you hold a service for Wanklyn? Can you describe that service?
Oh there was back at the base. I didn’t attend it. We were probably out away.
Was that normal for submarines that
Normally, no you don’t have a service if they’re lost. The Admiralty’s informed and they let the next of kin know.
What do they let them know?
Oh well that their
boat was overdue and presumed lost. What more can you say about it? That’s it.
I think the difference is with submarines to me I can imagine that if you were lost no-one would ever know what the circumstances of how it happened?
No, I don’t think. Generally speaking you don’t know
if the boat just doesn’t come home.
Does that make the greater community of the partners of submarines crew much closer or different to perhaps other areas of the Service?
I think it’s a remarkable service. It doesn’t need that to make them members of the
service except that you’re all together in half a dozen boats or 18 or 20 boats and you’re all, you’re one when you’re in harbour. I mean people
are different of course but as I said it’s the best club in the world.
It was a dangerous club to belong to at the time 60 percent losses is very high. It’s higher than bomber command.
Was about the same yes wasn’t it, I think. I don’t really know but
towards the end of the war it was it was not nearly as high as that but that was when the flotilla in Malta were absolutely working day and night - they never stopped.
Did you feel for anything other than the crew?
The Germans, I think, the Germans were much worse off.
Did you feel anything for the crew of the boats you torpedoed?
Never felt very much, no I didn’t for the crews or for, from the boat, that’s why I think I said to you before it’s a very impersonal
thing firing a torpedo. You go to hit the boat and put it out of action the same as Joe Blow on the football field tackles his opponent. He doesn’t mind, doesn’t worry terribly much if he’s pushed him into the ground and
turned him upside down or anything else. He stopped him from getting a try or passing a ball to a mate. It’s impersonal and you don’t know who they are, you don’t know what they look like and
it doesn’t worry you.
Did you ever observe the ships going down that you sunk?
No, oh I’ve seen merchant ships going down, yes but that’s nothing there, they’ve put boats over the side and
get into life boats and put on gear and floatation gear and they’re right but no you don’t worry about that.
But surely you would have had to look out for hospital ships or civilian ships that weren’t necessarily involved in the war?
Yeah, well you very rarely see
hospital ships. They’re all lit up and you wouldn’t ever attack a hospital ship. Be most extraordinary if you did.
No I’m not suggesting you do. I’m just thinking
You must have to identify your target fairly clearly before you shoot at it I was just wondering?
Well that’s it you do, you know but you know where you’re working and
the German ships that were travelling to and from North Africa in the early part of the war in 1942, they were going backwards and forwards to Africa with one purpose: to take
another five hundred or 2,000 soldiers to help Rommel and going back to get another 500 or 5,000, so you stopped ‘em and it was, regardless of what you sank the ship if you could and
you had no remorse about it certainly not I mean, you’d be quite hypocritical if you said you did. It will give you a bit of a boost when you hear the torpedo hit.
Can you hear the ship breaking up and going down?
What does that sound like?
If you’re submerged. Well you can hear
it on hydrophones.
What does it sound like?
Well just a ship breaking up. Cracks and there’s nothing sinister about it.
How did you coordinate your attacks with the air force and the surface ships?
No, never with the air force
and no, never with the surface ships. I don’t think I can’t remember ever doing it. We were always independent.
How did you get on with surface ship navy personnel?
Oh, very well indeed. After Medway was sunk,
we spent some time in Haifa before we had to go out again and we lived first of all in a hotel in Haifa and then while we were there a British cruiser came in and they made room
for us and they were much like good friends even though we hadn’t met ‘em before, but they were - the sea’s a bit like that isn’t it?
Must be particularly like that on a submarine?
Well I think it is, I think it’s very strong.
Was it a happy ship your ship?
P31 wasn’t, no.
What made her unhappy?
Oh I don’t know but she just wasn’t very happy. There were
a lot of very disgruntled people in it. It’s the only boat I’ve ever seen that had them. Untiring was absolutely, she was a beauty.
Untiring was a happy boat?
Yeah, very happy boat and we had happy ships you know in the flotilla, there was oh several
What made Untiring in particular, why was it a happy ship, boat sorry excuse me?
Well the captain was a very nice chap, very fair fellow you know, very decent chap who gave thought to everybody what he did and I think it just went down,
the ladder it was good. We had a good coxswain, we had a wonderful torpedo coxswain, absolutely wonderful fellow and oh it was a good boat.
Can you explain the role of the coxswain in detail?
Well he’s the senior member of the crew. He’s responsible, he’s the go between
the first lieutenant and the crew. He will report any disorder that he can’t control himself to the first lieutenant or to the duty officer on watch and
he’s a very important person in the boat, but each person has a very definite purpose in the boat and they know what they’ve got to do, what their work is and they’re expected to do it. If they don’t there’s
a leading seaman probably in charge under the coxswain in charge of that and it’s a matter of things going up or down.
Tireless, I was understanding that was your first command Tireless?
Untiring was your first command was it?
well she was my first command, actually yes. I was first lieutenant for practically the whole period that she was working in the Mediterranean and I went back then
to do my commanding officer’s course and I’d left when I flew back just in as she was going home through Gibraltar and I
flew back because I had to be back at a certain time just on Christmas and I had to get back before the next course started and then it was after that that I had control, had command.
Yeah then and I had control of Untiring when we were in dock
and everybody was away on leave.
Being the only Australian I’m just wondering the crew relations did they have a particular name for you being the only Australian on board?
I think I was referred to as “Digger” by everybody.
Even when you were a captain?
Oh behind my back yes
When you were first lieutenant you were called Digger?
Oh amongst themselves, yes amongst themselves but I knew most of them by their Christian name and they were good boys,
excellent some of them and we went back, Joan and I, went back about 10 years ago, there’s only about three or four - there were five actually - still alive of the crew and it was
a very emotional period I can tell you.
Yeah I imagine you must have known each so well on that boat?
Yeah we did.
Was there anything you wouldn’t know, you would talk about everything in people’s minds?
Oh yes, absolutely everything you shared, and
if you’re living with ‘em you treat them like a family. I’m afraid you do get ones that you are much more cooperative than others but never had any trouble with them and if you’re fair and it’s alright,
you can’t go wrong and it’s if they get you know, they get good leave, when they’re ashore and people think of each other and you make your life as pleasant as you possibly can for them.
We had a football team for sake of argument and a cricket team and
On the crew?
Yeah in the crew, yeah.
So when you went on leave you all just still stayed together?
Oh no, when you were back in England you spread immediately.
Can you describe a particular shore leave story?
I couldn’t, for my part I’d go to London and probably, it all depends where we were. If you’re in Scotland it’s too far to go down to London but I’ve had some wonderful friends in England, the Halsey family
were marvellous. He was the captain of [HMS] Witch the destroyer that I went out on and saw this big German attack on a convoy with 12 motor torpedo boats. I think I told you about
that, didn’t I.
You didn’t actually.
Now do you want to tell us that story?
Oh well, when I was in Turquoise we had to go into dock for various things.
Turquoise was a trawler wasn’t it?
Turquoise was the second trawler I was in and
there was nothing to do. I was going to have nothing to do for about a fortnight and I said, “Well look….” to the officer the commanding officer of the trawlers I went to him and said, “Look sir, I don’t want to go to London on leave but I’d like to get some more
experience and go out in a destroyer”. He said “Alright, well I’ll organise it”. I joined the Witch which was a BMW, an old destroyer but it was a modern destroyer at the end of the First War and sort of 10 or 15 years later, whatever it was, she was
still going and quite good and I joined the Witch Head[?]. One night we were just about to turn in when word came through that there were a large group of motor torpedo boats approaching the east coast and they were going to attack a convoy that had
already left the Nor, which is the Thames and so the Witch Head made up steam and got ready to go to sea with the other destroyers in the harbour and I can’t remember how many were there, I think about three or four
and we all went out to protect this convoy and that was a most interesting, dark night and they struck about midnight. Course she was only 30 or 30 miles from France or Belgium when
they’d come across and which would only take them an hour and they attacked again with torpedoes this convoy and it was absolute pandemonium, the excitement of it, there were search lights going everywhere and we were doing about
35 knots in amongst them all and guns were firing - oerlikon guns were firing - and the noise was quite deafening and that was terrific. I was absolute thrilled. I had never seen anything like it and after about half an hour the
whole thing was over and they’d sunk about I think they’d sunk three ships. The Germans had sunk three ships and I think five of the motor torpedo boats were sunk but the seamanship in it was absolutely wonderful to be up on the
bridge and follow it to how we missed anybody, how everybody missed anybody else. I don’t know how it happened because they were weaving in, slide in and out of the convoy and the convoy kept on going and that was it and so after that
Tom, Captain Halsey heard that I was on leave and I asked to go to join the boat and he was very good and he said “Well, I’ll send him home to my home in,
just north of London” and the Halsey family were marvellous to me. It was terrific.
How long did you get between patrols when you were on Untiring?
Sometimes a couple of days, sometimes you’d get
back out the next morning, the next afternoon after you’ve taken on torpedoes and some more food or something like that. It was nothing to turn around and go out the next day and sometimes you were only out as long as you had torpedoes. Sometimes
when we were working in Sicily and all round the lower end of Italy up as far as Naples you were only a few hours actually from Malta to get there and when you might get rid of all your fish and everything
in no time if you were lucky enough to strike one of these convoys coming out. It’s all luck of course and then if you’d been doing that for a long time we had two areas in Malta on the north west,
no south west actually, south west corner of Malta where we had a camp where we could go for four or five days to make up for the periods that we’d been at sea
and if you were at sea and very active for any long period they would organise it if they possibly could, organise some time up at the camp and you might go for two days
and then another member of the crew will go up for another two days and so on.
What did you do up at the camp?
Oh swim and that was about it.
What was your longest patrol when you were working out of England?
About 30 days or not 20,
about 28 days I think.
When you were attacked?
We couldn’t do much longer than that because you know food and everything else.
On a particular occasion when you were 300 depth charges or over 300 depth charges were dropped on you, was that the worst depth charge attack you had to go through?
The worst one we had yes.
After that were you given leave?
We were in fact because we had to go down to Malta. We were in Magdalena then and the boat was making an odd noise and one of the screws were whistling where it transpired, I think the propeller blade it was going around hit the casing of a…
Of a depth charge, yes
You mentioned it yeah, yesterday.
and we went down almost immediately, we got back to Maddalena [?] after that and the boat was not operable,
the port motor was loose on it’s base and bouncing up and down a bit, so we were only using one screw and then we were in Malta dock yard and we had
virtually time to ourselves while the boat was fixed up.
That must have been a particular leave that you looked forward to?
Oh, it was good, it really was good.
Just want to talk a bit more about leave because it must have been a great relief from the tension after….?
Well on that particular
case we don’t know how we did it, but when we were repaired they sent us to Algiers on a, almost a holiday. Algiers was a funny place. It was a dirty town,
an unscrupulous, terrible town.
But you went there on holidays? Could you tell us about your holiday in Algiers?
Yes, we went there on the invitation of the French Admiral who you must remember that was the Free French under
De Gaulle and the other old French group who didn’t, who left the war and left Great Britain and played no part in the war really and they were quite uncooperative.
Towards the end of the war when they could see things were going our way they were, this is our interpretation of it anyway, they thought it was time to invite somebody and we were invited to go there and we were entertained at lunch one day in a magnificent lunch
by the French Admiral, who lived in a castle up on the hills behind Algiers and it was sheer luxury and the only trouble was everybody, all the Frenchmen, couldn’t speak English or they didn’t want to and we couldn’t speak French but
we had a wonderful dinner and that was free. Well the boys, the crew, had leave to go round Algiers and they enjoyed it. Then most of them came back to the…
Interviewee: Donald Wilson Archive ID 0121 Tape 07
I’ve got some different questions to ask but seeing we’re on that subject we’ll just finish off that topic about Algiers.
Did you ever have any trouble with the men contracting anything?
Yes we did. Generally speaking if they got VD [Venereal Disease]
we wouldn’t let ‘em go to sea to start. They’d go on their leave and it was inevitable that some of them will.
So you said you had a rule that you wouldn’t go to sea
if anyone had….?
Had VD. When you come back to port the boys are free, they have time off, you don’t work in the boat after four o’clock. They can go ashore and have a drink or do what they like.
They’re told if they’ve chummed up with some girl for God sake protect themselves and if you don’t, if you come back with VD, you’re out, you’ve had it, and it’s inevitable that it will happen
Was a medical inspection part of the routine before you went to sea?
No, it wasn’t. We had one fellow who was one of our very best. He was the ASDIC operator and a thoroughly nice chap. He
got something, he got evidence of VD when we were at sea and we didn’t want to go back with him and we had a very pretty good line in
medicine and we gave him everything we had and he was free of it by the time we got back, we were out about 15 days I think and he was pretty sick. We gave him such a dose of everything but
we didn’t worry much about the amount of stuff we pumped into him within reason and that was that, but our white round blob on the bottom there was a thingamabob
Jolly Roger was all about. Everybody always asked me what that was for. I’ve never told them.
It was so significant you put it in the ship boat’s log?
Yeah, it was a big joke, but it was there, it was pretty excellent actually and if they had their girlfriends, well they were
absolutely entitled to, that was their business but we took a poor view if they got any disease.
Was that rule throughout the navy or was it just on board sub’s or just on board your sub’s?
It was on our flotilla, yes yeah our flotilla but I think it’s inevitable and it was
difficult in Maddalena when we went there because we’d taken over from the Italian submarine flotilla there and they had their own brothel attached to the base and when we took over we took over the base and here was this door in the wall, it was just a question of walking through,
which we had bring to a halt. It was too good.
So the Italian brothel remained in operation even after you’d taken over?
Oh yes, the girls remained there but there’s a thick wall actually and it was just on the other side.
Did you have someone on the crew who was designated as a medical officer or a doctor?
Only the first lieutenant, yourself. The first lieutenant always did and the coxswain was quite good. He could give injections and
Apart from that one incident where you had to obviously treat your ASDIC operator was there other
incidents where you had to treat people for anything at sea?
Yes, we did.
What other kind of problems came up among your crew?
Well, we had a fellow with a terrible fever and again we pumped antibiotics and everything else into him. We had a book telling you what to do or what not
to do which I struck, I kept fairly close to, and I think we had very little sickness in the boat while we were at sea. There were only just the odd ones. I’ve forgotten what the PO [Petty Officer],
I forget what symptoms he had but he had a terrible temperature and we got it down.
Anything like that frighten you a bit when you were out at sea?
If it could be contagious amongst the crew for instance?
Oh well, we kept pretty close check on it that it wasn’t. I think if it was contagious and the
others were going down with it well you’d go back immediately, but they were just individual cases. A fair bit of people cutting themselves badly and with something you know getting jammed in some door,
what have you and we’d sew it up ourselves and that’s alright.
I want to talk a little bit more about the crew. One of the things that you went through yesterday was the layout of the submarine. There were 35 crew on board
did you say?
No there were 39 in Untiring. We had 35 in P31 and 39 in Untiring but we had radar and those were the extra four hands.
At any one time how many of this crew would have been on shift?
Three shifts. Two hours on, four hours off. Never more than two hours on.
Why was that?
You can’t keep alert and on top of
the subject in more than two hours and it’s very difficult to keep watch at night in the dark for more than an hour, so you change the watch
every hour and you’re fresh.
Those ships are shorter than in the rest of the navy aren’t they?
Oh much shorter yes.
Was it more difficult to concentrate on the subs? What was it about submarines that made those ships shorter?
Well, I think it’s a fact known that
two hours concentration is the longest you can do without sleep getting slow and when stuck to it and I think it was good. See in surface ships you have four hour shifts as opposed to the two hours
and you’re up on deck for four hours and you’ve probably got other people with you that keep talking to you to keep you awake but you’ve only got three people on the conning tower for the sake of argument when you’re on the surface at night and that’s one officer and two
lookouts, one port and the other starboard, and that’s all you can afford to have there, it’s all you can fit really. It’s a pretty small area and that works very well and you get used to it and when you come off
after two hours you can go straight to sleep; you just curl up and go straight to sleep and at night there you’re being shaken again in four hours’ time, cause you have four hours off and with the other two following you behind see.
Did they share the same bed as the person who you’ve just….?
No they have their own hammocks. We had a bed each.
Is sleeping in a hammock difficult on board a submarine?
No, they’re quite, I think they’re quite comfortable. I never had one but they’re alright, but we had a bunk of our own. The only trouble is if you take any extra officer to sea,
you haven’t got enough beds and you have to hot bunk it.
Explain hot bunking?
Well, you get someone who takes the bunk that was the relieving officer who’s just got out of and it’s hot and that’s alright, it’s I mean you don’t do it for preference,
it’s better to have your own and curl up and normally you don’t have any extra people in the boat.
What about the other conditions of life on board the submarine? Obviously you had food but did you have a galley? Were you able to cook fresh food or did you have to….?
Oh yes, we had a cook, a proper cook, a hotel cook in Untiring;
he was a damn good cook, wonderful cook. He was much sought after as a matter of fact.
Maybe this is why it was a happy ship?
Yes, I can assure you it had a very strong feeling in the boat as far as the chef was concerned.
What sort of things would he cook?
Oh we had
always, you know, three vegetables and meat and tinned fruit and anything like that. We always had good meals.
He can’t have had much space to work with? How did he manage?
No, very little indeed. He was a good cook.
He had a sailor as an assistant that kept the place clean and everything else but as I say he was very efficient.
Can you describe a….?
So much so that he got a decoration when the
boat was finished, when she was paid off, which was good. He got a DSM [Distinguished Service Medal] because we considered he was a very important member of the crew and he was too.
What was the cook like on P31?
Bloody awful, absolutely terrible. Probably the cause of
some of a lot of the dissatisfaction; he was terrible yes.
He didn’t get a DSM?
No he didn’t.
Can you describe a meal time on board a submarine? Do all the crew members eat together or do they eat separately when they come off shift?
No, when they come off.
So there might be 10 people eating at a time?
And yes the others are probably sleeping and they collect
their food when they come off and they can eat it up in the torpedo area and the petty officers and everything they’d dine in their own small quarters,
they had a table between them you know and there’s only four of them in each group, so it’s crowded and they’ve got their own bunks.
Were there rules of silence enforced even during meal times?
The silence; there’s no talking and unnecessary talking in the control room ever but providing you don’t make a noise, you can talk yourself as long as someone will listen to you, but if they’re going to sleep they don’t want to and it’s,
oh I think, they get into the routine and it’s a standard routine and I think there was no difference in the officers’ quarters to up in the fore-ends really.
The other question I guess as far on from eating is how does one go to the bathroom on a submarine? What were the conditions like?
Oh well, you go, you’ve got what you call the heads
and it’s just a latrine and it has a pump and everything else that goes down into the bows of the boat and it’s pushed out when you surface at night or it’s cleaned out you know, it’s quite good. You can’t have a wash,
you’ve got no showers or anything like that, which is probably one of the worst, most uncomfortable things of a patrol, that you haven’t got any means of washing or we just had a wash basin that you could wash your face
and clean your teeth in but apart from that it’s, you remain dirty.
Was there very much water on board that wasn’t reserved for drinking? Was that the reason?
Tons of water for drinking and for cooking and everything like that.
Salt water was used in the toilet and that was quite simple; you had high pressure air that you could blow it out or when you dived deep but you didn’t do that, you would keep it in the container down below
and blow the whole lot out in one fell swoop.
You mentioned that one of the most difficult things not being able to wash? Did sailors on board a submarine for a long patrol end up getting a little bit dishevelled? Is that fair to say?
No, people keep pretty
clean. You’ve got to wash in a bucket, the troops did and there’s enough fresh water for that. I think it’d do a dry wash you know, just under your arms and around your crotch
and everywhere else and then just get dressed and in the winter of course in the cold when you’re up in the north, you don’t want to bathe, it’s too cold but if you’re like in the Mediterranean there’s a fair bit of sweating if the air’s gets
a bit foul towards the end of the day, you do need a bit of a slosh, which you do. Everybody does exactly the same and there’s no difference.
I notice from your picture as a young man that you’ve had a beard most of your time. Is that common for navy officers or….?
I grew a beard when I went to England, when I was in the trawler. It was a terribly cold winter, oh it was a shocker, really terrible. I’ve never been so cold in all my life and that was in the first couple of convoys that we did in Agate and
you weren’t wanting to wash I can assure you and plenty of warm woollen clothes and you were alright.
Did many of the crew members grow beards for that reason?
Oh, a lot did, a lot did in submarines. It’s not really convenient to shave
and if you grow a beard, it’s handy, it’s good. I’ve never been without mine.
Can you remember any instances where the hygiene became a problem for any crew members or yourself? Was there any instances where that came up?
No, I can’t place it. There we had a routine if anybody wanted any medicine he could come in the morning to me to get it
and if he was constipated for sake of argument, one of the big things that does happen to you, we’d fix him up with a tablet and couple of tablets, which we always did. It was good to keep your bowels
working not to let ‘em clog up as it were.
Are there any other problems with the system when you’re diving constantly diving and coming up?
No, if it’s hot
and you’ve been down a long time, if you had to dive at three o’clock in the morning because something was happening and you couldn’t get any exercise
before five o‘clock, when you would normally dive means that you’ve got about an extra three hours’ dive before you can surface at night and the air starts to get thick and a bit unpleasant. That
upsets you indeed but you can fix it up with a couple of diarrhoea tablets or whatever they were. No, our health was pretty good.
Did you have any particular way to exercise apart from just doing your normal duties?
Not really, no. There was nowhere to walk to, you can’t go and do a mile or something; you can’t do more than walk 200 feet from one end to the other and exercise is pretty
limited. Some people read a lot during daylight hours. Other people sleep. I was a pretty good sleeper actually. Always have been. I can put my head down and go absolutely straight off.
I just want to change the subject but before I do
I believe that you had experiences actually swimming with dolphins while out in a submarine. Is that true ….porpoises?
We’ve seen a lot of dolphins, porpoises. In the Mediterranean the water is beautifully clear, very blue and with the bright sunlight down at 80 feet
if you look up through the water you can see everything going on and to see the dolphins coming down, they’re a damn nuisance actually, you can’t take your eyes off them but they’ll give you away if anybody happens to be up on
top looking at the dolphins, they will swim around you, around the conning tower and they nudge each other and push each other out and everything else and it’s an absolute joy to watch. They stir the water up and I’ll show you something, I’ve got a painting,
I’ll get Joan to show it to you.
On the wall in the other room?
On the wall which is by a Scotsman, a fellow that I saw painting it up near the Queen’s castle in
the highlands of Scotland. To look up when they’re swimming around you, they stir the water up and the prism, the sun coming through the water hits the different prisms and it’s just like a
200 dolphin show going on. The colour is absolutely wonderful and I saw the fellow painting this thing and he didn’t know what he was doing. I told him, he was absolutely intrigued and
he was painting that to the story of ancient Greek who’d suggested the prism anyway and that’s what that photo, that’s what that painting is.
It must have been great when you weren’t on an active
patrol for example to be able to stop and watch the dolphins?
Oh look, they’re beautiful things and it was terrific but you couldn’t do it for too long. You’d either take the boat down a bit deeper and leave them behind or they’d follow you for hours.
Did they keep up…. no problems to the
Oh yes, they would and they pick you up and go with you all the way and there they’ll swim much faster than you can move in the water.
Must be an experience quite unique to submariners?
Well, if you want an experience of that Monkey Mia up on the north east coast,
north west coast of Western Australia, have you been there?
No, I know we were talking about it before, no? Rob went near it but apparently it’s an amazing place.
You can go there and swim and they’ll nudge you and swim with you and get under your arm and push you to one side or pull you back. It’s a wonderful experience and we went to
the Galapagos when we were in South America and the seals as well as the dolphins there are terribly tame. They’re naturally tame. They’re undisturbed
and it’s nothing to go down on the beach and get an old seal and this big old fellow and he’s sitting back in the sand looking at you, they’re always looking from side to side and think he’s really not taking very much notice of you or showing off a bit and you’ll go into the water for a swim and who do you have beside
you? And he’s flopped down the sand into the water and he’s swimming alongside you. It’s a good experience.
Do you think you have a special relationship to the sea?
Oh well, I think you make it, don’t you?
But especially in your, I mean, in your role in the war you would have been out at sea almost every day?
Yes, no I think it’s a natural thing, isn’t it you make it
Do you think it’s something that was in you before you went to the navy or was it something that you formed during your time there?
I’ve always liked wildlife. I’ve always liked dogs for sake of argument and yes, I enjoy life, that’s all part of
Back to the dolphins, do you pick them up on the ASDIC? Do they make….?
Do they make terrible trouble with that?
Yes they do, you can hear them from miles away.
What do they sound like?
Oh I can’t copy one but it’s a bell like sound you know, “whum”
and they’ll talk to you all the time.
The ASDIC operator ever try and talk back?
No, I never tried to talk back but I’ve scratched one under the fin and given him a scratch and
You mentioned that they were a terrible nuisance though when you were trying to do something else?
Well, it was a danger in as much
they’d show that you were there.
Did it ever come up during a patrol or a battle?
No, never but I think these pods of dolphins were just playing really, just amusing themselves
I just want to talk a little bit about Malta as well just to change the subject again. Was Malta a beautiful island?
A lovely island, yes a lovely island. We had a very good base at Lazaretto
over on Milesiks Rock [?] where the navy used to anchor their destroyers and their light boats and submarines. Lazaretto was a hospital for
people with diseases of many kinds, I think, including oh God I can’t think what they had but they were people who couldn’t be cured and that’s
where they kept them. They kept them isolated over there and when the navy took over it was empty, it was not in use and they turned it into a submarine base. It was all stone; it was right on the water’s edge.
There was about 80 feet of water straight down from the sides of the base and it was a delightful place to live. We had big stone rooms you know, you can get four people, four chaps in it and you could easily
fit the whole flotilla in there and it was good. It was absolutely wrecked by the Germans when they started to bomb it but it took a lot of bombs to knock it really about and that’s where we had to dive during the day at the mooring
to avoid being, well they knew we were doing this and they still bombed the water, but they’d bomb it every day and the bombs that missed that hit the stone, took one more stone out and so it went on but
it was a good place to live. They had a good kitchen there and Maltese cooks and it was good.
Did you have much to do with the Maltese?
Yes, we had quite a lot, though not actually in the boats but in the base.
What were they like?
They were very nice people. They’re simple people. Catholics, fairly religious and oh they were good. I think we got on remarkably well with them.
Interviewee: Donald Wilson Archive ID 0121 Tape 08
Just a point I’m interested in when you were in Maltian Harbour in Malta
You had to just submerge and sink down to the bottom and sit on the bottom all day?
Yeah, at about 60-65 feet we were right alongside the…you’ll see in that photo that I’ve got of Malta taken from the air of
submarines lying at their moorings and they’re as close to the side, the water goes straight down and the boat is nearly as close to the wharf as you are to me, but they were absolute targets of course lined
along in front of the building and the aircraft would come along and just put a row of bombs down and you couldn’t help but hit the boats, so the only thing to do was to dive and they didn’t know where you where or didn’t know if you were dived or anything else and
generally speaking you spent the day, dived down there and you had to come up at night for air and to go in and have a bath and have your dinner.
That must have been pretty boring?
Well you could work in the boat down below. You’d only have a skeleton
crew down there with you and P31 was hit by shrapnel of a bomb exploding close to them when they were dived.
You were on the boat at the time?
Yes and it was, you know, a light bomb like that was nothing
like a depth charge but it caused a bit of damage and that what they had to have repaired when they sent the boat to Alexandria and to Port Said.
Did it cause a breach in the hull?
It caused a leak in the hull.
Were you sitting down on the bottom at that time when you were?
So you just sort of sit down and turn everything off and?
Sitting down and well you don’t turn on, you’ve got your electricity going and you’re cleaning the boat and doing servicing.
One thing I’m just curious about is if there was any means of escaping from a submarine if the hull was breached and you were sinking?
How did you get out?
Out through the escape hatches.
Can you describe how that worked?
Oh it’s just
a round canvas thing that you put down and you go down underneath it. You open the upper lid and then you swim up. It’s a fairly simple operation
as long as you don’t panic and pull the thing off your face, you know, you’ve got your breathing apparatus to
From how deep down could you escape from a sub?
Oh a couple of hundred feet.
Did you know anyone who had to do that?
No, yes I know somebody in Sydney,
an Englishman who lives out at Double Bay and he did. He got out through the hatch of the conning tower but it’s not a thing you want to do twice a week but no, I never had to.
Did you have emergency oxygen on the boat if you were running low?
Oh, we had oxygen tanks, yes.
Were there air filters that could filter the air?
No, you just had to boost the existing air with oxygen and it would cool it down a bit. The old air gets very hot
and it’s a bit tiresome but yes the air, we had bottled air oxygen and it’s alright, it’s quite good it works.
You’d been away from Australia at some stage, some time now working with the English crew. Did you start to miss Australian company?
I did. Well I was married, actually my wife was still in Sydney. I was away from her for five years and….
Were you getting letters?
Which was a bit tough. That was a bit tough but I couldn’t come back and leave it.
Did you write to her?
and irregularly towards the end, you know at times. It was very difficult when you were out in the Mediterranean getting mail that was being sent to you in England. By the time it got to you it was pretty old, you know five months, six months.
Did you receive any particular news that
surprised you from home?
No. I was very relived when I did come home. It took us, we both tried very hard, well we didn’t need to…
I needed to try very hard but
There must have been temptations when you went into London on shore leave?
Oh no. I had very good friends.
No. Families and female friends, yes.
You must have been
quite a romantic figure though a sea captain or especially a submarine captain?
No, not really, not really at all. No I had a lot of wonderful friends in England. I was telling Chris about the Halseys for sake of argument. They had a beautiful home
out of London and it was open door to me to go whenever I had a day to spare.
Did you meet any women that you particularly thought made you think you were far from your wife?
No, I never let it happen.
But you did you feel that it could
Oh well, look it’s always possible to happen if you let it happen and it’s not easy but it’s short lived and you know you’re out of London again.
Is there anyone in particular that you can remember from that time?
No, nobody in particular but a lot of wonderful friends.
I’d just like to go back to a particular incident that I think was quite memorable for you when you were attacking that German submarine
Did you feel a great empathy or understanding for the submarine crew even though they were Germans?
Never gave it a thought.
It was just another boat to you?
Never gave it, I can honestly say that the thought never entered my head and the only thing I wanted to do was to destroy it and I s’pose it represented
something that I abhorred, probably Hitlerism. The only reason I’d like to think that I’ve always been a most loyal Australian. I took it as
expected of me to go to war when I was called. I’d been brought up in a family that had been involved in war. It was originally on both sides:
a Scottish or English family my forebears and I was brought up in a time when England was home, you never hear this now when young people think it not only their right but what
was expected of them, if your country is in danger in any way that it is up to you to volunteer to go and help.
You also knew the effect of war didn’t you through your father?
Oh yes, I did.
And how that affected him?
Most certainly did and how it affected him.
I wouldn’t have let him down if he’d been alive. When I decided to go to war there was no question, doubt about it, I wouldn’t, I couldn’t stay at home. I think I
was terribly proud of being an Australian and I think it was the natural thing to do absolutely. I can’t understand young people today when John Howard commits
a group of airmen to go to war go to Iraq. I simply can’t understand 10,000 young people from 13 or 15 up to 17,
18, 19 rebelling in the streets like they did in Sydney the other day.
Yeah it’s unusual.
I can’t understand it.
We’re at the end, we’re going to come to the more general things we can talk about that. Some of the, while you were away, Australia the war had changed focus from
and you left it but did you know of the threat to Australia?
Oh yes, I certainly did.
What did you think of the submarine attack on Sydney Harbour?
It wasn’t a very good attack. As a matter of fact they didn’t handle it very well.
You think you could have pulled it off better?
Well I know that a bloke who did go out in the thing and in the boat after the midget had
gone ashore over on Middle Head or on close around to Bradley’s Head there. I was a long way away from it and they were a long way away from war actually themselves.
Did you hear
of that midget submarine attack on Sydney Harbour?
Did that make you feel that you should come back to Australia?
No I’d committed myself to the Royal Navy. I was sort of a very junior part of the whole scheme.
Do you feel more Royal Navy than you do Royal Australian Navy?
Yes, I think I probably do. I think I probably do. I have a young friend who I think I probably encouraged
to join the navy and he is now a first lieutenant in one of the new submarines. I don’t think they’re the best submarines that have ever been. I think they’re getting better
at great cost but I think the politicians had far too much to do with us and I think they’ve made an awful balls of it.
Getting back to the war in Europe did you realise that the war was drawing to a close?
Oh boy, I thought it was all going to a close in 1941; I thought it was so close to going to a close, it wasn’t true. The only defences we had on Parkston Key and Parkson Key [?] at Harwich, I don’t know whether you know it but
that was the most likely place that the big German landing would take place and they were expecting them to attack and how they didn’t God only knows, but they went to Germany instead [actually means the Soviet Union] and that was one of the biggest mistakes Hitler ever had because it,
England was just a sitting duck. It was just after Churchill had taken over and he didn’t have the power that he had later on and we were in a hell of state. There was no ammunition, no arms in England,
the majority of them had been left behind at Dunkirk and there was nothing to defend the east coast where we were and this is where the old engineer in commander of Harwich collected all the bayonets, the old bayonets from the First War from museums and God knows where else,
put ‘em into pipes and made pikes of them and these pikes were issued. We didn’t have any rifles or anything at all in Harwich.
You were issued with a pike?
Well, we weren’t because we were in a boat and we were allowed revolvers
and the defence of England on the east coast in June of 1941, was it? 1940 ’41 [actually the defence began with the start of the Battle of Britain in July 1940] depended on a lot of old people with pikes. God it was, you’ve got no idea, it wasn’t a joke it was terrible.
You must have felt very vulnerable?
And you couldn’t understand when we were doing those convoys and picking up the survivors and everything and coming back, you couldn’t understand why the attack on the east coast of England didn’t take place, cause by God there wasn’t anybody to stop them.
Rob, honestly I can’t tell you what it was like but nothing happened and the whole rest of that year went as flat as a flounder.
Can you describe the atmosphere in the streets there at that time?
was a lot of bombing going on, a lot of night bombing going on in London and that was unpleasant for them but it was there was nothing like an invasion and as I say if you lived down on the coast
it absolutely shattered you and nothing happened. Churchill took over and gave everybody a burst, you know, a burst of…not enthusiasm isn’t the word but gave them confidence and everybody started to work and work like hell and make
rifles and tanks and God knows what else.
Fast forwarding a little bit?
And Americans eventually sort of came in you know about 12 months later.
Can I just take you forward to particularly the invasion of Europe at D Day. Were you involved and your boat involved or were you involved in the D Day support of the D Day landings?
No, I wasn’t
Where were you?
I was out in the Mediterranean, yes I was in the Mediterranean all the time but friends with several boats, several U class boats helped them at the landings in France.
Were you ever involved in dropping
counter espionage people at the coast?
Yes, I did, we dropped two lots.
Can you describe one of those operations for us?
We didn’t know who they were, we didn’t ask who they were. They were people who kept very much to themselves; there was a woman amongst one of them and of course one of the most famous of them was an Australian woman.
She was on your boat?
No, not on ours but
she was on a T boat and she was marvellous; she’s still living Sydney.
What about the people that you dropped off? Where did you drop them?
Oh, off just round from about,
oh about 10 or 12 miles on the, where is the Italian boundary and the French boundary on the south of France, after you’ve gone round up into the Gulf of Genoa we put them in there and we didn’t ask any questions and we had special people in a
boat, in a fold boat to take them ashore, put them ashore, which they did, and they left them there. They were picked up and that was all. They’re damn brave people really.
Coming from someone on a submarine that says something, I think?
Yes they were good.
Where were you
on VE Day?
On VE [Victory in Europe] Day in Europe we were responsible for putting people ashore on the Hyeres Islands, an American group, 11 chaps we put them ashore and they were going to take the
light house and the garrison up on Hyeres Island which is the entrance before you get round to Toulon and we took them up were we’d left Maddalena and we were up in Corsica in
a lovely home up in the north west of Corsica and it belonged to one of the Chamberlain family, he’d been Prime Minister when war broke out and we’d worked from there and we took them across to see the whole of the south
of France, all around from Monaco up to Hyeres and gave them an idea of exactly what it looked like and where they could go ashore and then we took them up before the landing and they landed in
the same order as everybody did when they landed in the south of France. Of course, they went up and there wasn’t a soul there. The whole thing had been evacuated by the Germans. There was almost not a shot fired on the south coast of France; it was absolutely
fallen flat and the Germans had retreated up into the area behind where they’d landed in early on.
How did you get the news that the war had ended in Europe?
I was in,
oh God what’s the name of the? What’s the big hotel in oh, I can’t think. I was in a hotel in… just waiting to come back to Australia.
You’d finished your tour of duty?
No, I was bringing Voracious
back. I’d picked up Voracious and I was on my way back to Australia when war in Europe finished and of course the Japanese war continued on after that, for the war in Asia and everywhere.
So you remained on active duty and?
Until I was in New Guinea when the war finished with Japan
Can you tell us a bit about bringing Voracious back to Australia?
Oh it was just a piece of cake. Of course we didn’t see anything; we did a patrol going down the south coast of Indonesia, more or less of Thailand.
Did you come out through the Suez Canal?
and then we went down the coast, didn’t see anything, we didn’t find anything. There were various native canoes, plenty of native boats on the water but nothing of any interest.
Did you see…..?
And then we went down to Fremantle and straight round
to Sydney where I joined the British Pacific Fleet and they were all ensconced in Sydney and then I went up to, I saw my wife for the first time for five years and then I had to go up to New Guinea to Manus we had a base up there or the Americans had a base
and British Pacific Fleet had a base there and that was where it happened and the war finished before I got there, so it was very peaceful; we turned round and came back to Sydney.
Was that fear the war was over at that moment or did you continue to stay on
in the navy?
No, that was over. I went back and I stayed in the boat; I stayed in Voracious in Sydney and then we went round the various states. We went up to Queensland and we went into various harbours and
let people come aboard the boat and just shared the flag up there. Then we went down to Melbourne, I went down to Melbourne for the Cup and we were open in the boat down in Port Phillip and we went down to Hobart, did the same and then back to Sydney and I’d had
it by then.
What do you mean you’d had it?
Well I was quite prepared to get out and I had the offer of a property, a soldier settlement property at….
How did your Royal Australian Naval colleagues welcome you back as somebody who’d served with the Royal Navy?
I don’t think anybody ever talked to me really.
Did they understand what you’d been through?
Well, I don’t think I was ever in an Australian ship. See I never served in an Australian ship, never no.
How did that make you feel when you were meeting your colleagues again who had served over here on Australians ships and you’d been on a British boat?
Well I’d been there for five years and
it was pretty natural to me. I’d got into the habit of being a member.
Do you feel you missed serving for Australia?
No, because Australia didn’t have any submarines. I don’t think I could have
served anything any better than I did. I had the opportunity of feeling that you’re doing something worthwhile.
Did you feel that the end of the war after you left the submarines was an anti climax?
Oh flat as a flounder yes,
flat as a flounder didn’t know which way to turn.
What do you mean? Can you explain in detail?
Well I just didn’t know which way, what to do or where to go or anything. I didn’t have…all I had was my wife.
Was it good being back with your wife?
Oh it was wonderful, yes wonderful.
Did you do anything in particular to adjust?
Started a family and our son was born you know nine months later and I’d I soon got
into the groove.
Did you have any bad dreams?
Yes, I think I did actually.
I did for a while but not for long.
And you were granted a soldier settler farm. Can you talk a bit about that?
Well I had a very good friend that owned a property up near Canberra. We joined the navy together went to England together
and we separated then when I went to submarines and he came back to Australia in one of the cruisers that Australia had taken over but his property was being subdivided,
partly you know, I think they took about 5,000 acres off the property and it was divided into four or five different groups/areas and my mate said “Look, I’m going to nominate you for one of them”.
Of course, it was marvellous. I had a beautiful property. Didn’t have a fence on it when I got it, I had to start from scratch and develop it and it was very good. I did very well out of it.
What sort of property was it?
Sheep and cattle,
Did you miss the sea?
Yes, I did but I kept sailing from time to time and I also sailed with him in a small boat that we had, so we didn’t lose contact with the sea but I’ve
never been in an Australian ship since then. I retired and that was it.
Interviewee: Donald Wilson Archive ID 0121 Tape 09
After the war when you came back it must have been very difficult to adjust to the life of farming after having spent five years almost or entirely in submarines. Did you have any particular troubles you can remember?
Yes I did. I had a lot of trouble settling down. First of all
my wife was pregnant and she produced a son and that was a complication that I was not used to handling, but she was most cooperative. We were fortunate enough that she could.
I brought a farm at Moss Vale or out of Moss Vale half way down towards Robertson which was only about 100, 168, 180 acres I think and not very big and we grew cabbages,
potatoes in large quantities and I also ran a flock of sheep to give me some experience with sheep and lambs and everything else and that worked quite well. I’d been promised this soldier settlement farm at Gundaroo,
which was 1,200 acres beautiful country, no house, no fence nothing on it, so the first 12 months I had it I spent either splitting fence posts, putting up fences and sundry things to make
it give me room to work. As I say it was good country, beautiful country, I built a shed and had a house on it attached to it and I lived in the shack while Phyl my wife was living in Sydney with her mother and the baby.
I used to go backwards and forwards to Sydney to see them once a week. Otherwise, I was part of the bush.
Is that how you wanted to be?
It was the best way to settle down that I knew of. It was a small 180 acres which was a comparatively small area to live on but
I could get the experience that I needed to farm. I had a tractor and first of all I had two draft horses that I used to take out into the bush to pull the fence posts back and it was just playing at farming and
learning how to do it and how to not make a fool of myself.
Were you still a submarine captain playing at farming?
Yes I think so.
Did the war still play a part in your life after afterwards?
Oh, memories of it did yes.
Were they bad memories?
No, I had very good memories actually,
very good memories and I spent three years at the farm. My friend Bedford Osborne had a bad accident at Bewley. I was doing a course of
farming down at Narrandera and he had an accident with his tractor and rolled it over on himself, so I left that and I went back to fill in for Bedford while he was in hospital and keep the wheels turning and
in that period I had the business of running two farms, this big property of Bewley and which is now owned by Dick Smith. You probably see he brought it quite recently from the family. Anyway I
spent time there on both farms keeping the wheels going until he came back from hospital and was able to eventually take over and then I went back to the farm. It developed wonderfully. I was terribly fortunate in the first year that I had sheep,
the year of the very high wool price when you probably don’t remember. You can’t remember this when wool went to a pound and I thought I was absolutely made for life. T’was wonderful. Course the price of everything went up and building and farming and sheep and
everything else went up with it, which made it not quite so easy and in the following year my income tax was just about the price of wool had gone back from a pound and I just about broke even with my wool cheque which again was a very good learning curve to
make you realise that you’ve got to put it together.
Apart from the soldier settlement block to begin with did you receive any other support as an ex serviceman?
No, none at all. I saved enough money out of it to build a house and a had a lovely property eventually. I sowed,
most of the river flats were sown down to lucerne and we were cutting and carrying two sheep to the acre, two breeders to the acre and it was good and I was very fortunate as usual but I worked hard, extremely hard actually.
Your family obviously came down?
Yes, oh yes,
they came back and all was happy.
All this time all these places are very far from the ocean. Did you ever get any outlet to go and visit the sea?
Well Bedford and I had a small boat that we sailed, so yes we sailed the boat
in the first Hobart race. It was not accepted in the race and we had to follow along behind because we were too small and we sailed down to Hobart and back.
Was it a rough year that year?
No, it was good. It was excellent really good but I’ve always enjoyed sailing,
so that was that.
Did you miss the mates that you’d made and the crew members that you’d formed a very close bond with in the navy when you came back to Australia?
I kept in touch with a lot but Gundaroo is a long way from England but it was amazing the number of English
members of the Royal Navy who came out here for a short spell at Canberra representing various sections of the navy and the submariners came out all of whom I knew, so there was always somebody in Canberra.
Did you stay part of any formal organisation such
as the RSL [Returned and Services League]?
Did you actively avoid them?
No, I didn’t but I didn’t know anybody in the RSL. I didn’t know anybody and I’d never served in an Australian unit except before the war when I had a couple of years in a
gunnery business at Willoughby.
Those organisations are very important for getting the story of people’s wartime services out to the people. Do you think in some ways that your experiences so far from Australia were a little bit unrecognised?
Never thought. I couldn’t care less whether it was recognised or not.
Wasn’t important to you at all?
No, it’s not important
to me. I’d sooner keep it to myself actually.
Did you ever talk to anyone about your experiences in the war?
I thought it was closed. It was finished. I’ve never talked before now.
Why did you decide to talk to us?
Oh, a girl rang up and asked me if I would. Very pleasant young woman. I don’t know who she was but young John oh,
he’d told her that I would. She rung him and he told her that I was about, so I s’pose they wouldn’t have known.
John Reeve. Yes, a delightful lovely young bloke.
Do you think it’s time to open up? You said it was all closed for a long time.
Oh no, I think.
I think people think you’re boasting or something. I don’t know. I don’t think I want to, no. I don’t feel that I’ve really got anything to open up to.
You had a son you mentioned when you came back from the war was it?
Did you have any other children?
No, only one.
Did he ever ask you about what you did during the war?
No, not really. He wasn’t very interested.
Since then do you have grandchildren?
A he or a she?
A he, yes.
Has he ever asked you as well?
No, not at all but they’re not interested in it. I think they don’t approve of it as a matter of fact,
but that’s sort of par for the course, isn’t it? As I said I’m horrified at the young people rebelling the way they did the other day. It horrifies me.
Are you proud of your war time service?
Well I’m very proud of the country that I represented. I’m very proud of Australia. I think it’s wonderful. We just don’t know how good it is.
Do you think it’s a country that’s changed a great deal during your lifetime?
Oh, tremendously yes tremendously.
Have they been changes for the better?
It was an absolute honour to go and represent your country I thought when you were called. When you were asked, when anything went wrong and as I think it was it was marvellous of
the RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force] to go the other day straight to, I don’t approve of bullying. I didn’t approve of Hitler or Mussolini. I couldn’t possibly approve of Saddam Hussein when you see what he’s been doing and somebody has to stop it
and I’m terribly much against war but I think if someone doesn’t stop it will get completely out of hand and it would ruin this country in no time.
You helped win the war for Australia and then you got a soldier settlement and then you moved away to New Guinea?
I was terribly fortunate. Look I’ve been fortunate. I sold. I had a bad back. I couldn’t work as hard as I wanted to work by this time. I was aged
50 and I sold the property. I did very well. I invested my money in land and real estate and I did very well. I went to New Guinea
purely and simply to see the country because I’d never seen it before. I knew other people there and an uncle of mine had been a Director of Burns Philp in those days and he said well got to go there and see what see what you think of it, which I did. I liked it. I finished up buying an island out in the Trobriand Islands
and that was heaven - it was absolutely wonderful. My wife and I, Phyl lived on the island by ourselves, or not by ourselves as we had 80 natives working on the island with me family, including family and children and everything - 80 of them
and I loved it. They were the most peaceful, lovely people to work with. Simple but we developed the plantation and it gave them an interest in it and they
were able to go and buy their own fish nets and boats and everything else and fishing gear and be part and parcel of the whole thing and this went on until ’76 I think, it was when independence came and
from that date onward it started to crumple. New Guinea did not belong to the Trobriands, we were too far out but it worked back into them in as much as children were being educated in Kiraweena [?]
and they’d have to go over onto the mainland and the mainland would get to know and people would come back and they all wanted a piece of the cake and all the things that they’d
worked for was falling back. I eventually made a cooperative as for want of a better word of and I thought I’d leave. Phyl was sick, very sick actually, and my son, Brook,
didn’t like it and decided to make a cooperative: give them a share and they could make what money out of it that they could. It was good money too but then Phyl was sick and I came back to Australia.
On one occasion I had police living with me out on the island when my life was threatened by a group of people up in New Britain who were going to take over and form their own
kingdom or some such idea and as I say I had these police out there protecting me. It wasn’t necessary but they insisted. They insisted that they would send it. Anyway, I handed the plantation over to them to my own
boys, my head boss boy was in charge and the four others down the road took their share of it and they tried to run it but all the one talks came in and you know one talks, the relatives of the people, and
“What’s yours is mine” and they wanted their share of it and all these relatives came in onto the island and these poor devils couldn’t run it. It was taken away from them and of course the whole thing collapsed.
You left and came back to Australia?
Two years and I’d left it. I said “Right, well I can’t do anything about it”. I came back to Australia
but it was good. I had a wonderful time living there. I love fishing and caught beautiful fish.
Sounds like a paradise?
Look it was a paradise, it really was absolutely ruined. Well we had all these kids being educated but the whole thing has folded.
What a shame.
It is a pity, isn’t it?
Have you ever been back there since?
No, I won’t go back. They wrote and asked me to come back. Wrote a sort of an absolute PNG letter you know and wanted me to come back because they didn’t have any rice and they didn’t have this and they didn’t have anything else and no copper was going, but it was too
late. You couldn’t go in and stop it. Anyway, I’ve had a most wonderful life. So.
I think you’ve had very important experiences.
Phyl died and then two years later Joan and I were married. I’d known Joan’s father before she was born. He
was a friend of my father and we’ve had a good time. We travel a great deal and there’s not much of the universe we haven’t seen now.
I’ve seen some photos of your round the world upstairs.
The one trip that we just want to talk to you we haven’t got a lot of time left but this is the one thing that I think might nicely round off what we’ve been talking about. Just tell us a little bit about your trip last year
to the submariners conference and what happened with Siegfried Koitschka?
Well Siegfried and I, you’ve heard of Sieg, you’ve heard of it and I invited them to come out to Australia years ago and they said “You know really it’s too far, I can’t, it’s too far to go and probably too expensive”. We carried on a
conversation, letters once a year or we rang up about Christmas time and when I heard about this meeting of world submariners I said “Well, look this is the big opportunity. I’d love to go and we’ll meet Siegfried
and Waltraud, his wife, and go to the meeting at the same time”. So we’d we made these arrangements. In the meantime Siegfried had had a stroke and he was pretty ill and he said he couldn’t’ go to the meeting. I said “Right, we’ll come to you. We’ll come and see you. We’ll be in Frankfurt
and we’ll organise that we get together”. So we did. We had a great success at the meeting. I’ve never seen such camaraderie; I never thought it possible.
Was this the same men you’d been firing torpedoes at for five years?
These are the people we’d been killing each other you know and
the number of people that I met had something to do with a fellow who was a member of the submarine that sank the Medway, which was the biggest loss that the Royal Navy had in fact, certainly as far as submarines was concerned and
people that had the Japanese ship that was torpedoed by the American was there and talked about it and they were feeling absolutely
wonderful. Chris [interviewer], we were absolutely spellbound the two of us. They gave Joan the most wonderful sort of reception you know.
Were there no hatreds that still existed?
There was no hatred at all, absolutely none at all and the only bloody hatred
about it was when we came back and told people where we’d been and it was terrible. There were no Englishmen. No officers as though they weren’t allowed to come. The only Englishmen
were sailors, submariners that had been you know boats’ crew, which shook me to the core but for my part it was the most wonderful week we spent there. We had that many friends.
Did it give you cause to reflect on the war having met all these people who were just honest blokes like yourself?
How did that make you feel about the war and what you’d done?
Well we brought it to a close didn’t we? We brought it to a close. I don’t think those people approved of Hitler. I know Koitschka didn’t,
he was a young man my age when he joined submarines and he became a submariner and he did what he was told.
Do you think….?
They’re not all bad.
Do you think that it was worth it?
I don’t know whether I’d do it again. I’m getting a bit old and rickety now but I’ll never regret it. Joan thought that it was marvellous.
Do you think that you helped win the war for the British and for the Australians and for the Allies? Do you think that the Allies have won the peace?
In the period of time since the war, how do you reflect on what’s happened since?
I’m horrified. Everybody wants something for nothing.
I think the press have far too much latitude, although I don’t understand it. Some of the articles that you read in the Sydney Morning Herald now
are not worth burning and I think it’s sad, very sad. I think we’re very lucky with the,
I think John Howard is a wonderful Prime Minister because I think he’s honest, strictly honest, which is more than can be said about most of them.
Is the Australia of today the Australia that you fought for in the Second World War?
No, it’s not. Certainly not with what’s been going on in the last couple of months. I think it’s a tragedy.
The last thing that we want to do for the archive, which is going to be put away for 100 years. If in 100 years time you could talk to someone is there anything
you would like to say? This is your last moment for you to speak on camera to anyone in the future. Is there any message you have for them?
Be honest with yourselves. Don’t fool yourself.
it’s free. It’s what you put into it yourself. It’s honesty and you won’t go wrong.
Thank you so much for doing this. I think that’s a great last word.