Yachtsmen plaque dedicated at Memorial

This article has photo gallery Published on SGT Dave Morley (author and photographer)

Location(s): Australian War Memorial

Topic(s): Operations, Honours, Awards and Trophies, Ceremony and Traditions, Naval Heritage

Royal Australian Navy Lieutenant (LEUT) Doug Gilling (retd), a former member of the Dominion Yachtsmen Scheme (DYS), unveiled a plaque dedicated to the DYS at the Australian War Memorial (AWM), Canberra, on May 4, 2017.

With him is Melbourne-based historian Janet Roberts Billett, who led the campaign to have a plaque at the AWM dedicated to the DYS.

 (photo: SGT Dave Morley)
Royal Australian Navy Lieutenant (LEUT) Doug Gilling (retd), a former member of the Dominion Yachtsmen Scheme (DYS), unveiled a plaque dedicated to the DYS at the Australian War Memorial (AWM), Canberra, on May 4, 2017. With him is Melbourne-based historian Janet Roberts Billett, who led the campaign to have a plaque at the AWM dedicated to the DYS.

The gritty persistence of a Melbourne historian to have a forgotten group of Second World War sailors recognised finally paid off when a plaque was dedicated to them at the Australian War Memorial on 4 May.

About 500 Australian volunteers answered a call from the British Admiralty and joined the Dominion Yachtsmen Scheme.

The scheme was introduced following an appeal to the dominions from the British Admiralty in June 1940 to surge ‘gentlemen’ with yachting experience into service with the Royal Navy.

Two streams of entry were available, stream ‘A’, catered for men aged between 30 and 40 years who possessed mariner skills and who met the Navy’s physical fitness standards for officers and were qualified with yachtsmen’s coastal certificate.

The second, stream ‘B’, was introduced for volunteers aged between 20 and 30 years who were considered to have the academic qualities required for advancement to commissioned rank and who would be promoted following a period of training and sea service as ordinary seamen.

Sent to the United Kingdom from 1940-42, they served in the Atlantic, the Arctic, the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf on convoy duty, in special operations, and rendering mines safe.

Towards the end of the war many were involved in the D-Day landings, while many also served in the south-east Asian theatre. 

Historian Janet Roberts Billett said she became interested in the Scheme after meeting a number of them in 1998, while compiling an oral history of veterans.

“I ended up doing a master’s thesis after interviewing 25 of them. It was a study of memory, identity and Australian volunteers in the Royal Navy from 1940-45,” she said.

“During the study it became apparent they felt they’d been forgotten.

“Then on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, there were some veterans at the Australian War Memorial and I got a bit het up because there was no mention made of them, and there were about 300 of them at D-Day.”

Ms Roberts Billett said the majority enlisted in 1940, but when Japan came into the war in December 1941, the scheme ended.

When the battle-cruiser HMS Hood sank within minutes after being hit by a salvo from the German battleshipBismarck on May 24, 1941, four young Australian “Yachties” were lost in action.
 
Ordinary Seamen George Hall, John Shannon, Ian Startup and David Hall were among a group of Australians from various backgrounds who joined the scheme in September 1940.

On January 23, 1941, they were drafted to the battlecruiser HMS Hood for seamanship training.

On the morning of May 24, 1941, these four men were among 1415 members of the ship’s company lost when Hoodsank in a matter of minutes after being hit by salvos from the Bismarck.
 
“When they arrived back in Australia from the UK at the end of the war, no-one wanted to know what their war was about,” she said.

“They were confronted by people who asked them where they’d been when the Japanese were at our doorstep.

“They actually had an enormous amount of honours and awards because of the different conflicts they’d been involved in in the northern hemisphere and 37 of them had been killed in action.

“There was a tremendous sense of sadness about the whole thing, because many had wanted to return to fight the Japanese, but the RN wouldn’t release them – they felt they’d been doing the right thing, but their service was never validated.”
 
South Australian-born Ordinary Seamen Lyle Miller and Ray McDonald were drafted to the Tribal-class destroyer HMS Somali in July 1942 and saw considerable action on a Malta-bound convoy, where just five of 14 merchant ships reached Malta.
 
After a short leave the two sailors returned to Scapa Flow where they joined a large naval force escorting convoy PQ18 to Archangel in North Russia.
 
The convoy was attacked by U-boats which sank 13 of the 40 merchant ships in the convoy.
 
Somali
 was torpedoed and broke in two, sinking quickly, with Ordinary Seaman Miller being one of only four survivors dragged from the freezing waters.
 
Volunteers in the scheme were awarded four George Crosses, 10 George Medals, 31 Distinguished Service Crosses, one Distinguished Service Medal, 34 Mentions-in-Dispatches, three Orders of the British Empire, three Members of the British Empire and the only Conspicuous Gallantry Medal ever awarded to an Australian.
 
That ‘Australian’ was Ian Desmond Laurie-Rhodes, born in August 1912 at Ongaonga, New Zealand, who moved with his family to Victoria in 1920.
 
Using the surname Rhodes, he attempted to enlist in the Army, Navy and Air Force at the outbreak of the war, but was rejected because of a stomach ulcer.
 
A sympathetic medical examiner cleared him in September 1940 to enter the Royal Australian Navy Volunteer Reserve as an ordinary seaman under the Dominion Yachtsmen Scheme and he was posted to the UK for further training shortly after.
 
He joined the destroyer HMS Kashmir in April 1941 and in May took part in the Royal Navy’s attempt to prevent a German landing on Crete.
 
On May 23, Kashmir came under air-attack while returning to Egypt to refuel.
 
She broke in two and began to sink rapidly after being hit by a bomb amidships.
 
When a German bomber machine-gunned both the rear section of the ship and members of her crew who were struggling in the sea, Rhodes left the port Oerlikon gun as the water rose around it and climbed to the nearby starboard gun.
 
Turning this weapon against the attacking aeroplane, he shot it down in flames.
 
Rhodes was taken to Alexandria in HMS Kipling, wearing just a pair of shorts and a borrowed cap.
 
He earned the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, the highest decoration after the Victoria Cross that could be awarded to sailors, becoming the only Australian sailor to receive this decoration in either World War.
 
The plaque dedicated at the Memorial was a significant step in telling the story of a small band of men from Australia who did their nation and their service proud, according to Memorial Acting Director Tim Sullivan.
 
“They saw action in some of the most dangerous naval campaigns of the war: the desperate Battle for the Atlantic, vital convoy escort duties, the D-Day landings and then in the vastness of the South-West Pacific theatre,” he said.
 
“They served in corvettes, destroyers, minesweepers, frigates and cruisers; they commanded motor gun boats and landing craft, and they served in the perilous occupation of rendering mines safe at sea.

“They volunteered for duty in the darkest days of 1940, when the Admiralty called on the Dominions for men to serve in the Royal Navy.”
 
A number of men returning to Australia as passengers on the merchant ships Ceramic, Melbourne Star and Nellore were lost when those ships were torpedoed by enemy submarines.