The last of the few yachties

Published on SGT Dave Morley (author and photographer)

Topic(s): Operations, Recruitment, Ceremony and Traditions, Ships, Boats and Submarines, Naval Heritage

Royal Australian Navy Lieutenant Doug Gilling (retd), 95, a former member of the Dominion Yachtsmen Scheme (DYS), unveiled a plaque dedicated to the DYS at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, on May 4, 2017. (photo: SGT Dave Morley)
Royal Australian Navy Lieutenant Doug Gilling (retd), 95, a former member of the Dominion Yachtsmen Scheme (DYS), unveiled a plaque dedicated to the DYS at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, on May 4, 2017.

One Dominion Yachtsmen Scheme participant, possibly the last one of the original 500, had a number of narrow escapes during the Second World War.

Lieutenant Doug Gilling (retd), 95, said he tried to join the Army just after the 6th and 7th Divisions left for the Middle East.

“I was told to come back in a few months when recruiting for the 8th Division was going to start, but luckily I missed that, otherwise I wouldn’t have been here today,” he said.

“I tried for the anti-submarine service at HMAS Rushcutter and they accepted me, but said they couldn’t take me until I was 20, because there were no midshipmen in the RANVR.

“The only alternative, they told me, because I wasn’t prepared to wait that long, was the Dominion Yachtsmen Scheme, and because I’d been out in a yacht a couple of times that was sufficient to allow me to qualify.”

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

It 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.

After Lieutenant Gilling completed his seaman training in England, he was drafted into the Hunt-class destroyer HMS Berkeley, in December 1941.

He served in Berkeley until it was sunk on August 19, 1942, after being bombed during the Combined Operations raid on Dieppe.

Lieutenant Gilling said his flotilla of seven destroyers was tasked with providing relief to the troops going ashore with bombardment and smoke screens.

“My role was to load ammunition in a twin 4-inch gun on the after deck – we must have fired off hundreds of rounds that day, which is why I’m deaf now,” he said.

“We’d been getting bombed all day long, but the CO must have been a good cricketer because he’d look up, see the bombs coming down and say, ‘hard a starboard’ or ‘hard a port’, and the bombs would miss us. 

“Toward the end of the day I looked up and saw a Dornier being chased by a Spitfire and then, in order to gain height, it dropped its bombs, and we happened to be underneath it.

“Luckily for me, the bombs landed in front of the bridge on the forward gun crew, and none of them survived.”

The ship was totally immobilised and broken in two.

Lieutenant Gilling said there was a fair degree of confusion and he was on the after deck with the remainder of the crew of the gun.

“I remember when the bomb hit I had a 4-inch shell in my arms and I took off into the air and finished up in the scuppers,” he said.

“When I got up I looked toward the bridge and saw the CO giving the signal to abandon ship, which by then was listing heavily, so we inflated our life jackets and went over the side.

“After half an hour or so in the water, a landing craft was sent to pick us up and then I was transferred to another destroyer, which had suffered quite heavy casualties from bombing.”

“They asked me if I was willing to be a loader on their guns because, although we were on our way home, we still had a few German aircraft coming in to attack us.”

When Lieutenant Gilling arrived back in Portsmouth he was given three weeks survivor’s leave.

A plaque was dedicated to members of the Scheme at the Australian War Memorial on 4 May.

He said being able to attend the plaque unveiling at the Australian War Memorial was a great honour.

“Of course I’m aware of how lucky I am to have lasted as long as I have – I’m on the verge of turning 96,” he said.

“It’s a great honour to feel you’re the representative of 500 people who are at last going to be recognised here at the AWM.”