Descending the ladder into a submarine was no trouble for Royal Navy veteran, 92-year old Robert Pitman, when the spritely nonagenarian visited HMAS Dechaineux alongside her home port in Western Australia recently.
A former wireless operator submariner in the Royal Navy, his submarine HMS Thorough operated out of Fremantle during the last 18 months of the Second World War.
Hosted by Dechaineux’s Commanding Officer, Commander Daniel Sutherland, Mr Pitman said seeing the submarine was quite a treat and he was impressed at how much space the modern submarine has in comparison to his old boat.
“These submarines are huge! Back on my boat space was very tight, people slept on tables and underneath them as well, and only those that had been onboard a while got a hammock,” he said.
“Sometimes you were in a hammock and got bumped as someone walked past, so you woke up, got dressed thinking it was your shake and went on watch, only to find out you were an hour or so early! I did it a few times,” he said.
Working in company with HMS Taciturn and two American boats, USS Bullhead and Snapper, Robert conducted patrols in the Pacific. It was a busy period and their task group ended up sinking 32 ships by war’s end.
The nature of the operations and confines of the submarine requires a different type of sailor, and Mr Pitman thinks that the ability to get along with others is pivotal to enjoying a submarine career.
“Everyone was scared, so you just focused on operating your equipment, and when the chips were down we were all scared but afterwards we laughed and joked and it was fine.
“Never mind the fear though, the biggest thing was to be able to get on with people. We used to say, ‘watch out you’re eating off my plate’, because we were crammed in so tightly,” he said.
His time spent in Fremantle was remembered fondly as he told the story to Commander Sutherland.
“When we were in port in Fremantle, posted in the mess were addresses of Australian families that would host you for the weekend, where they would come and pick you up and welcome you into their home. It was just brilliant,” he said.
It was the friendly nature of Australian people and the beautiful places that brought him back to live with his Canadian bride, two years after the war ended.
He lived in Jarrahdale initially and worked in farming, later studying and working as a social worker for decades before retirement. He warmly recalls his submarine service.
“It was the best thing I could have done,” he said.
Hosting submariners, says Commander Sutherland, is something that galvanises the crew.
“It has been a wonderful experience to listen to Robert’s stories and imagine his service during the war in some of the very places I too have sailed,” Commander Sutherland said.
After having tea in the wardroom and seeing the control room, where much of the same objects still exist, just in a more modern form, Mr Pitman bid farewell to the Commanding Officer.
“This has been the best. I do so appreciate you making yourself available to host me. This is a red-letter day for me,” he said.