Memories of the fighting rat

This article has photo gallery Published on LEUT Debra Holland (author)

Warrant Officer Stephen Downey returns to the forecastle of HMAS Tobruk  along with the original sketch of the ship's emblem. (photo: Unknown)
Warrant Officer Stephen Downey returns to the forecastle of HMAS Tobruk along with the original sketch of the ship's emblem.

In 1983 a very young Able Seaman Quartermaster Gunner Stephen Downey stood on the bridge of HMAS Tobruk as Navy’s amphibious warfare ship steamed out of Moreton Bay for the Kangaroo Exercises off the Western Australian coast.

On transit and between watches, Able Seaman Downey decided to put pencil to paper and improve the image of Tobruk’s rat. The thought behind the enhancement was to depict the ship as a true front line warship and not purely as one in a support role. 

He little realised then that his simple but empowering image would be adopted as ship's mascot and emblem - the fighting rat.

He still has that sketch tucked way in an album of memories; the aggressive little rodent with the unmistakable outline of two Bofor 40/60 guns sitting either side in support.  Three decades later, the Bofors are gone from Tobruk and the former Boatswains Mate is now Fleet Command Warrant Officer Stephen Downey, one of Navy's most senior and experienced sailors.  

On 25 June Warrant Officer Downey joined the current ship's company for Tobruk's last entry into Sydney Harbour, standing at his part of ship on the forecastle.  

If the emotion of the moment took him a little by surprise, it also evoked many memories. 

“You need to be in the moment on occasions such as this,” he said. 

“It was an amazing feeling coming into Fleet Base East and the crew of our largest and latest commissioned amphibious warship HMAS Canberra were there to welcome us.  

I think every one of us has served in the ‘fleet ute’ in one way or another during our careers, whether for sea training or on mission or for exercise,” he said.

Warrant Officer Downey said he felt honoured that his current role gave him a ringside seat for Tobruk’s final months in service.

“Yes, I am proud to have had a small part of the story of ‘the fighting rat’ but the future lies with a new generation of Navy people who have more diverse backgrounds and are better educated than we were,” he said.

And if Warrant Officer Downey could go ‘back to the future’, what would be the message he would give his younger self?

“Be thankful for things you’ve done, the places you’ve been and the people you have had the privilege to serve with as part of Navy’s history,” he said.