HMAS Sydney's 32 years of service to the Royal Australian Navy is coming to an end and many of her former crew are looking back on their time on board the vessel which has such a proud history, before they say goodbye at the ship’s decommissioning on the weekend.
One of the ship’s many former Commanding Officers, Rear Admiral Michael van Balen, the current Deputy Chief of Navy and Head of Navy People Training and Resources, will be wishing the ship a fond farewell and shares some of his memories and significant moments on the ship, with us.
“It is time to farewell HMAS Sydney, and I am very pleased to be able to attend her decommissioning ceremony on Saturday, alongside at her homeport of Garden Island,” Rear Admiral van Balen said.
“I will be reflecting upon the significance of her service to our country.
“Sydney has provided the Australian Defence Force with significant support in the conduct of maritime operations spanning the globe.
“She has steamed 959,627 nautical miles and has been involved in operations in the Middle East, East Timor, Fiji and the Solomon Islands.
“And she rightly earned a Meritorious Unit Citation during the First Gulf War in 1991,” he said.
Rear Admiral van Balen joined the Navy as a Junior Entry Cadet Midshipman in 1978. Graduating from the Royal Australian Naval College in 1982, he undertook a variety of sea appointments in Royal Australian Navy ships, including just over a year in Sydney as the Commanding Officer from September 2002 until December 2003.
During his time in command he deployed to the Persian Gulf in support of Operations FALCONER and CATALYST, the war in Iraq. Just prior to this he had spent time in the United States, as the Australian Liaison Officer to the Commander-in-Chief Pacific Fleet, in Pearl Harbour.
One of Rear Admiral van Balen’s most memorable moments as Commanding Officer was the ship’s departure from Sydney Harbour on 8 April 2003, for the Gulf War. Shortly after slipping her lines, Sydney was swarmed by a number of Greenpeace protest boats, and her passage up the Western Channel of Sydney Harbour stopped when the protesters laid a cable across the channel.
“It made the departure quite challenging but eventually we cleared Sydney heads having transited the Eastern Channel,” he said.
“To this day I believe Sydney is the only ship to have backed down the Eastern Channel of Sydney Harbour.”
Sydney arrived in the Middle East Area of Operations on 29 April 2003 just in time for the final phase of Operation FALCONER, the Second Gulf War. Just two days later, the President of the United States, George W Bush, announced that major combat operations in Iraq had ceased. Sydney conducted patrols in the North Arabian Gulf and acted as a guard ship involved in surveillance and, when required, interdiction of merchant traffic. She conducted 82 boardings in 82 days and visited the ports of Bahrain, Mina Jebel Ali and Kuwait City.
Rear Admiral van Balen has many special stories to tell about his time in Sydney but he points out, as every previous Commanding Officer would agree, that the best of these relate to the ship's company.
“I was blessed with an extremely professional crew who performed remarkably,” he said.
“Throughout her service, Sydney has held a great reputation which stems primarily from the calibre of the men and women who have served in her.
“On Sydney’s decommissioning, all who have served in her should feel justifiably proud; if not a little saddened.”