- Howland, Tony
- Biographies and personal histories, Ship histories and stories, Post WWII
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Bass
- June 2006 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The ship was astir well before dawn. Chef had cooked up a storm of chops, sausages, eggs and bacon, and was appropriately offended when the soldiery declared that their appetites were just not up to it – perhaps when they returned . . . instead, they took time and care to don their webbing and camouflage paint, checking their weapons and each other’s gear in a most professional manner. Obviously, they were taking this outing very seriously.
At first light, Bass crept forward, close in to the island. The landing force stood in silence on the cargo deck, staring at the dark mass of the island. On the bridge, lookouts scanned the sea, straining to catch a glimpse of a periscope perhaps, or worse, torpedo tracks.
‘Half a mile, sir,’ I said quietly from the radar. ‘Four fathoms.’
The Captain nodded. ‘Stop both engines. Swing out the landing boat.’
Bass slowed and drifted forward. Under the Buffer’s guidance, the boat was hoisted on the cargo boom, swung out and held at gunwale level whilst the soldiers scrambled aboard. Every sound was magnified in the stillness of the morning. Tension was high.
The Captain brought the ship round to stem the tide. ‘Launch,’ he said in a low voice from the bridge wing. The boat was eased into the water. In the bows of the ship, a member of the cable party peered into the gloom towards the island. He worked the bolt of the rifle with a click which caused everyone to stop. The sun leapt from the horizon behind us, hopefully making difficult any Indon’s task of seeing us and making out what was going on, at least for a short while.
The boat motored off. The soldiers crouched as low as they could get. The Major stood bravely in the bow, peering through binoculars, directing the coxswain with hand signals. From the ship, they appeared both weak and vulnerable. We waited, silent and alert. We too scanned the beach for any sign of activity, but for the moment, all was quiet.
Finally, the boat nudged into the sand. The Major and his troops leapt with commendable enthusiasm into the shallows and ran up the beach, fanning out and diving into the sand at the top of the beach. There was silence, broken by the sound of the motor boat backing out at speed. At a signal from the Major, the troops moved inland. So far, so good.
The chart had given us little idea about the island. In the brightening sunlight, we could see that it was little more than a lump of scrub poking out of the sea, and surrounded by sand. It was no more than half a mile long and less than half that distance wide. There were no trees. How long would it take for the soldiers to search the place? Would there be anywhere for the Indons to hide? Perhaps there had been a group of them put ashore, but why, and surely, since more than a day had passed since the reported landing, they had already left.
Time passed. The heat of the day built quickly in the still morning. There were no sounds from the island. After an hour, the radio crackled into life. ‘Not a bloody sausage!’ said the Major. ‘Never has been. Not a foot print in the sand, not a single sign of anyone ever having been here apart from an aborigines’ midden on the northern end of the place. Get us out of here!’
Immediately, we saw the soldiers, slowly and sheepishly, straggle back onto the beach, collapse in the sand and light up. We dispatched their boat inshore to pick them up. They were not happy when they returned on board, their language unreportable.
Bass quickly got under way; despite the lack of an obvious threat, we were keen to be out of the place.
The Captain and the Major conferred briefly and a conclusion was quickly reached. It seemed the Major was of the view that he could avoid having to take his troops off on their next scheduled run to the rifle range by getting it all over right here and now. Targets went into the water, the troops sprang into action and for the next thirty minutes, the sounds of the Battle of Snake Bay shattered the morning peace – the rattle of automatic fire, a storm of rifle fire, the thud of grenades exploding underwater. The targets, heavily defeated, sank. Finally, ammunition and frustrations exhausted, the troops retired to devour the chef’s warmed-over breakfast. Bass circled to retrieve the assortment of marine life which had floated, lifeless, to the surface – enough for all.
The Army thanked the Navy for their professionalism, the Navy thanked the Army for a ‘great show’, and many disparaging remarks were made about the ‘idiots’ who had reported the submarine in the first place. But we agreed, we had done the job well. Interservice togetherness had never been so well practised.