- A.N. Other
- Ship histories and stories
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Platypus (Shore Base)
- September 2017 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Peter R. Smith
This paper was prepared by the Submarine Institute of Australia to help mark the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the formation of a submarine base at Neutral Bay in Sydney Harbour with the commissioning of HMAS Platypus on 18 August 1967. Exactly 50 years later a ceremony to mark the occasion was held on the site of the old base.
In the early twentieth century the fledging Royal Australian Navy made a decision to include submarines in the fleet and in consulting with the Royal Navy it was decided to include two ‘E’ class submarines and a depot ship. Perhaps in copying the Royal Navy, the Australian Naval Board chose a unique mammal to give its name to its new depot ship, the platypus. It was recorded that the platypus lived on land, but foraged for its food under the water using the electro receptors in its duck bill. The similarities between the platypus and the submarines at that time had been noted.
Subsequently the submarine depot ship was ordered before the outbreak of World War One and built by John Brown and Co., Clydebank, Scotland. On completion the ship was requisitioned by the British Government and commissioned as HMS Platypus on 21 March 1917. On the completion of war, Platypus was handed back to the RAN and made her maiden voyage to Australia accompanying the ‘J’ class submarines that had been gifted to Australia.
HMAS Platypus served as a submarine depot ship to both the ‘J’ class and the first ‘Oberon’ class submarines. At one period from August 1929 to February 1941 the ship had a name change to HMAS Penguin and became a destroyer tender. From February 1941 onwards the ship was given back its original name Platypus. On 14 May 1946 the ship was placed into reserve and was sold for scrap on 20 February 1958.
Since her decommissioning the bell, name boards and other paraphernalia from the ship had been quietly stored in the Navy’s Repository until Tuesday, 10 November 1964 when the Minister for the Navy, Mr. F. C. Chaney, announced that under the new three-year defence plan of Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies the present Royal Australian Navy Torpedo Maintenance Establishment at Neutral Bay in Sydney had been chosen as the site for the Navy’s submarine base.
The facilities, an old existing wharf, plus easy access to the establishments’ torpedoes, were built in 1943 after the property passed from the North Shore Gas Company to the Commonwealth in 1942. The bay had been in use for many years by submarines from the Royal Navy since the Fourth Flotilla had been established at Penguin at Balmoral in 1949. When weather and sea conditions were unfavourable at Balmoral the submarines were moved to calmer waters. This consideration was taken into account in the final assessment of submarine needs.
In Mr. Chaney’s proposal, work would begin on the $4 million base in June 1965. Included in the works would be a new wharf for berthing and support facilities. To placate the residents living around Neutral Bay, a shore charging station was established to eliminate noise caused by submarines when using their diesel engines to charge batteries.
Two days after the announcement, five hundred residents around the proposed base protested with a signed petition to the North Sydney Council. They demanded action from the council to stop the base from being built. Other than their fears of their property values dropping, they felt that ‘the submarine base was akin to building a hydrogen bomb plant in George Street, City.’ The residents believed the base would become a major target in another war. Others complained that noise from the submarines had already cracked walls, brought plaster down from ceilings and rattled windows. The inhabitants of Neutral Bay figured that four new submarines would not only further pollute the bay, but would make life unbearable.
But the greatest attacks against the Navy and the Liberal Government came from the editor of The Sun newspaper in his editorials over several days. The editor’s sentiments were: ‘Enough is enough; the Navy and Army have taken over and spoilt some of the choicest land and harbour sites within Sydney’. In his posturing, he demanded ‘that all bases east of the Harbour Bridge be uprooted and moved west.’ He continued with: ‘People who know the harbour and its depths say there is no need for these ships to be here. And now it is proposed that more submarines should move into what remains of the peace and beauty of Neutral Bay, to cast their sludge upon the waters.’
The Government and Navy were not moved by the remonstrations and both were in agreement that as the Federal Government already owned the site, Neutral Bay was the best and cheapest of the alternatives.
Residents continued their protest against the base until almost the end of 1966 when the proposal to build the three story administration building was released. The residents complained that building would completely block their view up the bay. Others reported the bay had been ruined and taken on the appearance of an oyster lease.
After several stops and starts, due to the instability of the rock base on the site, the administration block was completed along with the new wharf.
With the delays cleared, HMAS Platypus was finally commissioned several weeks late on 18 August 1967. The officer appointed to command the base and squadron was former Royal Navy submariner, Commander W.L. Owen, RAN. The commissioning ceremony was attended by the Royal Navy Flag Officer for Submarines Rear Admiral I.L.M. McGeoch, RN, the Minister for Defence Mr. A. Fairhall, the Minister for the Navy Mr. D. Chipp and the NSW Minister for Works Mr. D. Hughes who represented the Premier Mr. R. Askin. During the ceremony Rear Admiral McGeoch presented a bronze platypus to the base on behalf of the Royal Navy.
At the completion of the Commissioning Ceremony the arrival of the first submarine, HMAS Oxley, proclaimed the start of the Fourth Australian Submarine Flotilla. Oxley was joined over the years by the following submarines: HMA Submarines Otway, Ovens, Onslow, Orion and Otama.As well, HM Submarines Trump, Tabard and Odin, plus a number of visiting submarines have operated out of Neutral Bay. After initial teething problems, the Base managed to operate with few noise complaints from its neighbours. Diesel oil spills had been kept to a minimum, with a fast and ready infrastructure set up to clean and dissipate the spills before damage was done.
Since the announcement in 1964, many changes have been made to the Bay. Gone are the ugly buildings of the gas company, replaced with modern contemporary buildings. In recent years the gas tanks above the cliffs have been demolished and the land developed with multistorey apartments. Over the years Platypus has slowly merged into its surroundings.
When the Australian Submarine Squadron celebrated its 25th Anniversary the people of Neutral Bay and North Sydney had finally accepted the base. On Friday, 27 November 1992, the Captain, Officers and Ship’s Company of the Submarine Squadron received the honour of Freedom of Entry to the Municipality of North Sydney, presented by the Mayor Mr. Gerry Nolan.
Changes in Australian Defence Policy called for the build up of bases on the north and west coasts of the continent. With the increasing age of the Oberon submarines and in anticipation of the delivery and homeporting the new ‘Collins’ class, the Commander Australian Submarine Squadron moved his headquarters to HMAS Stirling in 1994. This signalled the end of a submarine base on the east coast which eventuated on 29 March 1999. Onslow was decommissioned and gifted to the Australian National Maritime Museum and Otamawas deployed to her new home port in Western Australia.
The curtain finally closed over the old Submarine Base on Friday 14 May 1999 when Platypus was officially decommissioned and her historical collection was packed up and placed in the Navy’s Repository.
The following Officers commanded the base and during its commission: CMDR W.L. Owen, CMDR G.P. Dalrymple, CMDR T.R. Duchesne, CAPT W.L. Owen, CAPT B. Nobes. CAPT T.R. Duchesne, CAPT I.D.G. MacDougall, CAPT P.D. Briggs, CAPT K.F. Pitt, CAPT G.J. Dikkenberg, CAPT D.W. Mole, CMDR J.I. O’Brien, CMDR S.G. Lloyd, CMDR J.C. Stanbury, CMDR G.J. McCormack and CMDR P.C.P. Ong.
During the command of Captain Barry Nobes (from 1979 to 1982) he initiated a name change to the Flotilla by dropping the words Fourth and Flotilla and renaming it the Australian Submarine Squadron.
After the decommissioning and vacating the Platypus site the Federal Government handed over the former base to the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust. The main administration building was demolished as it was built over contaminated soil that had permeated into the building’s structure. Parts of the existing wharf also had to be removed due to concrete cancer. Other changes to the site are proposed when funds become available.
An interesting curiosity on the base that most submariners never noticed was that the ship’s bell was missing an ‘A’. Because the ship had been commissioned into the Royal Navy on completion of building, when handed back in 1919 a new bell was never manufactured, so for the rest of the ship’s life and the base’s life the bell has always read HMS Platypus.
If the editor of The Sun was still alive today, I wonder would he appreciate the fact that after 30 odd years, both the Government and Defence Department did note his expostulations and have moved bases ‘west of the bridge,’ you certainly cannot get further west than Garden Island, Western Australia!
A ceremony was held on 18 August 2017 commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the formation of the submarine base in Neutral Bay and commissioning of Platypus.
Notes: It was apt that the Royal Naval Flag Officer Submarines, Rear Admiral Ian McGeoch, DSO, DSC, attended the commissioning ceremony as in 1949 he commanded the Royal Naval Fourth Submarine Flotilla based at Sydney. He rose to become Vice Admiral Sir Ian McGeoch, KCB, DSO, DSC.