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- Biographies and personal histories, WWII operations, WWI operations, Obituaries
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Adelaide I, HMAS Brisbane I, HMAS Encounter I, HMAS Sydney I, HMAS Australia II
- December 2005 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Lieutenant Evan Allen, who died aged 106, was the last veteran to serve in the Royal Australian Navy in both world wars, and the last man to have seen both the US Navy’s Great White Fleet and the Kaiser’s Fleet after the surrender.
When Allan joined the three-funnel cruiser HMAS Encounter in 1914, his day would have been familiar to a sailor in Nelson’s navy: hands were called at 5 am and, after a breakfast of coffee and biscuits, were mustered with their hammocks on their shoulders at 0530. Hammocks were stored for the day in bins on the upper deck. Cooks of the mess collected food from the galley for meals. Cold water was pumped into buckets for washing, and hot water provided once a week. Uniform was bell-bottoms, with a knife on a lanyard; and punishment for minor misdemeanours was “over the rigging”, which meant being required to climb a ship’s tall masts.
Allan was given pocket money, made an allotment to his mother and received the balance when Encounter was paid off. The major difference from Nelson’s time was the need to coal ship, filling and lifting hundredweight (112 lb) sacks out of colliers and dumping 300 to 400 tons down chutes into bunkers. Afterwards, he recalled, “you’d be like a black fellah.”
William Evan Crawford Allan was born on July 24 1899 at Bega, New South Wales, where his grandfather was one of the original settlers. He was brought up at Upper Brogo, where his father was farm manager, and educated at home by his mother, a former governess. Allan was inspired to go to sea after seeing the American Great White Fleet which visited Sydney on its circumnavigation of the world. Aged 14 years 9 months, he travelled to Rushcutters Bay, where he joined the training ship Tingira. After a rigorous regime of physical training, seamanship, boatwork and gunnery, he was sent to Encounter as a Boy Seaman, Second Class.
In 1914 he took part in the RAN’s invasion of German New Guinea. Encounter captured the German steamer Zambezi and the schooner Elfrede, bombarded Toma Ridge in support of Australian forces, and covered landings at Madang. The following year she landed troops to protect the cable station on Fanning Island. After Encounter was grounded on a coral reef at Johnson Island, Allan recalled a plague of birds covering the deck in droppings. She was refloated by the ship’s company jumping in unison on the quarterdeck.
Afterwards, while at Keppel Harbour, Singapore, for repairs, Allan was included in a landing party sent in to put down riots against Japanese businessmen. In September 1917 Encounter stood by SS. Cumberland, which had struck a mine off Gabo Island, and searched the wreck of the German sailing ship raider Seeadler at Mopelia Island, though Allan’s most striking memory was of horses being washed off the upper deck of a troopship in the Great Australian Bight.
The following year, he was sent to England in the requisitioned German passenger liner Berambah, in which Spanish ‘flu broke out and the doctor ran out of medicines. Allan watched one officer of the watch as he “rattled, began to shake, turned black and fell down dead in five minutes”. Many men were buried at sea. Others were landed in Sierra Leone where Allan heard that the war had ended.
He then joined the light cruiser HMAS Sydney and photographed the German Fleet interned at Scapa Flow (though his pictures were lost) and then sailed back to Australia.
In the hot Indian Ocean, a mutiny by the stokers was averted when he and other seamen were sent down to the bunkers to help trim coal. Later he was in an armed shore patrol which was landed at Penang to re-establish peace after rioting.
Though many of his contemporaries disapproved, Allan became a petty officer torpedoman at 22. While serving in the cruiser HMAS Brisbane, he started selling photographs he had taken to his shipmates as postcards. In 1922 he helped to commission the light cruiser HMAS Adelaide, attached to the Royal Navy’s Special Service Squadron’s world cruise, and became the first Australian warship to pass through the Panama Canal when sailing to England.
Six years later, he was one of the trials crew for the new heavy cruiser HMAS Australia, from which he was washed overboard off Nova Scotia. As captain of the forecastle, he had gone on to the upper deck during a gale to secure a leaking door when a huge wave struck, and he found himself swimming alongside at eye-level with the officers on the bridge. Saved by his oilskin billowing out to give buoyancy, he grabbed the logline when it shot past him and climbed into a lifebuoy thrown by a lookout. As the ship manoeuvred to pick him up, Allan feared that the suction at her sides would pull him under, but eventually he was hauled onboard up a Jacob’s ladder.