- A.N. Other
- Biographies and personal histories, WWII operations
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Shropshire
- December 2013 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
‘They also serve who only stand and wait’ is the final line taken from the great English poet John Milton’s sonnet on his blindness. In a modern context this implies we all have a place in this world and we all perform an important function. This tribute is part of a series about some lesser known gallant men and women who helped make history while serving in the RAN.
John Hordern was one of six children (four boys and two girls) born to the Reverend Frederick Hugh and Iris Hordern. His father was an Anglican clergyman to a mainly rural community in the then green and pleasant rolling pastures of Seven Hills. At the tender age of eight John was packed off to join his brothers as a boarder at Knox Grammar School in the northern Sydney suburb of Wahroonga. John enjoyed school, being an excellent scholar with a great liking for the classics, and he gained a place to study arts at the University of Sydney. However war intervened and at the age of 18 John volunteered for naval service and, two months after his birthday, found himself joining hundreds of other recruits at HMAS Cerberus. John was undoubtedly influenced by his older brother Marsden who was then a Sub-Lieutenant RANR serving in Fairmiles. John, who always wore glasses to correct imperfect eyesight, was not so lucky and, with choices limited, found himself categorised as a Supply Probationer RANR.
Upon completion of training John was sent to Brisbane to join the busy HMAS Moreton bustling with the influx of American forces and readying itself for the imminent arrival of General Douglas MacArthur, the Commander-in- Chief, South West Pacific. Here he joined his first ship, HMAS Merkur. She was a fine looking twin funnel passenger/cargo ship originally built by German owners for the South American trade; with the advent of the Great Depression she became surplus and in 1935 was acquired by the island trading company Burns Philp. In December 1941 she was requisitioned by the RAN and converted into an armed stores ship but retained most of her civilian crew. However stores were her lifeblood, bringing vital ammunition and supplies to the Australian cruisers and destroyers serving in the Pacific.
After two years in the relative comfort of Merkur, in August 1944 John was posted to HMAS Shropshire, a Royal Naval County Class heavy cruiser given to the RAN in replacement following the tragic loss of HMAS Canberra. Shropshire was formidably armed with eight 8-inch, eight 4-inch, two 40-mm 8 barrel pom poms, six 20-mm single guns, seven 20-mm dual guns, two machine guns and eight 21-inch torpedo tubes (later removed). She also had the advantage of the latest in radar technology. She was one of our largest and most powerful ships with a war-time complement of nearly 1,000 men who, during John’s time onboard, were ably led by Captain Godfrey Nichols, DSO, LVO, RN.
Captain Nichols had escaped a planning appointment in England to take command of Shropshire from her popular Australian Captain Harry Showers. The changeover occurred in September 1944 after a bombardment of Morotai Island and it remained in John’s memory as at the same time as Shropshire was receiving her pasty white new captain (in comparison to those who had been serving in the Pacific) she was also receiving supplies and replenishing ammunition from his old ship Merkur; with cold beers all round from the supply ship for those in the know. The new captain insisted his ship take on additional ammunition so that every spare nook and cranny was used. A short while later this would prove invaluable when 600 rounds of 8-inch and 4-inch high explosive shells were expended in three hours.
In October Shropshire was in one of the last great battles between enemy fleets where battleships from both sides were in action. In anticipation of these great events Captain Nichols slept fitfully under a canvas dodger near the compass platform so that he would be ready for instant action and also to preserve his night vision. Shropshire was in the thick of things during both the Battles of Leyte Gulf and Surigao Strait. John’s action station was as an 8-inch ammunition supply number in ‘A’ turret shell handling room. With hatches clipped fast this was a fearsome environment where, like many others, John prayed to his God for deliverance. It was due to the efforts of those like John who ‘Also Served’ that the ship was able to put up such a fearsome display when she traded broadsides with the IJN battleship Yamashiro.
Shropshire was perhaps the RAN’s foremost ship in action during the Pacific War. She fought her way from New Guinea to the Philippines giving her all to silence shore batteries, down aircraft and even take on battleships. She packed a mighty punch and was a highly prized fighting ship. This ‘Lucky Ship’ sailed through the worst the enemy could throw at her mainly unscathed and only lost five men during her extensive war-time deployments.
With the war’s end came demobilisation and John was able to return to university to complete his degree. After this he settled into business and ran a successful enterprise importing specialised building hardware. John did not forget his comrades in arms, becoming a leading member of the Canberra/Shropshire Association and was a long time member of the Naval Historical Society where he served as archivist. It is perhaps a mark of the man that when in retirement his captain Godfrey Nichols visited Sydney and met with old comrades he stayed in the home of his former humble Supply Assistant.
After failing health John crossed the bar on 17 June 2013 with his funeral being held at St James Church Turramurra, a church in which for many years his father had ministered. John is survived by his children Angus, James and Annaliese and four grandchildren.