HMAS Watson History
HMAS Watson is the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN) premier maritime warfare training establishment and in 2010 it celebrates its 65th anniversary as a commissioned Naval base. Situated on the South Head of Port Jackson, Watson’s role is to prepare RAN officers and sailors to fight and win at sea. The area of Sydney known as Watson’s Bay, however, has a naval, and indeed a broader defence, connection stretching back to the earliest days of European settlement.
Watson’s Bay is named after Robert Watson (1756-1819) of Northumberland, England, who arrived with the First Fleet as quartermaster of the flagship, HMS Sirius. Watson continued to serve in Sirius until she was wrecked on Norfolk Island in 1790. He returned to sea in 1793 in the schooner Francis until she too was wrecked in 1805 near Newcastle. In 1801, Governor Philip King had granted Watson land at South Head in Sydney and, upon Francis’ loss, he settled there, later becoming boatswain, senior pilot and harbourmaster of the colony. In November 1818, Watson was installed as the first superintendant of the Macquarie Lighthouse (depicted on the HMAS Watson badge), a position he held for just 11 months before requesting temporary leave due to illness. He died at his home on 1 November 1819.
South Head was immediately recognised as an important site for the young colony and, as early as the first year of settlement, a signal gun from Sirius was installed at South Head in order to indicate the arrival of any seagoing vessels. The gun, along with Sirius’ anchor, has been displayed at Macquarie Place in Sydney’s Central Business District since 1907. Notwithstanding this interest, the signal station and a look-out post, established in January 1790, were the extent of the defences at South Head for the first half of the nineteenth century. Although plans existed as early as 1820 to construct a coastal battery at South Head, and the Colonial Government reserved land for military purposes in 1836, it was not until 1853 that any such plans were actually realised.
In 1847, the Commanding Royal Engineer of the Colony, Lieutenant Colonel James Gordon, had reported to Governor Sir Charles Fitzroy on the state of the Colony’s defences. Gordon was critical of the siting of the existing defences and recommended a strong and concentrated defence at the mouth of the harbour, including an installation at South Head. Gordon’s proposals were not implemented until heightened tensions between Britain and Russia, culminating in the Crimean War (October 1853-February 1856), prompted the Colonial Government to act. Construction at South Head began on 18 October 1853 by the men of the 11th Regiment providing for 25 guns as well as barracks and associated stores for 150 men. In March 1855, however, the construction work at South Head was cancelled by Governor Sir William Denison in favour of a defence plan centred on a fort on Pinchgut Island, which became Fort Denison.
A series of Royal Commissions investigated the state of the Colony’s defences throughout the 1860s culminating in 1870 with the establishment of the Defence Committee. The Committee quickly recommended the construction of a series of harbour defences at various locations, once again recommending a coastal battery at South Head. Tenders were accepted for construction of the battery in January 1871 and construction continued for the next four years under the supervision of the Colonial Architect, James Barnet. In 1876 the South Head fortifications consisted of; two Rifled Muzzle Loading (RML) 9-inch, 12-ton guns; three RML 10-inch, 18-ton guns; three RML 80 pounders; and twenty two Smooth Bore Muzzle Loading 68 pounders. The barracks were completed in March 1877 and extensions added three years later. The first troops to man the fortifications were drawn from the New South Wales Regiment of the Royal Australian Artillery, many of whom would later serve in the Sudan (1885) and the Boer War (1899-1902). Many of the structures remain today. A breach-loading, hydro-pneumatic 9.2-inch gun was also installed at Signal Hill, Outer South Head in 1893 and the Army’s School of Gunnery moved from Middle Head to South Head in July 1895.
South Head’s maritime connections grew over the course of the nineteenth century as many of the colony’s pilots as well as the pilot ship, Captain Cook, were based at Watson’s Bay, and wharves and navigational aids were constructed. The area also became home to fishmongers, charter companies and ferry services. The Macquarie Lighthouse was replaced in 1883 with a new lighthouse designed to resemble the old, but incorporating technological advancements.
The Sydney Lifeboat Service was established in 1858 in the wake of the Dunbar and Catherine Adamson disasters which had, in the previous year, resulted in the loss of 121 and 21 lives respectively. Watson’s Bay became home to the Port Jackson lifeboat, Lady Carrington, in 1880. She was replaced in August 1907 by the 37-foot Alice Rawson which was based at Gibson’s Beach and became part of the maritime culture of Watson’s Bay. The boat was of a self-righting design, a feature that was demonstrated on the day of her launching when, loaded with cadets from the naval training ship Sobraon, she was deliberately overturned and righted herself within moments. Alice Rawson was decommissioned in 1946 when the Lifeboat Service was terminated.
The local community at South Head grew throughout the 1800s and into the next century, and infrastructure and services were established accordingly. Roads and tramways were constructed to service the local population; the first place of worship, the South Head Independent Chapel, was opened in June 1840, the first licensed hotel opened in June 1847, and the first cinema licence was granted in September 1910. The Vaucluse Municipal Council was established in May 1895 bringing the localities of South Head, Watson’s Bay and Camp Cove under one civic administration. The Council ceased to exist in December 1948 when the municipalities of Vaucluse and Woollahra were amalgamated and replaced by the Woollahra Municipal Council.
South Head remained largely unaffected, from a defence perspective, by the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Indeed, the defences of the area remained largely unchanged until the outbreak of World War II (WWII) when further gun emplacements were installed at various points around the Bay and the wharf at Watson’s Bay was extended to accommodate an increasing number of warships.
On 16 February 1939, the RAN’s Anti-Submarine School was established at the Edgecliff Depot on nearby Rushcutters Bay, an area which became an integral part of Watson’s story in the following decades. First commissioned as HMAS Penguin (II), the depot became HMAS Rushcutter on 1 August 1940. The need for anti-submarine (A/S) training had been identified well before the outbreak of hostilities in September 1939, and the school was fully prepared for a war training program under the command of Acting Commander (later Captain) Harvey Newcomb, RN.
Officers’ courses consisted of instruction in electrics, the theory of ASDIC (an abbreviation of Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee and later known as SONAR, itself an abbreviation of Sound Navigation and Ranging), duties of the Anti-Submarine Control Officer, hunting and attacking, and operating procedures, maintenance and routines for the Type 123 ASDIC Set. One night of drill per week was also required covering navigation, seamanship, service customs and traditions, King’s Regulations and Admiralty Instructions, and Morse code. Ratings’ courses covered arithmetic, operating procedure for the Type 123 ASDIC Set, the theory of ASDIC and also required night drills similar to that of the officers.
In spite of a shortage of ASDIC fitted ships in the RAN, demand for A/S qualified officers and sailors in the Royal Navy was high and Japan’s entry into the war in December 1941 further increased the demand. Consequently, training facilities expanded, equipment was modernised and improved, classroom space increased and syllabuses were revised to meet the changing conditions of anti-submarine warfare (ASW). Courses were also instituted for officers and men of other allied navies including the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN), United States Navy, Royal Netherlands Navy, Free French Navy and Royal Indian Navy. Training of personnel from visiting ships frequently took place outside of normal hours. A/S training continued after WWII at a reduced rate and allowed the amalgamation of the Torpedo, Mine and Anti-Submarine Schools into the Torpedo and Anti-Submarine (TAS) School in 1948.
The RAN first became a large, and important, resident at Watson’s Bay in 1942 when the Radio Direction Finding (RDF) School was established there. The adaptation of radar for naval purposes necessitated the training of RAN personnel as operators and technicians, as well as the provision of radar sets, spare parts and stores for personnel and ships in the Pacific area. Preparations to provide radar training in the RAN began in August 1941, and after brief periods at Rushcutter and aboard HMAS Australia (II), the RDF School was formally established at South Head on 1 July 1942. The RDF Branch was formally instituted by Commonwealth Naval Order 183 of 1942 at the same time.
The RDF School occupied buildings at Gap Bluff that had previously been part of the School of Artillery and was originally established as an extension of Rushcutter, falling under the direct command of Commander Newcomb. The original establishment consisted of an office block and classrooms. A power house and operations block was completed in August 1942 along with the School’s first actual radar sets. The majority of staff were RAN members with radio or radar qualifications and many of the original complement were members of the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS). The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) also provided eleven officers and men to assist both with instruction, and the fitting and maintenance of the equipment. Telegraphist Lieutenant Commander Sidney Francis, RN, became the first Commanding Officer of the Radar School in January 1943 and was relieved by Lieutenant Commander John Bath, RAN, in September. The Commanding Officer and the administration section moved to South Head from Rushcutter in December 1943. Further instructional facilities were also constructed and completed in September 1943. RDF Operator Ratings became known as Radar Ratings that October in accordance with Commonwealth Navy Order 519 of 1943. Although sometimes referred to as HMA Radar School thereafter, the school did not officially become HMA Radar Training Establishment until January 1945 with the issuing of Commonwealth Navy Order 38 of 1945.
Initially there was no on-board accommodation for sailors at the RDF School, who were either accommodated at HMAS Penguin or were provided with an allowance to live elsewhere. This proved to be very problematic as sailors had to be transported to South Head each day and were subject to the vagaries of the weather and wartime public transport. The provision of on-site accommodation towards the end of the war proved to be immediately beneficial.
In January 1943, the RDF School began providing regular non-technical lectures for executive officers on the application of radar. The lectures proved so successful that approval was quickly obtained for one of the School’s Officer Instructors, Lieutenant Alan Palfrey, RANVR, to travel and give lectures to those who were unable to attend the School.
The Navigation and Direction School was added in 1944 and the converted cargo ship, HMAS Yandra, was seconded to the school in 1945 for training purposes. With the impending arrival of the British Pacific Fleet (BPF), plans progressed in August 1944 for the School to provide training for the radar personnel of the BPF. More than 2200 RAN officers and men were trained at the School during the course of the war, and in addition to the many members of Allied navies who also received training, there must also be added members of the merchant marine.
The comparatively high turnover of personnel at the school, combined with a lack of facilities, made sporting competition difficult, but rugby union, Australian rules football, cricket and tennis teams were all formed in 1944, while a number of WRANS played hockey for Rushcutter. The rugby union team entered the Dempster Cup competition and were champions in their first season. The cricket team entered the all-services Sunday cricket competition in which they were runners up, while the Australian Rules and tennis teams played scratch matches against other RAN establishments, ships and other services teams.
On 14 March 1945, by Commonwealth Navy Order 110 of 1945, the South Head facility was commissioned as HMAS Watson, named not only after Watson’s Bay but also to commemorate Sir Robert Watson-Watt, one of the inventors of radar. With commissioning came approval for further construction including messes, sleeping quarters and classrooms. With the influx of personnel that came with the arrival of the BPF Watson was often filled to capacity, and even after the war it remained an important Commonwealth training establishment. More than 100 RNZN sailors received radar training at Watson in the period up until 1953.
Early in 1946, plans were afoot to move the RAN Signal School to Watson from Flinders Naval Depot in Victoria, thereby providing closer liaison between the branches and economies in equipment and maintenance personnel. A further construction program was soon underway as the majority of existing structures, with the exception of the laboratory and demonstration block, power house and administration block, were temporary.
After the war, Watson also became the primary training facility for Action Information Organisation (AIO) teams. The AIO can be described as the tactical brains of a ship, for it is here that engagements are plotted and tactical decisions made. Without adequate simulation facilities, trainees initially visited ships of the Fleet to gain practical experience. This situation changed when the Action Information Training Centre (AITC) opened at Watson in May 1952. Designed to provide warfare officers and sailors with tactical training and experience under conditions close to those found at sea, the AITC became one of the primary training tools for AIO teams. The AITC was also used extensively for tactical war-games as well as structured courses making it one of the most important training tools for officers and sailors of all levels of experience. The high training and war-game demand for the AITC meant that maintenance of the equipment and staffing of the Centre proved problematic for more than a decade.
Expansion continued as construction for the TAS School began in 1954 and the School itself moved from Rushcutter to Watson two years later bringing with it the need for more administration, accommodation and amenities blocks. The School primarily addressed the protection of convoys and the destruction of enemy submarines. Officers were chiefly trained in the tactical aspects of ASW; learning how to employ ships, aircraft, weapons and other equipment to their best advantage. Sailors advanced in the specialised categories of Underwater Control (involving the detection and tracking of submarines) and Underwater Weapons (involving the employment of weapons to destroy enemy submarines).
Diving training had been conducted in the RAN as early as 1913, firstly at HMAS Cerberus and later at HMA Ships Rushcutter and Penguin. For the most part, Navy divers pre-World War II carried out examinations of underwater fittings, cleared inlets and conducted searches and underwater maintenance. Technological advances in World War II, however, not least of which were the advent of influence mines and Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA), changed the whole concept of Navy diving to take on a more offensive ‘front-line’ role which included the search for and clearance of mines, beach reconnaissance and other clandestine operations.
The Clearance Diving Branch was formally established as part of the TAS Branch in September 1952 by Commonwealth Navy Order 317. A lack of proper training equipment and facilities at Rushcutter, however, meant that the first Clearance Divers did not qualify until September 1955. When the TAS Branch moved to Watson in 1956, the administrative section of the Clearance Diving Branch came with it, though most practical training remained located at Rushcutter. Clearance Divers became, and are today recognised as, the RAN’s elite combat unit and face some of the toughest training offered in the Australian Defence Force.
Rushcutter decommissioned on 30 April 1956 but continued to operate as a Royal Australian Navy Reserve (RANR) Training Establishment under the temporary command of the Commanding Officer HMAS Kuttabul. Rushcutter re-commissioned as a tender to Watson on 1 July 1957.
Also during this period, the RAN Experimental Laboratory (RANEL) was established and soon became the Navy’s premier research unit. RANEL was instituted on 13 February 1956 at Rushcutter ostensibly to support British research into long-range passive acoustic detection of submarines. In March 1958, a working party set up by the RAN Scientific Policy Committee recommended that:
The scope of RANEL should be enlarged from its present status of a purely experimental laboratory to allow it to become a flexible organisation capable of conducting a variety of work for technical directorates. RANEL should undertake all RAN scientific work and assist technical directorates in this field, and should generally undertake such work of a scientific nature which falls outside the normal duties of naval officers and ratings.
RANEL staff and facilities at Rushcutter increased in accordance with the organisation’s expanded role. In 1961, RANEL became involved in analysing maritime exercises and undertook two major ‘Order of Battle’ studies between 1964 and 1967, extending its analysis to encompass all aspects of naval warfare. The organisation changed its name to the Royal Australian Navy Research Laboratory (RANRL) in 1969, and by 1972 occupied the entire Rushcutter site, except for the RAN Sailing Association boatshed. It eventually moved to Pyrmont in 1984.
In 1963 the Underwater Research and Development Unit and the School of Underwater Medicine were established at Rushcutter, and the Mine Clearance and Disposal Team and the administrative part of the Clearance Diving Branch transferred back to Rushcutter from Watson that same year. Naval reserve training ended at Rushcutter in 1966 when the Sydney Port Division of the RANR transferred to Watson. Rushcutter decommissioned again on 29 July 1968 when the establishment’s functions transferred to HMAS Penguin though the RANEL and the RAN Trials and Assessing Unit both remained at the location. The site, now known as the Sir David Martin Reserve in commemoration of the former Governor of New South Wales and former RAN Rear Admiral, is still home to the RAN Sailing Association.
Watson also became the training centre for one of the most important, and one of the most overlooked, aspects of any defence force: cooking. The School of Advanced Cookery was located at Watson for over a decade and conducted courses and lectures for seamen cooks to advance in their area of expertise. The cooks held regular public and industry demonstrations, and were a popular attraction at Watson Open Days and Navy Weeks. The School also conducted trials on new equipment and ingredients, from powdered eggs to deep fryers and microwave ovens, to assess their suitability for the Navy. If, as Napoleon once said, an army marches on its stomach, then likewise, a navy sails on its stomach and the contribution that the School of Advanced Cookery has made to the RAN should not be underestimated.
The number of sailors undergoing training as cooks steadily increased over the years which necessitated a commensurate increase in training space with the School occupying an extra 300ft2 early in 1965. The training structure for RAN cooks, however, came under review early in 1966 and consequently the decision was made to relocate the School to HMAS Cerberus. The new School of Cookery opened at Cerberus in May 1966. Training ceased at Watson on 16 June 1967 and the School of Advanced Cookery officially closed one week later in accordance with Australian Naval Order 234. Limited cookery instruction continued in the Sydney area at HMAS Kuttabul.
In addition to her training commitments, Watson, via the TAS School, also contributed to the pre-workup training and trials for ships of the RAN as well as some Commonwealth navies such as the RN and RNZN. Both officers and ratings would receive pre-workup training in Underwater Team Demolitions, Mortar and Torpedo Tube Familiarisation, and, after its installation in the early 1960s, the Anti-Submarine Universal Attack Teacher (ASUAT). Watson also sent trials teams to establishments all around the country to conduct trials in RAN ships in such diverse matters as Navigation and Direction, Mortar Calibration and Firing, Torpedo Discharge, SONAR and Harbour Acceptance Trials.
By the end of the 1950s, Watson possessed some of the most modern facilities in the RAN and they were proudly put on display when Watson opened Navy Week in October 1959. In spite of rain and a blustering wind, nearly 5000 people came aboard for displays and demonstrations of naval anti-submarine weapons, detection apparatus and radar displays - mines detonated, model bridges blew up, and ships and aircraft appeared on radar screens. The RAN divers were one of the greatest attractions as they displayed their skills in a glass diving tank.
Watson continued to develop into the new decade with a tender for a new Wardroom accepted in December 1960 providing accommodation and associated facilities for both senior and junior officers. It was the completion of the inter-denominational Chapel of St. George the Martyr in 1961, however, that garnered the most attention. The Chapel memorialises all members of the RAN who have died in service and was paid for with donations. Admiral of the Fleet Sir Bruce Fraser, First Baron Fraser of North Cape, GCB, KBE, who commanded the BPF in the last stages of WWII, wrote in support in 1960:
I think the idea of the Chapel is wonderful and a most fascinating design. Its position will be one to commend itself to sailors all over the world both to the Royal Navies and the Merchant Marine. I remember so well often going down to the South Head to watch the Fleet coming into harbour, the DUKE OF YORK and the aircraft carriers, and so I have rather an affection for this spot in addition, of course, to the memories of my stay in Australia when everyone was so extremely kind and hospitable. The appeal is certainly worthy of the utmost support and I wish you every success in your efforts with my best wishes. Yours sincerely, FRASER OF NORTH CAPE.
The First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Charles E. Lambe, GCB, CVO, also offered his support:
Troup has shown me your letter about the Memorial Chapel at HMAS Watson and I am writing to say what a wonderful idea I think this is. I have passed on the contents of your letter to the Chaplain of the Fleet and I hope we may be able to help in some way. Meanwhile I enclose a small cheque as an indication of my support for this splendid and imaginative project. Yours sincerely, Charles E. Lambe.
The Chapel’s foundation stone was laid on 30 April 1960. About 1200 people attended the short religious service to mark the occasion including the Minister for the Navy, Senator the Hon. John Gorton, and three senior members of the Naval Board as well as many other officers, sailors, family members and representatives of ex-navalmen’s associations. The stone was dedicated by a boy known only as William, a ward of Legacy, whose father was a sailor who had given his life in World War II three months before William was born. He was chosen, and his anonymity preserved, as a symbolic representative for all those that had made the ultimate sacrifice as members of the RAN and associated services.
Watson’s RN counterparts, HM Ships Vernon and Dryad, the RNs Torpedo and Anti-Submarine, and Navigation Direction Schools respectively, also made their own special contributions to the Chapel. Each school presented a bronze plaque; the one from Vernon was emblazoned with the prayer written by Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson on the eve of the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805, while Dryad’s plaque contained part of General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s address to the Allied Expeditionary Force on D-Day, 6 June 1944.
May the Great God, whom I worship, grant to my Country and for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and glorious victory; and may no misconduct in anyone tarnish it; and may humanity after Victory be the predominant feature in the British Fleet. For myself, individually, I commit my life to Him who made me, and may His blessings light upon my endeavours for serving my country faithfully. To Him I resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted to me to defend. Amen. Amen. Amen.
Soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force you are about to embark upon the Great Crusade to which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The Hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you. The tide has turned. Free men of the world are marching together to victory. I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. Good Luck and let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.
Stones from Christian shrines around the world, some dating back to the fifth century AD, can be found in the Chapel’s altar, including stones from the United States, England, India, South Africa, Scotland, Ireland, Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore, Israel, and Zanzibar (Tanzania). The altar also contains stones from cathedrals in Sydney, Bathurst, Melbourne, Perth and Rockhampton. The wood-carved pulpit features a New Zealand Kea bird and was donated by the RNZN, while other items such as stone carvings and altar cloths were gifts from many different nations including the Netherlands and Malta.
The Chapel was dedicated on 4 March 1961 in a service attended by about 2000 people including, once again, the Minister for the Navy, Senator Gorton, and the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Sir Henry Burrell, KBE, CB. The Chaplain of HMAS Watson, the Reverend James Trainer, performed the first two christenings in the Chapel the next day and special services for ten RAN ships lost during WWII were scheduled before the end of the year. Watson’s Bay locals attended Sunday Mass in the Chapel for more than forty years; however, while the Chapel is still open to the public today, Sunday mass is no longer regularly conducted in the Chapel.
At the beginning of the 1960s, with fixed-wing aircraft earmarked to be phased out of the RAN and the carrier HMAS Melbourne (II) becoming a primarily ASW platform, a greater emphasis was placed on incorporating helicopters into ASW training at Watson. A Magnetic Air Plot System, a method of displaying the air and tactical anti-submarine picture as used in Melbourne, was installed in the AITC early in 1964. Staff ratings also put to sea to complete Helicopter Control Training and improve the AITC’s ability to control anti-submarine exercises involving helicopters. This expanded capability further increased the already significant training workload on the AITC and, consequently, Watson’s then Commanding Officer, Captain Ian Easton, DSC, RN, made a number of proposals for complement changes and improved methods of instruction to try and ease the workload on staff and equipment. Instructional notes were revised and staff and facilities were extended throughout the course of the year, however, the training demand remained high and maintenance and staffing continued to be an ongoing problem. At the end of September 1964, there were seven extra sailors above complement attached to the AITC.
‘Expedition Training’ was also a popular activity at Watson. Carried out in the Tianjara area and the Royal National Park, the training consisted of personnel being dropped in the bush with supplies and rations for 24 hours, and then expected to make their way back to a pre-determined point 25 miles away. Training was voluntary and irregular, dependent on the availability of suitably qualified personnel to supervise, though there was no shortage of volunteers to undergo the training.
On 10 February 1964 at 8.56pm, HMAS Melbourne collided with HMAS Voyager (II) in one of the most tragic accidents in Australia’s peacetime naval history. The disaster resulted in the loss of 82 lives, all from Voyager. Melbourne had been manoeuvring to find sufficient wind over the deck to allow for Gannet and Sea Venom Deck Landing Practice. The Commanding Officer of 816 Squadron, Lieutenant Commander Toz Dadswell (later Commodore Dadswell, AM) was approaching Melbourne in his Gannet at the time:
I approached the ship from the port quarter in a descending turn. I noted that Voyager was not in the correct RESDES [Rescue Destroyer] position. At 2056 a huge ball of flame lit the sky. It was the boiler room of Voyager exploding.
On the morning of 12 February, 140 Voyager survivors arrived at Watson to make leave arrangements in the wake of the disaster. The survivors returned to Watson at the end of their respective leave periods to await their next posting and receive further assistance in dealing with their own personal issues arising from the tragedy.
As well as its ongoing training commitments, Watson provided personnel for regular ceremonial duties on occasions such as Australia Day and Anzac Day, as well as for special occasions such as the visit of US President Lyndon Johnson in October 1966, and the introduction of the RAN White Ensign on 1 March 1967. In spite of such distractions, the decision to supplement training staff with sailors that had recently completed their courses and were awaiting posting, enabled most of the Schools to continue operating at near full capacity.
1965 proved to be a very busy year for the TAS Trials team as, in addition to their normal embarked trials and assessing program, they were involved in the installation, inspection and acceptance trials of the Helicopter Attack Teacher Table at HMAS Albatross at Nowra, as well as extensive trials on the RAN’s Ikara weapons system at the Weapons Research Establishment at Salisbury, South Australia. The TAS Trials team became an integral part of the Ikara project for most of the 1960s in both its developmental stages and, later, during its introduction as an operational, embarked weapons system.
Ikara, an indigenous word meaning ‘throwing stick’, was a fully Australian designed and manufactured anti-submarine guided weapon system. The system was designed to deliver an acoustic homing torpedo close to its intended target via a radio-controlled carrier rocket. The United States had developed a similar system, known as an Anti-Submarine Rocket (ASROC), at around the same time. ASROC, however, used an unguided, or ‘point and shoot’, ballistic missile as the torpedo’s method of delivery. Ikara’s superiority was in the accuracy of its radio guidance ensuring optimal targeting and enabling re-deployment of the missile after launching as necessary. Ikara was successfully exported and employed by the RN, RNZN and the Brazilian Navies.
Watson’s training capabilities expanded in May 1966 when a new Solartron Radar Simulator began operations. Used mainly for Helicopter Control training and AIO exercises, the simulator proved to be just as useful a training aid as the AITC. A Planetarium was also installed in the Navigation and Direction School in 1969 and proved to be a most useful training aid, particularly for new students, in astronavigation. With the ageing AITC experiencing serviceability issues, industrial design studies began in 1968 on a new AIO and Tactical Trainer. Part of the remit of the new project was to provide upgraded conference facilities enhancing Watson’s burgeoning reputation as an eminently suitable place to host meetings, conferences and symposia.
In August 1966, with the impending de-commissioning of Rushcutter, Watson became home to the Sydney Port Division of the RANR and the Australian Sea Cadet Corps – NSW Division. Watson’s Executive Officer became the Staff Officer Reserves to the Flag Officer in Charge, East Australia Area, reflecting the establishment’s expanded responsibilities. HMAS Archer, an Attack Class Patrol Boat, was commissioned on 9 November 1968 as the Reserve’s training ship. More than 400 Naval Reserve officers and sailors were posted to Watson to conduct regular training on Thursday evenings, while cadets received weekend training in various ships and establishments in and around Sydney. Rushcutter’s de-commissioning also resulted in the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Section of the Diving School transferring to Watson on 23 August 1967 to become part of the Mine Warfare Section in the TAS School.
The Reservists were not the only new arrivals at Watson. Towards the end of the year, the top floor of the CPOs Block was altered to accommodate 25 members of the WRANS and alterations were made in the Wardroom to accommodate one WRANS officer. At around the same time, five WRANS Radar Plot (RP) sailors qualified as Leading WRAN RPs, achieving the highest ever standard of any course that had passed through the Navigation and Direction School; male or female. On 9 January 1967, 19 WRANS transferred from HMAS Penguin to Watson.
To add to the influx of new personnel posted to Watson, the establishment also became the main staging area for troops deploying to, and returning from, the war in Vietnam. The troops were housed in temporary accommodation on the western side of South Head as they prepared to embark in, or were disembarked from, the fast troop transport, HMAS Sydney (III).
Two significant changes to teaching methods were effected in 1966 and 1967. First, in mid-1966, the employment of instructors at Watson was re-organised so that each instructor specialised in a particular subject rather than guiding a course throughout it’s entire training program. This change enabled each instructor to focus on their speciality and consequently improved the standard of training offered at Watson. Second, in November 1967, the first Combined Tactical Training Course began, convincing all officers that attended of the need to consider all tactical aspects in concert with each other, rather than in isolation as had been done in the past. A Training Coordination Centre, modelled on a similar organisation operating in HMAS Cerberus, was also established the following year to better coordinate training, an initiative which proved to be very successful in the years to come.
The 1960s could, in many ways, be described as a period of instability for HMAS Watson with a number of different departments, such the Sydney Port Division, joining and leaving, and Rushcutter decommissioning as a tender to Watson. Combined with massive staff turnover and ceremonial commitments throughout the decade, it is a great credit to the entire ship’s complement that Watson not only met its training and other commitments to such a high standard, but firmly cemented its reputation as the RAN’s premier warfare training establishment. While the 1970s brought some level of stability in terms of staffing and the composition of Watson, it was also a decade notable for massive infrastructure and construction projects which impacted on virtually every member of the ship’s company.
The decade began with a brief period of uncertainty. Some apprehension existed regarding the long term viability of some categories in the Underwater section, and doubt about the siting of the new Tactical Trainer Building and a permanent WRANS accommodation block. These issues, however, were soon resolved; Underwater Control and Weapons remained important parts of the training syllabus and sites for the new Tactical Trainer Building and WRANS accommodation were determined by early 1971.
The Tactical Trainer Building, designed to house the new Action Information Organisation Tactical Trainer (AIOTT), the Tactical School and the Submarine Command Team Trainer, was certainly the largest construction project of the decade. While the AIO School would occupy the new building, its facilities, including new conference facilities, would be used by all and also enable the relocation of each of the schools at Watson, some of which were still occupying temporary accommodation. The AIOTT would provide practical training for operations room personnel in the most efficient application of their ships and weapons and would also train command and control officers in decision making, formulating and evaluating tactics and coordinating naval operations. It could simulate operations with the entire Australian Fleet as well as any allied or enemy forces. The Submarine Command Team Trainer, which simulated a submarine’s operations room, would enable Australian submarine command teams to train in Australia on this type of equipment for the first time, eliminating the need for them to train in the United Kingdom. Construction started on the new building on 19 October 1971 and continued for most of the next two years.
The Tactical Trainer Building was not the only major project being undertaken at Watson in 1971. A new, though temporary, Electronic Warfare Training Centre became operational on 8 August 1971 in a building formerly used by the dockyard electricians, while the electricians moved into a disused emergency diesel room. The Centre offered Electronic Warfare Pre-Workup training and radar recognition exercises, and staff also worked closely with the RAN Trials and Assessing Unit in sea acceptance trials of Electronic Warfare equipment. The TAS School also had two new SONAR trainers installed while the Tactical Section, which offered ASW Helicopter Operational Flight training, Command Team and Tactical training, and the New Entry Instructor and Operations Room Officers’ Courses, was instituted as an autonomous department no longer under the administration of the TAS School. WRANS accommodation was expanded to provide lodgings for 47, and new training concepts and methods were trialled. Despite the upheaval, it is a credit to the ship’s company that some 570 officers, sailors and WRANS received training, and 12 ships carried out pre-commissioning, pre-work up and command team training at Watson throughout 1971.
The Tactical Trainer Building was accepted in October 1973 but the hardware for the AIOTT and Submarine Command Team Trainer was yet to be installed and was some time off becoming fully operational. This did not prevent some staff from moving into their new offices and the first Junior Officers Tactical Course began on 26 November 1973. Although the centre was not yet fully operational, static training was possible with the agreement of the contractors and four major conferences were hosted in the new building in 1974.
The completion of the Tactical Trainer Building and the consequent move of staff into their new offices also meant that plans could progress to move the Navigation and Direction, and Electronic Warfare Training schools out of their respective temporary buildings at the southern end of establishment (which had been there for more than two decades) and into the former TAS School Buildings and lower ‘B’ accommodation block at the northern end. By the end of the year, preliminary work was underway to re-site the Navigation and Direction and Electronic Warfare Training Schools into their homes.
The WRANS were also on the move in 1973 with an advance party of 12 moving into their new accommodation at the former Travelodge Motel in Bondi on 2 August. The remaining WRANS from Watson and Kuttabul moved to Bondi on 16 and 26 September 1974 respectively, though they remained under the command of the Officer in Charge Watson. On 7 April 1978, Lady Helen Cutler officially named the WRANS quarters ‘Lady Gowrie House’. The former WRANS quarters at Watson were occupied by senior sailors.
The Navy carries a reputation for discipline which has been hard earned via the application of strict, and occasionally rough, naval justice. In 1973, however, there was a rare instance of naval ‘justice’ being meted out to a civilian. After appearing in a television advertisement wearing a naval Chief Petty Officer’s cap badge, comedian Paul Hogan, later to find international fame as ‘Crocodile Dundee’, was summonsed to appear before a special court in the Watson CPO’s Mess. As Navy News reported in March 1973, Hogan was subjected to fierce examination by Chief Petty Officer Bill Oates but ‘kept his cool and kept the audience in stitches with laughter. After being found, predictably, guilty as charged, Mr Hogan was sentenced to accept privileged membership of the Mess and thereafter to pay for his own drinks. He was presented with a Watson badge and cufflinks as souvenirs.’
Elements of the Navigation and Direction School were relocated towards the end of 1974 and six temporary buildings were removed from the southern end of the establishment. Sections still waiting to be relocated were the radar mast, AITC, Solartron Simulator and Radar block as well as the Electronic Warfare School and telephone exchange, and ten temporary buildings were still earmarked for demolition. The Sydney Port Division also ended an eight year association with Watson with its transferral to HMAS Waterhen on 14 November 1974, though the Cadets remained at Watson.
In late 1974, Watson personnel were called into action to assist in relief efforts for one of the most devastating natural disasters in Australian history. When Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin on Christmas Eve, Watson was requested to report volunteer personnel, leaving their homes and loved ones at Christmas time, to fill key posts on ships sailing for Darwin on Boxing Day. Sixteen officers and sailors were made available for Operation NAVY HELP: DARWIN and more than 100 Darwin evacuees were temporarily accommodated at Watson. Darwin’s mayor, Harry ‘Tiger’ Brennan, later expressed his appreciation saying ‘We owe the Navy the greatest debt of all.’
The Tactical Trainer Building was formally accepted in November 1975 following the acceptance of the Submarine Command Team Trainer in July and the AIOTT in November. With all three departments operational, the AIOTT, the Submarine Command Team Trainer and the RAN Tactical School, the Tactical Trainer Building was fully equipped to simulate ships, aircraft, submarines and weapons in order to exercise all aspects of maritime warfare, as well as providing tactical and procedural training for ships, aircraft and submarine crews. The training facilities were also used to teach maritime strike and defence to Royal Australian Air Force F111 and Mirage pilots.
The AIOTT could be divided into three sections; models of ships’ operations rooms, the computer complex and associated equipment, and facilities for monitoring, recording, controlling and debriefing war games. Ships could be manoeuvred, weapons fired and damage imposed, simulating all aspects of a naval engagement. The Submarine Command Team Trainer provided a similar training environment except that it simulated the control room of an Oberon class submarine presenting submarine command teams with most of the operational conditions that they would encounter at sea. The Submarine Command Team Trainer celebrated its first anniversary in July 1976 having lost only one day of training through unserviceability. Over 600 simulated attacks and 2000 weapons firings were exercised over its first 12 months in commission.
With the Tactical Trainer Building fully operational, the remaining relocation projects could move ahead unabated. By the end of 1975, the only temporary buildings remaining at the southern end of the establishment were the AITC and Navigation and Direction School Administration Building (the Electronic Warfare School and Radar Block occupied more permanent brick buildings). The AITC itself had decommissioned on 4 November 1975 and an appropriate ‘wake’ was held at the nearby Watson’s Bay Hotel to commemorate its 23 years of service. A new Solartron simulator was completed in December 1976 and, along with a new plotting training facility, became operational on 10 January 1977. The remaining temporary buildings at the southern end of the establishment were removed in the first half of 1977 and in the second half, the junior sailors’ accommodation was modernised and construction began on a new, permanent Electronic Warfare School, which was occupied early in the new decade. The Wardroom underwent major renovations in 1978/79 and work to expand junior officers’ accommodation began in June 1979 and was virtually completed and occupied by the end of the year. Development of the new Submarine Warfare Systems Centre (SWSC) also began in the second half of the year. The Navigation and Direction School separated in 1978 into Navigation and AIO Schools.
The SWSC was completed and became operational early in the new decade incorporating, and expanding upon, the training and support already offered by the Submarine Command Team Trainer. A second Trainer was also constructed and for a short time operated concurrently in order to meet the high demand for submarine training. Ostensibly established to offer support for the Submarine Weapons Update Program, the primary roles of the SWSC were to provide tactical operator and command team training, tactical development and documentation, conduct of the Submarine Weapon Certification Program, and upkeep of submarine combat system software and technical design support. This broad combination of responsibilities, combined with offering significant support personnel and equipment to the Submarine Weapons Update Program, meant that the SWSC quickly became one of the most industrious sections at Watson. The SWSC moved into a new building which was officially opened on 26 May 1989, providing updated and expanded facilities. Excavation for the new building had begun in 1985 and the fill removed from the site was used to improve and expand Watson’s playing fields and to create a new parade ground. Not only did this improve Watson’s recreational facilities and ceremonial areas, it also saved about $20,000 on the cost of the excavation contract. A new Submarine Command Team Trainer, the third to be commissioned at Watson, also became operational on 17 July 1989.
SWSC personnel also became intimately involved in the New Construction Submarine Project, which eventually led to the development of the Collins Class submarine, the first submarine to be built in an Australian shipyard. The SWSC was represented in around 30 working groups and at the end of the decade work had begun on a shore-based testing facility at Watson.
While the development during the 1980s was not as extensive as that of the 1970s, there were still some significant projects initiated, not the least of which being a Bridge Simulator. The Bridge Simulator began operating in 1985 to train junior officers in the duties of the Officer of the Watch as well as other training functions such as continuation training up to command team levels. The need for the Simulator arose out of the reduction in training billets in the fleet due to a number of the larger units, such as HMAS Melbourne, decommissioning. The Simulator consisted of a bridge mock-up surrounded by a circular screen onto which training scenarios were projected. A control room was located directly behind the bridge. The bridge was not a mirror of any particular class but the equipment was based on standard RAN fittings. It could simulate almost all forms of bridge activity as well as a variety of environmental factors and ship conditions such as pitch and roll, and engine vibration. A significant upgrade to the simulator was approved in the 2009/10 budget.
The 1980s saw a marked increase in the number of sailors undergoing training at Watson with a number of new courses being implemented throughout the course of the decade. Additionally, Watson offered a familiarisation course for the RAN’s new Guided Missile Frigates, development courses for the Harpoon Missile System and also implemented the Specialisation and Tertiary Education Program designed to assist young midshipmen in their choice of career in the RAN. Anywhere between 500 and 1,300 sailors could receive training at Watson per quarter. The Quality Control and Training Development Section was established to ensure that new courses were developed and implemented as effectively and efficiently as possible, as well as ensuring that the training offered at Watson maintained its traditionally high standard.
A significant training development was the establishment of the RAN Surface Warfare School in 1985, providing a similarly high standard of training for RAN surface combatants as the RAN’s submariners were receiving in the SWSC. The first class of the Surface Warfare Officers’ Course passed phase one of the course in August 1985.
Watson also became a focal point for two of the biggest celebrations in the RANs recent history; the 75th anniversary commemorations in 1986, and the Bicentennial Naval Salute in 1988. Watson was a popular spot for members of the public to watch the 75th Anniversary Fleet Entry on 29 September 1986. Two years later more than 1000 people were in attendance to witness the Bicentennial Naval Salute and Fleet Entry on 25 and 26 September 1988. Over the course of the two days Watson returned 21 gun salutes to FNS Colbert, HS Aris, INS Godavari, ITS Caio Duilio, JDS Katori, KD Sri Indera Sakti, HMNZS Wellington, PNS Nasr, HMS Sirius, USS New Jersey, HMS Ark Royal and HNLMS Witte De With. Watson cooks and stewards also prepared the meal for the Bicentennial Naval Salute at which the Duke and Duchess of York were Guests of Honour.
As the new decade began the Tactical Development Section was immersed in reviewing Australian Fleet Tactical Instructions and the development element of the SWSC was intimately involved in the embryonic designs of the future Collins Class submarine while a number of the project contractors and their equipment were established at Watson during the course of the year. Early in 1990, Watson personnel began reviewing a number of Collins Class design packages as well as addressing ongoing maintenance issues with the new Submarine Command Team Trainer. Equipment began arriving for a new Collins Class Land Based Test Site and Combat System Simulator late in 1991 and early 1992. Watson personnel also became an integral part of the Anzac Ship Project with the first of the Anzac Class Frigates commissioning in 1996.
The New Submarine Project also provided inspiration of an unusual kind for four civilians from the SWSC. Warren James, David Barry, Dirk Stoffels and Peter King entered the 1991 Bourke to Beagle Variety Club Bash held on 1 to 8 June. The Collins Class Submarine was the theme for decorating their 1966 HR Holden with images produced by SWSC graphic artist, Gary Corbett. The four-man team completed the bash with no problems and raised more than $10,000 for the Variety Club of Australia in the process.
The Navigation Faculty also conducted a new Basic Navigation Course mid-way through the year, tailored specifically for students from the island nations of the South West Pacific. The course consisted of eight weeks classroom instruction followed by six weeks at sea in the Navigation Faculty’s tender, GPV Banks. Although a pilot program, the course proved to be very successful and little alteration was made to future courses.
With significant upgrades to the training facilities having been carried out over the previous two decades, much-needed upgrades to living accommodation were conducted throughout the 1990s. A group of dilapidated but heritage listed buildings on the base were refurbished as six new married quarters and occupied on 1 February 1991. The Wardroom also underwent renovations in 1993 while renovations to the junior officers’ accommodation were completed in January 1994, just in time for the arrival of new Australian Defence Force Academy graduates. The junior sailors’ bar, canteen and credit union also underwent significant refurbishments early in 1994. The Watson Health Centre was also extended and refurbished in 1994-95, and offices were refurbished for the Naval Reserve Cadet Logistics Support Cell. Other departmental areas were also refurbished such as the main galley and naval store in 1995.
A major $18.7M, two stage, facilities upgrade project began in March 1995. The first stage consisted of extensions and refurbishments to the Wardroom and junior sailors’ accommodation as well as a new Air Control School and Navigation Faculty. Stage two centred around the administration block, new senior sailors’ accommodation, car park, motor transport compound and indoor sports facilities. The project was completed by mid-1997 and represented a significant improvement in Watson’s living conditions, which reflected the excellence of the establishment’s training facilities.
As environmental considerations became a greater concern to the community, Watson played its part. A policy of energy and water conservation was implemented in 1992 with remarkable results. Energy consumption had decreased over the last quarter of 1992 from the same period the previous year by 3.3 percent while water consumption had decreased by nearly 50 percent. Watson’s environmental efforts were regularly recognised with the establishment winning a number of NSW Environmental Awards throughout the decade, particularly in the fields of recycling, composting, efficient energy use and revegetation. An energy management strategic plan was adopted in 1995 to further Watson’s environmental aims.
A new tradition was also started in 1992 with the first Carols by Candlelight to be held at Watson. The event reinforced the already strong ties that Watson had with the local community in Woollahra and has grown over the years to be one of the most anticipated events amongst the community. The event has grown to include an open day during which visitors have had the opportunity to become a ‘Captain’ on Watson’s Bridge Simulator or watch a ‘war’ being fought on an operations room simulator.
Training facility upgrades did not come to a standstill during the 1990s as new equipment arrivals included the development of an Automatic Plotting and Charting Table, a new Blind Pilotage Trainer, Sonar Emulator and Computer Based Training facility, and a new Aircraft Control Trainer. A new Harpoon Training System was accepted into service on 17 May 1994 replacing the old Harpoon Trainer which had been in use since 1988.
The Tactical Trainer Building began an extensive upgrade program towards the end of 1993 effectively replacing the AIOTT, which had been in service for nearly 20 years, with the Integrated Operational Team Training Facility; a completely redesigned training facility mainly intended to improve emulation of the RAN’s Adelaide Class Guided Missile Frigates, Perth (Modified Charles F Adams) Class Guided Missile Destroyers and the soon to be commissioned Anzac Class Frigates. Guided Missile Destroyer Command Team Training began in May 1994, however, contractual problems stalled the remainder of the work. Training ceased for more than a year before recommencing in January 1997. The Tactical Floor in the building also underwent upgrades in 1995 including the installation of a new projection system, lecture theatre seating, lighting and computers.
The RAN Surface Warfare School underwent a major review in 1995 intended to provide direction in how to achieve the School’s vision of being ‘the RAN’s centre of excellence for maritime warfare training and tactical development’. A number of organisational changes were recommended as a consequence, most of which were implemented by the end of January 1996, including; the Warfare Faculty becoming the Tactics Department, the establishment of the Operations Training Department, the amalgamation of the Tactical Development Cell and the Tactical Training Group into a single Tactics Faculty and the establishment of an autonomous Training Support Section. The Tactical Trainer Building was also renamed the Maritime Warfare Training Centre later in the year. In 1998, the year-long Principal Warfare Officers’ Course was re-structured so that surface and air warfare were studied concurrently.
The end of the decade marked an end of an era in more ways than one for Watson. On 1 October 1999, five officers graduated as Submarine Warfare Officers, the last to do so at Watson. With the commissioning of the first of the Collins Class submarines in 1996, the SWSC had become obsolete and its replacement, the Submarine Training Systems Centre, was located at the submarines’ home port, HMAS Stirling in Western Australia. From 2000, all submarine officer career courses were conducted at Stirling using the newly commissioned Collins Combat System Trainer. Rear Admiral Ian Macdougall (Rtd), who, as a Commander, had been the first Submarine Command Team Trainer Officer in Charge (OIC) in 1975, initiated a symbolic ‘last attack’ on 27 April 2000 in the presence of other previous OIC’s and senior officers. The Submarine Command Team Trainer was then turned off for the last time and its parts were distributed to various museums around the country.
In March 2001, the ship’s company of HMAS Watson were granted Freedom of Entry to the Municipality of Woollahra for the very first time. More than 200 sailors, accompanied by the RAN Band, marched through the streets of Double Bay before being halted by Superintendent Paul Chaplin, the police commander for the Rose Bay and Paddington area. He was presented with a charter by Watson’s chief coxswain, Chief Petty Officer Vince Carroll, and the company, led by Commanding Officer, Commander Steve Gadzio, marched on to be inspected by the Mayor of Woollahra, Councillor Christopher Dawson, and the Navy System Commander, Commodore Merv Davis.
In mid-2001, the then Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral David Shackleton, AO, amalgamated the roles of the Navy’s two largest shore establishments; Watson and Cerberus. Until then, the establishment command role was separate to the training authority and, while achieving good training outcomes, the arrangement had proven to be resource intensive. The new arrangement resulted in a single senior officer undertaking the combined role of commanding officer as well as the training authority function. The change removed command ambiguity and clarified responsibility.
Watson received another significant boost to its training capability’s in 2002 when the first of three Anzac Class training emulators was formally accepted on 30 January and training began on 4 February. Each suite consisted of ten PC-based student consoles and an instructor console providing 20 different training scenarios, each containing more than 250 tracks.
Further significant advancements in simulation training also occurred in 2002 as Watson developed a wide area network of simulation training systems for use in the Coalition Readiness Management Sydney program, otherwise known as CReaMS. CReaMS was a US led initiative aimed at enhancing coalition training and interoperability. Watson was the hub of Australian participation in the CReaMS program. The networked simulation system was designed to link simulation training activities between participating navies. The first demonstration of distributed simulation had occurred at the International Training, Simulation and Education Conference in Orlando, Florida when trainers at Watson were linked with trainers in the US and the Netherlands in November 2001.
A new Force Warfare Officers course was implemented in 2005 for Principal Warfare Officers with at least 12 months experience at sea, with the first course starting that August. The five month course was designed to raise Principal Warfare Officers to a new level of maritime warfare expertise enabling them to apply their specific knowledge as part of a higher level deployed headquarters or joint force element. At the same time, as the RAN’s Adelaide Class Guided Missile Frigates were undergoing an extensive upgrade program, the Maritime Warfare Systems Centre’s Adelaide Class Simulator also underwent extensive upgrades to mirror those of the real thing.
At the close of its 65th year in service, HMAS Watson has deservedly earned its reputation as the RAN’s premier warfare training establishment. Its state-of-the-art facilities are, today, spread across nine departments and Watson is internationally recognised as offering some of the finest naval warfare training anywhere in the world. Watson now provides basic and advanced training for Junior and Senior Sailors in the Combat System Category and Junior Seaman Officers in ship handling, navigation and tactics. Advanced training is conducted for Principal Warfare Officers, who are taught to effectively use the modern ships' weapons and sensors, and Force Warfare Officers who focus on planning and staff skills required to function within a joint staff at sea or ashore. At the high end, Watson trains newly appointed Commanding and Executive Officers, giving them the finish needed to succeed in commanding the highly professional people who crew the ships and establishments that make up Australia's Navy.