723 Squadron History
723 Squadron has its origins in the Royal Navy (RN) where it was part of the Pacific Fleet's Mobile Operating Naval Air Bases concept in WWII whereby bare or unoccupied airfields could be rapidly manned and equipped for use by naval aircraft temporarily disembarked for training or maintenance. 723 Squadron formed in Britain on 21 November 1944 and embarked for Australia the following month, arriving on 28 February 1945. The Squadron was stationed in Australia, mainly operating from HMS Nabbington in Nowra, for the duration of its existence before disbanding on 31 May 1946.
723 Squadron re-commissioned at Naval Air Station (NAS) Nowra on 7 April 1952 as a Fleet Requirements Unit. Commanded by LEUT Jeff Gledhill, the squadron was equipped with two Hawker Sea Fury Mark II's, a Douglas C47A Dakota, a Supermarine Type 309 Sea Otter and a Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation CA-16 Wirraway. By the end of the year, the Squadron would take on two more Sea Furies, another Wirraway and four Fairey Firefly A.S.6's representing the most eclectic collection of aircraft in the Royal Australian Navy Fleet Air Arm (RAN FAA). Its main function was a cooperation role with the Australian Joint Anti-Submarine Warfare School, such as trialling directional sonobuoys, and also provided refresher flying for pilots and aircrew not currently posted to flying squadrons.
On 11 March 1953, the Squadron took delivery of the RAN's first rotary-wing aircraft; three Bristol Sycamore HR 50 helicopters. With this new capability, 723 Squadron's responsibilities expanded to include search and rescue, rotary wing training and fleet support. LEUT Don Farquarson, RN, ran the first helicopter pilot training course in Australia, assisted by Lieutenants Gordon McPhee and Neil MacMillan. Two Sycamores later detached to HMAS Sydney for her second tour in Korean waters as search and rescue aircraft.
On 18 June 1954, 723 Squadron also took delivery of the RAN's first jet aircraft. LEUT Peter Goldrick accepted the de Havilland Sea Vampire Mk T.22 at the de Havilland workshops in Bankstown before flying the aircraft to NAS Nowra.
723 Squadron's Sycamores proved their worth as search and rescue aircraft offering civilian flood relief in February 1955 rescuing over 100 people in Dubbo, Maitland and Narrabri. However, the potential dangers of all operations were illustrated when one Sycamore was lost and two civilians killed attempting a rescue in Maitland. The helicopter, piloted by LCDR Gordon McPhee with his observer LEUT Brendan Hill, was attempting to rescue a group of men stranded on a disintegrating railway signal box. Two of the men grabbed the strop on the first pass when the helicopter lost reserve power. Aware that the men were not in the strop properly, McPhee tried to get them to the nearest high ground. Unfortunately, as the observer tried to lower the men onto a nearby bridge, they both fell and subsequently drowned. The helicopter's winch wire then tangled in a high tension power cable bringing the aircraft down. The crew were rescued eight kilometres downriver by an Army amphibious vehicle. Lieutenant-Commanders McPhee and Don Farquarson, RN, were both awarded OBEs for their efforts during the floods.
The Squadron de-commissioned on 25 October 1956 having grown considerably, taking on a number of new aircraft to meet its training and support responsibilities. Most of the Squadron's aircraft were transferred to 724 Squadron except for the Sea Furies and Fireflies which were transferred to 805 and 851 Squadrons respectively.
723 Squadron re-commissioned on 18 February 1957 flying five Sycamores and also took on two Auster J5-G Autocars and two Firefly target tugs in May 1959. While the Austers and Fireflies were used primarily for communications and target towing respectively, the Sycamores had broader responsibilities. Two were required for use in HMAS Melbourne whenever Melbourne's Carrier Air Group (CAG) was embarked and one was always being overhauled by the Civilian Repair Organisation. This left two aircraft for duties such as search and rescue, training and surveying. The Squadron would also assist the police by providing transport and photography services for tasks as varied as search and rescue operations and murder investigations. When one of the helicopters crashed in January 1958 near Coffs Harbour while on survey duties with HMAS Warrego, just one aircraft remained to perform those duties. A replacement aircraft was ordered but was not be delivered for another six months, nor had any financial provision been made for a replacement.
The FAA entered a period of uncertainty in the early 1960's with the announcement that fixed-wing naval aviation was to cease. Rotary-wing operations would remain taking on Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) duties, a role far-removed from the tasks of 723 Squadron and its comparatively rudimentary Sycamores. Consideration turned to a replacement for the Sycamores with the Westland P531 Wasp emerging as the preferred option. However, the Wasp's high performance characteristics left little room for error and made it impractical as a trainer. The Minister for the Navy, Senator John Gorton, was instead convinced to purchase the American Bell UH-1B Iroquois utility helicopter, an aircraft which became an icon of the Vietnam conflict. The first Iroquois came into service in May 1964. Meanwhile, in November 1962, 723 Squadron's fixed-wing aircraft were transferred to 724 Squadron and 723 became an all-helicopter squadron.
The Squadron began test flights of two Westland Scout AH-1s on 6 April 1963. The small Scouts were to be rotated aboard the hydrographic survey ship, HMAS Moresby, mapping Australia's coastline and waterways. The Scouts represented a vast improvement on the seaplanes and flying boats that had previously been used in this role and proved the practicality operating helicopters from small ships. They did, however, require a higher level of maintenance work than other aircraft as the abrasiveness of coral sand eroded the rotor blades as well as the engine and airframe structure.
On 10 February 1964 at 8.56pm, HMAS Melbourne, with a Sycamore of 723 Squadron embarked, collided with Voyager in one of the most tragic accidents in Australian naval history. The disaster resulted in the loss of 82 lives, all from Voyager. 723 Squadron participated in search and rescue efforts in the aftermath of the collision.
The Squadron commenced its first advanced flying training course for the new Iroquois at the end of July 1964 and soon after began helicopter conversion courses for the fleet. Almost exactly a year later, on 15 July 1965, the Squadron's last Sycamore was flown to HMAS Nirimba to be used for apprentice training. The Squadron was now equipped with five Iroquois and the two Scouts.
The courage of naval airmen was displayed on the morning 21 May 1966 when 723 Squadron scrambled two Iroquois to search for survivors from the Dredge W.D. Atlas which had capsized about 18 kilometres south-east of Jervis Bay. The pilots, Lieutenants Pat Vickers and Barrie Lovett, and their crews hovered their helicopters in 45 knot winds just a few feet over ten metre waves. Thirteen sailors lost their lives but thanks to the efforts of 723 Squadron, four others were rescued. When an officer proposed that 723 Squadron deserved an Albert Medal for saving life at sea, the suggestion was laughed out of the HMAS Albatross mess. The Navy News reported on 10 June 1966 "The pilots... do not think they are heroes, dare-devils or stuntmen. Just men doing their job."
With the Australian and US commitment in Vietnam increasing between 1965-1967, the US made a request to Australia for helicopters and crews to provide combat support to the war effort. The RAN already had a significant presence in the region with HMAS Sydney, converted to a fast troop ship, deploying troops as early as May 1965, and a Clearance Diving Team and a destroyer operating in Vietnam from February and March 1967 respectively. On 14 July 1967, the Minister for Defence, Mr Allen Fairhall, responded to the US request by announcing that the RAN would provide 8 pilots, 4 observers, 24 maintenance personnel, 4 air crewmen and 6 support staff to serve as part of the US Army's 135th Assault Helicopter Company (AHC). This detachment would become known as the Royal Australian Navy Helicopter Flight Vietnam (RANHFV).
Pilots were drawn from existing FAA Squadrons and were officially allocated to 723 Squadron, undertaking eight weeks of training with the Squadron at NAS Nowra. The first flight formed and operational training began on 28 August 1967. Their training included troop lift, insertion and support as well as survival training, code of conduct training, small arms and colloquial language. 723 Squadron suspended all other activities to devote all possible resources to training the RANHFV. No. 5 Squadron RAAF also assisted by providing M60 door guns and mounts as well other advice and assistance and the flight completed training by conducting field exercises with the Australian Army.
Four contingents of the RANHFV served in Vietnam between 1967 and 1971 though the dangers of flying were not limited to those overseas. On 5 June 1968, three members of 723 Squadron, LEUT Peter Ward, PO D.J. Sanderson and NAMAE R.K. Smith, were lost when their Iroquois crashed over the cliff at Beecroft Head Firing Range and into the sea while on a range clearing flight. The aircraft had just landed a fourth crew member, LEUT Robert Ray, who reported the crash to NAS Nowra.
The RAN's FAA Squadrons had adopted US Navy prefixes by the turn of the decade and 723 Squadron became HT723 Squadron indicating that it was classed as a rotary-wing training unit though the prefix changed to HC at the end of 1975 indicating a rotary-wing composite unit.
HT723 Squadron's only remaining Scout (the other was written off in April 1967 when it ditched on take-off from HMAS Moresby in Wewak Harbour) disembarked from Moresby for the last time as hydrographic aircraft on 27 July 1973. It was replaced by a Bell 206B-1 Kiowa on 10 October 1973 which embarked in Moresby for the first time on 5 February the following year. The Squadron took on a second and third Kiowa in August 1974 and March 1977 respectively. They would also embark for brief periods in HMA Ships Stalwart, Sydney, Adelaide, Tobruk and Jervis Bay as light utility aircraft.
The FAA became embroiled in industrial unrest in July 1974 when the Storeman and Packers Union black-banned the RAN resulting in fuel shortages and flying restrictions. This became a serious, and even life-threatening, issue the following month when heavy rain and flooding inundated the Nowra area. The FAA, including HT723 Squadron, was called upon for disaster relief operations but the fuel shortage gave rise to concerns about whether rescue efforts would have to cease. Eventually common sense prevailed and fuel tankers began to arrive allowing personnel from NAS Nowra to rescue some 352 people. HT723 Squadron rescued about 70 people in seven sorties including a lady from Greenwell Point who had suffered three heart attacks and required urgent medical attention.
With the decommissioning of HT725 Squadron in January 1976 and HS817 Squadron re-equipping with Westland Sea King Mk 50's the following month, HC723 Squadron (as it was now known) received four Westland Wessex 31B helicopters stripped of their anti-submarine warfare equipment, for utility support. However, the Wessex was simply too big and heavy to operate from RAN Destroyers and consideration turned to a replacement. In spite of this, the Squadron detached a Wessex and an Iroquois to RAAF Base Williamtown in January 1981 to test the viability of operating the Wessex as a troop carrier aboard the new heavy landing ship HMAS Tobruk. The tests were successful and Wessex helicopters continued to operate in the RAN well into the 1980's.
On 18 August 1982, the Government announced the purchase of 18 Aerospatiale AS 350BA Squirrel light utility helicopters. Twelve would replace the RAAF's Iroquois while the remainder would be allocated to HC723 Squadron. The Squadron started operating the Squirrels in 1984.
In December 1982, HC723 Squadron began exercises for the Bass Strait Counter-Terrorism Plan, known as the National Plan, in conjunction with the Army's Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment operating from RAAF Base Sale. The Squadron was divided into two flights; 'A' Flight was made up the Squadron's entire Wessex complement (now 14 aircraft) for counter-terrorism tasks and 'B' Flight was made up of Iroquois and Kiowas for search and rescue and small ship flights. The performance of the Wessex crews was notable, achieving standards that the more sophisticated Sea Kings would find difficult to emulate in the future.
On 19 November 1983, the Wessex celebrated 21 years of service in the RAN and the occasion was marked with a flypast of RAN Wessex, Iroquois and Sea King helicopters as well RN Sea Harriers from the visiting HMS Invincible. Shortly afterwards, the National Plan suffered its only fatal accident on 4 December 1983. While on a routine flight from the Marlin Platform in Bass Strait, an HC723 Squadron Wessex crashed into the water after suffering a catastrophic transmission failure that in turn destroyed the aircraft's flying controls. Six of the aircraft's eight crew were rescued but LS Gary Macey and RAAF medical orderly Corporal J. Campbell lost their lives.
On 12 February 1984, HU816 Squadron was re-formed as an Army support unit to decrease the number of aircraft types and variety of tasks that were being performed by HC723 Squadron. The Wessex's were transferred to HU816 as were a number of personnel including LCDR Clive Mayo who assumed command of the re-formed Squadron. HC723 Squadron's aircraft complement was quickly bolstered, however, when it took delivery of its first Squirrel on 14 May 1984 (it would receive its sixth and last on 10 July) and two fixed-wing Hawker Siddeley HS748s from the recently de-commissioned VC851 Squadron on 1 September. The HS748s continued to perform electronic warfare training support and VIP transport duties for the RAN.
The Squirrels arrived in the Squadron as a civilian helicopter, not designed with maritime operations in mind. However, the RAN's new Adelaide class guided missile frigates lacked a dedicated helicopter. The Squirrels embarked in the frigates as an interim aircraft and, in spite of some early problems with fuselage cracking and corrosion, continued dedicated embarked operations until 1997.
The HS748s, as part of VC851 Squadron, had performed invaluable disaster relief operations in 1974/75 in the aftermath of Cyclone Tracy and the Tasman Bridge Disaster. In 1989, they were again called upon to provide a community service of a different kind. Following the breakdown in talks between commercial pilots and domestic airlines, the Government decided to break the pilots strike by using Defence aircraft to transport civilian passengers. Over the course of four months, HC723 Squadron's HS748 flight carried over 10 000 passengers between Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Hobart and Launceston. Prime Minister Bob Hawke travelled to NAS Nowra to personally congratulate the crews (there were only three), and the Flight was awarded the Navy League of Australia Plaque for Aid to the Civilian Community and would later be adopted by the City of Launceston.
That year also marked the end of an era for two FAA aircraft and HC723 Squadron. On 31 May 1989, after 25 years of service, the RAN's Iroquois were de-commissioned. The Wessex also de-commissioned, finally, on 31 December after 27 years of service. The Wessex's had returned to the Squadron earlier in the year as HU 816 Squadron took delivery of the RAN's new Sikorsky S-70B-2 Seahawks.
On 2 August 1990, Iraqi armed forces invaded the neighbouring kingdom of Kuwait and eight days later, the Australian Government announced that HMA Ships Darwin, Adelaide and Success were to be deployed to the Gulf of Oman in Operation 'Damask', the Australian component of Operation 'Desert Shield'. HC723 Squadron embarked a Squirrel in each of the ships. As part of the deployment, the Squirrels received extensive operational modifications including GPS navigation, radar warning equipment, night vision devices and thermal imagers. This first detachment had no electronic detection or counter-measure equipment and were armed only with machine guns. The first task force arrived in the Gulf of Oman early in September. HMA Ships Sydney and Brisbane ('Damask II') would relieve Darwin and Adelaide in early December while HMAS Westralia relieved Success on Australia Day 1991. Brisbane and Westralia did not have Squirrels embarked though the Squirrel embarked in Sydney was generally used for surface search and utility tasks.
On 17 January 1991, Operation 'Desert Storm', the final assault to push Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, commenced. HC723 Squadron's Squirrel continued to perform a range of tasks including mine search, combat search and rescue, and early warning of any potential threat arising from Iran. By 26 February 1991, the war was over and the Australian ships left the Gulf on 22 March. The Aviation contingent provided by HC723 and HS816 Squadrons had contributed significantly to the RAN's capacity to perform in a combat situation.
HC723 Squadron's responsibilities in the Middle East did not come to an end, however, and the Squadron continued to operate in the Gulf and North Red Sea for the next five years (Operations 'Damask III-VIII') enforcing United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iraq. The Squadron also maintained its training and fleet support duties at NAS Nowra and regular detachments in other RAN ships while the HS748s were heavily involved in exercises and trials during the 1990s such as trials for the Rapier surface-to-air missile systems.
This period in HC723 Squadron's history was particularly busy and it was a great credit to the Squadron's maintenance personnel that a high level of serviceability was maintained. On 6 April 1992, the Squadron's Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander Vincenzo Di Pietro, said "The Squadron has put in a high rate of effort this month which could not have been achieved without the dedicated and professional maintenance effort."
The Squadron celebrated its 40th anniversary on 7 April 1992 with a flypast of all three of its aircraft types (Squirrels, Kiowas and HS748s) and a families' day at NAS Nowra. Just two days later the Squadron participated in a flypast in Sydney to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea and the 60th anniversary of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
In 1997 the RAN dropped the prefixes that had been attached to FAA Squadrons for the past 25 years and HC723 Squadron reverted back to 723 Squadron. In the same year, the Squirrels ceased dedicated embarked operations and they were replaced aboard the RAN's frigates by the Seahawks of 816 Squadron.
The Squadron made history in January 1999 when it was joined by the RAN's first female pilot. Sub Lieutenant Natalee McDougall was one of six to graduate from the Australian Defence Academy's helicopter training facility on 13 November 1998 after 17 months of intensive classroom and practical training at RAAF Base Fairbairn.
During September 1999, a 723 Squadron Squirrel was again embarked at sea, this time in HMAS Anzac as part of the Navy's contingent for Operation 'Warden', the Australian response to the East Timor crisis. The aircraft was involved in surface search operations.
The final vestiges of naval fixed-wing aviation came to an end in the year 2000 when 723 Squadron's HS748s were finally de-commissioned after more than a quarter of a century of service. The HS748 flight conducted its last sortie on 9 June and departed NAS Nowra for the final time on 26 June, officially de-commissioning on 30 June, flying to RAAF Base Sale for disposal. Later that year, in October, the Kiowas were transferred to the Army after 23 years of service in the FAA, most significantly in embarked operations aboard the hydrographic survey ship, HMAS Moresby.
In 2002, 723 Squadron celebrated 50 years of service and today, its primary focus is on training. At 723 Squadron all RAN pilots, observers and aircrew undertake conversion training from fixed wing to rotary wing aircraft, in preparation for further training in operational helicopters.
|01/1945||Formed as a RN Squadron|
|07/04/1952||Re-formed at NAS Nowra as a Fleet Requirements Unit with a variety of aircraft|
|11/03/1953||Takes delivery of the RAN's first rotary-wing aircraft, three Bristol Sycamore HR 50 helicopters|
|27/10/1953||A detachment departs Australia for HMAS Sydney's second tour in Korea|
|04/05/1954||HMAS Sydney's second tour in Korea ends|
|18/06/1954||Takes delivery of the RAN's first jet aircraft, a de Havilland Sea Vampire Mk T.22|
|25/10/1956||De-commissioned at NAS Nowra|
|18/02/1957||Re-commissioned at NAS Nowra flying Sycamores, Auster J5-G Autocars and Fireflies|
|11/1962||723 Squadron becomes an all-helicopter squadron|
|18/04/1963||Takes delivery of first Westland Scout helicopters|
|10/02/1964||HMAS Voyager disaster. 723 Squadron assists in search and rescue efforts|
|20/05/1964||Takes delivery of the RAN's first Iroquois helicopter|
|28/08/1967||First RANHFV formed|
|10/10/1973||Takes delivery of the first Kiowa helicopter|
|01/1976||Receives Westland Wessex helicopters from the de-commissioning HT725 Squadron|
|11/1982||Exercises for the 'National Plan' begins|
|14/05/1984||Takes delivery of first Squirrel helicopter|
|01/09/1984||Receives HS748 fixed-wing aircraft from the de-commissioning VC851 Squadron|
|08/1989||Airline pilots strike sees HS748 Flight carrying over 10 000 civilian passengers over four months|
|02/08/1990||Iraq invades Kuwait signalling the beginning of the first Gulf War. HC723 Squadron embarks aircraft aboard RAN ships in the Gulf until 1996|
|01/1999||First female RAN pilot joins 723 Squadron|
|09/1999||A Squirrel embarks in HMAS Anzac for Operation 'Warden' in East Timor|
|Assumed Command||Commanding Officer|
|07/04/1952||Lieutenant Commander J.A. Gledhill, DSC|
|27/04/1953||Lieutenant Commander G.A. Beange, DSC|
|18/05/1953||Lieutenant Commander D.C. Johns|
|07/09/1953||Lieutenant Commander J.B.G. Campbell, DFC|
|23/05/1955||Lieutenant Commander C.M.A. Wheatley|
|18/02/1957||Lieutenant Commander J.R.N. Salthouse|
|01/07/1957||Lieutenant Commander G. McPhee, OBE|
|24/07/1959||Lieutenant Commander J.R.N. Salthouse|
|27/11/1960||Lieutenant Commander J.A. O'Farrell|
|06/06/1962||Lieutenant Commander A. Ignatieff|
|11/09/1962||Lieutenant Commander J.A. O'Farrell|
|19/08/1963||Lieutenant Commander K.A. Douglas|
|13/12/1963||Lieutenant Commander J.A. O'Farrell|
|17/09/1964||Lieutenant Commander D.J. Orr|
|06/10/1965||Lieutenant Commander P.J. Vickers|
|25/10/1965||Lieutenant Commander G. McPhee, OBE|
|27/03/1967||Lieutenant Commander N. Ralph|
|05/06/1967||Lieutenant Commander S.B.E. Courtier|
|03/07/1967||Lieutenant Commander G. McPhee, OBE|
|16/12/1969||Lieutenant Commander G.R. Rohrsheim, DSC|
|03/11/1970||Lieutenant Commander D.D. Farthing, DSC|
|10/07/1972||Lieutenant Commander W.S. Lowe, MBE|
|03/11/1972||Lieutenant Commander I.M. Speedy, DSC|
|21/09/1973||Lieutenant Commander B.C. Crawford, DSC|
|01/12/1974||Lieutenant Commander J.C. Buchanan, DSC|
|26/01/1976||Lieutenant Commander B.J. Boettcher|
|12/04/1977||Lieutenant Commander J.M. Leak|
|20/10/1978||Lieutenant Commander C.F. Daley|
|23/06/1980||Lieutenant Commander V.T. Battese|
|19/10/1981||Lieutenant Commander M.A. Perrott|
|11/10/1983||Lieutenant Commander M.J. Lehan|
|17/02/1984||Lieutenant Commander C.F. George|
|10/01/1986||Lieutenant Commander R.J. Luxton|
|04/12/1987||Lieutenant Commander P.J. Cannell|
|08/12/1989||Lieutenant Commander P.J. Machin|
|24/01/1992||Lieutenant Commander V.E.B. Di Pietro|
|01/01/1994||Commander V.E.B. Di Pietro|
|15/04/1994||Lieutenant Commander A.F.E. Di Pietro|
|01/01/1996||Commander A.F.E. Di Pietro|
|01/01/1996||Lieutenant Commander M.T. Jerrett|
|01/01/1998||Commander M.T. Jerrett|
|30/11/1998||Lieutenant Commander S.G. Elms|
|01/01/1999||Commander S.G. Elms|
|20/11/2000||Lieutenant Commander S.A. Harwood|
|31/12/2002||Commander S.A. Harwood|
|14/05/2003||Lieutenant Commander A.M. Whittaker|
|29/04/2005||Lieutenant Commander N.M.D. Gunn|
- Australian Naval Aviation Museum, Flying Stations: A Story of Australian Naval Aviation, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 1998
- Eather, Steve, Flying Squadrons of the Australian Defence Force, Aerospace Publications, Canberra, 1995
- Gillett, Ross, Wings Across the Sea, Aerospace Publications, Canberra, 1988
- Perryman, John and Brett Mitchell, Australia's Navy in Vietnam, Topmill Pty Ltd, Silverwater NSW, 2007