Lieutenant Robert 'John' Dowey

By Lieutenant Daren K. Cherian, RAN

Robert ‘John’ Dowey joined the Australian Army on 30 December 1941. Following training as a gunner with the 2/12th Field Regiment, Dowey transferred to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), enlisting as an ordinary seaman on 24 August 1942. Dowey was quickly recognised for his leadership potential, and encouraged to commission as an officer, being promoted midshipman (on probation) in February 1943.

Following training at HMAS Rushcutter’s Fairmile Training School, Dowey, then aged 19, transferred to HMAS Melville in Darwin where he embarked on ML 814, a newly commissioned Fairmile class Motor Launch as one of the three officers.

Dowey’s responsibilities included keeping watches and general duties. With a crew of only 17, everyone on board multi-tasked. Virtually everyone had a gun station. Dowey’s crew was fortunate enough to have had a sailor who was not only a good cook, but was willing to do it on a permanent basis, sparing the others from this duty.

ML 814’s tanks held 2,200 gallons of high octane petrol, and if the vessel came under enemy attack, fire would have been the greatest danger. Come October, the wet season exacerbated living conditions inside the ship with rising steam following the heavy rain each day. Mildew throughout the vessel formed the perfect breeding ground for roaches and bugs which then contributed to tropical infections. Following the temporary hospitalisation of Dowey’s shipmate (and lifelong friend) Lieutentant Marsden Hordern, Dowey was appointed as ML 814’s First Lieutenant in January 1944.

Dowey's leadership potential was identified early in his RAN career. He was made temporary First Lieutenant of ML 814 in January 1944.
Dowey's leadership potential was identified early in his RAN career. He was made temporary First Lieutenant of ML 814 in January 1944.

ML 814’s main roles were the defence of Darwin and escort duties, however the ship was also involved in Operation BULLDOZER (which commenced on 27 January 1944), the naval component of a much larger endeavour known as Operation COBRA, under the control of the Services Reconnaissance Department (SRD). Dowey’s ship had been given the task of landing Australian commandos and Timorese soldiers behind enemy lines into Japanese occupied Timor. The ship travelled alone, with the RAAF providing air cover. Extremely rough weather and poor visibility initially hampered their passage while the crew struggled with sea sickness. At the rendezvous, the ship’s flashing light challenges were ignored. The crew expected to be greeted by Australian SRD members who had been landed ashore by previous operations. Dowey was ordered to take the SRD Cobra members and a landing party ashore to investigate. After being met by local Timorese and being assured that everything was in order, the SRD members set about their assigned task while Dowey and his landing party returned back to ML 814. Unfortunately, as history discovered, the original landing parties had been captured and compromised, and due to this, unknown to the boat crew, the newly landed SRD Cobra members were soon captured by the Japanese. ML 814 returned safely back by 31 January. Dowey was one of two members who had been singled out for special mention in the post operation report by the Commanding Officer. Dowey developed a close association with Sergeant A.J. ‘Jim’ Ellwood, who had been one of the operatives captured by the Japanese. Ellwood spent two years as a Prisoner of War subject to terrible treatment. Ellwood and Dowey maintained a lifelong friendship, until Ellwood passed away in December 2021.

Dowey later saw service in Fairmile sister ships ML 815, ML 826 and ML 807. He had a short time in acting command of ML 807, while the vessel’s regular Commanding Officer was granted leave for the birth of his son.

On the day of the Japanese surrender, Dowey was serving in ML 815. While the ship was transiting the Gulf of Carpentaria, naval HQ transmitted a signal for them to ‘cease all warlike operations’ ending WWII and sparking jubilant celebrations.

Sub-Lieutenant Dowey retired from fulltime naval service on 20 February 1946. However, he remained active within the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve, being promoted Lieutenant in 1947, before permanently ending his service in 1966.

For his service during WWII, John Dowey earned the 1939-1945 Star and the Pacific Star, both given for operational service during the period as well as the War Medal 1939-1945 which includes operation and non-operation service during the period. In addition he was awarded the Australia Service Medal 1939-45 and the Australian Defence Medal.

Following the war, Dowey returned to his previous employment with the Commonwealth Bank, before completing several university degrees, all done at night while maintaining his full-time day job. By 1954 he had a Bachelor of Economics and a Bachelor of Laws under his belt, both awarded from the University of Sydney. The next year when he was transferred to the London Office of the bank, he commenced his Master of Laws at the London School of Economics, University of London, again attending evening lectures and earning his Masters in 1957.

Dowey (seen here assessing the log of the schooner Mistral II) participated in multiple Sydney to Hobart yacht races.
Dowey (seen here assessing the log of the schooner Mistral II) participated in multiple Sydney to Hobart yacht races.

John Dowey continued his career in banking, remaining with the Reserve Bank when it separated from the Commonwealth Bank in 1960. He remained with the Reserve Bank until his retirement, with some of his roles including the Secretary of the Reserve Bank of Australia between 1974-1980 and the bank’s Chief Representative in Europe (based in London) from 1980-1983.

John Dowey went on to get married, and had two sons and three grandchildren. He remained active within the naval community through the Fairmile Association, until it was discontinued in 2013. He and his fellow associates presented memorial plaques at various Australian ports where the ships were either built or based during WWII. He also marched every ANZAC day until 2013 when he was 89 years old.

Dowey (left) Jim Ellwood (middle) and Marsden Horden (right) met during WWII and remained life-long friends.
Dowey (left) Jim Ellwood (middle) and Marsden Horden (right) met during WWII and remained lifelong friends.

Lieutenant Robert ‘John’ Dowey, RAN (ret’d) passed away on 26 February 2022. He was laid to rest on 15 March 2022 in a solemn service at the St. James Anglican Church at Turramurra, NSW with friends, family and a small RAN contingent present.