Petty Officer Arthur Leslie Swinden

Arthur Leslie Swinden was born in Hoxton Old Town, Shoreditch, London on 20 August 1891, the son of James Francis Swinden, cabinet maker, and Alice Ellen Swinden (née Johnson). His younger sister, Ethel Alice Swinden, was born in 1894.

He attended the Grocers School at Hackney. The full name of the school was in fact ‘The Worshipful Company of Grocers Hackney Downs Boys School’, which had been established as an all boys grammar school in 1876. In its day it was a well regarded boys grammar school, but it eventually closed in 1995 with the reputation as the ‘worst school in England’. Arthur was considered a good student.

Arthur was introduced to a seafaring life when he worked part time on a herring fishing boat which operated from Leigh-on-Sea (some 40 miles east of Hoxton), and on 26 June 1906 at age 14 he commenced training in the pre-sea Training Ship Mercury. At the start of the 20th century, Britain needed at least 10,000 boys to receive pre-sea training to meet the requirements of the Royal and Merchant Navies. TS Mercury was one of over 30 pre-sea training establishments founded during the Victorian period to meet this need. These ranged from fee-paying training ships for prospective officers in the Merchant Navy, to reformatory ships for juvenile delinquents who mostly joined the navy as seamen or stokers. Mercury, however, was the only privately owned establishment, training boys for both the Royal and Merchant Navies.

Mercury provided free (or nearly free) schooling and nautical education to boys between the ages of 12 (when compulsory schooling ceased) and 15, which was the minimum age for enlistment in the Royal Navy. The school consisted of the elderly vessel Mercury, which was anchored in the River Hamble (near Southampton), and buildings on the shoreline. The ship was actually only a dormitory for the school - the boys slept onboard in hammocks. In the winter she was bitterly cold, and it was common for boys to find ice on their hammock when coming aboard at night. Conversely, on a warm summer's morning they would wake up to see the river reflected in the roof above them and to hear the seagulls. Mercury operated between 1885 and 1968, when the training ship was closed.

At Chatham on 11 September 1907, having just turned 16, Arthur joined the Royal Navy - signing on for 12 years, which would not start until he turned 18. He was rated as a Boy Telegraphist (Wireless Operator), allocated his service number (239628), and commenced training at the Royal Navy training establishment HMS Impregnable at Devonport. On 28 June 1908 he joined his first ship, the Majestic Class battleship HMS Magnificent which was the flagship of the RN Home Fleet.

He served in Magnificent for ten months before being transferred to the Lord Nelson Class battleship HMS Agamemnon, which also served in the Home Fleet, on 28 April 1909. On 31 August 1909, having just turned 18, Arthur was rated as an Ordinary Telegraphist and drafted to the Royal Navy barracks at Chatham (HMS Pembroke) for two months prior to joining the Edgar Class cruiser HMS Hawke on 26 October 1909. On 10 March 1910 Hawke departed England bound for Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where she was to rendezvous with the Challenger Class cruiser HMS Encounter. This was Arthur’s first voyage overseas in the Navy.

Encounter was one of the Royal Navy ships serving on the Australian Station, and she met up with Hawke in Colombo on 15 April 1910. It was here that the bulk of Encounter’s crew transferred to Hawke for return to England, and Hawke’s crew transferred to Encounter to take her back to Australia. Thus the Royal Navy was able to keep certain ships on the Australia Station but change the crews out every two years. Arthur Swinden was one of the men who transferred to Encounter, and this was to have a profound effect upon the rest of his life.

Encounter returned to her home port of Sydney, and Arthur was to spend the next three years serving in her. He was soon promoted to the rank of Telegraphist. Encounter spent the bulk of her time on the Australia Station conducting port visits (showing the flag cruises) to various Australian and New Zealand ports, and in late March 1911 took a team of scientists to the island of Vavau (east of Fiji) to witness the solar eclipse. On 20 February 1912, at age 20, Arthur was promoted to the rank of Leading Telegraphist.

On 21 June 1912 Encounter was paid off from the Royal Navy and transferred to the newly created Royal Australian Navy on 1 July 1912. Most of her crew returned to England but some, including Arthur Swinden, decided to purchase their discharge from the RN (i.e. pay an amount of money for the unserved portion of their service in order to leave the navy) and join the RAN. Thus, on 21 June 1912, Arthur Swinden became a member of the RAN, signing on for a period of seven years and given service number 1845. He later tried to obtain a refund of half the money he had paid to purchase his discharge from the RN, but the RAN refused to pay! His parents and younger sister also soon immigrated to Australia.

Arthur continued to serve in the now HMAS Encounter which became the sea going training ship of the RAN. He finally left the ship on 11 August 1913 when he was drafted to HMAS Cerberus (Williamstown Naval Depot) in Victoria for a training course which would assist him in his new role as a Telegraphist in Torpedo Boat Destroyers. On 12 March 1914 he joined the new destroyer HMAS Yarra and would continue to serve in destroyers for the remainder of his naval career.

When war broke out on 4 August 1914, Arthur was still serving in HMAS Yarra and soon found himself involved in the Australian campaign to capture German New Guinea. Germany had colonised the north coast of New Guinea and the islands of New Britain and Bougainville in the 1880s, and there was a major German wireless station at Rabaul. In mid-August the British Government requested that Australia and New Zealand seize all German colonies south of the equator, in order to prevent the German East Asia Fleet (then based at Tsingtao in China) from using these colonies as a staging base to attack Allied shipping in the Pacific.

Yarra and her sister ships Warrego and Parramatta and the cruiser Sydney were in Townsville when war was declared, and all three ships were dispatched to Rabaul to check if the German fleet was at anchor there. They arrived off Rabaul on the night of 11 August, and the destroyers carried out a daring reconnaissance of the harbour but found it empty of enemy shipping.

Later, an Australian force (the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force - ANMEF) was dispatched to capture and occupy German New Guinea. On 11 September 1914 the force arrived off Rabaul, which was the capital of German New Guinea, and the troops of the ANMEF were landed. Yarra was one of the warships escorting the ANMEF troop convoy, supported the landing and then later conducted patrols along the north coast of New Guinea. On 18 February 1915 Arthur was transferred to HMAS Warrego, where he served until 30 September 1916. On 17 April 1915 he was promoted to Petty Officer Telegraphist.

Warrego served off the east coast of Australia during 1915, and later she and her sister ships Parramatta and Yarra operated in South East Asian waters, in 1916 conducting patrols to prevent German merchant vessels from escaping from neutral ports in the Netherlands East Indies and the Philippines. In October 1916 Arthur joined the newly commissioned destroyer HMAS Swan and served in her until October 1917. In July 1917 the Australian Destroyer Flotilla, now consisting of HMA Ships Huon, Parramatta, Swan, Torrens, Warrego and Yarra, was dispatched to the Mediterranean to combat the rising menace of Austrian and German U-boats. The six vessels were based at Brindisi in Italy, and operated with British, French and Japanese destroyers patrolling the Adriatic, hunting for enemy submarines.

Arthur served briefly in Parramatta from October 1917 until May 1918, and then returned to Swan. It was while serving in Swan that Arthur undertook one of the RAN’s most obscure missions of the war. On 11 November 1918 the guns fell silent on the Western Front, but in Russia the fighting continued as the Bolsheviks and White Russians struggled for control of the country. All six Australian destroyers that had been operating in the Mediterranean were sent to the Black Sea as part of the Allied force supporting the anti-Bolshevik forces in southern Russia.

One of these anti-Bolshevik forces were the Don and Kuban Cossacks, who had formed their own republics to the east of the Ukraine. After the Armistice the German and Austrian forces in the Ukraine were withdrawn and this weakened the opposition to the Bolsheviks in southern Russia. The Allies were keen to support any of the anti-Bolshevik forces, and so a mission of enquiry to identify what support was required was sent to the Cossack headquarters at Novocherkassk, on the Don River.

Enter HMAS Swan. The Australian destroyer Swan (under Commander Arthur Bond, RAN) accompanied the French destroyer Bisson on a mission into the Sea of Azov in early December 1918, to report on conditions at Marioupol, Taganrog and the surrounding countryside. The two destroyers embarked a senior Russian officer, Admiral V Kononoff, and transited the Strait of Kertch with often only a foot of water under their keels. After reaching Marioupol during a snowstorm, Bond and his French counterpart, Captain Jean Cochin, decided to take a small group of personnel by train to Rostof and Novocherkassk to meet General Krasnoff (known as the Ataman, or locally elected Viceroy).

On 8 December 1918, Bond, with three other Australian officers and six ratings, including Petty Officer Telegraphist Arthur Swinden, traveled by train to Novocherkassk where they were enthusiastically welcomed by General Peter Krasnoff. The Allied mission then inspected various military training schools and the shell production factory at Taganrog, and were planning to visit the Cossack front line at Bobrov when a break through by Bolshevik forces caused the visit to be curtailed. The Allied mission then traveled south via Ekaterindor (Kuban Cossack territory) and also met the Russian General Anton Denikin.

Bond and his party arrived back at Marioupol in late December and rejoined Swan, which then steamed to Sebastopol where Commander Bond delivered his full report on 26 December 1918, rapidly typed up by Sub Lieutenant Munro who had accompanied Bond as his official secretary. The report compiled by Bond was presented to British Foreign Office staff, but inaction meant that by the time it was properly considered the Don Cossacks were in full retreat and were later defeated by the Bolsheviks.

Of note is that all members of the RAN party were presented awards by General Krasnoff, on 14 December 1918, with Bond awarded the Order of Saint Vladimir (4th Class with Swords), the three officers the Order of St Anne (2nd Class), and the six ratings were awarded the Medal of the Order of St Anne. Swan departed the Black Sea in early January 1919, and along with the five other Australian destroyers, steamed to Britain for a refit prior to setting out to return to Australia in February 1919. The six destroyers arrived back in Sydney on 21 May 1919.

Although he was recommended to re-engage for further service in the RAN, Arthur decided to leave the Navy and was demobilised from the RAN (i.e. discharged as his seven years service was completed and the war was over) on 6 August 1919, after nearly 12 years service in the RN and RAN. He was subsequently awarded the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal for his World War I service, as well as the Russian Medal of the Order of St Anne which had been awarded to him in 1918. He was also awarded the maximum of five chevrons for war service at sea, from 1914 to 1918. During his service in the RAN his character was always assessed as ‘Very Good’ and his ability as a Petty Officer Telegraphist was given the highest assessment of ‘Excellent’. He was also granted two good conduct badges, and mostly likely would have received his third if he had stayed on in the RAN.

In early 1920, having been paid a substantial amount of money as part of the Commonwealth War Gratuity fund and also Naval Prize Money for enemy ships sunk or captured, Arthur and his father decided to go into business as carpentry contractors. Later Arthur worked as a Rigger at Garden Island Naval Dockyard. He married Miss Phoebe Rose Dredge at St James Church (Church of England), Sydney on 7 August 1926. They lived at Rose Bay and later had three children (John, Lorna and Peter).

Arthur had a close shave with death on 3 November 1927, when he decided to work back at Garden Island and not catch the usual ferry home. This ferry, the Greycliffe, was accidentally run down by the steamer Tahiti and several naval personnel and dockyard workers lost their lives. In the late 1920s he obtained a job as a plan printer in the drawing office at Garden Island Dockyard, and remained in this job until retirement in 1956. Arthur continued working in the private sector in the same occupation until 1961 when he ceased full time work and retired. Arthur and Phoebe lived in Ryde during their retirement.

He was a keen photographer during the war and loaned a number of his photographs to RAN - these were used to illustrate the RAN volume, written by Arthur Jose, of ‘The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918’, which was published in 1928.

Arthur Leslie Swinden died after a series of strokes, in hospital at Strathfield, Sydney, on 27 January 1972. He was cremated the following day. Arthur was survived by his wife and three children.