Rear Admiral William John Dovers

Deputy Chief of Navy (1973)

Commander Australian Fleet (1971-1973)

RADM William John Dovers

William ‘Bill’ John Dovers was born on 12 February 1918 at Dundas, New South Wales, the eldest of three children to George Dovers (a surveyor who had accompanied Douglas Mawson to Antarctica in 1911) and Ursula Dovers (née Dabbs). Bill was educated at Wollongong and North Sydney High School before entering the Royal Australian Naval College in 1932. He had a good academic record at the college but excelled at sport; playing cricket, rugby and hockey and gaining his colours in all three. As a 15 year old Cadet Midshipman he won the Governor-General's Cup for the best all-round sportsman at the college in 1933. While at the college he was briefly a Cadet Captain but demoted when caught smoking; he remained a smoker throughout his life.

After graduating from the college he joined the heavy cruiser HMAS Canberra (I) in January 1936 and was promoted Midshipman in May of that year. The cruiser operated on the Australia Station during that year and also visited Noumea (New Caledonia) and ports in New Guinea (Port Moresby, Samarai and Rabaul) as part of its role of ‘showing the flag’ in the region. In 1937 Dovers and his classmates proceeded to the United Kingdom for training with the Royal Navy and he served in the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth, battle cruiser HMS Repulse, cruiser HMS Devonshire and destroyer HMS Hereward.

In May 1938 Dovers was promoted Acting Sub Lieutenant and commenced training courses at the RN College in London where he obtained first class certificates in all subjects (gunnery, navigation, seamanship, signals, torpedos and the junior officers war course). He was confirmed in the rank of Sub Lieutenant in February 1939 and returned to Australia in May of that year. At some stage in his early naval career he also gained the nickname ‘Ming’ due to his resemblance to the character ‘Ming the Merciless’ in the Flash Gordon comic strip of the 1930s.

Dovers returned to HMAS Canberra (I) to obtain his Watchkeeping qualification and was serving in her when war broke out in September 1939. The cruiser conducted training activities and convoy escort work in Australian waters during 1939 before patrolling the Indian Ocean searching for German raiders in 1940; operating from South Africa during July-December 1940. Dovers was promoted Lieutenant in May 1940 and left Canberra in late December 1940.

Following some well-earned leave he proceeded, by troopship, to the United Kingdom in early 1941 and on arrival was attached to the Portsmouth depot ship HMS Victory for training and ancillary duties prior to joining the destroyer HMAS Nestor in July 1941. Nestor was an exceptionally busy ship in the later part of 1941. After Dovers joined she was sent to the Mediterranean to assist with Operation SUSTENANCE, escorting a vital convoy through to the besieged island of Malta. Nestor then conducted convoy escort duties in the South Atlantic and on 15 December 1941, off Cape St Vincent, she located and sank the German submarine U-127, there were no survivors.

Dovers was posted from Nestor in February 1942 and returned to the United Kingdom to become the commissioning 1st Lieutenant of the new destroyer HMAS Quickmatch then under construction at a shipyard on the Isle of Wight. There was much for Dovers to do in order to get the ship ready for war service and Quickmatch was finally commissioned in September 1942. Following her sea trials the destroyer began convoy escort duties in the South Atlantic and during her passage south she captured the Italian blockade runner Cortelazzo on 1 December 1942. Throughout 1943 Quickmatch undertook the tireless work of a convoy escort in the South Atlantic, the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. This was hard but essential work due to the very real threat posed by German U-boats that were active around the west and east coasts of Africa. In early 1944 Quickmatch was attached to the British Eastern Fleet based at Ceylon and took part in operations in the Bay of Bengal in March 1944.

After five hard years of sea service Lieutenant Dovers was appointed to Flinders Naval Depot (HMAS Cerberus) in April 1944 as an instructor at the Officers Training School; where he was able to pass on his skills and knowledge to many RAN Volunteer Reserve junior officers. In 1944 he also found time to marry his long term fiancée Marjorie Ray Thorpe in Sydney and they later had two children. Bill and ‘Ray’ remained together until her death in 2005.

In February 1945 he was appointed to his first command, the sloop HMAS Swan (II) which was involved in extensive operations against the Japanese in the closing stages of the war. Dovers was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), gazetted 6 November 1945 “For outstanding courage, skill and initiative while serving in HMAS Swan in operations in the Far East which covered the bombardments of Tarakan, Wewak, Labuan and Balikpapan and the attack on the Lingayen Gulf, Aitape and Wewak”. Despite obtaining first class certificates for all specialist subjects at the RN College in 1939, Dovers chose not sub-specialise as a Seaman Officer and became what is known as a ‘Salthorse’ and went on to command several ships in his long career.

In November 1945 Lieutenant Dovers was appointed in command of the River Class frigate HMAS Barcoo, with the ship operating in northern waters conducting surveillance patrols and the movement of Allied troops and ex-prisoners of war. In February 1946 Barcoo proceeded to Williamstown Naval Dockyard for a refit. Bill Dovers was promoted Acting Lieutenant Commander in May 1946 and confirmed in the rank in November 1947. He was appointed in command of the Tribal Class destroyer HMAS Bataan in April 1946, and the ship operated in Australian waters until September of that year when she was deployed to Japan as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force based at the former Japanese naval base at Kure. Bataan returned to Australia in January 1947 and shortly after Dovers was appointed in command of the minesweeper HMAS Gladstone (I) which was based at Flinders Naval Depot as a seagoing training ship. He was also senior officer of the small training flotilla based at FND consisting of Gladstone and her sister ship HMAS Latrobe.

Lieutenant Commander Dovers was appointed to HMAS Cerberus in December 1947 as 1st Lieutenant and a Term Officer at the RAN College, thus returning to where he had trained over a decade before. He was renowned as a hard taskmaster but fair. In June 1950 he was appointed as 1st Lieutenant in the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia (II) which was now the RANs training ship. During his time on board, the ship operated in Australian waters including a voyage to Heard Island, in August 1950, to evacuate a sick scientist from the research station and return him to Australia. In 1951 the cruiser undertook training activities off the east coast of Australia, visits to Melbourne, Hobart and Adelaide and a deployment to New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia during June-July.

Dovers was promoted Acting Commander in October 1951, and appointed as Director of Plans in Navy Office, Melbourne. He was confirmed in the rank of Commander in December that year. In May 1953 he returned to sea as Commanding Officer of the Tribal Class destroyer HMAS Arunta (I). His 18 months service in her saw the destroyer deploy to Korean waters in the immediate post Armistice period, during February-September 1954, to conduct patrols and enforcement of the terms of the Armistice. He relinquished command of Arunta in December 1954.

Commander Dovers sailed to the United Kingdom in early 1955 where he completed the Royal Navy Staff Course and the Short Tactical Course. He was then posted on exchange to the Royal Navy serving as directing staff at the RN Staff College (Greenwich) and the RN Tactical School at Woolwich. Dovers was promoted Captain in December 1957 and upon returning to Australia was appointed as Commanding Officer of the RAN College, which had recently returned to Jervis Bay after 27 years at HMAS Cerberus. He also effectively became the first Commanding Officer of HMAS Creswell, as the RAN College became a commissioned establishment on 20 January 1958.

After a year in command of the RAN College, Bill Dovers was appointed as the Commanding Officer of the Daring Class destroyer HMAS Voyager (II) on 7 January 1959. During his year in command the destroyer operated in Australian waters and also deployed to the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia for exercises during March-April. On 30 April burst boiler tubes forced her into port at Hong Kong, where temporary repairs were made enabling her to return to Australia to undergo a three month refit (despite only being refitted during late 1958). Voyager returned to sea in late October and after conducting post refit trials visited New Zealand with port visits to Milford Sound, Port Lyttelton and Auckland. While returning to Australia in late November, Dovers received a lengthy signal asking if he would accept a posting to the fledgling Royal Malaysian Navy in early 1960 - his answer was a simple “yes”.

He arrived in Malaysia in February 1960. Dovers proved to be an inspired choice as the commander of the newly-constituted Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN), showing sensitivity to the Malaysians' keenness to be weaned off their links with London. For his service with the RMN he was awarded the Johan Mangku Negara (Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of Defence of the Realm) in 1962, and he was also later awarded the Pingat Khidmat Berbakti (Dedicated Service Medal) and the Pingat Peringatan Malaysia - Perak (Malaysian Commemorative Medal - Silver). After returning to Australia he took command of the aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney (III) in September 1962, this position also carried the additional role of Chief Staff Officer to the Flag Officer Commanding the Australian Fleet when embarked.

When Captain Dovers took command of Sydney the ship was in refit at Garden Island being converted into a fast troop transport and the work on board continued until early July 1963. HMAS Sydney (III) sailed on 8 July for sea trials and then headed north to Queensland waters with several junior personnel (both sailors and officers) embarked for training. In August she embarked several hundred army personnel and their equipment and conducted Exercise CARBINE in September 1963, to validate procedures to be used in her new role. Sydney returned to her home port in September and later that month sailed with the Governor-General (Viscount De L’Isle) embarked for visits to Norfolk Island and Lord Howe Island.

In mid-October, Sydney was operating in the Whitsunday Island group when a fateful decision was made to continue sail training, in marginal weather, for the ships junior officers. Whalers (27 foot wooden clinker-hulled boats) were sent out to conduct long sailing activities. On 17 October a whaler, with four Midshipmen and an RAN Reserve Sub Lieutenant in charge, set out on a sailing expedition and failed to return. On 21 October the capsized vessel was found, some 65 miles north of where Sydney was anchored, with the bodies of two of the Midshipmen on board. Despite an extensive search the bodies of the other three junior officers were never found. Dovers relinquished command of Sydney on 18 November 1963 and he and two other officers were court-martialed on 28 November 1963 as a result of the whaler incident. Dovers was found guilty “of failing to keep himself informed of the progress of the whaler” and was reprimanded, but this verdict was quashed in December 1963 by the Naval Board. Despite this outcome Dovers was still burdened by the loss of the five young officers under his command and family members of those lost still held him accountable.

Captain Dovers studied at the Imperial Defence College in London during 1964 and on his return to Australia he took command of the tanker HMAS Supply (I) on 22 December 1964. The tanker was in refit until February 1965, then deploying to Southeast Asia as part of the Far East Strategic Reserve. Supply was extremely active re-fuelling RN and RAN vessels throughout March-June, including replenishing HMAS Sydney during her inaugural deployment to South Vietnam with troops of the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment embarked. Supply returned to Australia in June and operated off the east coast before deploying to the South West Pacific during September-October for a Showing the Flag cruise to New Caledonia, the New Hebrides and the Solomon Islands.

Dovers relinquished command of Supply, then in refit in Brisbane, on 22 November 1965 and was appointed as Deputy Chief of Naval Personnel in Navy Office, Canberra. This role saw him reporting to the 2nd Naval Member on a variety of personnel matters dealing with the often difficult questions concerning pay, housing, training, discipline, recruiting and retention. All of this was conducted against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and changing opinions within Australia on the roles of the Armed Forces.

In late 1967 he served briefly as the acting 2nd Naval Member prior to being promoted Rear Admiral on 11 December 1967, and appointed as the Director Joint Services Plans in the Department of Defence. In the New Year’s Honours List for 1969 he was appointed as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for long, meritorious and devoted service to the RAN.

After three years in Canberra in the Department of Defence, Rear Admiral Dovers was appointed as Commander of the Australian Fleet on 14 April 1971. He was frequently at sea embarked in HMAS Melbourne (II) and took part in exercises in Southeast Asia and Exercise RIMPAC 71 in Hawaiian waters. He briefly handed over command of the fleet to Rear Admiral John Stevenson, during February-April 1972 while in hospital. He relinquished command of the fleet in early 1973 and returned to Canberra where he was appointed as the Deputy Chief of Naval Staff in January 1973. This was a short term appointment as in late August 1973 he took up his final appointment as the Flag Officer Commanding East Australia Area based in Sydney. This final job saw him overseeing the vital uniformed and civilian administrative and logistics support provided to the fleet via east coast training bases, dockyards, hospitals, fuel installations and stores depots.

After retiring from the RAN in February 1975 he became Chief Project Officer of the Australian Defence Force Academy and served in this difficult role for eight years; the academy eventually opened in 1986 after several years of Departmental inertia. He and Ray settled in the Canberra suburb of Deakin and Bill played regular golf, supported the arts and local rugby and was active in the Salvation Army Red Shield Appeal.

Rear Admiral Bill Dovers passed away in Canberra on 4 October 2007. He was survived by his daughter and son (also named William, who had joined the RAN and also reached the rank of Rear Admiral).

Left: Midshipman William Dovers, RAN is congratulated by his father Rear Admiral William Dovers, CBE, DSC, RAN on being awarded the RAN College Jubilee Memorial Sword in 1972. Right: Rear Admiral Dovers (standing) hands over as Flag Officer Commanding East Australia to Rear Admiral McDonald, RAN in February 1975.