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11th National Corvette Reunion luncheon, Sydney, Friday, 13 November 1998: address on the occasion of the opening.



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ADDRESS BY SIR WILLIAM DEANE

GOVERNOR-GENERAL OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF AUSTRALIA

ON THE OCCASION OF THE OPENING OF THE

11th NATIONAL CORVETTE REUNION LUNCHEON

SYDNEY

FRIDAY, 13 NOVEMBER 1998

Let me say at the outset what a privilege it is for Helen and me to be with you today to share this luncheon to mark the Official Opening of the l Ith National Corvette Reunion.

It is, of course, now more than 53 years since, with the end of the Second World War, the great period of war service of the corvettes finally came to an end. Inevitably, the intervening years have taken their toll of the Corvetteers in many different ways. And the vast distances of our land have imposed difficulties and strains upon the wartime bonds of ship mateship and camaraderie which united them. Yet those bonds persist and the friendships endure across time and space. I have no doubt that they will be refreshed and strengthened by this reunion and that they will continue to enrich and sustain you after you have dispersed to your homes throughout our country.

For the strength of the Corvette Associations and of the personal bonds between the corvetteers is really quite remarkable. As you know, there were 56 ‘Bathurst’ class corvettes built altogether - each one named for an Australian regional town or city - and forming by far the largest component of the major war vessels that served with the Royal Australian Navy during the 1939-45 War. A total of 56 corvettes: and I understand that each one of them is represented in this reunion. One ship has around 70 former crewmen here. Another has only one member of its company present.

During the War years, something like 10,000 men served as crew on board those 56 corvettes. Mostly they were young men, in their very early 20s or even younger. They came from all walks of life. And with varied experience and training. Some were from the Naval reserves. Others had served in the Merchant Marines. Most were civilians fresh from the training establishments. Nonetheless, in a very short time, they melded together to constitute extraordinarily efficient crews noted for their proficiency in handling both weapons and equipment.

The corvettes had a vast range of tasks to perform ... as convoy escorts, antiĀ­ submarine patrols, minesweeping, shore bombardment, ferrying troops, surveys and a host of other naval activities, including some never contemplated by the designers. Many of the Corvetteers went on to serve as replacement crew in cruisers, destroyers, frigates and

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other Navy ships, taking with them all the expertise and resourcefulness they had learned and developed in the corvettes.

When the early corvettes were commissioned, they had a nominal crew of around 75 men. Crew numbers increased to over 100 as equipment became more complex as the War progressed. Each ship turned over crew at least once during its wartime life; so that, as I say, on a conservative estimate some 10,000 men served in them. And it is an extraordinary tribute to the enduring strength of the shipmateship that grew between the Corvetteers that, despite age and the passing of more than half a century, the National Corvette Associations of Australia still have over 6,000 members, together comprising our country’s largest ex-service organisation after the RSL. The secret of that enduring loyalty and camaraderie lies, I suspect, to a large extent in the nature of the corvettes themselves.

On the scale of naval size, the corvette was a modest ship. The crews, including the officers, lived in very confined conditions. That could be arduous, especially in rough weather, during the long periods at sea. The ships have been described with exasperated affection as cantankerous and petulant. One ex-Corvetteer has said that they would “roll on wet grass”. Thus, it was essential, to get the best out of each ship and of each other, that the whole company got on well and performed as a single, disciplined, harmonious unit.

And how successful those who served our nation in the corvettes were! In the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, in the Indian Ocean, in Australian coastal waters, and in the Pacific, especially New Guinea, the Philippines and Hong Kong, in all weathers, under all circumstances, and in many cases without the assistance of shore bases. And how magnificently the Corvetteers safeguarded their corvettes! True, one - the Armidale - was sunk by Japanese aircraft. Its story and the stories of survival and heroism associated with it have made it an icon not only of our navy but of our nation Two - the Geelong and the Wallaroo - were lost in collisions at sea. One - the Warmambool - was sunk by a mine after the war. And some others were damaged. But the fact there is at least one representative from each of the corvettes here today speaks volumes for the quality of the corvetteers’ seamanship, professionalism and loyalty to one another and to their ships.

I noticed in the most recent edition of the NSW Association’s “Corvette” newsletter that the National Memorial at Garden Island has now effectively been fully paid for. May I congratulate all who contributed to that beautiful memorial, honouring the deeds of the sailors who manned the ships, serving their country in war zones from Gibraltar to Tokyo.

Let me thank, too, the various corporations, RSL Clubs, Government authorities, cities, towns and ex-service associations and anonymous donors who helped to clear the Memorial of its remaining debt.

It is fitting that the memorial should be on Garden Island, for it honours not only the sailors who served on board the corvettes but also the men and women of Australian industry who built, serviced and repaired the ships. It really was, as the former Senator John Button described it, a “Herculean achievement” that the 56 corvettes were built in the

space of some 50 months by nine Australian shipyards, three of them here in Sydney. The first, HMAS Bathurst, was commissioned in December 1940. Thereafter, a new corvette was commissioned every 25 days, on average, until the 56 were complete. They went on,

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with their crews, to serve their country with the highest distinction and valour during the greatest conflict the world has known. And at wars’ end, when the force was disbanded, such was the integrity and seaworthiness of the corvettes, that many of the brave little ships were purchased to serve in the Navies of other countries.

Brave ships. Brave men. Your deeds shine in the military annals of our nation. And though the decades pass, the spirit of your achievements and of your comradeship continues undimmed. As Governor-General of our country, I join you in remembering and honouring all those of your shipmates who died while in Australia’s service during the War or who have died in subsequent years. And I thank you all for your own service in our nation’s cause in those years that are gone and wish you every happiness today and for all the days that are to come.