Heading on down the highway from Ballarat to Sorrento via Melton, Geelong and Queenscliff Another police escort getting me safely through the city to the council community hall at Melton thanks to Steve and Joe (Police escorts). A pleasure to be met by the CEO Melton Shire Kel Tori, Kevin Murray President RSL, and Ian Lowry Vietnam Veterans Association. After a civic reception, luncheon, and welcome speech by Kel Tori, it was onwards to Geelong for an overnight stay then on to Sorrento where we are today.
The team took the opportunity for a small but important ceremony at Queenscliff - Dean Pye (SA event coordinator and TLRH support crew) and Robin McBride laid a wreath with me at the commando memorial site at Queenscliff to honour the CMF soldiers who were sadly killed during a amphibious training exercise on 17th February 1960.
Today was very significant in that both Robin McBride and Dean Pye had been previous commanding officers of 2 Commando Company during their time serving in the Australian army.
On the night of 17th February 1960, 74 men from 2 Commando Company and the Amphibious Platoon of the transport Corps were to participate in an amphibious exercise, a culmination of several weeks of training in the area.
The objective of the exercise was to conduct a raid on the Officer Cadet School located on the southern reaches of the Mornington Peninsula near Portsea, directly opposite Queenscliff and in a line inside the Heads to Port Phillip Bay. The exercise raiding force, simulating an actual operation, included kayaks and Zodiac inflatable craft, supported for safety by an army workboat and a couple of amphibious vehicles called ‘ducks’ the common term for DUKW. Armed, with blank ammunition for their rifles and submachine guns, with their faces blackened for camouflage, they were black boats on black seas as you would expect in the real thing.
Barry Higgins, 2 Commando, recalls that at approximately 1800 hours on the night of the exercise about half an hour before entering the water, ‘the seas were quiet, like a millpond, with a bright blue almost cloudless sky’.
The Commandos were volunteer members of the Army Reserve (then called Citizen Military Forces or CMF). Most of them had done their compulsory national military service – but were prepared to continue serving in spare time and holidays.
They wore Army uniforms and for safety a lifejacket – not a wet suit which today many may assume may be worn as the waters here on the edge of Bass Strait are particularly cold, much colder than experienced in most waters of Port Phillip Bay.
At 1830 hours the Commandos set out on their mission at the last of the in-coming tide.
At nightfall a massive storm came in suddenly from the south east and hit the exercising forces and swept many participants out of their craft creating havoc on the water.
The storm was so sudden and fierce that with such little warning they were almost immediately in a fight for survival. As the storm unleashed its force huge white water swells loomed outside the Heads and the tide raced at about 8 knots (approx 14 + kmph).
The boats engines were weaker than the tide as the boats were abruptly overturned and swamped or sucked out through the Heads into Bass Strait.
Usual practices like ‘rafting up’, lashing several craft alongside each other, was unsuccessful given the very force of the storm. The tide was now running at its peak and the southerly winds were bottling up the natural pressure of the now bottled tide, resulting in unpredictable, erratic waves in direction and strength, and in unreliable wave patterns. Some remarked that the waves were reckoned to be 20 feet or more with random patterns and very destructive.
Many stories of individual circumstances of the ordeal illustrate just how the terrific was storm.
The Queenscliff rescue craft including the pilot boat battled the conditions for hours searching for men who were near death treading water for hours.
This was a dreadful outcome and one which is terrifying in its consideration. Worse, tragically three men died, drowned. Commando George ‘Taffy’ Drakopoulos, and Eddie Meyer from the Amphibious Platoon, drowned before they could be rescued. Another commando, Roger Wood helped fellow commandos up a rope ladder to a rescue vessel from a large inflatable craft before he was swamped by a huge wave and drowned. All three men were from Melbourne, about 20 years of age.
For many years this was the Australian Defence Force’s biggest peacetime disaster.
It serves as a reminder that tragedy can strike in peacetime as well as in war, and that the training to be realistic must inevitably be inherently dangerous where accidents can happen. These circumstances can leave marks or scars on an individual’s mind which in turn may return to haunt them in the future.
The Australian Defence Force at the time was at a loss what to do in the aftermath; it was an accident for whom no one was at fault. Getting on with the job was most likely the best medicine.
It was on 30th January in 2000, when this memorial plaque to the three who died was dedicated – a wait of 40 years. At its dedication some of the survivors ‘shook and cried’ as the bad memories overtook the good. One survivor in particular recalled he was so disturbed by the experience he was unable to sleep for three days. On the plus side of the ledger, he reconnected with other former Commandos who he had avoided seeing for years.
Not only do the stark images create disturbing memories the nature of survival often goes hand in glove with survivor guilt which can just keep eating away at the soul.
As a post script, today in an increasingly violent society even the protective and emergency services (Police, Firies and Ambos) are increasingly witness to or subjected to extreme violence in the execution of their duties, it is not exclusively the province of peacetime or operational military forces.
On completion of the Commando tragedy service a grand tour of the Queenscliff Fort museum by Warrant Officer Shane Sollans was scheduled throughout the old fort which is now a tourist museum. A fantastic tour and well worth doing if you're passing through Sorrento Victoria.
Fort Queenscliff, in Victoria, Australia, dates from 1860 when an open battery was constructed on Shortland's Bluff to defend the entrance to Port Phillip. The Fort, which underwent major redevelopment in the late 1870s and 1880s, became the headquarters for an extensive chain of forts around Port PhillipHeads. Its garrison included volunteer artillery, engineers, infantry and naval militia, and it was manned as a coastal defence installation continuously from 1883 to 1946. The other fortifications and armaments around the Heads were completed by 1891, and together made Port Phillip one of the most heavily defended harbours in the British Empire.
The first Allied shots of World War I were fired when a gun at Fort Nepean fired across the bow of the German freighter Pfalz, as she was attempting to escape to sea. The orders to fire came from Fort Queenscliff. The same gun, with a different barrel, also fired the first Allied shot of World War II. By 1946 coastal artillery was outmoded, and the Fort became home of the Army Command and Staff College. After the three Service Staff Colleges were combined into the Australian Defence College in Canberra, it became the base for Army's Soldier Career Management Agency in 2001.
Fort Queenscliff is located in the Borough of Queenscliffe, some 106 km from Melbourne, on the western side of the entrance to Port Phillip. It occupies an area of 6.7 hectares on high ground known as Shortland's Bluff and overlooks the shipping lanes leading to Melbourne and Geelong. The Fort is a superb example of the defences that existed around the coastline of Australia from colonial times through to the end of the Second World War. Considerable restoration has been accomplished at Fort Queenscliff in recent years, including the recovery and refurbishment of some of the original guns, the restoration of historic buildings, and the development of a comprehensive indoor display and archival centre. Fort Queenscliff has been classified by the National Trust and entered in the Register of the National Estate.
A museum was established at Fort Queenscliff in 1982 to show the significance of the Fort in the local, state and national context and to provide a centre for historical research.
A short hop of 45 minutes ferry crossing from Queenscliff to Sorrento thanks to Sea Road Ferries with an announcement over the intercom about the long ride home and that I was on board was certainly a big surprise. Thank you to all at Sea Road Ferries for your outstanding support.
On arrival Sorrento and a short hill climb to Sorrento shopping mall I was met by 200 school children who were all very eager to meet the one-legged Truck riding from Hanoi to Sydney. I don't think Mel Gibson got a bigger welcome to promote his latest movie than I did yesterday, but not only at Sorrento they all gathered. I was on the bike again and pedaling to the Rye RSL where upon arrival I was once again greeted by a large enthusiastic group of primary schools children from three schools, including members of the Vietnam Veteran Association, RSL members, and members of the public. Overall a big thank you to;
Peter Meehan (MC) at Sorrento
Michael Jefferson (Sorrento RSL & donor)
Sorrento Primary School
St. Joseph's Primary School.
Rye RSL Max Loves (Vice President Rye RSL & donor)
Martin Dixon MP (local member for attendance)
Ray Headspeath (secretary Rye RSL)
Ray Young (treasurer RSL Rye)
Rye Primary School
Boneo Primary school
Tootgarook primary school
Certainly great to catch up with some Golden Old & Bold SAS mates from way back, some whom I served with in Vietnam and SAS Regiment Perth; John Burrows, Col Moyle, Bill Clifton, Zed Frazer, Rowdy Hannaford, Chris Johnson and Robin McBride who has been instrumental in organising the events here in Queenscliff and Sorrento. Great to see you all guys, and a big thanks to you Robin for taking precious time to liaise and organise aspects with the local community that has most certainly benefited the long ride home cause - PTSD awareness and fund raising.
A huge thank you to the long ride home donors over the last few days and to those who have sponsored accommodation whilst we've been on the road. They are:
Ballarat City CEO Bob Coleman
Ray & Irene (Rye RSL)
Coralyn Wickam (RSL Rye)
Rye RSL Members
Phil & Maria Xuereb
Warmest regards to all who are following the website and offering words of support.
Truck, on a rest day in Sorrent, Victoria
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