500 kms by bike to demolish Albany
Tall tales and true from the long life of Claude Choules
May 13, 2002
A 'national living treasure', was how ABPH Gavin
Hainsworth described World War I and World War II Navy veteran Claude Choules
when we interviewed him as a prelude to Anzac Day. Claude is one of only
a handful of World War I veterans still living in Australia.
Claude Choules at his retirement
home with ABPH Gavin Hainsworth. Claude served in the RN and RAN
and saw service in WWI and WWII. As a demolition officer he would
have had to ride to Albany from Perth to blow up facilities in the
event of a Japanese invasion of Australia.
Born in Pershore, England on March 3 1901, Mr Choules joined the Royal Navy
as a boy in 1916, and served in the Naval Training Ship HMS Impregnable
situated at Devonport dockyard. The Impregnable had been a 140 gun square-rigged
wooden battleship prior to becoming a training ship.
In 1917, Claude joined the battleship HMS Revenge, Flagship of the First
Battle Squadron. While serving in Revenge, Claude witnessed the surrender
of the German Fleet at Firth of Forth in 1918, ten days after the Armistice
and later the scuttling of the German Fleet, by the Germans, at Scapa Flow.
A 'big ships man', Claude served in the battleship Valiant with the Mediterranean
Fleet between 1920 and 1923. A subsequent posting saw him stand by the construction
of the RN's first purpose built aircraft carrier HMS Eagle, which was followed
by a two year posting as a Petty Officer onboard Eagle, again in the Mediterranean
In 1926 along with eleven other RN senior sailors, Claude came to Australia
on loan as an instructor at Flinders Naval Depot. Taking a liking to the
Australian way of life, Claude decided to transfer permanently to the RAN.
After courses in the UK for Chief Torpedo and Anti Submarine Instructor,
Claude stood by the building of the RAN's heavy cruisers Australia and Canberra.
He was a commissioning crewmember of HMAS Canberra and served in her until
Claude took his discharge from the RAN in 1931, however he remained in the
RANR and rejoined the RAN in 1932 as a CPO Torpedo and Anti Submarine Instructor.
During World War II, he was the Acting Torpedo Officer, Fremantle and also
the Chief Demolition Officer on the western side of the Australian continent.
Early in the war Claude was flown to Esperance to identify a mine washed
ashore nearby. Eventually the mine was identified as a German and Claude
then disposed of the first mine to wash up on Australian soil during WWII.
As the Chief Demolition Officer, he had the task of destroying Fremantle
harbour and oil storage tanks rendering them useless as facilities in the
advent of a Japanese invasion.
For a number of weeks during the dark days of 1942, explosive charges were
in place to carry out this task. Claude had depth charges placed in ships
that had been unable to sail from Fremantle for safe harbour in Albany during
this period, with the intent of sinking them should the Japanese invade.
His means of transport from Fremantle was to be by bicycle to Albany, a
trip of nearly 500 kilometres!
Claude remained in the RAN after WWII and transferred to the Naval Dockyard
Police (NDP) to allow him to remain in service until 1956, as retirement
from the RAN for ratings in those days was at 50 years, while personnel
could serve until 55 years old in the NDP.
After retirement from the Naval Dockyard Police, Claude bought a cray fishing
boat and spent ten years fishing off the Western Australia coast.
Now resident in a retirement village, at age 101 Claude is in excellent
condition, although a little hard of hearing and it was a delight to sit
and listen to his tales of a bygone era.
By Gary Booth
Photo by ABPH Gavin Hainsworth