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Features - History

The aftermath of Tracy The aftermath of Tracy

By Brett Mitchell

Navy's response to the cyclone that devastated Darwin on Christmas Day 1974 has been described as one of its largest peacetime disaster relief operations.

Cyclone Tracy flattened Darwin with winds in excess of 160 knots.

It killed 49 people ashore and a further 16 at sea. Navy committed 13 ships, 11 aircraft and some 3000 personnel to the relief operation.

The 351 Navy personnel then based in Darwin possessed only a limited capability to render immediate assistance to the stricken city and its community.

Of the four Darwin-based Attack Class patrol boats, HMAS Arrow had sunk under Stokes Hill Wharf with the loss of two lives, HMAS Attack was driven ashore at Doctor's Gully by the sheer force of the cyclonic winds, and HMAS Advance and HMAS Assail were damaged.

In addition, Darwin Naval Headquarters was destroyed, as was 80 per cent of the patrol boat base and 90 per cent of the naval married quarters.

The oil fuel installation and the naval communications station HMAS Coonawarra were extensively damaged. As the gravity of the disaster became apparent, a naval task force, under the command of the Flag Officer commanding the Australian Fleet (FOCAF), Rear Admiral D.C. Wells, CBE, RAN, was assembled to render aid to Darwin.

A general recall was issued to all personnel.

Approximately 50 per cent of all Sydney-based ships' companies were on annual leave, with many interstate. Of the 2700 personnel on leave, 2200 were able to return to their ships prior to sailing, and others subsequently managed to join their ships in Townsville.

Volunteers from other Sydney-based ships and establishments filled the positions of those who could not return to their ships in time. All manner of stores were embarked on the deploying ships, ranging from combat bridges, vehicles and building materials down to disposable cutlery. The response of Operation Navy Help Darwin was swift.

The first RAN asset to arrive in the disaster stricken city, on December 26, was a HS748 aircraft from 851 Squadron, carrying blood transfusion equipment and a team of Red Cross workers.

A second HS748 aircraft carrying members of Clearance Diving Team One (CDT1) arrived shortly thereafter.

The Director General of the National Disasters Organisation, Major General A.B Stretton, DSO, arrived in Darwin on December 26 with his staff officers to establish an Emergency Services Organisation Committee.

Captain E.E. Johnston, OBE, RAN, Naval Officer Commanding the North Australia Area (NOCNA), was appointed to the committee as Port Controller, with responsibility for controlling the port and its approaches, and for drafting an Emergency Plan in the event of a further cyclone.

As preparations were made for the arrival of the naval task group, Captain Johnston relocated the naval headquarters to his residence, Admiralty House.

The first ships, Flinders and Brisbane, arrived in Darwin on December 31. Flinders surveyed the approaches to Darwin to ensure the safe passage and anchorage of the Task Group, while Brisbane landed working parties and established communications with NOCNA.

Melbourne and Stuart arrived on January 1; Stalwart on January 2; Hobart, Supply and Vendetta on January 3; and Balikpapan and Betano on January 4.

Brunei, Tarakan and Wewak arrived the following week on January 13. The ships had brought with them some 3000 naval personnel.

The arrival of Melbourne precipitated the establishment of a Shore Command Headquarters (SCHQ) at Admiralty House to coordinate the working parties, which were tasked by the Emergency Services Organisation.

Working parties were typically composed of 10 or 15 officers and sailors, depending upon the nature of the task.

With the arrival of the Task Group, the primary focus for CDT1 turned to the extraction of Arrow from Stokes Hill Wharf, a task achieved on January 13 after much work.

Unfortunately Arrow was damaged beyond repair and was subsequently decommissioned and scrapped. Between January 1 and January 30 naval personnel spent 17,979 man days ashore, with up to 1200 ashore at the peak of the operation.

Working parties cleared some 1593 blocks and cleaned up schools, government and commercial buildings and recreational facilities.

They installed generators, rewired houses, repaired electrical and air-conditioning systems, re-roofed or weatherproofed buildings, and maintained and repaired vehicles. Some parties worked to save rare plants in the Botanical Gardens.

Hygiene parties disposed of spoiled foodstuffs from houses, supermarkets and warehouses. The Wessex helicopters transported 7832 passengers, 244,518lbs (110,912kg) of freight and made 2505 landings.

The HS748 aircraft completed 14 return flights to Darwin and carried 485 passengers and 50,000lbs (22,680kg) of freight.

Like its arrival, the departure of the Task Group was staggered. Balikpapan and Flinders departed early, on January 7 and 9 respectively; Stuart, towing Attack to Cairns, sailed in company with Brunei, Tarakan and Wewak on January 17; Hobart, Melbourne and CDT1 left on January 18; Betano on January 23; and Supply and Vendetta on January 24.

The SCHQ was closed down on January 30 and FOCAF transferred responsibility for the continuation of disaster relief to the Commandant of the Army's 7th Military District.

The following day, the last ships, Brisbane and Stalwart, sailed from Darwin. The departure of the Task Group did not, however, signify the end of the RAN's support to the rehabilitation of Darwin.

In May and June 1975 the minehunters HMAS Curlew, HMAS Ibis and HMAS Snipe surveyed the approaches to Darwin and the harbour itself, locating trawlers sunk during Cyclone Tracy, and other navigational hazards.

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