HMAS Assault

In March 1942, the Australian Government, recognising the importance of an amphibious capability in any effort to drive the Japanese out of the Pacific, began exploring the requirements for combined operations training in Australia. On 18 March 1942 the Deputy Chief of Naval Staff, Captain Frank Getting, RAN, wrote to the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Sir Guy Royle, KCB, CMG, RN “The provision of special equipment and landing craft is being examined by Third Naval Member, and the production capacity of this country will be a consideration…Regarding School of Combined Operations, we know that such a school exists in UK and Commodore Lord Louis Mountbatten, RN, is in command of this school. We know no more about it, except that we assume the raids which have been carried out on enemy occupied territory are planned in this school. I consider it worth while [sic] asking Admiralty for a description of how this school is constituted, and how it approaches the problem.”

The Naval Board subsequently asked the Admiralty for information regarding combined operations training with the express strategic intent of re-establishing the string of island bases to the north and north-east of Australia. The Admiralty proposed to return to Australia Commander Frederick Cook, DSC, RAN, who had been the Commanding Officer of HMS Tormentor, a combined operations shore establishment in the UK, to establish a combined operations training centre in Australia in conjunction with Lieutenant Commander Harold George, RNVR, Lieutenant David Richardson, RANVR, Lieutenant Colonel M Hope (Royal Artillery), Lieutenant Colonel TK Walker (Royal Marines) and Wing Commander AM Murdoch, RAAF, all with combined operations experience. Meanwhile Commander Cook would be relieved at Tormentor by Commander Alfred Buchanan, RAN, who would gain experience in combined operations before also returning to Australia early in 1943. Upon his return, Commander Cook took charge of the Australian Combined Operations Section providing advice to the Commander, Allied Land Forces (General Thomas Blamey) and the Australian Chiefs of Staff on combined operations, and to coordinate the Australian effort.

Navy and Army planners, both Australian and American, began to examine what would be required to establish a combined operations training centre in Australia and what such an organisation might look like. Commander Cook arrived in Melbourne on 3 June 1942 and two days later attended a meeting at the American General Headquarters (GHQ) in Melbourne along with Lieutenant Colonel Hope and Captain Getting. There they were informed of General Douglas MacArthur’s decision to bring combined operations training in Australia under the control of the American GHQ. One Australian and two American divisions were to be trained as soon as possible with the RAN producing one third of the total number of boat crews required and providing the naval requirements for soldiers under training.

On 8 June Commander Cook and Lieutenant Colonel Hope set out on an aerial reconnaissance of the east coast of Australia with the intention of locating a suitable site for a combined operations training centre. They subsequently made a series of recommendations which included the identification of Port Stephens, north of Newcastle in New South Wales, as the most suitable site for a training centre considering land, sea and air aspects, as well as the Japanese submarine threat at that time.

Shoal Bay, Port Stephens
Shoal Bay, Port Stephens, NSW.

Meanwhile, the Australian Army was pushing ahead with plans to establish training facilities in Queensland. Subsequently, two training centres were established before the end of the year. The Army established the Combined Training Centre at Toorbul Point (now Sandstone Point), Queensland. Meanwhile, General MacArthur ordered the establishment of a training centre at Port Stephens, known as the Joint Overseas Operational Training School, on 9 August 1942 by which time, in anticipation of that directive, the RAN had already conducted a survey of the site and drawn up plans for an establishment providing for 60 officers, 500 sailors and 100 landing craft. The armed merchant cruiser HMAS Westralia (I) was allotted as a temporary accommodation ship and HMAS Ping Wo was detailed as her tender. Nine motor boats were requisitioned for training purposes while construction of landing craft was undertaken in Australian shipyards. At the same time Lieutenant John Band, RANR(S), was detailed to proceed to Toorbul in July, and was joined by a Sub Lieutenant and eleven ratings in August, to establish RAN Station No. 5 and commence training for boat crews.

With construction work progressing ashore at Port Stephens, HMAS Assault was initially commissioned under the command of Commander Cook aboard Westralia on 1 September 1942, two days before the ship even arrived at Port Stephens, and began providing instruction for landing craft crews, beach parties (naval commandos) and combined operations signals teams. However, just six weeks after commissioning, General MacArthur expressed some concern about the distance between the two training centres at Toorbul Point and Port Stephens and asked that alternative sites in Queensland be considered for the Port Stephens establishment.

HMAS Assault pennant.
HMAS Assault pennant.

Toorbul Point was an excellent site for Army training, but sand bars between the site and Bribie Island, and the lack of a sheltered beach usable at all tides meant that it was not well suited to naval training. After completing surveys of sites at Gladstone, Emu Park, Broad Sound, Mackay, Cannon Valley, Bowen, Townsville, Lucinda Point, Cairns and Innisfail, it was determined that Port Stephens was an ideal site for training naval crews and, also considering the financial outlay already made in developing the site, the decision was made to maintain the school there. Naval crews would undergo their initial training at Port Stephens after which they could proceed to Queensland to complete their training with Army troops. Commander Cook would later reiterate that the decision to establish the base at Port Stephens was a good one, stating “…the choice of Port Stephens as a Combined Operational Base has proved wise and advantageous as all types of beaches are readily available in the immediate vicinity and the surrounding areas provide plenty of scope for the movement of Army personnel. Steep or shallow sandy beaches, with or without surf are available and rock, mud and mangroves are handy in the bay.”

Assault transferred ashore on 10 December 1942. An American Amphibious Training Group was also established nearby and the two facilities were combined as the Amphibious Training Centre (ATC) in February 1943 under the overall command of the commander of the South-West Pacific Amphibious Force, Rear Admiral Daniel E Barbey, USN, bringing all combined amphibious training in Australia under American command. Training at Assault from then on included US soldiers and marines, and Australian Army soldiers, as well as RAN personnel. HMA Ships Kanimbla, Manoora and Westralia were all converted to infantry landing ships (LSI) during 1943. Manoora and Westralia made numerous voyages between Port Stephens and Melbourne ferrying American personnel to and fro.

The base was established to accommodate 560 officers and men, but as many as 870 were borne there at its peak, leading to the construction of further accommodation towards the end of 1943. Some 67 buildings were initially constructed of galvanised corrugated iron including a hospital and engineering workshop. To accommodate the large influx of landing craft to the site, boat moorings were laid and the existing jetty was fully reconstructed and extended to a length of 510 feet (155.4m) with an 'L' shaped extrusion of 162 feet (49.4m) which formed the boat compound. A boatshed and slipway were also constructed and completed in August 1943.

The temperate weather meant that the base staff and trainees were, for the most part, in good health, though the arduous nature of the training did see a number of trainees admitted to the hospital with various injuries. The hospital staff also performed emergency surgery on a survivor from a Catalina amphibious aircraft that crashed on 24 May 1943. The Catalina had taken off from RAAF Base Rathmines on Lake Macquarie to examine the suitability of conditions in Port Stephens to conduct training for rough water landing. The aircraft crashed into the sea at Shoal Bay that morning tragically killing seven of its nine crew members. The cause of the crash was never determined.

Training at Assault was intense, covering every aspect of landing operations on hostile shores. Sailors had to partake in assault courses, instruction in various weapons and explosives as well as hand-to-hand combat. Former naval commando, Able Seaman Ted Jones, recalled training with his unarmed combat instructor, Lieutenant Donald Davidson “Over and over again he would impress upon us that we were being trained to fill a commando role and in such a role we could quite easily find ourselves in a position where we had to depend on our hands, eyes and senses to prevent an enemy in hand-to-hand combat from killing was – kill or be killed – and this was a reality, not a supposition.”

Officially known as ‘beach commandos’, they also had to learn how to conduct in-water surveys of potential landing sites which would often leave them immersed, fully clothed, for hours on end. The beach commandos also became skilled at constructing makeshift metal ‘roadways’ on beaches enabling the landing of vehicles as large as a tank.

Among the officers at Assault was Lieutenant Commander Reg Buller, RANR, who had served in the RAN Bridging Train at Gallipoli in 1915. Lieutenant Commander Buller provided specialist advice on the conduct of amphibious logistics operations in a contested environment.

Only two Australian built landing craft were available through to the end of 1942 which made the proper training of boat crews problematic as, while the requisitioned motor boats gave the crews experience in handling twin screw boats, they were inadequate to instruct in the handling, running and beaching of landing craft in all conditions. The situation began to change on 14 December, however, when sufficient numbers of American landing craft were delivered and the full gamut of training exercises could be undertaken. The Australian built landing craft began arriving in early 1943 and five of the requisitioned motor boats were returned to Sydney on 10 January for other duties. The training burden was further eased in March when 19 American landing craft were handed over to Assault giving the trainees a wide variety of boats in which to gain experience.

A Matilda tank rolls off a landing craft at Shoal Bay.
A Matilda tank rolls off a landing craft at Shoal Bay.

By the beginning of October 1943 more than 1000 naval personnel had been trained for combined operations at Assault including; 100 officers; 100 landing craft coxswains; 120 beach commandos; 40 landing craft signalmen; 453 boat crewmen; and 250 stokers. This was in addition to the 20,000 US soldiers and 2000 Australian soldiers who, although receiving their primary training in the US part of the ATC, had also received training at Assault.

Training of new naval personnel in combined operations ceased at Assault in October and the base commenced what Commander Cook described as its ‘second phase’; to act as a supply and ‘spare’ base for landing craft and a pool depot for a reserve of trained combined operations personnel. Assault also continued to support the ongoing training of US Army personnel in the US section of the ATC. Most of the trained RAN personnel, as well as Kanimbla, Westralia and Manoora, and the majority of the associated landing craft, were transferred to Toorbul. In spite of the large outflow of personnel, ships and boats, Assault remained, initially, a busy establishment with a large number of combined operations trained sailors undergoing continuation training, for which four landing craft were provided by the American Landing Force Equipment Depot.

The number of personnel, both base staff and trainees, rapidly declined in early 1944. By that March even continuation training had ceased and the future operation of Assault was under consideration by the Naval Board. On 4 August the base was reduced to a ‘care and maintenance’ basis with a complement of one officer and twenty-four ratings.

Assault was decommissioned on 7 April 1945 and transferred to the Royal Navy as a depot for the British Pacific Fleet.