Melbourne-Voyager: causes and inquiries

    By Commodore David Ferry AM RAN (Rtd)*

WITH discussion likely at commemoration of this accident I review theories as to its cause – including one I advanced in this journal in 2004 – and incorporate opinions I have encountered since. The review extends earlier assessment of the investigations and adds related experience from the Melbourne/Evans collision.

The Accident

On 10 February, 1964, the destroyer HMAS Voyager collided with the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne off Jervis Bay, New South Wales. The two were positioning themselves for night landing practice by aircraft based ashore. Melbourne was in tactical command. The night was almost windless, clear and moonless, with a slight swell. With Voyager leading, fine on Melbourne’s port bow (at position 1 in figure 1), Melbourne ordered a turn together of 40° to port and into wind for flying. About halfway through this turn, with Voyager now ahead (position 2), Melbourne signalled a flying course of 020, the effect of which was an order for Voyager to take up station to port and astern of her, for rescue of aircrew from any aircraft which might ditch. Voyager swung to starboard as depicted before reversing in a long turn to port, accidentally crossing Melbourne’s bows. Despite going full ahead and attempting to turn away at the last moment – and Melbourne going full astern – Voyager was cut in two. Her bow section sank quickly, the stern some hours later. Eighty two died, all on board Voyager. Melbourne’s bow was stove in though she remained afloat.

Subsequently there were two inquiries by Royal Commissions, the first into the accident and the second into allegations that Voyager’s captain, Captain DH Stevens, RAN, was physically unfit for command. There have been numerous cases of claims since by survivors from Voyager and also crew of Melbourne. The cause of the collision remains undetermined since none of those on Voyager’s bridge familiar with stationing manoeuvres survived, and there was no voice or data record of her track, speed, helm or engine orders.

Royal Commissions and the Port Side Theory

The first Royal Commission found that Voyager was responsible for the collision, though Melbourne should have given her warning. Its findings as to how the accident occurred were unpersuasive.

The second Royal Commission found grounds to re-examine the accident cause, determining that Melbourne carried no blame and that Voyager may have believed she was still to port of Melbourne, when manoeuvring to her new station, this explaining her turn to port. This view was shared by the Naval Board which believed that Voyager was disorientated. Both thought the carrier’s lighting might have played a part, a view shared by retired Vice Admiral Harold Hickling, RN(1). .More recently retired RAN Rear Admiral Chris Oxenbould AO, a navigator, ascribed to this, while noting that, “we will never know why” the checks and balances which should have prevented the collision failed(2).

There are good reasons supporting this theory, these being:

• Melbourne’s captain, Captain R J Robertson, DSC, RAN, gave evidence that her navigation lights, including her port and starboard side lights, were dimmed. As per figure 1.,Voyager would have entered the arc of her starboard light about half way into their turn in unison onto the flying course and the flying course signal was sent after this “when Melbourne was just steadying on her new course.”(3) Had the dimmed starboard light, visible for a mile(4, p4), been evident to Voyager she would have known she was to starboard of Melbourne. However Melbourne like other carriers displayed undimmed masthead and other red lights to warn aircraft of her presence and to indicate that manoeuvrability was restricted. There was the possibility that being dimmed the green light might have been dominated by these.

• Melbourne also was experimenting with red flight deck flood lights. Melbourne’s captain had given instructions that Voyager be warned of this innovation. Melbourne’s navigator and her air operations commander had circled the carrier by boat in Jervis Bay beforehand to check the new lights did not shine or reflect outboard. Even so it is possible that the direction of the lights was altered after this check, to optimise them for flying. Besides, ship roll and manoeuvring heel at sea might have yielded a different impression, as might height above the sea of Voyager’s bridge and her distance. During a later helicopter flight at low level across Melbourne’s bow in which the first Royal Commissioners were shown what Melbourne’s lighting looked like, one of the pilots, Lieutenant Albert Riley, remarked (5) that all he could see was red light when he should have been able to make out the green.

• When Voyager was signalled to take up station, Melbourne was in Voyager’s funnel haze and in her radar blind arc, increasing the chances her red lights would mislead Voyager as to her course, at least at that stage.

• Had indeed she remained to port, or even thought she was ahead, a 90° turn to port followed by a like turn to starboard (a “fishtail”, see later) would have her in her new station quickly (my 2004 article, p. 11), there being a straightening between the two. The first Commission’s opinion was that she had straightened in that general direction before the collision (4, p10, p23), though this was disagreed by the second (7, p212). Commander AI Chapman RAN (Rtd), a wartime captain, wrote a thorough cause and investigation analysis published as an RAN training manual.(6) His best- fit theory was an attempted fishtail to port.(6, ,314) He canvassed the psychological aspects which might have led to mistaken perception of Melbourne’s inclination , which he believed(6,p48)central to likely collision cause possibilities.

Even so there are counters to the above:

• The pilot’s observation could have been at longer range than Voyager had been, at least as she had been when closing with Melbourne during her final port turn. As to swell, being slight on the night of the collision would reduce its potential to play a part. Likewise, any effect of Melbourne heeling during the joint turn would be the less since Voyager was ahead.

• Generally, despite any misleading initial impressions, as the two vessels closed during Voyager’s final turn Melbourne’s starboard light would have been more apparent and she would have been out of Voyager’s funnel gas haze and the radar blind arc, so there should have been warning; even though any inclination reversal illusion (see below) would give the appearance of her starboard light being aft of her island. Two or more on Voyager’s upper deck noticed Melbourne’s starboard light as the two converged.(6, p321) There were several officers qualified as officer-of-the-watch (OOW) on her bridge and one could expect that more than one or two would take an interest in Melbourne’s initial position and approach.

• From this alone it is unlikely she should remain under any belief that she was on Melbourne’s port side. Furthermore, if to port, Voyager as she turned would have experienced Melbourne’s true bearing swinging rapidly the wrong way.

• Having been fine on Melbourne’s port bow before the joint turn, Voyager’s should have pictured herself to starboard after such a joint 40 degree port turn, from simple geometry.

• The joint 40° course alteration to port mirrored a starboard turn 6 minutes earlier(4,p6) from 020 to 060, Voyager in the same station. Any difficulty with side light visibility should have been apparent then.

• Voyager’s initial starboard turn would require explanation still. Some have postulated that her captain might have overruled a helm instruction by the OOW, who had intended a full turn to starboard to take up station. However even had Captain Stevens reversed the turn, of itself it would not explain why she turned some 45° before reversal. This starboard turn also suggests not all thought she was to port. Chapman thought the turn was a station adjustment independent of the final turn to port, explaining how this might arise.(6, p142)

The Frame Theory

In his comprehensive and informative book on the accident published in 1992(8) Dr Frame came to the conclusion that its cause was most likely a double signal mix-up, leading Voyager to misunderstand Melbourne’s instructions.

This theory suffers from several weaknesses:

• Communications between the two ships were clear and amongst trained individuals. The two ships’ communications staffs included supervisors, befitting close-quarters manoeuvring; and circumstances placed them under no particular pressure.

• Part of the theory entailed an undetected transposition in a signal received by Voyager, changing the signal’s intent. However the transposition Frame had in mind would lead to unnecessary convolution where a much simpler signal would have done, leading to a likely query from Voyager.

• Also, Frame believes this transposition would have led Voyager to turn to back to port believing she would be doing so in concert with Melbourne, though in fact it would have required that she turned to starboard.

• Moreover a prerequisite in the theory was a coincidental second part to the mix-up. This

entailed Voyager confusing the extent of the turn to port which Melbourne had signalled though again several sets of ears would have heard the transmission on the two bridges; and

Voyager would have been party to signals from Melbourne to the aircraft on the way for deck landing practice, advising them also of the flying course.

• As before, it leaves open why it was that Voyager first turned one way then reversed into the collision; that sequence not being integral to a signal mix-up explanation.

• The above characteristics are additional to those basic to other theories, namely mistaken perception of inclination of Melbourne and an ineffective lookout.

To my mind the first four points above render this theory implausible.

The Fishtail Theory

There is also the possibility espoused in my 2004 ANI article that Voyager had understood her instructions, knew which side she was on, had elected to change station using a ‘fishtail’ and had misjudged the room needed. The fishtail is more formally known as an even-speed manoeuvre. I add below a figure to illustrate and a discourse, some of which extends to other theories.

Voyager was obliged to keep clear of Melbourne. The safe and standard way for her to change sides was by crossing under Melbourne’s stern. To effect this using an even-speed manoeuvre Voyager had to swing away wide from Melbourne’s track then reverse her turn such that she gave Melbourne time to get past before crossing her wake to her new station, while leaving her propeller speed unaltered. The misjudged fishtail theory is that this was the manoeuvre Voyager was attempting but she did not gain enough room, that is she did not swing out wide enough to starboard initially (fig 2).

There is more than one possibility as to why she would have swung back early but the most likely is that those on the bridge, during her starboard turn, thought that she was already abaft Melbourne’s beam. Seeing Melbourne’s starboard light, they misinterpreted where she was within the light’s arc. Sidelights extend over 110½°, so the course of a vessel with a side light visible can range over thesame, about a third of a circle. Chapman comments that, “on a dark night…it is often hard to tell whether a ship is angled away from you or towards..”(6, p63) and inclination assessment is more difficult in a swinging ship. Figure 2a depicts a possible “double inclination” illusion in Voyager. An inclination reversal, the Melbourne silhouette in 2a heading left, is part of the port side theory, the sidelight now being overlooked. While large vessels normally have white steaming lights at different heights fore and aft, the separation of which help clarify their course, this separation is impractical in a carrier’s layout. They do not help with “double inclination” though they are reversed in an inclination reversal. Radar images were not considered reliable for this purpose.

Compounding general lack of help from steaming lights, carriers when operating aircraft and about to, display various red lights as mentioned earlier, which can be brighter than side lights – particularly with the latter dimmed. Voyager would have been aware that it is notoriously difficult to discern a carrier’s course visually at night. The Royal Navy Far East Fleet subsequently issued a warning about it (“…exceptionally difficult…to judge inclination and varying turn rate of a carrier…”).(8, p102) Even spotting what Voyager was doing was difficult, Melbourne’s captain misjudging her direction of turn at one point.(4, p14) Captain JP Stevenson, RAN, captain of a Voyager sister ship and of the destroyer squadron which included Voyager, has told me(9) he relied more on vessel shape than lights to ascertain inclination, using binoculars, though on this occasion there was no moon.

Likelihood of a Fishtail Selection

Because I specialised in engineering my bridge experience is limited to around six months on Voyager’s bridge, of 20 months onboard. However the even-speed manoeuvre has been described as a plausible theory,(10) by retired Rear Admiral Ken Doolan AO, ex-Fleet (“Maritime”) Commander, himself a navigator, in the context that since key bridge personnel did not survive the cause will never be certain. He had experience of this type of manoeuvre in Voyager, Melbourne and a Voyager sister ship. He has described an initial swing of 75° from a carrier’s course as a minimum, as in fig. 2, depending on starting room. Robertson, who had similar experience in the same sister ship also described a fishtail as a “normal method of changing station in the circumstances” after the accident.(3, Para 26) Chapman describes it as, “the most efficient and expeditious method.”(6, p66)

Stevenson sees it as a possibility but with a full turn offering a more predictable outcome(9). He worked closely with Robertson in preparing reconstructions for the first Commission, being a close friend to both Robertson and Stevens. As to why Robertson did not raise this as a possibility before the Commission, Stevenson said that was because he had formed a view and was “overwhelmed” by the event. Melbourne’s navigator told me,(11) based on his earlier experience that he thought the fishtail “clumsy”, though he did not rule it out. The then Fleet Commander, put his view to the first Commission that a turn towards a carrier when forward of her beam would be ‘unseamanlike,’(4, p105) implicitly rejecting the possibility that an experienced captain such as Voyager’s would have selected it, unlike Robertson; and supposing Voyager was aware she was forward of Melbourne’s beam.

The more conventional and less hazardous manoeuvre, continuing her starboard turn to almost a circle before then crossing Melbourne’s wake, would have placed Voyager behind station,(6, p134) with aircraft arriving, depending on the extent she tightened the turn and sped up. Evidence was that she did not change engine revolutions/(6, p35)

I note that following the principle of Occam’s Razor, the theory of a miscalculated fishtail is consistent with Voyager’s turn to starboard then reversal of course. Also, there was some evidence(4,p8) that she may have been close to dead ahead of Melbourne before the joint turn and therefore about 200 yards to starboard of station than figure 1 (drawn from a Melbourne reconstruction) depicts. This could have led to a lesser perceived need to swing wide.

All the same, though initiation of a misjudged fishtail could be explained as per light arcs and being out of station as above, the impression that she would pass clear astern of Melbourne would have to persist until she was very close. Yet knowing that she was turning towards Melbourne, even behind the beam in the mind’s eye (or eyes), should have made her more alert than a belief that she was on the port side and turning away. As discussed below, (“Other Accident Cause contributors”) there was evidence from the bridge tactical operator (signalman) that her captain was at the chart table(4, p11) adjacent to the bridge. If there for any time he would require frequent updates by the OOW of bearings of Melbourne.(10) However it seems unlikely such bearings were taken since they would have disclosed the mounting hazard, so being away for more than a few moments would be incompatible with the fishtail theory. That cannot be established, either way.

Inadvertent Turn Theory

Another explanation raised during the first Commission(4, p23,24) was that Voyager’s final port turn was a result of Captain Stevens countermanding a turn to starboard, ordered by the OOW to take up the new station, ordering “port 10”, the OOW then assuming that the port turn should continue whereas her captain intended just to return to 020 while he checked whether immediate stationing action was required (discussed further below). Hence the port turn, her captain by his action assuming control until the OOW received an order otherwise.

Robertson did not favour this theory,(4, p23) believing that Voyager would have been alerted by the continuing heel. Stevenson(9) and Chapman(6, p21) do not agree that 10° of wheel would create heel that would be noticed necessarily. Stevenson initially shared Robertson’s port side theory but later came to prefer this inadvertent wheel retention.

But also as iterated from earlier Voyager turned some 45° to starboard, quite a delay before the turn was reversed, suggesting it was her captain who ordered the starboard turn then changed his mind. Even so the theory does help explain a starboard turn first and accords with some evidence of use of 10° of wheel (4, p22) rather than the more usual 15° for an individual manoeuvre; and also why some crucial attention might have been concentrated elsewhere.

Like the other theories it does not explain why the OOW lookout was ineffective. The OOW was seen looking at Melbourne with binoculars before ordering full ahead. Robertson later observed that if Voyager had left port wheel on in error, when the OOW discovered Melbourne on his port bow instead of astern he would have gone hard a starboard rather than pick up his binoculars and look at her.(4, p12)

Other Accident Cause Contributors

At the first Royal Commission the Voyager bridge signalman, one of two bridge survivors (with a lookout), said (4, p9) that he believed that Melbourne failed to turn to 020. Supposing he overheard a bridge remark based on a port-side belief, this observation must have been well before a collision was imminent. Otherwise appearance of Melbourne’s starboard light should have dispensed with any port side notion as they converged. If well before the collision this would have been reason for close observation and thence avoiding action at sight of the starboard light. Were there no belief she was to port and she was confronted with lack of room during a fishtail, this could give her the impression that Melbourne had not turned.

Voyager’s captain apparently was reviewing a signal at the chart table after receipt of the stationing signal.(4, p11). Most likely, as speculated by the first Commission,(4,p6)he was investigating, or joining his navigator and signals supervisor in investigating, whether the stationing signal required the immediate action Voyager had just taken to change station; or whether such action should await a further signal. While it was confirmed later that immediate action was indeed required and that this was what Melbourne had intended, he may have wanted to have this checked. Such distraction if prolonged might well have had a major effect under any of the theories. Stevenson has observed that Stevens had limited destroyer experience.(9) Chapman, a friend too, queried his self discipline/(6, p211) His fleet commander thought he handled his ship well but in company could be impetuous.(6, p305) However, there is no evidence that any such characteristics had a bearing on the accident.

Another contributor might lie in the unquestioned authority which a captain exercised. This was paralleled at the time in aviation, leading to a disaster some years later. A consequent change of cockpit practice left the aircraft captain in charge but with it being mandatory that he be questioned should he appear mistaken. The bridge officers were gaining/regaining their expertise in this type of manoeuvre so may have lacked confidence. Many captains would not have welcomed others appraising their actions, to say the least. Even though Voyager’s navigator was also on the bridge, alerting of her captain to a dangerous situation might have been delayed. He might have needed time to assess the situation once alerted.

While Voyager did have twin rudders, both ships had direct-geared steam turbines, much slower to react and also less responsive astern than earlier steam reciprocating engines, electric drive or internal combustion engines with controllable pitch propellers.

About any lingering public impression that Stevens might have been affected by alcohol, the second Royal Commission investigated this most thoroughly, including examination of post-mortem evidence. It found, “beyond doubt that any suggestion that his faculties or judgement were in any way impaired by alcohol at the time of the collision is positively excluded.”(7, p228) Even so he was found to have concealed a long-standing ulcer, warranting posthumous censure by that Royal Commission on moral grounds. Nevertheless the second Royal Commission found that, “none of his personal circumstances need be implicated in the accident.” Later it was disclosed that he may have used amphetamines.(8, p269) Though these were legal at the time, any such use and his ulcer should have been reported by medical staff, which would have led to him being posted ashore.

As to Melbourne altering course or speed earlier, or warning Voyager, she was obliged to hold both course and speed until finding herself so close that action by Voyager alone would not have averted collision. Voyager’s twin rudders made her particularly manoeuvrable so this would have been very late and at a point where action by Melbourne would make no appreciable difference. The first Commission found nevertheless that a warning from Melbourne might have alerted Voyager,(4, p22) based on finding that Voyager was on a steady course before the collision. The second disagreed that she was on a steady course, described Voyager’s action in continuing her turn to port as, “far from reasonably foreseeable, entirely incredible” to Melbourne. It overturned the first’s finding.

Finding of Cause and Lessons Learnt

Three plausible theories are belief in Voyager that she was to port of Melbourne, a misjudged fishtail and port helm being left on inadvertently. All have strengths and weaknesses. The time the Voyager captain was off her bridge would help but is unknown and it is uncertain that only 10° of port wheel was applied. This was the recollection of an engine telegraph operator, the only wheelhouse survivor. His testimony, differing from his earlier statement, added ‘wheel amidships’ after a ‘port 10’ order, followed by a course to steer.(4, p22) This sequence would fit with steadying after an earlier turn to starboard. Some evidence of sharp heel during the final turn(8, p75) from below decks and the operations room would point to more than 10°(9). A pilot in an aircraft just arrived overhead observed, “Voyager’s wake had appeared as a hard turn and then straightened….”

Stevenson’s opinion is that a fishtail or full turn normally entails more than 15° helm, though this does not rule out a fishtail with less helm if under the illusion that this will take Voyager safely across Melbourne’s wake. 15° would discount helm left on, due to heel. However reconstructions are based on 10° and recasting to a tighter turn would conflict with observations of earlier relative positions, supporting 10° as the more likely.

For lack of decisive evidence about time off bridge and port wheel applied we will not know which of the three, supplemented by contributors, was the initiating cause. Neither is it at all clear why the lookout by the bridge officers was ineffective, the final cause, other than most likely inclination in the dark remained an illusion even as the two closed. This is about as far as any inquiry could go with cause.

However another objective of accident investigation is to wrest, salvage and distil what can be gained from the wreckage of aircraft, ships and vehicles and lost and damaged lives, so that accidents and their aftermath are offset by whatever gain might be had. What of the royal commission process here?

Suitability of Royal Commissions

Some broad issues arise from use of royal commissions for this type of investigation. They have extensive powers and offer detachment though they need not be led and manned by lawyers as in these two cases. Unfortunately the focus of the first Commission was on testing of evidence and witnesses rather than seeking their co-operation in the search for cause. Chapman has likened this to a trial without a jury.(6, p265) Generally naval inquiries by their structure seek full voluntary disclosure from witnesses.

Furthermore that Commissioner’s findings were limited in the way of lessons learnt and underlying improvements warranted. There was no critique of the appointment of officers of the watch.(4, p28) He recounted that though the Voyager OOW had held a watch keeping certificate for many years, he had worked in minesweepers almost continuously. As to whether this was sufficient his comment was that, “The inexperienced must gain experience.” Thus they “could gain in a work-up programme under supervision.” He might have addressed whether what experience, training and currency were sufficient to qualify OOW’s formally to conduct manoeuvres such as screening an aircraft carrier. Nevertheless with the general experience of the captain and directly related experience of the navigating officer, both on the bridge, the Voyager OOW’s training should not have been central.

The Commissioner recommended changes to safety arrangements and to procedures and, as to materiel state he found, “the ships and equipment in a proper state of readiness.”(4, p 27) What his Commission might have explored if tasked with recommendations for preventing recurrence were:

• objective systems for qualifying and periodic requalifying of bridge watchkeeping officers for day and night manoeuvres, including with ships darkened;

• a better means of assessing a ship’s inclination to supplement navigation lights;

• whether navigation lights should be dimmed when others in use are not;

• greater encouragement of reporting of mistakes and near misses (several unrelated

incidents were disclosed during hearings and Chapman describes many(6));

• preference for quick-response propulsion to increase manoeuvrability generally;

• review of night manoeuvring instructions;

• review of this night manoeuvre with its close stationing – its benefits, risks and alternatives;

• recording of ship voice commands;

• course and speed data recording in a resilient and recoverable form (for accident and incident reconstruction). (Chapman recommended this too(6, p210)):

• explicit handover of ship control;

• use of klaxons as an emergency alert (voice broadcasts by themselves lacked impact and clarity in Voyager’s case); and,

• availability of requisite independent accident investigation expertise.

The second Commission did achieve a principal purpose though in Chapman’s view it should have found that the Naval Board should have known that Stevens was unfit.(6, p309)

A second broad issue is that a royal commission can be ordered without public review of its findings and opinions. The outcomes of these Commissions were discussed in parliament but the subsequent concentration on justice and the politics of public reaction overlooked the systematic gains which again might have been drawn from more analytic and objective review. The parliamentary debate did not address expectations of the royal commission process and the adequacy of the Commissioners’ reports. Many in the media were distracted by the superficial rather than comparing the work of these royal commissions and parliamentary review of them with desired outcome. Had the suitability of royal commissions been aired publicly, subsequent debate might have led to more discrimination in public expectations of them; and could still.

A third is that Chapman describes a legal practice called “pre-arrangement,” (6, p332) effectively a deal between opposing lawyers. If part of any inquiry this would detract from its objectivity.

As to the suitability of a naval board of inquiry, there was the very similar collision in the South China Sea between Melbourne and the USN destroyer Frank E. Evans some five years later in which 74 died, all from Evans. A Combined USN/RAN Board of Investigation was convened, led by (“Senior Member”) a USN rear admiral whose command included Evans. The combined structure was requested and agreed by Australia, the USN earlier intending its own investigation with RAN observers.(12) The senior RAN representative was a rear admiral also. Some Australian accounts of it construed USN command partiality in its process and outcome, illustrating the advantages of separation from that possibility. More about this follows.

While an RAN inquiry into the Voyager accident may have been more informed as to cause than a royal commission and drawn more lessons from it, its findings would have lacked the appearance of impartiality in an atmosphere of public mistrust. As it happened, had it been a naval inquiry which was followed perforce by a separate investigation into the physical fitness for command of Captain Stevens, doubtless this would have had the appearance of a “cover-up.”

The Combined Investigation had more crucial evidence available to it but the Royal Commissions were not subject to the same legal difficulties in compelling testimony. The first Royal Commission reported six months after the Voyager accident. The Combined USN/RAN Investigation took two months, was more focussed and used less resources.

Judicial General Courts of Inquiry can now be set up by the Minister for Defence when required.

Actions by the Navy

Changes included a new Coordinator of Naval Safety, review of manoeuvring instructions and correction of safety deficiencies.(28) Others made subsequently(2, p 109) included assessment of safety drills, command team training in simulators ashore and structured and monitored workups. A zone ahead of Melbourne was established into which escorts could not enter without specific approval and under which Voyager “would not have been permitted to turn to port.” There is now monitoring and assistance from operations rooms on stationing courses and challenging of unclear manoeuvring signals is obligatory. Also the Naval Board altered procedures for the medical examination of captains and instructions to medical officers; and there was cultural change.(13)

Related Experience from the Evans Collision

First, a brief description of the accident. A little after 3 am on 3rd June, 1969 Evans was about 3600 yards on the port bow of Melbourne when ordered to a position 1000 yards astern of her in preparation for them turning to a course for flying. The ships engaged in this SEATO ASW exercise had been zigzagging, darkened. In ordering an initial reversing turn the Evans’s JOOD (Junior Officer of the Deck or assistant OOW) misunderstood the base course and the collective zigzag situation, placing Evans in his mind on Melbourne’s starboard bow. Consequently he turned to starboard and set course towards Melbourne with her fine on his port bow, expecting her to draw across Evan’s bows to starboard. The JOOD was not yet qualified as an Officer of the Deck (OOD) and he did not assess her aspect visually.

Figure 3. The Evans Collision. Evans thought Melbourne’s course was towards the south or she would turn there, until 14.2

(Reconstruction by Commander AI Chapman, RAN (Rtd) printed in “In the Wake” by Jo Stevenson, 1999. Reproduced with the permission of Captain JP Stevenson, RAN (Rtd))

Melbourne had turned on her navigation lights at full brilliance as a precaution. After Evans unexpectedly turned inwards towards her track Melbourne signalled her course.(14, F 98) Conditions were calm, clear and moonlit: others had had no problem with picking her course when darkened. The JOOD’s concentration was on taking bearings. Melbourne’s drift he found was to the left, which puzzled him and he altered course slowly to port to correct. The Evans drift from Melbourne was progressively finer on her port bow, Melbourne relying on her captain’s ‘seaman’s eye.’(14, F 115) The Evans captain did not always supervise such manoeuvres (14, F 44) but had left instructions to be apprised of them, which the OOD did not do. Hence he remained turned in. The OOD left manoeuvring to the JOOD and decoded Melbourne’s course signal. He erred6 by 100°; moreover misunderstanding the signal’s purpose and interpreting it to mean she was turning 100° to port. Thence to his mind Evans would be on her starboard beam after Melbourne’s turn. He had seen that Evans was on her port bow when the JOOD was bringing Evans around to starboard initially(14, F 107). He said to the JOOD, “watch her, she is coming left…”(15, p43).

As the Evans approach continued Melbourne signalled a warning she was on a collision course. This gained the OOD’s attention, though Melbourne’s lights apparently added to JOOD confusion (see below). The OOD wrote7 that he and his assistant “eyeballed”(16, p44) the approach from the starboard wing, probably at this stage. With Evans about 1200 yards away(14, F 125), the two closing at more than 30 knots, Melbourne turned hard to port, informing Evans and sounding her siren8. Her signal crossed, near enough, with one from Evans, her OOD reacting to Melbourne’s earlier collision warning. He was not confused by lighting(14, O 16), was now aware that Melbourne “had not altered its course”(17, p65) and ordered “full right” rudder, informing Melbourne . So therefore neither vessel when applying wheel was aware of the other’s turn. Despite Evans having placed the two in extreme danger her starboard turn might have been at least partially successful (16, p100) had Melbourne not found it necessary to make her own evading turn. Now instead of Melbourne clearing her, her turn took her across Melbourne’s bows, practically square. She went full astern, as did Melbourne, but their steam turbines were ineffective and she was cut in two. Her bow sank, her stern was salvaged.

There were some points of common ground with the Voyager collision:

• Neither the Voyager nor Evans bridges sought assistance from their CIC/Ops Room.

1. The Combined Board’s instructions sought facts (‘F’) and opinions (‘O’) only(17,p148,152).
3. USN practice, apparently not followed on this occasion, was for bridge decodings to be compared with that in the Combat Information Centre (CIC) (ie Operations Room)(15, P31). Neither of the CIC officers survived.
5. According to testimony presented to the Combined Board of Investigation(17, p74) he had been qualified 10 days before after standing four months of watches onboard and 20 months sea service, though his formal qualification is in doubt(16, ch 12). Evidence from him consists of written statements shortly after the collision: he declined to give testimony at the Board hearings. Press reports from his ensuing court martial are sketchy, though they included his admission that he should have taken control earlier from the JOOD(17, p14). He said he would have turned more to port than the JOOD. While in his mind Melbourne was yet to turn to port(15, p44) reports of his court martial convey that he intended crossing her bows, presumably for fear that a turn to starboard would coincide with the expected Melbourne turn. He disputed(15, p41), mistakenly (14, F 23), that there were instructions which required him to alert his captain. The Board found that her captain had discharged his responsibilities satisfactorily though he had inherent accountability as Commanding Officer(14, O 104-106). As to RAN witness’ rights not to give testimony to the Board , Statutory Rule No 90 of 6th June, 1969, signed by the Governor-General(17, p149) authorised the Naval Board to convene a Board to inquire into the collision. It permitted refusal to answer questions “if liable to a penalty”, required that witnesses be warned of this and stipulated that its proceedings were inadmissible in a court-martial. Stevenson was unrepresented at the Board hearings since he had not been named as ‘suspect’. He recalls(9) no warning though he says he would have given evidence anyway. An Australian lawyer(21, p71, 222,) sent to assist Australian witnesses was not allowed to attend, having multiple clients. US defence lawyers did not “sit in” either(26).
7. Evans did not do likewise for her starboard turn(6, p363).
• In neither case were data or recordings available to reconstruct exact timings of orders,

signals or tracks. In particular signal timings differed, even amongst Melbourne’s crew(17, p97), as they had in the Voyager collision. The Combined Board ordered a signal log

analysis to establish sequence and timings but found this had errors(14, p2), a focus being on delays in Melbourne’s signalling system (more below). The outcome was that the Board concluded the helm orders in both ships were given at, “approximately the same time” (15, p96). Also the Board noted that its reconstruction diagram was, “at best an approximation”.

• As to Melbourne’s lighting, in Voyager’s case her navigation lighting was dimmed, she bore red lights for flying and utilised red deck floodlights. With Evans, her navigation lights were on full, though according to other ships her steaming lights mounted on her island and mast dominated her side lights. Some of her white deck “moonlighting” was on during this approach also(14, F 74), though the Board found the latter of no consequence(20). The JOOD testified(15, p46) that during the Evans’s final turn, Melbourne, “ had bright white lights on her flight deck a masthead and range (ie steaming)light; well her navigation lights were on, but due to the number of lights, we still couldn’t tell what aspect we were seeing”. The OOD and JOOD went to the port wing as Evans turned and, “at that time we saw we were looking at the bow aspect of Melbourne”. Her OOD had been aware of Melbourne’s port light in ordering the full right rudder, though he had thought Evans to be broad on Melbourne’s bow(14, O 27), not fine. Melbourne’s lighting was criticised by the Board as, “warranting the attention of all concerned”(14, O 15), implying there was a correctable design problem. If of long standing this might have been within the scope of the first Voyager Royal Commission, though side lights in use with Voyager were those mounted on sponsons, with Evans on her island. Left open is whether, had Melbourne issued no warning and not turned, Evans would have been deceived until too late, as Voyager had been, albeit in different circumstances. The USN was conscious of the general problem with carrier lighting(15, p99) and confusion from bright lights(15, p49). Incidentally, Evans had assumed rescue destroyer station successfully several times that evening, manned by another watch. It is probable that Melbourne was not darkened then(9). Evans was considered by her destroyer squadron commander as probably the squadron’s most efficient ship(15, p8) and had been recently on the gun line in Vietnam.

• Melbourne had been criticised for not warning Voyager. After the Evans accident the Board was of the opinion that Captain JP Stevenson, now posted as Melbourne ‘s captain, and who was also temporarily officer in tactical command, had responsibility for the safe operation of all ships(14, F 107) and as such carried a share of responsibility for the accident. The “informatory” collision course signal, “was in the circumstances not positive enough”. This begs the question as to how as OTC he could have been aware, and accepted, that the Evans’s captain was not on the bridge, how he could have known the nature of the Evans problem and how he could be confident his instruction would help. (Separately as OTC he was criticised together with the screen commander for, “a less than vigilant watch” in not correcting Evans when she, “displayed a remarkably low standard of station keeping” earlier: Evans had been twice out of her assigned sector(14, F 139, O 41))9. The Board also(14, O 108) put its view that had Melbourne “backed his engines at the time he put his rudder over” this might have “lessened the effects” of the collision. This was inconsistent with an earlier opinion(13, O 33) that had Melbourne gone astern on receipt of the Evans’s full right rudder signal, shortly after Melbourne turned, it would have, “made no difference whatever”. It also took no account of the early deceleration caused by going hard-a-port, or the effect on rudder efficiency or turning rate. Captain Stevenson was court-martialled on return to Australia, as OTC, for not giving Evans positive direction and, as Melbourne captain, for not going astern when collision could not be avoided by Evans’s action alone. He was honourably acquitted but subsequently retired. The Defence Minister in 2012 said that his treatment and court-martial were unfair(22) viewed from today.

a. International Regulations, to the extent they apply to manoeuvring naval ships, required a vessel to starboard, which Melbourne was until she turned, to hold her course and speed until the actions of the giving-way (‘stand-off’) vessel alone cannot prevent collision. The Evans OOD asserted that had Melbourne not altered course there would have been no collision(17, p14). Melbourne’s OOW when asked whether there would have been a collision without this turn responded candidly that, “ would have been close”(16, p100). Stevenson disagrees(9) and recalls that Evans was crossing Melbourne’s bows when he ordered the hard port turn to avoid her stern. The Board found(14, O 98), supported since by published reconstructions10, that had neither ship altered course, Evans would have cleared Melbourne ahead: in other words when Melbourne altered course they were not on a collision course. Expert witnesses(6, p412) at the Stevenson court martial said that if Melbourne had not turned, Evans would have cleared her. Even so, the first Royal Commissioner’s Report, in concluding that Melbourne in 1964 was not required to go astern sooner, quoted(4,p17) from Halsbury’s Laws of England about the International Regulations for Prevention of Collision at Sea: “……the rule relating to the duty of the stand on vessel is the most difficult of all the Regulations to understand and obey”. .. “It must always be a matter of some difficulty for the officer in charge of a stand-on vessel to determine when the time has arrived for him to take action and some latitude must be allowed to him…..the rules have to be construed so that men may act reasonably (my italics) on them.” Even so, had they been on a collision course when Melbourne turned, Evans’s manoeuvrability (like Voyager‘s), evinced by her final turn, suggested that the point where Melbourne was allowed and obliged under International Regulations to take evading action would have been very late.11
However, bearing in mind the:

– awareness in Melbourne of the Voyager collision,

– general warnings and directives given to escorts prior to and during the exercise, plus

the precaution of positioning escorts astern before stationing them for flying,

– near collision with another US destroyer changing station three nights before,12

– specific signalled warning to Evans; and,

– judgement in Melbourne that high risk of collision remained,

the Combined Board and RAN later levelled no criticism of the need for and timing of, Melbourne’s final turn13. As with the Voyager collision, the problem is compounded when one vessel is manoeuvrable, the other not; and further the latter is manoeuvring. If the

9. Fig 3 above illustrates this. Chapman(6, p388) estimates clearance at 350 yards, 1½ lengths of Melbourne.
He adds that though there was a, “possibility she might get across…at a rapidly closing rate of 30 or more knots, at 900 yards was no time to take chances on a possibility”.

11. An expert opinion offered at Captain Stevenson’s court-martial was about 55 seconds before(21, p189).
13. She was using a zigzag plan with the wrong time base and also, coincidentally, turned to starboard then port, as did Voyager(21, p24). Melbourne was darkened. Stevenson’s memory is that after this incident, signalling by Melbourne of her course and displaying navigation lights became routine.
15. Evans had to keep clear under both the naval ATP1(A) and International Regulations Rule (then) 19(14, O 28, 29), which the ATP displaced. Melbourne’s duty under International Regs 21 (apparently applicable even though she might be without lights!) was to hold her course and speed. According to an Australian lawyer familiar with some behind the scenes aspects, the Board Senior Member had to abandon, “four other particulars of negligence on Stevenson’s part” on legal advice to the Board(21, p229).
other can do nothing to avoid it, at that stage she can do nothing either. 14,15

Further on signals, an opinion(14, O 40) of the Board was that conning officers should have direct loudspeaker and transmission access to the Primary Tactical radio circuit to reduce signal delays. An example of delay was the Melbourne OOW noticing Evans, “was coming right by the time the signal man had told us” of her message advising this. In Melbourne, signals were logged, relayed/transmitted by a signalman(14, F 135a&c): the Evans conning officer had quick access to the microphone and loudspeaker. Even so, with bridge officers manning, recording, interpreting (29, p120, 310)and taking any urgent action, there could be other delays. The collision course signal had to be repeated(6, p395). The signal log analysis above was followed by a forensic examination of one Melbourne log(15, p95). The Board Senior Member apparently alleged some time later that the Melbourne logs were, “fudged”(21, p199), though the forensic results could be explained.16

The Board’s listings17 of Evans’s JOOD and OOD failings were extensive, these and her captain being punished, two being court-martialled(23). Its opinions embraced command and control (including zigzag instructions), tactical publications applicable, the status of the ships, Melbourne’s lights and dissemination of their characteristics, signal selection/procedures/addressees/execution/coding etc., applicability of international collision rules and those of ATP1(A), and clarification of ships’ turning circles. One would have expected another about the scope for improvement in OOD training and qualification. Instead it found(14, O 43), “…Evans’ officer training program was well organised, planned and executed”. Further, leaving aside her captain’s overall accountability, its opinion was that he had discharged his specific responsibilities adequately, including that to, “insure(sic) that a qualified and trained watch was posted” (14, O 104). It was her captain who had qualified the OOD. The station keeping failings above of the JOOD/OOD (14, O41) add to questions. The Vietnam War might have placed the USN under training and public18pressure, influencing a possible compromise in the

17. The 1972 rules now allow the stand-on vessel to act when the give-way vessel is, “not taking appropriate action”. Pertinent here, under 1972 rules, preferably the stand on vessel should not alter to port. Chapman(6, fig 87) illustrates that a starboard turn by Melbourne would have been ineffective had Evans not turned. Chapman(6, p432) notes that a starboard turn may not work more generally.
19. The Board Senior Member posed adversarial questions(21, chap 8) to the Melbourne OOW about avoiding action which she might have taken. The questioning suggested the Senior Member did not understand the International Regulations. Sherbo’s(15, p99) view is that he seemed aimed at invoking, against Melbourne, the ‘General Prudential Rule’(19, p108); to the effect that mariners may disregard the Regulations in special cases if needs be to avoid collision. However whether or not this Rule could imply that Melbourne acted too late, it also might be a defence against any criticism she acted too early. But about the tenor of the Senior Member’s questions, Mrs Jo Stevenson, the Australian-American wife of Captain Stevenson who was attending the hearings, wrote and complained(21 ,p124) to the USN Chief of Naval Operations, whom she had met. She received no direct reply. It transpires that the CNO, Admiral Moorer was chief mentor to the Board Senior Member, Rear Admiral King (his obituary, Washington Post, 17th June, 2008).
21. He remarked to Commodore J Matthew RAN (Rtd) later that he was “working to instructions” during the hearings(9)
23. The JOOD was not helped in his not understanding the base course and zigzag position(15, p33,37). Melbourne’s stationing signal was sent in the middle of a short zigzag leg and the zigzag instructions may have been confused by what reference to use, according to the RAN Fleet Communications Officer. The zigzag had been suspended by Melbourne earlier signalling a flying course, the same course she later signalled she was on. The JOOD may not have been clear about the suspension(29, p119). However his basic mistake was to confuse the previous formation course with the new base course. The OOD’s assertion that Melbourne would turn to port reinforced the JOOD’s mindset.
25. The Pentagon press release on the Board’s findings came after the Australian release of news of Captain Stevenson’s court-martial and after that news had distracted the press in the US. The Department of Foreign Affairs had been under the impression that the timing would be coincident(17,p48)
Board’s findings and the light sentences the JOOD and OOD received. In 1975 the USN did release a training film, “I relieve you, Sir” as a consequence of this accident; now accessible on ‘YouTube’. At the same time I would add that if it was just the OOD training which accounted for mistaken Melbourne inclination this would beg the question as to how several more highly qualified and experienced officers on Voyager’s bridge were deceived. Though this was during work-up on a dark night it did not have the zigzag complication. As to RAN training, Chapman speculated(6, p457) that the Melbourne OOW’s knowledge of Collision Regulations (see footnote 15) might have been found wanting had Stevenson not been on her bridge but concluded that most likely it was the Senior Member’s manner which unsettled him at the Board hearings.

I expect that simulator training and other assessments currently would fill any gap in bridge skills in most navies; partly due to technological development but also an evolutionary perception of need.

The Combined Board’s findings were approved by the Commander Seventh Fleet (23) (who noted, “the rights of RAN witnesses were protected under procedures applicable in an Australian investigation”(which is so(29, e.g. p76)) and the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet(25), who described the Report as, “thorough and complete in all respects. This is particularly significant in view of the delicate and complicated nature of the proceedings which were conducted in full view of the world press.” He complimented its Senior Member on, “ outstanding investigation…..”. It may be that there was a review conducted by the RAN and opinions in the Report on such as Melbourne’s lighting and signal delays were taken up but this has not been not evident to date(27). It is ironic that the Report’s sole manifest RAN outcome was a court-martial of an officer who, with his Fleet Commander, made every effort to see that the Voyager collision was not repeated.19

Despite shortcomings in the Investigation and concern as to objectivity(21),( see annex), and general distraction by blame apportionment between the USN and RAN20, its Report was competent in much of its work and efficient. It was dated 18th July, the completed report having 362 findings of fact and

27. The Naval Board had been told that it would provide Stevenson with the opportunity of having, “imputations against him judged professionally”(8, p334), denied Robertson. This memorandum added that Stevenson, “had stated that he intended to rebut any criticism of his conduct if such were made in the report”. Naval Board minute 94/1969 of 25th July(8, p335)forwarded the Report to the Fleet Commander, “for necessary action”. The Fleet Commander weighed this(21, p231)and decided on the court-martial, possibly to bring the opinions of the Combined Board to closure. He might have thought it would provide Stevenson the rebuttal opportunity, though Stevenson did not welcome it(21, p231).The rebuttal Stevenson had sought was of the Report, to which he had had no access(9a) (rebutted later(21, ch15)). Frame thinks he should have been consulted(8, p337). In the event, Stevenson’s lawyers contended at proceedings that there was ‘no case to answer’, leading to the ‘honourable acquittal’ outcome. Stevenson agreed reluctantly to this(21, p188), it precluding opportunity for a full airing of the Combined Board’s findings and of any constraints it was under. Rear Admiral Davidson AO RAN (Rtd), who as a captain had been a Combined Board member, says that Australian Board members were under no constraints of which he was aware(26, see annex). As to Stevenson’s posting, the CNS of 1964 “relieved Robertson of his command” having been, “overconfident and slow to react”(6, p250)). Perhaps he was seen as having some ‘inherent accountability’ akin to the Evans CO. However he completed his Melbourne posting, being advised after the Naval Board 25th July meeting(8, p335) that though he had been led to expect it would be as Chief of Staff to the Fleet Commander(8, p 335), it would be another Sydney shore posting. The new Fleet Commander had headed the investigation’s RAN contingent. Stevenson’s new post was filled by a more junior officer though the plan was to upgrade it to Commodore, which eventuated. Apparently Stevenson did not learn of this intention until later(21, p214). It was seen widely as having the appearance of a demotion. He was offered alternatives(8, p336) but had been led(21, 205) informally to expect a promotion course: not forthcoming. Even so the reason he gave to the Navy Minister for his retirement(21, p219) was because he could not serve with some seniors(21, p214), including those who had signed the Combined Board’s report. Stevenson endorses this account(9a).
29. Taking us back to those times, the Chinese on 6th June after outlining the accident noted, “The US naval authorities then tried hard to blame their satellite for the disaster…but the Australian authorities would not swallow this”… “The row between the master and the satellite only revealed the quandary US imperialism is put in”(24).
108 opinions, comparing favourably with the discursive style of the Royal Commissions. Some of the apparent partiality might have stemmed from procedural and legal differences. The Board Senior Member did say the RAN had agreed, “that the procedures of the US Navy manual of the Judge Advocate General should apply” (14, p1), which might have led to misunderstandings. An example was the RAN misconstruing the roles of its counsel(21,p224). Though the subject was touched on in the Report, whether it was addressed in a Naval Board review is unknown. The Combined Board could be seen as successful, as it was by the USN, when compared to what it might have been. It may be though that scope for misunderstanding and partiality persist in international armed forces investigations and less ad hoc arrangements could be looked into if not yet in place.

This Paper’s Outcome

More broadly, investigations such as those of Voyager and Evans should be holistic and seek out systematic improvements. Defence now has a judicial court of inquiry system but there might be lessons available still from these accidents which go beyond those of investigation structure into scope. Moreover they extend to review and implementation process: assurance that recommendations are adequate and that those which should be implemented, are. Leaving aside review, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau integrates its findings with priorities for implementation and an implementation control process. The 2012 investigation by the ATSB of the engine explosion in a Qantas A380 provides an example. Defence might benefit from checking what the ATSB might offer. I intend drawing its attention to this. It is possible that further lessons can be gained still from these accidents of decades ago.

Worth highlighting is bridge training, tasking and qualification, now hopefully well in hand. I quote from an Evans’s OOD statement post-collision, of interest beyond the USN and past times, “The ship had been maneuvering quite beyond its normal tactics with the KEARSAGE (USN carrier)during the entire SEATO exercise with the Commonwealth ships. They sharpened us up you might say. They like to do a lot of playing around, type flanking movements and we have very seldom if ever, gone through zig-zag plans and things like this. I can’t say it was new. We had been going through that for 3 or 4 days, these zig-zag plans. But it did make everybody a little bit tight. But what made me particularly tense was an 18 knot zig-zag plan, was the closeness of the 3000 to 5000 yards screening station. Mr Hopson (JOOD) and I – when I had the conn the first two hours it was just constant change. I couldn’t do anything but watch the carrier. Mr Hopson was doing the same when he took it(30).” As one RAN retired navigator has commented about the RAN, “…we expect too much from junior officers. In close quarters situations, especially at night, experienced personnel should be in charge. Even then some of the manoeuvres are unnecessarily complicated.”(31)

Final Observations

At the decommissioning ceremony for Evans, her Commanding Officer, Commander McLemore, addressing survivors assembled on her stern hulk, might have spoken for Voyager also:

“With a great deal of personal sadness it is my duty today to farewell a fine fighting ship. Concurrently, it is with a great deal of pride that I pay tribute to those officers and men, who served her so well. Those who survived the tragic accident that so hurt Frank E Evans have every right to be proud of their effort and performance, both before and after the accident. Those who died in the collision share in being part of a fine and dedicated crew, and their sacrifice is part of the price sometimes paid by those who go down to the sea in ships”.

Returning to Voyager (though with a similar eye to Evans), as with so many accidents misfortune played a large part. Had she been a few seconds sooner, or Melbourne later, the two ships would have missed, whichever sequence it was which led to the collision; and an accident so calamitous for those who died or were injured and their families, and so momentous for others affected, might have been avoided.

However on the other hand some of the rescued might have been fortunate that the accident occurred in calm seas and warm water within range of shore support. Search and rescue craft were able to respond from HMAS Creswell at Jervis Bay and helicopters from the Naval Air Station, supplementing Melbourne’s early rescue efforts, other ships joining from further. Also, had Voyager been a few seconds later she might have penetrated Melbourne’s hull a deal more seriously. As it was, a bulkhead prevented serious water ingress and there was no aviation gasoline stored in the damaged area.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA*Commodore Ferry was visiting Melbourne at the time of her collision with Voyager. He was air engineer of her helicopter squadron when she collided with USS Frank E. Evans.)

Annex (see (29))

Extract by David Ferry from written recollections by Rear Admiral J Davidson, AO RAN (Rtd), January, 2014, about his membership of the Combined Board of Investigation into the Melbourne/Evans collision.

(His recollections carry a caveat that this was from his memory of 45 years ago, with no notes from then. A second was that he had read my draft paper.)

a. He was sitting in for Secretary to the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Sir Victor Smith.
c. After the two Royal Commissions, Smith, “was determined to avoid having non-naval lawyers doing a re-run this time. Accordingly he rang the USN Chief of Naval Operations and agreed with him to set up a joint Naval Board of Inquiry”.
e. Rear Admiral HD Stevenson, Captain Shands and he (a captain) were nominated. He was surprised being a Supply, (non seaman) officer. Smith told him his nomination was because of his Voyager first Royal Commission experience and, “he wanted me to monitor whether anything might come out which would cause later pressure for a Royal Commission here” (he had been Secretary to the Fleet Commander and had to liaise with Smyth QC, assisting the Commission, “who ran a very biased ‘shop’ apparently based on his belief that all naval witnesses would lie to implicate Captain Stevens of Voyager as the sole culprit – I remember well how shocked Admiral Becher was when he returned having been the first witness at his treatment by Smyth….” (I add that he has told me that as a Supply and Secretariat officer he had received training in naval law and had been a Judge Advocate at a court-martial)
g. At the Board he places on record that he was constrained by, “lack of sea command etc experience in expressing any views on such matters”. Shands and he shared a room in the Bachelor Officers’ Quarters at Subic Bay and, “he was meticulous in discussing all the points with me after we finished each day”.
i. “It has been suggested that the RAN officers of the Board had been given prior orders – presumably by Admiral Smith – that because of the close reliance on the USN in many areas we were to avoid findings that were solely critical of USN officers and this resulted in unfair criticism of Captain Stevenson. Unless this was to Admiral HD Stevenson only and not to me and Shands, I don’t believe this was so.”(a measure of the respect the RAN had for the findings would be the action it took on the Board’s opinions. There is no evidence of action other than the Stevenson court martial, though this may be because it is lost.)
k. They were accompanied by Commander Glass, QC, RANR. “I am not sure what the comment in David Ferry’s article about an RAN lawyer being denied presence refers to (see footnote 7.It referred to Anthony Vincent(21, p71), Lieutenant RANR another lawyer who accompanied them, one of whose tasks was to assist all Australian Naval witnesses or potential witnesses with legal advice(21, p222). The Glass task was to assist the Board, jointly with his USN counterpart).
m. The Admirals and lawyers met to discuss procedure and the other RAN Board members were informed that:
a. “All decisions should be unanimous. (Sounds prescriptive but worked to our advantage sometimes as I shall mention (see “King…below)). Harold Glass told us that this was basically sensible unless there was something terrible to object to.”
c. “All questions would be put by Admiral King to avoid multiple ‘fire’ and that other members would pass questions they wanted to him (this was followed and I never saw a case when he refused to put a question so asked.”
o. Two points seem to him to be forgotten: ( see my earlier comments about criticism of the OTC):
a. “…Evans crossed Melbourne’s bow from port and returned to be hit on her port side, was completely new to us. The Voyager collision occurred in a very short space of time with that ship turning from a roughly parallel course straight under the carrier’s bow. This (ie Evans)clearly gave the Melbourne a much longer time from first noticing the ‘collision course’ in which POSSIBLY to do something”.
c. “Captain Stevenson was in ‘tactical command’ of Evans as shown by his order to take up RESDES position and his signal warning of her course. He could theoretically have sent other ORDERS to her.”
q. “It soon became apparent to Shands and me that (HD) Stevenson was .. (not forceful).. and hardly ever argued with King. It was up to us (ie Shands in effect) to put answers to King’s arguments.” (both HD Stevenson and Shands are now deceased. Stevenson on emerging from a meeting with the Board Senior Member apparently told the RAN Fleet Commander(21,p67) that the latter would not, “like what’s going to happen” though this might have been a casual observation.) “The well known difficulties placed by International Law on the ‘stand on’ ship arose here and it is really a conundrum which devolved into, “he could or should or couldn’t and shouldn’t”. King of course pushed for could/should and Stevenson and Shands could not definitely refute it – it was best left to a Court-Martial.”
s. “ King also came up with a list of about 8 items of criticism of Captain Stevenson – I have no exact memory but they were things like, ‘a noisy bridge’ (ie too many contributing. Voyager’s might have been?)and HD Stevenson had accepted them to go into the report as criticisms”. “Shands was adamant and I backed him. We therefore stated that we would not agree to a unanimous finding of them as criticisms. In face of having to record a dissent on the Board the two Admirals settled for mentioning them as having been raised but ‘the Board did not proceed to question his judgement on them’.”(footnote 13 would seem to relate to this)
u. “I must emphasise that Shands was the mover and shaker and I was the backer”.
w. He adds a note about a recent discussion he had with JP Stevenson, which I have passed on to him. About any impression he had given Stevenson, “that it had been agreed that all decisions should be unanimous he read into this that we had been ordered to give in to the USN on everything. NOT SO……..”.
y. “I remember HD Stevenson’s first words to VAT Smith when we reported to him, “I’m afraid Steve will have to be Court Martialled”. I took no part in anything that happened later. After another note about JP Stevenson and the IDC, he added , “…voicing a thought which we all had that he would be treated properly and given his chance for selection for promotion to Admiral for which the IDC was a given. Why VAT Smith treated him (presumably the posting) as he did I have no idea and join with all in applauding the Government’s tardy apology.

(1) Books “One Minute of Time”1965, “Postscript to Voyager”, 1969

(2) C. Oxenbould, “The Sydney Papers”autumn 2004, p109, The Sydney Institute

(3) R J Robertson, Report to Fleet Commander, 5th March, 1964

(4) J. Spicer, Report of the Royal Commissioner on Loss of HMAS Voyager. s.l: Commonwealth Government Printer, 1964 (5) A. Riley letter to “Good Weekend”, October 11th, 2003 and A. Riley/D. Ferry correspondence)

(6) AI Chapman,“The Melbourne collisions, HMAS Voyager and USS Evans, a treatise of analysis and opinion, Commonwealth Government Printer, RAN MISCPUB 0081

(7) S. Burbury et al, Royal Commission on the Statement of Lieutenant-Commander Cabban and Matters Incidental Thereto. s.l, 1968

(8) T. Frame, “Where Fate Calls, the HMAS Voyager Tragedy,” 1992

(9) Discussions JP Stevenson/D. Ferry 9th January, 2014, joined for part by Commodore D Farthing DSC RAN (Rtd) and Captain J Morrice, RAN (Rtd)

(9a) Discussions JP Stevenson/D. Ferry 23rd January, 2014

(10) Assistance and correspondence, K. Doolan/D. Ferry 2009

(11) Discussions and correspondence, Captain J. Kelly DSC RAN (Rtd)/D. Ferry December 2006

(12) Sec Dept Navy minute 1288/1/93 dated 9th June, 1969, National Archives of Australia barcode 3055831, p147

(13) T. Frame, “The Sydney Papers” Autumn 2004, p101, The Sydney Institute

(14) Report of Combined USN RAN Board of Investigation into the Collision between HMAS Melbourne and USS Frank E Evans,

(15) P Sherbo, Capt USNR (Ret), “Unsinkable Sailors”, 2007

(15a) P Sherbo, Captain USNR (Ret), Unsinkable Sailors, 3rd edition, 2011, appendix B

(16) Jo Stevenson, “No Case to Answer”, 1971

(17) National Archives Australia, barcode 3055831, Foreign (‘External’) Affairs File on collision inc. AAP/UPI coverage of Board proceedings, 463 pages

(18) Preliminary Statement, Report of Combined Board, addressed to Com 7th Fleet and Australian Commonwealth Naval Board.,

(19) Farwell’s Rules of the Road, by Craig H Allen, Nautical University Press, 2005

(20) Pentagon Press Office Release of Board of Investigation Findings, 16th August, 1969, NAA barcode 3055831 p.42

(21) Jo Stevenson, “In the Wake”, 1999

(22) ABC 7.30 Report, 6th December, 2012

(23) Commander Seventh Fleet memorandum 013-185 dated 14th October, 1969

(24) Dept External Affairs cable, 6th June, 1969, NAA barcode 3055831 p.292

(25) Commander in Chief, US Pacific Fleet memorandum 13-01392 dated 21st November, 1969

(26) J. Davidson/D Ferry correspondence 10-18 January, 2014

(27) NAA archives search, contact with; Dr T Frame, Dr D Stevens (Sea Power Centre), Commander A Cooper, RAN (CN Research Officer), January 2014

(28) National Archives of Australia, Barcode 495392

(29) Report of Combine Board Proceedings, Vol 1

(30) Report of Combine Board, exhibits 44-110 p15

(31) Captain JO Morrice, RAN (Rtd)/D Ferry, correspondence 24 January, 2014


  1. I sailed with John Robertson and Gaylen from Port Moresby to Kieta in the yacht Taholi. Furnishings had been sprung in the yacht when she went aground after breaking her anchor chain in the Mortlock Islands, the vessel had been returned to Port Moresby for rectification and survey. During the passage we developed a friendship that lasted until John’s death.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here