RADM David Holthouse


Instead of an obituary for RADM David Holthouse, who died earlier this year, the Naval Historical Society reprinted in a recent edition an article he wrote some years ago which is an excellent memoir of his naval career, and is produced below.

The editor of the Naval Historical Review, Walter Burroughs, has very kindly agreed to it being reprinted in Headmark. We acknowledge further the co-operation of the Admiral’s son Captain Guy Holthouse RAN, and his sister Victoria Holthouse.

David Holthouse entered the Australian Naval College in 1950, just a few days after his 14th birthday. He had an outstanding career as a Marine Engineer, culminating is his appointment as Chief of Naval Engineering. His management skills were further acknowledged by appointments as Chief of Naval Personnel and Flag Officer Naval Support Command. He was appointed an Officer in the Order of Australia in 1991. He retired from the Navy in 1993, taking on a number of senior business roles before he and his wife Isobel became farmers, settling on a property outside Braidwood. David died in May 2013, with Isobel having predeceased him by two months. In September 2009, David gave a presentation to the Naval Historical Society, in which he reflected upon his four decades of naval engineering. As those who knew him will recall, David was never short of a few words; accordingly his presentation has been edited to fit a magazine format and has been approved by his family.

Dad White Uniform

From the Pilbara to Jervis Bay

By Rear Admiral David Holthouse, AO, RAN (Rtd)

The title of this presentation might give the impression of something about Jacky Fisher’s secret life as an engineer. But no, my plan is simply to reflect on my own more than four decades service in the business which saw an interesting range of propulsion systems. From fire tube boilers and steam reciprocating engines, wet steam and superheated steam turbines with steam pressures ranging from 300 psi to 1200 psi. Then came medium and high speed diesels; gas turbines and of course combinations of most of them: COSAG, CODAG, CODLAG and more.

As a youngster hailing from farming stock in the then very remote Pilbara, life at the naval college was at first strange, but I soon settled into the routine. Like most of my contemporaries, I joined with good eyesight, suitable for any branch. We didn’t have to decide which branch until well into our fourth and final year. In my third year, I developed myopia in my right eye. I didn’t need glasses then and scarcely need them now but the Navy was inflexible. I could be an Engineer or Supply Officer and I didn’t know much about either. I am not even sure that I had firmly decided on the Executive Branch but the sense of exclusion was real, and I was old enough to know what ‘non-executive’ meant. I said ‘no’ and my father wrote to the Navy seeking my withdrawal. After careful consideration it was agreed that I would be an Engineer but I must admit to being a reluctant starter.

Not long before this, the flagship HMAS Australia visited Westernport and as was customary, my year (Cook) went out by boat to tour the ship. Gathered in the stern sheets was a group of ship’s officers returning on board, one of whom was a lieutenant (E) resplendent in what must have been his best No 5 uniform. Shiny new stripes, rich purple velvet between them and best of all, pilot’s wings on his left sleeve. Perhaps I could be like that and the die was cast. I did learn to fly, when in command at HMAS Nirimba, but only with a private licence. It was on that visit to Australia that I asked what seemed to me to be the all-important question about engineering. In 1952, all Chief Stokers had seen service in WW II, and as we descended deeper into the bowels of a boiler room with one such Chief, I asked what it was like down there, when the ship was under fire: ‘Safest place to be son, with all that water out there to protect you’. This Chief Stoker was happy to expand on his philosophical theme to a group of 15 year olds: ‘It’s all about what you’re used to’ and went on to tell us about an experience he’d had in the Mediterranean. His ship, one of the Scrap Iron Flotilla, had taken some soldiers on board when she came under air attack. Those on deck hit the deck and he found himself lying beside a big Scots sergeant who was terrified: ‘You see, he couldn’t shoot back and he couldn’t dig a hole. Put us ashore and he’d be in his element; brave as a lion and I’d be jelly’.

Overseas: Dartmouth and Manadon

Customary in these times, most college graduates went to Dartmouth to complete their training and then for experience in Royal Naval ships. The competitive environment must have suited me as I came away with the unusual distinction for an engineer of being awarded the Queen’s Sword. After which it was off to sea in the training ship HMS Triumph, followed by professional courses at the Royal Navy Engineering College HMS Thunderer (RNEC Manadon). I was here when purple stripes vanished from RN wardrobes overnight but Commonwealth officers continued to have the designator (E) attached to their rank and purple stripes attached to their sleeves, for another year in the case of Australians. I’d become used to the distinction by then and perversely kept engineers’ purple on a working uniform for years to come.

I learnt a lot about main condensers as a Midshipman (E) in HMS Glory, in 1954. We were resupplying the British forces in Malaya during the Emergency with people, stores, guns, aircraft, and, on the way back via Malta, Lord Louis Mountbatten’s polo ponies stabled in ‘A’ hangar. The passage was via Suez and the opportunity was taken to resupply the British garrison in Egypt. This necessitated pulling out of the southbound convoy in the Great Bitter Lake and missing a turn whilst stores were unloaded into lighters. As we manoeuvred to join the next suitable convoy, we hit the sandy bottom and stuck fast.

A high tide, de-ballasting and discharging precious water over the side got us off, and tugs towed us to deeper water. We couldn’t get underway, however: the main circulators had sucked up sand and shellfish and choked the main condensers. Turbo generators and fire pumps had similar problems. Anything that relied on sea water for cooling was in trouble. Not that this particular seawater was cool. The main condenser doors had to come off, a big task at any time but in this case really testing. Hot machinery and hot spaces in a hot climate. The work involved shoveling what seemed like the whole of the bottom of the Great Bitter Lake out of the condensers and carting it by bucket up to 3 Deck and over the side, flushing out, jetting condenser tubes, sealing and replacing the doors. In those days the RN employed Chinese Stokers, perhaps in the same way that we used to take on Chinese laundrymen when operating on the Far East Strategic Reserve. No prize for guessing who got the job: the Chinese Stokers and the midshipmen (E) of course, three of whom were Australians.

Engineering Career Structures
Since the days of sail, the Navy’s officer structure has been unproductively skewed in favour of the Deck, Executive or Seaman Branch. A critical outcome, it has been argued, was that the Royal Navy was slow to adopt technological advance and ill-prepared, therefore, for the two great wars. Jacky Fisher’s far-sighted plan to effect much needed change, embracing integration and casting out separation, struck the rocks of entrenchment and prejudice. The ‘Great Betrayal’ of the early 1920s saw the end of the Fisher-Selbourne Scheme, and it was not until the Admiralty Board’s adoption in large part of the Mansergh Committee’s recommendations, that anything resembling Fisher’s new democracy re-emerged, in Admiralty Fleet Order No 1 of 1956 (AFO 1/56).

Subsequent arm wrestling distorted Admiral Mansergh’s General List and the Post List disappeared altogether, arguably to the grave disadvantage of non-seamen. Meanwhile the evolving nature of the Fleet and the consequential absence of engineering hierarchies at sea have reintroduced the need for fundamental change in the officer structure. Fisher’s principles are still valid, but for Australia’s new navy it is time to look elsewhere for how best to give effect to them.

So how do we think AFO 1/56 worked out? No doubt there are those who would argue that promotions in the General List are competitive and that, by and large, these figures represent the competitiveness of candidates. So what happened to the engineers? Did their four year degrees fry their brains or their personalities? Or did career paths to Commander, largely confined to in-branch postings rather than General List postings, ‘smoke stack’ them for future employment? Or did the engineers themselves write their own epitaphs, by seeking only in-branch postings as junior and middle-ranking officers? Certainly Engineers are not blameless in this. Admiral Mason acknowledged that the Engineering Branch was no less to blame with its tendency to ‘class consciousness’ and declared self-sufficiency. In his own career, he said, there were some incidents of which he was ashamed. I should stand with him I guess: there have been times when I felt that the best way to survive was to adopt the Merchant Navy model and run my department in as self-contained a way as possible, which may well have made my own captain’s life difficult.

My years on the plates in steam

Except for a brief posting to a conventionally powered submarine, HMS Anchorite, my entire seagoing career, spanning some 14 ships, was spent in steam. Flexible, reliable and nimble schoolrooms, for the navy’s very best craftsmen. Think back to the redundancies available to the engineer of a fully ‘unitised’ destroyer. Imagine what they were in a four unit ship. I served in one, HMS Eagle, as a midshipman and vividly recall when some disaffected sailor used the firemain to flood ‘Y’ boiler room to the level of the main stops whilst at anchor off the south coast of England. She still got underway and steamed home and continuing flying operations en route.

‘Make a bastard!’ was a wonderful expression I learnt from one Jackie Markham. Jack, a Senior Commissioned Engineer at the time (he retired an Engineer Commander) was my Sea Daddy during my first appointment to HMAS Melbourne, under training for my EO’s Watchkeeping Certificate. He taught me many things for which I am still grateful, including the essentiality of pipe tracing; but perhaps the most valuable was his absolute conviction that if the bit you wanted wasn’t in engineer’s spare gear then you simply made one. I did my best to keep Jack’s maxim alive in naval engineering circles thereafter but I fear that the demise of steam, as much as the demise of Nirimba, sent it off to the antique shop.


I was Chief in HMAS Queenborough in 1962 – 1963, Captain ‘Chick’ Murray in command and LCDR Frank Woods as First Lieutenant. Chick was ‘Fox 1’ and his other Heads of Department and some specialists like the Gunnery Officer, were senior LCDRs. In due course Chick took his thick black funnel band to new ship HMAS Yarra, handing over to Frank Woods, and the Lieutenant Commanders were progressively replaced with Lieutenants. Under both regimes she was a wonderfully happy ship. Not all beer and skittles though.

At about 0400 whilst flashing up from cold after 24 hours or so at Christmas Island, a fire took hold under the after boiler. By the time I had been called, we had a threatening catastrophe and no successful means of dealing with it. Cumbersome Fearnought suits, Foam-making Branch Pipes, discarded fire hoses starting to block the airlock access, boundary cooling flooding seawater over the main deck and frantic efforts to raise steam forward hampered by the radiated heat from the blistering and buckling bulkhead between the two boiler rooms. I can remember lying on the plates in the after boiler room with my Damage Control POM(E) trying to direct the trickle from the latest FBP to come through the airlock at the dull red glow under the boiler. I had decided that we either got it out this time or we would stay down there with it. We might have had to anyway as the air at the top of the boiler room had become intolerably hot and the hand rails too hot to hold. Miraculously the red glow faded out.

With no Ordnance Engineer (OE) on board, the EO found himself responsible for the mechanical side of the main armament, the LO for electrics and of course the GO for using it. How well I remember the succession of pipes: ‘Gunnery Officer, Bridge! – pause – Electrical Officer, Bridge! – pause – Engineer Officer, Bridge!’ when we failed to hit the target, or simply failed to fire. Of course on the one occasion when we shot down the drogue, HMS Belfast and the rest of the line having failed to do so, all we got was ‘Well done Guns!’ but we were all very pleased. In Singapore one time, the Chief OA and I agreed it was time to overhaul the recuperators on the twin 4 inch mount and we had the left gun out by the end of the day. The gun barrels were used to suspend the movie screen for evening viewing by the Dutywatch, men under punishment and those who couldn’t raise sufficient breeze for another run ashore. The screen was too low it seemed, and some enterprising sailor decided to elevate the mounting. Gravity took charge, and at colours next morning the captain was less than impressed to find one and a half guns pointing pretty much vertically skywards. That day there was only one pipe: ‘Engineer Officer, Captain’s Cabin!’

I had three postings to Melbourne, the last one as Senior Engineer, under Commander Tom Fisher. I’d at first been disappointed about going back to the flagship when my contemporaries were having a nice time in destroyers, but eventually an important lesson emerged. Big ships have hierarchies of engineers and legions of very senior and experienced sailors whose knowledge rubs off. The ship was broken up into departments, with a junior officer in charge of each, and they move around. Officers keep watch. This was a wonderful environment in which to become competent and the opportunities that such ships provided for satisfying progression in the seagoing environment went a long way towards meeting the need that young engineer officers felt, or anyway this young officer felt, to be ‘all of a company’.

HMAS Hobart was next, Vietnam and the fog of war. Battle damage and its control and repair provided useful lessons but I came away with three more lasting memories. First, whilst the Americans did not run these ships’ engineering plants as well as we did, they had certainly designed them to be better than anything I’d served in before. The very simple example I like to give is the steam turbine thrust bearing. Renewing the thrust pads in a British design required skill and patience, each pad being blued and scraped and tried individually until at last all of them bore an equal load. In the DDGs the pads were linked in two semi-circular articulated collars, and replacements were simply removed from their packaging and dropped into place, self-adjusting to bear an even load.

Second, the steam generators and switchboards were in the main machinery spaces and our electrical Special Sea Dutymen mustered there. Indeed, there was a group of dedicated machinery space electrical ratings who became, for all practical purposes, part of the engineering department.

Third, in working up for Vietnam we trained for what we had always done: the EO ran the training and was the Damage Control officer but the XO was in overall charge as NBCDO. When we were hit, precisely the time when continuity is king, my damage control reports went to the Ops Room (CIC), to be sliced and diced for the Ship’s Company. The Ops Room, however, was busy coping with lost sensors and the uncertain tactical picture, and the Ship’s Company remained in the dark. Eventually the Captain asked me to provide summaries directly over the Main Broadcast, which made complete sense. I understand that this lesson was learnt and that now the MEO/Damage Control Officer has overall responsibility, with the XO and SO providing advice on a roving basis.

In HMAS Hobart, during her second deployment to Vietnam, the crosshead on the port main engine Ahead Throttle operating gear seized solid during operations. Down to one engine and no spares for such a large, and you might think robust, bit of kit. We had detailed drawings and, surprisingly a billet of what looked like suitable material (nickel steel) in the Bolt Stave store. Importantly, we had suitable people to work it: Engine Room Artificers, ERAs. This was not kids’ stuff, a 2-start left hand buttress thread on a spindle which my mind’s eye tells me was about 2 inches in diameter, with the female threaded crosshead traveler to match. In a simple lathe in a destroyer’s workshop at sea. Half a day later up it went and I proudly marched my bemused ERA to the bridge to announce that the Port engine was back in business. Sadly though, I’d let him down. In the excitement of finding the steel billet I forgot Engineering 101. We used the same material for both the spindle and the traveler and of course when the crosshead was hot enough they seized. Bronze or even brass would have done the job.

Nuclear Propulsion

I was one of three RAN officers (Castles, Holthouse and Rourke) dispatched over a
period in the late 1950s and early 1960s to study Nuclear Reactor Engineering in the UK. Both Castles and Rourke studied with the RN for some hands-on design experience at Y-ARD, but Admiral Rickover, USN, got wind of this arrangement between the RN and RAN before my nuclear training began, in 1964, and the RN reluctantly cut us off.

Instead I went to UKAEA at Harwell, Dounreagh, and the Birmingham CAT before heading off for 18 months or so of sheer delight at Y-ARD. Plenty to do but Rickover’s long arm had reached the Clyde too, and I was excluded from the nuclear submarine design office and sent instead, to work on the next generation of steam frigate propulsion systems, the never-to-be built Y136.

The unwillingness of successive governments in Australia to encourage and participate in the nuclear energy debate has had a lot to do with blind-siding the general public on this important issue; and as we have seen from the plan for the Collins Class submarine replacement, this attitude is not going to change any time soon, or anyway, not soon enough. Much to my chagrin, the influential submarine lobby, made up largely of former RAN submariners, who in my view should know better, has been content to go along with this, for what I can only assume to have been tactical reasons. But Rickover played his part too, by restricting allied access, other than for the RN, to even the most basic information and creating the impression of a black art.

Staff Appointments and as Director General Fleet Maintenance

I was fortunate to be posted to the Royal Naval Staff College Greenwich next, and I had a fantastic year at that wonderful place. We mourn the loss of places like ‘Tresco’ but think how the RN must mourn the loss of the Painted Hall. Here I received the Director’s Prize for the best Service Paper on Defence Policy, which I particularly enjoyed. Shortly before departure by sea for London, the Engineering poster, Commander Bert Stapleford. rang to say that there was a vacancy on the Joint Services Staff Course and since I was now a Commander it had been offered to me. There was a catch of course; the JSSC was a 6 month course only and therefore not ‘married accompanied’. I turned it down and Bert was horrified: ‘This is a real privilege’ he said and ‘Engineers seldom get an opportunity like this’.

After an interesting stint as DFM at Navy Office including a short secondment to Prime Minister and Cabinet and as equerry to the visiting King of Nepal, I found myself practicing what I preached. I had expected to go back to Melbourne as Chief but she went to someone else and for the first time I initiated a call to the Poster. ‘You don’t have to go back to sea’ said Bert. I’d been promoted in Hobart so it counted as my Commander’s job: ‘Well there’s Supply but you wouldn’t want that would you?’ Supply was a very satisfying experience and in taking charge on the RAS deck I got closer than I had ever been to a General List job at sea. She had many tricks and treasures which had fallen into disuse and it was enormous fun, for all of my team I hope, to restore them to operation. She had a riveted hull and, after converting her cargo capacity from FFO to Dieso, time spent in harbour with a full cargo was nightmarish. The only way to sleep easy was to transfer fuel around until all tank levels were lower than the sea outside.

Supporting the RNZN off Mururoa was not the highlight of my life at sea but keeping
the engine turning for a month straight was satisfying, though not much compensation for missing out on RIMPAC and a visit to Japan. And to be fair, we’d had a fascinating deployment with HMAS Perth, to the Seychelles, Mombasa and Mauritius the year before. Then there was the Boxing Day departure for Darwin to help out with the aftermath of Cyclone Tracy, including sitting on the Board of Inquiry into the Patrol Boat losses. The SAILSTRUC model had been approved by now and I had both MTP and MTH sailors in the Department. But where were the MTLs? I don’t remember exactly when High Power was eventually transferred to the MEO but it was not in my time at sea.

Leaving the ship was a wrench but the two best engineering jobs at Fleet Headquarters, FMEO and CSO(T), helped me get over it. From a professional naval engineering view point, the near continuum from CMDR (E) at sea through FMEO, CSO(T), Nirimba (RANATE) and DNOP to DGFM was magical. Managing people, their conditions of service and their careers is a very satisfying thing to do. I dragged my poor family out to Quakers Hill, forcing them to commute by train back to Sydney for school and work, but for me at least it was a very satisfying experience. SAILSTRUC Phase 2 training started whilst I was there and seemed to be well accepted. Three or four females were in the intake and in those early days of integration we over-killed on segregation and security. We fitted out a very comfortable annex for them in the hospital, well away from the 800 or so young men and boys on the base with whom they trained by day. So why were they so unhappy?

I was DGFM in 1984 when a Naval Reserve Cadet died on board HMAS Tobruk, and it was my task to establish what went wrong. It was a sad business but very satisfying to untangle the chain of causation. I don’t want to get into the detail here but there were a couple of important lessons to be learnt. Seeking to mitigate effect, rather than to establish cause, is a potentially dangerous course to pursue and, losing sight of underlying design principles can end in disaster. Being a naval engineer is not solely about ‘how?’ The Navy has well trained operators and technicians who should know all about ‘how’. It is ‘why?’ that justifies the continued employment of the professional engineer. Having said that though, it has always been my contention that professional engineers should apply themselves to ‘how’ sufficiently well, at least, to be credible to the operators and technicians whom they lead. Part of it is taking the can for other people’s honest mistakes.

After DGFM came a posting to North America as Naval Attaché in Washington and Naval Adviser in Ottawa, providing first hand exposure to how the USN and RCN employed engineers. The Americans didn’t know what to make of me. Ever courteous, they afforded me flags and car pennants when I visited USN establishments. Sometimes it was the Line Officer’s white star on a blue background and at other times it was the Specialist Officer’s blue star on a white background. The RCN was still much the same as us, despite Canada’s largely unsuccessful early experiment with a unified Defence Force.

New Initiatives in Technical Sailor Training

Some healthy initiatives were undertaken in the training of technical sailors. In 1969 I co-authored the review of naval technical training which led to the introduction of SAILSTRUC, the sailor structure which replaced RATSTRUC. One recommendation was that technical sailors’ right arm category titles include the word ‘Technician’ as in, for example, Petty Officer Marine Propulsion Technician (POMTP). ‘Technician’ is a noun and it accurately describes the role and capabilities of the sailors concerned. MTP was accepted by the Board but on the advice of the Second Naval Member of the day, ‘Technician’ was far too grand and ‘Technical’, an adjective, was substituted. ‘What is a Marine Technical?’ one asked without response.

The study that led to SAILSTRUC provided the opportunity to right some of the wrongs that pervaded the engineering sailors’ career paths and, at the same time to do something about shifting high power electrics to the MEO. Artificers were not seen as real POs and Chiefs by the rest of the ship’s company, sometimes justifiably. Stokers became skilled plant operators and useful mechanics, but received no recognition for it when they returned to ‘Civvy Street’. Within the marine engineering community too, they were second class citizens. Nirimba graduates had to learn operating skills before they could be employed usefully as Artificers and they often became disillusioned by this. Too much training too soon could be a negative in retention terms. Rank and Skill pyramids matched each other, close enough; and finally, the ‘Mechanician’ provided a good model. These are still valid principles but things have gone off the rails a bit since SAILSTRUC was introduced, perhaps mainly because of the contracting out of training and the complexities of civilian recognition.

Rise to the top – Chief of Naval Engineering and other appointments

When I took over as CNE an important task was merging the Technical Services Division with the Supply Division and assuming the role of Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Logistics). This was a sensible move, involving the transfer of most in-service support functions to the Naval Support Commander in Sydney whilst retaining a credible Design and Production capability in Canberra, along with the Policy role. My final posting was to be as Flag Officer Naval Support Command and the new arrangement looked as sensible from that end as it had from Canberra.

An opportunity arose in 1990, whilst I was Assistant Chief of Personnel (Navy) – ACPERS(N) to strike a blow for the General List. The Chief of Naval Staff agreed to examine officers’ career paths with a view to broadening the employment of non-seamen. The study was called ROCS, RAN Officers Career Structure. I am unsure what became of ROCS but the part that should have interested me, didn’t. It proposed a form of dual career streaming wherein officers could qualify in more than one specialisation, say PWO and Marine Engineering. So much time under formal training; it was never going to work and I am cynical enough to think it was never intended to.

The full integration of women into the RAN, as opposed to the WRANS, kept coming my way: at Nirimba, as DNOP which was my next posting, and later as ACPERS(N). It was something the Navy really wanted to do and do well but it became political and Navy was pressed to move faster than we would have wished, particularly in getting women to sea and into command positions. There were some stumbles but by and large I think it went well and today we think nothing about it with female marine engineers now reaching senior ranks.

I had hardly settled into the Assistant Chief of Logistics (Navy) – ACLOG(N) chair when further change loomed, this time to merge Logistics and Materiel into a single Division embracing in-service, logistics policy, design, production services and acquisition. I had a real concern for the continuing support of what became known as the Fleet-in-Being, particularly as the spotlight was being turned more and more on the acquisition process.

Who was to be Navy’s Design Approval Authority once the Design Authority function had been contracted out, and ACLOG(N) had gone? Surely not the same authority that was charged with acquiring the new kit? And who were to be heads of corps for the Engineers and Supply officers? How would the Engineers react to a career path truncated at the one-star level?

Onwards and Upwards

What I have been advocating is an evolution in the training, employment and progression of the Navy’s officer corps, not a revolution. If we do it, Drake’s ‘All of a company’ will merge and have real meaning in the technology based service which we all wish to see sharpen its sword for the defence of our nation. And I am not downhearted. A New Generation Navy has already tackled some of the inequities in the present structure and I am aware that a strategic review of naval engineering is underway. It has been a wonderful four decades – onwards and upwards!


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