Once We Were Soldiers

History of HMAS Sydney 111

5th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (5 RAR) - Homecoming - HMAS Sydney III AKA "The Vung Tau Ferry" - February 1970

1943/1944. The keel of HMS Terrible, the ship that would later become HMAS Sydney III, was laid at Devonport Dockyard, United Kingdom on 19 April 1943. She was launched on 30 September 1944 and was one of six Majestic Class light aircraft carriers whose construction was suspended following the end of World War II.

1947. The Commonwealth Government of Australia decided to acquire two of the Majestic Class for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). Work consequently resumed on HMS Terrible which was to be the first 'flat top' aircraft carrier operated by the RAN.

1948. HMS Terrible was handed over to Australia during a ceremony at Devonport on 16 December 1948 at which time she was renamed HMAS Sydney III. The carrier was subsequently accepted into service in the RAN on 5 February 1949.

1949. HMAS Sydney III sailed from the United Kingdom 12 February 1949 to begin working up exercises. Following a period of R&R and maintenance, “Sydney” sailed from Garden Island on 25 July to begin several months of exercising in the Tasman Sea. Daylight operations, night time operations as well as launching and recovering aircraft in varying sea states and weather conditions were a necessary part of ensuring that the RAN's new carrier was prepared future operations. This pattern of exercises continued throughout the remainder of 1949 and into 1950.

1950. On 7 June 1950 “Sydney” steamed out of her home port bound for England to embark two further RAN air squadrons, 808 Squadron (Sea Furies) and 817 Squadron (Fireflies). Between August and October “Sydney” conducted working up exercises before sailing from Portsmouth on 26 October for the return voyage to Australia. She arrived in Sydney on 8 December 1950 in time for Christmas leave.

1951. From January to August 1951, “Sydney” conducted further flying exercises and participated in war games in the eastern Australian exercise area. The British Admiralty requested that Australia give consideration to sending the aircraft carrier to the Korean theatre of operations to relieve the Royal Navy carrier HMS “Glory” which was in need of crew rest and maintenance. Australia would be the third nation to provide an aircraft carrier for Korean War service. Cabinet subsequently approved the request to send Sydney on 11 May 1951. “Sydney” began her first patrol of the Korean War on 4 October 1951 in the western theatre, transferring four days later to the east coast for special operations on 10/11 1 October 1951. Operations continued until 25 January 1952, the last day of the carrier’s participation in the Korean War. During the period of 17 to 25 January a total of 293 sorties were flown including one day on convoy escort and two days when weather conditions prevented flying. On 26 January 1953, screened by the destroyer HMAS “Tobruk”, the ship sailed for Australia.

1955 to 1957. In April 1955, “Sydney” was redesignated the fleet training ship. In that role, she was host to numerous drafts of Royal Australian Naval Reserve National Servicemen who joined the carrier to complete the seagoing component of their training. Drafts of engineering sailors were also embarked and training cruises saw “Sydney” visit a variety of Australian, New Zealand and South East Asian ports between April 1955 and December 1957.

1958 to 1962. Sydney remained in commission until 30 May 1958 at which time she was paid off into Special Reserve in Sydney after steaming 315,958 miles since commissioning. Between May 1958 and March 1962, HMAS Sydney was berthed at Athol Bight near Bradleys Head, Sydney Harbour where she was maintained in a reserve state by a small RAN care and maintenance party. During that time, a proposal was made for the ship to be reactivated as a base ship for the 16th Minesweeping Squadron. However, a feasibility study was to prove that proposal impractical.

While the RAN no longer had a purely naval use for “Sydney”, the Australian Army expressed a view that in the event of either a limited war, or the need to counter insurgency in Southeast Asia, the former aircraft carrier would be of enormous value in the movement of not only troops but also vehicles, ammunition and other stores and equipment. Strategic airlift capabilities at that time were insufficient to move even a small sized army battle group and the only serious option was a sea lift. The Defence Committee deliberated on the proposal and, accepting that the movement of troops and equipment could not be accomplished by air, recommended that “Sydney” be brought back into service. Both the Minister for Defence and the Prime Minister approved the recommendation and the carrier was consequently taken out of reserve, refitted and reactivated as a fast troop transport, to be maintained at seven days' notice for sea.

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HMAS Sydney undergoing refitting alongside at Garden Island Naval Base, Sydney (RAN)

“Sydney” recommissioned in her new role on 7 March 1962 but remained in refit for the rest of the year and into 1963.

1964. In early 1964, HMAS Sydney III underwent a further, brief refit in Captain Cook Dock (a dry dock) at Garden Island, Sydney. On 6 April 1964, orders were received to prepare HMAS Sydney, now a fast troop carrier, to transport troops, equipment and aid to Malaysia as part of the Australian Army’s commitment to Confrontation.

“The Vung Tau Ferry”

1965. On 29 April 1965, a decision was made by the Australian Government to commit an infantry battalion to serve in South Vietnam. HMAS Sydney was subsequently ordered to make preparations to transport the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR) to Vung Tau.

1966. On 8 March 1966, the then Prime Minister, Harold Holt, announced that Australia’s military commitment to Vietnam was to increase to a force of approximately 4,500 men. This force became known as the 1st Australian Task force (1ATF) and was based in Nui Dat, Phuoc Tuy Province.

During May and June 1966, HMAS “Sydney” was an integral part of Operation ‘Hardihood’, the code name for the deployment of 5 RAR and 6 RAR to Vietnam. Two voyages were completed in support of HARDIHOOD and HMAS “Melbourne”, the RAN’s aircraft carrier, already on deployment in connection with the Far East Strategic Reserve, was again tasked as an escort.

1967/1968. With Australian ground forces now well established in Vietnam, “Sydney” began a regular pattern of disembarking one battalion at Vung Tau and back loading another for the return passage to Australia. Her escort had by then been reduced to a single ship.

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HMAS Sydney III unloading in Vung Tau harbour in 1969 (RAN)

The Fast Troop Carrier’s turnaround times in Vung Tau received a boost in 1967 when she was equipped with six LCM Mk 6 landing craft. Three each were secured outboard on her port and starboard sides below the aft section of the flight deck. This added capability enabled a reduction in unloading times to an impressive six hours or less. This astounded United States Army port authorities, as it routinely took merchant ships carrying a similar load of motor vehicles up to two weeks to discharge their cargos in Vung Tau.

1969/1970. HMAS Sydney III undertook three voyages to Vietnam in 1967, four in 1968, three in 1969 and two in 1970. Her busiest year, however, was 1971 when she deployed to Vietnam on six occasions. It’s not hard to understand why the fast troop carrier became known colloquially as “The Vung Tau Ferry”.

While at anchor in Vung Tau, self-protective measures, collectively known as Operation ‘Stabledoor’, were employed by Australian and US ships. These measures provided a level of protection against the threat of waterborne attack. The RAN’s well established Operation ‘Awkward’ routines provided an extra layer of protection against enemy sappers; this protection included the posting of armed upper deck sentries, additional lookouts, waterborne patrols and sweeps of the hull and anchor cables by ship's diving teams. Underwater scare charges were also employed as a deterrent against enemy swimmers.

By late 1971 the withdrawal of Australian forces from Vietnam had begun and for HMAS Sydney III, the focus shifted from rotating infantry battalions to bringing them home. In Vung Tau, on 8 December 1971, Sydney embarked 4 RAR, the final Battalion group, together with 104 Field Battery (Artillery) and 9 Squadron RAAF with its 16 Iroquois helicopters.

1972. Australia’s combat role in South Vietnam ceased in March 1972 when “The Ving Tau Ferry” brought home the last combat elements. One final visit to Vung Tau was made in November 1972, when Sydney delivered a cargo of defence aid for Vietnam and Cambodia. Leaving Vung Tau on 24 November, she set course for Hong Kong before returning to Australia.

Summary. In summary, the “The Vung Tau Ferry”, between 1965 and 1972, undertook 24 voyages to Vietnam amounting to 25 operational visits to Vung Tau. The fast troop carrier transported 16,094 troops, 5,753 deadweight tons of cargo and 2,375 vehicles during that time. Quite an achievement for a vessel that the RAN had no real use for continued naval operations, either as an aircraft carrier or training ship.

1973. On 20 July 1973, the ship’s company was informed that it had been decided to pay off Sydney instead of proceeding with a planned refit. On 12 November 1973, the ship was decommissioned, by which time she had steamed 395,591 miles as a fast troop transport. Since first commissioning in 1948 she had steamed 711,549 miles.

1975. Stripped of all useful fittings, “The Vung Tau Ferry” returned to Athol Bight where she languished until sold for scrap to the Dongkuk Steel Mill Company Limited of Seoul, South Korea, on 28 October 1975. The former aircraft carrier and fast troop transport left Sydney under tow on 23 December 1975.

A sad end for a proud ship that had served Australia very well throughout the Korean and Vietnam War conflicts.

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HMAS Sydney III 'The Vung Tau Ferry' mothballed in Athol Bight, Sydney, 1975

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HMAS Sydney III under tow to Korea, December 1975 (RAN)

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Charlie Company troops about to embark for the voyage home (author arrowed) 27 February 1970


1969/1970. The 5 RAR Advance Party flew out of Australia in January 1969. The main body of 5 RAR troops departed Australia from Sydney, New South Wales aboard HMAS Sydney on 3 February 1969 and arrived at Vung Tau on 16 February 1969. The Battalion’s final operation in Vietnam, Operation ‘Bondi 1 and 2’ was conducted over the period 27 December to 16 February 1970; the operation involved a cordon and search of the hamlets of Duc Trung and Binh Ba.

At the conclusion of Operation ‘Bondi’, preparations began for the Battalion’s return to Australia in less than a fortnight’s time.

Following the arrival of the main body of 7 RAR on 27 February 1970 to relieve 5 RAR, the ‘Tiger Battalion’ departed Vung Tau that same day, bound for Australia. While some key personnel had flown home, the bulk of the Battalion embarked on ‘The Vung Tau Ferry” III for the sea voyage home.

Troops boarded LCM Mk 6 Landing Craft to be ferried out to the ship. Individual numbers were displayed on cards tucked into the puggaree of the slouch hat; these were used to check off personnel as they boarded. As may be seen in the following image, the anticipation of leaving the war zone is plain to see after 12 months of combat operations.

We Platoon Commanders were accommodated in four to a room cabins off the Quarterdeck at the stern of the ship. This was considered pure luxury after the tented and sandbagged sleeping quarters at Nui Dat.

The troops were accommodated on the lower decks and were allocated hammocks for their sleeping arrangements. The hangar deck had containers stowed; these had been provided for the stowage of surplus kit that had been accumulated during 1969/70 including such things as reel-to-reel tape decks and other large items that could not be packed in our personal kit bags.

The route home from Vung Tau was through the South China Sea and into the Indian Ocean via the Sunda Strait. As a mark of respect, HMAS Sydney hove to in the vicinity of the wrecks of HMAS Perth and the USS Houston which were sunk by the Japanese during WWII. Wreaths were dropped into the sea and a minute’s silence was observed by crew members and the 5 RAR troops.

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The Quarterdeck (RAN)

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HMAS Perth in her wartime camouflage

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USS Houston (CL-81)

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L to R: HMAS Yarra III, HMAS Supply and HMAS Sydney III (RAN)

Following the remembrance ceremony, HMAS Sydney III got under way once again and headed into the Indian Ocean bound for Western Australia.

Life aboard was very relaxed compared with the strict routine of Nui Dat. As officers, we did take turns as Duty Officer to accompany our naval equivalent on rounds of the ship but otherwise, we were allowed to relax and unwind after the rigours of our tour of duty. The Navy treated us extremely well with three square meals a day and access to the Messes for drinks and bar snacks. We were even treated, as officers, to barbecues on the Quarterdeck.

The troops had access to the flight deck as well as volleyball games in the lift well to help pass the time and literally, to unwind. Much time was spent just relaxing and sun baking.

Enroute to Fremantle, Perth, Western Australia, HMAS Sydney III was refuelled by HMAS Supply, the fleet oiler, along with our escort ship, HMAS Yarra III.

After the crossing of the Indian Ocean, HMAS Sydney III berthed in Fremantle. Western Australia. This enabled the Western Australian soldiers to disembark before we headed for Sydney, New South Wales. It also enabled members of Australian Customs staff to board and to go through the vessel before it reached Sydney.

However, our trip was interrupted as we dropped anchor in Twofold Bay in Southern New South Wales to ‘paint ship’ as the Navy referred to it. This literally meant what was implied as ratings were lowered over the side and the starboard hull was given a fresh coat of paint ahead of our scheduled docking at Garden Island, Sydney. Why the starboard side? This was the side that would be berthed alongside the Garden Island Naval Dockyard.

With the Customs staff aboard, the opportunity was taken by some members to dispose of ‘contraband’ over the side. I suspect to this day, there will be illegal souvenirs such as weapons as other ill-gotten goods still on the seabed in of Twofold Bay where they were dumped some 51 years ago.

Finally, after two days, we got underway once more, heading for our final destination at Garden Island, Sydney Harbour, New South Wales.

On the morning of 10 March 1970, as we came through Sydney Heads, we assembled on the flight deck dressed in freshly starched Jungle Greens, polished boots, campaign ribbons and the venerable Australian Slouch Hat. After what seemed an eternity, we finally docked at Garden Island, Woolloomooloo (Sydney Suburb where the Naval base is situated) and were greeted by a large throng of family members, partners and girlfriends.

And of course, the Battalion mascot, Quintus, was also there to greet us and welcome us home. Quintus’ home was Taronga Zoo on Sydney’s North Shore.

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Quintus, the tiger mascot of 5 RAR – 10 March 1970 (image by my brother Mark)

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Almost home: HMAS Sydney III being berthed at garden Island, 10 March 1970 (image by my brother Mark)

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Some of the Battalion officers; L to R; MAJ Fred Spry, Battalion 2IC, MAJ Reg Sutton, MAJ Ray Harring, 2LT Pat Clague, author, CAPT Laurie Ganter, CAPT David Wilkins, CAPT Bill Titley and CAPT Terry Southwell – 10 March 1970 (image by my brother Mark).

The battalion officers were lined up towards the stern and to our right, the troops were lined up towards the bridge and island, and forward to the bow.

This is a close-up of some of the officers:

On disembarkation, we were allowed time to spend with family and friends before forming up for our Welcome Home Parade through the streets of Sydney. Readers may have read articles on how badly some returning Vietnam veterans were treated but we didn’t experience any negativity at all during our march. The march route took us from Woolloomooloo up to George Street through the centre of the city’s Central Business District, past the Sydney Town Hall where the salute was taken and then on to Hyde Park adjacent to the War Memorial.

Following the parade, we were again given the opportunity to catch up with friends and family before we were transported to Holsworthy Army Barracks in Western Sydney to undertake administrative procedures before proceeding on well-earned recreation leave.

Overall, the RAN looked after us extremely well. There were no complaints about their service. A great example of Inter-Service cooperation to say the least.

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Beginning of our Welcome Home Parade from Woolloomooloo; the Battalion leading (the tail end of the troops are seen here), followed by the 2nd Military District Band and a Royal Australian Air Force contingent (image by my brother Mark).


LTCOL (Rtd) R.A. Lambert
(Platoon Commander, 9 Platoon, Charlie Company, 5 RAR, 1969-70)

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