Operation Navy Help Darwin

Operation Navy Help Darwin was a disaster relief operation initiated by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) following the destruction of Darwin, Northern Territory by Cyclone Tracy during the night of 24–25 December 1974. 13 ships, 11 aircraft, and 3,000 personnel were sent to Darwin in the largest disaster relief operation undertaken by the RAN in its history. The RAN task force was present from 31 December 1974 to 31 January 1975.

Cyclone Tracy

Cyclone Tracy made landfall in the early hours of 25 December 1974.[1] Darwin was destroyed: only 408 of the city's 10,000 structures remained undamaged.[1] 49 people ashore were killed, along with 14 civilians on vessels in the harbour and nearby waters.[2]

Of the RAN assets in Darwin, the Naval Headquarters was destroyed, as were large sections of the patrol boat base and the married quarters.[2] The oil fuel supply installation and naval communications station at HMAS Coonawarra were also damaged.[2] Four Attack class patrol boats were based in Darwin; Advance and Assail were able to weather the cyclone with minor damage, but Attack was forced aground, and Arrow sank after colliding with Stokes Hill Wharf, killing two personnel and bringing the death toll to 65.[1][2]

RAN response


As the scope of the disaster became known, the RAN began to assemble a task force under the command of Flag Officer Commanding Australian Fleet, Rear Admiral David Wells.[2] All personnel on annual leave were recalled; the vast majority responding before their ship sailed, while ships' companies were filled out by volunteers from shore bases and the ships unable to sail.[2] Hundreds of tons of relief stores were embarked for transport.[1]

The first RAN units to arrive in Darwin were two HS 748 aircraft from 851 Squadron RAN on 26 December; one carrying Red Cross members and blood transfusion equipment, the other transporting Clearance Diving Team 1 (CDT1).[2] That day, HMA Ships Balikpapan and Betano departed from Brisbane, Flinders sailed from Cairns, while Melbourne (with Rear Admiral Wells aboard), Brisbane, and Stuart left Sydney.[2] On 27 December, Hobart, Stalwart, Supply, and Vendetta left Sydney, while Brunei and Tarakan sailed from Brisbane.[2] The last ship, Wewak, left Brisbane on 2 January.[2] Between the 13 ships, 3,000 personnel were deployed on the operation.[2]

The survey ship Flinders and the destroyer Brisbane were the first ships to arrive in Darwin, on 31 December.[2] Flinders was tasked with surveying the harbour to work out the position of wrecks and the safest areas for the other RAN ships to anchor, while Brisbane established contact with the Emergency Services Organisation Committee running relief efforts in Darwin.[2] A further eight ships arrived between 1 and 4 January, and Brunei, Tarakan, and Wewak reached Darwin on 13 January.[2]

Four S-2 Tracker aircraft were placed on standby to fly to Darwin, but were later stood down.[2] It was also planned to send the British submarine HMS Odin, which was on loan to the RAN Submarine Squadron, for use as a power station, but there were no power adaption facilities in Darwin suitable for connecting Odin's two diesel generators to the electricity grid.[2]

Work performed

The initial RAN relief which was limited to search and rescue in the area of Darwin Harbour and Melville Island, which was hindered by the lack of reliable communications.[2]

As the ships of the task force arrived, naval working parties were assigned to clear the suburbs of Nightcliff, Rapid Creek, and Casuarina.[2] From 1 to 30 January, naval personnel spent 17,979-man days ashore, with up to 1,200 personnel ashore at any time.[2] They cleared and restored 1,593 properties, along with schools and government buildings, disposed of spoiled food, installed generators, and repaired electrical networks.[2] Other sailors were involved in more unusual jobs, some working parties were tasked with saving rare plants from the Darwin Botanic Gardens, while one sailor filled in at a radio station as a disc jockey.[2]

CDT1 inspected vessels in the harbour for damage, searched for sunken ships, and cleared the waters around the wharves at Stokes Hill and Fort Hill wharves.[2] After the main task force arrived, the divers focused on recovering the wrecked patrol boat Arrow.[2]

Nine Westland Wessex helicopters embarked aboard Melbourne and Stalwart transported 7,832 passengers and 110,912 kilograms (244,519 lb) of supplies.[2] The two HS 748s were used to shuttle supplies north and survivors south.[2] During their 14 return flights to Darwin, they carried 485 passengers and 22,680 kilograms (50,000 lb) of freight.[2] Some of the evacuees were temporarily housed in naval bases around Sydney and Brisbane.[2]


The RAN ships began a staggered withdrawal from 7 January.[2] Operation Navy Help Darwin was concluded on 30 January 1975, when command of the relief effort was handed over to the Commandant of the Australian Army's 7th Military District with Brisbane and Stalwart sailing for home the next day.[2]


Navy Help Darwin was the largest disaster relief operation ever undertaken by the RAN.[2]

During May and June 1975, the minehunters Curlew, Ibis, and Snipe undertook a detailed survey of Darwin Harbour to pinpoint all of the vessels sunk by the cyclone.[2]


  1. ^ a b c d Jones, in The Royal Australian Navy, p. 234
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae Sea Power Centre, Disaster Relief


  • Jones, Peter (2001). "Towards Self Reliance". In Stevens, David (ed.). The Royal Australian Navy. The Australian Centenary History of Defence (vol III). South Melbourne, VIC: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-555542-2. OCLC 50418095.
Journal articles

Further reading

725 Squadron RAN

725 Squadron is a naval aviation squadron of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) Fleet Air Arm. The squadron was originally created in August 1943 as part of the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy. It initially served as a fleet requirements unit, was rerolled in August 1945 as a target towing unit, then was disbanded in December 1945. In January 1958, the squadron was re-formed, as a fleet requirements and communications unit of the RAN, operating a variety of fixed-wing aircraft. The squadron was redesignated as an anti-submarine warfare training squadron in May 1959, then was decommissioned in May 1961 and absorbed into 724 Squadron. 725 Squadron was recommissioned in November 1962 as an operational anti-submarine helicopter squadron, flying the Westland Wessex. During this commission, the squadron was involved in HMAS Sydney's troop transport voyages, the rescue of personnel following the Melbourne-Voyager collision, and the Operation Navy Help Darwin relief effort post-Cyclone Tracy. The squadron was decommissioned in December 1975. 725 Squadron was commissioned for the fourth time in June 2015, this time as a training unit for MH-60R Seahawk Romeo helicopters: the squadron had been reactivated two years prior as a non-commissioned unit train on and accept into service the Romeos.

BRP Batak

BRP Batak (AT-299) is a Balikpapan-class heavy landing craft operated by the Philippine Navy. One of eight vessels built by Walkers Limited for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), the ship was commissioned into Australian service in 1973 as HMAS Tarakan (L 129) . During her RAN career, Tarakan (named after the Australian landing at Tarakan during World War II) was deployed post-Cyclone Tracy as part of Operation Navy Help Darwin, undertook various surveying operations, was placed in reserve between 1985 and 1988, relocated an overpopulation of Tridacna gigas clams, was part of the INTERFET peacekeeping taskforce, and participated in a Pacific Partnership humanitarian deployment.

Tarakan was decommissioned from Australian service in 2014. The ship was refurbished and donated to the Philippine Navy, commissioning as BRP Batak (named after the ethnic group of the same name) in 2015.

Balikpapan-class landing craft heavy

The Balikpapan class is a ship class of eight heavy landing craft (officially Landing Craft, Heavy or LCH). All eight were originally laid down by Walkers Limited for the Australian Army in the early 1970s. A reorganisation of watercraft responsibilities in the Australian military meant the landing craft were to be operated by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), with seven commissioned directly into RAN service during 1973 and 1974, and lead ship Balikpapan transferred from the army to the navy. During the leadup to the independence of Papua New Guinea in 1975, two of the vessels (Salamaua and Buna) were transferred to the new Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF).

During their careers, the Australian vessels have operated in support of Operation Navy Help Darwin in 1974–75, Operation Bel Isi from 1997 to 2003, INTERFET operations in 1999 and 2000, and RAMSI operations from 2003.

The six remaining RAN vessels were paid off in the 2010s: Balikpapan, Betano, and Wewak in 2012; Brunei, Labuan, and Tarakan in 2014. They are yet to be replaced in RAN service. As of 2013, the two PNGDF vessels were active, and in 2014, the former Labuan was transferred to Papua New Guinea as the training ship Lakekamu. Brunei and Tarakan were refitted and donated to the Philippine Navy in 2015, commissioning as Ivatan and Batak. Three additional units of the class - decommissioned units former HMAS Balikpapan, HMAS Wewak and HMAS Betano - were loaded on a transport ship in March 2016 for transport to the Philippine Navy.

Cyclone Tracy

Cyclone Tracy was a tropical cyclone that devastated the city of Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia from 24–26 December 1974. The storm was the second-smallest tropical cyclone on record (in terms of gale-force wind diameter), behind only Tropical Storm Marco in 2008.The small, developing easterly storm had been observed passing clear of the city initially, but then turned towards it early on 24 December. After 10:00 p.m. ACST, damage became severe, and wind gusts reached 217 kilometres per hour (134.84 mph) before instruments failed. Residents of Darwin were celebrating Christmas, and did not immediately acknowledge the emergency, partly because they had been alerted to an earlier cyclone (Selma) that passed west of the city. Additionally, news outlets had only a skeleton crew on duty over the holiday.

Tracy killed 71 people, caused A$837 million in damage (1974 dollars), or approximately A$6.85 billion (2018 dollars), or $4.79 billion 2018 USD. It destroyed more than 70 percent of Darwin's buildings, including 80 percent of houses. It left more than 25,000 out of the 47,000 inhabitants of the city homeless prior to landfall and required the evacuation of over 30,000 people, of whom many never returned. After the storm passed, the city was rebuilt using more stringent standards "to cyclone code".

Fleet Command (Australia)

Fleet Command is responsible for the command, operations, readiness, training and force generation of all ships, submarines, aircraft squadrons, diving teams, and shore establishments of the Royal Australian Navy. Fleet Command is headquartered at HMAS Kuttabul in Sydney, and is led by the Commander Australian Fleet (COMAUSFLT), also referred to as Fleet Commander Australia (FCAUST), which is a rear admiral (two-star) appointment.

The position of Commander Australian Fleet was established in 2007. The previous positions since 1913 were:

Rear Admiral Commanding HM Australian Fleet (1913–1926),

Rear Admiral Commanding HM Australian Squadron (1926–1949),

Flag Officer Commanding HM Australian Fleet (1949–1988, regularly abbreviated as FOCAF), and

Maritime Commander Australia (1988–2007 – MCAUST).(I)

HMAS Betano

HMAS Betano (L 133) was a Balikpapan-class heavy landing craft operated by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN).

HMAS Brisbane (D 41)

HMAS Brisbane (D 41) was one of three Perth-class guided missile destroyers to serve in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). The United States-designed ship was laid down at Bay City, Michigan in 1965, launched in 1966 and commissioned into the RAN in 1967. She is named after the city of Brisbane, Queensland.

During her career, Brisbane made two deployments to the Vietnam War, was involved in the post-Cyclone Tracy disaster relief operation Navy Help Darwin, and deployed to the Persian Gulf during the first Gulf War. Brisbane was decommissioned in 2001, and was sunk as a dive wreck off the Queensland coast in 2005.

HMAS Brunei

BRP Ivatan (AT-298) is a Balikpapan-class heavy landing craft operated by the Philippine Navy. One of eight vessels built by Walkers Limited for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), the ship was commissioned into Australian service in 1973 as HMAS Brunei (L 127). During her RAN career, Brunei (named after the amphibious landings at Brunei Bay during the World War II Battle of North Borneo) visited Lord Howe Island, was deployed post-Cyclone Tracy as part of Operation Navy Help Darwin, performed coastal surveys of northern Australia and Papua New Guinea, and served as part of the INTERFET peacekeeping taskforce.

Brunei was decommissioned from Australian service in 2014. The ship was refurbished and donated to the Philippine Navy, commissioning as BRP Ivatan (named after the Itavan ethnic group) in 2015.

HMAS Flinders (GS 312)

HMAS Flinders (GS 312/A 312), named for Matthew Flinders (1774–1814), was a hydrographic survey ship of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). Built by HMA Naval Dockyard at Williamstown, Victoria, Flinders was commissioned into the RAN in 1973, and was used to conduct hydrographic surveys in the waters to Australia's north, including parts of New Guinea. In 1974, the ship was tasked with assisting clean up efforts in the wake of Cyclone Tracy, which devastated large parts of Darwin. The ship was decommissioned in 1998 and sold to civilian operators, who have since converted her into a private yacht in the Cayman Islands.

HMAS Hobart (D 39)

HMAS Hobart (D 39) was a Perth class guided missile destroyer of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). Built in the United States of America to a slight variant of the United States Navy (USN) Charles F. Adams class, she was commissioned into the RAN in 1965. In March 1967, Hobart became the first RAN combat ship deployed to fight in the Vietnam War. This marked the start of consistent six-month deployments to the warzone, which continued until late 1971; Hobart was redeployed in 1969 and 1970. During the 1968 tour, the destroyer was attacked by a United States Air Force aircraft.

After the Vietnam War, Hobart saw service during Operation Navy Help Darwin; the RAN disaster relief effort following Cyclone Tracy, was the first RAN ship to dock at HMAS Stirling in Western Australia, and completed a round-the-world voyage in 1976. The ship was modernised during the late 1970s. Hobart was decommissioned in 2000, and sunk as a dive wreck off South Australia.

HMAS Melbourne (R21)

HMAS Melbourne (R21) was a Majestic-class light aircraft carrier of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). Operating from 1955 until 1982, she was the third and final conventional aircraft carrier to serve in the RAN. Melbourne was the only Commonwealth naval vessel to sink two friendly warships in peacetime collisions.The ship was laid down for the Royal Navy as the lead ship of the Majestic class in April 1943, and was launched as HMS Majestic (R77) in February 1945. At the end of World War II, work on the ship was suspended until she was purchased by the RAN in 1947. At the time of purchase, it was decided to incorporate new aircraft carrier technologies into the design, making Melbourne the third ship to be constructed with an angled flight deck. Delays in construction and integrating the enhancements meant that the carrier was not commissioned until 1955.

Melbourne never fired a shot in anger during her career, having only peripheral, non-combat roles in relation to the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation and the Vietnam War. She was, however, involved in two major collisions with allied vessels; though Melbourne was found not to be the primary cause of either incident. The first occurred on the evening of 10 February 1964, in which Melbourne rammed and sank the RAN destroyer HMAS Voyager, when the latter altered course across her bow. Eighty-two of Voyager's personnel were killed, and two Royal Commissions were held to investigate the incident. The second collision occurred in the early morning of 3 June 1969, when Melbourne also rammed the United States Navy (USN) destroyer USS Frank E. Evans in similar circumstances. Seventy-four American personnel died, and a joint USN–RAN Board of Inquiry was held. These incidents, along with several minor collisions, shipboard accidents, and aircraft losses, led to the reputation that Melbourne was jinxed.Melbourne was paid off from RAN service in 1982. A proposal to convert her for use as a floating casino failed, and a 1984 sale was cancelled, before she was sold for scrap in 1985 and towed to China for breaking. The scrapping was delayed so Melbourne could be studied by the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) as part of a secret project to develop a Chinese aircraft carrier and used to train PLAN aviators in carrier flight operations.

HMAS Stalwart (D 215)

HMAS Stalwart (A 215/D 215) was an Australian-designed and constructed Escort Maintenance ship of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). Commissioned on 9 February 1968 and decommissioned on 9 March 1990, Stalwart served as a destroyer tender, the RAN flagship, and a training vessel during her career. She was sold in 1993 for conversion into a short-range cruise ship, under the names MV Her Majesty M, then MV Tara II. The vessel did not enter civilian service before she was broken up for scrap in 2003.

HMAS Stuart (DE 48)

HMAS Stuart (F21/DE 48) was one of six River-class destroyer escorts built for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). The ship was laid down by the Cockatoo Docks and Engineering Company at Cockatoo Island Dockyard in 1959, and commissioned into the RAN in 1963.

During the ship's career, Stuart achieved a number of historical firsts: she was the first RAN ship to fly the Australian White Ensign, and the first major vessel to be homeported at Fleet Base West.

Stuart was paid off in 1991, a year later than originally planned; RAN commitments to the Gulf War saw several warships deployed to the Middle East, and Stuart was retained in service to boost local defence. The destroyer escort was sold for scrapping.

HMAS Supply (AO 195)

HMAS Supply (AO 195) was a Tide-class replenishment oiler of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) and the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). Originally named Tide Austral and intended to be the first ship of a post-World War II Royal Australian Fleet Auxiliary, manpower and financial shortages meant that when the Belfast-built ship was launched in 1955, she could not be accepted into Australian service. Instead, she was loaned to the RFA, operating RFA Tide Austral (A99). In August 1962, the ship was commissioned directly into the RAN, then renamed a month later to HMAS Supply. Supply operated as part of the RAN until her decommissioning at the end of 1985.

HMAS Vendetta (D08)

HMAS Vendetta was one of three Daring class destroyers built for and operated by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). The destroyer was built by Williamstown Naval Dockyard and entered service in 1958. During her early career, Vendetta was deployed to the Far East Strategic Reserve on multiple occasions. In 1965 and 1966, the destroyer undertook deterrence patrols during the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation. Along with several runs escorting the troop transport HMAS Sydney to Vietnam, from late 1969 to early 1970 Vendetta was assigned to combat operations, and became the only Australian-built warship to serve in a shore bombardment role during the Vietnam War.

The ship underwent a two-year modernisation from 1971 to 1973, and in December 1974 was one of thirteen RAN warships involved in Operation Navy Help Darwin after Cyclone Tracy devastated Darwin. Several more deployments were made to the Far East, up until 1978. In October 1979, the destroyer was decommissioned, and served as a parts hulk for sister ship HMAS Vampire. Vendetta was sold for ship breaking in January 1987.

HMAS Wewak

HMAS Wewak (L 130) was the fifth ship of the Balikpapan class of heavy landing craft operated by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN).

HMPNGS Lakekamu

HMPNGS Lakekamu is Balikpapan-class landing craft heavy (LCH) operated by the Maritime Operations Element of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF). The vessel was one of eight built for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in the 1970s, and was commissioned into the RAN as HMAS Labuan (L 128) in March 1973. Labuan was decommissioned in November 2014. She was transferred to the PNGDF for use as a training ship and was commissioned as HMPNGS Lakekamu in December 2014.

History of the Royal Australian Navy

The history of the Royal Australian Navy traces the development of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) from the colonisation of Australia by the British in 1788. Until 1859, vessels of the Royal Navy made frequent trips to the new colonies. In 1859, the Australia Squadron was formed as a separate squadron and remained in Australia until 1913. Until Federation, five of the six Australian colonies operated their own colonial naval force, which formed on 1 March 1901 the Australian Navy's (AN) Commonwealth Naval Force which received Royal patronage in July 1911 and was from that time referred to as Royal Australian Navy (RAN). On 4 October 1913 the new replacement fleet for the foundation fleet of 1901 steamed through Sydney Heads for the first time.

The Royal Australian Navy has seen action in every ocean of the world. It first saw action in World War I, in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans. Between the wars the RAN's fortunes shifted with the financial situation of Australia: it experienced great growth during the 1920s, but was forced to reduce its fleet and operations during the 1930s. Consequently, when it entered World War II, the RAN was smaller than it had been at the start of World War I. During the course of World War II, the RAN operated more than 350 fighting and support ships; a further 600 small civilian vessels were put into service as auxiliary patrol boats. (Contrary to some claims, however, the RAN was not the fifth-largest navy in the world at any point during World War II.)

Following World War II, the RAN saw action in Korea, Vietnam, and other smaller conflicts. Today, the RAN consists of a small but modern force, widely regarded as one of the most powerful forces in the Asia Pacific Region.

List of military operations involving Australia

This is an incomplete List of Australian military operations.

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