Incident 15th NRL
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This is not an awarded battle honour, but a tragic training incident. It is included to mark the contribution to the defence of Australia by all members of the nation's armed forces who train constantly for the next time they will be called on, in some cases risking their lives on a daily basis.
The annual camp of the 15th Northern Rivers Lancers, in March 1954, was marred by disaster in Stockton Bight. On the weekend 6/7 March vehicles and stores were made ready for a move of the Regiment by water from Wave Trap Beach near Camp Shortland to the Mungo Brush area. Start time was 02:00 on Monday, 8 March. The Government Bureau had given a forecast of good conditions and on time, with the DUKW. of the CO, Lieutenant Colonel J. A. James, leading, headed out to open sea in line ahead - a convoy of 21 vehicles comprising, seven DUKWs., eight LVT(a)4s, five LVT4s and an RAE (Royal Australian Engineers). workboat. Within three quarters of an hour there was an unpredicted and dramatic change in the weather conditions; the wind altered direction and force and whipped up a monstrous sea. As wireless sets became drenched control became very difficult and the vehicles were running into trouble. By daylight, according to Captain V.J.T. Sharpe, the convoy had become scattered, several vehicles had sunk and their crews had been rescued by the crews of other vehicles; while attempting to land through mountainous surf more vehicles founded. The CO's. DUKW. sank while towing Corporal Hole's L.V.T.(a)4. There were many acts of gallantry and self-sacrifice as unit members strove to rescue their comrades, aided by the Stockton Surf Club. Some vehicles attempted to land through terrific breakers about six miles up the Bight and there three lives were lost - Corporal N. Moran and Trooper N. Mornement of A Squadron and Private R. Blackie of 16th Company RAASC (Royal Australian Army Service Corps); it was there that Sergeant D.G. McHattic entered the raging surf four times to rescue others. The vehicles lost by foundering were five LVT(a)4s, one LVT4 and two DUKWs.
Arrangements were made to move the unit into Gan Gan Camp, where wing training on a revised syllabus was commenced the next day. The Regiment's efficiency and morale had been sternly tested by the Stockton Bight disaster. Among early visitors to its lines were the GOC Eastern Command, Lieutenant General E. A. Woodward, CB, CBE., DSO, and the Commander Ist Armoured Brigade, Brigadier K.M.H. Arnott, DSO. The GOC later said, "he had rarely seen a unit with such high morale after such a disaster and certainly never before in peacetime".
Private Blackie's body was still missing. On Wednesday, 10 March, there was a regimental parade for the funeral with full military honours of the other two deceased. The service was held in Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle, following which the Regiment, mounted (LVTs & DUKWs), accompanied the two hearses to Sandgate Cemetery.
In April 1955 the Regiment was gratified to learn that awards for gallantry on that fateful day, 8 March 1954, had been gazetted, namely - to Temporary Sergeant Donald Gordon McHattie, the George Medal; to Temporary Corporal Ronald Jack Bowditch, the British Empire Medal; to Private Desmond Herbert Burns, a Queen's Commendation for Brave Conduct. The following are extracts from the citations..
Sergeant McHattie displayed outstanding leadership and courage in organising the rescue of his crew. Later, when the vehicle that had rescued his crew sank in the surf, he assisted four members of the troop ashore. Disregarding the high seas and knowing of the prevalence of sharks in the area, Sergeant McHattie returned through the heavy surf and remained in the water for thirty minutes assisting five other members of the troop to the beach. His complete disregard for his own safety and exemplary conduct was an inspiration to all, and an uplifting influence to the morale of the whole Regiment.
Corporal Bowditch, on seeing the crew commander of one of the foundered vehicles in the water, unhesitatingly seized an inflatable life jacket and, disregarding the advice of a local police constable that it was impossible to reach the man, and being aware that the constable, a strong surf swimmer, had failed, forced his way through the surf to the man. On reaching the man he supported him and assisted a lifesaver, with belt and line, to get him ashore. His complete disregard for his own safety and dash were an inspiration to all members on the exercise.
Private Burns, 16th Company, RAASC (Amphibious General Transport) displayed outstanding leadership and courage by immediately assisting members to the shore. On reaching the shore he took charge, directing and assisting ia the rescue of other members still in the sea and the application of artificial resuscitation to personnel suffering from severe immersion. Due largely to his leadership and control the lives of at least three members of the Company were saved.
PV Vernon Royal New South Wales Lancers 1885 –1985 Parramatta 1985
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