Saturday, July 18, 2020

History on the Hume: Holbrook, the submarine town

Gundula Holbrook from a 1921 painting
Gundula Holbrook: I was born in Austria m the widow of the late Commander Norman Holbrook VC, the man after whom this Town of Holbrook was named. He was not an Australian, but an officer in Britain's Royal Navy.

You may not find that curious today so many of Australia's beautiful cities and towns are named after British people and places: Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, and many more - all have British origins. Most were named after senior bureaucrats, Lords, Governors and even a Queen - Britain's Queen Adelaide.

So, how did an ordinary Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, a submariner commanding an obsolete boat, get to have an Australian inland town named in his honour? The story beggars belief, as we say back home, and probably here as well.

But here I am, standing in the middle of an array of submarine artefacts in the town of Holbrook. I know little about the purpose of these objects in a submariner's life-but I wish to tell you how Holbrook became known as the Submarine Town,

Originally known as Ten Mile Creek, this regular stopping point for mail coaches boasted a single building, The Woolpack Inn, which offered accommodation to Travellers. In 1889 the Inn was granted a Retail of Spirits licence, and in the following year the licence was transferred to a German sheep specialist by the name of Johan Pabst spelt PA_B_S_T.

Having been born in Austria, the name Pabst is easy for me, but the locals found it difficult to pronounce. So, the area surrounding the Woolpack Inn soon became known as John the Germans: The Germans or simply German's Flat. However, the Post Office, which opened in 1858, described its location as Ten Mile Creek, as did the school that opened a decade later

To say that this little town had a very large identity crisis would not be an exaggeration

Finally, in 1876 the name of Germanton was officially gazetted, harking back to the roots of John the Germans and Johan Pabst. (Pronounced Pahbst). The town's identity was finally resolved and everyone in the town knew where they lived and worked. It was Germanton - and would remain comfortably so in perpetuity-or so they thought.

In 1914 war was declared between Britain and Germany, which meant that Australia was also at war. Even before Britain declared war on Germany, and following a series of aggressive events by Britain toward the Ottoman Empire, Turkey blockaded the Dardanelles, that narrow strait east of the Gallipoli Peninsula. This is a map of the Dardanelles, a drawing I found in the Holbrook Submarine Museum. It's a narrow strait in northwestern Turkey, which links the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara.

By December 1914, as you would know. World War One was well under way. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, believed the capture of the Dardanelles to be strategically important, and he proposed using the Royal Navy and its allies to force the strait using a mix of surface ships and submarines

The Dardanelles was heavily defended by the Turks my husband told me there were big guns and mortars all the way up on both sides of the strait, and there were nine moored rows of mines. And searchlights swept the narrow channel from dusk to dawn

Portrait of Commander Norman Holbrook VC
The antiquated submarine B11, commanded by my husband, Lieutenant Norman Holbrook, was ordered to go up the strait as far as possible, and sink any enemy ships it found

Although the mines laid in the Dardanelles were designed. I believe, to sink surface ships, they were also very dangerous for a submarine if one of its hydroplanes, the things that made it go up and down snagged a mooring wire.

So B11 was modified, tubular steel guards were fitted around the hydroplanes plus wires from the front and back to the highest point on the conning tower thing. These were designed to push aside the wires mooring the mines.

At 4.15 on the morning of 13 December 1914, my husband and his crew of 15 aboard B11 left their depot ship, the Hindu Kush, which was home to them. They lived there when they weren't operating the small B11. Anyway, B11 headed for the Dardanelles, some three miles away. I think that's somewhere around 5 kms: I haven't really got used to these new measurements you people use. Norman was only 26 years old at the time, very young I believe, to be the commanding officer of a submarine.

Approaching the Dardanelles, Norman waited for the Turkish searchlights to be switched off, which they regularly were at dawn. He then had his petrol motor switched off and headed silently into the strait on his battery-powered electric motors, which submarines used when submerged. As the sun rose over the eastern horizon he gave the order to dive, but soon found the boat vibrating unnaturally

He surfaced again and had B11 checked the hydroplanes' guard at the front of the boat had worked loose. Instead of returning to his depot ship. Norman could be a stubborn man; he had his men get rid of the guard, and he then submerged again.

B11 was now vulnerable - its forward hydroplanes could snag a mine's mooring cable and drag the mine down onto the submarine where it could explode; likely killing all on board.

He was not a foolhardy man, but I think he calculated the odds and proceeded with caution: determined to get through.

By 8.30 that morning, B11 was approaching the Kephez minefield, a short time later my husband ordered the boat to dive to 25 metres and began a slow, measured journey

They were sailing blind, but could hear the ominous sound of mine cables scraping along the sides of the boat

An hour later, he made the risky decision to rise to periscope depth because he needed to see just where he was. They had crossed safely through five rows of mines.

B11's periscope swept the area and found what Norman was taking for - an enemy ship. She was an old Turkish battleship, the Mesudiye, course to overtake and guard the minefield. It was a tempting target.

Norman dived the B11 but was caught by the current and swept into Sari Siglar Bay, the very bay where Mesudiye was anchored. Returning to periscope depth, he found he was in a near-perfect attack position. Following a minor change of course, he gave the order to fire.

The torpedo streaked through the water toward the battleship, and struck the rear end.

Mesudiye began to settle in the water and then every gun on board began firing at B11 whose periscope wake gave its position away.

The little submarine's battery power was failing due to the extended time it was forced to remain submerged. Norman reduced speed to conserve power, but as he did so the stern of B11 hit the bottom. By the time trim had been restored, the Mesudiye was enveloped in smoke and within 10 minutes it capsized.

Shore batteries were firing at the submarine as my husband tried to find his escape course, but the compass mounted outside the hull had been destroyed, leaving him no way of knowing the direction in which he was heading,

He ordered a dive to 15 metres and his boat again struck the bottom as he searched for an exit from Sari Siglar Bay. He had to push his weakening electric motors to full power, the boat lifted, only to strike the bottom again. And then he noticed light streaming in through the glass portholes of the control room. The conning tower was obviously out of the water and an easy target for the shore guns.

Shells were exploding all around, and B11 was still scraping along the bottom as Norman spent the next 10 minutes searching for deeper water, which would hopefully provide a hiding place and provide him with a course to the open Aegean Sea, and his depot ship.

He eventually found deeper water submerged to periscope depth, made for the mid channel and swung the boat for home. But the exit from the Dardanelles was almost 26 kilometres away and the batteries of B11 were practically exhausted.

Norman out the boat's speed to a minimum and allowed the surface current to push the boat towards the Aegean - but there were still the rows of mines to negotiate With no compass, he had no option but to steer B11 at periscope depth through the Kephez minefield. Once clear of the minefield the submarine remained submerged for the next 16 kilometres to avoid detection by the shore batteries and patrolling torpedo boats guarding the entrance to the strait.

Once clear of the five rows of mines and out of danger, my husband ordered rum to be issued to the crew. Norman's summary of his mission in a note to his parents was both light-hearted and modest. He closed it with Good affectionate and careful son, Norman He was totally sur heaped upon him and his crew. The French Commander Admiral Cardinal, which read: Please accept my warm co deed of submarine B11 But greater recognition was yet to come your ever e that was message to for the glorious

Just nine days after entering the Dardanelles, Lieutenant Norman Douglas Holbrook my husband, became the first submariner to be awarded Britain's highest decoration for valour, The Victoria Cross. His second-in-command was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the other members of the crew received either the Distinguished Service Cross or the Distinguished Service Medal depending on their rank In addition, Norman was also awarded the French Insignia of Chevalier of the Legion of Honour

Meanwhile, back here in Germanton, a different battle continued to rage, the battle to change the name of the town

Some 12 names were being considered, and the name Marton, the birthplace of Captain James Cook, was unanimously approved. However, the Lands Department refused to accept that name as there was already a Marton near Cooktown in Queensland.

By April 1915, when all of Australia's thoughts were centred on the diggers in Gallipoli I believe the choice of a name for Germanton had been narrowed down to four possible alternatives Asquith - Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1908 Jellicoe - Admiral - Commander of the British Grand Fleet Kitchener - Field Marshal-War hero and Secretary of State for War Holbrook-Lieutenant Royal Navy. The first submariner to win the Victoria Cross

On the 20 of September 1915, John Taylor, Shire Clerk of Holbrook Shire Council wrote to Norman Holbrook VC, my husband advising him of the re-naming of the town. It road in part in memory of the valiant deeds done by you in the Dardanelles I think that was probably the proudest day in Norman's life to be recognised by a small community on the other side of the world.

Norman and I made our first visit to Holbrook in 1956, just over 40 years after the town was named in his honour. We were so well received and made so welcome. I think might even have seen a tear in his eye.

I think the two of us belonged here, but it was never to be sadly. Our home and family were in England


 Holbrook is nowhere near an ocean, but from that day in 1915 when it chose to rename the town in honour of a courageous submariner, Lieutenant Norman Holbrook, VC it has been inextricably linked with submarines and submariners. And it became known as the Submarine town.

On Anzac Day, 25 April, 1986, Holbrook granted Freedom of Entry to the Australian Submarine Squadron, which developed into an association between the town and the Squadron that lasted until 1999, when the submarine base was moved from Sydney to HMAS Stirling in Western Australia.

in 1994 the Oberon class submarine, HMAS OTWAY was decommissioned and offered for sale by tender. The boat was sold to Sims Metal for scrapping. The Holbrook Submarine Project Committee contacted Sims and outlined a plan to display the above waterline part of the boat in the town. Sims generously agreed to sell, for scrap value as much of the boat as they wanted.

And so began the arduous and expensive task of breaking the OTWAY down in Garden Island, Sydney, transporting the many sections by road to Holbrook, and rebuilding it in a park. By the time the boat was ready to be rebuilt the project had run out of money,

When Gundula Holbrook learned that the project had stalled, she wrote a generous personal cheque, and sent it with a short note, saying simply. 1 hope this is sufficient to complete the project.

That cheque with her signature on it galvanised the community. It not only took the project to completion, but also demonstrated that this small inland town had not simply borrowed a name, but that it was a true member of the proud Holbrook family.

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