Rear Admiral Rothesay Swan AO CBE RAN is one of Australia’s most accomplished naval officers entering the force in 1940 and retiring in 1983 after 43 years of service, the last five years as Rear Admiral. Not bad for a country boy who grew up hundreds of kilometres from the sea in Orange, Gulgong and Corowa in the state’s Central West.
“My Dad, Lenoy Arabim Swan, was a school headmaster, but we used to go to Bondi every year for our school holidays and we would visit the Domain and I was always fascinated by the naval ships in the cove,” he recalls. “I used to sketch the ships and we would visit them when they were open to the public. So I was always interested in the Navy from a young age.
“My father told all the boys in my class the war would go on for at least four years or longer and that we would all be expected to join the defence forces so why not make the first move and enlist so we were trained professionals by the time we were deployed.”
Ross was one of 1,000 school students to apply for the Royal Australian Navy College in Victoria.
“I was one of only 21 boys to secure a place at the college. It was an extremely competitive process you had to sit exams and pass a stringent medical before they considered you,” he recalls. “Academically, the Navy trained you to university standard. The idea was to make men out of boys. They wanted men who would end up being leaders in the Defence Force.
“Bullying wasn’t invented back then, of course, but my initiation involved me having to push a toothbrush around the quadrangle with my nose while someone flicked my backside with a towel! It was definitely tough, but I developed the attitude that if they can do it, so can I!”
During training, he learnt about seamanship, engineering, navigation, gunnery, as well as general subjects such as maths, science and French. At graduation he was awarded the Otto Albert Memorial Prize for Seamanship and on 1 September 1943 he became a Midshipman.
His first ship was the heavy cruiser HMAS Shropshire which saw action at Cape Gloucester, the Admiralty Islands and Hollandia. He then undertook four months service in the destroyer HMAS Arunta and was present during operations at Biak.
He returned to Shropshire in September 1944 and was present at Leyte Gulf, Surigao Straits and Lingayen Gulf actions in 1944-45.
“The Shropshire was one of the biggest ships in the fleet, it had about 600 crew onboard,” he explains.
“As a trainee you were still learning the ropes. At college we learnt the theory, but on the boat we got the practical experience. So you would spend months on rotation in supply, engineering, gunnery or navigation learning how every part of the ship operated.
“Life wasn’t all that dynamic or strenuous until we got to the Philippines in 1944. There the ship withstood 150 air attacks. They came at you from high and low levels, there were torpedo and kamikaze attacks, a lot of near misses.
“Some of them came so close the ship would disappear in spouts of water and the ship would be covered from top to bottom in water.
“I was in charge of tracking low level aircraft coming in to attack the ship. Our eight inch guns would fire a barrage of shots to put them off. It was very exciting. The attacks continued until February 1945.”
Ross was also on the bridge of the ship during the surface battle in Suriago – the last big battle between Navy ships during World War II.
“That’s where I learnt that if you heard the whine of the shells you knew they had already gone over the top of you, it was the ones you didn’t hear that you had to worry about,” Ross recalls.
“We were action stations 80 per cent of the time. My bunk was normally the steel deck with a life jacket as a pillow. You didn’t get a lot of sleep … you ate where you worked. They would bring around buckets of stew and dish it out.
“It was all very thrilling for a young lad. But there is no doubt about it, I am very lucky. You never knew from one moment to the next if you would be alive the next day. But it’s what you’re trained for.
“However, there was comfort in knowing you weren’t alone, that you were part of a big family of men, mostly under the age of 40, all sharing the same experiences. The Captain would speak to everyone onboard every day to boost morale and the Chaplain would say daily prayers.
“I learnt a lot during the war that set me up for the rest of my career taking command of naval ships.”
Ross had been dispatched to the United Kingdom for his Sub Lieutenant’s training course when Victory in Europe was declared.
“I was in Portsmouth and I remember everyone went mad, yelling and screaming and partying in the streets. It was a very exciting two or three days of celebrating,” he remembers.
On completion, he was appointed to the Royal Navy base HMS St Angelo at Malta. In December 1945, he became navigator on the minesweeper HMS Octavia which operated in Tunisian waters and the central Mediterranean in 1946 clearing World War II mines from the sea.
“The sea was littered with German mines to prevent ships from entering bays and harbours. They were moored to the bottom of the sea by a wire with the mine sitting just below the surface. They would detonate when a ship hit it, destroying the vessel. I spent 12 months on the Corvette. It was a dangerous mission so you were on edge all the time. We would cut the wire and the mine would float to the top and we would fire at it to blow it up.”
After that, Ross took part in border patrol off the Middle East capturing ships bringing Jewish people from Europe into Palestine.
From there his career went from strength to strength.
He was promoted to Lieutenant in 1947 and served on the light cruiser HMAS Hobart and the sloop HMAS Swan until 1949. He qualified as a communications officer at the Royal Navy Signal School in England and served on the staff of the Commander in Chief of the Home Fleet in the early 50s.
He was promoted to Lieutenant Commander in 1955 and in 1959 he became the Fleet Communications Officer on the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne. In 1960, he was posted as the Executive Officer of the destroyer HMAS Voyager during which time the ship conducted a number of deployments to South East Asia. Later that year he was elevated to Commander.
In late 1963, he was the Commanding Officer of the frigate HMAS Derwent overseeing construction and her commissioning in April 1964. During his time in command of the ship, until mid-1965, it was deployed to Southeast Asia and was involved in active service during the Indonesian Confrontation.
He was elevated to Captain at the end of 1966 and in April 1969, Ross became the Commanding Officer of the destroyer HMAS Hobart which served with the American 7th Fleet on operational duties Vietnamese waters for six months, conducting naval gunfire support missions.
“We weren’t under attack. We had arrived when things had quietened down but our job was to provide fire power at night to give the Army a rest,” Ross says.
“The ship was about two to eight miles off the coast. Each ship was allocated a section of the coast to patrol in support of the Army so we were more or less operating by ourselves. Every three or four days the Americans would come by and provide fuel and ammunition.
“The main challenge as a Commanding Officer is morale because you have to remember every time the ship fires a gun it shakes so hard you can’t sleep. So a lot of the crew were sleep deprived.
“I just had to keep them busy so they didn’t have time to think about life back home.”
After returning to Australia, he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1971 – the same year he was appointed Commodore. In 1977 he was in charge of the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne which took part in the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee celebrations in England.
The following year he was promoted to Rear Admiral and posted as the Director-General of the Natural Disasters Organisation and Controller of Establishments in the Department of Defence. In 1982 he awarded Officer in the Order of Australia.
He retired from the Royal Australian Navy in 1983 and the following year became the Director of Tall Ships to help organise the Bicentennial celebrations around Australia.
Reflecting on his time in the Navy, particularly his contributions to the war efforts he says it is “hard to believe what I did.”
“There were many very difficult moments but I was determined to succeed. You had to grit your teeth and get on with it.
“There were many of my colleagues on other naval vessels who didn’t come home. I just had to tell myself ‘if that person survives, I will survive.’
“As a result of the war, I became deeply interested and involved in the training of recruits. It’s the thing I miss most about the Navy, leading young people and bringing the best out of them.”