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Robert "John" Dowey

Robert "John" Dowey

Sub-Lieutenant, Royal Australian Navy

"I can look back on the war for its personal positive aspects to offset its traumas and dislocations - it's teaching me how to command and be responsible for others."


Watch our interview with John Dowey

From mild-mannered bank clerk to navy patrol boat officer - for many Australians, World War II was full of these kinds of stories. Robert Dowey, or John, as most people referred to him, had a very clear vision of how he could contribute to the war effort even if there were a few detours along the way.

He'd already enjoyed a rapid rise within the bank where he worked (as senior clerks left to join the sevices, he was promoted from the lowly junior who emptied the wastepaper basket, to senior ledger clerk.)  And while his preference was for the Navy, he was conscripted in 1941 at 18 into the Army, and trained with an Artillery Unit at Ingleburn, Sydney.

Black and white portrait of a young man in military uniform

John Dowey during the Second World War

John had put his name down for the Navy separately and finally in 1942 he was called up for the Royal Australian Navy senior service, which had recruitment priority over the Army. "I found myself one day in the Army and the next day on a train to Melbourne to HMAS Cerberus, enlisted as an Ordinary Seaman." After months of basic training, John was selected for Officers training school and graduated as a Midshipman. He notes that as a 19 year old he "was still technically a child, unable to go into licenced premises or make a will."

He was assigned to one of a number of RAN patrol boats that protected Australian waters during the war. He joined a crew of 17 as one of three Officers onboard HMAS ML 814, a Fairmile patrol vessel. "It was in Darwin and I remember joining it on a night in late September 1943 at 8 PM when the tide was out. And I had my first experience of climbing down and down the ladder at main wharf jetty to get to it because it was a seven or eight metre tide."

His role was keeping watches and general duties. The biggest danger then were the raids on Darwin but otherwise ML814 served various purposes around northern Australia, including guarding Darwin harbour and escorting ships across the Arafura Sea.  There was little call for John's training in areas like anti-submarine warfare. Instead, the Officers had to improvise as they were given unusual missions in conveying secret commando units into enemy waters.

An ongoing risk to the ship and its crew stemmed from ML814 itself. It was a wooden craft with an engine that ran not on diesel but high-octane petrol. The crew was constantly conscious of the possibility of fire, especially in the event of an attack. More worrying, the fuel tanks were positioned on the other side of the 'bulkhead' or wall that separated it from the 'wardroom', the Officers' mess.

ML814 was sent on a top secret mission to land Commandos on what was then Timor. It was January 1944 and Japan had control of the island. Australian intelligence agencies had coordinated the operation.

"It was a tragedy. We landed the party as directed, but they were captured by the Japanese within two hours, I think. And some of them were executed and the others were taken prisoner."

Black and white photo showing a group of smiling shirtless men

John Dowey (middle, far right) and his crew

The crew were tight knit and John says, "They were some of the most memorable characters." His last Commanding Officer was Bill Marley who had managed to bring his gunboat back to port across the English Channel after the bow was blown off. This entailed navigating the boat stern first while still under attack, saving the ship and its crew.

On the day they received the news of the Japanese surrender, the crew's attention was focused on a more localised problem.

"We were halfway across the Gulf of Carpentaria and had just dealt with a fire in the galley which is not a nice thing to have on a wooden ship with 2000 gallons of petrol onboard. We received a signal from naval headquarters: 'Cease all warlike operations.' We had no such operation in mind at the time."

John and the crew hadn't fully understood what had been happening in the wider world until they reached Thursday Island the following day. Celebrations were then kept in check until their arrival in Cooktown a couple of days later when they took themselves to the only open hotel in town and soon consumed their last keg of beer. Almost as if a reward, the crew continued their journey south along the east coast of Australia but at a leisurely pace. "We had a lovely passage down the Barrier Reef, which was absolutely deserted, coral islands just completely uninhabited, peaceful and delightful, the trip of a lifetime."

Eventually they berthed ML814 at HMAS Rushcutter, the Fairmile base in Sydney where the ship was paid into reserve. Normal civilian life was resuming but John found it hard to adjust. "I did not sleep properly. I had been used to the morning watch, which starts at 4:00 AM, and was not the household routine that I had to become used to."

Sub-Lieutenant Dowey acknowledges he was fortunate to survive the war and suffer no disabling injury, even after experiencing a plane crash returning to Darwin on a civilian Qantas flight.

"I can look back on the war for its personal positive aspects to offset its traumas and dislocations - its teaching me how to command and be responsible for others; for its enrichment of my knowledge of the sea; of my navigation skills; and my experience of my homeland; its vastness and its dramatic beauty."  

He is also thankful for the marvellous people he met during those years and the friendships that developed and enriched all of their lives over subsequent decades.

Colour portrait photo of an elderly man sitting in his living room

John Dowey today