NAVY NEWS, JUNE 20102
● HMAS Otway, an unexpected attraction in land-locked Holbrook
A BRITISH submariner who won the first naval Victoria Cross in the Great War has a unique link with a remote Australian farming town, as former Hampshire journalist
Stuart Gardiner, who now
the days of World War 1 Holbrook was called Germanton, on account of the German farmers in the area. “Germanton was hardly
right sort of name to have at that time, and the council was looking around for a new name. “Then this fellow sank a Turkish
battleship. It was all over the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald, and we thought he would do.” And that’s more or less the way it happened.
Holbrook – which sits astride the Hume Highway, Australia’s busiest arterial road – is rich farming land, with wool, cattle and wheat predominant. The town was founded in the early 1830s by an Irishman, John Purtell, who called it Ten Mile Creek, being ten miles from Father Therry’s Yarra Yarra stockyard. In the mid-19th century an
ex-farmer of German descent took over the Woolpack Inn – now the Woolpack Museum – Holbrook’s first pub. Ten Mile Creek became known
seat of Germanton (now Holbrook) Shire, current population 5,800. And that was still its name on December 13 1914 when, on the other side of the globe, Lt
In 1906 it became the county
dusty streets of Holbrook.
He stayed there overnight and, while taking a stroll through the park, came across a memorial stone commemorating the name of Lt Norman Holbrook, after whom the town is named. At the time he did not recognise the link with his home city of Portsmouth; that came later when he read in a history of Portsmouth Grammar School the exploits of one of the school’s most famous sons – in 1914 Lt Holbrook scraped his tiny submarine along the bottom of the Dardanelles to sink a Turkish battleship. Connection made, writes Stuart, I phoned the Woolsack Museum, High Street, Holbrook, and read to the curator, Joan Taylor, the extract devoted to Holbrook from the school history. “Yes, that’s the fellow,” she said. “But what,” I asked, “has he got to do with Australia? He’s English, and from Portsmouth.” Joan agreed: “You see, back in
when he drove through the in Sydney, discovered
Holbrook, in the primitive B11, carried out one of the most daring submarine raids of the Great War, winning the first naval VC in the war and the first by a submariner. Even by World War 1 standards
suggest a sense of relief when on April 15 1915 the little town became Holbrook. Two
and treacherous channel at the entrance to the Dardanelles, avoided five minefields to penetrate the Turkish defences and torpedoed and sank the battleship Mesudiye.
forts and torpedo boats damaged B11 and destroyed her compass, so Holbrook dived and, for nine hours – in a craft designed to remain submerged for a maximum of two – scraped to safety along the bed of the Dardanelles. He received the VC and the
Legion of Honour, his First Lieutenant, Lt Sydney Winn, the Distinguished Service Order, and every other member of the crew the Distinguished Service Medal. Back in Germanton pressure
was mounting for a change of name – anti-German sentiment was rising and German immigrants were interned.
“This name [Germanton] is especially distasteful owing to the hideous atrocities perpetuated by German soldiers in Belgium,” said a local editorial.
The name Livingstone was considered but rejected as were, for various reasons, Murdock, Lyne, Nardoo, Donaldson, Jergile, and Lonsdale, Briton, Freedom and Arnett.
Council minutes for the period On her retreat, gunfire from
B11 was old and small. She was launched in 1906, displaced 313 tons submerged, at 43 metres was around two cricket pitches long, had a submerged speed of eight knots and a complement of 15. Holbrook navigated the deep
celebrated the occasion. Germanton, says one, “tells of
brutal Huns, of deeds of shame that Germans moved by hate have done.
name/ This loyal town shall henceforth bear, For thus have we wiped out the
shame/ That assailed too long a place so fair.”
The second was equally fulsome:
whether Norman Holbrook was consulted, but the man himself first visited Australia in 1956 to see an old shipmate in Victoria, and the two decided to visit Holbrook. “When he arrived the commander didn’t say a word,” said local historian Les Taylor, who was present at the time. “It was his mate who told us ‘By
the way, this is the fellow you’ve named your town after.’ “He impressed everyone with his modesty and the town made him a celebrity,” he added Holbrook visited the town again in 1969 and 1975, and died at the age of 88 in 1976. On
Gundula, presented to the town his sword, medals and other
“Oh name of warrior bold, We hail thee with joy For Germanton is cold And Holbrook is the boy. “Goodbye to a name that smells Through deed doubly ignoble And ring in with bells The name of one so noble. “Flash the good news out Send it to the Dardanelles: For there our boys will shout ‘Germanton has gone to hell’.”
Council records are silent on
“No need to blush that Holbrook’s
unnamed local poets mementos.
so scrupulously and devotedly maintained as that of Holbrook. His picture hangs in the council chamber alongside those of mayors, opposite that of the Queen. In the Holbrook Memorial Park his figure, in heroic pose and sculpted in metal, stands at a memorial to the town’s pioneers, and nearby is a 1:7 scale model of the B11. Petrol
motels carry his portrait and framed newspaper clippings from the Dardanelles incident. A second set of medal replicas hangs beneath his photograph in the returned soldiers club. Such dedication is both nostalgic sentiment and a marketing device, for Holbrook faces an uncertain future.
stations, shops and
council’s safe and displayed only on special occasions, while the sword, restored by the Australian War Museum, hangs in the Woolpack Museum below a replica set of medals. No war hero’s memory has been
The medals are locked in the
business community) point to the decline of other small towns when bypasses have been built. The citizens of Holbrook, therefore, have recognised that they need a theme – something unique to attract tourists. It is not the first time the
town will have had to rise to the occasion. In 1986, notwithstanding the
The population is declining, albeit slowly, as the result of increasing rural mechanisation, low commodity prices and unreliable weather patterns. Massive trucks roll through the long main street 24 hours a day on their way to Sydney and Melbourne.
drivers and ‘drive/revive’ tourists – provide much of the town’s retail trade. A bypass is planned, but its
his widow, The through traffic – truck
construction is dividing the community – those in favour argue that the new road will reduce noise and make Holbrook a safer and more attractive town; those against (including most of the
fact that the nearest coast is 400 km away, Holbrook declared itself ‘Submarine Capital of Australia’ and presented ‘Freedom of Entry’ to the Sydney-based Royal Australian Navy Submarine Squadron. High-powered naval delegations visited the town, to the delight of hoteliers, but in 1992 the link came to an end when the submarine squadron was relocated to Perth. As a parting gift, the Navy sent
the town the fin of HMAS Otway, an Oberon-class submarine. What followed is testimony to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of a small country town facing an economic crisis.
The council heard that Otway
was in mothballs and waiting to be scrapped, so it promptly thanked the navy for the fin and asked for the rest of the boat. The navy was astonished. It had
never before been asked to take a 2,500-ton submarine inland. But if Holbrook could raise the cash and solve the logistics... Finance was the biggest stumbling block – with its tiny rates base, the town simply could not afford the estimated start-up cost of Aus $70,000. For months the Otway Project remained a pipedream – but it was saved by an extraordinary gesture. Out of the blue came a gift of
generically as the German’s Town, hence from around 1860, Germanton.
Aus $100,000 from Holbrook’s widow Gundula. At Garden Island, the Sydney
naval base, Otway was made ready, cut into pieces and transported by low loader – with suitable pomp, ceremony and police escort
460km along the Hume Highway. At Holbrook it was reassembled with the assistance of a team of trainees from a government employment programme. Today HMAS Otway, all 90 metres of her, complete and still slightly discoloured from her naval service, sits majestically in a park opposite Holbrook Memorial Gardens, just off the main road, on the right as you drive south – the most bizarre and unlikely town symbol in rural Australia. We have come the full circle. The sinking of a Turkish
battleship some 90 years ago set in train a series of events which now serves – in a very real sense – to keep high street businesses alive. In Holbrook, the town’s name
may yet create the means of its salvation.
Holbrook scarcely rolls off the tongue in the same way as some magnificent Aboriginal names. Within 100km of Holbrook one will find dots on a map called Mullengandra, Tintaldra, Yarrara, Walbundrie and Courabyra. In fact one Aboriginal name
was put forward. A letter to the Germanton Courier in 1915 suggested – not entirely in jest – Thug-wug-mungyel-bignyel, meaning something like “land of jumping waters”. Mapmakers and post office staff
everywhere surely breathed a sigh of relief that the city fathers chose Holbrook instead.
ROGER Cooper did his submarine training at HMS Dolphin in 1970, and attended the Tot Funeral there.
He spent his last four years in the Royal Australian Navy serving in HMAS Otway, but probably never expected to find himself living 400km from the sea with his old boat at the end of his street. Roger is now Curator of the Holbrook Submarine Museum in
Wallace Street, and is delighted to welcome visitors to the town. For further details on Holbrook and the surrounding area, see
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