The rest of
the forenoon was taken up cleaning out the hangar ready for ‘Open to Visitors’-
shore leave in the afternoon, and numerous dances and parties in the evening.
The next day was Saturday, and there was feverish activity in the morning
getting everything ‘shipshape’ ready for our ‘Open to Visitors’ day on the
Sunday. The remaining aircraft were spotted on the flight deck to be shown to
their full advantage, and the hangar had a final clean up. There was the usual
exodus ashore in the afternoon and evening.
We got the same hearty welcome here in Melbourne as we did in Hobart. The Australian people were very patriotic as, at that time, Australia was still part of the British Empire. They were very proud of it, and wanted to know all the news from the ‘Mother Country’.
All public transport, cinemas and theatres were free to us. Information booths had been set up all along the dock area, where local residents left contact numbers inviting us to be their guests for the day. Some wanted to meet sailors from particular parts of the ‘Old Country’ etc. There were very tempting invitations to suit everybody, and we all made full use of this service. It was not a question of where to go or what to do, but which invitations to turn down.
We had car rides into the mountains and countryside, and parties galore. It is very difficult to try to explain the tremendous hospitality we received. Who said, “Join the Navy and see the world”? A couple of pre-arranged marriages also took place, the result of relationships from a previous visit, and they were allowed leave to spend a few days on honeymoon. Sunday 13th July was ‘Open to Visitors’ day. Huge crowds of many thousands formed queues all day long to come aboard. The local newspapers reported that a crowd of 67,000 people surged through the gates at Station Pier between 2pm and 5pm. Trains and buses running twice the normal service were jammed tight throughout the afternoon. We were allowed to escort anyone we liked on a tour of the ship, but we also had to keep an eye open for souvenir hunters. Obviously, all the beautiful Aussie girls had no problem finding an escort, and many ‘contacts’ were made for future dates. A tremendous interest was shown in our carrier and it’s Air Group. The Aussies seemed to like what they saw.
The parties continued the next day, and then on Tuesday 15th July we put to sea to carry out flying exercises in Port Phillip Bay. We had on board 50 high ranking Australian officers from all three Services, and numerous newspaper reporters and cameramen. We were all on our toes to show off Theseus and the 14th C.A.G. at their best. We received our aircraft that had been ashore at Point Cook and, with all guns loaded, carried out firing practice and close formation flying, showing off our, by now, famous ‘T’ formation. The day ended back in Melbourne, with our ‘guests’ very impressed with all that they had seen. It was back to partying next day. The morning was taken up clearing out and decorating the hangar in preparation for a Theseus cocktail party for 500 specially invited guests, which was to be held the following night - this turned out to be a huge success. The rest of the day was spent ashore with our many social engagements, and once more generally making merry.
The main feature of Friday 18th July was a huge ‘March Past’ through the streets of Melbourne, with 1,200 officers and men taking part. The route was packed with cheering crowds waving their flags. Streamers and confetti were thrown from balconies and high-rise buildings. Girls broke through the barriers to run out and kiss us as we marched by. Oh boy, did we lap it all up - we were their heroes! The Governor of Victoria took the salute, along with many dignitaries and high-ranking officers. The rest of the day and night was just as hectic as previous days and nights. How long could we keep this up?
With bleary eyes and aching bodies, the following morning was taken up with general maintenance, preparing all our available aircraft for another flying programme the following day. Today was to be our last run ashore in Melbourne so, in the afternoon, all ‘dressed to kill’, the last exodus went ashore determined to make the most of these last few hours of Heaven; and we did just that! Normally all shore leave ended at 0600.hrs the next morning, but on the last day in port leave ended at midnight.
Sunday the 20th July was the day that everything started to go wrong. Lower decks were cleared for ‘leaving harbour’. Traditionally we lined the deck of the ship as Theseus slipped her berth at 1000.hrs. The quayside was absolutely packed with thousands of spectators, singing to our Marine band, and waving their flags. It all became very emotional however; as we slowly moved off to the strains of ‘Auld Lang Syne’. There wasn’t a dry eye to be seen anywhere - something that I will never forget. Proceeding out into Port Phillip Bay, we received our aircraft from Point Cook, and by 1400 hrs we were ready to start our flying programme. Eight Fireflies took off to combine with nine Seafires for Group Formation and Carrier Drill. Sadly, whilst attempting to join up in formation, two Fireflies collided in mid air. The two aircraft PP 589 and TW 677 locked together and spun into the sea. Lt/Cdr. N.M. Hearle, our senior pilot, his observer, and 812 squadron’s senior observer Lt K. Sellars, together with the other pilot, Lt R. Walker and his TAG C.P.O. W. Lovatt, were all killed instantly.
The remainder of the aircraft carried on completing the exercises, but during the ‘land on’ Seafire SW 851 piloted by Lt J Morton ‘wrote off’ the Batsman’s screen and crashed into the crash barrier. The arrester hook struck A/B Timmons, aircraft handler, and decapitated him. As a result, the aircraft still airborne were told to land at Point Cook. Misfortune dogged us further as Firefly PP 485 swerved on landing at Point Cook, and with unserviceable brakes, was unable to prevent a ground loop, which ‘wrote off’ the aircraft. - A very tragic day indeed.