(Mobile Naval Air Base)
WARWICK FARM 05.10.45 10.10.45 Race Course Temp Huts Hume Hwy. SYDNEY
Commanding Officers WARWICK FARM Capt SALTER J.S 05.10.45 10.10.45
NB: - Unit was named HMS Nabrock
OF MONAB 9
by Bill Rees (ex RAF)
My name is William James Rees and during WW ll I served with the Royal Air Force as a sergeant Fitter llA.
Most of my service was spent with Bomber Command, particularly with 192 Squadron, 100 (Bomber Support) Group, a specialised unit engaged in electronic warfare - gathering intelligence and jamming enemy signals.
Prior to that I spent a short period of time at R.A.F Station, Henlow, assembling Hawker Hurricanes for transport by aircraft carrier to Russia and Malta. In addition I worked on the same type of aircraft modifying them for use on merchant vessels.
My squadron undertook its last operation of the war on the night of 2nd May 1945, so you can imagine my horror a few days later when I was told that I was to be sent on attachment to the Fleet Air Arm and that I was to report to RNAS, Lee-on-Solent the next day. At that time RAF personnel were being transferred to the FAA so I spent the next week travelling back and fore several times between Lee and Locking under the powers-that-be's impression that I was a transferee. Eventually this was all sorted out when it was confirmed that I was actually on attachment. In no time at all I was on the move once more, this time to Middle Wallop. I was given a draft chit and told that I was to replace another RAF sergeant of the same trade who had been taken ill, and I would be joining a mysterious unit known as 9 MONAB. I could get no information at all about the unit or its function, but the person handing me the draft chit gave me a knowing look - later on I got to know what that look meant.
Next day I reported to the guardroom at Middle Wallop and it was as if I had entered another world, that of a comic opera. I saw masses of sailors but these were like no other sailors I had ever seen before as they were all dressed in army khaki, complete with boots and gaiters but still wearing their normal fronts and caps. I was given no further information but, as it was late, was given a billet for the night and told to report again next morning. I reported as ordered and was directed to the Unit's office where, at last, I received some scraps of information for which I had been searching for days. From what I can recollect after all this time, the Unit's mysterious title of MONAB became Mobile Operational Naval Air Base Number 9, later designated HMS Nabrock, and its function was exactly as its name implied. I gathered that the unit was to join Tiger Force in preparation for the invasion of Japan, and that it would be moving to Sydney, Australia to pick up landing craft and to undertake any further training which may be required for the task ahead. It then dawned on me why the sergeant I had replaced had gone off sick. I had survived nearly six years of war unscathed, and the thought of what was to come made me a little queasy to say the least. I was directed to the stores where I was issued with an army khaki battle-dress, boots, gaiters, army webbing, a hammock with its nettles and two white blankets. I was told, by whom I do not know, that the theory behind the organisation of Monabs was somewhat similar to that of the American Navy's "Seebees", but differed in application. Whereas the Seebees were primarily concerned with the construction and defence of airfields, that of Monabs was to secure airfields and then to service and maintain incoming aircraft until their normal maintenance crews arrived. I had landed in another entity where even the day-to-day service jargon was different and was told that, because I was a very late arrival, I would have to fit in the best way I could, relying on my RAF training and experience. Later on I found this to be very easy, possibly because the Unit was a new and relatively small one and the personnel, like myself, were strangers to on another and we were, in fact, all in the same "boat".
Middle Wallop was a hive of activity as movement orders had already been received and the Unit's personnel were busily transferring vehicles, equipment and other stores to Prince's Dock, Liverpool, to be loaded onto two vessels- the Dominion Monarch and another ship whose name I cannot recall. Within days we were all on the move travelling via the Mid-Wales railway line to Liverpool - this was a bonus for me as we were going through my home territory, a good way to leave the UK. On arrival at Liverpool Docks, the Unit, some 500 officers and other ranks, including about fifty Royal Marines, and three RAF sergeants boarded the Dominion Monarch. We were privileged to have another contingent aboard - recently released Maori POW's, who had been taken prisoner on Crete, with their escort of New Zealand nurses who were to accompany them back home. The other vessel, loaded with our vehicles and other equipment, including most of our weapons, had already left port and was heading for Australia via the Panama Canal. We though that we were to travel the same way but, lo and behold, we were destined to go the other way - through the Suez Canal
Suddenly, the whole tone of the "expedition" now changed completely for the war with Japan was over - thank God for the Bomb. The possible threat to life and limb was over and a much happier adventure faced us as we sailed out of the Mersey. Heading eastwards the trip took on another aspect, that of a cruise, and as we made our way through the Med life became very pleasurable indeed - this was certainly the way to end one's wartime service. There were very few duties to be performed so time was mainly spent talking and playing two games that were traditional and firm favourites with the Navy - Tombola (bingo) and the ever faithful Uckers (ludo to the uninitiated). But this was ludo as I had never seen it played before. This was no child's game because it required great skill and cunning and during the course of the next few weeks I saw many a matelot, including burly three badge stokers, fight over a move on the board - also losing a fortnight's pay along the way. This was also the time and place when firm friendships were formed and where you found your oppos for the remainder of your tour of duty with the unit. When we crossed the Equator the whole of the ship's company assembled for the traditional crossing the Line Ceremony, complete with King Neptune and his barbers. As the ship approached the Southern Hemisphere we were to experience a frightening but, at the same time, exciting occurrence. Travelling eastwards and southwards the weather became warmer and, because of the claustrophobic conditions below, I used to sleep on the weather deck. One night the violent movement of the ship awakened me and by the time I was fully conscious I began to realise that the sea was passing before my eyes. To say the least of it I was scared. Apparently the ship had hit the tail end of a typhoon and had turned side on to a violent sea causing massive waves to break over it -awesome.
Eventually the Dominion Monarch reached New Zealand, briefly calling at Lyttleton and finally docking at Wellington. A massive flag-waving crowd, accompanied by a military band, was waiting at the quayside to meet the ship, and we learnt later that the Prime Minister of New Zealand, as well as other dignitaries, was also there. We all thought what a welcome. We should have realised that the gathering was there to welcome home the returning Maori heroes, and although it was their day we were also made to feel welcome. It was Sunday and as was traditional at that time in New Zealand everything in the city was closed. The Prime Minister (I believe his name was Fraser) declared that places of entertainment, including the pubs, should be opened up and he invited us to be guests of the city with everything laid on. Imagine my surprise when I got into a taxi to be addressed by the driver in Welsh. We all spent a wonderful evening being treated like royalty throughout the short time we spent in that beautiful city. The ship set sail early next morning bound for Sydney
I shall never forget my feelings when we entered the Heads leading into Sydney harbour, it was a sight that took your breath away. We docked at Dalgety's Wharf, just below the Bridge near to Central Quay, and not too far away from the city centre. We were to use the ship as a hotel for the next few weeks and it was to prove the happiest and probably one of the most enjoyable times I have ever spent in my life. With no duties to perform, only a skeleton watch was kept aboard ship whilst the rest of the personnel spent their time ashore. It was paradise as the people treated us wonderfully with warmth and respect - after leaving war-torn Britain behind we were now in heaven. It was all over far too soon. The unit was disembarked and transferred to another ship, the Largs Bay that was to transport us to Singapore. I understand that we were intended for another destination, but I cannot vouch as to the truth of that.
It seems that trouble had broken out in Indonesia and rebels, under the leadership of Sukarno, were harassing the Dutch who had asked the Allies for help. As part of that help, Monab 9 was to be sent to either Java or Sumatra. If this story was true then providence was still on our side for the ship ferrying our vehicles, and particularly our weapons, was still somewhere in the Pacific so we were diverted to Singapore instead. I have always wondered whether this story was true or not. I have a sneaking feeling that it might have been so for not many of the members of the Unit would have even heard of either Java or Sumatra, or even known of their location.
After the "luxury" of the Dominion Monarch the Largs Bay was a bit of a let down - she was much smaller and older and not very clean, with living quarters that were extremely cramped. My undying memory of that ship was the fact that it was infested with bugs and lice and that everyone on board had to be deloused several times during the voyage. We cursed the previous occupants all the way to Singapore. Unfortunately, I was accommodated in the after hold situated just above the propeller shaft and, because of that, the journey along the Great Barrier Reef became a nightmare. We were blessed with a following sea that constantly lifted the propeller out of the water, causing the whole ship, particularly the after end, to vibrate violently. It was most uncomfortable, depriving us of sleep at night, and this was to continue until we turned westward towards Darwin. The ship made a brief stop at Darwin where it anchored in the bay, and we were allowed to go ashore. It was extremely hot and the whole place looked like the back-of- beyond - a real Wild West shantytown - with the harbour showing the results of previous Japanese air raids. We spent the night looking at films in a cinema that consisted solely of four corrugated iron walls with no roof - quite a change from the Odeon, but a pleasure be away from the ship. We set sail once more, I believe it was the next day, and headed for Singapore. The rest our journey was uneventful and we reached our final destination some nine weeks after leaving the UK.
I cannot recall where the ship actually docked in Singapore, but I am almost certain that it must have been at the naval dockyard because the vessel made its way through the Straits of Jahore, passing Seletar on its port side, before tying up. We made our way to the old RAF airfield at Sembawang which, with its new title of HMS Simbang, was to become our future home base. The whole place was in a sorry state of affairs with rundown buildings and the jungle trying hard to reclaim the destitute site. Amongst it all was a large charred area. This was the site of the huts that had once housed the British POW's, and when our captain had seen the appalling conditions under which our fellow countrymen had been confined, coupled to the terrible stench emanating from them, he immediately gave orders for them to be burnt to the ground. It was now time t o find somewhere to live. My four companions, and myself, found a long empty native style hut with a thatched roof, which had been built on concrete stilts and surrounded by monsoon drains. It was very long made up of several very large rooms and, being built off the ground, it allowed the air to circulate in order to keep the building cool. Although filthy dirty it was ideal for our purposes, so we purloined it and grabbed the best end room for ourselves - in time the basha would house most of the Petty Officers belonging to the unit. How were we to keep it clean? We were fortunate for we found a Malayan who had worked for the RAF before the war and who was now willing to come to work for us. His conditions were that we paid him a small wage, fed him and allowed him to sleep on the veranda of the basha - he turned out to be a Godsend.
It was now time for the ship's company to get down to serious work, and try to restore some semblance of order to the existing shambles. To help us in this arduous task was a vast army of Japanese POWs, which was divided into work gangs of approximately 50 to 100 men, each complete with one of their own officers. I was given one of these gangs with a rating to assist me - surprise, surprise we were both unarmed - and then allocated the task of trying to defeat the jungle and win back a large tract of land near the living quarters. A further shock awaited me for all one hundred turned up armed with machetes. Later, I was told that I need not have worried needlessly about being unarmed because once the Emperor had given the order to surrender his troops would become very passive and compliant. All very well in hindsight, but at the time I did not feel too comfortable. I also learned that the POWs lived on a site within the camp boundaries with neither fence nor guards. No one tried to escape because it would have been futile to do so as the local population would have been only too willing to deal with them. I was rather more fortunate than most other gang overseers were inasmuch as the officer assigned to me had lived in London before the war and could speak impeccable English. This was to prove invaluable because all instructions could be passed on immediately and acted upon promptly. All over the camp scores of similar gangs were busy at work repairing the runway and road, moving enemy aircraft that had been painted white for their surrender, and generally cleaning up the ravages of war. With time the place started to look reasonably tidy and fairly presentable, so it was time for me to move on.
All of my service life with the RAF had been spent hands on with aircraft, but it seems the Royal Navy had other ideas concerning my future. I was made NCO i/c Station Workshops, a task about which I hadn't got a clue - it was a case of a square peg in a round hole. Anyway, being young at the time, I would try anything once. I did, and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
The camp's ablutions had been sadly neglected for
years and were in a terrible state of affairs so the first task for the Workshop
was to get these up and running properly. The staff was a very motley bunch
indeed consisting of RN personnel, Malayan tradesmen and a large number of
Japanese skilled workers. By this time our equipment had arrived so we were in a
better position than we had been before, but it did not include any plumbing
material, particularly piping. We had to resort to using anything round and
hollow, and instead of jointing them we welded them together - quite unorthodox
but very effective. Thank God for the fact that the British serviceman was a
passed master at the art of improvisation - we had all been doing it throughout
the war in order to survive.
We found and renovated, as best we could, all the old baths, toilets and hand wash basins that had been discarded all over the camp and put them back into their original places in the ablution blocks - we even made roses so that we could have the pleasure of showers. Sembawang, a peacetime RAF station, boasted a wonderful swimming pool, a luxury by any standard, but this was in a terribly neglected condition with it water pumps and other mechanical bits and pieces missing. Luckily, amongst our gear were massive mobile water pumps complete with all the necessary ancillary equipment. It did not take much persuading to get the senior officer's permission for us to use one of these to get the pool back into working order. The pump was physically manhandled over a small hillock and put in position alongside the pool which, by this time, had been cleaned out and was speck and span. An independent water supply was found hosepipes run out and connected to the pump and filters and the whole thing was ready for business. We started up the engine. It all worked perfectly, but it took quite a long time for the pool to fill and, as far as I can remember, it was ready for use before Christmas 1946. In everyone's opinion it proved to be an invaluable asset, and possibly the best addition to the station's amenities. Talking of that Christmas, I seem to remember that it was about the best that I had ever spent during those service days. Probably with all the wartime anxieties now well behind us, the good food and ample amounts of alcohol may have helped.
Life had not been all hard graft, for we spent may happy hours on "runs ashore", particularly to the city of Singapore visiting the Happy World and New World. These were indeed other times and other places, and for the majority of us it was the first occasion that we had actually met the Orient face-to-face outside the confines of the camp. We also spent time visiting the Malayan peninsular north of Johore, and from such visits gleaned a little knowledge of what life must have been like surviving in the actual jungle.
My time with No.9 Monab was drawing to a close for the RAF was recalling all its war service only personnel back to the UK for demobilisation. During February 1946, I do not remember the exact date I left HMS Simbag and boarded the Monarch of Bermuda in Singapore harbour. I was homeward bound, but I was leaving with some mixed feelings, for the unit I had joined so reluctantly some months ago had turned out to be an experience I would never have missed for worlds - a time of great memories and great comradeship. En route to the UK the ship made two stops, one at Bombay, India and the other at Colombo, Ceylon, picking up female personnel from all three services, many of who were in urgent need of maternity care. The remainder of the trip home was uneventful and the ship arrived back at Liverpool to tie up at Prince's Dock, the very place we had sailed from at the start of our odyssey.
At last I was home and alone with orders to report to RNAS, Lee-on-Solent - I was back to where I had started. I reported to the RAF Orderly Room at Lee and was told to hand in all my kit - I was now back in Air Force blue. Exactly eleven months after joining the Fleet Air Arm I was once more on the move, this time in charge of a party of RAF personnel destined for RAF Station, Cardington, for demobilisation. Cardington was something of a sausage machine, you went in one end of the massive old airship hangar as a RAF sergeant and came out the other end as a civilian with a brown cardboard box under your arm containing your demob clothing. I was lost.
I stood outside the gates at Cardington, my service life over, wondering what was going to happen to me and what would the world have in store for me. I need not have worried for at 84 years of age I look back and think what a wonderful life I have had and what great memories belong to me. Thank God, not many can boast of that.
Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm in Australia during WW2
I would like to thank Dennis Whiley for his assistance with the above information. I'd like to thank John Rees for asking his father Bill Rees (ex RAF) to write his recollections of 9 Monab.
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© Peter Dunn 2015
This page first produced 7 January 2001
This page last updated 17 January 2020