|Date||10 February 1964|
|Place||Jervis Bay, Australia|
• HMAS Melbourne (R21)|
• HMAS Voyager (D04)
|Cause||Navigational error resulting in collision|
• HMAS Voyager sunk|
• 14 officers, 67 sailors, and 1 civilian aboard Voyager killed
• HMAS Melbourne damaged
The Melbourne–Voyager collision, also referred to as the "Melbourne–Voyager incident" or simply the "Voyager incident", was a collision between two warships of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN); the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne (R21) and the destroyer HMAS Voyager (D04). On the evening of 10 February 1964, the two ships were performing manoeuvres off Jervis Bay, when Voyager sailed under Melbourne's bow. She was cut in two and sunk, and 82 of her crew killed.
Two Royal Commissions were held to investigate the incident. The first studied the circumstances of the collision, while the second focused on claims by a former Voyager senior officer that the destroyer's captain was unfit for command. It is the only time in Australian history that two Royal Commissions have been held for a single incident.
HMAS Melbourne was the lead ship of the Majestic class of aircraft carriers. She was laid down for the Royal Navy on 15 April 1943 at Vickers-Armstrongs' Naval Construction Yard in Barrow-in-Furness, England, and launched on 28 February 1945. Work was suspended at the end of World War II, and did not resume until the Australian government purchased her and sister ship HMAS Sydney in 1947. Melbourne was heavily upgraded in order to operate jet aircraft, and became only the third aircraft carrier in the world to be constructed with an angled flight deck. The carrier was commissioned into the RAN on 28 October 1955.
The carrier was 701 feet 5 inches (213.79 m) long, had a displacement of 15,740 tons, and could reach a speed of 24 knots (44 km/h; 28 mph). The carrier's air group consisted of de Havilland Sea Venom fighter-bombers, Fairey Gannet anti-submarine strike aircraft, and Westland Wessex helicopters. Melbourne underwent her annual refit from 16 September 1963 to 20 January 1964, with command handed over to Captain John Robertson in early January.
HMAS Voyager was the first of three Australian-built Daring class destroyers. The first all-welded ship built in Australia, Voyager was laid down by Cockatoo Island Dockyard in Sydney on 10 October 1949, launched on 1 May 1952, and commissioned into the RAN on 12 February 1957.
At 390 feet (120 m) in length, Voyager displaced 2,800 tons (standard), and had a maximum speed of 34.75 knots (64.36 km/h; 39.99 mph). After returning to Australia in August 1963, after a deployment to the Far East Strategic Reserve, Voyager was sent to Williamstown Naval Dockyard for refitting. Captain Duncan Stevens was appointed commanding officer at the end of that year. The refit was completed in late January, 1964.
Voyager and Melbourne were both sent to Jervis Bay for post-refit trials, with the two ships arriving on 9 February. During the day of 10 February the ships operated independently, or exercised with the British submarine HMS Tabard. That evening, while 20 miles SE of Jervis Bay, Melbourne was performing night flying exercises, while Voyager was acting as the carrier's plane guard escort. This required Voyager to maintain a position astern of and to port of Melbourne at a distance of 1,500 to 2,000 yards (1,400 to 1,800 m; 4,500 to 6,000 ft).
During the early part of the evening, Voyager had no difficulties maintaining her position during the manoeuvres both ships performed. During a series of manoeuvres beginning at 8:40 pm, which were intended to reverse the courses of both ships onto a northward heading of 020°, Voyager ended up to starboard of Melbourne. 020° was the intended heading for flight operations, and at 8:52 pm, Voyager was ordered to resume the plane guard station. The procedure to accomplish this required Voyager to turn away from Melbourne in a large circle, cross the carrier's stern, then advance along Melbourne's port side. Instead, Voyager first turned to starboard, away from Melbourne, then turned to port without warning. It was initially assumed by Melbourne’s bridge crew that Voyager was "fishtailing", conducting a series of zig-zag turns in order to shed momentum before swinging behind Melbourne, but Voyager did not alter course again.
At 8:55 pm, with Voyager still turning to port, Melbourne's Navigation Officer ordered the carrier's engines to half speed astern, which Captain Robertson increased to full astern a few seconds later. At the same time, Stevens gave the order "Full ahead both engines. Hard a-starboard." before instructing the destroyer's Quartermaster to announce that a collision was imminent. Both ships' measures were too late to avoid a collision; Melbourne struck Voyager at 8:56 pm.
Melbourne impacted just aft of Voyager's bridge structure; the destroyer rolled to starboard before she was cut in half. Voyager’s forward boiler exploded, briefly starting a fire in the open bow of the carrier before it was extinguished by seawater. The destroyer's forward section sank quickly, due to the weight of the two 4.5-inch gun turrets. The aft section did not begin sinking until half an hour after the collision, and did not completely submerge until just after midnight. Messages were sent to the Fleet Headquarters in Sydney immediately after the collision, although they initially underestimated the extent of the damage to Voyager. Melbourne launched her boats almost immediately after the collision to recover survivors, and the carrier's wardroom and C Hangar were prepared for casualties.
At 9:58 pm, Melbourne was informed that five minesweepers (HMA Ships Snipe, Teal, Hawk, Ibis, and Curlew), two search-and-rescue (SAR) boats from HMAS Creswell (Air Nymph and Air Sprite), and helicopters from Naval Air Station Nowra, had been dispatched. Arriving just before 10:00 pm, Air Nymph collected 34 survivors and attempted to transfer them to Melbourne, but after swells pushed the boat up under the carrier's flight deck and damaged two communications aerials, the SAR boat was sent back to Creswell to offload. Another 36 were collected by Air Sprite and transported ashore. Once offloaded, the two SAR boats rejoined the search effort: although all survivors were located within fifteen minutes and rescued, searches continued until well into 11 February.
From the 314 personnel aboard Voyager at the time of the collision, 14 officers, 67 sailors, and 1 civilian dockyard worker were killed, including Stevens and all but one of the bridge crew.
Repairs and replacement
Melbourne returned to Sydney with the survivors, and was docked at Cockatoo Island Dockyard for repairs to her bow, which were completed by May 1964. She remained in service with the RAN until 1982, and was sold for scrap to China in 1985.
Following the collision, both the United Kingdom and the United States of America offered to loan ships to the RAN as a replacement; the Royal Navy offering Daring class destroyer HMS Duchess, while the United States Navy offered two Fletcher class destroyers: USS The Sullivans and USS Twining. Duchess was accepted and modernised, and as she was only intended to be in RAN service for four years (although she was later sold to the RAN and served until 1977), the RAN ordered the construction of two improved Australian River class destroyer escorts (British Type 12 frigates), based on the Leander-class frigate design. Swan and Torrens entered service in 1970 and 1971 respectively.
First Royal Commission
Although a naval Board of Inquiry was suggested by senior RAN officers as the best way to investigate the incident, a series of incidents and accidents during the 1950s and early 1960s had left the general public with a mistrust of navy-run investigations, and Prime Minister Robert Menzies made it clear that an inquiry supervised by a federal judge would be the only acceptable route: anything else would be seen as a cover up. Regulations for such an externally supervised inquiry were supposed to have been drafted following an explosion aboard HMAS Tarakan in 1950, but were never enacted, and Menzies' only option was to call for a Royal Commission. The Commission, to be headed by Sir John Spicer, was announced by Menzies on 13 February 1964. This commission was directed primarily to investigate the immediate causes of the collision, and the circumstances which led up to it. Secondary considerations included the suitability of both ships for the exercise, and the rescue and treatment of survivors. These instructions were prepared without the consultation of the RAN. The number of competing arguments caused the progress of the investigation to be slow, and it was not until 25 June that the inquiry was ended and the report begun. The Spicer Report was released publicly on 26 August 1964.
The report was considered to be of poor quality, as it had a disjointed narrative and repeatedly failed to cite the relevant evidence. In it, Spicer concluded that the collision was primarily the fault of Voyager's bridge crew, in that they neglected to maintain an effective lookout and lost awareness of the carrier's location, although he did not blame individual officers. When reporting on the contribution of Melbourne and those aboard her to the collision, Spicer specifically indicated failures of Robertson and two other bridge officers, as they did not alert Voyager to the danger she was in, and appeared to not take measures to prevent Melbourne from colliding. Robertson was marked for transfer to HMAS Watson, a training base in Sydney, and the admirals of the RAN decided to prevent Robertson from serving on Melbourne or any other seagoing vessel in the future. Robertson submitted his resignation from the Navy on 10 September 1964, two days after receiving official notice of his new posting. The media considered that Robertson had been made a scapegoat for the incident.
Second Royal Commission
Over the next few years there was increasing pressure from the public, the media, and politicians of the Government and Opposition over the handling of the first Royal Commission, as well as claims made by Lieutenant Commander Peter Cabban, the former executive officer of Voyager, that Captain Stevens frequently drank to excess and was unfit for command. On 18 May 1967, Prime Minister Harold Holt announced a second Royal Commission into the Melbourne-Voyager collision, with Sir Stanley Burbury, The Hon. Mr Justice Kenneth Asprey, and The Hon. Mr Justice George Lucas as presiding Commissioners investigating the claims made by Cabban. It was the only time in Australian history that two Royal Commissions have been held on the same incident, although it was emphasised that the second enquiry was to focus on Cabban's allegations, not the accident itself. The commission opened on 13 June 1967, and hearings commenced on 18 July.
A post-mortem conducted on Stevens' body showed a blood alcohol level of 0.025%, though the significance of this figure was challenged by expert witnesses. It was argued that Stevens was unfit for command on the evening of the incident due to illness, drunkenness, or a combination of the two, and that the description of the collision in Spicer's report and the conclusions drawn from it were inconsistent with events. The hearings lasted 85 days, and the Burbury Report was released publicly on 25 February 1968. It found that Stevens was medically unfit for command, and that some of the findings of the first Royal Commission were therefore based on incorrect assumptions. Explicitly it found, 'beyond doubt that any suggestion that his faculties or judgement were in any way impaired by alcohol at the time of the collision is positively excluded'. Robertson and the other officers of Melbourne were absolved of blame for the incident.
On condition of anonymity, a doctor informed the first Royal Commission that he had been confidentially prescribing amphetamine sulphate to Captain Stevens prior to the collision. This was a legal drug at the time and was carried in RAN ships' medical lockers. Navy Minister Don Chipp has suggested this as an explanation for the contradictory impressions created in the minds of witnesses who reported on Captain Stevens' apparent state of health and demeanour prior to the collision. This evidence was not made public until after both enquiries were completed.
While the inattentiveness of the lookouts and bridge crew were a contributing factor to the collision, the exact cause has been difficult to determine, because all but one sailor from the bridge of Voyager were killed. In the immediate aftermath of the collision, there were thought to be five possible causes:
- communications between the two vessels did not reflect the ships' intentions,
- those aboard Voyager had an incorrect idea of where they were in relation to Melbourne,
- the sea room required for the destroyer to manoeuvre was miscalculated,
- the level of training aboard one or both ships was deficient, or
- an equipment failure occurred aboard one or both ships.
The equipment failure, inadequate training, and miscalculated sea room theories were disproven by the two Royal Commissions, leaving the suggestion that either a communication error aboard one of the ships caused Voyager to manoeuvre in an undesired manner, or the officers aboard Voyager were incorrectly aware of their vessel's position in relation to the much larger aircraft carrier.
Naval historian and ex-RAN officer Tom Frame, who studied the collision for his doctoral thesis, believes that the main cause of the collision was an error in communications: specifically that the instruction to turn to 020° then assume the plane guard station was garbled on receipt by Voyager. The signal was "Foxtrot Corpen 020 22", meaning that Melbourne was about to commence flying operations on a heading of 020°, at a speed of 22 knots (41 km/h; 25 mph), and that Voyager was to assume the plane guard station. While the first Royal Commission considered the likelihood that the code phrase "foxtrot corpen" was reversed to become "corpen foxtrot" (an order to turn onto the given course), Frame states that it was more likely that the numbers given for the course were misheard or confused with other numbers in the signal as a turn to the south-west (various possibilities offered by Frame would have indicated a turn to the south-west instead of the north-east, with an incorrect heading between 200° and 220°, or of 270°), or that this happened in conjunction with the code phrase error. Former RAN Commodore David Ferry disagrees with Frame's conclusions, claiming that the coincidence of two errors in the same signal was unlikely, and that either error would be sufficient cause for Stevens or the other officers to query the signal.
The idea that those aboard Voyager incorrectly assessed their position in relation to the carrier was most prominently supported by Robertson during the first commission: he suggested that Stevens and the others aboard the destroyer may have believed that they were on Melbourne's port bow. The navigational lights aboard Melbourne may have been dimmed (there is disagreement on this point), and experimental red floodlights on the flight deck may have been seen and misinterpreted as a port-side navigation light. The second Royal Commission felt that this, combined with the ill health of Stevens, was the more likely cause of the collision. Frame states that for this theory to be plausible, the entire bridge crew had to lose the tactical picture at the same time, which he considered to be too improbable. Ferry is also of the opinion that, unless Melbourne was both in Voyager's radar blind spot and obscured by exhaust from the destroyer, it was unlikely that the bridge crew would think they were not to starboard of the carrier.
Ferry favours the opinion that Voyager misjudged the manoeuvring room she had. He claims that the destroyer knew where she was in relation to Melbourne and that the turn to starboard then reversal to port was intended to be a "fishtail" maneuver. Voyager was to swing out wide of the carrier, then turn back towards her, cross the stern and assume her position without having to do a loop. However, insufficient time was allowed for Voyager to get clear of Melbourne before turning back to port, so instead of passing behind Melbourne, the destroyer passed in front. Ferry's theory eliminates the need for a double error in the communications signals, and the need for all on the destroyer's bridge to have such a vastly incorrect assumption of where Voyager was in relation to the carrier.
Following the events, changes were made within the RAN to prevent a similar event occurring. Procedures for challenging a ship that was manoeuvring dangerously or had transmitted an unclear manoeuvring signal were created. Rules for escort vessels operating with Melbourne were compiled (which, among other instructions, banned escorts from sailing within 2,000 yards (1,800 m) of the carrier unless specifically instructed to, and stated that any manoeuvres around Melbourne were to commence with a turn away from the carrier), and were distributed to any ship sailing in concert with the carrier, including those of foreign navies.
Families of those killed in the sinking of Voyager attempted to claim compensation for their losses, while survivors tried to make claims for post-traumatic stress and similar ailments. During the 1990s, sailors from Melbourne began to make similar legal claims. Both groups were met with heavy legal opposition from the Australian government, with Commonwealth representatives contending that those making claims were opportunistically trying to blame a single incident for a range of life problems and had fabricated or embellished their symptoms, or were otherwise making not credible claims. As recently as May 2008, 35 cases were still in progress; two from dependants of Voyager sailors lost in the collision, the remainder from Melbourne sailors. A further 50 cases were closed in 2007 following mediation. Some cases had been open for more than ten years, costing the government millions of dollars a year in legal costs. The last case was closed in July 2009.
- Melbourne-Evans collision – the second major collision involving HMAS Melbourne
- List of disasters in Australia by death toll
- USS Hobson (DD-464) and USS Wasp (CV-18) for a similar aircraft carrier and destroyer collision situation
- Sea Power Centre, HMAS Melbourne (II)
- Hobbs, HMAS Melbourne (II) – 25 Years On, p. 5
- Hobbs, HMAS Melbourne (II) – 25 Years On, p. 6
- Frame, Where Fate Calls, pgs. 8, 10
- Sea Power Centre, HMAS Voyager (II)
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, p. 11
- Ferry, What caused the Voyager collision?, p. 5
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, p. 12
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, p. 13
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, pp. 14–5
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, p. 1
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, p. 2
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, pgs. 3, 7
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, p. 5
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, p. 4
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, pp. 5–6
- McNicoll, Forgotten saviours
- Hall, HMAS Melbourne, p. 131
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, p. 21
- Hobbs, HMAS Melbourne (II) – 25 Years On, p. 9
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, pp. 21–2
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, p. 22
- Frame, Where Fate Calls, pp. 43–5
- Frame, Where Fate Calls, pp. 44–6
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, p. 27
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, pgs. 53, 64
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, p. 67
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, p. 68
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, p. 69
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, pp. 67–8
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, p. 78
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, p. 79
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, p. 82
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, p. 88
- Cooper, in Stevens, The Royal Australian Navy, p. 202
- Frame, 2005, A Cruel Legacy, pp. 114–5
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, p. 117
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, p. 117-8
- Frame, Where Fate Calls, p. 256
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, pp. 144–5
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, pgs. 149, 157
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, pp. 159–60
- Ferry, What caused the Voyager collision?, p. 12
- Burbury et al, Royal Commission of Inquiry Into a Statement of Lieutenant-Commander Cabban...(1968), p139
- Frame, A Cruel Legacy, p. 160
- Chipp & Larkin, The Third Man,[page needed]
- Frame, Where Fate Calls, pp. 265–6
- Frame, Where Fate Calls, p. 265
- Frame, Where Fate Calls, p. 310
- Frame, Where Fate Calls, pgs. x–ix, 310
- Frame, Where Fate Calls, pp. 310–1
- Frame, Where Fate Calls, pp. 313–21
- Oxenbould, The Sinking of HMAS Voyager, p. 106
- Ferry, What caused the Voyager collision?, p. 7
- Ferry, What caused the Voyager collision?, p. 8
- Frame, Where Fate Calls, pp. 310–13
- Frame, Where Fate Calls, pp. 311–2
- Ferry, What caused the Voyager collision?, pp. 8–9
- Oxenbould, The Sinking of HMAS Voyager, pp. 105–6
- Frame, Where Fate Calls, p. 312
- Ferry, What caused the Voyager collision?, pp. 9–10
- Ferry, What caused the Voyager collision?, pp. 10–2
- Ferry, What caused the Voyager collision?, p. 11
- Oxenbould, The Sinking of HMAS Voyager, p. 109
- Frame, Where Fate Calls, p. 331
- Berkovic, Lawyers still battling over Voyager
- Freckelton, HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Voyager, p. 368
- Freckelton, HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Voyager, pgs. 368-9, 372
- Strong, Last HMAS Voyager claim settled, 45 years on
- Chipp, Don; Larkin, John (1978). The Third Man. Adelaide: Rigby. ISBN 0-7270-0827-7. OCLC 4580894.
- Cooper, Alastair (2001). "The Era of Forward Defence". In Stevens, David. The Royal Australian Navy. The Australian Centenary History of Defence (vol III). South Melbourne, VIC: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-555542-2. OCLC 50418095.
- Frame, Tom (1992). Where fate calls: the HMAS Voyager tragedy. Rydalmere, NSW: Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0-340-54968-8. OCLC 26806228.
- Frame, Tom (2005). The Cruel Legacy: the HMAS Voyager tragedy. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 1-74115-254-2. OCLC 61213421.
- Hall, Timothy (1982). HMAS Melbourne. North Sydney, NSW: George Allen & Unwin. ISBN 0-86861-284-7. OCLC 9753221.
- Journal and news articles
- Berkovic, Nicola (2 May 2008). "Lawyers still battling over Voyager". The Australian. http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23630251-31477,00.html. Retrieved 17 May 2009.
- Ferry, D. (2004). "What caused the Voyager collision? Where did the investigation fail?". pp. 5–16.
- Freckelton, Ian (2004). "HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Voyager: The Continuing Psychiatric Aftermath". pp. 367–73.
- Hobbs, Commander David (October 2007). "HMAS Melbourne (II) – 25 Years On". pp. 5–9. ISSN 1322-6231.
- McNicoll, D.D. (11 February 2009). "Forgotten saviours". The Australian. http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,25037309-31477,00.html. Retrieved 13 February 2009.
- Oxenbould, Christopher. "The Sinking of HMAS Voyager: What Happened?". pp. 103–10.
- Strong, Geoff (17 July 2009). "Last HMAS Voyager claim settled, 45 years on". The Age. Australia. http://www.theage.com.au/national/last-hmas-voyager-claim-settled-45-years-on-20090716-dn07.html. Retrieved 30 July 2009.
- Sea Power Centre. "HMAS Melbourne (II)". HMA Ship Histories. Royal Australian Navy. http://www.navy.gov.au/hmas-melbourne-ii. Retrieved 23 August 2013.
- Sea Power Centre. "HMAS Voyager (II)". HMA Ship Histories. Royal Australian Navy. http://www.navy.gov.au/hmas-voyager-ii. Retrieved 23 August 2013.
- Cabban, Peter; Salter, David (2005). Breaking Ranks. Milsons Point, NSW: Random House Australia. ISBN 1-74051-315-0.
- Rear Admiral Gatacre, Galfrey, G, O. (1982). Reports of Proceedings. Manly, NSW: Nautical Press & Publications. ISBN 0-949756-02-4.
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