Gentlemen Cordite, Lieutenant Commander Warwick
edited by Nicholas Bracegirdle

The Monkey Jacket



CIRCA 1926

A challenge was issued to the Philip Term of the RANC. Noone knows who made the challenge. This is how they answered it, perhaps rather unconventionally….?


It was all because of a naval cadet's monkey jacket, that dark blue, double breasted jacket, with gold buttons and two pieces of white twist on each lapel - the cadets' insignia. The monkey jacket was the coat, found lying in the senior cadet's dormitory, with the arrogant, challenging message written on old chart paper and pierced by a marlin spike. It was just before lights out at 2100 when it was discovered on a sea chest. It read:


A Challenge!

Gentlemen of the Philip Term, Royal Australian Navy. Why do you continue to hold your annual rowing regatta on brackish water lagoon and not the salt sea of your calling? We dare you to cause this year's regatta to be held in the Bay.

How did such an outrageous challenge get to the senior cadets' dormitory? Who had dared to put it there? After lights out, a Council of War was held. Fourteen young Australian Naval cadets, all destined for a career at sea, sat and reviewed the situation. What rival term of cadets had the nerve to do this? Was it a cadet or sailor member of the ship's company? Might it be some Divisional Officer trying us to test our initiative? Could it perhaps be some bloody-minded sailor who hated preparing for regattas on the lagoon?

The more we thought about the challenge, the more logical was the proposition. We all preferred rowing in the sea to a brackish lagoon with a short, narrow course. In Jervis Bay was sea room and that year, those who graduated, would have room to manoeuvre our first commands - a picket boat, motor boat or pinnace attached to our first sea-going ship. In whispers the Council of War agreed to accept the challenge. But how and when? Four of us were told off to carry out a reconnaissance. Never was a commando raid planned with such care.

The next night, when the duty lieutenant's cabin light went out, an owl hooted.

Four darkened figures dressed in dark blue dungarees and blue shirts slid bare footed silently down the rope fire escapes. Each cadet carried rubber shoes in his teeth, a knife, torch and lanyard in his pocket. The rope ends of the fire escapes were hauled noiselessly back to the first floor verandah. A task group proceeded on its unlawful occasion - a night reconnaissance.

The nearest route to the lagoon lay along the shore of Jervis Bay. It passed the Captain's residence and down onto a white sandy beach. The moon was glimmering on the water and our silhouettes would be visible from the Captain's verandah. We took a more exacting route along the college single track railway line. Gliding from wooden sleeper to wooden sleeper for half a mile along the track, pausing by the office block to hear the sentry report "All correct, Master" to the Master-at-Arms on his night rounds. Then we broke clear and, moving at a steady run, reached the "Works and Ways" tool shed in ten minutes. The lock was "negotiated", shovels located, noted and everything returned to normal. The four dark shapes moved onwards along a bush track to the lagoon. There, moored in white rows by the landing stage, were the naval whalers, gigs and skiffs - all in use for regatta training. The great regatta day was in one week's time.

As the moon set, four black figures appeared on the beach by the lagoon's mouth. The most direct line from Lagoon's mouth to sea, a distance of some 150 yards of sand, was noted. This separated the swollen, fresh water lagoon from the sea. The time of moonset was also recorded and also the fact that only four or five hours of darkness existed between moonset and dawn. Four hours work - one hours retirement. Time to dig a long ditch to the sea - retire, wipe away all traces and climb to bed. This vital information was conveyed to our Chief Cadet Captain whilst dressing next morning. The planners conferred. The plan was made. The attack team selected. The Royal Australian Naval College began another day. For some of us, it seemed very long indeed.

That afternoon the whole College went to regatta practice on the lagoon - for the last time that year. For the conspirators, practice that evening was a gorgeous fake. They practised "starts", did nothing strenuous and very carefully conserved their energy. It seemed hours from evening studies to "lights out". Six cadets went to bed unusually early and lights went out in their dormitory most promptly.

As the moon was setting, six shadows (four workers and two look-outs) slid down the fire escape ropes and melted into the darkness.

An 'owl' hooted and six fire escape ropes were again softly drawn up to the verandah. The attack was launched.

Across the lawns and playing fields ran six young men, they froze by the sentry post and sped away up the railway line to the tool shed. It took a bare 60 seconds to pick the lock and select four shovels. Then away they went at the run to the lagoon's mouth. Two look-outs were posted and the remaining four diggers started feverishly to dig a 100 yard channel from sea to lagoon mouth. The starting point was from the sea end in order to breach the dammed up mouth in the last few seconds. Not a word was spoken. The pounding of the surf drowned the noise of the shovels. Every half hour the look-outs were changed allowing two fresh cadets to join the fray. Work on the channel proceeded with such ferocity that in two hours it was nearly completed.

Suddenly a low whistle was heard. All digging stopped instantly. A flickering light was visible, approaching along the beach. Gradually it came nearer and then passed 80 yards away. It was a fisherman with a kerosene lamp on his way to inspect fish traps further along the beach. Digging continued and within five minutes the sand wall to the lagoon was reached. Caution here was most necessary as many hundreds of tons of water lay the other side. A moment's conference and it was agreed to make the breach at the bottom of the wall. This to allow the flow to broaden the hole and wash the remaining wall away. The breaching took 30 seconds and the water gushed through a widening crumbling two foot hole. The working party dashed to one side for safety and the lagoon's brackish water poured down into the sea.

It was a most inspiring sight but alas the task group could not wait to admire the final episode of the lagoon in full spate emptying into the sea. Six weary cadets cleaned and returned the shovels, pausing to view the success of the operation.

Before dawn broke six very tired but triumphant naval cadets lay exhausted in their bunks.

After morning parade and prayers the Commander did not give his customary order to "March off" to the day's instruction. He gravely announced that during the night the lagoon had burst its banks and drained into the sea. The regatta would be held in the Bay in five days' time. He apologized for the extra hard work involved but all cadets and Ship's Company of the Naval College would be required to haul all the boats on rollers over the mud and sand to the open sea. Work would commence after lunch.

The sight of one mile of dirty, muddy, smelly, lagoon bottom with several hundred strange dead fish and fifteen boats all embedded in the mud was most impressive - even to six conspirators and their term mates. Of course, the senior cadets took charge of their juniors tugging, sweating, hauling working parties. By sunset, fifteen boats lay proudly at their sea moorings in the harbour and the entire college was black with foul smelling mud.

The cadets slept exhausted that night. The junior ratings cursed and went to the canteen for a beer. Philip Term, with only three more regatta practice days, trained like seals to adapt themselves to salt water rowing.

On Regatta Day they won every race on the salt, salt sea.

Who made that challenge? None of them knew but the dare had been successfully taken and the monkey jacket had been trailed.

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