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December 10, 2009
CYCLONE Tracy hit the city of
Darwin at 3am on Christmas
day 1974 with such ferocity
that 70 per cent of housing
was damaged or destroyed and 65 peo-
ple lost their lives.
At the time, Navy had a staff of 351
serving at Darwin Navy Headquarters,
the communications station HMAS
Coonawarra, and on the four Attack class
patrol boats based in Darwin.
All four of the patrol boats suffered
damage, however, HMAS Arrow was
damaged beyond repair and was found
sunk under Stokes Hill Wharf. Two sail-
ors lost their lives on board.
The cyclone forced HMAS Attack
ashore at Doctor's Gully while HMA
Ships Advance and Assail suffered less
Darwin Navy Headquarters was
destroyed along with 80 per cent of the
patrol boat base and 90 per cent of the
married quarters. HMAS Coonawarra
was extensively damaged as well.
As the gravity of the disaster became
apparent, a naval task force under the
command of the Flag Officer command-
ing the Australian Fleet (FOCAF), RADM
D.C. Wells, was assembled to render aid
The first RAN asset to arrive in the
city was a HS748 aircraft from 851
Squadron, carrying blood transfusion
equipment and a team of Red Cross work-
ers. They arrived on Boxing Day.
Members of ACDT One arrived short-
ly after in another HS748, while Fleet
units in Sydney were recalled to sail north
and render aid.
HMAS Flinders and Brisbane arrived
in Darwin on December 31 with Flinders
surveying the approaches to Darwin to
ensure safe passage and anchorage of the
task group, while Brisbane landed work-
Over the next two weeks, HMA Ships
Melbourne, Stuart, Stalwart, Supply,
Vendetta, Balikpapan, Betano, Brunei,
Tarakan and We w a k arrived with 3000
The arrival of Melbourne precipitated
the establishment of a Shore Command
Headquarters to coordinate the working
parties, which were tasked by the Natural
With the arrival of the task group, the
primary focus for ACDT One turned to
the extraction of Arrow from Stokes Hill
Wharf, a task achieved on January 13
after much work.
Unfortunately Arrow was damaged
beyond repair and was subsequently
decommissioned and scrapped.
During January, naval personnel spent
17,979 man days ashore, with up to 1200
ashore at the peak of the operation.
Working parties cleared 1593 blocks
and cleaned up schools, government and
commercial buildings and recreational
They installed generators, rewired
houses, repaired electrical and air-con-
ditioning systems, re-roofed or weather-
proofed buildings, and maintained and
repaired vehicles. Some parties worked to
save rare plants in the Botanical Gardens.
Hygiene parties disposed of spoiled
foodstuffs from houses, supermarkets and
Wessex helicopters transported 7832
passengers, 110,912kg of freight and
made 2505 landings.
The HS748 aircraft completed 14
return flights to Darwin and carried 485
passengers and 22,680kg of freight.
In May and June 1975 the mine hunt-
ers HMA Ships Curlew, Ibis and Snipe
surveyed the approaches to Darwin and
the harbour itself, locating ships sunk
during Cyclone Tracy and other naviga-
Darwin steadily rebuilt over the fol-
lowing years and Navy maintained their
presence in the top end. More than 450
members are currently based in one of the
Navy's most important establishments.
A Christmas to remember
As Navy personnel around Australia and the world
prepare for Santa's visit, LSIS Paul McCallum
looks back at Christmas in Australia 35 years ago.
HIGH AND DRY: HMAS Attack was forced onto the shore at Doctors Gully, just east of the current
SCRAP METAL: (Below and inset) HMAS Arrow was re-floated after being recoverd from Stokes
Hill Wharf. All equipment that could be recovered was removed and the ship was decommissioned
and sold into scrap.
Photos courtesy Naval Historical Society of Australia
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