The real-life Navy story that reads like an episode of Utopia

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Long before an Australian prime minister made a play at becoming Scotty the Magnificent by secretly assuming the jobs of five other ministers, thus rendering Australian political satire a critically endangered species, the Royal Australian Navy’s backroom operatives had set the bar high for the likes of Utopia’s writers.

Indeed, a cold dismay is said to settle upon the senior executive service of what we might call the Defence Department’s Underwater Assets (acquisitions, repairs and creative excuses) branch whenever the word submarine is spoken aloud.

HMAS Otway slips past Fort Denison in 1971.Credit: Royal Australian Navy Official Photograph

It is not simply the sudden ditching of the French in favour of AUKUS. It’s not even the long and terrible affair of the Collins Class submarine launch back in 1993, though it is related.

Who in Special Projects, Navy, could forget that HMAS Collins wasn’t anywhere near ready to be launched and was missing its entire combat system? But with Prime Minister Paul Keating and the mass media all steaming eagerly to the dockyards for the grand event, what could be done?

Hastily, gaps in the Collins’ hull were covered with plywood and painted black in a desperate effort to fool photographers.

“The submarine construction is on schedule, on cost, and meets or exceeds all performance criteria,” enthused Keating, apparently blind to the plywood. True story.

HMAS Collins, it transpired, wouldn’t be cleared for operational service for another seven years after its splendid “launch”, and all other five subs were late. At one point, some of the subs could float, but reportedly couldn’t submerge, which seemed problematic on a Utopia scale.

But no, it wasn’t simply this complete cock-up but the knock-on effect, the bane of any public servants’ life, that caused Underwater Assets to suffer its most dreadful humiliation.

Navy, in its touchingly optimistic belief that the wonderful new Collins machines would soon rule beneath the waves, set about decommissioning its ageing Oberon class fleet of little subs.

One of the prehistoric Oberons, HMAS Otway, was altogether removed from the water in 1994 and ended up – for reasons that would take an entertaining episode to explain – on display in the main street of Holbrook, a town on the Hume Highway north of Albury, which is to say, a very long way from the ocean.

And then, following the well-known premise that what can go wrong will go wrong, one of the two Oberons still sailing backed into a concrete pylon in Botany Bay and bent its rudder post, rendering its rudder useless. There was, of course, no spare part available for such an ancient vessel.

With not a Collins class sub anywhere near ready to defend the nation, Australia’s submarine fleet was reduced to one. No one dared breathe what might happen if its old diesel motor gave out.

Here, dear reader, the Royal Australian Navy achieved peak Utopia. An emergency brain-storming session caused someone to recall the beached Oberon in Holbrook. Surely, it would still have a rudder post?

A team of naval engineers and a unit of Defence negotiators, complete, we imagine, with fat chequebooks, were dispatched to Holbrook to plead with the town’s worthies to allow the rear end of HMAS Otway – known in Navy parlance as “the duck’s arse” – to be removed and carted away on the back of a large truck to Sydney.

And so it came to pass. The rudder post was extracted from the duck’s arse in Sydney and transferred to the submarine, its rear end was returned to Holbrook and re-fitted to the grounded HMAS Otway and Underwater Assets’ honour was restored. Match that, Utopia.

Happily, AUKUS’ nuclear subs, allegedly, are on the way. What delicious material might be found within Underwater Assets over the next decade? Or two. Or three.

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