"Well lads, I think we're done for."30 April 2019
HMAS Voyager survivor tells his tale
Alan Hellier has lived a life defined by service. After 21 years in the Navy – and a civilian career with Australia Post – he has spent the past 21 years serving as President of Holland Park/Mt Gravatt RSL Sub Branch. “The reason I joined the RSL was probably to help veterans, members of the Sub Branch and their families,” Alan said.“My wife is the Pension Welfare Officer and if any of the members have got any problems, they ring up and she goes to visit them, or I go with her. She also helps anyone in hospital, if they’ve got any pension claims or anything.”
Alan is also a survivor of the sinking of the HMAS Voyager – the worst peacetime disaster in Australian military history. At around 8.56pm on 10 February 1964 – during a training exercise – the HMAS Melbourne collided with the HMAS Voyager. The collision was so severe that the Voyager broke in two.That night, Alan finished his shift at 8.00pm and was sitting next to the Chief Coxswain in the cafeteria when he knew something was amiss. “There was a strangled call over the PA system: ‘All hands to evacuation stations. Stand by. Stand by.’ Then, all of a sudden – boom – we just got hit,” he described.The force of the impact propelled him forward into the gun bay and he sustained a serious head wound. According to Alan, the ship then “sort of went over to its side, then came up, and the two turrets fell off... the coxswain turned around and said, ‘Well lads, I think we’re done for.’ And he started singing Abide with Me. I just said, ‘Not this little duck. I’m out of here.’” Alan tried to make his way to an escape hatch and recalls, “It was just sheer hell. There were bodies everywhere. There were people screaming and we had the emergency lights and we could hardly see. I got up there and there were people just fighting to get out of the hatch.” After Alan managed to get through the hatch and swim free, he turned back towards the wreck of the Voyager and watched – in the moonlight – as it sank.
That night, 82 lives were lost – a tragedy that still haunts him. “These kids were 17-and-a-half or 18 and they’d never been to sea before... they were so young.” Alan was eventually rescued and taken to the Melbourne, which was damaged but still afloat. “They had scrambling nets and I scrambled up and inside. I only had a pair of shorts on. That was all. And a watch; of course, it had stopped.” Alan still has the watch he was wearing that night when he hit the water. The hands have stopped forever at 8.54pm. After just seven days of survivor’s leave, Alan was given a new posting on the HMAS Quiberon. He remained in the Navy for another 12 years.
Sunday 10 February 2019 marked the 55th anniversary of the sinking of the HMAS Voyager and, on this day, Alan continued his annual tradition of reciting The Ode at his local Remembrance Day service at St. Mary’s Church in Kangaroo Point, Brisbane.