Peter van Brink has possibly the best office views in the world. Situated just above the water at the end of jetty 3, Circular Quay, Peter looks out on to the Opera House and Harbour Bridge as he directs the in-bound Ferries to their berthing wharf at the Quay. His work as a Controlling Officer at Harbour City Ferries stands in marked contrast to his time with the Submarine Squadron of the Royal Australian Navy.
The life of a submariner is one of isolation. You can be at sea for over three months and underwater for weeks on end. You are so removed from the world, you may as well be in space.
Peter joined the Navy aged 17, undertaking basic naval training in HMAS Cerberus, Victoria. He went to sea, initially in a destroyer for two years before joining the Submarines, “the quirky, eccentric, odd brother” of the Navy who are sometimes jokingly referred to as “the Dark Side”. He rose to the rank of Petty Officer, serving in the Oberon class submarines HMAS Ovens, HMAS Orion and HMAS Otama.
“If you want to get a feel for life in a submarine, take a look inside HMAS Onslow at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney. Imagine that you are several hundred feet below sea level, working shifts of six hours on, six hours off with 80 other sailors day in day out for up to a month. The only relaxation options are sleep, films and books. Exercise is limited to push ups and sit ups. The whole concept of time is aligned to the rhythm of the vessel. You belong to the submarine. You are a slave to the submarine.”
Peter was attracted to the submarines because of his affection for the sea and that fact that being a submariner is one of the most demanding occupations in the maritime world. He also points to one clear distinction between submarines and other vessels in the Navy. “If a ship is struck by enemy fire there is a chance you might survive and be rescued. If a submarine is fatally hit, all hands are lost.”
As a communications sailor, one of his duties was to assist the Captain on the periscope and calculate coordinates between the submarine and their torpedo target. This role evolved into running submarine drills, some of which are among the most dangerous peacetime exercises and drills undertaken by any military unit. One of the riskiest procedures was called ‘Gulping’. To avoid being detected by an enemy anti-submarine aircraft whilst the submarine was snorting, snorkeling as it is also known, that is charging the batteries with the diesel generators, the submarine would lower the intake mast, thereby eliminating the intake of air, this would cause a severe vacuum, the atmosphere would approach dangerously low levels and the crew could pass out. The Oberons operate two 16 cylinder supercharged engines at the same time, when operating they would sound like jet engines.
What was Peter’s most exciting time in a submarine? “I can’t tell you that. If I did I could be sent to jail.” He does allude to undertaking intelligence gathering operations in geo-political hotspots around the world on HMAS Otama, before going on to say that the crew on the submarine determined your enjoyment of your time at sea. “HMAS Ovens was a great crew. We had good morale on-board and we socialised with each other, including our families.”
Throughout the ANZAC commemorative activities, Peter asks us all to remember the unique place of submarines within the Australian military, including as far back as the First World War. “It is a little known fact that the first allied vessel into Gallipoli was the Australian submarine HMAS AE2, and one of the earliest Australian losses of World War One was the disappearance of HMAS AE1 off the coast of Papua New Guinea with all hands, she has never been found.”
He also has a few recommendations for people like him who are interested in military history. “The Art of War by Sun Tzu and the works of Dominican Friar Thomas Aquinas remind us all that war should only be used to restore peace and for a just cause. And, if you would like to know what it is like to go to war in a submarine, the German film Das Boot (The Boat) is the best portrayal of the terror of battle and the stress and tension of living in a submarine.”
A final thought on his career: “Submarines exist to be unseen and unheard. Spare a thought for the men and women who dedicate themselves to this life of isolation – and hope they never have to do what they’re trained to do.”