Derek Holyoake was just 16 when his father sent him to join the navy in 1940, telling him that he’d be safe there during the war.
“I didn’t [have a choice],” Holyoake said with a laugh while visiting the Australian War Memorial. “My father was a World War I soldier-settler from England and my mother died when I was 10.
“When the war broke out, [my father] wanted to join the Australian Army … but he didn’t know what to do with me, so he got one of his friends with a car to drive me up to Victoria Barracks to meet one of his old British army officers there, and he expedited me into the navy.
“He put his age down to join the army and put my age up to join the navy … and that’s how I came to be in the navy. His words were: ‘I’m going to put you in the navy, son. I know you’ll be safe there.’ And that’s what he said.
“I had no option. In those days, we did what we were told, and it was just as well. He joined the army and sold the house, so I didn’t have a home to go to, so when I finished my recruit training and was posted to HMAS Hobart on the 20th of January 1941, that was my home, and my shipmates were my family.”
Now 93, Holyoake was just three months old when his family arrived in Australia in 1924 and settled on a 40-acre block at a Murrabit on the Murray River. “My mother was a London office girl, and it was so hard,” he said. “We couldn’t afford shoes, [so] we used to go to school in bare feet. And there were snakes under the house and in the wood heap, and there was no phone, no electricity, and mum used to have to go and buy unbleached calico to make our shorts and shirts.”
But life got even harder after the 10-year-old Holyoake travelled to Melbourne with his mother and three of his siblings in 1934. “[She] put us in [a church] home and then she took herself off to the Melbourne hospital,” he said. “But she never came out.”
After his mother’s death, Holyoake remained at the children’s home until he “got too old” and was sent to live with one of his father’s army friends. He was reunited with his father in Bendigo in country Victoria, but the reunion was short-lived. His father joined the army and Holyoake joined HMAS Hobart as an ordinary seaman and sailed for the Mediterranean in June 1941.
As part of the Mediterranean Fleet, Hobart supported the North Africa campaign, including operations to relieve troops from Tobruk, before being transferred to the Far East and arriving in Malayan waters in early 1942.