The Story of the Prize, the Origin of the Trust

Story excerpted from Flight Lieutenant K.C. Baff's Maritime is Number Ten: The Sunderland Era, 1939–45, Griffin Press, 1983

Intelligence sources reported that German personnel were now thought to be attempting escapes in all manner of vessels.

The port and anti-shipping sorties continued into September and it was just before noon on the 16th that the squadron achieved what was to be its major sighting for the month. Flight Lieutenant Jack Mabbett's crew had been on patrol in JM721/W for almost five hours when a vessel bearing the markings of a German hospital ship was sighted off Lorient steaming due west at five knots. "We were well down in the Bay off the French coast when our midships gunner reported the vessel," Mabbett later recounted. "We investigated, flashed 'Halten' and circled overhead."

The vessel proved to be the MV Rostock (2542 tons) and she claimed she was a hospital ship bound for a Spanish port. Mabbett and his crew were suspicious and decided to transmit a full sighting report to base. Base subsequently ordered the crew to remain in contact with the vessel and requested they contact a naval striking force known to be in the area.

Mabbett maintained contact at maximum visual range until 1245 hours when two Royal Navy motor torpedo boats closed with the ship. As one MTB warily approached to check the vessel's papers, Mabbett swept in low over the decks showing the Sunderland 's armament. About 20 minutes later, with an armed guard now on board, the German vessel was guided to anchor off Benodet, from where she was later taken under escort by the destroyer HMS Urania and led into Plymouth Sound. At 1720 hours Mabbett and his crew finally set course for Mount Batten where a safe alighting was made at 1900 hours.

Flying Officer Max Johnson's crew in EK573/P, also out on a Bay patrol, joined Mabbett for a short time before resuming their task when it was ascertained that all was in order. Just before 1600 hours, however, Johnson's starboard outer engine caught fire. "I put the flying boat into a dive to blow the fire out, but at 500 feet there was an explosion and the engine disintegrated. At 1000 feet, just in time, I jettisoned my depth charges."

The whole engine fell completely away from the mainplane. Distress signals were sent out and all other disposable weight including guns and ammunition was thrown overboard. The navigator immediately set a course for base but an hour and a half later the starboard inner engine also failed. There was nothing left to do but to come down on the sea, which, fortunately, was pretty good.

"Twenty-five minutes after landing, two air-sea rescue Warwicks were circling overhead. Base gave orders for a RAF high-speed launch, which was guided to the scene some three hours later, to take off our crew and for another vessel to take the Sunderland in tow."

"'P-for-Percy' was towed home and arrived nine and a half hours later."

When the ship that Flight Lieutenant Jack Mabbett's crew had located was later examined in Plymouth , it was revealed that not only had Rostock been hastily converted to a so-called 'hospital ship' but she could be re-converted to a minesweeper in a matter of days. She was also found to be carrying secret material not consistent with the status of a hospital ship. But despite rumours circulating at the time there was no evidence that she was carrying arms or high-ranking army personnel. Rostok was subsequently handed back to the French and once again re-named Saint Maurice, which she bore until 1955.

The crew officially credited with Rostock 's recapture was:

  • Flight Lieutenant Jack Mabbett, Pilot/Captain
  • Flying Officer Tom Hughes, 1st Pilot
  • Flying Officer Bob Brent, 2nd Pilot
  • Flying Officer 'Robbie' Robertson, Navigator
  • Flight Sergeant Gordon 'Slim' Jarvis, Flight Engineer
  • Sergeant Lindsay 'Butch' Arnold, Flight Engineer
  • Flight Sergeant Allan Bagshaw, WOAG
  • Flight Sergeant A. McLeish, WOAG
  • Sergeant Brian Jameson, Air Gunner
  • Flight Sergeant Doug Nance
  • Flight Sergeant Bob Marsham, Air Gunner

MV Rostock was later mercantile:

  • St Maurice (1944)
  • Azur (1955)
  • Monte Pellegrino (1957)
  • Marhonda (1964).

Launched in 1922, Rostock had been operated by her German owners until captured by the French early in the war and used by them under the name Saint Maurice. She was recaptured by the Germans when France fell and commissioned in the German Navy as an auxiliary minesweeper, Sperrbrecher No. 19, on 20 May 1941. It was in this capacity that in August 1944 she lay in Lorient Harbour, cut off from all possibility of returning to Germany. In order to get the ship away from Lorient and back to Germany, the Germans notified Rostock as a 'hospital ship'. However, owing to her recent employment on active naval service and the fact that the notification of her conversion was not made until she was lying in a port closely investigated by Allied forces, the British reserved their position concerning her acceptance as a hospital ship under the terms of the 10th Hague Convention.

The story did not end with the war. Shortly after the cessation of hostilities in Europe, Jack Mabbett's crew submitted a personal claim for 'Prize Money' as their just reward for the capture of the Rostock. (Prize Money was the sum paid in respect of an enemy ship or goods captured by the maritime force of a belligerent at sea. Before World War I the distribution of prize money was confined to those ships actually making the capture. However, the British Naval Prize Act 1918 suspended this system and the whole of the prize money was paid into a common fund from which general distribution was made.) The crew's claim, not surprisingly, disappeared into the capacious maw of the Air Ministry and it was to be almost a decade before the matter was finally resolved.

In December 1945 the United Kingdom Government announced that prize money in respect of proceeds derived from the sale of captured enemy merchant ships and cargo, which had traditionally been granted to the Navy, would again be granted but that a proportion of the proceeds would also be allocated for the benefit of Air Force personnel. The government also announced that this was to be the last occasion on which prize moneys would be paid. Of the total amount allocated to Australia , £249,000 ($498,000) was allocated to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and £229,000 ($458,000) to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).

On 1 June 1949 the Prime Minister, Mr J.B. Chifley, announced that the share allocated to the RAAF was to be placed in a special trust fund and devoted to a purpose of benefit to personnel who had served in the war. Between 1949 and 1953 the question of the allocation of this prize money was from time to time brought up in the House of Representatives.

However, it was not until November 1953 that the Australian Parliament had before it an Act to provide for the allocation of the RAAF's share of proceeds. The Act, introduced by Mr W. McMahon, was named the Royal Australian Air Force Veterans' Residences Act 1953. Apart from complex problems concerning operational service and the eligibility of groundcrew and aircrew alike, McMahon told the House that equitable distribution was virtually impossible and if carried out on the same basis as the RAN distribution would mean insignificant shares to each participant.

In essence, the proposed Act provided for an amount of £229,000 to be placed in a trust fund for the "provision of a residence or residences in which the former male members of the RAAF who were in necessitous circumstances and, if the trust approved, the wives of those members, might be accommodated or supported". Although it was criticised in some circles, the Act was passed and received Royal Assent on 12 December 1953.

It is certainly the only known capture of an enemy vessel on the high seas by an aircraft of the RAAF during World War ll.


The Father of the RAAF Veterans' Residences Trust

Air Marshal Sir Richard Williams, KBE, CB, DSO, was unanimously voted the first Chairman of the RAAF Veterans' Residences Trust at the first meeting of Trustees held on 25 November 1954 in the office of the Air Member for Personnel, Victoria Barracks, Melbourne. He went on to chair 80 meetings, his last on 8 December 1964.

Sir Richard died in 1980. He is properly remembered and honoured as the 'Father' of the Royal Australian Air Force. He is similarly remembered here as the Father of the RAAF Veterans' Residences Trust.