WAR SERVICE: HMAS Strahan escorted vessels between Australia and the Philippines across the Pacific Ocean.
WAR SERVICE: HMAS Strahan escorted vessels between Australia and the Philippines across the Pacific Ocean.

History: Percy’s actions saved HMAS Napier and its crew

USUALLY we remember the soldiers who fought and perhaps died in wartime. We also tell the stories of our airmen. However, very little is told of our sailors.

One who should be remembered is Percy Alfred Collins who was born in Murwillumbah on January 22, 1905, the fourth child of William and Ellen Collins (nee Foley). His family later moved to Sydney where his father was a hairdresser.

Percy attended Stanmore Public School and sang as a boy soprano in the local church choir. He was a fine athlete and participated at a state level.

He obtained employment as a clerk but in 1927 he decided to join the Royal Australian Navy as a stoker. In 1933 he married Mary Lilian Wilson. Percy served on several ships and by 1939 he held the rank of petty officer.

With the outbreak of war, the RAN was rapidly increasing its number of vessels and in 1940 he was chosen to go to England as a member of the commissioning crew of HMAS Napier, the first of the Navy's new "N" class destroyers.

Napier joined the war in Europe and in 1941 participated in the disastrous Battle of Crete, evacuating troops to Egypt. Percy Collins was in charge of the no.1 boiler room when the ship was hit by enemy fire.

Half the lights went out and the boiler water level erupted as no.2 boiler went out of commission. Percy virtually saved the ship by keeping his head and working through the problem, easing pressure and taking over the load of the damaged boiler. For his efforts he was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal. The citation stated that he had "virtually kept the ship mobile" and enabled her to proceed to port.

In 1942 he was promoted to chief stoker and joined HMAS Maitland. In March 1944 he joined the Bathurst class corvette HMAS Strahan which operated mainly in the Pacific and escorted vessels between Australia and the Philippines. The Strahan was capable of both anti-submarine and mine-warfare duties. In October 1945 Percy Collins was awarded a Bar to his D.S.M. for his "courage, endurance, and skill" while undertaking escort duties "under hazardous and trying conditions".

On leaving the Navy, Percy became a purchasing officer for a Sydney optical company. He and his wife had two sons and two daughters so it was also a long-awaited time to spend with his family. On his retirement the family moved to the Blue Mountains. His wife died there in 1987. Percy died in 1990.

Percy Collins is one of only two RAN sailors to receive a D.S.M. and Bar. The other sailor was Bernard McCarthy who also received his D.S.M. on the Napier in 1941 while at the controls steering the vessel. A member of the Royal Navy, he had transferred to the RAN. He received his Bar as a member of the crew of HMAS Arunta during the Leyte Gulf conflict in the Philippines in 1944. Incidentally, like Percy, he was also an amateur musician - Percy a singer, Bernard an organist.

It is said that Percy was a quiet man who rarely spoke of his war experiences. After his death his medals were presented to the Australian War Memorial, together with his portrait which had been painted by Alfred Cook in 1956. In 1995 a series of stamps was issued depicting Australians whose war service was outstanding. One of these stamps features our local sailor, Percy Alfred Collins. A fitting memorial!

Prepared by Geoff & Margaret Henderson for Richmond River Historical Society, Lismore.

Telephone: 02 6621 9993. Email: info@richhistory.org.au

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