Chief Petty Officer Alfred James Wrench
Wrench, Alfred James (1904-1987), seaman, was born on 4 May 1904 at Airly, in the Central Tablelands of New South Wales. He was the son of George Wrench, a miner, and his wife Anna Knight.
Wrench joined the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) as a Stoker 2nd Class in July 1926. He completed marine technical training at HMAS Cerberus and the fleet repair ship HMAS Platypus, before being deployed as a qualified Stoker on the cruiser, HMAS Melbourne. His early career was typical of many technical sailors during the Inter-War period: he gained his auxiliary watchkeeping certificate in 1929, stokehold watchkeeping certificate in 1936, and oil fuel and internal combustion engine certificates in 1938. With a very good character and superior technical ability, Wrench was promoted Leading Stoker in 1933 and then Stoker Petty Officer in 1936. He married Madge Marion Harris on 2 July 1932 at St Mary’s Cathedral, Hobart.
At the outbreak of World War II, in September 1939, Wrench had the technical and leadership skills that the RAN required. He was posted to the old destroyer HMAS Waterhen and travelled with her to join the British Mediterranean Fleet. Wrench served in the Mediterranean for the first two years of the war. He was promoted to Chief Stoker in October 1940, the highest non-commissioned rank in his branch at that time, and transferred to HMAS Vampire. He participated in the Greece and Crete operations, the Malta convoys, and the ‘Tobruk ferry’ which supplied the Australian garrison at Tobruk. Wrench later received a mentioned-in-dispatches for ‘outstanding zeal, patience, and cheerfulness and for setting an example of whole-hearted devotion to duty’ during his Mediterranean service on Vampire.
The destroyer Vampire, with Wrench onboard, was sent to Singapore for refit in May 1941. When Japan entered the war Vampire was once again in the thick of the fighting. Throughout March 1942 Vampire operated with the small carrier HMS Hermes in the Indian Ocean. On 9 April 1942, however, both ships were sunk by a ferocious Japanese air attack while off the coast of Ceylon.
Despite determined resistance, at least 13 bombs hit Vampire and she sank within minutes. During this action, Wrench had been the senior hand of the starboard pompom, which had a stoker’s gun crew. Once again he was mentioned-in-dispatches, for ‘he showed coolness and courage throughout the action and kept his gun firing until the crew was finally washed from the platform.’
After returning to Australia, Wrench joined the corvette HMAS Armidale operating out of Darwin. He was fortunate to have left the ship before Armidale was lost to Japanese aircraft off Timor on 1 December 1942. His next seagoing service was in the frigate HMAS Gascoyne, which operated as a survey vessel in support of the US Navy’s Seventh Amphibious Force during its advance across New Guinea into the Philippines from 1943 to 1945. Once more in the heat of the action, Wrench took part in the battle off Guiuan during the Leyte Gulf operations on Christmas Eve 1944. The Dutch transport MV Sommelsdijk, lying nearby Gascoyne, was hit and set on fire by a Japanese aerial torpedo. Some 1300 US troops were rescued from the burning ship; subsequently volunteers from Gascoyne and the USS Buttonwood controlled the damage onboard the Sommelsdijk until the flames were successfully extinguished. Wrench spent the entire night of 25/26 December 1944 fighting these serious fires in the Number One and Two Holds of the Sommelsdijk. He ‘supervised the work of all equipment and men and assisted in the inspection of the still smouldering holds when the fires were coming under control’, receiving the British Empire Medal for his courage, leadership and devotion to duty.He was proud to be selected as one of the small number of men representing the RAN at the Victory Parade in London held on 8 June 1946.
After 22 years of distinguished service in the RAN, Alfred Wrench was demobilised on 1 July 1948, although he continued to employ his technical skills in the commercial environment. He died on 30 November 1987 at Prince of Wales Hospital, Randwick, Sydney. His wife and their son and daughter survived him.