723 Squadron formed in Britain on 21 November 1944 and embarked for Australia the following month, arriving on 28 February 1945. It was stationed in Australia, mainly operating from HMS Nabbington in Nowra, for the duration of its existence before disbanding on 31 May 1946.
On 11 March 1953, the Squadron took delivery of the RAN's first rotary-wing aircraft; three Bristol Sycamore HR 50 helicopters. With this new capability, 723 Squadron's responsibilities expanded to include search and rescue, rotary wing training and fleet support. Two Sycamores later detached to HMAS Sydney (III) for her second tour in Korean waters as search and rescue aircraft.
On 18 June 1954, 723 Squadron also took delivery of the RAN's first jet aircraft, the de Havilland Sea Vampire.
723 Squadron's Sycamores proved their worth as search and rescue aircraft offering civilian flood relief in February 1955 rescuing over 100 people in Dubbo, Maitland and Narrabri. However, one Sycamore was lost and two civilians killed attempting a rescue in Maitland.
723 Squadron re-commissioned on 18 February 1957 flying five Sycamores and also took on two Auster J5-G Autocars and two Firefly target tugs in May 1959. While the Austers and Fireflies were used primarily for communications and target towing respectively, the Sycamores had broader responsibilities. Two were required for use in HMAS Melbourne whenever Melbourne's Carrier Air Group (CAG) was embarked, and one was always being overhauled by the Civilian Repair Organisation. This left two aircraft for duties such as search and rescue, training and surveying. The Squadron would also assist the police by providing transport and photography services for tasks as varied as search and rescue operations and murder investigations. When one of the helicopters crashed in January 1958 near Coffs Harbour while on survey duties with HMAS Warrego, just one aircraft remained to perform those duties. A replacement aircraft was ordered but was not delivered for another six months, nor had any financial provision been made for a replacement.
The FAA entered a period of uncertainty in the early 1960's with the announcement that fixed-wing naval aviation was to cease. Rotary-wing operations would continue with expanded Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) duties.
In November 1962, 723 Squadron's fixed-wing aircraft were transferred to 724 Squadron and 723 became an all-helicopter squadron. The Navy purchased the American Bell UH-1B Iroquois utility helicopter, with the first coming into service in May 1964.
The Squadron began test flights of two Westland Scout AH-1s on 6 April 1963. The small Scouts were to be rotated aboard the hydrographic survey ship, HMAS Moresby, mapping Australia's coastline and waterways. The Scouts represented a vast improvement on the seaplanes and flying boats that had previously been used in this role and proved the practicality operating helicopters from small ships. They did, however, require a higher level of maintenance work than other aircraft as the abrasiveness of coral sand eroded the rotor blades as well as the engine and airframe structure.
The Squadron commenced its first advanced flying training course for the new Iroquois at the end of July 1964 and soon after began helicopter conversion courses for the fleet. Almost exactly a year later, on 15 July 1965, the Squadron's last Sycamore was flown to HMAS Nirimba to be used for apprentice training. The Squadron was now equipped with five Iroquois and the two Scouts.
On the morning of 21 May 1966, 723 Squadron scrambled two Iroquois to search for survivors from the Dredge W.D. Atlas which had capsized about 18 kilometres south-east of Jervis Bay. The pilots hovered their helicopters in 45 knot winds just a few feet over ten metre waves. Thirteen sailors lost their lives but thanks to the efforts of 723 Squadron, four others were rescued.
With the Australian and US commitment in Vietnam increasing between 1965 and 1967, the US made a request to Australia for helicopters and crews to provide combat support to the war effort. On 14 July 1967, the Minister for Defence, announced that the RAN would provide 8 pilots, 4 observers, 24 maintenance personnel, 4 air crewmen and 6 support staff to serve as part of the US Army's 135th Assault Helicopter Company (AHC). This detachment would become known as the Royal Australian Navy Helicopter Flight Vietnam (RANHFV).
Four contingents of the RANHFV served in Vietnam between 1967 and 1971 though the dangers of flying were not limited to those overseas. On 5 June 1968, three members of 723 Squadron were lost when their Iroquois crashed over the cliff at Beecroft Head Firing Range and into the sea while on a range clearing flight.
The RAN's FAA Squadrons had adopted US Navy prefixes by the turn of the decade and 723 Squadron became HT723 Squadron indicating that it was classed as a rotary-wing training unit though the prefix changed to HC at the end of 1975 indicating a rotary-wing composite unit.
HT723 Squadron's only remaining Scout (the other was written off in April 1967 when it ditched on take-off from HMAS Moresby in Wewak Harbour) disembarked from Moresby for the last time on 27 July 1973. It was replaced by a Bell 206B-1 Kiowa on 10 October 1973 on 5 February the following year. The Squadron took on a second and third Kiowa in August 1974 and March 1977 respectively. They would also embark for brief periods in HMA Ships Stalwart, Sydney, Adelaide, Tobruk and Jervis Bay as light utility aircraft.
The FAA became embroiled in industrial unrest in July 1974 when the Storeman and Packers Union black-banned the RAN resulting in fuel shortages and flying restrictions. This became a serious, and even life-threatening, issue the following month when heavy rain and flooding inundated the Nowra area. HT723 Squadron was called upon for disaster relief operations but the fuel shortage gave rise to concerns about whether rescue efforts would have to cease. Eventually common sense prevailed and fuel tankers began to arrive, allowing personnel from NAS Nowra to rescue some 352 people. HT723 Squadron rescued about 70 people in seven sorties including a lady from Greenwell Point who had suffered three heart attacks and required urgent medical attention.
With the decommissioning of HT725 Squadron in January 1976 and HS817 Squadron re-equipping with Westland Sea King Mk 50's the following month, HC723 Squadron, as it was now known, received four Westland Wessex 31B helicopters stripped of their anti-submarine warfare equipment, for utility support. However, the Wessex was simply too big and heavy to operate from RAN Destroyers and consideration turned to a replacement. In spite of this, the Squadron detached a Wessex and an Iroquois to RAAF Base Williamtown in January 1981 to test the viability of operating the Wessex as a troop carrier aboard the new heavy landing ship HMAS Tobruk. The tests were successful and Wessex helicopters continued to operate in the RAN well into the 1980's.
In December 1982, HC723 Squadron began exercises for the Bass Strait Counter-Terrorism Plan, known as the National Plan, in conjunction with the Army's Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment operating from RAAF Base Sale. The Squadron was divided into two flights; 'A' Flight was made up the Squadron's entire Wessex complement (now 14 aircraft) for counter-terrorism tasks and 'B' Flight was made up of Iroquois and Kiowas for search and rescue and small ship flights. The performance of the Wessex crews was notable, achieving standards that the more sophisticated Sea Kings would find difficult to emulate in the future.
On 19 November 1983, the Wessex celebrated 21 years of service in the RAN and the occasion was marked with a flypast of RAN Wessex, Iroquois and Sea King helicopters as well RN Sea Harriers from the visiting HMS Invincible.
The National Plan suffered its only fatal accident on 4 December 1983. While on a routine flight from the Marlin Platform in Bass Strait, an HC723 Squadron Wessex crashed into the water after suffering a catastrophic transmission failure that in turn destroyed the aircraft's flying controls. Six of the aircraft's eight crew were rescued but LS Gary Macey and RAAF medical orderly Corporal J. Campbell lost their lives.
On 12 February 1984, HU816 Squadron was re-formed as an Army support unit to decrease the number of aircraft types and variety of tasks that were being performed by HC723 Squadron. The Wessex's were transferred to HU816 as were a number of personnel. HC723 Squadron's aircraft complement was quickly bolstered, however, when it took delivery of its first Squirrel on 14 May 1984 and two fixed-wing Hawker Siddeley HS748s from the recently de-commissioned VC851 Squadron on 1 September.
The Squirrels arrived in the Squadron as civilian helicopters, not designed with maritime operations in mind. However, the RAN's new Adelaide class guided missile frigates lacked a dedicated helicopter. The Squirrels embarked in the frigates as an interim aircraft and, in spite of some early problems with fuselage cracking and corrosion, continued dedicated embarked operations until 1997.
In 1989, they were again called upon to provide a community service of a different kind. Following the breakdown in talks between commercial pilots and domestic airlines, the Government decided to break the pilots strike by using Defence aircraft to transport civilian passengers. Over the course of four months, HC723 Squadron carried over 10 000 passengers between Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Hobart and Launceston. Prime Minister Bob Hawke travelled to NAS Nowra to personally congratulate the crews (there were only three), and the Flight was awarded the Navy League of Australia Plaque for Aid to the Civilian Community and would later be adopted by the City of Launceston.
On 2 August 1990, Iraqi armed forces invaded the neighbouring kingdom of Kuwait and eight days later, the Australian Government announced that HMA Ships Darwin, Adelaide and Success were to be deployed to the Gulf of Oman in Operation 'Damask', the Australian component of Operation 'Desert Shield'. HC723 Squadron embarked a Squirrel in each of the ships. As part of the deployment, the Squirrels received extensive operational modifications including GPS navigation, radar warning equipment, night vision devices and thermal imagers. This first detachment had no electronic detection or counter-measure equipment and was armed only with machine guns. The first task force arrived in the Gulf of Oman early in September. HMA Ships Sydney and Brisbane would relieve Darwin and Adelaide in early December while HMAS Westralia relieved Success on Australia Day 1991. Brisbane and Westralia did not have Squirrels embarked though the Squirrel embarked in Sydney was generally used for surface search and utility tasks.
On 17 January 1991, Operation 'Desert Storm', the final assault to push Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, commenced. HC723 Squadron's Squirrel continued to perform a range of tasks including mine search, combat search and rescue, and early warning of any potential threat arising from Iran. By 26 February 1991, the war was over and the Australian ships left the Gulf on 22 March. The Aviation contingent provided by HC723 and HS816 Squadrons had significantly contributed to the RAN's capacity to perform in a combat situation.
HC723 Squadron's responsibilities in the Middle East did not come to an end however, and the Squadron continued to operate in the Gulf and North Red Sea for the next five years (Operations 'Damask III-VIII') enforcing United Nations Security Council sanctions against Iraq. The Squadron also maintained its training and fleet support duties at NAS Nowra and regular detachments in other RAN ships.
In 1997 the RAN dropped the prefixes that had been attached to FAA Squadrons for the past 25 years and HC723 Squadron reverted back to 723 Squadron. In the same year, the Squirrels ceased dedicated embarked operations and they were replaced aboard the RAN's frigates by the Seahawks of 816 Squadron.
The Squadron made history in January 1999 when it was joined by the RAN's first female pilot. Sub Lieutenant Natalee McDougall was one of six to graduate from the Australian Defence Academy's helicopter training facility on 13 November 1998.
During September 1999, a 723 Squadron Squirrel was again embarked at sea, this time in HMAS Anzac as part of the Navy's contingent for Operation 'Warden', the Australian response to the East Timor crisis.
The final vestiges of naval fixed-wing aviation came to an end in the year 2000 when 723 Squadron's HS748s were finally de-commissioned after more than a quarter of a century of service, on 30 June. Later that year, in October, the Kiowas were transferred to the Army after 23 years of service in the FAA, most significantly in embarked operations aboard the hydrographic survey ship, HMAS Moresby.
In April 2001 the squadron implemented the Pilot Basic Rotor Course providing initial rotary-wing training for naval pilots, a service previously provided by the RAAF and later the Army.
In the early hours of Christmas Day 2001, 723 Squadron was tasked to deploy a Squirrel helicopter to support the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) in battling what would become known as the ‘Black Christmas’ Bushfires. Five 723 Squadron Squirrels were used in fire fighting operations over the ensuing three weeks. Squadron aircraft and personnel were directly involved in a number of life-saving and property protection efforts in the Shoalhaven such as; directing water bombers onto an RFS bulldozer that had been jumped by the fire and left without a line of retreat on the Tianjara Plateau, directing water bombers onto a disabled RFS tanker and its crew caught in the path of the fire in Yarramunmun Creek, and directing a number of campers in the St George’s Basin area clear of the fire. In all, 51 members 723 Squadron and the Training Authority – Aviation were involved in fire fighting operations.
Just twelve months after the Black Christmas bushfires, the squadron was again called upon to assist fire fighting operations in southern New South Wales and the ACT. Albatross itself came under threat on 4 and 5 December 2002 with the flames approaching to within 100 meters of the airstrip and nearby residents seeking shelter on board for themselves and their animals. A change in the weather accompanied by rain, and the conversion of Sea King and Seahawk helicopters into water bombers eased the situation.
Squadron detachments were deployed aboard HMAS Arunta (II) while the ship visited South East Asia in March to June 2004; HMAS Parramatta (IV) when she visited New Zealand in February to April 2005 to participate in Exercise TASMANEX; and in HMAS Warramunga (II) when she deployed to South East Asia in March to June 2005 to participate in Exercises BERSAMA SHIELD and SINGAROO.
Two Squirrels and a total of 24 Squadron members embarked in HMAS Manoora (II) in June 2006 to join Exercise RIMPAC in Hawaii. The aircraft were kept busy throughout July conducting various embarked exercises and personnel transfers. The detachment arrived back at Albatross in August.
In June 2007 the squadron took delivery of the first two of three Agusta Westland A109E helicopters. The three aircraft provided multi-engine helicopter training for pilots, observers and aircrewmen transitioning from the Squirrels to the heavier Sea Kings and Seahawks.
A Squirrel detachment embarked in HMAS Anzac (III) at the end of April 2008 for her deployment to Exercise BERSAMA SHIELD in May. In October 2009 a Squirrel detachment embarked in HMAS Tobruk (II) for Operation SAMOA ASSIST in the wake of a tsunami which had devastated parts of Samoa and Tonga. On 27 October, prior to Tobruk’s departure for Samoa, the detachment exchanged aircraft; the replacement Squirrel, while still set up as a training platform, was lighter and better suited to the operational tasks expected in Samoa and Tonga.
An A109E detachment deployed to Queensland in January 2011, flying nearly 54 hours in support of Operation QUEENSLAND FLOOD ASSIST, and that May a Squirrel detachment embarked in HMAS Darwin for that ship’s participation in Exercise TALISMAN SABRE. During the course of the deployment, Darwin was embedded with the USN 7th Fleet and visited Guam and Yokosuka, and the 723 Squadron detachment was offered the rare opportunity to conduct exercises with a USN Carrier Strike Group. The detachment disembarked on 26 July. In two and a half months embarked in Darwin, the detachment achieved a 100% serviceability rate. Not a single flight had to be cancelled due to aircraft unserviceability; a remarkable feat and a great credit to the detachment’s maintenance team.
Two Squirrels deployed to Wagga Wagga in March 2012 to support flood relief operations, and on the ninth of that month, the three A109Es conducted their final flights before their return to Raytheon in July. In April, the squadron took possession of three Bell 429 utility and training helicopters. On 7 April, the squadron also celebrated its 60th Anniversary.
From September to November 2012, a Squirrel detachment embarked in HMAS Sydney (IV) during the ship’s deployment to Asia.
Albatross and Creswell, conducted a combined Freedom of Entry march through the streets of Nowra on 31 August 2013 celebrating the 65th anniversary of the commissioning of Albatross and the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Royal Australian Naval College. As part of the event, three Squirrels and two Bell 429s joined aircraft from 808 and 816 Squadrons to conduct a flypast
The squadron participated in the International Fleet Review in Sydney between 4 and 9 October with as many as nine aircraft taking part aerial displays and flypasts for both the fleet review and the combined navies march. As well as RAN and RAAF aircraft, the fleet review flypast also featured aircraft from France, the UK, Canada, New Zealand and the USA, while the combined navies march on 9 October included more than 3,000 sailors marching through the streets of Sydney.
In 2014 the Squirrels celebrated 30 years of service in the RAN. The light and versatile Squirrel had proven to be one of the most successful airframes in RAN history
From 23 June to 7 August 2014, a Squirrel was embarked in HMAS Parramatta (IV) during the ship’s deployment in support of Operation SOLANIA, the Australian Defence Force’s contribution to maritime surveillance in the Pacific region. The ship conducted exercises with French naval units in New Caledonia and civil aid tasks in Honiara following recent flooding. The Squirrel conducted numerous surface search sorties over the course of the deployment while also conducting embarked training.
723 Squadron is continuing its service.