HMAS Pioneer – The RAN’s First Cruiser
- December 1982
- A.N. Other
- Ship histories and stories
- HMAS Brisbane I, HMAS Encounter, HMAS Pioneer, HMS Pioneer, SMS Emden
- Originally published in the Naval Historical Review edition (all rights reserved)
IN A PREVIOUS ISSUE of the Naval Historical Review we gave a short resume of the career of the 3rd class protected cruiser Pioneer in the Royal Navy. Let us now take a very brief look at her later events whilst serving in the Royal Australian Navy.
Pioneer was turned over to the Royal Australian Navy in 1912 for use as a training ship, and thus became the first cruiser to belong to the RAN. Admittedly Encounter commissioned before Pioneer, but she was only on loan at the time.
Lieutenant C.B. Elwell, RN at first assumed command, as the ship went alongside Garden Island, Sydney, for a long overdue refit. In 1914 she fully commissioned, under the command of Commander T.W. Biddlecomb, RAN and Pioneer became the first cruiser to be commanded by a member of the RAN. Her initial duty was training naval reserves, a duty for which she was quite suited. When war broke out in August 1914 the little ship was acting as guard ship in Port Phillip, and was actually under refit at the time. She was, alas, suffering from the dreaded naval disease of ‘condenseritis’, (leaking condenser tubes).
She was quickly undocked and sent off to war, eventually taking up her station off Western Australia. She captured a couple of German passenger liners while she was on the job, proving that there was still some life left in the old ship.
She was soon to blot her copybook, which in the long run turned out to be a stroke of good luck. When the AIF Convoy formed up in Albany, Pioneer was in Fremantle with the Japanese cruiser Ibuki, the Japanese being senior officer. When the two ships were ordered to ‘weigh and proceed’ poor little Pioneer incurred the wrath of the Japanese senior officer. Ibuki was fitted with modern cable gear, and for her it was a simple matter of just heaving on the capstan, but Pioneer was fitted with close stowing anchors, and had to go through the evolution of ‘fishing and catting’ anchor, a lengthy and tiring job to say the least. Her position with the convoy escort was to be in between the Australian and New Zealand sections, actually leading the Kiwis.
Perhaps this was in recognition of her long career in New Zealand waters. Just as she was getting into her steaming position her ‘kidneys’ gave out very badly, and she was ordered back to Fremantle for repair. This is where ‘Lady Luck’ came in. One of the little ship’s duties with the convoy was to steam ahead and search out the Cocos Island group. Had she arrived when Emden was there it would have been a disaster, and the wreck on North Keeling could have been Australian instead of German.
After repairs were completed, Pioneer stayed in Western Australian waters for some time, until requested by the Admiralty to help in the destruction of the Konigsberg, a German light cruiser that had been making a perfect nuisance of herself in the Indian Ocean and in East Africa. She had steamed into Zanzibar Harbour, and sank HMS Pegasus, a former squadron mate on the Australian Station. Just why this cruiser was cleaning her boilers anchored in deep water is a mystery. If she had been closer in to shore she might have been salvaged, but instead she was lost. The Admiralty put in the request for Pioneer on the 24th December 1914, and steps were immediately taken to modify the ship for active service. Her top-gallant masts were removed, one of her semaphores was taken out and a few other minor items landed. She left Fremantle on the 9th January 1915 and arrived at Zanzibar on 6th February. By this time Konigsberg had been located hidden in the Rufigi River, and a determined effort was made to destroy her. The whole area was blockaded to stop supplies getting to the German ship, but some did manage to get through. All sorts of ideas were worked out to get the German, but it eventually took a couple of 6 inch gunned monitors to do the job, Pioneer carrying out quite a lot of shore bombardment work in support.
There were many varied activities for the small Australian cruiser, and on one occasion she, in company with the cruiser Hyacinth and the battleship Vengeance, was ordered to Dar-es-Salaam to hunt out a suspect ship. The two big ships stood off, but sent the little Pioneer in to do the actual work. Eventually the other two came in to give a hand. Plenty of naval work was available in East Africa, for after the destruction of Konigsberg, the Germans removed her guns and used them all over the theatre, some still being used some three years later when the war ended. Many bombardments were done by the RAN’s training ship, and in actual fact, Pioneer fired more rounds in anger than any other ship in the RAN.
There were lighter sides to her duties, and one concerned her ‘lower deck band’. When the crew found out that they would be on the station for some time, they decided to buy a full set of brass instruments and form a band. The instruments duly arrived, and the lads got to work to learn how to play them. Eventually they were to be a very good band, but the initial learning session was hard on the ears, so much so that the captain ordered the band ashore to practice. Finally they decided that they were fit for public performances, and the debut was made entering Mombassa Harbour. On the poop stood the ‘guard and band’, with the volunteers playing with much gusto. What the performance was like is hard to say, but the Admiral did sent a tactful (!) signal to Pioneer’s skipper . . . ‘The band sounded lovely entering harbour . . . especially the big drum‘.
When all the fighting in the area had cooled down it was agreed to send Pioneer back to Australia, the idea being that she would pay off and her crew transfer to the new Brisbane. This was good news for the little ship, but the trip home was to be a lot longer than expected. On the 22nd August 1916 Pioneer left Zanzibar with the intention of coaling en route. Her course was to be via the Seychelles, Colombo and through the Sunda Strait. At that time the Dutch were not particularly friendly towards the British, and stood very harshly by strict neutrality when it came to British ships. Pioneer took on coal at Colombo, and intended to put into Batavia for enough to get her home. The Dutch would only identify her as British, and although a belligerent warship was entitled by neutrality laws to take on enough coal to get it to the nearest port of her own nationality, which in this case should have been Darwin, the Dutch maintained that she was British, and only allowed her enough to get to Singapore. Pioneer finally slipped into Port Jackson just before midnight on the 22nd October 1916, and dropped her pick in Watsons Bay. Her seagoing career was at an end.
Paid off in November that year, she was used for quite some time as an accommodation ship, and incidentally, the site of the first dental surgery for the RAN. Sold in 1925, she was stripped down to a bare hulk and scuttled in 1931. She is largely forgotten, many present day officers and men have never heard of her, very few relics remain. On show in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, are her binnacle and one of her little 14 inch torpedoes. Little else remains of this very important ship.
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