- Grazebrook, A.W., Lietutenant Commander
- Naval technology
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 1976 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
‘I have not dwelt on the strategic value of a (RAN) capital ship at Singapore as that is so obvious from our point of view. The presence of the battle cruiser Australia with 12 inch guns in our waters at the outbreak of the Great War drove the German Pacific Fleet with 8 inch guns away from our shores.’ Thus wrote the Honourable Sir George F. Pearce, Minister for External Affairs (and former Minister for Defence) to the Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. J.A. Lyons, on 26th January 1937.
WITH THE ADVANTAGE OF HINDSIGHT, many naval historians would conclude that Sir George Pearce’s strategic historical analogy was fundamentally erroneous.
In August 1914, HMAS Australia, in company with a number of the RAN’s light cruisers, was both faster and superior in armament and armour to the German Pacific Squadron (or any other potentially hostile naval force in the Pacific or Indian Oceans at that time). The key ships of the German Squadron were SMS Scharnhorst and Gneisenau – armoured cruisers. The German ships’ 22 knots and eight 8.2 inch guns compared with Australia’s 26 knots and eight 12 inch guns.
By 1937, the position had changed fundamentally. The potential enemy was Japan. All the world knew of the numerical strength of the Imperial Japanese Navy and that it would have no difficulty in crushing a solitary capital ship, with or without cruiser and destroyer support.
Nevertheless, the then Australian Government commenced negotiations with the United Kingdom Government with a view to acquiring a capital ship for the RAN. Within Australia, there were differing opinions pressed upon our Defence Authorities by politicians. Then, as now, it was difficult to decide how to put limited funds to the best use. The Rt. Hon. W.M. Hughes advocated nests of torpedo boats whilst others sought a strong Army, or increased airpower at Darwin.
The British differed amongst themselves regarding the value of the project. In May 1937, Sir Samuel Hoare (then First Lord of the Admiralty), addressing the Imperial Conference, advocated that Dominion Naval Shipbuilding Programmes should comprise cruisers and sloops/escort vessels. However, a few days later, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Chatfield (First Sea Lord) quoted the new First Lord of the Admiralty (Duff Cooper) as supporting the idea. It is not clear whether Chatfield himself supported the idea.
The views of Admiral Sir Francis Hyde, RAN, then First Naval Member of the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board, are not recorded in the published documents. However, it is known that Hyde felt he was left in the dark during preparations for this particular Conference, and there are indications that he supported the acquisition of additional cruisers. Expert RAN advice was not available to the Australian Delegation at the Conference. Politicians and public servants only represented the country, although the British were well supported by all three Empire Chiefs of Staff.
Australian defence policy formulation was inhibited further by the death of Sir Francis Hyde shortly after the Conference finished. He was succeeded on a temporary basis by Commodore (2nd Class) G.P. Thomson, RN, Second Naval Member, who did both jobs until the arrival of Vice-Admiral Sir Ragnar Colvin at the end of 1937.
A battleship of 40,000 tons standard displacement was envisaged by the Australian politicians. The ship would have cost up to £9,000,000. If a possible sale of Australia and Canberra in part exchange had materialised, the net cost of the new battleship would have been £7,500,000. However, the whole of the British capital ship construction facilities were occupied for some years to come. The British were hurriedly building up their battle fleet following the ill effects of the ‘No War for Ten Years Rule‘. Key features in the occupation of construction facilities were the manufacture of guns and armour plate. The British stated that they saw no possibility of completing a new capital ship for Australia at least until 1943.
Perhaps recognising that the date would be much later than that envisaged by the Australians, Chatfield provided a table of annualised costs of various types of naval craft – options to the battleship proposal.
|Battleship (Nelson)||26 years||706,800|
|Cruiser, large||23½ years||323,600|
|Cruiser, small||23½ years||225,400|
|Aircraft carrier (36 aircraft)||20 years||894,000|
|Aircraft carrier (15 aircraft)||20 years||514,500|
|Destroyer Flotilla (8 Javelins)||22 years||528,300|
|One submarine (oceangoing)||14 years||65,500|
The British First Sea Lord explained that the Royal Navy then had fifteen capital ships:-
- 2 Nelson Class, completed in 1927.
- 5 Queen Elizabeth Class, completed in 1915-16, three of which were either modernised or undergoing modernisation.
- 5 Royal Sovereign, or ‘R’ Class, completed 1916-17.
- 1 Hood Battle-cruiser, completed 1920. Unmodernised.
- 2 Repulse Class Battle-cruisers, completed in 1916. One, Renown, had commenced full modernisation and Repulse had been partially modernised.