- Grazebrook, A.W., Lietutenant Commander
- Naval technology
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 1976 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Australian Defence Thinking in the 1930s
In the mid-1970s, it is all too easy to forget certain key factors which were of much greater influence in the 1930s than they are today.
- The Australian Armed Forces tended to be considered very much as part of British Empire Defence, and intended to operate primarily with the Forces of the rest of the Empire.
- Only a few doubted the ability of the British Fleet to move to Singapore at short notice.
- No one doubted the impregnability of Singapore as a fortress.
- It was widely assumed that the British Main Fleet operating from Singapore would prevent major Japanese movements into the Netherlands East Indies and further south.
- The vulnerability of Japan, an island nation dependent upon maritime trade for her living, to maritime economic pressure exerted by maritime armed forces.
- The threat to Empire trade from commerce raiders.
The best buy?
As with any other major investment, the purchase of a battleship for the RAN would have had an opportunity cost. Australia had limited funds available – it was a question of buying a battleship or a number of other craft. We could not have everything. For the same money as the cost of a battleship, a number of options were open, including:
Cost in £
|Two more heavy cruisers,
plus an escort
|Two more smaller
cruisers, plus escorts
|Eleven modern destroyers||707,000|
|11 ocean going submarines||706,000||One small carrier,
plus 3 destroyers
There were a number of other variations – a combination of submarines and destroyers, one heavy cruiser plus destroyers and so on.
At first glance, a force of submarines would have seemed to be a good investment. With Japan’s dependence upon maritime trade, submarines would have seemed to have a deterrent value. However, there were points against this:-
- It was not until they learned the hard way in 1943 that the Japanese recognised the threat of submarines to their trade. A deterrent is only effective if it is recognised as such by the potential enemy.
- The British did recognise the effectiveness of a submarine force against the Japanese. To this end, they built, stationed in Far Eastern Waters, and trained the fifteen oceangoing boats of their Fourth Submarine Flotilla. In addition, our Dutch potential allies (12 boats) and the United States (6 boats) both stationed submarines in the Far East. It could have been contended that the addition of further (Australian) submarines would have been superfluous.
- At the time, the ability of a submarine force in a defensive role against invasion was unproven. In the event, both the US and Dutch submarines failed to prevent or seriously inhibit the Japanese invasion of the Philippines or the Netherlands East Indies – and the Dutch suffered considerable submarine losses in the campaign.
On the facts available to the Commonwealth Naval Board at the time, one small carrier plus destroyers may have had attractions. Events were to prove that a fleet carrier with armoured deck AND effective torpedo carrying and fighter aircraft would have been of immense value to both an Australia on her own and as part of an Empire Fleet. However, a small carrier would have had insufficient aircraft, and those she would have carried would have been hopelessly outclassed by those of Japanese carrier Admiral Nagumo. One has only to consider the fate of HMS Hermes for an indication of what could have happened to a similar ship in the RAN.
It was in fact for one of the various combinations of cruisers, escorts and destroyers that the RAN eventually opted. We acquired two further light cruisers (HMA Ships Perth and Hobart). Local construction of Tribal Class destroyers and two further Yarra Type escorts commenced. The numerous Bathurst Class AMS corvettes were designed and built in Australia.
Most historians would contend that events proved the ACNB’s decision correct. For the first two years of the war, those cruisers that remained in home waters performed a very necessary role against German raiders. Those cruisers and smaller craft that were sent overseas performed outstanding service alongside the British Fleet. After the Japanese entry into the war, much of the naval action in the Australasian Theatre was against submarines and in cruiser/destroyer type task groups (the long series of battles in the Solomons etc.). The composition of the RAN enabled an appropriate contribution to be made to the main forces of our allies, and the requirements for our local defence and escort duties to be adequately met.
The author wishes to acknowledge as a source Documents on Australian Foreign Policy 1937-49 Volume I, edited by R.G. Neale and published by the Department of Foreign Affairs.
This article was originally printed in the Naval Historical Review – June 1976 Edition
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