- Powell, Brian, RD
- Battles and operations, History - general, RAN operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2008 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
A Speech Presented to the Savage Club Monday Forum, Melbourne, 19 November 2007
Australian Colonial Navies were small and meant basically just to protect ports. Apart from Victoria’s monitor Cerberus and South Australia’s cruiser Protector, most vessels were torpedo boats, gunboats or picket boats. Minelayers were left to the Army and, to this day, there is dispute as to which service controls that stretch between the low and high water marks.
Three Colonial incidents merit comment:
- In 1825 the NSW brig Lady Nelson was taken by pirates near Melville Island;
- The Victorian sloop, Victoria, Australia’s first warship, saw action in the Maori Wars, and on 29 December 1860 its sailors, armed with Colt pistols and cutlasses, stormed ashore near Kairau;
- Protector, with augmented sailors from Victoria and other colonies, sailed to the Boxer Rebellion in China, returning, in January 1901, as a ship of the new Australian Commonwealth.
The first allied shot in 1914 was ordered by Midshipman Stan Veale RANR and fired by the Fort Nepean battery to stop a German steamer (Pfalz) escaping Port Phillip. Australia’s first shot in 1939 was ordered by, you’ve guessed it, now LTCDR Stan Veale, when a ship entering Port Phillip refused to heave-to for inspection.
The German steamship Hobart, apparently unaware that war had been declared, thanks to Australian radio jamming, was met and boarded, according to well established maritime practice, by Australian Customs, Immigration and Quarantine Officers just outside Port Phillip Heads. As she passed within the range of land batteries the leader of the AQIS team revealed himself as Captain J. T. Richardson RANR, exposed his true status and introduced the whole team as being a naval boarding party directed by Director of Naval War Staff, Commander Hugh Thring.
Richardson immediately assumed command and, being exhausted by the experience, asked the Captain if he could lie down in his cabin for a nap. After some hours Hobart’s captain and carpenter crept in and commenced to open a secret panel in the captain’s desk. The first thing they found was a cocked and aimed pistol, a light and a ‘hands‑up’ from Richardson. The German Mercantile Code, or HVB, was thus found, captured and soon on its way to Headquarters. A Naval Board signal to London drew the early response that it was the first capture of a German code and thus Melbourne became the recipient and breaker of all allied coded intercepts, and this led to the exposure of Vice-Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee’s whole Pacific itinerary.
German New Guinea, colonised in 1884, maintained a wireless station at Bitapaka in New Britain. In 1914 the station was a target for Naval Reservists and others of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force. It was taken at a cost of seven Australians killed and five wounded. One German and thirty Melanesians also died.
Loss of AE1
The battlecruiser Australia, cruiser Sydney and Submarines AE1 and AE2 were operating in the area and the surface ships provided support. AE1 was tragically lost, presumably hitting an uncharted reef. I have personal experience, while in HMAS Sydney in 1966, of shortcomings in the maps and charts in New Guinea Waters between Finschhafen and Wewak, where there was one minute of latitude discrepancy between the Army’s Map and the Navy’s Chart! I recall one chart further south was endorsed ‘Surveyed by Lieutenant Matthew Flinders RN in 1803, with amendments to date’!
Further afield three Australian destroyers, Parramatta, Warrego and Yarra, were also lurking, as Graf Spee had sailed from Tsingtao with two powerful armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and could be heading towards Australia. But discretion won over valour and the Huns sailed for South America, leaving their most modern light cruiser, Emden, operating independently in the Indian Ocean.
On 1 November 1914, the first ANZAC troop convoy sailed from Albany. On the 8th, Emden crossed 40 miles north of the convoy. Captain von Müller was after the cable and wireless station at Cocos Island, but Cocos got an SOS away first. The convoy commander in HMAS Melbourne despatched the cruiser Sydney to the RAN’s first major sea battle, and one of the few single-ship encounters of the war.
Sydney was the faster, had greater gun range and heavier metal. Emden registered the first hit, causing Sydney’s only casualties of four dead and over a dozen wounded, but only five hours after the Cocos SOS, Emden was ‘beached and done for’. Of a crew of 316, 134 were killed and 65 wounded.