First of the Line – HMAS Albatross, first aircraft carrier

Early warships
RAN Ships
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October 1977 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)

WHEN THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER1 emerged from the 1914-18 war as a major weapon of war, it was inevitable that the Royal Australian Navy – with the largest island continent in the world to protect – would seek to acquire such a ship for service in Australasian waters.

The RAN first initiated plans for a naval air service in 1913 and, as early as 1917, a move was made to obtain Australia’s first aircraft carrier. With the incursion into the Pacific of the German raiders SMS Wolf – with her Friedrichshafen FF33E seaplane Wolfchen (or Wolf Cub) – and Seeadler, the Australian Naval Board requested the loan of a similar carrier to HMS Riviera. The Admiralty replied, however, that this ‘was not possible in the circumstances‘. In fact, carriers were in such demand at the time that the Royal Navy had taken over an Australian mail steamer, SS Nairana, which was being built in the United Kingdom for the Bass Strait run between Melbourne and Launceston, and converted it into a light aircraft carrier which was commissioned as HMS Nairana in September 1917.

During the same year aircraft of the Royal Naval Air Service began operating aboard Australian warships serving with the RN. HMAS Brisbane first embarked a Sopwith Baby seaplane in mid-1917 and, in December, Sopwith Pups were launched from HMA Ships Sydney and Australia. During 1918 Australia was equipped with a Sopwith 1½ Strutter and a Camel – or, sometimes, two Camels – and Sydney and Melbourne each carried a Camel. When the war ended on November 11 1918, plans for a Royal Australian Naval Air Service were still in abeyance, and the Australian warships returned their aircraft to the Royal Air Force in 1919, before sailing for home waters.

The post-war period brought a cut in defence spending, and it appeared that many years would pass before Australia could afford to purchase an aircraft carrier. As an interim move, HMAS Australia embarked an Avro 504L seaplane, HL3034, in July 1920, for two months, and a second 504L seaplane, H3042, joined HMAS Melbourne on September 29 for a Pacific cruise to New Guinea and Rabaul. These experiments were not a success however, and the two aircraft were returned to the Australian Air Corps, and were renumbered A3-47 and 48 in 1921.

Plans for a naval air service received a further setback in September 1920, when the Federal Government decided to establish an autonomous air force which would, inter alia, provide support for the army and navy. In the event, approval was given for a squadron of ‘ship’s aeroplanes’ and, in 1921, six Fairey HID seaplanes were ordered for co-operation with the RAN. They were initially allocated Australian Naval Aircraft serial numbers, ANA-1 to 6, but were renumbered A10-1 to 6 after the Royal Australian Air Force was formed in 1921.

In May 1923, the RAN instituted a special branch of observers, whereby selected navigators underwent a three months course at RAAF Point Cook flying in Avro 504K trainers and Fairey HID seaplanes. The latter aircraft also participated in fleet exercises, but worked mainly with the sloop HMAS Geranium surveying the Great Barrier Reef. One HID accompanied Geranium in 1924, and two IIIDs operated from shore bases with the sloop for the 1925 season. As the latter year began, it seemed likely that naval aviation would remain in the doldrums for some time to come, but within six months the situation changed dramatically.

In the first instance, three RAN lieutenants started a four year pilot training course at RAAF Point Cook. Six months later the formation of the RAN Fleet Air Arm was promulgated by the Navy Order 137-16, June 1925. Then, on June 10, came the surprise defence announcement of the year. While opening Federal Parliament the Governor-General, Lord Stonehaven, revealed that the Government had decided to purchase ‘a seaplane carrier,’ and added that provision had been made for ‘the aeroplanes and necessary amphibians to equip the seaplane carrier.’

Proof that this untoward announcement came as a shock – particularly in defence quarters – is contained in the forthcoming autobiography of Air Marshal Sir Richard Williams (this important work is being published by the Australian War Memorial, and Sir Richard and the AWM kindly granted permission to quote selected extracts), ‘In 1926 . . . I read in the Press one morning that on the previous day the Government had placed a contract with a dockyard in Sydney for the construction of a seaplane carrier to be known as HMAS Albatross,’ recalls Sir Richard. ‘I had heard nothing of this from the Navy so I sought confirmation of it from the Minister, and when I asked him who was to supply the aircraft he said ‘You will’. He had not mentioned the matter to me previously. This was an extraordinary position.

The Government’s announcement also caused embarrassment to the RAN because, apparently, an aircraft carrier specification had not been prepared. This confused situation resulted in a cryptic cable being received by the Admiralty Director of Naval Construction which stated, in effect, that it was politically desirable to built a ‘seaplane carrier’ in Australia. The cable then provided the two only known specifications – a speed of 21 knots and a cost of one million pounds! The Naval Constructor in charge of the Admiralty’s Aircraft Section is on record as retorting – ‘a more unsatisfactory way of producing an aircraft carrier I do not know, and I cannot imagine.’

What then brought about this political decision that, to all intents and purposes, ignored the two services involved – the RAAF and the RAN? It all began in February 1924 when the British Government informed the Dominions that, for the time being, no further expenditure would be incurred on the Singapore Naval Base. This decision particularly affected the political defence planning of Australia and, as a result, a naval expansion program was immediately initiated.

On June 27 1924, the Prime Minister, Mr. Bruce, announced plans to purchase two 10,000 ton cruisers, and two ocean-going submarines. The Labor Opposition argued that the cruisers should be built in Australia to assist the local shipbuilding industry, as Cockatoo Island Dockyard was about to close down through lack of work. The construction of the cruisers excited a nation-wide controversy and, after prolonged investigations, the Government ordered the two warships from Great Britain, thereby saving more than one million pounds. This money was then used to keep Cockatoo Island Dockyard employed, thus appeasing the Opposition and the public and relieving the shipbuilding depression. So it came about that one million pounds was allotted for the local construction of an aircraft carrier which, the politicians argued, was required to offset the carriers being introduced into the Pacific area by Japan.

Australia’s so-called ‘seaplane carrier’ necessitated much original thought as the design of such a ship had never before been planned from the drawing board stage. The early seaplane carriers of the RN had been improvised versions of ships laid down for other purposes. ‘You can say that the hull was designed around three holds, three cranes, and 21 knots,’ wrote the designer of Albatross, Constructor Stephen Payne, some years later.

Payne had the assistance of a young naval architect, Mr. Woolnough, who was attached to Australia House, London. Woolnough attended the weekly meetings at the Admiralty and, presumably, obtained the necessary information, piecemeal, from Australia as the design progressed. He, at least, ascertained that Albatross would be required to carry a maximum of nine aircraft, although it is not certain what type of aircraft was nominated. It would appear that the designer assumed that the Fairey IIIDs in Australia were the ‘seaplane carried’. At any rate, the dimensions of the aircraft deck hatch and hangars provided sufficient space to operate the IIIDs with their wings folded. The cranes also had the capacity to cope with the all-up-weight of the IIIDs. In fact, Janes Fighting Ships, from 1929 to 1934, annually reported that ‘at present 6 Fairey machines are carried’ aboard Albatross – despite the fact that the last Fairey IIID had been phased out of RAAF service in 1929.

Another error has been perpetrated over the years by the assumption that Supermarine Seagull III amphibians were specially acquired for Albatross. Although six of these aircraft were ordered in 1925, they were purchased to replace the Fairey IIIDs in the Seaplane Training Flight, and for survey work in northern waters. This is borne out in Sir Richard Williams’ memoirs, and substantiated in a statement made by the Minister for Defence, Sir Neville Howse, on July 1 1926: ‘. . .as amphibians were urgently required for training personnel for the seaplane carrier now under construction, and for use this season on the Barrier Reef survey, Seagulls, being the best amphibian types available, were ordered. This number, however, six, was limited to those which would definitely be used up in training, it being anticipated that improved types would be available when the time arrives to order aircraft for the seaplane carrier.

To accommodate nine of these unknown ‘improved types,’ Albatross was designed with a high freeboard, which contained three holds, or hangars. Each hold contained space to store three aircraft, of similar measurements to the IIID. Three cranes were positioned on the aircraft deck, above the holds, for hoisting aircraft up from the aft hangar, lowering them over the side for take-off, retrieving them after landing alongside, and returning them to the hangars below deck. Provision was also made in the bow for the installation , at a later date, of a catapult for launching aircraft that were strengthened for this purpose. Of necessity, the ship’s bridge, machinery, crew quarters, and boats were placed aft. Plates and sections were despatched from England to Australia, and the keel of Albatross was laid down at Cockatoo Island Dockyard on April 16 1926.

During the same month the six Seagull III amphibians, A9-1 to 6, arrived by ship in Australia and were erected and tested at RAAF Point Cook. On July 1 the Seagulls were allotted to the newly formed No. 101 (Fleet Co-operation) Flight and, a few months later, the flight moved to RAAF Richmond under the command of Flight Lieutenant A. E. Hempel. The Fairey IIIDs still in service remained at Point Cook as seaplane trainers.

While Albatross was under construction from 1926 to 1928, No. 101 (Fleet Co-operation) Flight moved to Bowen, Queensland, where a coastal base was established for the Seagull IIIs to work with the survey ship, HMAS Moresby, on the Great Barrier Reef project until late 1928. Meanwhile, three ex-RAAF Seagull IIIs were acquired in 1927, and renumbered A9-7 to 9. Reporting their arrival at Point Cook in January, Aircraft added that ‘. . . it is still a little early to talk about equipment for the aircraft carrier which is now being built at Cockatoo Dock, NSW.‘ With the extra Seagulls in service, the RAAF extended survey flying to New Guinea in late 1927.

On Thursday, February 23 1928 – the day after H. J. L. (Bert) Hinkler, completed the first solo flight from England to Australia in Avro 58 IE Avian, G-EBOV – Australia’s first aircraft carrier was launched at Cockatoo Island Dockyard by the Governor-General’s wife. ‘I name this ship Albatross,’ declared Lady Stonehaven. ‘I am proud that she is the result of Australian workmanship, and I congratulate those who have so faithfully and skilfully constructed her. May she prove a valuable addition to the Royal Australian Navy.’ The Sydney Mail reported that ‘Albatross glided down the ways in stately fashion to the accompaniment of cheers by the large crowd of spectators, and the strains of Advance Australia Fair played by the Naval Band.‘ During the speeches, the Chairman of the Commonwealth Shipping Board, Mr. Larkin, observed that ‘one and all hoped that the seaplane carrier would have a peaceful life, and would never have to be used in warfare‘ – a hope, unfortunately, that did not eventuate.

The previous month, January 1928, Cabinet decided not to approve authority for the continuation of the RAN FAA, thus negating the decision made in 1925. It was decided, instead, that the RAAF would provide the aircraft, pilots, and maintenance personnel for the new carrier, and the RAN the observers and telegraphists. Naval officers, however, could train as pilots for RAAF service if circumstances permitted – although this was also discontinued in the 1930s. In the event the Navy was given operational control of embarked RAAF aircraft, a system that remained in force until 1944.

Albatross, the twelfth ship of the name, was completed in December 1928. On her trials, during the same month, she exceeded the required speed of 21 knots, and 22.5 knots was attained with 12,910 h.p. The ship’s machinery comprised Parsons geared turbines with two shafts, the designed horsepower being 12,000, and four Yarrow boilers were installed. Dimensions included a length of 443¾ ft., a beam of 60 ft., and a draught of 16¼ ft. Standard displacement was 4,800 tons. Armament comprised four 4.7 inch anti-aircraft guns, and two 2 pdr pom-pom guns. The ship’s complement numbered 450, including six officers and 24 other ranks from the RAAF.

HMAS Albatross commissioned at Sydney on January 23 1929 under the command of Captain D. M. T. Bedford, R.N. A month later the carrier positioned at Port Phillip where aircraft stores, and personnel, of No. 101 (Fleet co-operation) Flight embarked on February 21. On the 25th, six Seagull IIIs were hoisted aboard at Geelong – and, more than one RAAF officer heaved a sigh of relief to see the folded-wing aircraft lowered through the 41ft. x 20ft. hatch and into the hangars, albeit the fit was close! By coincidence, the Fairey IIID (span 46 ft. 11¼ in, length 37 ft., height 11 ft. 4 in.), and the Seagull III (span 46 ft., length 37 ft., height 12 ft.) possessed almost the same dimensions, particularly when their wings were folded.

No sooner had Albatross joined the Fleet than she was called upon to assist in the search for Kingsford Smith’s Southern Cross, G-AUSU, lost near Wyndham on March 31 1929. As the days slipped by with no trace being found of the Fokker F.VIIb-3m, the Minister for Defence, Sir William Glasgow, ordered HMAS Albatross, and her Seagulls, to proceed from Sydney with all possible speed to Wyndham. The entire crew of the carrier was recalled from leave, and Albatross sailed on April 11 for her dash to the west. Shortly after her departure, however, Captain L. H. Holden in the DH61 Canberra, G-AUHW, located the Southern Cross on April 12, and Albatross was ordered back to Sydney.

Working up exercises for HMAS Albatross were carried out in Australian waters where the carrier, and her aircraft, operated as a reconnaissance element for the new 10,000 ton cruisers HMA Ships Australia and Canberra, which at that time did not carry aircraft. In June 1929, combined manoeuvres took place with the Royal New Zealand cruisers Dunedin and Diomede. Rear-Admiral E. Evans (later Admiral Lord Mountevans), commanding Australian Squadron, was most impressed with the performance of Albatross and her aircraft. So much so, that during the concluding sports regatta at Hervey Bay, north of Brisbane, he gave permission for a special race for the Seagulls. The event was decided on a time basis, and the amphibians roared around the course at low level in full view of the RAN and RNZN ships anchored in the bay. As Lieutenant-Commander G. W. R. Nicholl, RN, remarked in his book The Supermarine Walrus, ‘. . . it is difficult to imagine Their Lordships of the time approving a similar contest in the Royal Navy!

In July and August Albatross made a vice-regal tour of the New Guinea area with Lord and Lady Stonehaven. In addition to her Seagulls, Albatross embarked the Wackett Widgeon II for tropic trials. Meanwhile, the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Commodore R. Williams, had already initiated action to replace the wooden-hulled Seagull IIIs in Albatross. ‘I obtained the dimensions of the hangar and the capacity of the crane – anything which affected the handling of aircraft in and out of the ship,’ recalls Sir Richard in his memoirs. ‘. . . with the assistance of my Director of Technical Services, then Wing Commander H. C. Harrison, we drew up a specification of the aircraft we would need.‘ The resultant specification – an air-cooled metal construction, strengthened for catapulting, fitted with folding wings, with provision for a crew of three, and of such dimensions as to operate from Albatross – was submitted in 1929. This aircraft eventually materialised as the RAAF’s Supermarine Type 236 Seagull V of 1933 and, later, the RAF’s and FAA’s Walrus I of 1935, and wooden-hulled Walrus II of 1941.

Meanwhile, in November 1929, Albatross took part in combined exercises with the RAN and RAAF in Port Phillip Bay. The Seagull III crews opened the mock war with an early morning attack on their erstwhile friends at Point Cook and Laverton. They then maintained patrols over the RAAF bases to alert the fleet of retaliation raids.

In December, Squadron Leader V. R. Scriven, an RAF exchange officer, took over from Squadron Leader Hempel as No. 101 (Fleet Co-operation) Flight’s Commanding Officer, and Senior Air Officer aboard Albatross. The flight comprised one squadron leader, one flight lieutenant and three flying officers, all of the General Duties branch. These five pilots – Albatross carried a maximum of Six Seagull IIIs, one of which was a reserve aircraft – were allotted five naval officers as observers. The RAAF also provided a Stores and Accounting branch flying officer, and 24 non-commissioned officers and airmen of eight trade musterings. In addition, six RAN telegraphist air-gunners were attached to the flight.

No. 101 (Fleet Co-operation) Flight re-embarked in Albatross during May 1930, after spending a month at RAAF Richmond. The carrier then departed on a second extensive cruise to New Guinea and the Mandated Territories. In August, Captain H. J. Feakes, RAN, assumed command of Albatross from Captain Bedford. Late in 1930 the carrier visited Adelaide, Port Lincoln, Port Pirie and Wallaroo for the first time. The close of the year also brought the first effects of the Depression, and the RAN sea-going squadron was reduced to Australia, Canberra, Albatross, and one ‘S’ class destroyer.
For the next two years, Albatross continued to operate along much the same lines as she had done during 1929-30; winter cruises to the New Guinea area, spring cruises to southern states, training exercises, and combined operations. In February 1931, Squadron Leader J. E. Hewitt took over command of No. 101 (Fleet Co-operation) Flight and Captain C. J. Pope, RAN, replaced Captain Feakes aboard Albatross in August 1931.

The full impact of the Depression had reached Australia by 1933 and, on April 23, HMAS Albatross was paid off into the Reserve Fleet. For the next five years the aircraft carrier was either swinging at anchor in Sydney Harbor, or berthed at Garden Island. Ironically, the prototype Supermarine Seagull V – the amphibian specially designed for Albatross to Air Commodore Williams’ specification – took to the air for the first time on June 21 1933, two months after Albatross was laid up.

Early in 1936 an E III H catapult was fitted to Albatross at Garden Island, in anticipation of the carrier being recommissioned by the time the first of the 24 Seagull Vs had arrived in Australia. But it was not to be. Apparently, catapult trials were carried out with a Seagull V in August 1936, although the author has yet to locate photographs of this historic event. Albatross remained in reserve until April 19 1938, when she was accepted by the Admiralty as part payment for the new cruiser, HMAS Hobart; as from 1936 all the RAN cruisers – Australia, Canberra, Sydney, Hobart and Perth were equipped with their own Seagull V amphibian, thus negating the requirement for Albatross. Flying her paying-off pennant, HMAS Albatross sailed from Sydney under the command of Captain H. G. D. Acland, RN, on July 11 1938. As she proceeded down the harbor, the carrier was farewelled by a formation of Seagull V amphibians of the No. 5 (Fleet Co-operation) Squadron, commanded by Squadron Leader C. B. Wincott, RAF, from RAAF Richmond – this squadron was formed from the No. 101 (Fleet Co-operation) Flight on April 21 1936, and it was subsequently renumbered No. 9 (Fleet Co-operation) Squadron on January 1 1939.

Although Albatross severed connections with the RAN in 1938, her subsequent history is full of interest. On October 6 1938, the carrier was commissioned in the RN as HMS Albatross for trials at Devonport, and was then placed in reserve on November 30 1938. HMS Albatross recommissioned on August 25 1939 – due to shortages she had no catapult installed – and embarked No. 710 Squadron, FAA, comprising six Supermarine Walrus 1 amphibians. She then sailed for war service in the South Atlantic, West Africa, and Madagascar areas. In 1940 a catapult was reinstalled, and in 1941-2 Albatross underwent a refit in America. In 1943 the carrier returned to England, was paid off, and the catapult was again removed. In 1944 HMS Albatross joined the Home Fleet as a repair ship, and took part in the Allied invasion of Normandy. On August 11 Albatross was hit by a torpedo off Courseulles and casualties exceeded 100, including 50 killed. The ship also destroyed a Junkers Ju 88, and two shore batteries. HMS Albatross joined the Reserve Fleet in January 1945 at Portsmouth, and later Falmouth.

In 1946 Albatross was sold to a British company which planned to convert her into a passenger luxury cruiser. When conversion costs became too high, it was decided to use Albatross as an offshore floating cabaret at Torquay on the Devonshire coast. The ship was saved this fate when it was bought by the Greek-British Yannoulatos Group of shipowners on the day Prince Charles was born and in whose honour she was renamed Hellenic Prince. She was then converted to a passenger vessel and in 1949 was chartered by the International Refugee Organisation. Carrying 1,000 displaced persons, the ship returned to Sydney on December 5 1949, where she had first taken the water some 21 years previously in 1928. Hellenic Prince was finally scrapped at Hong Kong on August 12 1954.

Although the genesis of naval air power in Australia is closely associated with the RAN’s first aircraft carrier, the warship was almost forgotten by the nation she served. That is until August 31 1948, when the Naval Air Station at Nowra, NSW, was commissioned as HMAS Albatross. RANAS Nowra is the shore support base for the RAN FAA, and it is most appropriate that the station perpetuates the name HMAS Albatross – the first of the line.


  1. The term aircraft carrier is a controversial one and covers many types of ships -ships that carried landplanes which could be launched only; ships with flight decks for takeoff only; ships with fully operational flight decks; ships with catapults; and ships that acted as seaplane carriers, or tenders. Albatross was often referred to as a seaplane carrier, although she carried boat-amphibians rather than seaplanes. Thus, the author has chosen the generic term aircraft carrier to describe HMAS Albatross, precursor of post-WW II carriers HMA Ships Sydney,Vengeance and Melbourne.

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