- Goldrick, James, Commodore, RAN
- Early warships, Ship design and development
- RAN Ships
- HMAS AE2
- September 2011 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The Admiralty’s schemes for the RAN from the start proposed particular Australian contributions to what soon became a ‘main fleet to Singapore’ strategy and were aligned with the early concepts of that strategy. It was thus not surprising that after the end of the First World War the British should offer and Australia accept a flotilla of submarines. It was also not surprising that the class, albeit one that in itself represented a discrete package as there were only six of the type, should be the biggest submarine in RN service, aside from the steam driven K class and the big gun armed M class, and one with significant endurance.
The J class, however, rapidly proved too much for a cash strapped Australian Navy, particularly as they required a high level of maintenance and restoration after their war service. Despite a number of valiant rearguard proposals to retain one or two of the boats for ASW training, it was eventually accepted (even by the submariners) that the J class ‘were too obsolete and worn out ever to be brought forward for further service’.
Phase Four: A Role for the RAN in the British Construct for the Defence of the Far East
Nevertheless, even as Australia agonised over the fate of the J class, British thinking continued to focus on the means by which a workable scheme for the defence of the Far East could be devised. The force structure implications of that plan for both the Royal Navy and the Dominion naval forces in the Asia-Pacific were put formally to the Imperial Defence Conference in 1923. The British expected that the Japanese would attempt to seize Singapore as soon as hostilities began and before any British reinforcements could arrive. The British Empire’s forces in South East Asia had to be able to prevent or at least delay the arrival of a Japanese invasion force. The Admiralty therefore ‘considered fast…cruisers of great endurance and large submarines the most suitable classes of ship for the Dominion navies.’
The proposal that Australia should divide its primary naval (and, indeed, defence) expenditure on cruisers and submarines thus reflected the requirements for both sea control and sea denial to be achieved during the period over some 42 days (a figure subject to variation as plans were modified over the years) in which the main fleet would move from European waters to the Far East. During this time, it was accepted that the British Empire forces would be on the defensive, particularly in the South China Sea and the archipelago of the East Indies. That defence would be sustained at sea principally by submarines, with the cruisers of the China, East Indies, Australia and New Zealand stations providing surface action groups in the China Seas, as well as units in the Indian and South West Pacific oceans and the Malacca Strait to protect both trade and the movement of reinforcements.
The British intended their submarines to operate in the East and South China Seas and within the archipelago on a scale which would present fundamental problems for Japanese surface forces, particularly if there were any attempts to stage amphibious assaults. While the points to be defended varied, with Hong Kong sometimes given up as a lost cause, British operational concepts became increasingly sophisticated. Although they themselves would have a surveillance and reconnaissance role in their own right, the submarines would not operate unsupported. The Oberon class, which were the first class to be built after the Great War and the first designed specifically for the Far East, and their successors were fitted with up to date radio equipment in order to allow their interaction with other force elements (and with sonar for ASW work). In this period the RN and the Royal Air Force began to conduct joint exercises in which flying boats were required ‘to locate a naval force and home a submarine flotilla on to it.’ In 1927 (in good time for the new submarines) four flying boats were transferred from the United Kingdom to Singapore and formed into the new 205 Squadron.  Group or ‘wolf pack’ coordinated submarine tactics were developed as a method of overwhelming the defences of Japanese fleets and troop convoys. Covert submarine reconnaissance techniques were also refined, some of which would be revived for the Cold War, in order to monitor the progress of the increasingly secretive Japanese, particularly after 1936 when no more foreign warship visits were allowed to Japanese ports.