- Goldrick, J.V.P., Midshipman, RAN
- Ship histories and stories
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Australia I
- December 1978 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
THAT THE FIRST AUSTRALIA of the RAN was a Dreadnought battle cruiser was largely due to a combination of accidents, rather than any coherent policy on the part of Great Britain or Australia. In the years following Federation, the Australian Government and Captain Creswell, the Director of Naval Forces, had been largely concerned with schemes involving the construction of large numbers of torpedo boats and destroyers, while the Admiralty did its best to put forward the view that any sums for Australia’s defence should be expended upon the creation of a larger Royal Navy, rather than any doubtful outgrowths.
But, in 1909, as the ‘Dreadnought Craze’ swept the world and nations rushed to purchase battleships at vast expense, the menace of Germany and the power of her fleet began to loom large in the minds of the British and Dominion people. In March 1909, the Prime Minister of New Zealand offered to pay the cost of a new dreadnought for the Royal Navy. A few weeks later, the Prime Minister of Canada informed Mr. Asquith, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, that Canada might be willing to finance the construction of up to three battleships. In the event, this offer came to nothing, but it played its part in arousing Australian enthusiasms.
For the public had been well aroused by the ‘We Want Eight and We Won’t Wait‘ campaign that had been raging in England. With the visit of the American ‘Great White Fleet’ fresh in their memories, battleships were ‘in’ and very glamorous. Pressure began to mount on the Government to make an offer on a par with New Zealand’s.
Mr. Andrew Fisher, the Labour Prime Minister, preferred to continue only with the construction of light craft, but he was swimming against the tide, as the Opposition under Alfred Deakin attacked him and the Premiers of Victoria and New South Wales declared that, in the event of the Commonwealth not making the offer, their States would share the cost of a Dreadnought for England.
At this stage Westminster proposed an Imperial Defence Conference for July 1909, to determine precisely what help the Dominions could offer. This was agreed to, but in the interim the Fisher Government fell and Alfred Deakin instituted a new ministry. The offer of the new Government was: ‘. . . an Australian Dreadnought, or such addition to its naval strength as may be determined after consultation with the conference in London. . . .‘ The Conference was a great success and it was decided that three fleet units should be formed, each with a battle cruiser, three protected cruisers, six destroyers and three submarines. Australia would provide, man and control her own, save in time of war, while those which would be based on the East Indies and China Stations respectively would be Royal Navy, with the proviso that New Zealand’s ‘Gift’ ship would be flagship on the China Station.
Thus was the Australia born. The decision came as a Godsend to Admiral Sir John Fisher, who was nearing the end of his term as First Sea Lord, for he desperately wanted the construction of more battle-cruisers, a type of which he felt not enough had been sanctioned. He had lobbied actively for the flagship of each unit to be a battle cruiser and he had succeeded.
Once the decision had been made that Australia and New Zealand would be having battle cruisers built, their particular class became inevitable. The first three battle cruisers for the Royal Navy had been of the Invincible class, with eight twelve inch guns and a speed of 25 knots, completed in 1908. The class that succeeded them, enlarged and supposedly improved, had, because of the British Liberal Government’s earlier restrictions on spending, only one member, the name-ship Indefatigable. She too had an armament of eight twelve inch guns and a speed of 25 knots and was to be completed in 1911. The new Australia and New Zealand would be her sisters.
This was unfortunate, because there were vastly improved British and foreign designs already on the stocks. The Lion and Princess Royal, with 13.5″ guns, a speed of 28 knots and somewhat heavier armour, were laid down before the Dominion pair and the even better Queen Mary only nine months later.
What was worse, the Japanese Government had ordered from Vickers at Barrow a new battle cruiser, the Kongo, the most powerful yet built, with 8-14″ guns, heavy armour and a speed of 27.5 knots.
The design of Sir George Thurston, this vessel was immeasurably superior to any British battle cruiser yet built or planned and was not even matched until the Tiger completed at the end of 1914.
While it is of course true to say that the Australian Government had to defer to the wishes of the Admiralty, and that the commissioning of a private design might have caused great difficulties, it is a great pity that this was not done, as it is difficult to escape the impression that the RAN was deliberately fobbed off with an inferior ship.
For one of the great phenomena of naval development before and during the First World War was the great increase in the size of heavy guns. In Britain they went from 12″ 45 cal. to 12″ 50 cal. to 13.5″ to 15″ within the space of eight years. The first two jumps had caught the manufacturers unawares and there was an excess of 12″ 45 cal. guns and their mountings. It seemed simple commonsense to make use of these mountings, and the battle cruisers that would be paid for by the Dominions and spend their entire life in the Pacific seemed the best way to use them.
In the event, the Australia was laid down at the yard of John Brown & Sons at Clydebank on the 23rd June 1910. She was launched on 25th October 1911 and completed on 21st June 1913. In form, she was a vessel 590 feet overall, with a beam of 80 feet and a deep draught of 27 feet. Her standard displacement was 18,500 tons and her full load displacement 22,080. She was very weakly armoured, having a belt of only 6″ maximum, with 7″ armour on her turrets. Though far larger than the earlier Invincible, she carried no more armour than her predecessor and was, in fact, in the words of Doctor Oscar Parkes: ‘. . . nothing but an enlarged Invincible with the same weak protection and presenting a larger target . . . a ship regarded as equal or superior to the contemporary German design was unfit to get within range of her guns. . . .‘ In those days before superimposed firing had become the vogue, Australia was designed with a curious turret arrangement intended to give the maximum possible broadside fire. With one turret forward and one aft, the other two were mounted ‘en echelon‘ amidships, with the superstructure arranged so as to give each turret a field of fire over the opposite beam of 10 degrees. This plan was in fact of little practical use as blast from the far turret made the other inoperable when the two were firing on the same bearing and ‘direct axial fire could rarely be of any tactical value‘. Although it has frequently been reported that the 12″ guns of Australia and her sisters were the improved 50 calibre model, they were actually of 45 calibres, firing an improved shell that gave 2,000 yards extra range.
Australia excelled in only three particulars.
She was a very good sea boat, with high freeboard and an easy motion and she possessed high endurance and a good turn of speed.
Australia commissioned in June 1913 and hoisted the flag of Rear Admiral George Patey, whom she was to take out to Australia to become the first Flag Officer Commanding the Australian Fleet. But before she left Portsmouth, she was inspected by HM King George V, Sir George Reid, the former Prime Minister of Australia, who was then serving as the High Commissioner in Britain, Prince Edward of Wales and other dignitaries. On the quarterdeck of the Australia, the King knighted Patey, installing him as a Knight Commander of the Victorian Order. It was a ceremony unprecedented, some said, since the days of Drake and a signal honour for the embryonic Royal Australian Navy.
Australia did eventually prove a worthwhile investment for her country, though she never fired a shot in battle. Her presence on the Australian Station at the outbreak of the First World War deterred Admiral Graf von Spee from bringing his powerful cruiser squadron into our waters. This alone was enough to repay the money expended on the battle cruiser ten times over, although in hindsight it is possible to say that had Graf von Spee handled his superbly trained ships skilfully against the Australia and her consorts, he may well have had the victory.
Australia supervised the occupation of German New Guinea and Rabaul, spending some months in these waters, before being sent post haste to the western entrance of the Panama Canal, in case von Spee should take that direction after his defeat of Cradock at the Battle of Coronel. Australia, still wearing Patey’s flag, served briefly as flagship of the North American and West Indies Station. However, after Sturdee’s victory at the Falkland Islands, there was no more need for her in the area and she was sent to join Beatty’s Battle Cruiser Fleet for operations in the North Sea.
She arrived at the beginning of 1915 and, after a refit, joined the force as flagship of the Second Battle Cruiser Squadron under Rear Admiral W. C. Pakenham. It had at first been intended to retain Patey in the Australia in this job but, by now a Vice Admiral, he was senior to Acting Vice Admiral Beatty and accordingly he returned to the North America and West Indies Station as Commander-in-Chief. Australia wore Pakenham’s flag until he replaced Beatty as Commander of the Battle Cruiser Fleet, when the latter became C-in-C Grand Fleet in succession to Jellicoe. A collision in fog with the New Zealand caused her to be absent from the Battle of Jutland and the holocaust that befell the British battle cruisers there. At the beginning of 1917 Rear Admiral A. C. Leveson hoisted his flag, and he was succeeded in September 1918 by Rear Admiral Lionel Halsey.
The three and a half years that the Australia spent in the North Sea were ones of dull and routine service, but her reward came when, on the 21st November 1918, she led the port wing of the Grand Fleet at the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet.
After the war’s end she refitted at Portsmouth. On 22nd March 1919, Commodore First Class J. S. Dumaresq hoisted his broad pennant in her as the first Australian born Commander of the Australian Fleet. On 22nd April she was inspected by the Prince of Wales and the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wemyss. She sailed for home the next day.
Her subsequent career was short. She paid off at the end of 1921, the highlight of her peacetime service having been the Review of the Australian Fleet in Port Phillip Bay by the Prince of Wales in May 1920. She had indeed spent most of the last months of her service in the area of Westernport, involved in the training of new entry sailors.
She lay for a time in reserve at Sydney, but she was doomed. Though ‘the best of the older battle cruisers‘ – in itself a condemnation – she was included in the British total under the new restrictions of the Washington Treaty and she could not be kept in service instead of better ships. On the 13th April 1924 she was taken out of Port Jackson and ceremonially sunk at the edge of the continental shelf, where she lies to this day.
In conclusion, it might be said of the Australia that ‘never was a worse bargain better struck‘. She may have been inadequately armed and ill-protected, but she saved this country from feeling the full horrors of war and that is enough of an obituary for any Australian warship.