Unique in Many Respects
The World Heritage wreck of HMVS CERBERUS, seen here at the height of her career, is so listed by the Department of Environment and Energy for many reasons.
- HMVS CERBERUS is physical evidence of the development of Australia as a nation and as part of the British Empire.
- The construction of HMVS CERBERUS (1867 -1870) reflects a period in Australia’s history when the individual colonies were vulnerable to coastal attack and invasion.
- Given the power to make laws for their own naval defence and Victoria’s perceived vulnerability, given its immense goldfields wealth at the time, the acquisition of suitable vessels for the defence of the colony became an imperative.
- The history of the colony’s HMVS CERBERUS, from 1871 to 1924, illustrates the development of Australia’s defence needs as part of the British Empire, and the role of Britain in providing naval expertise and technical assistance to its Australian far-flung colonies.
- HMVS CEREBUS is the only surviving example of this type of vessel in the world, and the only substantially intact remnant of Australia’s pre-federation colonial navies.
- The HMVS CEREBUS was the first British-built naval ship in which sail power was dispensed with and which used steam power alone for propulsion. It was the first ship to have a central superstructure, with gun turrets above deck both fore and aft. It was also the first British designed warship to use low freeboard in the monitor style, and the first to have iron breastwork protection.
A unique vessel, indeed.
Victoria was an inconsequential colony at the other end of the British Empire until the gold rush changed the situation dramatically. In 1852 gold valued at nineteen and a half million pounds was shipped out of Melbourne, bound for London. This was serious wealth that could attract the envy of other nations.
Australia was not then a united Commonwealth, and so each state was essentially dependent on Britain to protect it. The adequacy of the colony’s defences was bought into sharp focus by the surprise visit off Melbourne of Tsarist Russian frigates in 1862 and 1863.
In 1865 the powerful Confederate commerce raider CSS Shenandoah arrived at Melbourne seeking permission to effect urgent repairs. Britain was maintaining strict neutrality in the American Civil War but the authorities in Melbourne were powerless to do anything, with a heavily armed warship in their harbour, but agree to their request. The citizens were welcomed aboard by the chivalrous crew but clearly the Victorians needed to improve their afloat defences!
So in 1865 the British Government passed the Colonial Naval Defence Act in 1865. This empowered all the Australian colonies to officially acquire warships and maintain seamen to serve in such vessels.
Victoria put the most effort into her naval defences and in 1866 its colonial government applied for assistance in establishing its own naval force. The Imperial Government agreed to assist with a grant of £100,000 towards the cost of a monitor turret ship and to donate, as well as a training ship, the old wooden man-of-war NELSON.
The maintenance and manning of the new turret ship would be the responsibility of the Victorian Government, with assistance from the Royal Navy; however, the vessel was to be placed at the disposal of the Commanding Officer of the Royal Navy’s Australia Station in the event of a war.
A Civil War Innovation
This period was an era of radical rethinking and experiment in naval ship building. The idea of iron clad warships was strongly influenced by the success of the turret ship USS MONITOR in the American Civil War. The naval architect E J Reed, with this concept in mind, designed a medium size turret ship to carry four 18-ton muzzle loading guns.
Dubbed the ‘Monster Class’, they included CERBERUS(the first of the type) CYCLOPS, GORGON, HECATE and HYDRA. Construction commenced on 1 September 1867 at the Palmer Shipbuilding & Iron Company shipyards at Jarrow-on-Tyne near Newcastle, England, and was completed two years later. The vessels were steam driven, powered by Maudsley and Field horizontal double piston-rod engines rated 250 hp driving twin screws. Steam was provided by four marine type boilers working at 30 lb pressure per square inch. Although not designed to have masts or sails, CERBERUS was temporarily fitted with them to help conserve her coal supply on her maiden voyage to Australia. (Unfortunately, the sails were to prove of little use, and having adequate supplies of coal was a real problem on the voyage out to Victoria.)
In the normal configuration, without the mass of rigging required for sails, the monitor’s guns would enjoy a wide, unhampered firing arc. However, with a wide hull and negligible freeboard (3 feet), CERBERUS had notoriously poor ocean-going capability. But this innovative warship was ideal for defence of harbours like Port Phillip Bay.
The general layout of HMVS CERBERUS
Certain compartments could be flooded, rather like ballast tanks in a submarine, so that the vessel almost disappeared beneath the waves with only a shallow breastwork 112 feet long projecting above the water. The breastwork was of Lowmoor iron, 8 inches thick. The two gun turrets mounted on it had armour 10 inches thick in front and 9 inches at the back, and mounted rifled muzzle -loading guns firing a 400lb shell with a charge of 60 lbs of powder. (One of these turret guns is currently displayed at the RAN Naval Base HMAS CERBERUS.)
The ship was commissioned as Her Majesty’s Victorian Ship (HMVS) CERBERUS, named after the three-headed hound in Greek and Roman mythology which guarded the gates to the Underworld. Five months were spent in preparation for the voyage. Lieutenant William Henry Panter, RN was in command. He had been serving in Australia aboard the ancient square-rigged HMVS Nelson and had sailed back in his native England in June to take on this difficult delivery. There were arguments over stores and problems in recruiting a crew following the loss of HMS CAPTAIN (6,950 tons), another turret ship which capsized off Cape Finisterre on September 6, 1870. Only 18 were saved from a complement of 493. After that catastrophe, the best Panter could get was a scratch crew of 25 merchant seamen, most of them being of ‘indifferent character’, and to keep them on board rather than deserting he had to get a police boat to pull round the ship at night.
CERBERUS sailed from Chatham on 29th October 1870 under the Red Ensign. After a nightmare trip of 5 months and 9 days, the arrival of the ironclad created a considerable amount of excitement. Many in the Colony had been of the opinion that she would never reach Victoria’, noted the Geelong Advertiser (Saturday, 22nd April, 1871). ‘However, safe and sound, there is the general opinion that Captain Panter has shown excellent seamanship’.
‘She steamed up the bay at the rate of nine miles an hour, and when she arrived in Hobson’s Bay, the boys of the Nelson manned the yards, and the Russian gunboat, the HAYDAMACK, was a cloud of gaily coloured bunting.’
The arrival of CERBERUS saw the colony of Victoria briefly possessing the most powerful warship on the Australasian station. Naturally enough the Victorians were keen to show off their new acquisition. The following day a number of passengers including members of Parliament were taken on board. The Members of Parliament were allowed to fire the guns and the CERBERUS then proceeded to Geelong. On entering she ran aground but got off without damage and anchored in Corio Bay where she remained the centre of attraction for some days. With her merchant crew discharged and with a new crew of naval reservists embarked she began her first trials on Port Phillip Bay on 25 August 1871.
It was soon discovered that CERBERUS’ guns were too powerful to be fired close to shore following a raft of public protests concerning general damage suffered to windows from the percussive effects of her main armament.
HMVS CERBERUS settled into the routine that she was to follow for the next few decades. During the 1870s, regular exercises were held with other Victorian naval ships, including the screw battleship, HMVS NELSON, torpedo boats, and the steam sloop VICTORIA. The highlight of the ship’s year was the Easter exercises. This was a normally reliable period as far as weather was concerned but it also represented the longest period that volunteers could get off work without losing too much pay.
The exercise invariably consisted of a day or two spent in general exercises with the remainder of the fleet, as it was acquired, and a mock battle with the forts at Heads. However, the number of men in the crew was far less than required to fight the ship in any emergency. In 1875 there were only enough men to man one turret, even when assisted by the loan of 16 personnel from NELSON.
Steering, originally hand-operated, was replaced by steam steering gear around 1876, and search lights were fitted. With the advent of the locomotive torpedoes in fast torpedo boats posing a threat, skirts were fitted, which suspended wire nets some distance from the ships side. The idea was that the torpedos would become entangled and explode harmlessly.
Unfortunately, this reduced the ship’s speed to 6 knots, so they were removed. Instead, a number of quick-firing and machine guns were acquired and placed on top of the breastwork. Additionally, the crew would line up along the ship’s side and with rifles blazing away at the approaching torpedo boats. A military mast was steeped, poking through a ventilator abaft the funnel. It had a lookout position into which could be placed either a Gatling or Nordenfelt machine gun.
Steam was normally not raised, which meant that guns had to be trained by hand, and unless at least a half charge of powder was used the guns would not recoil, and thus they would have to be winched back by hand-by the same men who were training the turret. During the 1881 Easter cruise, six men were killed by an explosion which occurred off Queenscliff whilst laying a submarine mine from one of the ships boats. During that year the boilers had been condemned as being unsafe at their designed operating pressures. Repairs were made but by 1883 they had been replaced with modern cylindrical models.
No Longer State of the Art
In early 1884 a threat of war with Russia emerged. It diminished later in the year, only to erupt once more in 1885. CERBERUS was very slow by then and needed dry docking to remove some 50 tons of barnacles and weed from her bottom.
By 1891 serious doubts had been raised concerning the adequacy of the CERBERUS to fill the role of floating protection for Melbourne. In 1892, the gunboats had been sold off, permanent Naval Forces numbers were reduced, and the remainder took a pay cut. By the end of the 1890’s CERBERUS was reduced to a care and maintenance status. At around this time the engines may have been removed from the ship.
For more than 50 years, CERBERUS was a familiar sight at Williamstown and in Port Phillip Bay where she spent her entire commission.
The outbreak of WWI in 1914 saw CERBERUS designated as Port Guard Ship for Port of Melbourne. She was a base for naval dock guards and small craft detailed to patrol the harbour. Later the duties of Guard ship were stricken, and the hull became a store for ammunition and explosives.
After the war, as HMAS PLATYPUS II she was towed to Geelong to be depot ship to the J class Submarines. With the Submarines being laid up in 1921/22 PLATYPUS II was offered for sale for scrap. Bought by the Melbourne Salvage Company in April 1924,and stripped, the hulk was purchased by the Black Rock Sailing Club to be used as a breakwater off Black Rock in Half Moon Bay. On September 2, 1926 she was sunk there, in 12 feet of water on a sand/silt bed. She lays today, gradually deteriorating.
However, there is a very active organisation called “Friends of the CERBERUS’ which consists of enthusiasts who work hand in hand with Heritage Victoria, The National trust of Victoria, and the City of Bayside. Their sole aim is to preserve HMVS CERBERUS for future generations.
History of HMVS CERBERUS, Royal Australian Navty Sea Power Centre
HMVS Cerberus, State Library of Victoria