The wardroom of the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN) premier training establishment, HMAS Cerberus, is home to many fine treasures reflecting Australia’s naval heritage. Perhaps the most curious of these is a dark blue enamelled iron postbox emblazoned in gold with the words Post- Briefkasten. This artefact was presented to the wardroom in 1916 by Lieutenant Commander R. C. Creer, RAN and has its origins in Bagomoyo, German East Africa.1 The story of how it became one of the most recognisable artifacts in the CERBERUS wardroom lies in the account of one of the RAN’s lesser-known warships, HMAS Pioneer, and the operations in which it was involved during the blockade of German East Africa in World War I.
The Royal Navy commissioned the 3rd class cruiser HMS Pioneer on 10 July 1900. Pioneer displaced 2200 tons and was armed with eight 4-inch single mount guns, eight 3 pounder guns and several machine guns. The ship also mounted two 14-inch torpedo tubes above the waterline. Pioneer first arrived in Australian waters in October 1905 and continued in service as a unit of the Royal Navy on the Australia Station until 29 November 1912 when she paid off at Sydney for transfer to the RAN as a gift from the Admiralty. Commissioned as HMAS Pioneer into the RAN on 1 March 1913, she was subsequently used as a seagoing training ship for the Naval Reserve.
When war with Germany was declared on 4 August 1914, Pioneer was in dry dock at Williamstown, Melbourne. Within 24 hours of the declaration of war the ship was afloat, provisioned, coaled and ready for sea. The following day she sailed for Fremantle, from where she patrolled the waters off the West Australian coast.
On 16 August, eight miles west of Rottnest Island, Pioneer captured the German steamer Neumunster (4424 tons) and escorted her into Fremantle. On 26 August Pioneer captured a second ship, the Norddeutcher-Lloyd vessel Thûringen (4994 tons), also off Rottnest Island. Neither of the German ships carried wireless equipment and it transpired that their masters were unaware of the outbreak of war.
In early November 1914, Pioneer sailed as part of the escort to the first Australian troop convoy bound for the Middle East. Unfortunately she suffered condenser failure and was consequently ordered to return to Fremantle to effect repairs. This twist of fate was to result in an adventure that would take Pioneer away from Australian waters for almost two years, where she participated in a classic example of sea control in the littoral environment.
On 24 December 1914, the Admiralty requested the urgent aid of Pioneer to take part in a blockade off the German East African coast. In September the German light cruiser Königsberg, mounting ten 4.1-inch guns, had engaged and destroyed Pioneer’s sister ship, HMS Pegasus, and had skilfully manoeuvred herself approximately 12 miles upstream in the shallow Rufiji River delta, in German East Africa, beyond the range of effective fire from the sea. The British forces assembling off the African coast were now faced with a double duty: first, the maintenance of a blockade to prevent supplies reaching German land forces in East Africa; and, second, the neutralisation of a dangerous German raider.
Pioneer sailed from Fremantle on 9 January 1915 and joined the British force off Zanzibar on 6 February. The force consisted of the light cruisers HMS Weymouth and HMS Hyacinth, HMS Pyramus (another of Pioneer’s sister ships), the armed merchant cruiser HMS Kinfauns Castle and six smaller vessels. Formal blockade was proclaimed on 1 March 1915, and five days later Vice Admiral Sir H. G. King-Hall arrived in the old battleship HMS Goliath to take charge.
For the purpose of blockade operations, the East African coastline was divided into three sections. Pioneer was ordered to patrol the northernmost of these and was appointed in charge of the Kinfauns Castle, the armed steamer Duplex and the whaler Pickle. There was little traffic to be watched, except for native dhows creeping along the coast, but signal activity by the enemy gave the impression that the Königsberg would soon make her bid to break through the blockade.
This article was originally published in ‘Semaphore’, the newsletter of the Sea Power Centre – Australia. It is republished with the kind agreement of the Sea Power Centre.
This year (2004) marks the 90th anniversary of the Royal Australian Navy’s baptism of fire both at sea and ashore during the period September-November 1914.
Just three years after the new fleet unit arrived in Australia the RAN made a substantial and significant contribution to Imperial security in the Pacific region. The diverse events that took place during this short period, although now largely forgotten in the annals of Australia’s military history, formed the cornerstone on which the RAN’s enduring tradition of achievement has since been built.
At the outbreak of war in August 1914 the Australian Fleet comprised the battlecruiser HMAS Australia, the light cruisers HMA Ships Melbourne, Sydney and Encounter, the small cruiser HMAS Pioneer, the destroyers HMA Ships Parramatta, Yarra and Warrego, and the submarines HMAS AE1 and HMAS AE2. The Commonwealth also possessed some old gunboats and torpedo boats from the colonial navies. The permanent strength of the RAN in August 1914 comprised 3800 personnel, of whom some 850 were on loan from the Royal Navy. The naval reserve forces provided another 1646 personnel.
The first task of the RAN following the declaration of war was to seize or neutralise German territories in the Pacific stretching from the Caroline and Marshall Islands in the north to New Britain and German New Guinea in the south. The British War Office considered it essential that Vice Admiral von Spee’s East Asiatic Squadron of the Imperial German Navy should be denied the use of German facilities and, if possible, brought to battle. Based in Tsingtao, China, the squadron comprised the armoured cruisers SMS Scharnhorst and SMS Gneisenau and the light cruisers SMS Emden, SMS Nurnberg and SMS Leipzig. The German possessions represented a formidable network capable of providing intelligence and logistic support to von Spee.
Surrender of German Samoa
On 30 August 1914, in Australia’s first coalition operation, Australia and Melbourne, in company with HM Ships Psyche, Philomel and Pyramus and the French cruiser Montcalm, escorted a force of 1400 New Zealand troops to occupy German Samoa. Faced with this force the colony surrendered without a fight. Melbourne was then ordered to the German territory of Nauru to destroy its wireless station. On 9 September Melbourne landed 25 personnel without opposition, arrested the German administrator and destroyed the already disabled wireless equipment. However this lack of opposition was not to last. Australia’s major effort was now directed at seizing German interests in New Guinea, particularly New Britain. To achieve this, during August a volunteer force known as the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF), consisting of a battalion of 500 naval reservists and time-expired Royal Navy seamen and a battalion of 1000 infantry, was hastily raised and trained. As the whereabouts of von Spee’s squadron was still unknown, strict orders were given that the expedition was not to proceed without a strong naval escort. On 7 September the force, comprising Australia, Sydney, Encounter, Parramatta, Warrego, Yarra, AE1, AE2, a store-ship, three colliers, and the transport Berrima with the ANMEF embarked, sailed for Rabaul and Australia’s first joint operation. Intelligence indicated that two enemy wireless stations were operating in the area, one inland from Kabakaul at Bitapaka and the other at Herbertshohe. ((It was subsequently discovered that both were located at Bitapaka – one was the primary station and the other a secondary station)) Consequently, two parties of naval reservists were ordered to capture them. The initial landings took place at dawn on 11 September 1914.
Seizure of Bitapaka
Under the command of Lieutenant Bowen, RAN, 25 sailors landed at Kabakaul to seize Bitapaka. They immediately struck inland to secure their objective and a scouting party, having deviated from the main road, soon found itself directly in the rear of the German first line of defence. The German in charge was shot and wounded and, after a short skirmish, ordered his natives to surrender. The captive was then directed to march ahead of the main force and announce in German that 800 troops had landed and that his comrades should surrender. Bowen’s deception was rewarded, for word filtered back to the commander of the German defences that a superior force had landed. Believing himself outnumbered, he consequently ordered a withdrawal of his forces inland, resulting in the breakdown of the entire scheme of German coastal defence. This left only Bitapaka’s defenders offering active resistance.
Bowen called for reinforcements but continued to push on towards his objective. His party encountered a series of enemy trenches and came under fire from snipers positioned in the trees. It was here that Australia suffered its first casualties of the war. ((Able Seaman C.V. Williams and Captain B.C.A. Pockley (Australian Army Medical Corps) were mortally wounded and died later that day. Williams has the distinction of being the first Australian wounded in action in WWI.)) Reinforcements arrived at 1000 under the command of Lieutenant Hill, RNR of Yarra. Hill’s group comprised 59 men drawn from the crews of the Australian destroyers, variously armed with rifles, pistols and cutlasses. Bowen and Hill swiftly agreed on the next phase of the operation and began outflanking the enemy. However, as the new advance began Bowen was wounded by a sniper, leaving Hill to take command, whilst at the same time calling for additional reinforcements. At 1300 a company of naval reinforcements arrived under the command of Lieutenant Commander Elwell, RN who immediately took command, ordering Hill to take charge of the flanking movement on the left whilst he took charge on the right. Elwell was killed leading a bayonet charge on the German defences, leaving Hill to continue the attack with Lieutenant Gillam, RANR, whose timely arrival with a small band of reinforcements carried the day.
The now overwhelmed defenders reluctantly agreed to the unconditional surrender both of the German forces and the wireless station. Lieutenant Bond, RANR, was ordered to advance and secure the wireless station. Following several small skirmishes, during which more casualties were incurred, the last German resistance was quelled. ((For reasons now unclear, apart from a single machine-gun section, the ANMEF infantry company took no part in the fighting in Rabaul.)) For his efforts Bond became the first Australian decorated during World War I, receiving the Distinguished Service Order.
Herbertshohe and Rabaul
The following day Herbertshohe and Rabaul were secured without opposition, following a bombardment by Encounter, and the remaining German forces in the field subsequently surrendered. Within a few weeks most of the German territories in the area, including Bougainville and the Admiralty Islands, had been occupied without further opposition, at a cost of six dead and four wounded. ((Able Seaman J. Walker (enlisted as Courtney but re-buried under his real name by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) and Able Seaman H.W. Street were killed in action. Able Seaman R. Moffatt was mortally wounded and died the next day. Lieutenant R.G. Bowen, Able Seaman D. Skillen, Able Seaman T. Sullivan and Able Seaman J.H. Tonks were wounded but subsequently recovered.)) The success of the operation was marred by the disappearance of AE1 on 14 September while patrolling the narrow St George’s Strait between New Britain and New Ireland – the first RAN unit lost in wartime. No trace of the submarine or its 35 crew has ever been found.
The next major challenge for the RAN was the apparent disappearance of von Spee’s squadron into the vastness of the Pacific. This, coupled with news that the German raiders Konigsberg and Emden were at large in the Indian Ocean, caused grave concern for the safety of the troop transports assembling in Australian and New Zealand ports to convey the ANZAC expedition to Europe. Tensions eased on 30 September when news was received that von Spee’s cruisers had raided Tahiti on 22 September, thus placing them well to the east. This allowed the Australian and New Zealand troops to commence embarkation and proceed to their convoy assembly point at Albany, Western Australia.
During this period other vessels of the RAN were steadily engaged in capturing or detaining German merchant shipping in the Bismarck Archipelago, home waters and in Australian ports. Whilst this important work was taking place a decision was made to dispatch Melbourne and Sydney to Western Australia to counter the threat building in the Indian Ocean, and form part of the escort for the first ANZAC convoy assembling at Albany.
Of particular concern was the light cruiser Emden under the command of Captain von Muller. In just six weeks von Muller had captured or sunk almost 100,000 tons of merchant shipping, destroyed oil tanks at Madras and, in a daring raid on Penang, sunk the Russian light cruiser Zemtchung and the French torpedo-boat destroyer Mosquet. With Emden at large in the Indian Ocean the scene was now set for the RAN’s first epic sea engagement.
ANZAC Convoy 1914
On 1 November 1914 the first ANZAC convoy, comprising Melbourne, Sydney, HMS Minotaur, the Japanese battlecruiser Ibuki, and 38 transports, sailed from Albany for the Middle East. On the morning of 9 November the convoy was in the vicinity of the Cocos Islands when it intercepted distress signals indicating that a ‘strange warship’ was approaching the islands. Sydney (Captain Glossop, RN) was immediately detached to investigate and within a few hours sighted Emden close to Cocos Island. Von Muller soon realised that he would have to fight and, leaving behind the shore party that had landed to destroy the international cable and wireless station, steamed out to meet the enemy.
Sydney was faster than Emden and possessed superior firepower, but von Muller opened the engagement with rapid and accurate long-range fire, attempting to inflict as much damage as possible at the outset. All of Sydney’s casualties occurred in the opening stages of the battle, from hits to the control platform and the range finder located on the upper bridge. Using his ship’s superior speed and armament, Glossop soon caused hits to be scored on Emden. After forty minutes Emden’s fire control positions, forward funnel and foremast were gone, and the ship was holed all over and burning fiercely fore and aft. Realising that Emden was at Sydney’s mercy, von Muller ran his ship onto the reef at North Keeling Island in order to save the lives of his surviving crew. Glossop then broke off the engagement to pursue and overhaul the Emden’s collier Buresk, which had appeared during the action, but the crew scuttled their ship before it could be seized.
On returning to North Keeling Island Glossop observed that Emden had not struck its ensign to indicate capitulation. Confused signals were exchanged between the two vessels, but the ensign remained flying until Sydney fired a further two salvos at the wreck. The ensign was consequently struck, heralding the end of Australia’s first and decisive naval engagement. As a result of the destruction of Emden the Indian Ocean was freed from the threat of von Spee’s squadron. ((Konigsberg had withdrawn into the Rufigi River in East Africa in late September 1914 to repair serious engine defects, and was blockaded by Allied cruisers, including HMAS Pioneer, until destroyed by the monitors HMS Severn and HMS Mersey on 11 July 1915.))
Ninety years after the events of late 1914 the RAN is still participating in joint and coalition maritime operations, in the Pacific and further afield. As in 1914, the RAN is a comparatively small force, yet it is now acknowledged as a world class medium-power navy and a diverse force multiplier whose presence is welcomed in the pursuit of world-wide maritime security. While the threat of enemy cruisers preying on Imperial merchant shipping and troop convoys is now only a dim memory, the RAN remains a significant contributor to security in the Pacific region.
Previously published in Semaphore, Issue 10, September 2004. Newsletter of the Sea Power Centre, Canberra.
At the outbreak of war on 4th August, 1914, the German East Asiatic Squadron, commanded by Vice-Admiral Graf von Spee, had its base at the fortified harbour of Tsing-tao on the Kwantung Peninsula at its southern end where it abuts into the Yellow Sea.
The squadron comprised two armoured cruisers, SMSs SCHARNHORST and GNEISENAU, armed with 8-8.2 inch and 6-6 inch guns, three light cruisers, SMSs EMDEN, NURNBERG and LEIPZIG, armed with 10-4.1 inch guns and the gunboat SMS GEIER, armed with 8-4.1 inch guns. This squadron exercised an influence, in the first months of the war, second only to that of the German High Seas Fleet.
In addition, von Spee had paid off three old gunboats and used their armament and crews to man the armed merchant cruisers, PRINZ EITEL FRIEDRICH and CORMORAN II (this makes the World War II CORMORAN, ‘CORMORAN III–).
Area of Operation
The area of operations covered half the globe, a vast area in which the Royal Navy had few ships capable of combating the two armoured cruisers with any chance of success. The great distances involved complicated factors which today do not apply.
Wireless equipment in ships was quite crude and often did not have the power to cover the distances required. Communications with Admiralties in Europe was made by telegram to or from consulates or agents in friendly ports necessitating warships to detour to ports off track.
Coal-burning warships (the majority) required to take their colliers with them or have them waiting at pre-arranged ports and anchorages. The alternative was to capture ships carrying coal, which often happened.
German Possessions In The Pacific
The German possessions included the Marianas, the Carolines, Palau (or Pellew), the Marshall Islands and the Samoan Islands. Closer to Australia, they possessed the Bismarck Archipelago (including New Britain and New Ireland). The north-eastern portion of New Guinea (Kaiser Wilhelm Land) was also a German protectorate.
The Caroline and Palau Islands were considered as an entity, divided for administration purposes into Western Carolines including Palau Islands with seat of government at Yap, and the Eastern Carolines with seat of Government at Ponape. Yap, 1.700 miles (approx) from Hong Kong, was a place of some importance, being connected by cable with the Celebes and thence with the Dutch East Indies to Europe, and with Shanghai and thence to Tsing-tao, and with Guam and thence to the United States. It also had a powerful wireless station, making it a vital link in the German communication network.
There were German W/T stations on Auguar, the southernmost of the Palau Islands and at Nauru lying isolated near the equator.
The Marshall Islands are 600 miles to the east of the Carolines and have numerous sheltered anchorages. The capitol, Jaluit, had no cable communications.
Samoa lies 2,400 miles from Australia and 1,650 miles to the south-east of the Marshall Islands. They differ from the coral islands, being volcanic in origin and produced copra, cattle and rubber. Western Samoa was a United States possession. There was a wireless station at Apia which radiated to Fiji, Nauru and Honolulu.
The Bismarck Archipelago and Kaiser Wilhelm Land had their seat of government at Herbertshohe (Rabaul) in New Britain, which was reputed to have a new wireless station.
This made a huge ‘haystack’ in which to search for the half dozen ‘needles’ which were the ships of the German East Asiatic Squadron.
At the start of hostilities on 4th August 1914, the German squadron was not concentrated. On 6th August, the Commander in Chief, China Station, Vice Admiral Sir T.H.M. Jerram KCB, received a report from Navy Officer, Melbourne, saying that from wireless intercepts, the probable position of SCHARNHORST at noon on 5th August appeared to be 8 degrees south, 162 degrees east, near the Solomon Islands, steering S.E. Other reports indicated EMDEN to be escorting four colliers from Tsing-tao on 3rd August steering SE. The Nord Deutsche liner YORCK left Yokohama on 4th August heavy-laden with coal and LEIPZIG was reported to have sailed from Mazatlan, Mexico, about 6th August.
Admiral Jerram was of the opinion that von Spee was searching for the French cruiser MONTCALM, or was on his way to rendezvous with colliers which had left Newcastle, NSW, on 1st August, or was on his way to South America and would concentrate his forces in the South Seas. Admiral Jerram did not feel justified in leaving his station in the China Sea, particularly as he felt AUSTRALIA, SYDNEY and ENCOUNTER were closer to the supposed position of the enemy. He was determined to intercept EMDEN if she was proceeding to Yap with its important cable and wireless station.
Early in 1914 1 did an extended period of training in HMAS Pioneer, as a Midshipman RANR.
One Saturday in April, 1914, when Pioneer was in Corio Bay to give weekend leave, a whaler’s crew of cadet midshipmen from the RAN College at Osborne House came on board for a “look see”. It was then that I first met “Essy” Esdaile, “Joey” Burnett, John Collins, “Sadie” Sadleir, “Jarge” Armstrong, “Tusky” Calder, “Cocky” Long, “Hal” Farncombe and “Circus” Showers. Any of them, still living, probably do not remember that momentous occasion!
R.S. Veale, Commander RANR, Rtd.
[Ed. Thank you Commander Veale for another memory of the days when the RAN was in its infancy. Many of the later generation will recall most, or all of those names, but not, of course, by the nicknames.]