- Hinchliffe, L.M.
- Early warships, History - WW1, WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- AE2, AE1, HMAS Encounter, HMAS Warrego I, HMAS Yarra I, HMAS Una, HMAS Berrima, HMAS Australia I, HMAS Sydney I, HMAS Parramatta I, HMAS Melbourne I
- September 1986 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
I FEEL THAT THE 75TH ANNIVERSARY of the Royal Australian Navy should not be allowed to slip away without brief mention of the operations carried out by the Navy in 1914.
It was of course just under three years old and even at this stage the majority of the personnel was Australian. As is normally the case, the Navy was in that state of readiness which allowed it to complete with war stores, with minimum fuss and time and be ready in all respects to meet the enemy.
The immediate enemy was undoubtedly the German Pacific Squadron, under command of Vice Admiral Graf Von Spee, consisting of Armoured Cruisers (8.2” guns) Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, three Light protected Cruisers (4.1” guns) Leipzig, Nurnburg and Emden, and one Light unprotected Cruiser (4.1” guns) Cormoran. (There are also some German merchant ships capable of being converted to auxiliary cruisers in the general area.)
Their base was Tsingtao in N.E. China but on the outbreak of war on 4th August their whereabouts were unknown, except for Emden in Tsingtao.
The Australian Fleet had been assembled barely a year and at the commencement of hostilities some of it was exercising inside the Barrier Reef, the remainder refitting in Sydney. Nevertheless it proceeded to its war stations.
Vice Admiral Sir George Patey, Flag Officer Commanding the Fleet, having appreciated the situation regarding the German ships’ possible disposition considered that he had to search for them first in the Bismarck Archipelago and probably further.
Accordingly Australia, Sydney, Encounter and three destroyers were ordered to rendezvous on 9th August for an attack on Rabaul – the best harbour in the archipelago. Melbourne was also ordered to join the force. Encounter did not join until 12th and Melbourne had to proceed to Rossel Island to coal.
A night search by destroyers inside Simpsonhafn revealed no German ships and eventually the activities were observed from ashore. The search for the wireless station was likely to be long and Admiral Patey decided to search round Bougainville Island and then proceed to Port Moresby for coal.
Early in August it was decided that a special force of Naval Brigade (under Commander J.A. Beresford) and Army was to be raised, the whole to be under the command of Colonel W. Holmes. They embarked in the Berrima, commissioned as an auxiliary cruiser under command of Commander J.B. Stevenson. This force was to occupy German colonies in the Pacific (eventually SW Pacific after Japan’s entry in the war) and left Sydney on 19th August. It had to wait in Port Moresby until the flagship Australia completed her duties in the Samoan occupation, by New Zealand personnel. Finally it left Port Moresby on 7th September and on 9th September rendezvoused with AUSTRALIA, the fleet being Australia, Sydney, Encounter, Warrego, Yarra, Parramatta and Berrima. Submarines AE1 and AE2 were also part of the force. On 11th September they approached Rabaul and adjacent places.
The actions leading up to the capture of the wireless station at Bitipaka on Blanche Bay resulted in the loss of one Naval Officer, one Army Medical Officer (attached to Naval Brigade) and two Able Seamen.
On 31st August Australia and Melbourne, having assisted in the escort of the New Zealand Force detailed to capture Samoa, left Apia; Australia for Port Moresby and Melbourne for Nauru. Here a party was landed on 9th September, captured the Island and found the wireless station already destroyed by its own personnel.
With the capture of Rabaul and the Governor of German New Guinea, only one more place of note remained to be captured and on 24th September an Australian Force escorted by Australia, Encounter and French cruiser Montcalm occupied Madang.
Some inspection of other small places had to be done to ascertain the situation regarding occupation, and doubt about the whereabouts of the German Government vessel Komet had to be cleared up. She was eventually captured on 10th October at a hideout in New Britain, by a small vessel armed with a borrowed 12pdr. She was commissioned as HMAS Una on 17th November 1914.
On 14th September the Australian Navy lost its first warship. Submarine AE1 and Parramatta left Rabaul at 0700 to patrol off Cape Gazelle. At 1530 AE1 was seen to be returning to harbour. She was never seen again. Three officers and thirty-two men were lost.
By 14th September the German ships had been located – Emden in the Indian Ocean and the others had closed Apia and Samoa, and moved away to the N.W. So Australia was ordered to cover Encounter at Rabaul.
Melbourne proceeded to Sydney for repairs and escort duties with the first AIF convoy. Sydney remained with Australia and they operated from Suva. Searches were made of all the islands off Fiji, without result. On 8th November Australia left Suva and eventually arrived Rosyth in 1915. The Battle of Falkland Islands decided this. The German Squadron was utterly defeated and so was no longer a menace.
Sydney had been detached in order to join Melbourne for escort duties with the first AIF convoy. Encounter remained in New Guinea waters for a time returning to Australia when no longer required there.
The destroyers patrolled off and up the Sepik River until Komet was captured and then visited all places required to be examined by Brigadier Holmes.
Submarine AE2 returned to Australia having been based at Suva with the other Australian ships. She left Australia with the second AIF convoy, departing Albany on 31st December.
On 9th November history was made when Sydney sank the German cruiser Emden off the Cocos Islands, whilst a party from Emden was ashore putting the wireless and cable stations (vital links in Australian overseas communications) out of action.
This commerce raider had had a very fruitful career, sinking nineteen ships, capturing five for her own use and using four others for transporting prisoners from her victims to friendly ports. She had been ‘tying down’ some sixteen ships, British and Allied, in the search for her and these were now released for other duties.
And so young and comparatively inexperienced as the ship’s companies were, the Royal Australian Navy had carried out its wartime tasks efficiently and successfully under the guidance of the Senior Royal Navy officers who had been lent to help it ‘get underway’. Losses had been sustained but the presence of the battle cruiser prevented the German armoured cruisers from operating in Australasian waters and undoubtedly much shipping was saved thereby.
The decision to establish an Australian Navy was well and truly justified in just a few months of war.
Some four officers and thirty-eight men had lost their lives.
I would like to repeat that the Navy is at all times ready for action even if all its war stores are not onboard. Today these war stores are comparatively few. In 1914 they were quite extensive but really did not prevent the ships from engaging the enemy if he/they were encountered before embarking them.
The above events, so very briefly related, seem to me to have been overlooked by the majority of Australians including – more’s the pity – the present RAN.
Never let us forget the ‘blooding’ of our Navy, in which it performed so well.