- Ship design and development, Ship histories and stories
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Warrego I, HMAS Yarra I, HMAS Parramatta I
- December 2012 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The massive shipbuilding programs leading up to WWI were dominated by the construction of capital ships. These unsustainable programs involved increases in the national debt of Britain and Germany, leading to disastrous consequences.
Running in parallel with the capital ship program was the development of another type of much smaller vessel, the Torpedo Boat Destroyer (TBD), derived from a French design, which could carry much superior armament based on recent torpedo development. The Royal Navy found a champion in modernisation in Admiral ‘Jacky’ Fisher (later Admiral of the Fleet Lord Kilverstone), who became Third Sea Lord and Controller in 1892. He was an early proponent of the torpedo, believing it would supersede large calibre guns. Between 1897 and 1918 the Admiralty, assisted by civilian yards, developed a confusing number of classes of torpedo boats which were given ship names or alphabetical letters. Well over 150 ships were built, mainly for the RN but some going to other navies. These boats ranged from small coal fired turtle-backs with limited range and sea-keeping qualities to larger vessels with a high bow and oil fired turbines, providing improved range and ocean going capabilities.
The history of the TBD is important as it is from this beginning that the first ships of the fledgling RAN arose, having first come to prominence in Australia in late 1902 with the appointment of Admiral Sir Harry Rawson as Governor of NSW, as he had previously been involved in the procurement of TBDs.
By late 1905 these proposals had been refined, with the Commonwealth Naval Force showing interest in acquiring ‘River’ class TBDs (named after British rivers) As they followed on from the ‘D’ class they were later officially designated as ‘E’ class. In 1906 the Director of Commonwealth Naval Forces, Captain Creswell, visited Britain to acquaint himself with the latest designs and inspect shipyards, and he satisfied himself that the ‘River’ class would be suitable for Australian waters.
At the Imperial Defence Conference held in London in 1907 the Australian Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin, supported by Captain Creswell, pressed for an independent naval force consisting of small coastal destroyers and a small submarine flotilla. This was followed in the same year by the visit of Commanders Colquhoun and Clarkson, who again conducted an extensive tour of shipyards. They also engaged as a consultant Professor John Biles of Glasgow University, an eminent naval architect who had been a member of the Committee of Warship Design and of the TBD Committee. While there was no official Commonwealth Government agreement to the purchase of new warships, Expressions of Interest were placed with a number of shipyards for up to eight ships, with half to be constructed in Australia, based on the Yarrow ‘River’ class design as modified by Biles. Responses were received on 24 July 1907 and Biles recommended that a consortium of Denny and Fairfield build the Australian boats. It is noteworthy that Denny had offered the lowest tender and Fairfield had not been invited to bid.
In 1908 Andrew Fisher became Prime Minister and Senator George Pearce the Minister of Defence. The new government fully supported naval defence and impetus was again given to the TBD program. On 6 February 1909 the Commonwealth Govern-ment finally announced a decision to order two ‘River’ class TBDs. On the same day a telegram was sent from the Department of Defence to the Commonwealth Office in London requesting that the firms who had previously tendered review their original proposals giving times of delivery for two vessels together with a separate quotation for a similar vessel to be re-assembled in Australia. Of particular concern were the endurance of 2,500 miles at 14 kts and a top speed of 26 kts, based on the need for the ships to transit from Sydney to Fremantle. On 13 March 1909, an amazingly short period of five weeks, tenders were accepted.
The Sydney Evening News dated Monday 15 March 1909 ran the following article:
Nucleus of a Navy – Tenders for Torpedo-Boat Destroyers
Senator Pearce, Minister for Defence, today announced that he had accepted tenders for the construction of two torpedo boat destroyers of the River class, with materials for the third to be put together in Australia. The contractors are William Denny and Bros., of Leven Shipbuilding Yards, Dumbarton, near Glasgow, and the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Co. Ltd., of Govan, Glasgow. Professor Byles (sic), Consulting Naval Architect to the British Admiralty and Professor of Naval Architecture at Glasgow University, has been engaged to supervise the construction of the vessels. The details of the contracts are to be drawn up in London by Captain Collins and Engineer-Commander Clarkson and submitted to the Commonwealth legal representatives in London.
The prices to be paid are £82,500 each for the completed destroyers, including armaments to be delivered on board the vessel in England. This includes armament for the third destroyer. The first vessel is to be completed in 14 months, the second in 15, and the prepared materials in 12 months from the date of signing the contract. The completed destroyers will voyage to Australia under their own steam.
The Australian boats were 30 ft longer, slightly beamier and displaced 130 tons more than the original River (E) class. They were powered by oil fired triple expansion turbines, making them superior to similar vessels at this time. The boats ordered were almost identical to the Admiralty ‘Acheron’ or ‘I’ class destroyers completed between 1911 and 1912 indicating there was a degree of design co-operation between the Admiralty and the Australian authorities.
All three RAN ships were built on the Clyde but by different yards – Parramatta by Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Company Ltd., Yarra by William Denny and Brothers and Warrego by the London & Glasgow Engineering & Iron Shipbuilding Company (LGEISC). While Warrego is not recorded in the LGEISC shipbuilding list, this is most likely because she was not launched and completed but disassembled on the slipway and then the components shipped to Australia. Parramatta and Yarra were initially commissioned at Glasgow on 8 September 1910 as Royal Naval ships for work-up and their delivery voyage. Both ships sailed from Portsmouth on 18 September, arriving in their home base of Melbourne on 10 December 1910, when they were re-commissioned into the RAN.
Australian River Class TBDs
Displacement (tons) 700
Dimensions (feet) Length 246, beam 24.3, draught 8.5
Machinery 3 x Yarrow boilers driving Parsons turbines, 10,000 shp with 3 shafts
Speed (knots) 28
Range (miles) 3,100 @ 11.5 knots
Armament 1 x 4 inch, 3 x 12 pdrs, 3 x Lewis, 1 x MG, 3 x 18 inch torpedo tube.
Warrego was reconstructed in Cockatoo Island Dockyard using local labour, with supervision provided by Fairfield. This then allowed the remainder of the Australian River class, comprising HMA Ships Huon, Swan and Torrens, to be built at Cockatoo Island. It should be noted that Huon was intended to be named Derwent but the name was changed to avoid confusion with an RN ship of the same name.
There remains some confusion as to the three builders of the original batch of ships as different authorities provide differing advice: for example the Denny and Fairfield consortium is sometimes known just as Fairfield. Jane’s Fighting Ships calls these ships modified ‘I class’ with Yarra built by Denny and Parramatta and Warrego by LGEISC. While the advice offered in the table below appears correct it remains unknown how LGEISC came to be involved in this program, other than it is assumed they had available spare building capacity. It should be noted many of the early shipbuilders had inter-related business interests and were subject to later mergers. The on-going construction program at Cockatoo Island Dockyard was arranged through Fairfield.
While the yards had plenty of warning of the impending order it was nevertheless remarkable that they were able to commence work immediately. Perhaps this again had something to do with the personalities involved. Mention has previously been made of Admiral Rawson and Professor Biles as well as the builder Denny. It might be a coincidence that all three were involved in an enquiry into the 1901 loss of the experimental destroyer HMS Cobra. All were eminent in their professions.
There is no suggestion of collusion or impropriety but some agreement to the benefit of parties, who were well known to each other, appears evident in accepting tenders on 13 March 1909 and being able to laydown steel for the lead ship only four days later on 17 March and launch her on 9 February 1910, with the next ship Yarra following close on her heels. A possible explanation is to be found in the description of the ‘I’ class which was originally intended to be of 20 ships, but the number was increased to 23 after three ships were transferred to the RAN. The two original Denny ships in this program were HM Ships Defender and Druid. The builder Yarrow transferred its shipbuilding operations from London to the Clyde in 1906 and was shortly engaged in building ten TBDs designated the ‘Para’ class for the Brazilian Navy. In another interesting twist, in addition to shipbuilding Denny had interests in shipping companies including one in South America. Professor Biles had drawn heavily from Yarrow in his re-design for the Australian vessels. There is some suggestion that materials for an Australian ship was originally intended for a South American customer and it may be of note that when the contract for the ‘I’ class was increased by another three hulls all these were awarded to Yarrow. Could materials supplied for these ships have been used to satisfy an order for an impatient new and potentially valuable customer? Was Parramatta a Defender and Yarra a Druid? Possibly Warrego might have been at home in Rio.
You be the judge.
Parramatta Yarra Warrego
Builder Fairfield Denny London & Glasgow
Ordered 06 February 1909 06 February 1909 06 February 1909
Laid Down 17 March 1909 1909 date unknown 29 May 1909
Launched 09 February 1910 09 April 1910 04 April 1910
Commissioned 10 September 1910 10 September 1910 01 June 1912
Re-commissioned 01 March 1911 01 March 1911