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Royal Australian Navy

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Royal Australian Navy

On 4 October 1913, the Indefatigable Class battlecruiser HMAS Australia entered Sydney Harbour. Followed by the light cruisers HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Sydney, she anchored off Farm Cove, on the south side of one of the world's most picturesque anchorages. This manoeuvre, carried out against a background of cheering and flag-waving from the packed foreshores to north and south, marked the birth of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN).

Australia's history as a loose collection of Crown Colonies, scattered around the coastal periphery of a vast continent, has always dictated that sea transport - and sea power - would play a vital part in the development of this fledgling nation.

In 1770, one of the world's most famous explorers landed his disparate party of scientists at Botany Bay, to the south of the present Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour). James Cook was a hugely talented "people manager", as well as a seasoned navigator and surveyor. He managed to hold together a ship's company - and onboard scientists such as the temperamental Joseph Banks - through incredible trials. All this in the course of a voyage on behalf of the Royal Society which was intended to chart the course of Venus in the southern hemisphere.

Having just beaten the French explorer La Perouse into Botany Bay, Cook formally claimed the land in the name of the King. Eighteen years later, Captain Arthur Philip made the same landfall - this time with a fleet of 11 sail (the First Fleet). The ships carried a contingent of Royal Marines, convicts and new settlers, for all of whom a lot of hard work lay ahead.

The new colony (named New South Wales) was, of course, supplied and protected by the ships of the Royal Navy. In time, the settlements expanded and explorers such as John MacDouall Stuart opened up the interior, pushing settlement to the western and northern limits of the continent. By the turn of the century, a thriving population of 5 million were pushing hard for greater recognition within the British Empire.

Federation came about on 1 January 1901, with a new Australian Constitution which gave the Commonwealth Government power to make decisions regarding naval and military defence. From this basis, on 1 March 1901, the Commonwealth Naval Forces were formed - combining the naval assets of the new States into a common force, under the command of Captain William Rooke Cresswell.

The next step took 3 years (a deliberate moratorium for the States), but on 4 March 1904, the Commonwealth Defence Act passed into law.

With this Act, the Director Of Naval Forces (DNF) took formal command of all naval assets within the Commonwealth. Vice-Admiral Cresswell must have wished to be elsewhere when he surveyed the motley, tattered fleet of gunboats, torpedo boats and unclassifiable small craft he had inherited on that day. Cresswell, however, was made of sterner stuff. His organisational talent and lobbying skills saw the fleet transformed into a workable set of coastal-defence squadrons.

What Cresswell really wanted, however, was a genuine blue-water fleet. He firmly believed that Australia should not have to rely on distant Britain for its naval protection. His efforts led, on 10 July 1911, to Royal approval for the establishment of the Royal Australian Navy. A battlecruiser and four light cruisers were to be the backbone of this fleet, with numerous light units in support. Cresswell had already built the administrative foundation of the RAN, which meant that training establishments and Fleet bases were ready to operate by the time HMAS Australia was delivered in 1913.

The First World War saw Australia heavily committed, with ground troops serving in France and Gallipoli. On the high seas, HMAS Sydney distinguished herself by sinking the German convoy raider Emden off the Cocos Islands. Fortunately, HMAS Australia was not required to serve alongside her sisters in the RN. The battlecruiser concept was the brainchild of John Arbuthnot ("Jackie") Fisher, First Sea Lord and the father of the 20th century Royal Navy.

Fisher's idea was for a "cruiser crusher" to combat the light cruisers which scouted ahead of the huge battle-fleets. A brilliant concept - and impressive-looking ships - but fatally flawed. Admirals could not resist the temptation to use those mighty guns (and fragile hulls) to do battleship work. Well - Australia was not in the huge-battle-fleet business. A battlecruiser might be of little account to the mighty RN, but the RAN regarded her as a capital ship. In light of the fate of British battlecruisers at Jutland in 1916, HMAS Australia was fortunate to have never fought in a major fleet action.


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