‘Gone to Navy’: Defending Australia, 1913
Dr Peter Stanley, University of New South Wales Canberra, and Dr David Stevens, Sea Power Centre Australia, 30 July 2013
PETER STANLEY: Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon and can I bid you a very warm welcome to the National Museum of Australia. I am Peter Stanley, now of the University of New South Wales Canberra but until last February I headed the Museum’s Research Centre. It was my very great pleasure to lend a small helping hand to the exhibition Glorious Days: Australia 1913, which I hope you have all seen. Before we embark on today’s presentation, can I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet and pay our respects to elders past and present.
This will be a three-cornered conversation between me and this gentleman whom I will introduce in a second and yourselves. David and I will talk for a while, we will show you some pictures, we will talk for a bit more, and then we will open it up for discussion. I am pretty sure looking around the room that I recognise people who know a lot more about the Navy than me. I am looking forward to a very interesting question session in two ways - one is the question session that David and I will have and then the session we will all have a bit later on.
Can I first of all introduce the man standing to my right. This is Dr David Stevens who is of the RAN Sea Power Centre over in Fyshwick. David has been a naval officer since he was about 15 and has been a serving naval officer for 20 years. He is still a member of the RAN Reserve and has been the RAN’s historian since 1984. He has published or edited about a dozen books, including U-Boat Far From Home, which was an extraordinary story of a German U-boat that cruised through Australian waters late in the Second World War, which hardly anybody knew about until David wrote his book. His main works have been: in 2001 David published the Centenary of Federation History of the Royal Australian Navy, a very significant volume which sits on my shelves; and late next year Oxford University Press will be publishing David’s Centenary of the Great War, history of the Royal Australian Navy in the Great War, although I don’t think that is its title, is it?
DAVID STEVENS: No, not quite.
PETER STANLEY: It probably has something a lot more complicated. You will see that David is an expert and you will see in the course of today’s presentation that I am not. However, I have the microphone and I am going to ask the questions so please, David, sit down.
I am standing up still because I am going to declaim some poetry and if you declaim poetry you have to stand up - it’s axiomatic. The poem I am going to declaim is called Our fleet. It was written by an extraordinary woman called Zora Cross - Zora Smith was her maiden name - and she published it in 1913. I know about Zora Cross - she was a Smith and became a Cross. I wrote a book called Digger Smith and Australia’s Great War a couple of years ago, and Zora Smith was one of the Australian poets whose work I drew on in understanding Australia and the Great War. She was a Sydney woman but Zora is most remarkable because she became a bit of a Bohemian and had the distinction of leaving her husband and living in sin with a man not her husband for many years and maintaining herself as a freelance writer and poet in Sydney from about the 1910s to the 1940s, I think. This poem, which I am about to write a bit of to you, is not what you would expect from a Sydney Bohemian free-living woman in 1913. I will read you two verses. You will see why I am only reading two verses because it’s a bit full on, frankly. Here it goes:
There’s a lot of hi-ly ho-ing in this poem. That is why I am not reading you the rest. It continues for another dozen verses, but here is another one of them:
You can see that in 1913 this Sydney Bohemian woman is getting very excited about our fleet. David and I are about to get very excited about our fleet as well. We will talk about the arrival of the Royal Australian Navy’s Fleet Unit in Sydney in October 1913 and all that that would entail including, as Zora Smith says, future dangers face.
There is one more thing I need to introduce before we engage in our conversation. The title of today’s talk session ‘Gone to navy’ might perplex and bemuse you unless you know the works of Patsy Adam-Smith very well. You might recall Patsy Adam-Smith who wrote those wonderful evocations of life in twentieth-century Australia - Hear the train blow: An Australian Childhood and the one about the ships off Tasmania [There was a ship: the story of her years at sea]. I have forgotten the titles. She also wrote that book The Anzacs. In The Anzacs, which mostly dealt with men in khaki, she talked about her father. Her father’s name was Albert and he came from a little town in Gippsland. In 1913 when he himself was about 15 or 16, he read in the paper that the Royal Australian Navy, which had just acquired all these new warships, wanted sailors. Albert Smith went and joined the navy.
Patsy Adam-Smith describes how, when she was growing up, she found in a drawer I think in her grandmother’s place a cricket ball, and this cricket ball had attached to it a label. The label had been written by her father in 1913 and the label said, ‘Gone to navy’. It’s a symbol of how Albert Smith leaves behind his childhood in Gippsland, goes off to the Royal Australian Navy and serves right through the First World War. As soon as I read that, wouldn’t that be a wonderful object to display in the 1913 exhibition? We got in touch with Patsy Adam-Smith’s lawyers, because she is dead now sadly, who are running her estate and it looks as if the cricket ball has disappeared. We weren’t able to use the cricket ball in the exhibition, but I have used the anecdote several times. I think it’s a wonderful label to attach to this session.
Now I would like to sit down and take it easy for a while and ask David Stevens to talk about Australia’s naval defence before the arrival of the first Fleet Unit. What did Australia’s navy comprise before we got this brand new fleet in 1913?
DAVID STEVENS: Thank you, Peter. It depends how far back you want to go. Ever since Captain Cook had turned up and then the First Fleet had arrived in 1788, the Royal Navy had been intimately involved in Australia both settling it and governing it. I think the first five governors of Australia were royal naval officers. Certainly as the colony built up, particularly in an economic sense, and Australia started producing gold and shipping it overseas, the realisation came that this was something that needed to be protected. The citizens of New South Wales and Victoria were always wanting protection for basically their money that was going overseas. In the mid-nineteenth century the British gave Australia the status as a Station, the Australian Station, with an admiral or commodore in charge. That was basically the format for the last half of the nineteenth century whereby Australia was relying on the British for their protection at sea.
The problem with that is that people don’t necessarily understand how navies work. The cities didn’t quite understand that you didn’t need to see the ships in harbour to think they were doing something, and there was this constant push saying, ‘We never see them so how are we being protected?’
PETER STANLEY: How are we paying for them too?
DAVID STEVENS: We are not paying for them yet. This is the British, other than generally through the fact that we are supporting the Empire. So the colonies started to develop their own naval forces for their own self-protection. That is why you see things like the monitor Cerberus in Victoria and the gunboat Protector in South Australia and Queensland. In fact, you ended up with several navies in Australia all belonging to the colonies. The problem there is that people don’t realise how expensive navies are. Although it was very exciting at first when they got these one or two ships, they then discovered they couldn’t support them so it tended to go up and down in how much effort was put into them. Places like Tasmania, for example, had one torpedo boat for a while. Western Australia never really got into it. The Victorian Navy was actually quite strong at one stage, but even so, they never really put the effort in to keep it going. By the time you get to Federation, the Australian navies are actually quite weak. But you do still have the British squadron providing that protection, mostly based out of Sydney.
You are relying on the Royal Navy for the protection of our trade and for our most of our coast. The Australian navies are doing their little bit but not going very far. Basically they are remaining in their own state waters, mostly in their own harbour waters. Then you see people like Captain Creswell appear on the scene - presumably everyone here has heard of Captain William Creswell - who started off in the Royal Navy and was involved in the anti-slave trade et cetera. He came out to Australia in the 1880s and tried to start up a business as a pastoralist, failed dismally, and was eventually attracted to join the South Australian Navy where he rose to become the Commandant of the South Australian Navy, but he also subsequently became the commandant of the Queensland Navy and eventually director of the entire navies in Australia.
PETER STANLEY: And it is his vision for a Royal Australian Navy.
DAVID STEVENS: He is one of the people, but there is this constant push to have an Australian navy. It’s not just Creswell, but Creswell is certainly there. He is probably the most well-known Australian navalist. After Federation Creswell is saying things like, ‘We have got a trade that is larger than Spain or Portugal and we can’t protect it. We are relying completely on the British navy.’ The problem there, is that the Royal Navy might be heading off to do something else. There is no guarantee it will be staying in Australia. You end up with a very complicated system where the Australians agree to help part fund an Auxiliary Squadron as part of the Australian Squadron, which is there for Australia’s defence, while the real Australian Squadron goes off and do things. It gets very complicated. But again no-one is quite happy that this will always be the case. So we start to develop this idea that we really need to have our own. That’s where we start to get to 1909 and the Imperial Conference.
PETER STANLEY: Let’s go back a bit from 1909. The situation at Federation is that these little colonial naval forces are brought together as the Commonwealth Naval Forces. They are a very disparate collection of mostly obsolete vessels with the vessels in the Auxiliary Squadron which are more modern but not the most modern. So the early years of the twentieth century Australia neither has a fully operational navy nor a very satisfactory coastal defence force. What is happening in the early years of Federation? Is Creswell still around and mobilising this vision?
DAVID STEVENS: Creswell is still around. Although we say they weren’t terribly effective, it depends what you are looking at and what you are expecting them to do. For example, with the Boxer rebellion in China in 1900, several British ships from the Australian Squadron are sent over to China but at the same time Protector, which is one of the South Australian warships, is sent over to China.
PETER STANLEY: The only South Australian warship.
DAVID STEVENS: There are also naval brigades of people from New South Wales and Victoria. So they were doing things. We were actually doing a naval job of going overseas and taking part in an operation. When Creswell was made the Director of Naval Forces in 1904, he tries to bring a real improvement to what is going on. He actually starts having Easter manoeuvres in Port Phillip Bay where you actually get more than one ship out at once doing torpedo attacks, torpedo defence and things like that, and the monitor Cerberus is there as a floating gun platform. There is this move to do things, but at the same time there is a realisation that that is great for Port Phillip Bay. It’s not much good outside. You can’t do much off the coast.
PETER STANLEY: Let’s turn our attention to off the coast, because one of the things that changes in the early twentieth century is Australia’s perceptions of Japan. The world seems a much more threatening place to Australia after 1901 than it seemed before. We often talk about the imaginary threat from Russia. Everyone brings up the Russians and points to the building of forts. But for Australians after 1901, they seem to be much more apprehensive not about an imaginary threat but a threat, which turns out not to happen, that they take very seriously. What are the minds of both federal politicians and senior naval officers in Australia and in Britain? How are they looking at the world in this early federal period?
DAVID STEVENS: Depending on who you are talking to, and who is writing, and particularly whether you are talking about a military person or a naval person, they can give you quite different answers. Yes, Japan was obviously seen as a threat, particularly after the battle of Tsushima in 1905 where they had beaten the Russians. But if you look at Creswell’s writings, he actually talks about a larger ‘threat’ - we will put threat in inverted commas at the moment – from not just the Japanese but also the Chinese being regarded as a threat. This all has to do with Australia being a white nation and being worried about the millions of Asiatics in the north. But at the same time they are worried about the Americans, because the Americans are not allied with the UK. I forgot to mention that Britain and Japan were allies, and in theory that meant that Australia didn’t have to be fearful of Japan in political terms, notwithstanding more general terms.
PETER STANLEY: That’s right. There are novels in that period that posit that Britain’s friendship with Japan means that, if it comes to a conflict between Japan and Australia, Britain throws its money in with Japan and abandons Australia. There are all sorts of fears that hadn’t happened before.
DAVID STEVENS: You had not just Japan, you had China, you had America, you had the Dutch, you had the Germans. Basically we were happy with the French by about 1902 or so. There are these different powers. I think it was Prime Minister Deakin who at one stage says, ‘We are within range of the naval forces of six different nations and therefore we need to do something about that.’ What they are talking about there is not an invasion force. We are not talking about hundreds of ships coming over and landing troops, we are talking about one or two raiding cruisers dashing about the oceans destroying Australian trade. This is what Creswell is really worried about. He is saying that trade is the lifeblood of a nation. If a raider turns up, all your shore batteries and soldiers are going to do you no good at all. But what you do need is to protect your trade. If you don’t have ships that can do that, your trade is going to have to hide in port, your economy shuts down and the nation basically collapses.
Creswell is pushing this idea that we need to be able to protect our own trade on the Australia Station. That is, we need to be able to make sure that we can get our goods, even interstate, because remember Australia in this period doesn’t have a road system, doesn’t have a common rail system so most of the trade between the states is done by sea. It’s interesting because people talk about how Australia might have been so many islands, with Sydney and Melbourne et cetera, because that’s how they are connected. They are connected by sea. This is what people like Creswell were worried about.
The political side of things, depending on which party and which person, they are saying, ‘We don’t need to worry about it because the British are going to be here,’ or ‘We do need to worry about it because we can’t trust the British to be able to provide that protection, and by the way they are not putting the money into the Australian squadron like they used to and therefore we’re at risk.’ There were a lot of factors going on.
PETER STANLEY: The background to this is that there is acceleration in the development of warships and new types of ships are being developed.
DAVID STEVENS: Certainly with the push at the end of the nineteenth century, you are getting steam-powered warships which can range all over the ocean. The main problem there is they are limited by their fuel capacity which is coal. The British had set up coaling stations all around the world so they could get their coal. Although Deakin might say these raiders can come and get us, you then had to think about where are they going to get the coal from. We might get into a bit later about how the Germans had plans, for example, to actually go into Australia’s ports and steal the coal. That’s how they were planning to do it. There was a lot of interrelating factors there.
PETER STANLEY: Do you want to talk for a minute about the Americans because the arrival of the Great White Fleet seems to have been a galvanising moment for navalists?
DAVID STEVENS: In 1908 it was Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet. We had a bit of a centenary for it a few years ago - in 2008 strangely enough. It was 16 white painted battleships that the Americans - or Teddy Roosevelt in particular - sent around the world to show that America was a world power. It was very much a statement: ‘We have arrived on the world scene and this is how we are doing it’. I talked about coal. The only reason the Americans could do that was because they used British colliers, but they did get to Australia. In fact, the Australians invited them, which was quite unusual at that time.
PETER STANLEY: Without going through the colonial office.
DAVID STEVENS: Without going through the secretary for the colonies. These ships visited New Zealand. They visited Melbourne, they visited Sydney, they visited Albany. That was really exciting for the population. There are a few paintings in the National Maritime Museum of the ships arriving, lots of people out watching them - very exciting - and thousands of postcards were produced. I think Pitt Street was turned into American Avenue or something for the day, which was really good.
One of the interesting things we have in our office is the American war plans for invading Sydney, Melbourne, Albany or Wellington after they had been, because the thing about warships is they are great grey diplomats - or these ones were white diplomats - but they are also there for intelligence gathering. We talked about the Anglo-Japanese alliance. Well, if Japan had gone to war against America, then Britain was going to be on Japan’s side, Australia would be on Britain’s side, and guess who the Americans were going to take out in the Pacific? Basically Australians. It was great to have the Americans on one side but at the same time a nation’s interests are only as good as yesterday.
PETER STANLEY: Indeed. Can we look at the political background to this. As I understand it, I am not an expert, the navalists are urging that Australia needs to get serious about modern naval defence that can not just protect harbours but can protect sea lanes and the commerce that Australia depends on, but navies are very expensive. The British admiralty is saying, ‘No, let’s leave the Australians as a local defence, a coastal defence force. We don’t need them to have a proper navy.’ That seems to persist until about 1909 and then all of a sudden it switches. I am quite perplexed as to why is it that the British attitude undergoes this dramatic change?
DAVID STEVENS: It is probably not quite as dramatic as you think. The problem for the British is that for the colonies to have their own navies is very dangerous because you do not want a colonial ship to go out and attack another nation’s merchantmen, for example, because the other nation is going to say, ‘That is the British doing that, not New South Wales,’ so it could be very embarrassing. They did not want the colonies to do that. You see that right up until the early part of the twentieth century where the Admiralty is saying, ‘No, the seas are one. We want one navy, the Imperial navy. We’ll run it. You just give us the money.’ There is an argument for that.
The problem for the Royal Navy is that, like everyone else, there are limited resources. They don’t have enough money and particularly, as we said before, with technology changing it means that ships are basically going obsolete as soon as they come off the stocks and hit the water and you have to keep building new ships with new technology. You may have heard of HMS Dreadnought in 1906, and Admiral ‘Jackie’ Fisher, which was where the name dreadnought came from. Once that was built, suddenly everyone is talking about dreadnoughts. These things are really expensive. We are talking about a large, turbine-powered, all big gun ship that is very powerful, very fast and very well armoured. Once the British had built that, the Germans want to have one, the French do, even the Brazilians do - you name it - and of course the Americans. So you get a naval arms race in a manner. The problem is that this is really expensive.
The Royal Navy cannot afford to provide the latest up-to-date technology all over the world. That means they put the latest up-to-date technology where they think it’s most important and, strangely enough, that is the North Sea because that’s where the greatest threat is - the Germans, because as I said the French are okay by now. That’s where the Royal Navy is concentrating its forces. It doesn’t mean they give up on the colonies but it means they put other sorts of ships there.
The way Admiral Fisher thinks about this is: we need to have really fast, heavily gunned ships that can be vectored where they needed to be vectored. He comes up with something originally called an armoured cruiser which then becomes a battle cruiser, which we will get onto a bit later, and he thinks this would be fantastic to defend the colonies or the dominions as they are becoming. The Brits are changing their attitude because of the fact that they cannot keep drawing on the Treasury for everything they need like they had before. They want to spread the load. How best to spread the load? They are starting to think about letting the colonies have their own navies. This is tied in at the same time with the Australians starting to think we want our own navy. So it all comes together.
It’s about 1907 that the Brits actually start to say, ‘Well actually, you could help us by providing small ships.’ That’s what they start off with. ‘It’s too much for us to send small ships from out from England to Australia, therefore if you build small ships like destroyers, you can help us that way.’ That’s why in early 1909 Australia decides to build some small destroyers, and originally that is what our navy was going to be. We were going to have a destroyer navy, a flotilla of destroyers that can whizz around the coast defending our trade.
We then have the Dreadnought scare of 1909 where the British have started building the dreadnoughts, the Germans are saying, ‘We’ll build dreadnoughts too,’ and suddenly the British advantage in naval power they had had previously has been disappearing, because when you start with a new revolutionary weapons system you have one, someone else builds one, the huge number you had built before are all out of date. You’ve lost your advantage. In 1909 there is what they call the dreadnought scare where the British are saying in parliament, ‘We’re a bit worried. We need money to build eight battleships.’
This is a really worry for the politicians in Australia because they are suddenly being told in public or in the newspapers that Britain can’t defend them. We are starting to lose our maritime supremacy. Australia, the federal government, offers a dreadnought - we’ll pay for one for the Royal Navy. The New South Wales government offers a dreadnought. The Victorians offer a dreadnought. The New Zealanders offer a dreadnought. So there are all these different areas, including Canada, all saying, ‘We’ll help provide you with a dreadnought to build up the British navy.’ In 1909 the Brits say, ‘Right, let’s have an imperial conference where we can discuss it,’ and that’s where we get the start of the Australian navy.
PETER STANLEY: Okay. That’s a good point to go to the pictures. Here is where I have to own up to something. We actually obtained from the RAN Sea Power Centre a whole series of wonderful images for the exhibition, and some idiot forgot to put them in the exhibition. I am going to use the images that the Sea Power Centre provided today so we can get a bit of consolation from them.
[image shown] Saturday, 4 October 1913, Sydney harbour, what’s happening?
DAVID STEVENS: We will just walk back from that a little bit to the 1909 conference and Admiral Fisher. Admiral Fisher says to the Australian delegation, which includes Admiral Creswell, ‘You don’t want destroyers, you want what I am calling a Fleet Unit. A Fleet Unit is a self-contained navy, a self-contained ocean-going effective navy. It’s going to be based on a battle cruiser, some light cruisers, some destroyers, some submarines, some auxiliaries, and with that you can have your own navy for your nation. This is something that you can support, you can look after and, by the way, we’ll have a couple more of these Fleet Units around the Pacific and they will all join together and become the imperial Pacific fleet. That’s what comes out of the 1909 conference. Australia signs up to that. It says, ‘Yes, we are happy, we will do that and we start putting all our money into building ships.’
The importance about 4 October 1913 is this is when the initial tranche of ships had been built and had made the journey from various places, mostly the UK, and came into Sydney Harbour to show off to the Australian nation, Australian people, what they had bought. So it was really important as part of these glorious days of 1913. That’s why on 4 October this year there is going to be an International Fleet Review and a re-enactment of this day. So if you are in Sydney, watch out for that.
This shows you the arrival of the Fleet Unit on 4 October. It shows the second and third ships of the line, the first one was the battle cruiser Australia, which we will see in a minute. This is Sydney and Melbourne. They were two modern light cruisers which were basically the scouts for the fleet. If you can think of the armoured cruiser being the citadel with the big guns steaming along somewhere, these were its scouts. They would whizz out, find out where the enemy was and come back and tell the battle cruiser where it would have to sail to sink something. They are high speed, very modern. One had been built in Scotland – I think they were both built in Scotland - Melbourne came out first early in the year and Sydney, which is the one on the right, came out with Australia leaving in July 1913 from Portsmouth.
PETER STANLEY: Which is why we have scheduled this talk for now, the centenary of the departure.
DAVID STEVENS: Right now Australia and Sydney are heading out of Portsmouth down towards Africa. This is them there.
PETER STANLEY: And then they are followed by?
DAVID STEVENS: You can see the end of the cruiser there on the left. That’s actually Encounter which we will talk about in a minute. As part of the Fleet Unit there was the battle cruiser, the light cruisers and the destroyers. These destroyers were the ones that Australia was going to get anyway. This is what we planned get even before the 1909 conference.
The important thing about the destroyers was there was going to be six. The first two were built in the United Kingdom. The third was built, then deconstructed, then shipped out to Australia and built here. Why was that important? Because there is not much point having a navy if you don’t have appropriate infrastructure to keep it going. This is all about building up Australia as a nation, building up our industry, building up our skill sets so that we can be a modern nation. These three destroyers Yarra, Parramatta and Warrego were the tail end of the fleet unit coming in on the 4th.
I will just stop there and talk for a minute about the names of the ships because it’s very interesting how they chose them. The flagship, the battle cruiser Australia, was named after Australia. Why is that important? Because the navy was the first national institution of importance. Remember we are talking about colonies that had all been separate beforehand, colonies that hated each other, that couldn’t even agree on the same rail gauge, that were all competing. It was very important for the federal government to develop a sense of an Australian nationhood. How better to do that than naming the flagship of the navy Australia.
How do you satisfy states’ interests? You name the cruisers after the capitals of the states, which is why you have Sydney and Melbourne. The one that was going to be built afterwards was Brisbane and the one after that was Adelaide. The same idea with the destroyers but let’s call them after rivers from each of the states, which is why you get Parramatta, Warrego and Yarra. The other ones ended up as Huon, Swan and Torrens. They are all reasons why these things are happening.
[image shown] This is just after the fleet has come in and they are moored in Sydney Harbour. Obviously the big vessel there is HMAS Australia which is a battle cruiser of the dreadnought type. If you have been to the 1913 exhibition, which I encourage you all to if you haven’t, there is a model of Australia there - you get an impression of what it has in it and how powerful it was. When you think that about this period of history the dreadnoughts were the strategic currency of the day. These days we talk about ICBMs or aircraft carriers perhaps. In 1913 you were talking about dreadnought-type ships, how many dreadnought ships have you got? Australia had one. That’s really important, because it meant that Australia felt that it had a voice on the world stage. Once Australia has a navy with a flagship like that, Australia is saying, ‘We can enforce the policing of the Pacific. We don’t need the Royal Navy any more. We can do it by ourselves.’
PETER STANLEY: Can I just draw attention to the number of people - there is just a small crowd down the bottom there but this was a gala event and tens of thousands of Sydney siders came to gawk at their new ships. It’s a sign, as we saw from Zora Smith, of how much of an impact the arrival of the fleet made on Australians.
DAVID STEVENS: I will point out you have Australia and then you have the three cruisers just to the right and Fort Denison there. Quite a few paintings have been done of the event. If you read the newspaper accounts of the time about how important this was, they talk about it as if it was the most important thing since Captain Cook’s arrival.
PETER STANLEY: Just to orient you, if you were standing in the Botanic Gardens, the Opera House is on your left. You can see the same spot today.
DAVID STEVENS: This is Encounter, which was one of the other cruisers. There was the Sydney, the Melbourne and Encounter that came in October 1913. Encounter wasn’t a modern cruiser. She was about 10 years old and she was actually one of the ships from the Australian Squadron that the Royal Navy had. Because we were still building our ships, Brisbane, which was going to be the next one was being built at Cockatoo Island in Sydney. Until she had been completed the Royal Navy loaned Encounter to the Royal Australian Navy, which was fine. She was still very useful’ particularly during the early months of the First World War. She is of a slightly older design than the Sydney and the Melbourne.
PETER STANLEY: Some of the sailors. Would you like to talk about who these guys are?
DAVID STEVENS: The people. One of the things you have to understand about Australia in 1913 is that it’s very hard to say ‘who is an Australian?’ because what criteria do you use: is it the fact that you have been born here? Is it the fact that you have emigrated here? Is it the fact that you have lived here for a while - these sorts of issues. You can’t really put labels on it like perhaps we might do today. When we talk about the people who manned the First Fleet, they are from a whole range of different areas. Many of them were on loan from the Royal Navy, the reason being that in 1909 we had 240 people in our navy, and that had to grow to over 3,000 by 1913. The only way you could do that and train these people is to loan them from the Royal Navy. Depending on which ship, we are talking about between 50 and 60 per cent of the Fleet were on loan from the Royal Navy.
Having said that, some of those people were actually Australian born because they had gone to the Royal Navy, either as part of the Australian Squadron or they had gone back to the UK. Again you have to be a bit careful. One of the reasons they had volunteered to come to the Australian Navy is because they were Australian even though they were actually serving in the Royal Navy. We had to set up this infrastructure to train people and to get them ready. Fortunately, because we had the core experience from the Royal Navy, it was not too difficult.
This gets back to our picture of why we were trying to do this. This is the launch of Warrego, which was the third destroyer which came in 1913 and the one that had been constructed in Scotland, deconstructed, brought out to Australia and constructed again at Cockatoo Island. When they were looking at what the Navy was doing, our politicians weren’t saying, ‘This is money down the drain.’ What they were saying is, ‘This is money for an investment, and not only for defence but also for our infrastructure, our industry, to get Australia moving as a modern nation.’
[image shown of a couple of destroyers]
DAVID STEVENS: The interesting thing about this is it gets back to what the government was trying to do with the navy. They were trying to bring together this national sentiment by saying, ‘We are a nation now. We can do things as nation not just as separate states.’ The way they did that was that they made sure that the Navy went off and visited every possible port they could. This is Yarra and Parramatta in about 1911 visiting Coffs Harbour. They went all the way up the Queensland coast, all the way down the Victorian coast.
The interesting thing there is you will notice it has the blue ensign on the stern rather than the white ensign and it has the Union Jack at the front. The reason is that first we were the Commonwealth Naval Forces and then when we became the Royal Australian Navy in 1911 we changed the flags. Before we were the Royal Australian Navy, the admiralty had said, ‘You can’t fly our white ensign because you are not part of the Imperial Navy,’ which is why they had the blue Australian ensign on the stern. Once we became the Royal Australian Navy we could fly the white ensign at the stern.
[image shown of coaling]
DAVID STEVENS: Coaling was no fun. The Royal Navy was very structured and very hierarchical. The captain at the top is God, the officers are up there among the angels and the lower deck isn’t much thought of at all. The thing about coaling is that everybody got involved. The crews loved it because it meant that everybody was working, everybody was dressed up, everybody was dirty and the same. It was a dirty job. I don’t know if anyone here has ever had to deal with coal. If you can imagine a ship that relies on getting in 300 or 400 tonnes of this stuff if it goes out for a day, you have everybody dressed up in their worst outfits, you do this as soon as you get in, you don’t get a rest. When you get inside a harbour, the barge comes up, you put people in the barge, you load up the coal in sacks, you put it on the deck, you empty it out and you shovel it down into the bunkers. Perhaps the worst job was the people in the bunkers because when you are pouring it down a hole, it all ends up right underneath the hole, so you have to have trimmers to move it to the edges of the bunker so you get the maximum amount in. They are in an increasingly smaller spot as the coal rises. The whole ship is covered in coal dust. You get very little water to wash yourself with afterwards. It is no fun at all. This is why everybody really loved it when we went to oil because oil is wonderful.
Here we are doing some gun drill in HMAS Sydney. Sydney became very famous for its engagement with Emden in 1914. The interesting thing about this sort of training is that we were very lucky when we had the navy in that we weren’t starting from nothing. When I said how important it was to have the core of the Royal Navy people, that is really important because it meant the people who were just coming on board with very little experience have people who can teach them properly. When you look at the results of the 1913 gunnery exercises, for example, Australian ships are right there at the top. That is, we were as good as any comparable Royal naval vessel. That was really important as we moved into the First World War.
[image shown of Australia]
DAVID STEVENS: That is Australia which, as I said, you have a model in the exhibition. It’s the flagship; it’s called Australia; and it’s a dreadnought.
PETER STANLEY: Thank you. There is Zora Smith, my hero [image shown]. Take a seat again, David, because we would like to have a little bit more chat before we open it up to the audience. Having got this wonderful new Fleet Unit, what happens to it? And clearly the First World War happens to it. Would you like to talk about what happened to the Royal Australian Navy in the five years following 1913?
DAVID STEVENS: How long do we have?
PETER STANLEY: I can see your point. Let me focus my question then. Were these ships the best that could be had and did Australia make the best use of them?
DAVID STEVENS: They were the best that could be had, and we did as best as we could with them, yes. I mentioned before about the Germans and all the other threats. The Germans were the big threat obviously, and that’s where the war came from. In 1914 the Germans had a squadron of ships in East Asia under Vice Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee including two armoured cruisers, Scharnhorst *and *Gneisenau. They weren’t as capable Australia but these ships were extremely capable by themselves, and plus they had some light cruisers like Emden. This force was based in China at Tsingtaobut also had bases in other areas including New Guinea and Rabaul. So they were quite close to Australia because German New Guinea was the top half of Papua there.
The orders for this squadron at the start of the war were to intercept Australian trade, to sink Australian ships and, if possible, bombard harbours, steal coal and all those sorts of things. Because we had HMAS Australia, the Germans said, ‘We are not going there. We are not going to do that. We are going to go somewhere else where Australia isn’t.’ That is really important because it’s a demonstration of the deterrent value of HMAS Australia. When people talk about what the Navy did in World War I, they tend to get hung up on an idea that you had to fight, you had to blow things up. Yes, that is part of it, but actually it’s far better if you don’t have to fight. Australia worked in that way. It deterred the Germans from coming to Australia and attacking our ports or our trade. All that money we spent on Australia was really worthwhile.
What did we do in the first few months? We went up to New Guinea and took over that from the Germans. We chased Admiral von Spee across the Pacific Ocean where he was actually sunk off the Falkland Islands. We operated off East Africa trapping a German cruiser Königsberg in East Africa. We obviously destroyed the Emden which was preying on trade in the Indian Ocean. Then our fleet really dispersed into ships that were staying in the Australian area to protect Australia and those that went to operate with the Royal Navy in the North Sea.
PETER STANLEY: The final question for us: Does that mean that the Navy worked in the way that was envisaged those who had planned it, funded it and welcomed it saw it behave exactly as they had expected?
DAVID STEVENS: You can’t really answer it in that yes or no fashion, there are too many shades of grey because it depends which person you are talking about. The fleet was flexible enough that it could do lots of different jobs, and it was called on to do those jobs. You never got the Pacific Imperial Fleet that they were talking about, but then you didn’t need that because there wasn’t a threat against a major power, it was Germany with one squadron. So you didn’t need to have to do that job. Part of the idea behind making the Navy the way it was, was that it was going to be interchangeable with the Royal Navy both in ships and people. The fact that it went over to the North Sea and was interchangeable and did do that indicates it worked exactly as it was planned.
PETER STANLEY: Thank you very much, David, but David is staying around because we are now opening the floor to the audience so if you have questions, now is your chance. There is a threat now. The threat is that, if you don’t ask questions, I am going to declaim some more poetry by the wonderful Zora Smith. It’s great poetry, but you may not want to hear more of it. Before I invite people to contribute, can I inform you that this program is being recorded. That is why we are all miked up. If you participate in the Q&A session then we have gained your consent. So we don’t worry about getting forms but we have your consent to being recorded. Can I invite members of the audience to ask a question especially of David, as he is the expert on the subject, or make a contribution.
QUESTION: When did the fleet get radio communications?
DAVID STEVENS: The first experiments were in about 1903 in Brisbane with a ship called Guyandah, part of the Queensland branch of the Navy at that stage. They came out to Australia in 1913 with wireless communication. One of the things the Navy did at the start of the war was take over all Australian wireless communication. When you think about who was talking to who in 1914-18, it was being run by the Navy.
DAVID STEVENS: Yes, to the extent that technology was good enough at that stage. It was very atmospheric reliant, as it still is. You still had cables remember as well; it wasn’t all just wireless. When Australia came out in 1913 they did wireless tests all across the Indian Ocean to determine when they lost contact with South Africa and when they gained contact with Fremantle. Yes, they did manage to get communication - not every day and not every hour but usually at night.
QUESTION: A comment first and then a question. You mentioned the Boxer Rebellion. As an undergraduate in Adelaide some 50-plus years ago, we were told that New South Wales sent some naval aid to the Boxer Rebellion and on the way they fired the cannon just to get a bit of practice and they lost so much way because of the recoil from them that they got there after the Boxer Rebellion was over. The question is a bit more contemporary: where was New Zealand in this great geostrategic pattern for this part of the world?
DAVID STEVENS: New Zealand, as I mentioned, had offered a dreadnought to the Royal Navy. That became HMS New Zealand, which was a sister ship for Australia.
PETER STANLEY: There is a great model of it in the National Museum of New Zealand as well.
DAVID STEVENS: When New Zealand had originally funded it, they had visions of it being part of the Fleet Unit that was going to help protect New Zealand in the Pacific. Because of people like Churchill who said, ‘No, the threat is in the North Sea, we need everything we can possibly get in the North Sea,’ New Zealand remained in the North Sea during the war. It did make a visit to New Zealand before the war and it did come out after the war with Admiral Jellicoe as part of a defence plan for a visit as well. To that extent HMS New Zealand really didn’t do much for New Zealand’s defence. When the Australian Station closed down under British control, they moved to New Zealand. At the start of the war there were several cruisers operating out of New Zealand which were involved in escorting New Zealand troops to Samoa and to Western Australia so that they could then get in the Anzac convoys. Yes, there were ships, and often they did have New Zealand people on those ships.
QUESTION: You mentioned earlier the relationships between the British Empire and Japan. Would you like to touch on the role of the Imperial Japanese Navy working with the Australian Navy and its role in the area during the time of the First World War?
DAVID STEVENS: That’s a very interesting question. There was always this love-hate relationship. In fact, because we had sent our ships off all over the world on Imperial missions, we ended up having to use Japanese ships to protect Australia when German Raiders came out in 1917, which obviously put some people off side. The Japanese made a great contribution to what was going on in the First World War at sea. Ibuki, which was a Japanese armoured cruiser, was first part of the first convoy that took the Anzacs from Albany off to the Middle East. There’s a model of Ibuki in the War Memorial if you have ever been there. So there was this very close connection at that stage.
When we were chasing Von Spee across the Pacific Ocean there were Japanese squadrons doing the same thing. HMAS Australia, our battle cruiser, operated with Japanese ships in that search off South America for Von Spee. The Japanese helped in chasing down Emden. The Japanese operated in the Mediterranean during the First World War. So there was a lot going on with the Japanese.
The interesting thing there is that, when you read the reports from British officers about what the Japanese were doing it was: ‘Yes, we’ve got the Japanese ship - whatever it happens to be - in Penang and we have noticed that the guys are over the side doing soundings and investigating what the lay of the land is.’ It gets back to my comment about the Americans in 1908. Navies are great for doing a lot of things, including intelligence gathering.
QUESTION: In the first decade after Federation, what were the command and control arrangements? For example, did the Australian Defence Minister or Naval Minister, if there was one, have any control over what happened in that first decade?
DAVID STEVENS: One of the things they were trying to work out when the Fleet Unit was coming was how this was going to be used, what command and control arrangements were going to be in force. What you see in that lead-up to the First World War is the arguments between those in Australia who are saying, ‘This is how we are going to operate it,’ and the Imperial connection which is saying, ‘This is where those ships are going to be sent to.’ It was never properly sorted out before the war started, and what you end up with is both things happening.
For example, HMAS Australia’s war orders for what it was supposed to do when the war started was to go to the China Station and operate up there off Hong Kong and Singapore and not defend Australian territory. But what the Australians had done was put a clause in the war orders that said, ‘If there was a threat to the Australian territory it could be retained to deal with that threat,’ that is how they argued for Australia to stay at the start of the war to operate at Samoa and New Guinea et cetera, because they said, ‘There is a German threat, therefore we can’t release it yet.’ There was a lot of toing-and-froing.
Part of the agreement when they were setting up the Fleet Unit was that in time of war it would become part of an Imperial Fleet, and therefore it would be run by the Admiralty. Very soon after the start of the war, that telegram was sent which said, ‘The Royal Australian Navy is now part of the King’s Imperial naval forces.’ The slight caveat on that is that the British weren’t interested in the entire Australian fleet; they were only interested in the battle cruiser and the two light cruisers Sydney and Melbourne. All the rest of the fleet the Brits were quite happy for the Australians to keep running in the local area.
PETER STANLEY: So that tension between Britain and Australia that we see in the Second World War, it starts before and during the First World War.
QUESTION: Following on from the previous question, do we know when the Navy Board was first convened, where it met and when? And how it was comprised: were they predominantly British officers; were there Australian officers; and were there politicians involved? Who did it report to and who was it responsible to?
DAVID STEVENS: The Australian Commonwealth Naval Board, ACNB, is the answer. It started life [under a different name] when Creswell was made the Director of Naval Forces in 1904. I think the first meeting of the Naval Board was 1905. That was a temporary arrangement until we got to the Royal Australian Navy era when it became the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board. It worked for the Australian government. It didn’t work for the Admiralty. It always reported through the minister to the government.
The minister, whether it was the Defence Minister or the Naval Minister, depending on whether we had a separate naval department or not, was the President of the Board. The First Naval Member was Admiral Creswell. He was an Australian in that respect. The Second Naval Member who was responsible for personnel tended to be a British officer, a British captain, simply because there were more of them around. We had very few naval officers who were Australian and who had come up through the Australian system. The Third Naval Member was Admiral Clarkson, who was an engineer. He was also an Australian. Then you had finance and civil members. It was originally a Royal Navy officer and then it became a civilian Australian from the Queensland Public Service. It was mostly Australian officers other than the Second Naval Member who tended to be a Royal Navy officer on exchange.
PETER STANLEY: There are two things you can look at here. Robert Hyslop’s book Aye, Aye, Minister: Australian Naval Administration 1939-1959 is a wonderful book for dealing with that. But also David is too modest to say, but his book on the history of the Royal Australian Navy goes into that too, the whole governance of the RAN in that early period. I can recommend it.
QUESTION: Do we have the minutes of that first board meeting?
DAVID STEVENS: I don’t know about the first meeting. I have copies of the wartime minutes. There is no reason why they shouldn’t exist. They are probably in archives.
PETER STANLEY: The National Archives in Melbourne.
DAVID STEVENS: But I have to tell you they are not very exciting. They tend to be one-liners on what it was about.
QUESTION: Was there any mutiny in the First World War on navy ships?
PETER STANLEY: That’s a Dorothy Dixer, isn’t it?
DAVID STEVENS: There were a number of mutinies in the First World War. There is this idea that Australians were particularly ill-disciplined, liked to fight and liked to drink and all that sort of thing. They weren’t necessarily called mutinies. Sometimes they were called a stop work, a strike or down tools or something, depending on what the circumstances were. When you look at it, a lot of the disciplinary problems tended to be with the stokers, the guys who had to run the engines and who had to deal with that coal the whole time. Strangely enough, they had a really bad life. There was no air conditioning in these ships. You were operating in the tropics. You were working in these engine rooms with temperatures up to 100 and something degrees. They would come off watch. They would get into a harbour. They are coaling. There is no break for them. They go for months without a full night’s sleep because of the watch-keeping system. They are the ones who tended to be where the disciplinary problems started. There were a few that happened throughout the war in various ships.
QUESTION: Did it create changes in the way things were managed?
DAVID STEVENS: One of the great reasons that the Navy moved to oil, even though it was more expensive, was because they knew that that is where the disciplinary problems were going to come. It is very expensive to have all these people who just shovel coal. They tend to be the ones who are upset most of the time. Let’s get rid of most of them by changing to oil.
QUESTION: At what stage, if ever, did we lose our fear of the US?
DAVID STEVENS: I am not too sure if I can answer that.
PETER STANLEY: You are an historian not a futurologist, for one thing.
DAVID STEVENS: Some of us would argue that we still have worries.
PETER STANLEY: It’s a good question though, but the question should be, I suggest: At what point did the US stop making plans to invade Australia? I suppose the answer to that might be the late 1930s.
DAVID STEVENS: I don’t know about the late, but certainly by the 1930s. I will just give you an example. In 1908 there was the Great White Fleet, lots of flags, everything is fantastic. In 1915 and 1916, the Americans aren’t in the war on our side, therefore they are not friends. When we were operating on the China station with our destroyers, I won’t go into the details but we were actually doing a blockade of the Philippines, which was American territory. You get not exactly a ‘ding dong’ but American destroyers and Australian destroyers facing off against each other, because the Australians are trying to intercept a ship and the Americans are saying, ‘Hang on, that’s in our territorial waters, you can’t do it.’ So ‘friends’ is a relative term.
PETER STANLEY: And it changes. I should explain too that the reason David is able to respond to these questions with the assurance that he can is that he has just come back from spending a year in Britain in which he had the enviable experience of sitting in the Royal Navy Historical Section’s offices in Portsmouth where, believe it or not, they delivered files to him from National Archives. He is not just making this up. You have actually read those files where the signals were exchanged from the ships and from the stations and so on. We have been privileged to obtain the benefit of David’s massive expertise there, and I will ask you to thank him in a minute.
I want to do a couple of things before we finish. I am really tempted to read out more of the wonderful poetry of Zora Smith but only another two stanzas - you have to stand up for poetry. It underlines the point that David’s made that Australia’s Navy grows out of and for a time is in friction with the Royal Navy. In 1913, Zora Smith wrote that wonderful poem in which she celebrated our fleet. Only this morning I discovered that she wrote another poem in 1914 after the Sydney-Emden fight where she published a verse in the Sydney Mail called To the navy. In a sense it’s a coda to her previous praise of this navy that she thinks will do great things. Just over a year later it is doing in her view great things. I will read you two stanzas from her poem To the navy. There’s more heave hoeing, I am afraid. She loves heave hoeing:
You can see the pride that Australians had in the Navy. Thanks to David’s expertise and the pictures he has explained to us, we can get a sense of why Australia had this very positive view of its first navy. You can see why the National Museum chose to make sure that its Glorious Days: Australia 1913 exhibition made clear that the Navy was a part of 1913 for Australia.
Now I have to thank various people. First of all, can I thank Alex, Luke and Ken in the box who have made it all work with our headphones and for their work behind the scenes. Thank you all for coming and for contributing as you have. We are both conscious there are people here in the audience who have a deep interest in the Navy. Speaking on behalf of the National Museum, even though I don’t work here any more, the Museum is very pleased to have made sure that it has included the Navy in the exhibition. I have to acknowledge the way in which the Navy assisted the National Museum in creating the exhibition. It was a very positive experience. We are very glad we’ve had it.
Finally, can I ask you to thank David for coming along and sharing his expertise with us. Thank you all very much. [applause]
I am required to reiterate David’s suggestion to go and see the exhibition. I think it will cost you $10. At the end of the exhibition you of course exit through the gift shop, and in the gift shop there is this wonderful book called Glorious Days: Australia 1913, edited by my former colleague Michelle Hetherington, which is a very handsome evocation of Australia in 1913 and includes essays by various people on various aspects, including me on the Navy. I can thoroughly commend it to your attention. Thank you for coming to the National Museum today and we bid you god day.
DAVID STEVENS: And thank you, Peter. [applause]
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Date published: 19 August 2013