Later we turned again and engaged her on the other broadside. By now her three funnels and her foremast had been shot away and she was on fire aft. We turned again and after giving her a salvo or two with the starb(oard) guns, saw her run ashore on North Keeling Island. So at 11.20 am we ceased firing, the action having lasted 1 hour 40 min.
Lying grounded and aflame on the shore of a remote Indian Ocean island the doomed German raider Emden was still hours from being surrendered by her captain, Karl von Muller. Her foe, HMAS Sydney, steamed away in pursuit of the German collier Buresk, but rather than face the Australian cruiser, Buresk’s crew scuttled their vessel. When he returned to the stricken Emden, Sydney’s captain, John Glossop, found her ensign still flying and her surviving crew refusing to surrender. Five more minutes of reluctantly ordered fire finished the German ship. She showed the white flag and the ensign came down. Glossop later recalled that he felt like a ‘murderer’ for those five minutes of fire.
World War I was only four months old, but already Emden had sunk or captured twenty-five ships, bombarded Madras’s oil tanks, caused commodity prices and maritime insurance rates to rise, disrupted shipping movements and tied down more than a dozen Allied warships. On the night of her last voyage, Emden had passed just 60 kilometres from the convoy carrying the first Australian and New Zealand troops to the warring continent of Europe. Her signals, as well as those from Direction Island, had alerted the convoy to her presence, and Sydney, being the closest warship, steamed off to engage the hitherto elusive enemy. The victory was acclaimed in Australia and beyond—the much-feared Emden would menace no more Allied ships—and the first convoy sailed on.
For Australia the loss of four sailors in the battle was a small taste of the carnage that lay ahead. Distance prevented Australian troops from reaching the front until months after the outbreak of hostilities, but for the fledgling Royal Australian Navy (RAN) the war began much sooner. Vice Admiral Maximillian Graf von Spee’s German East Asiatic Cruiser Squadron posed a more immediate threat to Australia than did his countrymen on the distant Western Front, and the search for his ships had began before war was declared.
The hunt for enemy ships to Australia’s north could hardly have been further from Europe, nor could it have been carried out by a younger service—the RAN was a mere four years old when the war began; her origins could be traced to the very recent past.
Origins of the RAN
Before 1901 Britain’s Royal Navy (RN) maintained two squadrons in Australian waters. One—the Royal Navy Australian Squadron—whose station took in New Zealand, was under Admiralty command and could be ordered away should the need arise. The other—the Royal Navy Auxiliary Squadron—required the colonies’ agreement before it could be deployed elsewhere. Neither the Australians nor the British found the arrangements entirely to their satisfaction: the Australians lamented the lack of training the arrangement offered local sailors and the unsuitability of the squadrons’ vessels for the rough waters off the Australian coast; the British resented losing control of their ships, small and third-rate though the cruisers and gunboats were.
The Auxiliary Squadron did not survive Federation, and was disbanded. The ships of the Royal Navy Australian Squadron covered the waters to Australia’s north, from the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia) to China as well the seas and oceans surrounding Australia and New Zealand. British dominions and colonies paid a subsidy to have their seamen trained by the squadron. Before Federation each of the Australian colonies possessed its own navy. In 1901 they were brought together to form the Commonwealth Naval Forces under the command of Captain Rooke Creswell. Formerly of the Royal Navy, he was an experienced seaman who had commanded both the South Australian and Queensland navies in the years before Federation. He and the country’s early governments believed that Australia needed her own defence force, lest an attack take place while the RN’s vessels were off station.
In 1909, however, the situation changed. Britain proposed that a Pacific Fleet, comprising three fleet units, be based in Australia, China and the East Indies. The one which was based in Australia became the Royal Australian Navy; in peacetime her ships remained under Australian control, but in times of war they fell under the Admiralty’s strategic direction. Constituted to range widely, the RAN was no longer solely concerned with coastal defence. To gain as wide a range of experience as possible, personnel were able to move freely between the RN and the RAN, which employed identical ships and equipment. The following year the force envisaged by Creswell began to take shape, when the destroyers HMA Ships Parramatta and Yarra arrived in Broome, but four more years passed before the RAN grew significantly.
In an age when sea power was the measure of a nation’s strength, the mighty British and German navies dwarfed the fleet that sailed into Sydney on 4 October 1913, but to the thousands who lined Sydney Harbour that spring day it was an impressive sight. HMAS Australia, the new battle cruiser, superior to any ship in the Pacific, led the procession. On board was Rear Admiral George Patey, Commander of the Australian Squadron. With Australia were the light cruisers HMA Ships Sydney, Melbourne and Encounter, the destroyers Parramatta and Yarra, and a third, the Warrego, which was prefabricated in Britain and assembled in Australia.
A number of ships still to join the RAN weren’t there that day. Two, the destroyers Torrens and Derwent (later renamed Huon), were still being built and another, the Swan, was on the drawing board. Pioneer, a small cruiser described by Creswell as ‘unspeakably useless’ was later transferred from the RN, and some old colonial vessels were retained for training and other subsidiary duties. Two other vessels also remained to join the RAN’s fleet: the submarines AE1 and AE2; they did not reach Australia until 1914. The following year AE2, far from the harbours it was purchased to defend, played a vital role in the opening hours of the Gallipoli campaign.
By August 1914 there were 3800 officers and men in the RAN, of whom 850 came from the RN. The 1646 men in the Royal Australian Naval Brigade (RANB) provided the RAN’s reserve, and training to take their place in the navy were 3092 cadets. Thus equipped and manned did the RAN enter World War I.
Operations in the Pacific
From the last days of July 1914, British authorities kept the Australian Government informed of the diplomatic manoeuvrings as Europe drifted towards war. After receiving a warning telegram on 30 July, the Naval Board began to prepare the fleet for the coming conflict. On 3 August 1914 a meeting of the Australian cabinet agreed to offer the Admiralty control of the RAN and to send an expeditionary force wherever it was required. Britain accepted both offers; war was declared the next day.
Of most urgent strategic concern to Australia was Germany’s presence in the Pacific. With a fortified base at Tsingtao in China, and the colonies of the Marshall and Caroline Islands, Samoa and, most pressingly for Australia, the Admiralty Islands and the north-eastern part of New Guinea, the enemy had a significant toehold to Australia’s north. Only token forces occupied most of these colonies, but the German threat, in the form of the East Asiatic Cruiser Squadron, was real. Under von Spee’s command were two powerful armoured cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau; light cruisers, Emden, Nürnberg and Leipzig; a torpedo boat; and some small gunboats.
Even before the war began, von Spee sailed his cruisers into the vastness of the Pacific. His whereabouts were a mystery. His course depended on Japan, then allied with Britain. Should she enter the war, von Spee believed cruiser warfare in the waters off East Asia was impossible. Without Japan joining the belligerents, he recognised that he could ‘carry out a war against commerce … as long as supplies last, but in view of the probable use of the Australian fleet against us it will only be for a short time’. Von Spee had more than one option, but neither promised longevity.
On 30 July the Naval Board assumed control of all civilian wireless stations and, in Australia’s first signals intelligence operation, instructed them to listen for German naval communications. Signals from Scharnhorst were intercepted, but with no direction finding apparatus, estimates of the ship’s position were made only from the strength of signals received, leaving a wide margin for error and bringing the Allies no closer to actually locating her. The best estimates placed the Germans 300 miles north-east of Papua, heading south-east, possibly for Rabaul, the capital of Germany’s South Pacific possessions, with its excellent anchorage at Simpsonhafen (Simpson Harbour).
The Navy’s response was swift. Australia, Sydney and the destroyers Warrego, Yarra and Parramatta steamed north to intercept. On the pitch-black night of 11 August, the destroyers prepared to carry out a torpedo attack on enemy shipping in Simpsonhafen. Sydney, in close support, waited in the harbour mouth; Australia waited further out to sea, ready to engage any German ship trying to escape. Through the sheltered bays and inner harbours, any of which might have been hiding German warships, the three destroyers searched. For tense hours the Australian ships sailed from anchorage to anchorage; but the harbour yielded nothing. Simpsonhafen was empty of German vessels.
Lieutenant Commander CJP Hill of the Royal Navy, on board HMAS Parramatta, recorded in the sparest of prose the almost comical sequel:
Mid[night] Left Simpson Harbour and reported to Sydney. No can find enemy. Ordered to enter harbour at daylight and shell wireless station. Entered harbour at daylight, no wireless station. More disappointment.
10.30 am. Parramatta ordered to Herbertshohe, chief settlement in New Guinea about 10 miles from Simpson Haven. Self in command of armed party, landed. Inhabitants fled at our approach. Took two prisoners one German missionary and one half cast [sic] who spoke English. Could get no information out of them even with a revolver down their necks.
Japan’s entry into the war forced von Spee’s hand. Operations in East Asia against the navy that had, less than a decade before, sent a Russian armada to the bottom of the sea, seemed suicidal. So he headed east, towards the South American coast and its abundant coal supplies. Only one ship, Emden, was left to wreak havoc in the waters to Australia’s north and west.
More successful than the hunt for von Spee was the RAN’s campaign to capture German merchant ships in Australian waters. Forty German merchantmen were seized and placed into Allied service. One, whose crew had no wireless aboard, delivered herself into Australian hands when she sailed into Port Jackson ninety-nine days after the war—about which her crew knew nothing—had begun. Another, Hobart, was captured with her code books, which provided vital intelligence on German movements.
Armed with information from Hobart’s code books, the RAN continued its attempts to draw von Spee into battle. The Admiralty, however, ordered attacks on more certain targets: Germany’s Pacific territories and their all-important radio stations. While the RAN’s main force was escorting a New Zealand force to seize German Samoa, 500 naval reservists and 1000 infantrymen were brought together to form the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF). Embarking in the armed transport HMAS Berrima on 19 August, the force carried out some training at Townsville before sailing for the German capital at New Britain.
They concentrated in New Guinean waters before sailing for New Britain on 7 September. Arriving after a four-day voyage, they landed at Kabakaul, a small cove on Simpsonhafen’s outer shore, near Cape Gazelle. The fighting that followed resulted in the deaths of four Australians, the first of the war. In years to come such minor actions would barely have been remarked upon and the capture of a remote German colony was of little moment. The greatest loss of this venture, however, occurred at sea on 14 September 1914, when the submarine AE1 was patrolling with Parramatta off Cape Gazelle. Last seen to the south-west of Duke of York Island at 3.30 that afternoon, while apparently making for Simpsonshafen, she disappeared without trace, taking with her thirty-five British and Australian submariners. When news of the tragedy reached Australia, messages of condolence poured into the navy, among them telegrams from Buckingham Palace and the Admiralty.
With the German garrison on Rabual defeated, Admiral Patey was anxious to return to Australia, having been ordered to Port Jackson for convoy duties. The Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was almost ready to embark and begin its long voyage to deadlier battlefields. Melbourne and Sydney sailed to Western Australia to prepare, while Von Spee, still at large in the Pacific, had given notice of his intention to move eastwards by appearing off Samoa and then bombarding Tahiti. Patey wished to pursue the German squadron, but the Admiralty, fearing that von Spee might double back into the western Pacific, ordered Australia to Fijian waters.
When the German force destroyed a British squadron off Coronel on the Chilean coast, Patey was ordered to the waters off Mexico. Von Spee, however, rounded Cape Horn and sailed into the Atlantic, where he was finally defeated in the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914. The German threat to the Pacific was ended and Australia, no longer needed in southern waters, was ordered to Britain to join the Grand Fleet. During the voyage, on 6 January 1915, she sank the German steamer Eleonore Woermann.
The first convoy and the destruction of SMS Emden
Preparations to embark the first AIF and New Zealand troops continued. Twenty-eight ships had been assembled to carry more than 21,000 Australians and almost 8000 horses. The convoy gathered at Albany in late October 1914, where it was joined by ten ships carrying the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Von Spee may have been defeated in the Atlantic, but the vessel that he left behind, Emden, posed a threat to the many unarmed ships carrying the AIF across the Indian Ocean. To guard against her, the convoy was escorted by the armoured cruiser HMS Minotaur, HMAS Sydney, HMAS Melbourne and the Japanese cruiser Ibuki.
The battle between Sydney and Emden proved an exciting diversion for thousands of soldiers now growing used to shipboard life. But for those who were close to the action the war’s true nature was beginning to reveal itself. After dispatching Emden, some of Sydney’s crew checked the situation on the island before returning the next morning to render assistance to the Germans. They found a gruesome shambles of ‘[b]lood, guts, flesh and uniforms’. The Keeling Island Cable Station’s doctor who boarded Emden, reported:
Men were lying killed and mutilated in heaps, with large blackened flesh wounds. One man had a horizontal section of the head taken off, exposing mangled brain tissue. The ship was riddled with gaping holes, and it was with difficulty one could walk about the decks, and she was gutted with fire. Some of the men who were brought off to the Sydney presented horrible sights, and by this time the wounds were practically all foul and stinking, and maggots 1/4 inch long, were crawling over them, i.e., only 24 to 30 hours after injury. Practically nothing had been done to the wounded sailors, and they were roughly attended by our party and despatched to us as quickly as possible. A cook’s mate, named Fulton, did some exceedingly disagreeable work, with great credit to himself in connexion with this.
Of Emden’s 316 strong crew, 134 were dead and 65 wounded. The landing party that had gone ashore to destroy the Direction Island wireless station escaped, commandeering the island schooner Ayesha and eventually reaching Germany. In addition to the four members of Sydney’s crew who were killed in the fight, twelve had been wounded. Her exploits had made Emden something of a worldwide celebrity and her sinking was widely reported. The RAN enjoyed favourable publicity, and people celebrated the new navy’s fighting prowess. Emden’s sinking brought an end to the operations that rid the Pacific and Indian Oceans of German warships and allowed a safer passage for vessels plying the oceans between the Middle East and Australia. The convoy proceeded without further incident to Colombo, and then to Alexandria on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, arriving on 3 December.
AE2 in the Dardanelles
A second convoy soon followed, this one including the submarine AE2, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Henry Stoker and towed by the troop transport Berrima. She left the convoy at Port Said to join the Allied force soon to take part in the opening phase of the Dardanelles campaign. By late February AE2 was at Mudros, where the fleet was gathering for a naval assault on the Dardanelles, a heavily fortified waterway through which access could be gained to Turkey’s capital, Constantinople, and beyond it the Black Sea and Russia’s warm water ports. AE2 began patrolling the Dardanelles’ entrance with British and French submarines and Stoker began planning a way through the perilous straits.;
On 10 March, before any attempt could be made, AE2 ran aground entering Mudros Harbour. The damage was sufficient for her to have to dock at Malta for repairs. While she languished in the dock the situation in the Dardanelles grew increasingly worrisome. Already having suffered heavy losses for scant gain in the face of a surprisingly formidable defence, the Allies abandoned the naval attempt when six ships were either sunk or severely damaged during an assault on 18 March.
Naval forces, unable to breach the Dardanelles on their own, were now going to get infantry support. Numbered among the 75,000 Allied troops being readied for landings on the Gallipoli peninsula on the Dardanelles’ northern shore were the Australians and New Zealanders then training in the desert near Cairo. The campaign was moving onto land, but for the Turks, bedevilled by rudimentary overland routes to the remote peninsula, the Dardanelles and the Sea of Marmara were vital lines of communication. Allied planners realised that submarines operating in the Sea of Marmara could seriously disrupt the seaborne flow of Turkish reinforcements and supplies to Gallipoli. When he returned to Mudros, Stoker was called to the flagship, where he was told by the Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean fleet, Vice Admiral Sir John de Robeck, that landings would take place on 25 April around the Gallipoli peninsula. The AE2’s role in the enterprise—sailing through the heavily defended Dardanelles into the Sea of Marmara to attack Turkish shipping—promised to be particularly hazardous. On the eve of his mission Stoker wrote ‘if you searched the world over I doubt you would find a much more unpleasant spot to carry out a submarine attack than this Narrows of Chanak’.
The first attempt ended in anti-climax when AE2 sustained some minor damage to a hydroplane. Before she tried again Stoker’s orders were changed. With Allied warships firing in support of the landings around the peninsula, there were fears that mines might be floated down on the current to sink them. So Stoker’s first task was to stop any minelayers he encountered and ‘generally run amok’ off the town of Çanakkale, inside the Dardanelles.
Early on the morning of 25 April Stoker began his historic voyage. Peril lay everywhere: the narrows were subject to strong currents, and a submarine sailing against them would come dangerously close to the limits of her batteries’ power; shallow waters limited the depth to which Stoker could submerge; five lines of mines lay suspended underwater; maritime patrols maintained a constant vigil; and coastal batteries equipped with searchlights swept the Dardanelles for any sign of infiltration.
Stoker made his approach on the surface, and managed to stay undetected through the web of searchlights until 4.30am, when AE2 was seen and fired upon. He dived immediately. Stealing through the channel at 70 feet [21.5 m] below the surface, the AE2’s crew waited, tense and apprehensive as mine mooring cables dragged along the hull. Submariner Charles Suckling recalled:
The next hour provided an experience never to be forgotten. The rappings and scrapings on the hull of the boat by mooring wires of the mines seemed never ending. On two occasions something much harder than wires hit the bow of the boat and rattled away astern, and once some object seemed to catch up forward and remained knocking for several minutes, before it broke away and rattled astern.
Having sweated their way through that agonising hour, they cleared the minefield and Stoker brought the boat to periscope depth. But, spotted by shore batteries, AE2 was brought under heavy fire as shells whipped up a ferocious spray around the periscope. Still unscathed, she arrived off Çanakkale at 6.00 am, where Stoker saw an old battleship which he believed might be a minelayer. He started to attack, but a small cruiser came on the scene. Realising that she, rather than the battleship, was the more likely minelayer he fired at her instead, but an approaching destroyer stopped him from observing the results. What he could not see, however, Stoker could hear, and on board AE2 an explosion loud enough to convince him that the target had been destroyed was clearly audible. The submarine had heavily damaged the gunboat Peykisevket.
Now the chase was on. Fleeing the area, AE2 twice ran aground, once on the eastern and once on the western shore. Twice she was so close under Turkish guns that they could not depress sufficiently to hit her. She found deep water and proceeded up channel with Turkish patrol boats in pursuit, passing Nagara Point into wider waters. But she could not shake off her pursuers. Seeing two tugs approaching on a reciprocal course with a wire strung between them, Stoker bottomed AE2 in 70 feet of water near the Asiatic shore and went to ground. Around noon she was hit by what was apparently a towed wire, but was able to surface that night to recharge her batteries. After the fraught hours through which they had just lived, the crew breathed deeply of the fresh air that flowed into the hatch.
Word of Stoker’s success reached the Army Commander in Chief, Sir Ian Hamilton, just as he was involved in a staff conference considering whether to defend the tenuous foothold at Gallipoli or withdraw. Stoker’s report did not, as some have contended, persuade Hamilton that he should keep his force on the peninsula, but the news heartened him and perhaps brought some cheer to those men on shore who heard it. In the Dardanelles, AE2 remained on the surface until dawn. Shortly afterwards the crew saw two vessels and fired a torpedo which missed.
At 9 am AE2 entered the Sea of Marmara and commenced operations against Turkish shipping. For four days she criss-crossed the sea, attacking when the chance arose and creating alarm and confusion with her presence. But all her attacks missed. Her supply of torpedoes was almost at an end and she had no deck gun and thus no offensive capability. On 29 April she met the British submarine E14, which had followed her through the Straits, and the two captains agreed to rendezvous the next day.
On 30 April, as she approached the rendezvous off Kara Burnu at 10 am, AE2 sighted the torpedo boat Sultan Hissar and dived. Suddenly, at 10:30, she rose unbidden to the surface; then, with her forward tanks flooded, she plunged back into the depths. Efforts to hold her submerged at 50 feet failed and she dove through 100 feet, rapidly expelling water ballast. Engines full astern, she rose faster and faster, broaching the surface stern first before descending into another uncontrolled dive. Again she recovered and broke surface. In rapid succession shells from Sultan Hissar holed the engine room in three places. Realising that AE2 was doomed, Stoker ordered her abandoned. No men were lost in the sinking but four died later in the harsh conditions of Turkish captivity.
However daring the feat, AE2’s performance in the Sea of Marmara was a disappointment. Stoker did his best to ‘run amok’ but the submarine’s poor torpedo performance and the lack of a deck gun limited her successes to one damaged gunboat. It was poor recompense for the courageous crew’s fine seamanship, but Stoker proved that the difficult passage could be achieved. Limited though AE2’s success might have been, the submarines that followed her into the Sea of Marmara brought Turkish communications between Istanbul and Gallipoli to a standstill.
The RAN Bridging Train
By the beginning of 1915, with the Pacific and Indian Oceans cleared of German warships and the war, for Australia at least, still largely something which lay in the future, there was little for the Australian Naval Reserves to do. Home duties—manning wireless stations, conducting harbour patrols, guarding vessels and the many other jobs associated with Australian maritime life—did not occupy the entire reserve; many were idle. In Europe, however, the Western Front had descended into the trench stalemate that is so readily associated with World War I. Already, men were dying in numbers unimagined just six months before. From England came word that engineer units were needed and that naval personnel would be suitable for the job. Australia, in response, formed an engineer unit from the Naval Brigade’s surplus manpower. Organised along Army lines, but retaining Naval ranks and ratings, the unit was administered by the Naval Board and, at its formation, commanded by Lieutenant Leighton Bracegirdle.
The 1st Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train (RANBT) was formed in February 1915, comprising some 300 men, and sailed on 4 June. Rather than making straight for the Western Front as originally intended, the Bridging Train was diverted to the Eastern Mediterranean and attached to the British Army’s IX Corps, busily preparing for its part in the coming August offensive: the landing at Suvla Bay. Having trained hard for service on the Western Front, the RANBT found itself preparing to build pontoons in the shimmering summertime heat of Gallipoli. Of all the duties for which they had trained, pontoon construction and management was not among them. Five days of instruction on Imbros was all that could be given before the RANBT embarked for Suvla.
Little happened on the day of the landing: shrapnel pelted the deck of the ship carrying the RANBT, and a lone German Taube tried to do more damage with its bombs. It was a gentle introduction to Gallipoli. The following day work began in earnest. Landing piers went up quickly and men and supplies poured ashore. For those leaving the peninsula—the many wounded and ill—lengthier constructions were needed, as the lifeboats could not approach close to shore. The first such pier was 120 yards [109 m] long, and was built in just twenty minutes; five minutes later it was in use. Two more days of the most urgent pier construction and the unloading of men and stores followed, then the RANBT were ordered to supply water to the troops on shore.
The RANBT went on to carry out a variety of support tasks: maintaining water supplies, carrying out salvage work and disembarking troops. The unit’s reliability and skill in improvisation—essential on Gallipoli, where engineers’ stores were difficult to come by—were widely recognised. The RANBT provided engineering services until the last days of the campaign. Then, during the evacuation, they maintained the wharves so vital for embarking the thousands of men to be got away from Gallipoli but which, with the docking of so many ships, sustained inevitable damage. For the entire time that they had been at Suvla, the RANBT had carried out its work under a rain of shrapnel from Turkish artillery, but despite the danger only two of its men had been killed. More than sixty had been wounded, however, and two had died of disease, which was widespread on Gallipoli and which kept the unit below strength for most of its time there. The last of the RANBT’s men finally re-embarked on 20 December, among the last Australians to leave the peninsula.
They returned to Imbros, and shortly afterwards, in February 1916 while Bracegirdle was hospitalised in Cairo, 189 members of the unit mutinied. Having not been paid for five weeks, they refused to work. The men were duly paid and the matter appeared settled when the RANBT deployed to the Suez Canal Zone later that month. An undercurrent of dissatisfaction remained, however, and in April eighty-eight members of the unit were allowed to transfer to the AIF.
In the Canal Zone the RANBT built swinging pontoon bridges over which men and stores could cross the canal into Sinai, but which swung out of the way to allow waterborne traffic to pass. The routine work, which the men believed could be done by civilian labour, rekindled their dissatisfaction. Illness fuelled their discontent; enteric fever killed two men and many more suffered through the maladies that were endemic to the region. Occasional air raids were more of an inconvenience than a serious threat, but life in the sands along the canal was far from pleasant. Nor were any further applications for transfer to the AIF approved.
In December 1916 life for some of the RANBT improved when fifty men were sent to support an amphibious landing at El Arish on the Sinai’s Mediterranean shore. They quickly constructed two piers over which men and stores were landed and their work so impressed the British that they wanted the entire unit to support the advance into Palestine. The men who had worked so well at El Arish went on to support the failed attack on Gaza on 26–27 March 1917. But word of disaffection within the RANBT had reached Australia and the matter was raised in the Federal Parliament. As a consequence the unit was formally disbanded on 27 March 1917, and its members were transferred to other army and navy units or discharged.
Pioneer off East Africa
Designed for colonial service and completed in 1897, the cruiser Pioneer was, by 1914 standards, small, slow, and with 4-inch guns, weakly armed. At the outbreak of war she was guardship at Melbourne before steaming to the west, where she operated off Fremantle, capturing two German merchant ships, Neumünster and Thüringen. After making good the mechanical defects that prevented her from escorting the First Convoy, she was ordered to German East Africa in December 1914 to take part in operations against the German cruiser SMS Königsberg. A near sister of Emden, Königsberg had sunk one merchant ship and Pioneer’s sister ship Pegasus in Zanzibar harbour before she was discovered and cornered in the Rufigi River by British warships.
On 9 January 1915 Pioneer departed Fremantle for German East Africa, joining a polyglot British squadron of cruisers and auxiliaries off the mouth of the Rufigi on 6 February. She was given charge of a coastal sector to patrol with an armed liner and two smaller armed auxiliaries. This humdrum work was interrupted by a fruitless search, with the cruiser HMS Highflyer, for a suspected German store ship. Then two monitors, HMS Severn and Mersey, arrived under tow to join the operation against Königsberg. Already having tried aircraft, which wouldn’t work in the tropical conditions, and having considered and rejected an amphibious landing on the grounds that the delta was too unhealthy for a landing force, the Admiralty’s options for destroying Königsberg were limited to a naval assault. On 6 July the attack began. Pioneer bombarded German defensive positions on the main mouth of the river while the monitors steamed up another branch; but their fire mostly missed, while Königsberg, aided by observers hidden in trees, managed to hit Mersey, killing six crewmen. Six hundred shells later, the monitors were withdrawn. On 12 July operations were resumed. This time, the monitors were ordered to approach their quarry more closely, and although Severn was hit, she returned fire; by 1 pm Königsberg had ceased fire and was aflame. Pioneer’s fire had not drawn a reply.
Königsberg had been destroyed but Pioneer remained on station, carrying out blockade duties and several bombardments at Nazi Bay, Dar es Salaam and Tanga. She underwent a much-needed refit at Simonstown in September and October before returning to the dull routine of coastal patrol. In March 1916, with Hyacinth and the battleship Vengeance, she destroyed a German hospital ship suspected of carrying contraband at Dar es Salaam, once the crew had had time to evacuate the ship.
There were few other noteworthy incidents in the Pioneer’s monotonous East African existence. The boredom was alleviated momentarily on 23 June 1916 when she ran aground on a shoal north-west of Niororo Island. After three and a half hours she was refloated, having suffered little damage. In October that year Pioneer returned to Australia and was paid off; her part in the war was over and she saw no more service. Ironically, for an old, decrepit and obsolete vessel, the ‘unspeakably useless’ Pioneer, in the words of the Official Historian ‘saw more actual fighting and probably fired more rounds in the cause of actual hostilities than any other ship of the Australian Squadron’.
Patrolling the oceans
Germany’s military presence in the Pacific and Indian Oceans did not last beyond 1914, but the need for vigilance remained until the end of the war. Warships were no longer a threat, but German merchant ships lingered in ports from China to the Philippines and Siam to the Dutch East Indies; each country was also home to expatriate German nationals. Allied authorities decided to maintain constant naval patrols of the region to prevent arms, finances and subversive literature being smuggled into the British colonies of India and Burma, where nationalist revolts were feared.
The cruiser Psyche, a sister of Pioneer, and an old RN survey sloop, Fantome, were commissioned into the RAN and ordered to the Bay of Bengal in July 1915 in an effort to prevent such smuggling. Working in ships ill-equipped for the tropics, in all weathers, sailors found life monotonous and uncomfortable. Disease and the poor diet on which the ships’ companies lived took their toll, breeding dissatisfaction and indiscipline among crews made up of men and boys mostly plucked from training to man these vessels. In June 1916 Psyche, based at Hong Kong, was patrolling off the south coast of China and down into Indo–Chinese waters. Up to a third of her crew were ill, but she returned to the Bay of Bengal in October 1916 to continue patrolling until she returned to Australia in September 1917, where she paid off. She recommissioned for patrol work off the eastern Australian coast in November, seeing out the war in home waters.
Essential though they may have been, these patrols through the tropical waters to Australia’s north were generally dull and uneventful. Life was relatively safe here, but it was also monotonous and difficult. The heat was relentless, particularly in the stifling, airless confines below decks. A Royal Navy officer attached to the RAN, Commander Arthur Bond, described conditions on board an Australian destroyer in East Indies waters:
Ice lasted for the first twenty-four hours only; fresh meat would not keep, and water in the drinking tanks was warm. As it was necessary to keep the forward awnings furled to give the 4” gun a fee arc of training, the officers’ and men’s living quarters under the forecastle were like an oven. All hands lived mostly on deck, in the minimum of clothing, uniform consisting of shorts and flannel, and so burnt were we that the ship’ company looked [more] like Malays than Australians. Food consisted mainly of corned beef, and efforts to provide livestock were never very successful, as the Borneo chicken (mostly legs at the start) shed everything edible but sinew before it came to the table. On one occasion I tried taking a pig to sea but the unfortunate animal committed suicide by jumping overboard before his time arrived to become pork.
Australian vessels patrolled a large swathe of territory. Early in the war, during December 1914, Parramatta, Warrego and Nusa steamed 193 miles up the Sepik River in New Guinea to check for any Germans in this wild and inaccessible country. The smaller Nusa went even further upstream, all to no avail. Scattered groups of civilians were seen, but no Germans. From February 1915 the destroyers Torrens, Swan and Huon plied the waters around Malaya, the Philippines and the East Indies, remaining in the region until being transferred to the Mediterranean in May 1917.
Some ships, like Encounter, spent large periods of the war very close to home. She patrolled the Pacific, captured a German schooner, ran aground and went to Hong Kong for repairs before spending a month patrolling the East Indies. By February 1916 her voyages beyond Australian waters were at an end. Hers was a quiet war. She supervised salvage operations in July 1917 when the mine-damaged Cumberland, carrying mail and cargo for southern Australia and Europe, limped to Gabo Island. And even here, Encounter acted on the margin of events, for while of little moment in itself, the incident had unexpected repercussions, prompting the development of an elaborate system for detecting shipboard bombs. Even when a mine proved to be the culprit, the system, and perhaps the threat, remained.
Like many Australian ships, the prize HMAS Una also saw service in New Guinean waters. During 1915 she carried out administrative and survey duties in the Bismarck Archipelago, Nauru and the distant Gilbert Islands. In July she captured the German schooner Hasag off New Ireland. She searched for submarine bases in the Dutch East Indies and then patrolled Malayan waters. Apart from an expedition to Malekula Island in the New Hebrides during October 1916 with the French gunboat Kersaint, when she landed armed parties to put down a native rebellion, she spent the remainder of the war in the Bismarck Archipelago.
Another Australian vessel, Fantome, made a similar visit to Malekula Island in October 1918 to carry out a punitive expedition against locals who had murdered a French planter. A number of islanders were killed in the operation. Until then Fantome had spent time in Malayan waters, patrolled around Fiji and out to Tahiti, but her war was relatively uneventful and operations like those carried out by she and Una against restive island populations had more in common with pre-war colonial adventures than the slaughter in Europe and the Middle East.
The Australia Station
At home, the RANB manned the examination service, various signal and lookout stations around the coast and harbours, and coastal patrol and minesweeping vessels. RANB personnel also guarded installations and provided certain intelligence services. But there were never enough ships available to conduct systematic patrols of Australia's vast coastline. In early 1917, however, as fears of German surface raiders and submarines grew, the Board instituted a series of patrols by Encounter and a half flotilla of three destroyers. Perhaps for many Australians the potential for German ships to conduct attacks along their coastline was less disturbing than the actual presence of Japanese destroyers working alongside Australian ships in Australian waters. The wartime alliance did little to quell white Australia's historic fears of Asia.
Time proved Australian fears of German raiders largely unfounded. No submarines appeared and the raider Seeadler reached the Pacific, only to run aground in the Society Islands on 2 August 1917. HMAS Encounter was among the ships that examined her wreck. More sobering was the presence of another German raider, Wolf, which took twelve ships in the Indian and Pacific Oceans and laid mines in southern Australian and New Zealand waters, one of which sank Cumberland. The sinking prompted not only the hunt for shipboard explosives on merchantmen but also the establishment of an RANB Minesweeping Section that manned a number of tugs and barges equipped for the task. Wolf, however, remained at large and managed to make her way back to Germany despite Allied attempts to find her.
Though small in scale, such incidents were a resounding reminder that during this war merchant shipping was the lifeblood of many combatant nations. Recognising this, the Australian Government took control of merchantmen for the duration of the conflict. Ships were requisitioned and refitted, captured German vessels were pressed into Australian service and a government shipping line was established. The Government took up five vessels as hospital ships. Grantala supported operations in the Pacific, while the others saw service overseas. Two, Kyorra and Warilda, were sunk in the English Channel during 1918.
Australian dockyards were also busy in support of the war effort. Cockatoo Island carried out conversion and repair work and built three destroyers and one cruiser, as well as beginning work on a second. Garden Island refitted, repaired and converted ships, while other depots trained men and provided stores.
Wireless stations proved their worth early in the war, when signals from Direction Island betrayed the Emden’s whereabouts. Even before this, these new and vital pieces of infrastructure were placed under naval control and radio traffic became subject to censorship. The Hobart's code books helped Australian personnel read intercepted enemy transmissions, exposing wireless' vulnerability but never stopping Australia's own manufacture of wireless sets for shore installations and ships. Censorship was not limited to wireless transmissions; the Naval Board censored letters from ships at sea to prevent operational intelligence being leaked.
The Board, however, had little operational responsibility for Australia's warships overseas. In the event it was just as well. The RANB's administration, serving under incompetent ministers, was plagued by internal friction. Above them all was a Governor-General suspicious of the Board's own competence. It took a Royal Commission in 1917 to initiate the Board’s reform, this time with more clearly defined responsibilities.
In early 1915 the Pacific and Indian Oceans were free of German warships, and the cruisers Melbourne and Sydney had sailed to the Middle East as escorts to the first convoy and were now ready for a new role. They were both ordered to the Atlantic, where German raiders were still active. Sydney initially formed part of the South American Squadron, before joining Melbourne in the North America and West Indies Cruiser Squadron under Admiral Patey. Prevented by his seniority from serving in the Grand Fleet, he remained Commander of the Australian Squadron.
The Australian cruisers joined a force comprising a pre-dreadnought battleship, and four British, one Canadian and two French cruisers, augmented by two auxiliary cruisers. While this fleet patrolled the North American coast and the Caribbean, the Australians served mostly in the Caribbean, with their rest base at Jamaica. Occasionally they docked at the main base on Bermuda.
As the last of the German warships in the Atlantic had been interned shortly after Sydney and Melbourne joined the station, their job was to monitor the German merchant ships spread throughout the region’s neutral ports. Melbourne was deployed twice, and Sydney once, northwards to watch the thirty-two enemy merchantmen in New York harbour. They also visited Halifax, Nova Scotia, and patrolled the open seas of the North Atlantic. These voyages deep in the northern hemisphere were harder on the ships and their crews than the calmer tropical waters of the Caribbean, and there was continual niggling harassment from German sympathisers in the United States, who spread rumours and complaints about alleged infringements of American neutrality by British warships. However, the United States Government and press took little notice. On one occasion Melbourne captured a German-owned, nominally Dutch steamer off New York, which she escorted to Halifax.
As 1916 wore on, the Admiralty decided that Germany was unlikely to use her precious modern light cruisers as raiders. To leave two fast, well-armed cruisers on duties that could be carried out by older vessels seemed a waste, so Melbourne and Sydney departed for more arduous duties with the Grand Fleet in the North Sea.
Destroyers in the Mediterranean
In May 1917 the Commonwealth agreed to a British request for the Australian destroyers Huon, Parramatta and Yarra to serve as much-needed escorts in the Mediterranean. Arriving at Port Said in August, they were converted for anti-submarine work at Malta by surrendering a torpedo tube to make room for depth charges and balloon winches. They were in action against a submarine a week later, providing a tonic for crews jaded from months of humdrum patrol work. There were many alarms and submarine sightings, but the destroyers, with their primitive anti-submarine systems, sunk none.
From October the flotilla was based at Brindisi, on Italy’s east coast, for operations supporting the Otranto Barrage in the Adriatic. The Barrage, a system of nets trailed from drifters to block the passage of Austro–Hungarian submarines to and from the Adriatic, was patrolled by surface ships and aircraft. Light forces had already attacked the Barrage, but it remained in place as each of the flotilla’s three ship divisions carried out alternating four-day patrols. When they weren’t engaged in patrolling the Otranto Barrage, the ships spent some time escorting Italian troopships in the Mediterranean. In 1918 the balloon winches that had been installed on the destroyers came into use. Kite balloons carrying observers in a suspended basket were sent aloft. From their vantage point they looked for shadows that suggested the presence of submarines, while the accompanying destroyer took on the role of ‘killer’ when one was seen.
The Mediterranean offered more action than many of the regions in which Australian ships had served. Submarines, despite extensive Allied patrols, continued to strike and on 16 November 1917 Warrego and Parramatta stood by the Italian troopship Orione, which had been torpedoed off Brindisi. Parramatta towed her until a tugboat could take over. The following year, on the night of 22–23 April 1918, in an episode reminiscent of the tedious patrols in the North Sea, Torrens, with British and French destroyers, engaged in the fruitless chase of some Austro–Hungarian destroyers. But naval warfare was not solely concerned with actions involving seaborne targets. On 2 October Swan and Warrego covered the bombardment of Durazzo, a base for enemy submarines on the Albanian coast, by Italian and British ships which were in turn supporting some fifty torpedo boats from a host of Allied nations.
A collision between Yarra and Huon on 8 August 1918 resulted in the death of the flotilla’s commander, and both ships had to be docked for repairs. It was the end of Huon’s war service. When she left the dockyard, influenza took hold among the crew, killing five sailors. As if to underline the vast gulf that separated service in the navy with that in the infantry, the collision occurred on the first day of a major, and ultimately war-winning, offensive on the Western Front, with the day’s fighting resulting in the deaths of more than 5000 Allied soldiers.
The Armistice found the Australian destroyers in Turkish waters. Their duties also took in the Black Sea. Swan was sent to the head of the Sea of Azov, where an Australian-French shore party toured White Russian positions and prepared a report for the Foreign Office. Of the experience, Commander Arthur Bond wrote:
As we got out of the province of the Don into that of Voronish [Voronezh], over which the line of the fighting swayed backwards and forwards, a great difference in the attitude of the Civil population was most noticeable. The crow[d]s we passed through maintained an atmosphere of apathy or positive antagonism. Great precautions were taken to see that we did not linger among them longer than necessary, and at intervals shots rang out close at hand. General Krasnoff explained to me that shooting birds was a pastime of his soldiery, but on one occasion the whistle of a bullet and a spurt of snow a few yards to the side of our conveyance, followed by the sudden departure of a section of the escort and some more shots, gave an indication of the precarious hold the Cossack forces had on the district which had just fallen into their hands.
The destroyers then sailed to Britain where the ships underwent refits and the crews were given leave before returning to Australia.
Grand Fleet Operations
The destruction of Von Spee’s squadron in the Battle of the Falklands left no compelling reason for Australia’s remaining in southern waters, so the battle cruiser was sent to the North Sea to join the Grand Fleet commanded by Admiral Sir John Rushworth Jellicoe. There she joined the Battle Cruiser Force under Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty as flagship for Rear Admiral Sir William Pakenham, commander of the 2nd Battle Cruiser Squadron. Also in the squadron were Australia’s sister battle cruisers Indefatigable and New Zealand.
Australia was involved in a number of North Sea operations, usually unsuccessful attempts by the Grand Fleet to bring Germany’s High Seas Fleet into action or to cover operations by British light forces. However, when the Germans did finally fight, at the Battle of Jutland in May 1916, Australia was under repair, having collided with New Zealand in fog on 22 April. She returned to service in June, her company bitterly disappointed at having missed a battle in which Australia’s sister ships had been heavily involved. Perhaps, however, they had been fortunate. Three British battle cruisers, including Australia’s sister ship and squadron mate Indefatigable, blew up and sank during the action, with the loss of all but a few of their crewmen. The sinkings revealed serious deficiencies in British battle cruiser design and gunnery procedures. Australia’s loss in such circumstances would have been disastrous to the young RAN. After her return to duty, Australia resumed the round of sweeps with the Grand Fleet. In October 1916 she was joined by the light cruisers Melbourne and Sydney. These became part of the 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron, which was associated with the 2nd Battle Cruiser Squadron.
Apart from screening the battle cruisers, the ships of the 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron often screened convoys to Scandinavia, two of which had been wiped out by German light forces in 1917. These operations were generally uneventful, although, on 4 May 1917, Sydney, HMS Dublin and four destroyers engaged in a spirited but inconclusive action with the German Zeppelin L43, which was believed to have been working as a ‘spotter’ for German submarines. The enemy airship taunted the Allied ships, but was unable to hit any. She dropped at least ten bombs in an attempt to hit Sydney but was foiled. Sydney’s captain, John Dumaresque, described how:
During the latter part of the action the Sydney manoeuvred to prevent L43 from coming up astern, by keeping her on or before the beam, turning often, whereby L43 was obliged to drop her bombs while crossing Sydney’s track … The gunnery officers of Sydney and Dublin made good shooting with the H.A. guns, thereby keeping the airship at such height as to make her bomb dropping inaccurate.
Sydney’s guns had missed the Zeppelin, whose bombs had missed Sydney; surface ship and airship had, to quote one officer who was in the battle, ‘parted on good terms’. Early in the afternoon a second Zeppelin appeared in the distance, but it did not approach the ships. L43 joined its companion, too high for ship’s guns, and the pair was last seen disappearing into the eastern skies.
Air power had evolved into a major component of modern war. If the sky was war’s newest arena, the sea was one of its oldest. The two met in the dawning field of naval aviation, and Australian ships were at the forefront of early experiments. They conducted a number of tests that proved the feasibility of operating aircraft from platforms fitted to battle cruisers and light cruisers, paving the way to an arrangement that was widely adopted in the fleet and offering an early glimpse of the modern aircraft carrier. On 1 June 1917 a Sopwith Camel fighter flown from Sydney intercepted two German reconnaissance aircraft, possibly shooting one down.
Some Australian sailors had the rare experience of fighting on land. In February 1918 volunteers from the ranks of seamen and stokers were sought for special service, and more men applied than could be accepted. The eleven who were taken were taught about trench warfare, learnt bomb-throwing and were given bayonet drill. They found out later that they were to land at Zeebrugge, as part of an operation to stop the Germans using the Belgian port as a base for light shipping and submarines. An Australian stoker, NJ McRory from HMAS Australia, was on board the British ship Thetis during the 23 April 1918 raid:
The Thetis broke through the boomed defence at Zeebrugge, but went aground in the Channel owing to our starboard propeller fouling the boomed defence. We signalled the Intrepid ‘We are aground. proceed ahead carry out orders.’ After 25 minutes we released ourselves but not before we had suffered from gunfire. Our for’ard gun was blown overboard taking crew with it. We also had a shot hole right through from starboard to port side, leaving a hole large enough for three men to walk through and just clearing the top of our engine room. By the time we were moving again the other two ships had placed themselves inside the Canal as ordered to do so. The Thetis was placed at the entrance.
The ambitious plan to sink ships in the channel and have explosive filled submarines destroy the viaduct failed, and the British marines suffered heavy losses in their attempt to destroy German shore batteries, but the Australians came through unscathed.
These moments of action punctuated a generally dull existence for many Australian sailors. The Official Historian summed up life on the high seas in World War I in these terms:
Of actual fighting, of visible enemy, not a trace; merely a prolonged chase over seas peopled solely by traders and fishermen (though strewn here and there with submarine-made wrecks), of a foe believed to exist somewhere but beyond the vision of any man in the squadron; and just when the crews (hoped) … that at any moment enemy masts might lift above the horizon, an order out of the air … and … the return to an undesired harbour and another age of uncomprehending disappointment.
Nevertheless the Australian ships were still subject to the niggling attrition of lives that comes from involvement in wartime operations. They continually operated in poor weather, which was particularly hard on the light cruisers. Sydney lost a boy and had eight other men injured; Melbourne had a man washed overboard and a signalman thrown from the rigging in heavy seas off Norway in December 1916. Two sailors from Sydney were visiting the battleship HMS Vanguard when the ship blew up in harbour on 9 July 1917. Sydney’s boats were the first on the scene and picked up the only two survivors, neither of them her own men.
Although only one capital ship in a large fleet, Australia’s presence in the Grand Fleet was significant. The RN had a comfortable preponderance of battleships, but even as late as 1917 Admiral Beatty, Jellicoe’s successor, was concerned about his superiority in battle cruisers. Essentially fast battleships, sacrificing some armament and protection for speed, the battle cruisers were reconnaissance ships, used to inform the commander in chief of the enemy fleet’s composition, disposition, course and speed. In action their role was to destroy the enemy’s own battle cruisers before using their speed to concentrate on the van of the enemy’s battle fleet. Their role made it likely that the Battle Cruiser Force would at some stage fight separately from the main fleet, which it did both at Dogger Bank and at Jutland, and where it suffered badly. At risk of being separated from the fleet, the battle cruisers’ vulnerability necessitated the RN possessing more of them than the German fleet.
Ultimately the Grand Fleet played a vital role in the defeat of Germany, not by destroying her fleet, but by making possible the Allied blockade which for years prevented German exports from leaving her shores and stopped food and essential raw materials from reaching her people and industry. At the same time the German fleet, submarines notwithstanding, was powerless to stem the flow of men and material crossing the Atlantic from the Americas. Like her civilian population, the fate of Germany’s soldiers on the battlefield was in some measure determined by the Grand Fleet and the Allied blockade.
The Official History of the RAN in World War I relates the story of a lecture in which the speaker, gesturing towards a map, said ‘This is a map of the world; that is where the Australian Navy served during the war’. He was quite correct. For all but the first six months of the war, the RAN did not operate under one command; its ships served with various squadrons in different parts of the world as needed by the Admiralty. Australian ships could be found from far-flung South Pacific outposts to the freezing North Atlantic, in the waters off Africa, in the Caribbean, off Mexico’s barren west coast, up wild New Guinean rivers, throughout the Mediterranean and, of course, in the waters surrounding Australia.
Like most other combatant navies, the RAN did not experience a full naval engagement, and this was a matter of some frustration. Nevertheless, the young navy had been thrust into a worldwide conflict and over its course had experienced the gamut of naval operations. Her ships worked with a great fleet, carried out searches for enemy raiders over thousands of miles of ocean and sank one in a dramatic action that electrified the nation. RAN vessels escorted convoys and carried out the long routine patrols essential to the blockade of Germany. Some Australian ships carried out anti-submarine warfare, others experimented with the use of aircraft at sea and still others swept mines in home waters. Naval infrastructure was developed and tested under wartime pressures to the benefit of intelligence gathering, shipbuilding and communications.
In 1919 the ships serving in European waters returned to Australia and peacetime routines. The following year Britain significantly increased Australia’s naval strength with the gift of a destroyer leader, five destroyers, six submarines and three minesweepers. The ships and submarines were mostly surplus to RN requirements now that the war was over, but the five destroyers were new. The gift marked a fitting end to a war that, for the RAN, had been quite successful. Two submarines were lost within the first twelve months, but not a single surface ship was sunk in four years of active service. One hundred and seventy-one men, including RN personnel serving with the RAN, lost their lives during the war—more men fell in a single day on the Western Front, but without the navy operating far from the gaze of infantry in France and Flanders, winning the war against Germany would have been an even more difficult and bloody undertaking.
‘AFTER 25 MINUTES WE RELEASED
OURSELVES BUT NOT BEFORE WE HAD
SUFFERED FROM GUNFIRE. OUR FOR’ARD
GUN WAS BLOWN OVERBOARD TAKING
CREW WITH IT. WE ALSO HAD A SHOT
HOLE RIGHT THROUGH FROM STARBOARD
TO PORT SIDE, LEAVING A HOLE LARGE
ENOUGH FOR THREE MEN TO WALK
THROUGH AND JUST CLEARING THE TOP OF
OUR ENGINE ROOM.’
Australian stoker NJ McRory of HMAS Australia, on board the British ship Thetis during a raid on Zeebrugge, 23 April 1918.