Royal Australian Navy in World War I

 

Commanded by the British Admiralty from 10 August 1914 to 19 August 1919. Began the war with 16 ships, two submarines and 3800 RAN personnel (including 850 from the Royal Navy). By the end, the RAN had 37 ships and 5000 RAN personnel. During the war, two submarines were lost and 171 men died (including 63 from the Royal Navy).

Australia's navy

A view of naval ships on the water taken from a ship.

Australian warships and auxiliaries rendezvous off Rossel Island, New Guinea, on 9 September 1914, en route to Rabaul, New Britain. The photograph was taken from Encounter. Australia is ahead of her, with the store ship Aorangi to the left, in front of troop transport Berrima.The cruiser Sydney is at the extreme left. AWM H12595

For the first 6 months of the war, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) fleet operated under one command. Then RAN sailors and vessels served with different squadrons around the world, as requested by the British Admiralty.

RAN ships and submarines worked with the Grand Fleet and other Allied navies to:

  • search for enemy raiders over thousands of miles of ocean
  • carry out anti-submarine warfare
  • escort convoys of merchant ships carrying supplies and troops
  • do long routine patrols, essential to the blockade of Germany and enemy ports
  • experiment with the use of planes at sea
  • sweep for mines in home waters

Early in the war, HMAS Sydney sank a German ship. This action electrified the nation.

Australian vessels could be found around the world during the war, including:

  • in the waters surrounding Australia
  • in the larger rivers of New Guinea
  • at South Pacific outposts
  • in the Caribbean Sea
  • off Mexico's west coast
  • in the freezing North Atlantic Ocean
  • in the waters off Africa
  • throughout the Mediterranean Sea

The British Grand Fleet, which included the RAN, was vital in the defeat of Germany. Not by destroying the German Imperial Navy, but through the naval blockade of Germany.

For years, the Blockade of Germany stopped:

  • food and essential raw materials from reaching Germany's industry and its people
  • German exports from leaving Germany by sea

At the same time, the German navy was unable to stop men and supplies coming from the Americas. Although German vessels sank many Allied merchant ships, Germany was wary of drawing the United States into the war.

The blockade of Germany organised by the Royal Navy was a significant factor in the Allied victory. Churchill said that the commander-in-chief of the Grand Fleet, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, was:

the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon

Such would have been the price of a significant defeat at the hands of the German Navy.

Before the war

Male sailors and divers in a boat with a diver in the water.

A cutter crew from the flagship HMAS Australia tends to one of the ship's hard-hat divers, circa 1913. Sea Power Centre – Australia

Before the federation of Australia's colonies, five of them maintained their own naval forces for defence. They were supported by two squadrons of the British Royal Navy in Australian waters.

After Federation, the Commonwealth of Australia took over the state defence forces. The Commonwealth Naval Forces was formed under the command of Captain Sir William Cresswell.

Britain proposed in 1909 to establish a Pacific Fleet based in Australia, China and the East Indies. In 1911, the fleet in Australia became the RAN, mostly in response to a surge in German naval construction.

The RAN began recruiting sailors in 1912, and it borrowed almost 1000 skilled and experienced men from the Royal Navy.

On 4 October 1913, the RAN fleet of warships sailed into Sydney as a unit for the first time. It was a small fleet compared to the strong British and German navies. But it impressed thousands of people who lined Sydney Harbour to see it that day.

Rear Admiral Sir George Patey commanded the fleet. He was a senior officer in the Royal Navy who was loaned to the RAN from 1913 to 1916.

Entrance into the war

The navy was different from the army's Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in that it already had vessels and crews in place before the war began. Any recruiting was done only to fill shortfalls.

By August 1914, when the war began, the RAN had:

  • 3800 officers and men, of whom 850 (22%) came from the Royal Navy
  • 1646 men in the RAN reserves (from the Royal Australian Naval Brigade)
  • 3092 cadets in training

By then, the RAN fleet included:

Many other vessels would join the fleet during the war.

British authorities sent a warning telegram to the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board on 30 July 1914. The board members immediately began to prepare the fleet for the coming conflict.

On 3 August 1914, the Cabinet of Australia sent a cable message to the Admiralty:

In the event of war Government prepared place vessels of Australian Navy under control British Admiralty when desired.

A few hours later, Britain declared war on Germany.

Operations in the Pacific

A submarine on the water with two ships in the background.

The submarine AE1 (foreground), HMAS Australia and a River class destroyer at the Rossell Island rendezvous. This is one of the last photographs taken of AE1 before she disappeared with all hands off Duke of York Island on 14 September. AWM A02603

At the beginning of the war, Australia was concerned about the enemy presence in the Pacific. Germany had a fortified base in Tsingtao, China, and small remote colonies in:

  • Caroline Islands, north of New Guinea
  • Marshall Islands, north-west of New Guinea
  • German Samoa
  • the Admiralty Islands, off the north-eastern coast of New Guinea
  • north-eastern New Guinea, close to Australia

Of most concern was Germany's strong naval presence in the Pacific Ocean. The German East Asiatic Squadron had six major warships under the command of Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee.

Securing Simpsonhafen

On 30 July 1914, the Naval Board assumed control of all civilian wireless stations in Australia. The navy asked the wireless operators to listen for German naval communications.

A signal from the powerfully armoured cruiser, SMS Scharnhorst, was detected and the Navy responded swiftly. On the night of 11 August 1914, five ships prepared for an attack in Simpsonhafen (modern-day Port of Rabaul). But they did not find any enemy vessels in the harbour.

When Japan declared war on Germany on 23 August 1914, the German East Asiatic Squadron sailed east to the South American coast. On the way, it bombarded Papeete in French Polynesia on 22 September 1914.

The Germans left behind SMS Emden to serve as a commerce raider and cause concern for Australia.

Capturing German Samoa and New Guinea

The RAN's first roles were to capture German outposts in the Pacific.

The Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF) was formed in August 1914. The unit included 500 naval reservists and ex-sailors and 1500 soldiers.

The RAN's main fleet, led by Rear Admiral Patey, and the French fleet escorted a New Zealand force to seize and occupy German Samoa on 29 and 30 August 1914.

Once German Samoa was secured, the AN&MEF captured the remote German colony in New Guinea on 11 September 1914. During the fighting, five Australians were injured and six died - the first Australian casualties of the war - including young Able Seaman Robert Moffatt.

Loss of the AE1

The RAN suffered its first loss in the waters off New Guinea on 14 September 1914.

While patrolling with HMAS Parramatta, HMA Submarine AE1 sank without a trace off Neulauenburg (modern-day Duke of York Islands).

On board, all 35 Australian and British submariners were killed. A survey of the wreck in 2018 revealed an implosion that could have been accidental.

German merchant ships

A side view of a naval ship on the water.

The outbreak of war saw a fine harvest of German shipping, unaware of events in Europe. A boarding party from Encounter prepares to seize Zambesi off Rabaul on 12 August 1914. AWM A02217

The RAN seized 40 enemy merchant ships during World War I. These prizes of war were usually put back into service with Allied crews.

Within days of the war, the German-Austrian liner Oberhausen was detained at Port Huon, Tasmania, while loading timber. Renamed Booral, the ship was used as a cargo carrier for the rest of the war.

German crews captured in Australian ports were imprisoned as internees at Torrens Island in South Australia or Rottnest Island in Western Australia. Later in the war, the internees were moved to Berrima and Holsworthy camps in New South Wales.

When the navy captured the SS Hobart off the coast of Victoria, a secret codebook was found on board. The Handelsverkehrsbuch (HVB) provided intelligence on German merchant shipping movements. Captains John Richardson and Frederick Wheatley seized and decoded the HVB.

The first convoy

Rows of naval ships on the water.

The first convoy crosses the Indian Ocean, sailing in three parallel lines. Left to right: 3rd Division; 1st Division; 2nd Division. The New Zealand ships, in the distance, are hidden by smoke. AWM G01547

In late October 1914, 38 gathered in Western Australia. Most were at King George Sound, off Albany. The convoy carried more than 21,000 Australians of the first AIF and some 8000 horses to war.

The New Zealand Expeditionary Force joined the Australian convoy, in 10 New Zealand ships carrying about 8500 men and nearly 4000 horses. They had left Wellington Harbour on 16 October 1914.

Together, the ships formed the first convoy to carry Australian and New Zealand troops - the 'Anzacs' - to war.

To protect against the threat of the rogue SMS Emden, the Admiralty ordered an armed escort of:

  • HMS Minotaur - an armoured cruiser
  • HMAS Melbourne - a light cruiser
  • HMAS Sydney - a light cruiser
  • IJN Ibuki - a Japanese battlecruiser

Battle of Cocos

A group portrait of male sailors onboard a naval ship with smoke billowing out from the back of the ship.

Members of the crew of Sydney pose on the forecastle while the cruiser is in pursuit of the collier Buresk near Cocos Island, 9 November 1914. The amount of funnel smoke shows Sydney is travelling at speed. The ship's capstan is in the foreground, and damage to the forebridge from the Emden action earlier that day is evident. AWM EN0211

On the way to war, HMAS Melbourne received a distress signal. It came from Direction Island, in the modern-day Territory of Cocos (Keeling) Islands. A German landing party from SMS Emden had disabled the island's wireless transmission station. Commander John Glossop and the crew of HMAS Sydney responded to the call.

On the morning on 9 November 1914, Emden fired on Sydney and scored several hits. Then Sydney fired its more powerful guns. Of Emden's 316 crew, 134 died and 65 were wounded. Emden's landing party escaped the island on a stolen sailing ship. The rest of the German crew were taken as prisoners of war. Of Sydney's crew, 12 were wounded and four died.

The battle was widely reported around the world due to Emden's high profile. The RAN enjoyed the good publicity. The single-ship action became known as the Battle of Cocos.

The first convoy proceeded without further incident to Colombo (modern-day Sri Lanka). Then it arrived in Alexandria, Egypt, on 3 December 1914.

Emden's 4-inch gun is on display in Hyde Park, Sydney.

Naval operations in the Dardanelles

Submarines B11 and AE2

Australians were involved in the submarine campaign of 1914 and 1915 in the Dardanelles and the Sea of Marmara, off modern-day Turkey. The submarine attacks began before the land campaign at Gallipoli.

Australian submariner, Lieutenant Norman Holbrook, took HM Submarine B11 up the Dardanelles on 13 December 1914.

After escorting the second convoy of troops from Australia to Egypt, HMA Submarine AE2 left Port Said on 28 January 1915. It joined the British 2nd Submarine Squadron to prepare for the Dardanelles campaign.

In a daring feat, AE2 breached the Dardanelles straits on 25 April 1914, the same morning as the Gallipoli landings. Soon afterwards, the submarine was attacked by the Turks and scuttled by her crew, who all became prisoners of war soon afterwards.

During the Gallipoli Campaign, the Turks mainly received food, supplies and reinforcements by sea from Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). The peninsula was isolated, with poor roads and no railway.

Allied submarines in the Sea of Marmara tried to cause fear and panic along the Ottoman sea route, to weaken the enemy's position on the peninsula. In this way, the submarines successfully brought Turkish communications to a standstill.

RAN Bridging Train

The 1st Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train (RANBT) was a highly decorated unit in the Dardanelles.

Formed as an engineering unit in February 1915, the RANBT had about 300 surplus men from the Australian Naval Reserves. They trained in horsemanship, engineering and pontoon bridging.

The RANBT sailed from Melbourne on 4 June 1914, destined for the Western Front in Europe. On the way, plans changed. The unit disembarked at Lemnos in Greece to prepare for the landing at Suvla Bay, as part of the Gallipoli Campaign.

On 7 August 1915, the RANBT landed under artillery fire at Suvla Bay. At first, the men built pontoons so supplies could be brought ashore. Later, their engineering tasks included:

  • building and maintaining wharves and piers
  • controlling the water supply to troops at the front line
  • disembarking troops
  • repairing equipment
  • salvaging equipment and materials from damaged ships
  • unloading food and supplies

All these activities took place under enemy fire, which killed and wounded 62 members of the RANBT.

During evacuations from Gallipoli, the RANBT maintained the wharves where the troops disembarked. The RANBT left Suvla Bay at 0430 hours on 20 December 1915. The last Australians to leave Gallipoli.

Highlights at sea

HMAS Pioneer off East Africa

Rows of male soldiers marching along a dirt road.

A shore party from Pioneer on Mafia Island, off the coast of East Africa, near the Rufiji River delta. AWM P01585.003

HMAS Pioneer completed minor duties in Melbourne and Fremantle, including the capture of two German merchant ships, Neumünsterr and Thüringen . Then it was sent to German East Africa in December 1914.

Pioneer sailed from Fremantle on 9 January 1915. It joined a squadron of Allied ships off the mouth of the Rufiji River (in modern-day Tanzania) on 6 February and started to patrol the coastline. The target was the German cruiser SMS Königsberg .

Königsberg had sunk a merchant ship in Zanzibar harbour and then the cruiser HMS Pegasus on 20 September 1914, during the Battle of Zanzibar.

In the Battle of Rufiji Delta, Pioneer bombarded German defensive positions at the main mouth of the river on 6 July 1915. Two monitors, HMS Severn and HMS Mersey, attacked Königsberg . Königsberg hit Mersey and killed six crewmen. The Allies resumed their attack on 12 July. Severn was hit by shells but returned fire. By 1300 hours, Königsberg was burning and ceased to fire.

After the battle, Pioneer remained in East Africa. It carried out blockade duties and several bombardments before returning to Australia in October 1916.

Patrolling the oceans

A group portrait of male soldiers holding weapons.

A naval landing party from Una, part of a punitive mission sent in August 1916 to avenge the murder of a planter and some children on Malekula Island in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). Una was accompanied by the French gunboat Kersaint, In the course of the operation at least eight, and probably more, natives were killed. One Australian sailor was wounded and two New Guinea and five French police were killed. A similar expedition was mounted in 1918. AWM P00792.001

Allied forces maintained constant naval patrols in the Pacific and Indian oceans. They tried to prevent arms, finances and subversive literature being smuggled into the British colonies of India and Burma (where nationalist revolts were feared).

HMAS Psyche patrolled the Bay of Bengal and from the south coast of China down to Indo-Chinese waters during 1915 and 1916.

HMAS Ships Parramatta, Warrego and Nusa patrolled for Germans along the Sepik River in New Guinea in December 1914. They travelled over 300km up the river, which was quite a feat for such large vessels.

From February 1915, HMA Ships Torrens, Swan and Huon patrolled the waters around British Malaya (modern-day Malacca Strait), the Philippines and the East Indies. Then they sailed to the Mediterranean in May 1917.

HMAS Encounter patrolled the Pacific, captured a German schooner and went to Hong Kong for repairs after running aground. Then it spent a month patrolling the East Indies.

HMAS Una carried out administrative and survey duties in the Bismarck Archipelago, Nauru and the Gilbert Islands, searched for submarine bases in the Dutch East Indies and then patrolled Malayan waters.

HMAS Fantome patrolled the waters around British Malaya, Fiji and Tahiti. In October 1916, its crew and local police from Rabaul helped the French to suppress an independence uprising on Malekula Island (modern-day Vanuatu).

Australia Station and home front operations

On the home front, the Royal Australian Naval Brigade (RANB) operated:

  • the examination service (to review the character and intentions of visiting vessels)
  • signal and lookout stations around the coasts and harbours
  • coastal patrol and minesweeping vessels
  • intelligence services

Despite fears of German surface raiders and submarines, Australian waters were mostly quiet during the war.

The German raider, SMS Wolf, sank 12 ships and laid sea mines in the Indian and Pacific oceans in 1917. The mines sank three ships in Australian and New Zealand waters. One was the international freighter, Cumberland, which sank off Green Cape, New South Wales.

After these incidents, the RANB Minesweeping Section was established to protect shipping from mines in Australian waters.

Caribbean cruisers

A naval ship in port.

The light cruiser Sydney at anchor at Martinique in the Windward Islands. Her four funnels have been camouflaged. Melbourne and Sydney carried out a series of patrols off Long Island and around the Caribbean in 1916. AWM EN0230

After the first convoy to Egypt, the cruisers HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Sydney were sent to the Atlantic Ocean.

HMAS Sydney was part of the South American Squadron. Then it joined HMAS Melbourne in the North America and West Indies Cruiser Squadron, under the command of Admiral Patey. The Australian ships served mostly in the Caribbean Sea, with their rest base in Jamaica. One of the crew, 24-year-old Stoker David Gordon, is buried there.

In 1916, both ships joined the Grand Fleet in the North Sea - a theatre of war located between the UK, Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and France.

Destroyers in the Mediterranean

A group portrait of male sailors wearing hooded coats.

Men of Parramatta dressed in thick coats, gloves, scarves and caps in the Adriatic in January 1918. The puppy in the front row is the ship's mascot. AWM EN0366

HMA Ships Huon, Parramatta and Yarra served as escorts in the Mediterranean Sea from May 1917. Then in August 1917, they were fitted with basic anti-submarine systems in Port Said for work off Malta, with little success.

From October 1917, the destroyers:

  • patrolled the Otranto Barrage (a blockade of ships and anti-submarine nets)
  • escorted Italian troopships in the Mediterranean

Observers floating in kite balloons tethered to the ships were used to help spot submarine 'shadows'.

On 17 November 1917, Warrego and Parramatta supported the torpedoed Italian troopship Orione. Parramatta towed the steamer until a tugboat took over.

Yarra collided with Huon on 8 August 1918 - the same day as the Battle of Amiens. Huon was docked at Livorno in Italy for 2 months to be repaired. The crew became sick after the ship left the dockyard. 'Pneumonic influenza' killed five of the men, including Port Kembla brothers, Ernest and Reginald Browne. They are all buried in Staglieno Cemetery, Genoa.

Swan and Warrego covered the bombardment of Durazzo in Albania by Italian and British ships on 2 October 1918.

At the Armistice, the Australian destroyers sailed to the UK for refits before returning with their crews to Australia.

Grand Fleet operations

A man standing on a box addresses a crowd of sailor on the deck of a ship.

Seamen crowd around Prime Minister Hughes as he addresses them on the deck of HMAS Australia at the dockyard in Devon, England, on 21 May 1916. (AMW EN0080)

In February 1915, HMAS Australia became the flagship for Rear Admiral William Pakenham, commander of the 2nd Battle Cruiser Squadron.

Australia was involved in some mostly unsuccessful operations. Then the ship missed the Battle of Jutland after it collided with New Zealand in fog on 22 April 1916 and underwent repairs.

At the Battle of Jutland, the Grand Fleet lost three battle cruisers and most of their crews, including HMS Indefatigable.

Australia was joined by the light cruisers, Melbourne and Sydney, in October 1916, as part of the 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron. The ships were used to screen battle cruisers and escort convoys to Scandinavia.

Experiments with planes

Australian ships were at the forefront of early experiments to merge naval and aerial warfare. Results proved that planes could be launched from cruisers fitted with special platforms.

After months of trials, a Sopwith Camel fighter took off from the deck of HMAS Sydney on 1 June 1918. The plane intercepted two German reconnaissance planes, badly damaging one that reportedly went into a tailspin.

A biplane taking off frim a ship at sea
A Sopwith F.1 Camel biplane aircraft takes off from a revolving platform on the bridge of HMAS Sydney, in Scotland's Scapa Flow, 1918 AWM EN0224

Operating in bad weather

Australian ships operated in poor weather, which was difficult for the light cruisers.

HMAS Sydney lost a 16-year-old sailor in an accident and had eight men injured.

HMAS Melbourne had a man washed overboard and a signalman thrown from the rigging in heavy seas.

After the war

Without the navy operating near Europe, winning the war against Germany would have been even more difficult.

During the war, 171 Navy servicemen died, including Royal Navy personnel serving with the RAN. The RAN lost two submarines in the first 12 months of the war, but not a single surface vessel was sunk in 4 years of active service.

In 1919, the ships serving in European waters returned to Australia, and to their peacetime routines.

Under the pressure of war, naval infrastructure had been redesigned and tested with heavy investment. The improvements benefitted communications, intelligence gathering and shipbuilding.

Australia's naval strength increased in 1920 when Britain gave the RAN:

  • a destroyer leader
  • three minesweepers
  • five destroyers
  • six submarines

Some of these vessels were surplus to the Royal Navy's requirements but the destroyers were new.


Last updated: 6 March 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Royal Australian Navy in World War I, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 25 September 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/ww1/military-organisation/royal-australian-navy
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