Australian troops were transported to the Middle East and Europe by ship. Transports were often dispatched alone, with no naval escort. Some transports voyaged in groups called 'convoys', but the actual departure dates of ships in a convoy could be spread over many weeks. Sea voyages were not without their challenges. Several vessels were sunk or damaged in the course of their duties. In total, 44 'convoys' sailed to the various theatres of war.
When World War I broke out, the Australian Government had to organise the movements of troops to the main theatres of war. The Naval Board was responsible for this task. As Arthur Jose, official historian of the Royal Australian Navy for World War I, reflected:
Among the less conspicuous, but in no way less important, war services controlled by the Australian Naval Board were the choice, equipment, and despatch of the transports in which Australian troops were conveyed to and from their European battlegrounds.
Before Britain had accepted Australia's offer of a military force, Commander Walter Thring asked the military authorities on 5 August 1914 if it wished the Naval Board:
[t]o prepare a scheme for taking up transports? If so, from what ports, and to carry what numbers, what arms and horses?
Location of suitable ships
Central to this process was the early creation of a committee to examine Australia's shipping resources. The Naval Board needed ships for transporting troops. The committee directed the task to list and examine suitable vessels docked in Australian ports or on their way to Australia.
A list of 28 suitable requisitioned ships was created. The ships ranged in size from Euripides at 15,050 tons (13653t) to Saldanha at 4594 tons (4168t).
The Australian Government converted the peacetime ships to troop transports. Issues to address included:
- provision for refrigerated cargo in 10 of the vessels
- non-standard ship fittings, such as horse stalls
- the cost of feeding troops on the voyages
The daily food costs were eventually settled at:
- 16 pence (16d) for privates
- 3 shillings 3 pence (3/3d) for warrant officers and sergeants
- 6 shillings (6/-) for officers
According to what groceries used to cost, in 1911 a 4lbs (1.8kg) loaf of bread cost 4d, a quart (0.9L) of milk cost 5d and two sticks (454g) of butter cost 18d.
The ships were refitted in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. By 27 September 1914, the last ship was ready.
These ships became the Australian contingent of the First Convoy that left Western Australia in November 1914. The ships were bound for Europe but diverted to Egypt.
Even before the ships of the First Convoy could return to Australia, the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was planning to dispatch a second contingent of reinforcements.
This second convoy of 16 ships, including three from New Zealand, left Albany in Western Australia on 31 December 1914. It was bound for Egypt. HMAT Ajana joined the convoy on 2 January 1915.
The Second Convoy had more ships over 10,000 tons (9072t) than the First Convoy. It included five enemy vessels seized by Australian authorities, such as SS Pfalz, the focus of the first shots fired by Australians.
Unlike the First Convoy, the second only had one escort, HMA Submarine AE2, which was towed for most of its journey by HMAT Berrima.
While a 'convoy' describes a group of ships travelling together, many of the ships in AIF convoys left Australia at different times. Sometimes they met up closer to England.
Some 44 'convoys' left Australia with troops for the AIF during the 4-year war. From the third convoy to Convoy 30, these voyages were undertaken without escorts. These 27 convoys carried 253,000 troops and around 25,000 horses.
The number of troops transported often related to the circumstances of the war at particular times. For example, Convoy 21 in June 1916 carried some 25,333 troops. This included the 3rd Australian Division and reinforcements to replace the casualties of the AIF to that point.
Threats and challenges
Unrestricted submarine warfare
In January 1917, Germany announced the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare after suspending the practice earlier in the war. This placed unescorted ships in danger from German submarines.
This led to two policy decisions:
- embarkation of troops would not happen until sufficient escorts could be provided for a convoy
- Australian transports were transferred to British control from June 1917 onwards for 'Imperial purposes'
When Convoy 31 left Fremantle in Western Australia on 22 May 1917 with 10,006 Australian troops onboard, it was escorted.
Loss of vessels
While under control of the Naval Board, six Australian ships were torpedoed and sunk:
- cargo ships - Echunga and Era
- transports Geelong, Ballarat, Kyarra and Warilda
Only HMAT Ballarat had been carrying troops when it was torpedoed.
After Ballarat had left Australia, it joined a convoy off Sierra Leone on 10 April 1917. Then the convoy split up near England and each ship was escorted by a naval destroyer. Moving slowly and zigzagging, Ballarat was hit by a torpedo from a German submarine at about 2pm on 25 April 1917. Attempts were made to tow and salvage the ship, but it eventually sank near the coast of Cornwall.
British vessels saved all 1752 people onboard Ballarat, including the 24th Reinforcements for the 6th Australian Infantry Battalion.
Other problems were more practical, such as:
- feeding personnel while onboard ship
- use of requisitioned ships for moving cargo
- transport of horses
Transports had been refitted with stalls for horses, which were generally well cared for on voyages. Although on one ship, Palermo, which left Australia in May 1915, half of the 360 horses on board died.
Life onboard ship
It's difficult to generalise about life on the transports that took personnel to the war zones.
The diary of Captain Reginald Heywood of the Australian Army Veterinary Corps gives insight into one man's experience. Heywood's diary describes his fellow passengers and daily musings.
Heywood joined the transport HMAT Benalla at Melbourne on 12 May 1917. As part of Convoy 31, Benalla left Fremantle on 22 May 1917. The convoy carried 10,006 personnel.
Convoy 31 was the first convoy since early 1915 to leave Australia with an escort. Heywood noted the threat posed by German submarines in his diary. On 13 May, he wrote:
I just learnt that the engineers are making a sweep on when we get torpedoed - and that the Captain has had the pleasure twice. Think I'll sleep on my worries.
The critical challenge onboard ship was how to ease boredom. Heywood recorded in his diary on 25 May that only a few days after the convoy left Australia that he wished 'something would happen'.
Attempts at breaking up the boredom, apart from the regular drill, varied. Shipboard activities included regular church parades and concerts. On 20 May, Heywood described the 'old Padre' as a:
Presbyterian right off the tip of the sirloin and referred feelingly to absent friends and the remote possibilities of ever seeing Australia again: reminded me of Jerome K. Jerome. He's an ernest (sic) old chap though and his address was good as was the A.I.F. service.
Heywood and some others relaxed with hobbies, such as photography. Heywood developed his photographs onboard ship with an 'infernal machine' purchased in Perth. As he noted in his diary on 24 May:
[S]ome of [the pictures were not] bad, including those taken at the Port
While attempts were made to improve conditions on the transports, they were still cramped. This meant that diseases were easily spread on the ships. Health risks included influenza, meningitis and pneumonia, and some people died. As Heywood recorded in his diary on 29 May:
First burial at sea - at 8 this morning. Some poor fellow on the "Turakina". We fell in on the boat deck and saluted the "Last Post". Don't know who he was but he was a man and a friend of mine.
Regular stops on the convoy route also alleviated boredom. During these visits, shore leave was often granted.
Heywood recalled stopping at Durban and Table Bay in South Africa, and Freetown in Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa. While in Durban, Heywood was:
[g]uided by instinct to the "Royal" and enjoyed real food and other things. Could hardly refrain from moo-ing when I got a cup of tea with real cow-juice. The waiters are all Indians and were attired in white with purple sashes - Mr Olivers "Harlech" I think.
The ship's crew also dealt with the ever-present threat of attack. The menace became more noticeable as convoys got closer to war zones. Those onboard often took on duties as lookouts for enemy submarines. As Heywood recalled in a diary entry on 11 July:
The submarine guard is now in full swing and the men are stationed in the boats with 75 rounds of ammunition, but I do hope they'll be disappointed. I'm glued to the theory that you want to see all you can but I can easily do without seeing a submarine.
As Benalla entered British waters, the convoy picked up a destroyer escort of six ships by 17 July and entered Plymouth Sound on 19 July.
The last convoy left Australia in November 1918 with 1241 personnel. While two of the three ships of this convoy left Australia before the signing of the Armistice, HMT City of Karachi left Melbourne on 30 November and sailed to England.
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