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The history of the Royal Australian Navy (Part One)

In the days surrounding Anzac Day, Defence Connect will be looking back on the history of the Australian Defence Force branches, and will now move on from the Army to the beginnings of the Royal Australian Navy.

In the days surrounding Anzac Day, Defence Connect will be looking back on the history of the Australian Defence Force branches, and will now move on from the Army to the beginnings of the Royal Australian Navy.



The RAN was officially formed on 10 July 1911, however it was a prickly process to get underway.

Prior to the federation of Australia, the colonies of Australia relied on detached units from the Royal Navy, with the only deployments coming from Sydney from 1788 to 1859.

All of the other colonies, bar Western Australia, soon would play host to Royal Navy units, after Australia was established as a separate British Naval station in 1859.

Despite this move, Australia would eventually start to feel that the sovereignty seemed to overlook the strategic importance of the country, with British admiralty rejecting a proposal in 1907 for the establishment of the RAN.

The following year, Australian Prime Minister Alfred Deakin invited the US "Great White Fleet" to the island, in part to send a message to Britain that Australia was heavily interested in establishing its own navy, with or without sovereign help.


Over 500,000 Sydneysiders (of a total population of around 600,000) gathered to watch the arrival of the US fleet on 20 August 1908, which outweighed the crowd that celebrated the foundation of the Commonwealth in 1901.

The enthusiasm that greeted the Great White Fleet would only spur the Australian government on further, with Australian pushing for the allowance of the RAN at an Imperial Conference in 1909, which was finally agreed upon by Britain, with a naval unit approved consisting of at least a battle cruiser, three second class cruisers, six destroyers, three submarines and a number of auxiliaries.

The first destroyers, HMA Ships Yarra and Parramatta, would enter Australian service the following year, with flagship HMAS Australia arriving in 1913.

On 4 October 1913, the Australian fleet, led by Australia, entered Sydney Harbour for the first time, and within a few weeks, format control of these units was passed to the Commonwealth Naval Board, bringing an end to Imperial control.

The honours of first Commanding Officer of the RAN was given to Admiral George Edwin Patey, on loan from the Royal Navy.

The Royal Australian Naval College was also established in the same time period, which was used for the training of Naval Officers, and was originally set up in Geelong, Victoria, before being moved to Jervis Bay, NSW.

World War I

It wouldn't take long for the capabilities of the RAN to be tested for the first time, following the declaration of war on Germany by Britain in August 1914.

Just a day before the declaration, the Australian government notified the Royal Navy's Admiralty that they would be at their service if required.

The RAN's first focus was placed on protecting Australia's ports and shipping routes, which was immediately put under threat by German colonies in the Pacific, such as German New Guinea.

HMA ships assisted in the attack on New Guinea with the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force, a group of around 2,000 volunteers tasked with capturing and destroying German wireless stations based there.

The RAN's force comprised of six destroyers, a battle cruiser, six light cruisers, two submarines and several support and ancillary craft, which were used for several tasks asked of them by the British, including convoy escort.

It was during one of these convoy deployments that light cruiser HMAS Sydney received a distress call from an Allied station in the Cocos Islands, after being attacked by German light cruiser SMS Emden.

Arriving in a few short hours, the larger vessel Sydney manhandled Emden, forcing the German ship to run aground to avoid sinking. It marked Australia's first naval battle, and subsequent victory. 

The RAN would continue to impress during the first World War, with the only losses being the pair of submarines, AE1 and AE2, with 171 fatalities. 

AE1 disappeared on 14 September 1914, after departing Blanche Bay, Rabaul, to assist HMAS Parramatta in patrolling off the coast of Cape Gazelle, and wasn't located until December 2017, with a ventilation valve malfunction blamed for the sinking of the submarine.

All the crew onboard were killed after the submarine sank below 100 metres and imploded, and was Australia's first major loss of the first World War.

The fate of AE2 was different to Australia's other submarine, after being sunk in battle by Turkish torpedo boat Sultanhisar in the Sea of Marmora in 1915 after forcing a passage through to the treacherous waters of the Dardanelles in support of the Gallipolli campaign.

It was the first Allied warship to break through the defences of the Dardanelles.

All of the submarines personnel would survive the attack, although four passed away as a result of illness as prisoners of war.

AE2 was the first RAN vessel (and only vessel in WWI) to be lost as a result of enemy action, and the final resting place of the submarine would only be discovered in June 1998.

Post World War I

After playing a vital part in the Allied war efforts in World War I, Australia had to reduce its naval size following the signing of the Armistice in 1918.

Under the terms of the Washington Treaty of 1922, HMAS Australia, the RAN's first flagship, was scuttled off Sydney Heads, an easy decision for the RAN, which had already decided that the warship's resources were best distributed elsewhere some years before.

The decision still pulled on the Australian heartstrings though, and Prime Minister Stanley Bruce delivered a eulogy for the vessel, saying, "In the prime of her service, this the first great ship of the young Australian Navy, was our contribution to the defence of civilisation.

"In her passing she symbolises our contribution to the cause of peace. We sacrifice her with a regret rendered poignant by the memory of her great service, but tempered with the hope that the world will see the magnitude of our offering, and the manner in which we make it, a measure of our practical belief in the principles enunciated at the Washington Conference, which constitute the only hope of a permanent international peace."

"The passing of Australia (I) closes a glorious chapter in the history of the Australian Navy. We shall never forget that in the eventful days of 1914, when the fate of civilisation hung in the balance, it was the presence of Australia (I), manned by Australian seamen, that saved our shores and our shipping from the fate which overtook less fortunate nations."

While Australia was scuttled, the RAN continued to stock up on its capabilities, acquiring from the Royal Navy six submarines, five destroyers and a number of sloops.

In 1924, Australia also ordered two 10,000-tonne cruisers, two submarines and committed to the building of a seaplane carrier at Cockatoo Dockyard, Sydney, and soon after the RAN acquired further surveying capabilities by loaning HMAS Moresby from the Royal Navy.

In 1933, five additional destroyers were introduced to the RAN's fleet in order to replace ageing vessels, and three light cruisers were added in the years before the Second World War.

To be continued.

The history of the Royal Australian Navy (Part One)
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