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The history of the Royal Australian Navy (Part Two)

In the days surrounding Anzac Day, Defence Connect will be looking back on the history of the Australian Defence Force branches, with the current series focusing on 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, with the current series focusing on the Royal Australian Navy.

For part one, please click here.


World War II

The RAN would enter the Second World War with a slightly smaller force than what it had at the outbreak of World War I, but by 1945, had one of the largest navies in the world.

That force comprised two heavy cruisers (Australia and Canberra), four light cruisers (Adelaide, Perth, Hobart and Sydney), five destroyers (Stuart, Voyager, Vampire, Vendetta and Waterhen, and referred to as the Scrap Iron Flotilla), three sloops and a number of other support and ancillary craft, with 10,259 personnel following the call up of reserves.

With Australia declaring war on Germany a few hours after Britain on 3 September 1939, the role that the RAN would play, to begin with, was similar to the first World War, which was to secure Australia's sea lines of communication, protect its shores (being aware of the threat the Japanese posed at this point of time) and assist Allied naval operations.

The RAN, however, was now not under British Admiralty rule for the war, but instead solely under Australian command.


Despite this difference, Australia was quick to answer Britain's request to deploy to the Battle of the Mediterranean, to assist Allied forces in taking on German and Italian forces.

It was in the Mediterranean that the Scrap Iron Flotilla would earn its stripes.

The five destroyers were given that name by Nazi Germany's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, as they were former Royal Navy ships that were used during WWI, and transferred to the RAN in the decade before the outbreak of the second World War.

The ships were slow, lightly armed and in poor condition, however would dignify themselves extensively, most notably with resupplying Tobruk, which had been besieged by Axis forces.

The flotilla conducted 138 supply runs to Tobruk to support the Allied forces despite coming under constant attacks from Axis aircraft, with the resupply route eventually becoming known as "Bomb Alley".

The flotilla also assisted in the Allied evacuation after the battle of Greece.

Three of the five destroyers would be lost during the second World War, with Vampire sunk by Japanese aircraft (and still yet to be located to this day), Waterhen sunk in the Mediterranean and Voyager running aground and abandoned at Betano.

HMAS Sydney also conducted several notable operations in the Mediterranean, including the sinking of Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni, before it would be lost closer to home itself.

Off the coast of Western Australia on 19 November 1941, Sydney was sunk following a furious engagement with German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran, which had disguised itself as a Dutch merchant ship.

Although it managed to cause enough damage to sink Kormoran, all 645 of Sydney's crew were killed and lost at sea, with the actual vessel itself not recovered for over 60 years.

That loss would account for over a third of the RAN's wartime casualties.

Three weeks later, Japan bombed the US Navy Base at Pearl Harbour, announcing their entry into the second World War.

Australia's own shores were now at threat, with the RAN forming the first line of defence against the Japanese and Axis forces, who had now ramped up their activities in the Pacific, and the RAN moved quickly to recall its larger ships from their deployments around the world.

The RAN's first major input against the Japanese was the resupplying of commandos on Timor in February 1942, who were resisting invasion from Japanese forces on the island.

Later that same month, HMAS Perth fought in the Battle of the Java Sea alongside the USS Houston, an American heavy cruiser, and would survive the decisive loss, before unfortunately finding themselves in the path of the main Japanese invasion fleet from Java, who engaged the two vessels, eventually torpedoing and sinking the pair.

A total of 350 crew and three civilians were killed following the sinking of Perth, with 324 surviving.

The RAN was soon called upon along the east coast of Australia, where Japanese midget submarines ran a campaign targeting shipping vessels, with the Australian Navy soon required to escort these ships for protection.

Japanese submarines would sink 17 ships in Australian waters in 1942, with 16 in 1943, including the torpedoing of HMAS Kattabul in Sydney Harbour, which resulted in the loss of 21 lives.

Three Japanese midget submarines had intended to sink heavy cruiser USS Chicago, however they missed their target and sunk the troop transport ship, killing 19 RAN and two Royal Navy sailors who had been sleeping on deck. 

Months later, the bad news would keep coming for the RAN, with HMAS Canberra sunk at the Battle of Savo island by the Japanese, resulting in the loss of 84 of the 800+ crew, including its Captain Frank Getting.

On 23 October 1944, four Australian warships participated in one of the largest naval battles ever, at the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

HMA ships AustraliaShropshireArunta and Warramunga were all on hand in the battle that featured over 200,000 naval personnel, 400 warships, and nearly 2,000 aircraft off the Philippines, and resulted in over 15,000 casualties.

The Allied forces were successful in the battle, and lead to the crippling of the Japanese navy, who had been attempting to stop the Allies from invading Leyte, and isolating Japan from its occupied territories in south-east Asia after eventually losing the Philippines.

It was the first battle that the Japanese employed kamikaze tactics, committing suicide by flying planes into warships.

The battle would prove crucial in forcing the Japanese surrender, with the majority of Japanese vessels that survived the battle seldom used again.

At this stage, as mentioned earlier, the RAN had grown significantly since the outbreak of war in 1939, with nearly 37,000 enlisted when the Japanese surrendered in Tokyo Bay on 2 September 1945.

After starting with a force of 13 ships at the start of World War II, some 337 vessels would come under RAN command by June 1945.

Ten of these RAN vessels were on hand in Tokyo Bay to witness the Japanese surrender, some who then played a role in the disarmament of their forces, as well as patrolling the nearby channels with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force.

Overall, the RAN would lose nearly 2,170 members in the Second World War, losing HMA ships Canberra, Sydney, PerthNestorVampireVoyagerWaterhen, Parramatta and Yarra, and nearly 30 other RAN vessels.

To be continued. 

The history of the Royal Australian Navy (Part Two)
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