DEFENCE I: 100th anniversary of the Royal Australian Navy
by CDRE Bob Trotter
News Weekly, July 9, 2011
From settlement in 1788 to 1913, Australians depended upon ships of Britain’s Royal Navy for naval defence. Following the federation of Australia in 1901, the Commonwealth Naval Forces were established, and on July 10, 1911, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) was formally named by King George V. The first new ships of the Navy arrived in 1913, in time for the outbreak of the “Great War” in 1914.
During World War I, the RAN’s first task was to protect Australia’s ports, shipping and trade routes from the German East Asia Squadron. The RAN took part in the first landing in enemy territory of the war, resulting in the capture of German New Guinea. The RAN won their first battle when HMAS Sydney sank the German light cruiser Emden.
During the 1920s and early 1930s, the RAN was drastically reduced in size, in line with the general economic and social trends. The Washington Treaty of 1922 brought about drastic changes to naval planning. Under the terms of this disarmament treaty HMAS Australia was scuttled off Sydney Heads in 1924.
With the onset of World War II in 1939, the RAN was rapidly expanded. Australia built destroyers, frigates and 56 corvettes. Its ships served in the Mediterranean against Germany and Italy. RAN warships fought off Crete and Tobruk, and a second HMAS Sydney gained fame by sinking the Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni. But Sydney itself met disaster off the coast of Western Australia in 1941, when it was sunk with all hands in a fight with the German raider Kormoran. Her resting place was finally found in March 2008.
When war broke out in the Pacific in December 1941 with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, the RAN contested Japan’s conquest of Southeast Asia. HMAS Perth was lost in the Sunda Strait and HMAS Canberra off Savo Island.
The navy protected the convoys sustaining the war in Papua New Guinea and the islands, fighting Japanese kamikaze attacks off the Philippines. It participated in the epic battle of the Coral Sea. At war’s end the RAN was the fifth-largest navy in the world with RAN warships seeing Japan surrender in Tokyo Bay.
After 1945 the navy took a major part in Australia’s wars in Korea, Malaya and Vietnam and in the Indonesian Confrontation. In 1990 it began its long deployment to the Persian Gulf, taking part in two wars with Iraq and later combating piracy in the Indian Ocean.
Recently, its 50 ships and 16,000 sailors have become peacekeepers in many areas of the world including East Timor and the Solomon Islands, and have helped after disasters like the 2004 Asian tsunami.
The present fleet consists of a mix of highly capable surface warships, submarines, aircraft and patrol boats. These vessels today patrol and protect Australia’s sea frontiers and deploy throughout the region and beyond in support of those interests, operating from modern bases on the eastern, western and northern coasts.
A feature of a relatively young service as the RAN is that many of its officers and sailors served it for over half of its existence and, by shaping its role in and for the nation, charted the course that led it to being the powerful arm of the community that it is today.
One such officer — and a long-time News Weekly reader and supporter of the National Civic Council (NCC) — was the late Rear-Admiral Phillip Kennedy AO, who sadly passed away in May after a distinguished navy career and a retirement busy with his interest in national affairs. (His obituary will shortly appear in News Weekly’s sister publication, National Observer Online).
At one stage in his career, he was commandant of the Joint Services Staff College in Canberra for students of the rank of lieutenant-colonel and equivalent. He took the initiative to ensure that all of these promising senior officers were given the best opportunity to learn all points of view in international and domestic affairs, and thus began the invitation for NCC founder, B.A. (Bob) Santamaria, to address each course.
The story of the RAN’s first 100 years, of its people who shaped it and that of the promise for its future are compelling but beyond this brief article. However, an excellent new 269-page book, 100 Years of the Royal Australian Navy, containing over 50 articles and a plethora of eye-catching photographs, may be viewed online at www.ran100.com.au
Commodore Bob Trotter OAM is a retired RAN office and a fellow of the Institution of Engineers Australia.