NAVY FOUNDATION DAY "CRESWELL ORATION"
110th. ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION
Rear Admiral James Goldrick AM RAN
SUBMERSIBLES TO SWUP: THE FIRST SEVENTY FIVE YEARS OF SUBMARINES
IN AUSTRALIAN DEFENCE AND NAVAL POLICY"
James Goldrick AM RAN
will have to be pretty careful before it goes into the submarine
arm again and will have to take every precaution and examine the
position very thoroughly, because three times this country has
been involved in submarines and three times it has been pleased
to get out of this arm of the Navy."1
The history of submarines and the Royal Australian Navy is not
well understood within Australia. Apart from the heroics of AE-2's
successful penetration of the Dardanelles, the popular image has
been one of great ambitions largely unrealised, particularly before
the entry into service of the Oberon class of the 1960s. This
national attitude is precisely reflected in Athol Townley's remarks
as Minister of Defence in 1962 quoted above.
There are, however, good reasons for the repeated appearance of
submarines in Australian defence and strategic thought and in
its maritime force structure. Ironically, the submarine and the
Commonwealth of Australia are near contemporaries. The first really
efficient submersibles were entering service just as federation
was achieved and their potential to contribute to Australia's
defences was soon the subject of debate, both professional and
Three key characteristics of submarines made them particularly
attractive in the Australian context - their stealth, their striking
power and, with the benefit of diesel engines after 1909, their
endurance. Two other characteristics have created significant,
sometimes insuperable challenges - their cost and complexity.
But, just as these latter characteristics have manifested themselves
at each stage of Australian submarine development, sometimes to
the point of arresting it, the potential offered by striking power,
stealth and endurance has also been apparent at important points
in Australia's strategic history. In particular the expectation,
or rather hope, that submarines would, despite their cost, provide
a level of offensive warfighting capability not otherwise possible
for the resources available has brought them back onto the agenda
again and again.
The Phases of Australian Submarine History
The history of the submarine arm of the Royal Australian Navy
falls inevitably into eight phases, each associated with a particular
capability and an associated concept of operations. Not all relate
to an actual class in service and several phases were only a few
years in duration as events combined to halt the particular effort.
They are, in chronological order, firstly, the initial post-Federation
period and the early schemes to make use of the new type of warship
to meet Australian defence needs. Second was the Fleet Unit concept
implemented in the wake of the 1909 Imperial Defence Conference,
in which submarines were an integral element of the various force
packages to be distributed around the British Empire. The third
phase was the revival of the Australian submarine arm through
the transfer of surplus units immediately after the end of the
Great War. This was done with an eye not only to maintain a larger
fleet than the United Kingdom itself could afford after 1918,
but to begin building up strength in the Pacific to counter the
Japanese. The fourth phase came only a few years later with new
construction units also conceived as part of a force structure
which would provide for local and regional defence until the arrival
in theatre of the main British fleet from the Mediterranean. This
did not survive the retrenchment of the Great Depression.
The fifth phase, more than three decades after, was the re-creation
of a submarine arm, initially with the purpose of being an opposition
force for national anti-submarine units but also as the core of
a future anti-shipping and anti-submarine capability in its own
right. The sixth phase, and the first to flow smoothly from its
predecessor, was the evolution of the Oberon design into a total
system in which the weapons and sensors were of a capability that
fully exploited the potential of what had proved to be a highly
effective platform. Seventh was the acquisition of the Collins
class and eighth, and the phase which we are just now entering,
will be the provision of a follow on submarine in much larger
numbers than ever before.
This study will deal only with the first six phases. It should
be noted that the temporary use of an elderly Dutch boat, K-9,
during World War II does not rate consideration in this way because
of the limited use for which it was ever intended. Nor does the
crucial submarine campaign, partly waged from bases in Australia,
by the United States Navy and the Royal Navy against Japan between
1941 and 1945 because this did not directly involve the Royal
Australian Navy or the Australian government. But, by examining
each of the other separate periods of submarine development, it
should become clear that there have been consistent ambitions
and recurrent challenges in the history of the Australian navy
and its submarines.
Phase One: The Submarine for Local Defence - the First Ideas
The advent of the submersible did not pass un-noticed in Australia
and the potential for its employment in local defence was soon
identified as the new nation struggled to understand its strategic
situation and its own defence requirements. The visionary Alfred
Deakin, long a proponent of an Australian navy, publicly proposed
the acquisition of submarines as early as 1905. William Creswell,
the first Director of the Commonwealth Naval Forces was, however,
not initially enthusiastic; his primary focus in the first years
of Federation for a new Australian navy was firmly centred on
surface torpedo craft. Given the characteristics of submersibles
at that time, Creswell was quite right. In view of the limited
capabilities of the first classes of submersible to enter Royal
Navy service, he was justified in assessing that destroyer or
torpedo boat-type craft would be more flexible for Australian
local defence, even for port defence, while having a much better
ability for sea keeping and offshore operations in the Australian
environment. Submarines were still constrained in range and endurance,
had only petrol engines (with all their attendant hazards) for
surface running and were not yet particularly reliable. As Creswell
noted, they were also very complex to build and thus very expensive
for their size. Another factor, and it was an important one, was
that surface craft were better platforms for training large numbers
of people, particularly when a core of seagoing personnel had
to be built up practically from scratch.
Even a dive in a British submarine in 1906 did not immediately
change Creswell's thinking. Deakin, on the other hand, became
progressively more enthusiastic about submarines as he moved in
and out of power in Federal Government. When discussions on the
future of an Australian naval effort came to a head at the 1907
Imperial Defence Conference, Deakin was soon receiving the benefit
of the ideas of Admiral Sir John Fisher, the First Sea Lord, who
had identified the emerging potential of the submarine as a ship
killer in the open sea and the impact that this would have on
all major surface ship operations. However, and this was a key
point, there remained a gap between Fisher's vision of submarines
and their existing capability which had yet to be spanned 5.
This would require experimentation and resources on a level which
a great power like the United Kingdom could afford, but which
would not be practicable for a small navy such as Australia contemplated.
The problems of bringing about a submarine based scheme of defence
certainly proved too much for the French, who deserve the credit
for conceiving the first such program in the wake of the Russo-Japanese
war of 1904-05. Although theoretically neutral, France had supported
Russia and, with the Russian naval defeat of Tsushima, became
acutely aware of the vulnerability of French Indo-China to Japanese
assault. Submarines appeared to offer the only practicable (and
affordable) means of providing protection. Between 1905 and 1907
an emergency building programme of submersibles for the Far East
was implemented, funding for submarines more than doubling as
a proportion of the construction budget. Although an improved
relationship with Japan and strategic priorities closer to home
brought about cancellation of the scheme in 1907, another reason
for abandonment lay in the actual capabilities of the designs
at the time. To provide the necessary speed and endurance, the
French submarines had steam power for surface propulsion. They
were not a great success and none made it to the Far East.
Thus, although Deakin formally announced to the Federal Parliament
on 13 December 1907 a project to acquire submarines as part of
a force of local defence units , Creswell's concerns remained
legitimate. Submarines, even as local defence assets, did not
yet represent the best value for money for Australia and involved
much greater risk than surface vessels. The first Australian order
for warships, when it finally came in early 1909 (and after a
change of government), was for destroyers only.
Phase Two: The Submarine as a High Endurance Sea Going Capability
But in the same year submarines were reaching a critical point
in their development with the perfection - at least to a degree
- of the 'heavy oil' or diesel engine, which was fitted in the
second unit of the much enlarged and more effective D class of
the Royal Navy - some twice the size of its predecessors. Sir
John Fisher, as ever, was quick to perceive the implications,
noting in late 1908 that the type promised to be capable of 'maintaining
itself at sea, unaided for long periods'. The appearance of the
D class coincided with the maturing in Fisher's mind of a new
concept known as 'Flotilla Defence'. Fisher's brainchild was intended
to utilise Britain's technological edge over its rivals to achieve
a capability jump that was both affordable and, at least temporarily,
unassailable. Fisher's scheme had two principal components, the
long ranged, fast and heavily armed battle cruiser to hunt down
and destroy enemy commerce raiders on the world's oceans, and
the small 'flotilla craft' - submarines and destroyers - to hem
the enemy's battle fleets into their own ports and, at the last
ditch, protect the Empire's bases and focal areas. Significantly,
the battle cruiser and the new submarines stood out from all other
warship types for their extended endurance and, in retrospect,
it is clear that both were therefore well suited to the vast distances
of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
'Flotilla Defence' promised a solution to the much vexed question
of how Australia and the other Dominions could contribute to the
collective defence of the Empire and still meet their local security
concerns. At the 1909 Imperial Conference, Fisher proposed that
'Fleet Units' centred on a battle cruiser and with supporting
light craft be established at key points in the Pacific as part
of a global construct. Australia was invited to acquire a fleet
unit as the core of a modern Australian navy. The timing was perfect;
Australia had the funds available, having already promised to
fund a dreadnought, and public opinion strongly supported the
creation of a capability that could both ensure the protection
of Australia's own territory and local shipping and contribute
to the overall defence of the Empire.
An integral component of the Fleet Unit would be submarines. The
initial proposal was for three C class, but inherent to the Fleet
Unit concept was that its units should be as modern as possible.
The very rapid evolution of British design after the success of
the diesel powered D class allowed the first build for Australia
to be two of the new and even larger E class as the start of what
was intended as a larger flotilla. Visionaries, such as Creswell's
assistant, Commander Hugh Thring, already envisioned how these
submarines might be used to attack threatening maritime forces
during the day, leaving night time attacks to the destroyers,
and allowing an enemy no respite.
Completed in 1914, AE-1 & AE2 arrived in Australian waters just
before the outbreak of the First World War after what was, at
that point, the longest voyage ever undertaken by a submarine.
Significantly, and in recognition of their capability, when the
time came for the Australian fleet to adopt the offensive with
an amphibious attack on the German settlement at Rabaul in New
Britain, the submarines were not held in Australian waters but
accompanied the deployment. Although the two units did not sail
independently, this was the most distant operational deployment
undertaken by submarines to that time, something that has passed
largely unrecognised. Their principal role came to be, in cooperation
with destroyers, to provide protection for the main force at its
anchorages. With the light craft on patrol outside the harbour
at Rabaul, for example, then the Allied squadron could not be
surprised by an enemy surface force. It was while undertaking
these duties that the AE-1 tragically disappeared without trace.
By the end of 1914 the Indian and Pacific Oceans had been cleared
of German units. The remaining Australian boat was recognised
as being too valuable a unit to be retained on the Australia station
and was soon despatched to escort a troop convoy to the Middle
East. There AE-2's successful penetration of the Dardanelles marked
another stage in the evolution of the submarine as an offensive
weapon. Although the boat was lost before she completed her patrol,
the potential of the type had been clearly demonstrated to both
the navy and - when the story of AE-2's exploit finally emerged
- to the Australian public. The submarine was an offensive weapon
and it was capable of world-wide use. Interestingly, and ironically
in view of AE-1's employment when lost, what was also clearly
demonstrated by the British experience of the First World War
was that the submarine was not particularly suited to local or
coastal defence. Not one German surface ship raid on a British
port had been intercepted by a submarine in its approaches, despite
the fact that there were units allocated to the task.
Phase Three: After 1918 - A New Threat and a New Concept
The end of the Great War almost immediately saw the development
of new great power rivalries. In the Pacific, Japan had benefited
significantly from the strategic space it had enjoyed as an ally
while the United Kingdom focused on Northern Europe and the Mediterranean.
It was now clear that there was the potential for conflict between
an expanding Japan and the British Empire. Such a conflict would
be inherently maritime in nature and would place huge demands
on British and Commonwealth resources.
The shift of focus of British defence planning to Europe from
the early 1930s and the rapid collapse of Allied resistance in
South East Asia to the Japanese offensives in 1941-42 have tended
to disguise the amount of effort that was put into developing
concepts for the defense of the Far East in the 1920s and 1930s,
particularly at the operational and tactical levels, before the
crises began in Europe. It was accepted from the outset, even
after the development of significant base facilities in the Far
East, that the main British fleet would normally be located in
the Mediterranean and only in emergency move to South East Asia.
This created the requirement to buy time.
In particular, the British very quickly understood that submarines
represented the best chance of interrupting or at least slowing
any Japanese seaborne ventures into the archipelago. From 1919
until the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe, the largest
and most modern force of submarines in the Royal Navy was always
part of the China fleet . The first modern submarine flotilla
of L class submarines (of the next biggest type after the J and
the special M and K classes, which were not considered suitable
for such operations) was transferred to the China Station in 1919,
at the same time as the J class were given to Australia. It was
considered the 'premier' submarine flotilla of the Royal Navy.
The first serious experiments with sustained submerged operations
in tropical conditions were conducted as early as 1923 and the
performance of submarines in this regard was a continuing subject
of interest, with extended patrols (up to a month in length) being
practised. Until the early 1930s, every new RN submarine design
was intended for the Far East and it was only later in the 1930s
and the return of a European threat that the priority moved away
from the larger (and faster) boats which were required in the
A sia-Pacific. In July 1939, in addition to the modern depot ship
Medway, there were no less than fifteen large patrol submarines
on the China Station. By comparison, there were only five operational
submarines in the Mediterranean, three of which were clearly reinforcement
units for the Far East, and six in the Home Fleet. Notably, although
most of the surface fleet was withdrawn from the Far East at the
outset of war with Germany, fear of Japan taking advantage of
the situation meant that all the submarines remained in theatre
until well into 1940.
The Admiralty's schemes for the RAN from the start proposed particular
Australian contributions to what soon became a 'main fleet to
Singapore' strategy and were aligned with the early concepts of
that strategy. It was thus not surprising that after the end of
the First World War the British should offer and Australia accept
a flotilla of submarines. It was also not surprising that the
class, albeit one that in itself represented a discrete package
as there were only six of the type, should be the biggest submarine
in RN service, aside from the steam driven K class and the big
gun armed M class, and one with significant endurance.
The J class, however, rapidly proved too much for a cash strapped
Australian Navy, particularly as they required a high level of
maintenance and restoration after their war service. Despite a
number of valiant rearguard proposals to retain one or two of
the boats for ASW training, it was eventually accepted (even by
the submariners) that the J class 'were too obsolete and worn
out ever to be brought forward for further service'.
Phase Four: A Role for the RAN in the British Construct for
the Defence of the Far East
Nevertheless, even as Australia agonised over the fate of the
J class, British thinking continued to focus on the means by which
a workable scheme for the defence of the Far East could be devised.
The force structure implications of that plan for both the Royal
Navy and the Dominion naval forces in the Asia-Pacific were put
formally to the Imperial Defence Conference in 1923. The British
expected that the Japanese would attempt to seize Singapore as
soon as hostilities began and before any British reinforcements
could arrive. The British Empire's forces in South East Asia had
to be able to prevent or at least delay the arrival of a Japanese
invasion force. The Admiralty therefore 'considered fast…cruisers
of great endurance and large submarines the most suitable classes
of ship for the Dominion navies.'
The proposal that Australia should divide its primary naval (and,
indeed, defence) expenditure on cruisers and submarines thus reflected
the requirements for both sea control and sea denial to be achieved
during the period over some 42 days (a figure subject to variation
as plans were modified over the years ) in which the main fleet
would move from European waters to the Far East. During this time,
it was accepted that the British Empire forces would be on the
defensive, particularly in the South China Sea and the archipelago
of the East Indies. That defence would be sustained at sea principally
by submarines, with the cruisers of the China, East Indies, Australia
and New Zealand stations providing surface action groups in the
China Seas, as well as units in the Indian and South West Pacific
oceans and the Malacca Strait to protect both trade and the movement
The British intended their submarines to operate in the East and
South China Seas and within the archipelago on a scale which would
present fundamental problems for Japanese surface forces, particularly
if there were any attempts to stage amphibious assaults. While
the points to be defended varied, with Hong Kong sometimes given
up as a lost cause, British operational concepts became increasingly
sophisticated. Although they themselves would have a surveillance
and reconnaissance role in their own right, the submarines would
not operate unsupported. The Oberon class, which were the first
class to be built after the Great War and the first designed specifically
for the Far East, and their successors were fitted with up to
date radio equipment in order to allow their interaction with
other force elements (and with sonar for ASW work). In this period
the RN and the Royal Air Force began to conduct joint exercises
in which flying boats were required 'to locate a naval force and
home a submarine flotilla on to it.' In 1927 (in good time for
the new submarines) four flying boats were transferred from the
United Kingdom to Singapore and formed into the new 205 Squadron.
Group or 'wolf pack' coordinated submarine tactics were developed
as a method of overwhelming the defences of Japanese fleets and
troop convoys. Covert submarine reconnaissance techniques were
also refined, some of which would be revived for the Cold War,
in order to monitor the progress of the increasingly secretive
Japanese, particularly after 1936 when no more foreign warship
visits were allowed to Japanese ports.
Notably, a parallel strategy for submarine warfare was adopted
by the Netherlands for the Dutch East Indies and their regional
fleet in 1939 included no less than twelve of their most modern
submarines, while the Americans in the Philippines also maintained
a substantial flotilla. In a conflict, the Admiralty assessed
that the Australian boats could either be despatched to support
the main effort in the South China Sea, or else constitute an
independent sea denial force around such focal areas as the approaches
The Australian 1923 submarine program foundered for two reasons.
The first was that it was too early. The pair of O class boats
which the RAN acquired were also two of the three prototypes for
the RN's post-war patrol submarine fleet. They incorporated many
new systems and, although developed in the light of the experience
of 1914-18, were fundamentally new designs after a break of nearly
a decade . The British themselves generally did not deploy prototype
units to foreign stations until they had been properly tested
and proven in service and the RAN was not ready nor equipped to
deal with the problems that were soon encountered with Oxley and
Otway. In fact, the new heavy cruisers Australia and Canberra
experienced significant issues with their 8" main armament guns,
which were also novel to the RN and RAN, but by their nature such
difficulties could much more easily be concealed in peacetime
than the engineering defects of the submarines. The British themselves
did not despatch any new submarines to the Far East until 1930
when they could deploy in company with their new (and well equipped)
depot ship and when most of the prototype problems had been ironed
The second was money and the associated problem of force generation.
The Australian Navy maintained its plans for the expansion of
the submarine flotilla to six boats with a new depot ship until
as late as the end of 1928, when a new naval development plan
was submitted to the Council of Defence. The RAN, however, came
under increasing financial pressure as the Great Depression loomed
and distribution of the little money available forced choices
and heavy cuts that were in the nature of least unacceptable.
From the funds that the Government was willing to allocate, the
Australian Navy simply could not afford to maintain both a significant
surface force and a submarine capability even if both were essential
in providing a balanced contribution to the "Main Fleet to Singapore"
strategy. The latter remained relatively expensive to operate
and demanding on external resources. It would also take a much
larger submarine force than was practicable to generate reasonable
numbers of trained personnel. The cruisers, on the other hand,
fulfilled the sea control role while also serving as training
platforms and sustaining seagoing manpower at reasonably high
In other words, in the extreme economic conditions of the day,
the cruisers could preserve a core force in a way that would allow
later expansion while still meeting at least one of the fundamental
wartime roles of the RAN. In these circumstances, the handover
of the two submarines to the Royal Navy represented the best solution.
And there was another aspect to the British acceptance of the
situation. Under the terms of the London Naval Disarmament Treaty
(as it had been for the earlier Washington Treaty), British Empire
naval strength was treated as one. With submarine tonnage now
limited to 52,700 in total, the RN could not afford to waste it
on less than effective units. If the RAN could not afford to operate
the two O class submarines properly, they were better off in British
It is true, however, that neither the internal naval debate that
preceded the decision to give the submarines to the British nor
Australian Cabinet discussion of the issue dealt properly with
the consequence that the RAN no longer possessed a significant
capacity to contribute to offensive operations in the region and
thus make a real contribution to delaying any Japanese advance
into the archipelago. In this context, Australian naval planners
were almost as guilty of a 'fortress Australia' mindset as the
Army colleagues whom they criticised because the operational concept
of the RAN was thus largely defensive and almost wholly local.
It was not emphasised enough by naval authorities that the needs
of forward defence that would make Singapore any use at all as
a protection for Australia were being neglected - and by Australia,
not just Britain. It was true that the minimum trade protection
requirements could still be met by the rump of the fleet that
remained, but not much more than this would be possible. A small
force of cruisers and destroyers might be dispatched to the South
China Sea, but its strategic weight (and this was clearly demonstrated
in 1941-42) was very limited indeed.
Phase Five: The Restoration of an Australian Submarine Arm
It was to take nearly thirty years for submarines to return as
a factor in Australian force strategic and force structure planning.
The recreation of an Australian submarine arm in the 1960s came
about through the confluence of a number of issues. The first
was the fact that the British, who had provided a division of
submarines at Sydney from 1949 to support anti-submarine training,
could no longer afford to do so. The RN's war built submarines
were rapidly approaching obsolescence and could not be replaced
by the British one-for-one, particularly as the RN was concentrating
on a nuclear propulsion program as the core of its future submarine
capability. Since ASW remained a key role of the RAN, as its primary
contribution to the Western alliance, the deterioration which
would follow the absence of live targets was not acceptable.
But a more significant factor for the long term was the emergence
for the first time since the Second World War of a potential surface
threat to Australia. Initially, the Soviet Sverdlov class cruisers
and their potential as long ranged commerce raiders were the primary
concern. No Australian surface unit had the armament to stand
up to a heavily armed Sverdlov while the sole aircraft carrier
could not generate a large enough strike force to be sure of overwhelming
the cruiser's defences. The Australian naval staff toyed with
the idea of tactical nuclear weapons , but these were never really
a practical (or acceptable) option. The problem acquired a new
urgency in the late 1950s with the expansion, with Soviet support,
of the Indonesian fleet. The Indonesians first acquired large
destroyers in 1958, then a cruiser (with the possibility of further
hulls) in 1962 and even some of the first missile armed fast attack
craft. Furthermore, the USSR, China and Indonesia all possessed
expanding submarine fleets and the potential to deploy units into
Australia's area of interest and against its shipping. The fact
that submarines were one of the most effective weapons against
other submarines was becoming increasingly apparent as Western
nations contemplated the ASW challenge.
In these circumstances a submarine force could restore a measure
of offensive capability to the RAN, a requirement implicit in
the 1959 Strategic Basis of Defence Policy's statement that, in
a limited war, Australian forces 'must also be able to act independently
against aggression in the North Western approaches'. With the
formidable support of Senator John Gorton as Minister for the
Navy, the RAN was able to make the case for the creation of a
submarine arm as a necessary addition to its force structure.
The problem was the more critical because of the increasing difficulty
which the RAN faced in maintaining a fixed wing capability and
even the limited measure of offensive power possessed by the small
air group operated from the light fleet carrier Melbourne. The
Sea Venom jet fighters would soon be at the end of their effective
lives, while the Gannets were optimised only for ASW. The new
generation of fighter and strike aircraft demanded a bigger platform
than the Melbourne and there were no such vessels available to
the RAN at a price that the government was willing to pay. If
the Fleet Air Arm could not continue to exist, then the RAN had
to expand into other capabilities if it were not to decline into
a small ship Service.
The Porpoise class, on which the Oberon was based, had, as was
already clear to the RN, proved an extremely successful design
and, despite habitability that had not evolved significantly from
previous generations of submarines, possessed excellent range
and endurance as well as reasonable underwater speed and manoeuvrability.
Above all, they were very quiet. The Oberon's inherent quality
would be demonstrated by their export success, boats being built
for Brazil and Chile as well as Canada and Australia.
original force structure for the RAN was based on a program of
two batches of four boats, with the possibility of nuclear submarines
to follow. The latter never eventuated, while the second batch
was cut down to two boats, ordered in 1971 shortly after the final
unit of the first quartet arrived in Australian waters. The money
saved went instead to the purchase of ten additional Skyhawk jet
fighter-bombers for the aircraft carrier Melbourne. While the
decision to strengthen the Fleet Air Arm partly at the expense
of the Submarine Arm reflected the priorities of an aviator Chief
of Naval Staff, there was some justification for the hedging of
bets which this represented. Apart from the fact that the RAN
was still determined to maintain a fixed wing capability at sea
and also determined to improve its striking power by exploiting
the success of the Skyhawk-Melbourne combination, the Oberon class
suffered from significant limitations.
The passive sensors of the Oberons were extremely unsophisticated
and limited in range and target discrimination. Their fire control
equipment was no better, while the ASW homing torpedoes for which
they were designed were soon recognised as being ineffective and
withdrawn from service. The primary weapon system was and remained
for a decade the Mark VIII straight running torpedo, a weapon
which had been in service for three decades before the commissioning
of the first Australian Oberon. The reality was that in order
to achieve a successful attack, a submarine so equipped had to
approach very close to its target (certainly within the protective
screen around a defended unit) and rely very largely upon the
capacity of its commanding officer to calculate the correct firing
solution within his head.
The problem with this situation was not the lethality of the Mark
VIII on impact. This would be confirmed anew in 1982 when the
British submarine Conqueror sank the Argentinean cruiser General
Belgrano. It was that the short range at which the submarine had
to engage not only exposed it to anti-submarine units when making
its approach, but left it vulnerable once its presence had been
confirmed by its attack, successful or not, and it was attempting
Phase Six: The Submarine Weapons Update Programme
The need to address these deficiencies under strategic guidance
that continued to emphasise the need for independent Australian
maritime capabilities initiated the next phase of Australian submarine
development. The package of sensor and weapon improvements that
came to be designated the Submarine Weapons Update Program (SWUP)
was one of the most successful modernisation efforts in the history
of the RAN. There was an element of serendipity about the way
in which, over a decade, a number of key technological advances
were brought together to provide what became an extremely effective
package, but some points are notable. The first was that the small
team of submariners who championed the modernisation effort succeeded
in obtaining and maintaining the support of the Navy's non-submariner
leadership. Even at the height of the battle to acquire a replacement
carrier, finally lost in 1983, funding was provided and staff
effort directed at securing the new systems for all six Oberons.
In this case, the bet hedging was in favour of the Submarine Arm.
It was to prove well judged.
Detailed work began in 1971 with the project to acquire a long
range, hull mounted passive sonar, designated MICROPUFFS, which
would, through the use of sensors along the hull as a baseline,
not only allow for much longer range detections, but provide estimates
of their range. This was first fitted to HMAS Ovens in 1975 and
extended to the remainder of the class as they came in for their
next major docking and refit. The next step was a Singer Librascope
digital fire control system which was able to fire the much more
sophisticated American Mark 48 heavyweight homing torpedo. Oxley
received this system in 1977-79. Finally, a Krupp Atlas active/passive
attack sonar replaced the earlier British unit. The full program
of modernization was complete by 1985. In November that year,
the final piece of the jigsaw was put in place with the successful
firing from submerged of a Harpoon anti-ship missile by the Ovens.
The weapon/sensor/fire control system combination that resulted
from SWUP provided the RAN Oberons with a stand off capability
that would allow them to engage surface targets at much longer
ranges than ever before possible and certainly at distances that
created significant challenges for the most sophisticated of ASW
defences. Furthermore, they themselves also possessed an extremely
effective ASW capability that, allied to their low noise signatures,
made them formidable opponents for other submarines, no matter
The timing of the program proved fortunate, since the total capability
now provided by the submarine force went some way to substituting
for the lost offensive power of the fixed wing aircraft carrier
in an era in which the Australian Government was seeking to achieve
'self reliance' in national defence. What the RAN did have by
1985 was a powerful force of submarines capable of use in a wide
variety of roles from surveillance and reconnaissance and support
of special forces to anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare.
It was one that was being progressively more integrated into Australian
concepts of operations and which was recognised as a key fighting
element within the Australian Defence Force. The successful completion
of SWUP also set the scene for the development work that was now
in hand for a follow-on submarine. But that is a different story
and a new phase of Australia's submarine history.
Submarines have long provided a capability which has had a special
potential to meet Australia' s unique requirements for national
defence. That capability was recognised very early in our history
and the fact that so many efforts were made to establish or retain
a submarine force indicates that this recognition has been, if
not sustained, at least a recurring element in national strategic
thought. Stealth, striking power and endurance represent a powerful
combination, in offence as well as defence, whether supporting
a purely national campaign, or as a contribution to an alliance
or coalition. At the same time, the record of Australia's submarine
effort confirms that they are not simple to acquire or to operate.
They have always been complex machines, often being at the leading
edge of technology for their day and always demanding the highest
standards of construction, maintenance and operation to ensure
their survival in an unforgiving environment. They create great
challenges not only for their owner navy but for the national
support and industry base which must lie behind any submarine
capability, challenges which can only be met by a deliberate,
sustained and properly resourced effort on the part of all concerned.
This was the key lesson of the first six phases of the history
of submarine development in Australia and the reason why the 1927
Oberon class failed and the 1967 Oberons succeeded.
The Honourable Athol Townley, Minister for Defence, to the House
of Representatives 27 March 1962, CPD p. 946. Cited Peter Yule
& Derek Woolner Steel, Spies & Spin: The Collins Class Submarine
Story Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne, 2008. p. 12.
2. See 'Report submitted by the Naval Director to the Honourable
the Minister of State for Defence 15 November 2005' Nicholas A.
Lambert Australia's Naval Inheritance: Imperial Maritime Strategy
and the Australia Station 1880-1909 Papers in Australian Maritime
Affairs No. 6, Maritime Studies Program, Canberra, 1998, p. 123.
3. Bob Nicholls Statesmen and Sailors: Australian Maritime Defence
1870-1920 Balmain, 1995, pp. 94-95. See pp 99-100 for Creswell's
reservations about submarines in 1905. His 1906 visit to UK (p.
108) and first hand acquaintance with the B class, including a
dive, did not change his opinion at this stage about the limitations
of the petrol driven, short range craft.
4. Letter from Alfred Deakin to Admiral Sir John Fisher of 12
August 1907 (with marginal comments by Fisher) Lambert Australia's
Naval Inheritance, Op. Cit. p. 150.
5. See Richard Compton-Hall Submarine Boats: The beginnings of
underwater warfare Conway Maritime Press, London, 1983, especially
pp. 110-125 and pp. 167-71. For example, the first retractable
periscope was not fitted to a British submarine until the D class
6 Nicholas A. Lambert 'The Opportunities of Technology: British
and French Naval Strategies in the Pacific, 1905-1909' Naval Power
in the Twentieth Century N.A.M. Rodger (Ed.) Palgrave Macmillan,
Basingstoke, 1996, p. 47.
7. Lambert Australia's Naval Inheritance, Op. Cit. pp. 154-155.
8. In fact the first 'heavy oil' units used paraffin
9. The submarine A-13 had successfully trialed a diesel engine
10. Nicholas Lambert Sir John Fisher's Naval Revolution. p. 182
11. Notes of the Proceedings of a Conference at the Admiralty
10 August 1909, Lambert Australia's Naval Inheritance, Op. Cit.
12. David Stevens '"Defend the North": Commander Thring, Captain
Hughes-Onslow and the beginnings of Australian naval strategic
thought' David Stevens & John Reeve (Eds) Southern Trident: Strategy,
history and the rise of Australian naval power' Allen & Unwin,
Sydney, 2001, p. 236.
13. A.W. Jose The Royal Australian Navy Vol. IX Official History
of Australia in the War of 1914-18 Angus & Robertson, Sydney,
1928, pp. 96-97.
14. Ibid. pp. 239-248
15. For example, see Andrew Field Royal Navy Strategy in the Far
East 1919-1939: PrepaingPreparing for War against Japan Frank
Cass, London, 2004 which explores British planning in considerable
detail and shows just how much effort went into the problem.
16. Perhaps significantly, many (if not most) of the first submarine
experienced officers to achieve flag rank were posted to China
or the East Indies. Dunbar-Nasmith VC served as C-in-C East Indies
in 1932-34, Waistell as C-in-C China 1928-31, Little as C-in-C
China 1935-38 and Layton as C-in-C China in 1940-41 (having served
as Chief of Staff to C-in-C China 1931-33). Laurence served as
Chief of Staff to C-in-C East Indies 1923-25.
17. Rear Admiral G.W.G. Simpson Periscope View: A Professional
Autobiography Macmillan, London, 1972, p. 37.
18. Admiral Sir Frederick Dreyer The Sea Heritage: A Study of
Maritime Warfare Museum Press, London, 1935, pp. 318-319. Dreyer
was C-in-C China 1933-1936.
19. Between 1928 and 1938 a total of 31 boats (including the short
lived 'X-1' cruiser submarine) were built for the RN and RAN for
the Far East. This represented a substantial commitment of resources
in a period of retrenchment and disarmament. See H.T. Lenton British
Submarines MacDonald, London, 1972, p. 4 and pp. 39-53.
20. See also David Henry 'British Submarine Policy 1918-1939'
Bryan Ranft (Ed.) Technical Change and British Naval Policy 1860-1939
Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1977, p. 92. See The Navy List for
July 1939 (corrected to 18th June 1939) HMSO, London, 1939, pp.
21. First Naval Member Minute to Minister 16 November 1922. Cited
Michael W.D. White Australian Submarines: A History AGPS, Canberra,
1992. p. 117.
22. Stephen Roskill Naval Policy Between the Wars Vol. 1 The Period
of Anglo-American Antagonism 1919-1929 Collins, London, 1968,
23. James Neidpath The Singapore Naval Base and the Defence of
Britain's Eastern Empire, 1919-1941 Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1981,
pp. 51-52 and p.88.
24. The quality of the radio equipment was explicitly commented
on by the Australian naval staff in 1929. See Michael W.D. White
Australian Submarines: A History, Op. Cit., p. 160.
25. James J. Halley Famous Maritime Squadrons of the Royal Air
Force Hylton Lacey, Windsor, 1973, p. 30.
26. Alastair Mars British Submarines at War 1939-1945 is particularly
useful on British submarine training and operations in the Far
East between 1937 and 1940. See pp. 21-23, 37-64 and 239-247.
27. Arthur J. Marder Old Friends, New Enemies: The Royal Navy
and the Imperial Japanese Navy Vol. 1 Strategic Illusions 1936-1941
Oxford University Press, 1981, pp. 354-356.
28. Alastair Mars, while known for his forthright language, had
a point when he labelled Otway an 'electro-mechanical monstrosity'.
British Submarines at War, Op. Cit., p. 119.
29. Lieutenant (later Rear Admiral) G.B.H. Fawkes, RN (writing
as 'G.B.F.H.') 'Narrative in Log Form of Passage of Fourth Submarine
Flotilla to Hong Kong, 1930' The Naval Review February 1931, Vol.
XIX, No. 1, pp. 69-89. Even so, three out of four of the submarines
experienced defects with their main motors on passage but, unlike
the diesel defects of the early O class, they were rectified within
a week at Malta.
30. B.N. Primrose 'Australian Naval Policy 1919-1942: A Case Study
in Empire Relations' PhD Thesis, The Australian National University,
1974, p. 123.
31. Ibid. pp. 173-177.
32. The Sverdlov, as a post war designed and built ship, caused
something of a sensation at the 1953 British Coronation Naval
Review. Although some authorities were inclined to discount the
type as an oceanic threat, the size of the construction program
meant that it could not be ignored. See Wilhelm Hadeler 'The Ships
of the Soviet Navy' M.G. Saunders (Ed.) The Soviet Navy Weidenfeld
& Nicholson, London, 1958, pp. 147-150.
33. First Naval Member to First Sea Lord letter of 25 June 1956
UK National Archives ADM 205/110. Cited Eric Grove 'British and
Australian Naval Policy in the Korean War Era' T.R. Frame, J.V.P.
Goldrick & P.D Jones Reflections on the Royal Australian Navy
Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst, 1991, p. 269. .
34. 'Report by the Joint Planning Committee at meetings during
Tuesday 13th to Saturday 17th October 1959 re Report No. 77/59
- Composition of the Forces 75/59 - Proposed Introduction of a
Submarine Service into the Royal Australian Navy.
35. Stephan Fruhling A History of Australian Strategic Policy
since 1945 Australian Department of Defence, Canberra, 2009, p.
36. See both 'The Strategic Basis of Australian Defence Policy
(October 1975)' and 'Australian Strategic Analysis and Defence
Policy Objectives (September 1976) Stephan Fruhling (Ed.) A History
of Australian Strategic Policy Defence Publishing Service, Canberra,
2009, p. 536 and pp. 616-617.
37. For the story of SWUP see Michael W.D. White Australian Submarines:
A History, Op. Cit., pp. 201-203; Peter Yule & Derek Woolner Steel,
Spies and Spin: The Collins Class Submarine Story Cambridge University
Press, Port Melbourne, 2008, pp. 23-26.