NAVY FOUNDATION DAY "CRESWELL ORATION"
102nd ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION
Address by Commodore Brian G. Gibbs AM RAN Ret'd
on 1st March 2003 - 102nd Anniversary of the Australian
Navy's Foundation Day (1st March 1901)
Copyright B Gibbs AM RAN March 2003
1852 - 1933
A Remarkable life.
Australian Navy Foundation Day
28 February, 2003
Commodore B. G. Gibbs AM, RAN (Ret'd.)
. G. L. Macandie CBE "The Genesis of the Royal Australian Navy"
. Department of Defence (Navy) An Outline of Australian Naval
. Department of the Nary Royal Australian Navy Jubilee Souvenir"
. The Navy League Journal, March, 1939
. Captain Creswell's plea for local Naval Force (2nd September
. Captain Creswell on Australia's defence needs (11th October
. Captain Creswell "The Case for an Australian Naval Force" (1st
. Historic Navy Orders (1911)
. Commander J. M Wilkins, RFD*, RANR (Ret'd) - verification of
. "The Commanders" Edited by D.M.Horner (1984)
. Contributions by Dr Stephen D Webster
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In my submission, any analysis of the performance of our Australian
military leaders in the past should include an assessment of their
performance under the stress of action and policy making.
Indeed, this has occurred in a number of analyses undertaken by
several recognised military historians in fairly recent years.
The analyses to which I refer were in respect of a number of First
World War and Second World War leaders, the names of whom will
be familiar to most, if not all of you here today:
· Henry Gordon Bennett
No Australian naval officers reached positions of senior command
in the First World War, and in the Second World War, only Collins
and Farncomb commanded the Australian Squadron in action.
Admiral Sir John Crace RN commanded the Australian Squadron during
the Battle of the Coral Sea, but although he was born in Australia,
he was a Royal Navy Officer detached to the Royal Australian Navy
and he returned to Britain soon after the Battle.
The three Chiefs of Naval Staff during the Second World War were
all British Officers.
During the Second World War Collins was Commodore Commanding China
Force in 1942 and in 1944 and 1945 he was Commodore Commanding
the Australian Squadron in important battles in the Pacific.
As Australia's senior naval commander during the Second World
War it seems unfortunate that the performance of Collins has received
somewhat less historical attention than those leaders to whom
I have referred. However, as the military historian, D.M.Horner,
points out, we do have Collins' autobiography, "As Luck Would
Vice Admiral Sir William Creswell, as First Naval Member
of the Australian Naval Board during the First World War, had
little opportunity to command Australian Naval Forces in war.
That being so, one could be excused for wondering why his performance
has, like that of the leaders to whom I have referred, been the
subject of such close scrutiny. The answer, again according to
Homer, is because the history of Creswell demonstrates the problems
of senior policy-making faced by Australia's top naval officers
during the First World War.
In his Doctoral thesis, the historian Stephen Webster in 1976
described Creswell in the following terms:
"As First Naval Member of the Australian Naval Board, Rear Admiral
Sir William Rooke Creswell (1852-1933) played a key role in the
direction of local naval operations and policy during the First
World War. Creswell's long and colourful career- beginning in
the Royal Navy of Queen Victoria, then in Australia's motley colonial
naval forces, and finally as the senior officer of the Australian
Navy - mark him as the single most important figure in the gestation,
early development and first testing of the Royal Australian Navy.
By virtue of his long, continuous involvement in the debate surrounding
Australian naval defence, no other figure, politician or naval
officer, played such an influential part."
Over the years, much has been written about Creswell's achievements
while holding high office, but rather less about his earlier life.
Known as the "Father of the Australian Navy", William
Rooke Creswell was born in Gibraltar on 20th July 1852.
He was the third son of Edmund Creswell, the colony's Deputy Postmaster
Although there is no evidence to support such an association,
it nevertheless seems likely that Creswell was given the second
Christian name of Rooke in memory of Admiral Sir George Rooke,
who, in 1704, led a combined force of seamen and marines, resulting
in the capture of Gibraltar from the Spaniards.
While of no particular relevance, yet nonetheless of some interest,
is the fact that the action, which became known as the Battle
of Gibraltar, was later selected as the only Battle Honour to
appear on the Royal Marine Colours.
Admiral Sir George Rooke died in 1709, five years after the capture
Creswell received his early education at Gibraltar and it is not
unreasonable to assume that the naval and military environment
prevailing at the "Rock" at that time, would have played some
part in his inclination to pursue a career in one of the Services.
Indeed, in 1864, when Creswell was 12 years of age, his
father made the decision to send him home to England to be coached
for service in the Royal Navy.
In December 1865, at the age of 13, Creswell joined the Training
Ship Britannia, from which he graduated as a midshipman, 18 months
later. Creswell's first ship was the Phoebe, a 35 gun screw frigate,
which at the time, was deployed to the North American Station,
as part of Admiral Sir Phipps-Hornsby's Flying Squadron.
It was while serving in the Phoebe that Creswell, in 1869, first
Creswell later served in the Manotaur in the Channel Fleet, and
then as a Sub-Lieutenant, he was appointed to the Thalia on the
It seems that the young Creswell was exceptional as an athlete,
and indeed, research reveals that while serving in the Thalia,
he won a 440 yards hurdle race, an event open to the whole of
the combined Fleet on the China Station.
Of some incidental interest is that, as the winner, Creswell was
presented with a cup donated by the Grand Duke Alexis, who at
the time was serving in the Russian Navy.
Service on the China Station occasionally required that action
be taken against Chinese pirates. In one such action Creswell,
who at the time was temporarily serving in the gunboat Midge,
was severely wounded and in recognition of his distinguished conduct,
he was specially promoted to the rank of Lieutenant.
Upon recovery from his wounds Creswell was appointed to the Royal
Naval College and later to HMS Topaze, as part of the Squadron
then deployed to India for the visit by the Prince of Wales, later
King Edward VII.
Creswell next served in HMS Undaunted, Flag Ship of the East Indies
Squadron. He was then appointed to HMS London, a Depot Ship stationed
at Zanzibar during operations against East African slave traders.
Operations against the slave traders often required that naval
parties operate in small boats with frequent absences from their
parent ships, for upwards of a month at a time.
During the three years 1875 to 1878, Creswell was frequently involved
in these activities, experiencing many brushes with Arab dhows.
Indeed, one vessel he intercepted was found to be carrying a record
cargo of slaves.
On another occasion, during which he and his crew landed ashore
with the intention of liberating a number of slaves, Creswell
and his party came under armed attack. One member of the party
who was severely wounded, was saved by Creswell who helped him
swim back to their boat.
Unfortunately, Creswell's health deteriorated during his service
in the East Indies, to the point where it became necessary for
him to be invalided back home to England. It so happened that
the Royal Navy was at this time undergoing significant reductions
and the prospects of young naval officers was not bright.
As a result, Creswell retired from the Navy in 1878, and in 1879,
along with one of his brothers, he decided to migrate to Australia
with a view to pursuing life as a farmer, which he did in Queensland
for some years. It is said that he was a member of the first party
of drovers to take cattle overland to the Northern Territory.
However, the call of the sea reasserted itself and, in October
1885, Creswell joined the newly formed naval service in South
Australia, in the rank of Lieutenant Commander.
Thus began what can only be described as a truly distinguished
Australian naval career, spanning as it did, some 34 years.
Upon joining the South Australian naval service, Creswell was
appointed First Lieutenant of the small but heavily armed cruiser
In 1893 Creswell was appointed Naval Commandant, South Australia,
serving in that capacity until 1900, at which time he transferred
to the position of Naval Commandant, Queensland. During 1902 he
also acted for a brief period as Captain Commanding the New South
Wales Naval Forces.
It is noted that at the time of his appointment as Naval Commandant,
Queensland, Creswell was also appointed in command of his old
Indeed, while under his command, the Protector was deployed
to the China Station, in order to assist in suppressing the Boxer
Rebellion. Upon return of the Protector to Australia, Creswell
resumed his duties in Queensland.
On 1st March 1901, two months after the creation of the Australian
Commonwealth, the Australian States transferred their local naval
and military forces to the Federal Government.
While the amalgamation and development of the military establishments
presented no major difficulties, and were immediately proceeded
with, this was not so in respect of the naval units. This appears
to have been due to the considerable confusion which existed in
respect of naval doctrine among various Ministers of the Crown,
and Members of the new Federal Parliament.
Victoria had, for half a century, developed what has been described
as a "formidable" flotilla, and South Australia and Queensland
had also supported the principle, apparently first enunciated
in 1885 by Admiral Sir George Tryon of the Royal Navy, who commanded
the British Naval force in Australian waters in 1886-87, that
a separate Australian Auxiliary Squadron be formed and manned
to the greatest extent possible by locally trained Australian
New South Wales, on the other hand, had maintained no permanent
naval force, a situation which appears to have been largely due
to the fact that Sydney was the base of the British Imperial Squadron;
that the Commander-in-Chief's residence was there; and because
strong economic and social interests combined in opposing transfer
of the naval administration to the temporary seat of Federal Parliament
Indeed, locally, New South Wales did nothing of any significance
in respect of the new Commonwealth Navy, until the United Kingdom
gifted its Sydney base to Australia in 1913.
In 1887 a Colonial Conference was held in London. While, as a
result of that Conference an Australian Auxiliary Squadron was
formed, this did not realize Admiral Tryon's ideal of a locally
manned and locally controlled Squadron. That this was so was hardly
surprising so long as the Australian Colonies remained under mutually
Creswell has been variously described as essentially a seaman,
trained in the Navy when masts and yards and sails were in use,
and boatwork was the order of the day. He was a practical sailor
who believed in maintaining in seagoing order all of the ships
and craft coming under his orders.
It has been further said that Creswell was characterised by indomitable
I courage and the persistent pursuit of his objectives. There
is no doubt I that he was very much a "man's man", but above all
else he was a man of exceptional vision and the possessor of infinite
For three years after the creation of the Australian Commonwealth,
the Government used existing State Acts and Regulations to administer
its defence forces with, in the naval sphere, a Naval Commandant
in each State exercising control over the forces in his area,
but with no officer I appointed in overall command.
This interim period came to an end on 1st March 1904, when the
Commonwealth Defence Act 1903 was proclaimed, bringing into force
legislation necessary to administer the defence forces. At the
same time the position of Naval Officer Commanding Commonwealth
Naval Forces was created.
On 9th December 1904 an amendment to the 1903 Act came into force
which, among other things, provided for a change in the administration
of the Naval Forces, by the replacement of the Naval Officer Commanding
Commonwealth Naval Forces as the administering authority, with
a Naval Board of Administration of three regular members, headed
by the Minister of State for Defence.
The position of Naval Officer Commanding Commonwealth Naval Forces
was abolished on 24th December 1904 and the position of Director
of Naval Forces was created, in which was vested both administrative
and inspecting duties.
On 12th January 1905 the Board of Naval Administration was constituted
for the first time. It consisted of the Minister for Defence (Hon.
J. W. McKay), as President, the Director of Naval Forces (Captain
W. R. Creswell, CMG), and a civil member named as the Finance
Member (J. A. Thompson Esq.). Commander F.H.G. Brownlow, Officer
Commanding the Naval Forces, New South Wales, was named as Consultative
At the time of Creswell's appointment as Director of Naval Forces,
the local naval forces consisted of about 1000 men (nine-tenths
of whom were engaged on a militia basis) and a few hundred cadets.
The ships available were the Cerberus, Protector, Gayundah
Paluma, Countess of Hopetoun, Childers, Nepean, Lonsdale and
The replacement of these vessels, all of which were launched between
1883 and 1891, was repeatedly urged by Creswell, who unfortunately
found himself having to do so in the face of an almost bi-annual
change of Ministers of Defence.
In urging the Government to take replacement action, Creswell
suggested a program of construction over a period of seven years
that would provide three 3000 ton cruiser destroyers, sixteen
torpedo boat destroyers and fifteen torpedo boats.
In 1906 the Australian Government sent Creswell to England to
study naval developments.
While his aspirations for a distinctly Australian element to the
sea power of the Empire received sympathetic understanding from
the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet, Sir John Fisher, they
received scant consideration from the Committee of Imperial Defence.
Undaunted by lack of enthusiasm in England, Creswell persisted,
and supported by the Australian Government, continued to further
his plan to establish a strong local navy. Meanwhile, pending
a final decision, Prime Minister Deakin set aside the sum of £250,000
for expenditure on harbour and coast defence.
In November 1908 Andrew Fisher succeeded Deakin as Prime Minister.
Using Deakin's savings and taking advantage of the Colonial Naval
Defence Act (1865), which empowered the colonies to maintain men-o'-war,
he immediately ordered the building of two 700 ton, 27 knot torpedo-boat
In 1909 Britain became alarmed by the rapid increase of German
naval power. It was a challenge which could not be ignored and
the Admiralty requested Parliament to take exceptional measures
to secure the safety of the Empire. It was decided to convene
an Imperial Conference in London, and in advance Australia offered
a Dreadnought or any other form of help recommended by the Conference.
The Conference met on 28th July 1909, and for the British Dominions
of Australia and Canada it proved a momentous occasion. It led
to those countries forming independent navies, over which they
exercised full control, but it was agreed that they should operate
as an integral part of the Royal Navy in time of war.
In discussion, it was recommended that the whole system of Pacific
Ocean defence should be remodelled by the creation of three Fleet
units, one on the Australia Station, one on the East Indies Station
and a third on the China Station. Each unit was to consist of
a battle cruiser, three second-class cruisers, six destroyers
and three submarines. The Dreadnought offered by Australia was
to be flag-ship of the Australian unit and that offered by New
Zealand was to be flag-ship of the China unit. The East Indies
and China units would remain under direct Admiralty control as
squadrons of the Royal Navy, but the Australian unit would be
paid for and controlled by Australia and eventually fully manned
Thus, at long last, the formation of a purely Australian navy
was agreed upon and Admiral Tryon's principle, that 'personal
service' was an essential part of any colonial naval force, was
acknowledged. The era of payment in cash for naval protection
The following year a further Imperial Conference reached final
agreement on the status of the Australian fleet, and on 10 July
1911 His Majesty King George V granted the title of 'Royal Australian
Navy' to the Permanent Commonwealth Naval Forces. Creswell was
promoted to Rear Admiral in 1911 and Vice Admiral (Retired) in
1922. In 1911 he was created a Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished
Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG), and then, in 1919, the
year I in which he retired, he was created a Knight Commander
of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (KBE). In a
reconstituted Naval Board Creswell was named First Naval Member,
Captain B. M. Chambers, RN, Second Naval Member, Engineer Captain
W. Clarkson, Third Naval Member, Staff Paymaster H. W. E. Manisty,
Finance and Civil Member and Naval Secretary.
In 1912 the ex-clipper ship Sobraon was acquired, renamed Tingira
and commissioned as a Boys' Training Ship. On 1st March 1913 a
Naval College, providing for the training of Australian naval
officers, was opened at Geelong in Victoria. Among the first boys
enrolled were two future Admirals, John Augustine Collins and
Harold Bruce Famcomb.
In July 1913 all Royal Navy Establishments in Australia were transferred
to Australian control.
Creswell was 67 years of age at the time of his retirement to
a farming property in Silvan, situated outside Melbourne. The
loss of two of Creswell's three sons during the 1914-1918 Great
War was a heavy blow to Creswell. Randolph, a Captain in the Camel
Corps, was killed whilst serving in Palestine in November 1917.
Colin, a Naval Lieutenant, who served in submarines, was lost
in August the same year. A third son, Edmund, who served as a
Lieutenant in the Australian Pioneers, was severely wounded at
Bullecourt in France, in May 1917.
During the remaining years of his life, Creswell continued to
take a keen interest in issues of public importance. Among other
things, he propounded a scheme, which he advocated most assiduously,
for giving the Murray River direct communication with the sea
by extending the Coorong Channel to Lacepede Bay.
Creswell died on 20 April 1933, in his 81st year, and is buried
in Brighton General Cemetery, Melbourne, Victoria., together with
his daughter Margaret, who died on 5 April 1913, aged 20 years,
and his wife Adelaide, who died on 14 February 1945.
Captain (later Admiral) Bertram Chambers, Second Naval Member
of the first Naval Board appointed on 11 March 1911, said of Creswell:
"His life story is one which should be held in remembrance
by coming generations of naval officers, for his career was unique
and one which can never be duplicated for the conditions which
led to the creation of the present Australian Navy can hardly
arise again in any other part of the British Empire."
Creswell's place in history as the professional father of
our Navy is secure and publicly acknowledged by the commissioning
of the naval I establishment HMAS Creswell, at Jervis Bay, in
I believe that, were he alive today, Creswell would applaud the
motto assigned to the Establishment which bears his name:
(Honour, integrity, virtue)