NAVY FOUNDATION DAY "CRESWELL ORATION"
106th. ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION
Commodore Ray Griggs CSC AO RAN
AUSTRALIAN NAVY FOUNDATION DAY FEDERATION AND THE EARLY AUSTRALIAN
guests, ladies and gentlemen, it is a great pleasure to be invited
to present this year's Creswell Oration and a particular pleasure
to be here in the city where much of the story of the early Australian
Navy was played out.
I have been asked today to focus on the early years of the Commonwealth
Naval Forces and also to reflect on why it is that we have taken
so long as a Navy to embrace our 'real' birthday. I will certainly
try to do both of these things but I suspect that I won't be able
to shed much more light on the birthday issue than other speakers
have over the past six years.
Today is of course the 106th anniversary of the formation of Australia's
Navy. The title of the force, whether it be the Commonwealth Naval
Forces as it was between 1901 and 1911, the Royal Australian Navy
as it is today, or some future title should this country ever
become a republic, is largely irrelevant. What is important is
that the 1st of March will always be the day that our national
Navy was formed.
This year is probably one of the most high profile celebrations
of Navy's birthday that we have seen. This morning there were
a series of BBQ breakfasts around the country with national television
coverage on the Today show of the breakfast event in Sydney attended
by 500 people at the RAN Heritage Centre on Garden Island, closer
to Melbourne over 900 members of the ships company of HMAS CERBERUS
participated in a similar function. Tonight there is also a reception
onboard HMAS SYDNEY at Garden Island to mark the occasion.
Last year our ships were dressed overall for the first time on
the 1st of March, as you all know dressing ship is a very public
acknowledgement of a special occasion; this year is the second
such occasion we dressed ship and I think it is here to stay.
So, as you can see we have got over our initial reluctance to
acknowledge the importance of this day and I believe that it is
now becoming appropriately entrenched as a key commemorative date
in Navy's calendar. It is an important opportunity to project
the Navy into the public consciousness, for our people to reflect
on the organization they are a part of, the importance of the
job they do, and importantly, to reflect on all those who have
served in Australia's Navy over the last 106 years and helped
to make it what it is.
The broader question of why it took over a 100 years to really
embrace the concept of celebrating 'our birthday' is a very hard
one to answer. I thought Commodore Jim Dixon did an excellent
job in the 2001 Creswell Oration when he pointed to a number of
factors. He spoke of our tradition as the silent service, of doing
our business in private. He also spoke of the impact of our Royal
Navy heritage and of the public confusion that was engendered
when the Navy celebrated the 75th anniversary of becoming the
Royal Australian Navy in 1986. For me the most influential is
our Royal Navy heritage and the attendant cultural reticence to
celebrate these types of events.
In preparing for today I have been looking to see if there is
a single date that the Royal Navy celebrates its 'birth'. I have
not been able to find one, in fact even finding a year to mark
the 'birth' of the RN is difficult. There appears to be some debate
whether it is 1509 when Henry VII ascended the throne and developed
the Navy Royal or 1660 when Charles II instituted his fleet of
over 1500 ships and developed what is more recognisable as the
Royal Navy. The point I am trying to reinforce here is that there
is no real tradition of celebrating the RN's birthday, so as a
Navy we have not had this tradition either and have only recently
adopted the practice.
Even in the United States, where celebration of service birthdays
is a more elaborate affair, there was confusion over marking the
Navy's birthday that was only resolved as recently as 1975 by
the CNO of the day Admiral Zumwalt.
From 1922 until 1975 it was the Navy League, and the irony of
that is not lost on me, that drove the Navy's commemorative date
when it established Navy Day. The date chosen was October 23,
in honour of the Navy loving President Teddy Roosevelt. Admiral
Zumwalt established the Navy's birthday as October 13th to commemorate
the day that the US congress appropriated funds to build the first
two US warships.
So while we have a tendency to berate ourselves for not having
embraced our Navy's birthday - we were clearly not alone.
Importantly though, through the efforts of the Navy League and
now the RAN itself - I think we are celebrating the importance
of the day in an appropriate way.
In celebrating the Australian Navy we also celebrate the architects
of that achievement and their subsequent efforts to give Australia's
Navy both substance and significance.
Being the 7th speaker delivering this address which focuses on
a relatively small but important period of our history, it is
difficult to present a new perspective on the early history of
the Australian Navy. Even more difficult is to provide a fresh
perspective on the key architects who helped establish Australia's
Navy and in particular on Vice Admiral William Rooke Creswell.
Given the thorough coverage provided by the speakers over the
last six years, I thought today that I would spend a little time
on some of the events that led to the formation of the Commonwealth
Naval Forces in 1901 and in particular place those events into
the broader context of the journey towards Federation. In doing
so I hope to pay tribute to Creswell, Collins and others by outlining
the challenging environment within which they shaped the development
of our Navy.
Federation as an outcome was of course neither inevitable nor
a smooth process. The motives of all concerned during the lead
up to Federation are continually examined and revised by each
subsequent wave of historians. There is still debate over whether
Federation actually delivered a nation or a simply a slightly
different type of dependency. It is interesting to see how the
issue of naval defence and the role of the RN has been used as
some sort of litmus test over what Federation delivered. If, as
some allege, Australia's continuing dependence on Britain is exemplified
by our dependence on the RN, why did our early statesmen go to
so much effort and expense to craft an independent navy, a pursuit
that was for so long against the Admiralty's wishes.
Defence, and how best to provide it, was an issue of as intense
debate as any other aspect of the day.
In that debate the naval dimension was pre-eminent given the recognition
of the importance of maritime trade and what we would today describe
as the protection of sea lines of communication. The regional
strategic picture in the 1890s, like it is today, was one of great
uncertainty. European imperial powers were active in South East
Asia (France, Netherlands and the Spain) and the South Pacific
(Germany) and both Russian and Japanese naval activity was on
the rise. Britannia still firmly ruled the waves but, whether
this made Australians feel secure at the far flung reaches of
the empire is less certain.
As the RAN's historian David Stevens points out, the waters of
the Pacific and Indian Oceans were viewed by those in Australia
as the waters that would become the scenes of future struggles
for maritime and hence commercial supremacy.
By the time of Federation there had been colonial navies of various
shapes and sizes for 25 years or so. They were of course focused
on local defence and had evolved in a variety of different ways.
Victoria for example had a sizeable force designed to deal with
the defence of Port Philip and its environs whereas New South
Wales tended to rest on the protection of the British warships
based in Sydney and in many ways was largely indifferent to colonial
naval defence. Some of the colonial navy development was spurred
on by the poor state of the Royal Navy's Australian Squadron and
over concerns of a potential war between Britain and Russia in
the late 1870s.
The journey towards a national Navy really starts with the arrival
in Australia in 1884 of Rear Admiral George Tyron, RN, the first
Flag Officer and Commander in Chief of the Australian Station.
His aim, under the guidance of the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir
Astley Cooper Key was to try and increase the load that the colonies
took in providing for their own defence. Tyron's plan was to develop
a squadron of ships that was effectively tied to Australian waters
and largely under colonial control. He did not succeed in achieving
this plan but did raise the level of awareness of the issue of
colonial contribution to naval defence. Among the reasons for
not being able to conclude his plan were concerns regarding the
ability to keep such a squadron efficient and trained and jurisdictional
issues such as the status of the crews in relation to discipline.
The colonies position regarding naval defence at the time was
best summed up following the inter-colonial conference held in
Sydney in 1881. While the need for the provision of coastal and
port defence was conceded, naval defence was seen to have large
imperial interests and therefore 'should continue to be at the
exclusive charge of Imperial Government and that the strength
of the Australian Squadron should be increased'.
The colonial conference of 1887, attended by Alfred Deakin and
Admiral Tyron, resulted in the Australasian Naval Defence Act
and the creation of what was to be known as the Auxiliary Squadron
of five fast cruisers and two torpedo gunboats. The ships were
funded largely by the imperial government, were under the control
of the Commander in Chief of the Australian Station but had to
remain on that station. These ships arrived in Australia in 1891,
a month after the first national Australasian Convention where
Sir Henry Parkes moved a motion that the military and naval defence
of Australasia shall be entrusted to Federal forces, under one
command. Parkes amplified this to mean that the naval officer
in command shall be a federal officer and amenable to the national
government of Australasia. So as early as 1891 it was clear what
Australians felt the form of naval control should look like. Any
impetus to further develop colonial naval forces seemed to wane
through the 1890s, particularly following the economic downturn
The British position throughout this period can be characterised
as expecting the colonies to contribute to their defence through
a system of subsidies to support the operations of the RN. One
Empire, one sea, one fleet was the mantra - In many ways this
simplified the Admiralty's lot, it gave them maximum strategic
flexibility in the stationing of forces and minimised potential
jurisdictional issues with local colonial navies. This view was
reinforced at the 1897 colonial conference and carried forward
into Federation. Defence was a rub point between two ideological
positions that formed prior to and during the early days of federation.
The imperialists, or colonialists, as they were sometimes known
were quite content with this arrangement with the Admiralty, but
to those with more nationalist leanings, subsidies and subordination
of Australia's broader naval defence to the British was a matter
of national pride. It was this group that formed the basis of
those pursuing an Australian owned, built and crewed Naval force.
By federation and the creation of the Commonwealth Naval Forces
on this day 106 years ago, the material state of the former colonial
navies was poor. For the rest of the decade the primary task of
the leadership of the CNF was not operationally focused, particularly
as there was so little capability to actually employ.
The main task facing the leadership was trying to get agreement
on the role of an Australian Navy, deciding on an appropriate
force structure and working out how the fleet would be manned,
trained, controlled and supported. These days we would call this
the raise, train and sustain function. The advantage today of
course is that there is at least an accepted role for the RAN.
For the likes of Creswell, Collins, Clarkson there was not and
for a number of years there was active intervention from the Admiralty
to prevent something like the RAN as we know it even from forming.
In the early days of the CNF the former colonial forces effectively
continued to operate as independent entities. Notwithstanding
the excellent early work of Collins, it was not until the end
of 1904 when Creswell was appointed as the first Director of Naval
Forces that the bureaucratic machinery required to coherently
manage the CNF started to be put in place. When he took up the
position Creswell had extensive experience in both the Royal and
colonial navies. He had served in a number of theatres and seen
active service on the China Station and while conducting anti
slavery operations in Africa. His experience in the colonial navies
positioned him well to deal with government and to be the effective
advocate that he was. He was not seduced by simply trying to acquire
ships and was always conscious of the importance of developing
naval infrastructure so that whatever force was acquired could
With Creswell less than six months into his job, Admiral Togo
crushed the Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima, this event
combined with the increasing tensions between Britain and Germany
led to an important shift in the strategic balance in the Pacific.
There was a serious concern in Australia about this shift, partly
brought about by the White Australia Policy and perceived Japanese
opposition to it, and partly by what some considered was a too
cosy alliance between Britain and Japan which manifested in a
reduction in the number of British ships in the Far East. Creswell
did not waste time in putting forward his first serious proposal
for an Australian squadron. His June 1905 proposal for 3 cruiser
destroyers, sixteen torpedo boat destroyers and thirteen torpedo
boats was ambitious. He reinforced his plan in his first Annual
report to parliament in January 1906. In that document he provided
an excellent articulation of what his proposed force could achieve
and reinforced the economic effects of not having a viable navy.
In Prime Minister Deakin, Creswell had an ally, particularly noting
the strategic circumstances of the day and Deakin's own nationalist
streak which inevitably pushed him towards Creswell's arguments.
According to Bob Birrell in his book Federation: The Secret
Story, one of Deakin's main aims was to increase Australia's
influence in the imperial policy arena. While Deakin believed
in the empire, he saw the role of dominions such as Australia
to be one of equals with Britain particularly when it came to
matters of imperial decision making. Birrell contends that Deakin
saw the issue of an Australian Navy as a bargaining tool to increase
Australian influence in imperial policy making.
After the rise of Japanese sea power the issue of a navy became
something of a rallying point for the nationalist cause and fitted
very neatly into Deakin's 'Australia for the Australians' slogan
of the 1906 election campaign. There was however still some reluctance
in government to fully embrace Creswell's plan and the then Defence
Minister Senator Playford put four searching (and fairly tactical)
questions to Creswell regarding the overall viability of a destroyer
defence plan. It was clear from the nature of the questions that
Playford was more of a continentalist but Creswell clearly convinced
him of the worth of the plan as he sent Creswell to Britain in
1906 to gather more information on the working of torpedo boat
flotillas and to expose the Admiralty and the Committee of Imperial
Defence to his plan. From the reforming First Sea Lord Admiral
Jackie Fisher, Creswell got a receptive ear. Fisher's notion of
organizing the fleet in smaller 'tactical units' was a neat fit
with Creswell's plan. From the Committee of Imperial Defence however
what he got was more like an earful! The committee advised Creswell
that it had not recommended the adoption of any form of local
naval defence. This in concert with opposition from the Colonial
and Foreign Office prevented any forward motion on the issue.
In May 1906 the Committee reported on Creswell's plan for local
defence and concluded 'that the protection of Australian floating
trade…demands for its effective accomplishment requires the closely
concerted action of powerful sea going ships. Localised vessels
of the destroyer type could play no effective part in securing
this object. There is therefore no strategical justification for
the creation at great expense of a local force of destroyers -
a type of vessel designed for totally different uses. Despite
this Creswell modified his original plan several times over the
next three years and in 1908 Prime Minister Deakin set aside 250,000
pounds for harbour and coastal defence.
His successor Andrew Fisher continued with the push towards an
Australian navy and announced a three year scheme based upon the
acquisition of 23 destroyers. Tenders were called for the first
three ships in early 1909.
In 1909 there was what became known as the naval scare when concern
over the rate of German naval modernization reached the level
of general concern in the British parliament. Across the dominions
a wave of patriotic meetings generated appeals for financial assistance
for Britain's Dreadnaught program.
The important thing for Australia's Navy was not the public reaction
to this but how the dreadnaught became the centre piece of what
became known as the 'Fleet Units' which eventually became the
basic unit of force structure of the early RAN.
The key change was the shift in the Admiralty's position in relation
to colonial or dominion naval forces. It is interesting, but not
particularly fruitful, to speculate what the RAN fleet would have
looked like without this shift in attitude. One thing can be sure
is that the dominion government would have continued to have Creswell
making his case. That said Creswell was not convinced that the
'Fleet Unit' was what Australia needed and stuck to his guns continuing
to argue for destroyers and infrastructure although eventually
the fleet unit was accepted.
The huge task of setting up the CNF for the introduction of the
Fleet Unit began which culminated in the arrival of the Fleet
in Sydney on October 4th 1913.
It is critical that we do not romanticise our reflections on the
Creswell did not single handedly create the RAN. He does however
deserve our enduring thanks. I don't believe that his greatest
achievement was the arrival of the fleet in 1913 or the fact that
he spent 14 years in the top job. While these are all remarkable
feats in their own right. For mine his greatest achievement was
ensuring that the early Navy was set up in such a way that it
could be sustained and grown as the strategic situation demanded.
I hope that the Navy League continues to sponsor this event, this
is a story that deserves to be told again and again.
I will leave you with a quote from Prime Minister Joseph Cook
made on the arrival of the Fleet in 1913. His words are as poignant
today as when they were first spoken. He said,
"The Australian Fleet is not merely the embodiment of force.
It is the expression of Australia's resolve to pursue, in freedom,
its national ideals, and to hand down unimpaired and unsullied
the heritage it has received, and which it holds and cherishes
as an inviolable trust".
Thank You. Acknowledgements I have drawn heavily on the following
books in preparing this speech -
· Bob Birrell, Federation: The Secret Story, Duffy and Snellgrove,
· G.L. Macandie, The Genesis of the Royal Australian Navy, Government
Printer, Sydney, 1949.
· I would also like to thank Dr David Stevens from the Sea Power
Centre for his assistance and the range of unpublished material
he provided as background.