Commonwealth Navy - R.A.N. Centenary
1901 - 2001
Australian Navy Foundation Day Creswell oration - CDRE Jim Dickson.
(revised September 2004)
Commonwealth Navy - From 1901
Commonwealth Navy 1901 - 1911
R.A.N. 1911 -
Federation Historical Summary
(3rd. Revision 27 August 2001)
1870 saw the British Admiralty approve the flying of a British
Blue Ensign by the British Colonial Navies. It comprised the British
Union flag in the Canton (upper part of the flag in the hoist,
the half next to the flagstaff), and it was permitted to deface
this ensign with the Colony's emblem in the fly - in Victoria's
case - the Southern Cross. This ensign was flown from the stern
of the naval vessel. (Note: flags flown from the Jackstaff at
the vessel's bows are referred to as the "Jack"). So for thirty
years Victorian Colonial Navy vessels flew their own Blue ensign
as did other Colonial navies in Australia.
Aside from the local presence of the imperial elements of the
Royal Navy, the Colony of Victoria was a regional leader in the
numbers and types of naval vessels and in 1892 had the largest
'regular' navy strength, outnumbering all other states put together.
economic circumstances in the mid 1890s caused many Australian
colonial naval vessels to be laid up and personnel numbers reduced
Victoria's reduced Naval expenditure still saw her as the foremost
Naval force in the Australian Colonies. Just before Federation
on 6th November 1900, Able Seaman J Hamilton, NSW Marine Light
Infantry, was killed at Tung Chao, China, the first 'Australian'
sailor to die in an overseas expeditionary force. Some six men
died on active service in this campaign . Captain Tickell VCN
was Officer Commanding Victorian Contingent for China which comprised
6 officers and193 crew made up of Seamen, Stokers, Artificers,
Cooks and Stewards. The China Contingent sailed on 8 August in
HM Transport 105 (SS Salamis) from Sydney for Hong Kong but were
destined to return to a different world. HMCS Protector arrived
Sydney two days later but it did not meet the NSW/Vic contingent
on Salamis during the campaign.
The new Commonwealth of Australia was formed on 1st January 1901
and welcomed them home in Sydney on Friday May 3rd 1901, after
having been quarantined with smallpox on board HM Transport 106
(China Steam Navigation Company's Ship SS Chingtu). They were
now part of the new nation's embryo Australian Navy founded on
1st March 1901. The Victorians subsequently arrived in Melbourne
by train on Saturday 4th May 1901. These Reservists from both
brigades were soon to be discharged from service, but the Victorians
had the honour of being inspected by the Duke of York. These 'Boxer
Rebellion' sailors were the Australian Navy's first returned servicemen.
The celebration of our new nation, the Commonwealth of Australia,
was supported by the Russian Cruiser Gromoboi which had arrived
Melbourne on 30th December 1900. Colonial Naval personnel numbers
had fallen over the nine years preceding the opening of the Federation
Only 30% of the numbers listed in 1892 had survived 1890's economic
depression. As the Australian Colonies emerged from its effects
the new Australian 'Commonwealth' Navy embraced the remaining
239 permanent and 1348 Naval Brigade members, Victoria supplying
most of the permanent naval personnel. The early actions of the
new Commonwealth Government saw them appoint the former Secretary
of the Victorian Colonial Defence Department, Captain R Muirhead
Collins RN, as the new Australian Commonwealth Secretary for Defence.
He joined the Parliament's new Commonwealth Defence Minister,
Sir John Forrest, both having been appointed in accordance with
the new Australian Constitution.
The new constitution empowered the Federal Government to 'make
laws with respect to the naval and military defence of the Commonwealth'
and as a consequence Australia's new Governor-General, the Earl
of Hopetoun, constitutionally Australia's Commander-in-Chief of
the Naval & Military Forces of the Commonwealth, transferred all
Naval and Military forces from each of the ex Colonial, but now
Australian States, to the Commonwealth. This event was the subject
of an Order-in-Council in the Commonwealth Gazette on 1st March
1901. On this day the Australian Commonwealth Naval Force (CNF)
It is interesting to note that for some eight weeks the six States
of the Australian Commonwealth were "armed" States with their
own Naval & Military Defence forces which situation was completely
changed when they were all Constitutionally transferred to the
Commonwealth of Australia on the date of this Order.
Defence Departments of the States were thus transferred to the
Commonwealth in accordance with the following :
PROCLAMATION TRANSFERRING THE DEPARTMENTS OF NAVAL AND MILITARY
DEFENCE TO THE COMMONWEALTH.
(Commonwealth Gazette, 20th February, 1901, p. 21.)
By His ExceIlency the Right Honorable the Earl of Hopetoun, a
Member of His Majesty's Most Honorable Privy Council, Knight of
the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Knight Grand
Cross of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint
George, Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order, Governor-General
and Commander-in-Chief of the Commonwealth of Australia.
WHEREAS by section sixty-nine of the Commonwealth of Australia
Constitution Act it is provided that, on a date or dates to be
proclaimed by the Governor-General after the establishment of
the Commonwealth, the following Departments of the Public :Service
in each State shall become transferred to the Commonwealth: Posts,
Telegraphs, and Telephones; Naval and Military Defence; Lighthouses,
Lightships, Beacons, and Buoys; Quarantine: Now, therefore, I
do hereby proclaim that on the first day of March, One thousand
nine hundred and one, the Departments of Naval and Military
Defence in each State shall become, transferred to the Commonwealth.
Given under my Hand and Seal, at Sydney, this nineteenth day of
February, in the year of our Lord One thousand nine hundred and
one, and in the first year of His Majesty's reign.
By His Excellency's Command .
EDMUND BARTON .
GOD SAVE THE KING ! "
the same day the Commonwealth Government transferred Posts & Telegraphs,
and Telephones, indicating that within the first eight weeks of
Federation they were moving to establish their priorities - one
being defence. The new State Government's from the date of Federation,
1st January 1901, had had their own Naval & Military Defence Forces
and these were now legally handed over to the Federal Government.
In the case of the Naval Forces this comprised 14 vessels plus
personnel: - 6 from Victoria, - 4 from Queensland, - 2 from South
Australia (one ex Tasmania) - 2 from New South Wales.
Class torpedo boat
Class torpedo boat
Class torpedo boat
Class torpedo boat
Class torpedo boat
Class torpedo boat
Class torpedo boat
Class torpedo boat
2nd Class torpedo boat
new Australian Navy fleet was of immediate concern as nine of
the fourteen vessels were built in 1884 .
Captain Creswell, still Commandant of the Queensland based flotilla
of the Australian Navy, worked with Prime Minister Edmund Barton
to plan for the future. The new Commonwealth of Australia was
slowly building up its financial reserves awaiting expiry of the
ten year Federation agreement with the States for the States to
retain Customs and excise for that period.
The ex colonial warships handed over were 17 or more years old
at Federation and the ultimate useful life of the various vessels
is seen in the above list.
The Australian Commonwealth Navy phased out two in 1911, the balance
serving the renamed Royal Australian Navy (RAN) for various periods
before starting to decommission them in 1916, 1917 and 1918. It
is clear that whilst Australia progressively obtained other capital
ships to improve Australia's naval defence capability these original
warships provided the core for our Australian Navy's beginning.
They were usefully employed in many different roles in support
of the expanding Australian navy and remained part of the Australian
Navy/RAN fleet for the next 23 years until the last of the original
Federation fleet was paid off in 1924. These last few were the
Protector, Cerberus and Countess of Hopetoun which lasted until
1924, although by this time their usefulness was very restricted.
The ACN/RAN, over time, replaced them with modern fighting ships.
It must be acknowledged that naval vessels acquired by the several
Australian colonies in the 19th century, were modern ships of
their day and as time passed they were improved and replaced with
better designs. There is concern that the casual historic recognition
accorded the embryo Australian Navy of 1901 and the political
turmoil introduced by federation tended to gloss over the important
role these vessels played in founding our great Australian navy
of today. They were undoubtedly an aging fleet, some barely useful,
like those from
NSW, but they nevertheless were the beginning of our Australian
Whilst we properly celebrate the anniversary of the renaming of
the Australian Navy "Royal Australian Navy (RAN)" it is
well to remember that our navy did not miraculously appear on
the horizon in 1911 just because we changed its name by adding
'Royal' to it. We need to remember that if, and when, a republic
ever comes about the title 'Royal' will be no longer apply whereas
the true Federation beginnings of our navy from 1901 will.
At Federation Victoria also handed over the Williamstown Naval
Training Depot complete with its Williamstown graving dock and
Swan Island , the defence training island at the southern end
of Port Phillip Bay.
Williamstown served the Australian Commonwealth Navy (ACN), later
renamed Royal Australian Navy (RAN), as its Australian Navy Training
Depot for the first nineteen years until Flinders Naval Depot
was built in 1920. The Navy training function was then transferred
from Williamstown to the new Flinders Naval Base (FNB) at Westernport
when accommodation and training facilities were sufficiently advanced
to warrant occupation.
In 1921 it became Flinders Naval Depot (FND), the name 'Cerberus'
being transferred from the old Williamstown Training Depot to
FND. Melbourne, Victoria, as Australia's first Federal Capital
was the home of nearly all Federal Government departments in the
first twenty six years of Federation with the Minister and Naval
Board remaining in Melbourne at Victoria Barracks until 1960s.
With the colonies now federated into a Commonwealth and the Australian
Commonwealth Navy (ACN) formed the next item was the national
flag and an Australian Navy ensign. With the advent of Federation
and the formation of the Australian Commonwealth the Colonies
ceased to exist and the previous 1870 Admiralty permission to
fly a blue naval ensign appears to have lapsed leaving the new
Australian Commonwealth, its
States and its Navy without a national flag or naval ensign. This
situation lasted for the next eight months until on 3rd September
1901, the first Australian National Flag was chosen from a national
competition attracting 30,000 entries. Prime Minister Edmund Barton
made the selection and immediately had it flown from the flag
pole atop the Exhibition Building. From 3rd September 1901 this
new national flag became the Australian Commonwealth Navy's new
Ensign to be flown by Australian naval vessels, its use being
restricted to Federal Government bodies only. This is similar
to the United States of America whose national flag is also proudly
flown as their naval ensign.
The Australian Commonwealth Navy continued flying the Australian
Blue Ensign for next ten years up until July 1911, including one
amendment in 1909 when the Federation six pointed star was changed
to seven points adding Federal Territories to the six States.
During the Federation's two formative years to 1903 Alfred Deakin
(later a High Court Judge) became known as "…the greatest political
champion of Australian Naval defence" as Federal Parliament conducted
their inaugural meetings in Victoria's State Parliament House
sorting out the way ahead whilst the ex-Colonial CNF fleet units
waited for the outcome of their deliberations in their home ports
under existing commandants now nominally reporting to the Australian
Ministry for Defence. This waiting period was subject to the good
will of the various States who maintained a caretaker watch over
their local fleets.
Alfred Deakin wrote in 1903 "The idea of an . . . . Australian
navy manned by colonial sailors and under our own executive direction
has been assiduously preached of late and . . .it has 'caught
on' with the masses."
On 28th September 1901, Captain William Creswell submitted his
historic report on Australian Sea Defence, Commerce and Ports,
but it was early days and it was not given the attention it deserved,
but it was a beginning.
By 20th February 1903 HM the King Edward VII formally approved
the Australian flag, although there was no constitutional requirement
for this to be done as the Australian Commonwealth had the power
to select its own flag, so essentially this was a courtesy action.
The new Commonwealth Defence Act 1903 permitted the formation
of a central Australian Commonwealth Naval Force (ACNF) administration
to oversee its Australian flotilla assembled from the ex colonial
naval fleets. It was formed on 1st March 1904 and replaced the
interim control by State Naval Commandants who had continued in
local command and reported individually to the Commonwealth Defence
By December 1904 Captain Creswell ACN was appointed Director of
Commonwealth Naval Forces (CNF). From this date he was head of
Australia's Navy. In the following month the Australian Commonwealth
Naval Board (ACNB) was formed on 12th.Jan1905, under the Defence
Act 1903-04. Its headquarters remained in Melbourne until 1960s.
Captain Creswell was then appointed a member of the Defence Council
which placed him in a strong position to be able to influence
future development of Australia's Commonwealth Naval Force. Creswell
put the Australian Naval fleet to the test to see how the individual
units performed. From this experience he was able to see what
repairs and refits were necessary and he went on to improve the
sea keeping and operational duty of these vessels. But by 1906
ACNS Cerberus was nearing the end of her operational duty and
was on the point of being allocated for depot duty.
Captain Creswell argued for a more independent Australian Navy
but was opposed by the UK Royal Navy which wanted Australia to
pay towards the maintenance of its own British Naval fleet located
in Australian waters and which would be sufficient to 'protect'
Australia's interests. The British arguments achieved temporary
success when they obtained £200,000 from Australia annually, as
a subsidy for the Australia Station operations of the Royal Navy
fleet, but this did not last. Opposition to this payment mounted
and support for Australia's own fleet and Creswell's propositions
increased. Creswell believed that to rely on the Royal Navy was
to "deny Australia's own responsibilities and of the need to engage
the pride of Australians by giving them a direct role in their
own country's naval defence"
Labor Conference resolved that any money available for defence
should be spent on establishing a local force ' owned and controlled
by the Australian Government' Alfred Deakin wrote in 1903 "The
idea of an Australian navy manned by colonial sailors and under
Australia's executive direction has been assiduously preached
and it 'caught' the public's imagination".
By 1909 the Australian Government bought two new 700 Ton ships
ACNS Yarra and ACNS Parramatta. These ships sailed from England
in 1910 and arrived on 15 November 1910 at their first Australian
port of call was Broome, Western Australia. Here they hauled down
the British White Ensign which they had flown on the journey out
from England and raised their own Australian Blue Ensign as they
were not allowed to fly the UK White Ensign on Australian ships.
It appears that with this action the delivery of the ships was
effected as they made this, their first port of call. On 10th
December Australia's two new naval ships arrived at Williamstown,
Port Phillip, flying Australia's Blue Ensign as their naval ensign,
the end of their journey from England to the Australian Capital
City, Melbourne and the headquarters of the Australian Commonwealth
Naval Board of Administration comprising the Minister for Defence,
Captain Creswell as Director of the Naval Forces and the Finance
In July 1911 Australia received the right, by Royal decree of
H.M. King George V, to fly the Royal Navy's 'White Ensign', introduced
into the Royal Navy in 1864.
From July 1911 the "Australian Commonwealth Navy" was
renamed 'Royal Australian Navy" (RAN) and its Reserves, the Royal
Australian Naval Reserves (RANR).
The ten years from the foundation of the Australian Commonwealth
saw the constant efforts of Deakin, Captain Creswell (later Rear
Admiral) and many other supporters to affect changes in strengthening
By 12th January 1912 construction commenced on a new training
base at Hann's Inlet on Western Port Bay to replace the old, ex
Colonial, Williamstown Naval Training Depot. By 1913 the Federal
Government founded Australia's first Royal Australian Naval College
at Osborne House, North Geelong, Victoria. It remained for two
years before having to relocate to Federal territory at Jervis
Bay when the third intake of cadet midshipmen clearly outgrew
the superb Osborne House site.
The Government was reluctant to spend more on Osborne House and
the decision was taken to occupy the incomplete and developing
site on the Federal territory Jervis Bay site.
On 10th August 1914 the Commonwealth Naval Forces (CNF) were transferred
to the King's Naval Forces for the duration of the Great War (1914-1918).
Osborne House in 1919 became Australia's first Submarine base
for the "J" Class submarines, a gift from the UK.
The following year Flinders Naval 'Base' was opened at Westernport
Bay and in 1921 became Flinders Naval Depot (FND) and had the
alongside depot ship commissioned HMAS Cerberus. This new training
Depot included an interdenominational Chapel located in the joint
use Drill Hall which immediately became Australia's first Naval
Memorial Chapel dedicated to those who had fought and died in
the 1914-1918 war as memorial Plaques were added.
In 1926 memorial stained glass windows were added, and it is noted
that this was before the Melbourne Shrine was completed. These
memorials were later moved into the replacement interdenominational
Chapel built with public donations in 1956 - named St Marks ten
On 7th November 1939 the Australian Commonwealth Naval Force (ACNF)
vessels and personnel and the RAAF were transferred to the King's
Naval & Air Forces at the outbreak of World War 2.
From the foregoing it is clear that the title Commonwealth Naval
Force (CNF); was an ongoing title regardless of the adoption of
the RAN title in 1911.
On 1st March 1967 Australia hauled down the UK White Ensign, jointly
pride for 56 years, and raised its own Australian Naval Ensign,
the fourth ensign used by the Australian Navy.
by CMDR John M Wilkins RFD* RANR
Copyright John Wilkins September 2001
NAVY FOUNDATION DAY ORATION
Inaugural Address by Commodore Jim Dickson AM RAN Ret'd 20 September
(c) Copyright J. Dickson AM September 2001
was a couple of months ago that John Wilkins approached me with
the invitation to deliver what he described as the "inaugural
Australian Navy Foundation Day Oration". I don't think I have
ever been asked to deliver an oration until now. I looked it up.
The concise oxford dictionary defines it as a "formal address
or harangue or discourse especially of ceremonial kind". So stand
by for a harangue which is "a loud or vehement address".
Having done me the honour of inviting me, John Wilkins advised
me of the ground he thought I should cover in the suggested time-frame
of 15 to 20 minutes. The purpose, he said, was to educate the
public about Australian Naval History and the early days, before
and after federation, and he felt the following topics should
the reluctance of some colonies to join in the push for federation
· the horse-trading that went on between those colonies
· the beginnings of the newly formed commonwealth navy and its
· where ships were located in the early days
· who controlled them
· who reported to whom
· the development of the Australian Naval Board
· what happened to the fleet over time
· who were the supporters of our navy and how did it develop over
the first decade to the point where its name was changed to Royal
Australian Navy in 1911.
· what personalities were the driving force behind establishing
our federation navy in the first decade.
And he pointed out that the matter of the introduction of the
Australian flag and the Australian ensign should be included.
For good measure he reminded me that the United States Great White
Fleet visited Melbourne in 1908, and invited me to comment on
how this influenced the development of our own naval policy.
Economy in the use of words is not marked characteristic of the
age we live in - but even if it were I feel I would be battling
to do justice to John Wilkins expectations in the time allotted.
So I have put all these ingredients into a mixing bowl and turned
the beater on to high. I hope what emerges will be a digestible
soupçon which will give you an encapsulated picture of the infancy
of the Australian Navy - an infancy which has to all intents and
purposes been so ignored that the citizens of this marvellous
country, including probably the majority of those who have served
in uniform in the first one hundred years of federation, genuinely
believe that the birth of the Australian Navy was in 1911, the
year King George V consented to it being known as the royal Australian
In the next 20 minutes I will endeavour to give you a summary
of what took place in terms of Australian naval development between
1901 and 1911, identify the key players and briefly speculate
on how it has come about that we have distorted the story of Australia's
the circumstances we enjoy today it is very difficult for us to
picture life in Melbourne in 1901 when federation came about.
My mother was born in 1900 in Beechworth with an eye defect, and
from the age of 3 or 4 she had to come to Melbourne every few
months for treatment. Her siblings envied her and when she returned
home a couple of days later they all wanted to know how many cars
she had seen. Compare that with today and it will give you some
sense of perspective on the magnitude of the change which has
taken place in relation to matters maritime of similar magnitude.
The sea was this fledgling nation's link with the rest of the
world; its highway for trade and commerce; its medium for transporting
commodities, materials, produce, mail, passengers and cargo between
ports within Australia and overseas; its major communication line,
and its protective ring. One hundred years of extraordinary progress,
development and invention including air travel and transport,
computers, satellites and an explosion in communications and weaponry
have seen alternative means introduced for many of these vital
functions - but it is salutary and prudent to be mindful that
even today 96% of our trade is still transported by sea.
Because the sea was such a lifeline for the nation a century ago,
the maritime environment was far better known and understood than
it is today and the navy, its guardian and protector, was appreciated,
respected and supported in a way it is hard for Australians of
today to realise. The sea was the key to international power and
influence. In 1901 it was not in dispute that Britannia ruled
the waves and it was that fact, and the authority and capability
of the Royal Navy which had enabled Britain to reach out, find
, develop, nurture and exploit the potential of the British Empire.
The gold rush, which had seen Melbourne grow from humble beginnings
in 1835 to the nation's principal centre, de facto political capital
and focus for immigration, inevitably attracted elements who were
keen to avail themselves of any opportunity to relieve shipping
of some of the precious cargo it transported to different parts
of the globe.
Port Phillip was busy not only with traders and commercial vessels
but also with scores of vessels bringing settlers and prospectors.
That is why Victoria had the biggest navy comprising 6 ships,
the major unit being HMVS Cerberus, an iron-clad monitor, the
hulk of which now resides as a breakwater at black rock. How it
acquired some of these vessels - and their history - is a fascinating
story in itself but not one John Wilkins bade me to include today.
Notwithstanding the paucity of men-o-war, the navy was the primary
instrument of defence, a fact recognised by both the populace
and, importantly, by those who wielded the power-the politicians.
(how times have changed.).
So, what did Australia have by way of maritime defence assets
New South Wales had 2 decrepit second class torpedo boats. Victoria
had the Cerberus and 5 torpedo boats. South Australia had the
cruiser protector and 1 torpedo boat. Queensland had 2 gun boats,
1 torpedo boat and a picket boat. This was not really surprising.
From the earliest days of settlement Britain had accepted responsibility
for safeguarding the nation's (and thus the British empire's)
interests. The colonial states viewed this with different perspectives
and some states, particularly Victoria, saw the need to make provision
for their own maritime forces which could cope with a localised
Our founding fathers were very mindful of their responsibilities
On 1st March 1901, only 2 months after the proclamation of federation
the Australian Commonwealth Defence Act was passed, transferring
the several colonial naval forces and establishments to the commonwealth.
For practical reasons the states were permitted to administer
the units of the new commonwealth naval force under the previous
colonial state acts and regulations up until february1904 when
the commonwealth was ready to assume full control.
Commonwealth Navy Headquarters were established in Melbourne and
remained here for 61 years. There are some in this audience who
would be aware of this fact, but outside here I doubt that 1%
of the population would know it.
It was partly because Melbourne was Australia's defence headquarters
that this city developed such an affection for the military establishment
overall. For the navy this was particularly so. Visits by fleet
units were frequent and welcome, the reserve prospered, navy uniforms
were seen at all manner of ceremonies and functions and a close
affinity grew between the public and the navy.
This had its spin-off in support for the navy and impact on recruiting
and no-one will ever convince me that the move to Canberra, the
closure of HMAS Lonsdale, the abandonment of the Melbourne Port
Division have not had a very adverse impact on the navy's public
image and its attractiveness to the people of Melbourne.
However, that is another hobby-horse that I won't ride today.
Minister Edmund Barton selected the Australian national flag on
3rd September 1901. Until this time, vessels of the commonwealth
naval forces had flown the naval blue ensign. The ANF was used
as the Ensign from 1901 till 1911, when the Royal Charter was
granted and permission given to fly the UK white ensign. This
situation continued till 1st March 1967.
It was not long before differences in attitude began to emerge
between the federal parliament and Great Britain over the direction
naval affairs should take.
The 1902 colonial conference agreed that 2 Royal Navy cruisers,
HMS Challenger and HMS Psyche, would be manned exclusively by
Australians under RN command. My interpretation from readings
of the history of this period is that Britain was keen to retain
control and was happy as long as Australia developed a navy which
was a microcosm of the RN, whereas even in these early days, there
were those here who wanted Australia to develop an independent
stance. In British eyes Australian branches of the Royal Naval
Reserve (RNR) should be formed. Recruits to the permanent force
would do their new entry training in HMS Psyche and their advanced
training in HMS Challenger before being drafted to ships of the
Commonwealth Naval Forces.
The Commonwealth Defence Act 1903, amending that of 1901, came
into operation on 1st march 1904. From this date Australian commonwealth
naval forces were administered by the commonwealth collectively.
In 1904 the states various naval brigades were disbanded and a
commonwealth naval forces militia, the forerunner of the RAN Reserve,
1905 the 1903 Defence Act was further amended to establish an
Australian naval board of administration with Captain W.R. Creswell
as director. This board provided centralised command and control
of the 12 ageing Australian naval force vessels acquired from
the colonies immediately after federation. The original 14 had
been reduced by 2 as New South Wales' torpedo boats were found
to be in such poor condition that they had been sold off.
Captain Creswell from the outset proved a forceful director. He
proposed a local squadron of three 3000 ton cruiser/destroyers,
16 destroyers and 13 torpedo boats within 5 years, plus the manufacture
of the necessary munitions in Australia. (I like his style!) The
Australian government referred the Creswell proposals to the imperial
committee on defence, who received them less than warmly. Captain
Creswell was not assisted by the division of opinion apparent
within Australia. Some politicians of vision, notably Alfred Deakin
and Andrew Fisher, supported Creswell in his desire to establish
a naval force independent of the royal navy and able to safeguard
the Commonwealth's interests in its own right. Others were happy
to leave the responsibility to the Royal Navy and see the Commonwealth's
meagre economic resources used for the development of matters
other than defence.
It is interesting to note that New South Wales, which had always
enjoyed protection from the Royal Navy, was very happy to continue
to rely on the mother navy.
After a frustrating and fairly fruitless visit to England in 1906
Captain Creswell returned to Australia and in 1907 submitted revised
proposals for a flotilla of 9 first class torpedo boats and 6
submarines. Even this he could not get the Australian government
to agree upon although Prime Minister
Deakin (left blue portrait) put aside sufficient funds to build
the boats if and when parliament finally agreed.
1908 Andrew Fisher (right black portrait) replaced Alfred Deakin
as Prime Minister. Notwithstanding Deakin's provision of money
for the building of torpedo boats, Fisher ordered 2 Australian
destroyers from British ship yards.
Captain Creswell proceeded with administrative and organisational
arrangements to set the Australian Navy on a firm footing: like
his successors down the line he needed the hardware to go with
1908 was the year in which the US Great White Fleet visited Melbourne.
Reports filtering back later made clear the concern America felt
about Australia's state of maritime defence in regard to both
material and the nation's almost total dependence on the Royal
By 1910 Andrew Fisher had come round to supporting Creswell's
modified proposals of 1906 which recommended 19 destroyers. Construction
commenced immediately using some of the money that Alfred Deakin,
when Prime Minister, had set aside. In this year the first 2 destroyers
built in England, Commonwealth Naval ships, CNS Parramatta and
Yarra, arrived in Australia.
the following year His Majesty King George V consented to a submission
proposing that the naval forces of the dominions of Canada and
Australia should have the prefix Royal attached to the official
title of their forces and from this time onwards the force became
known as the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and the vessels known
as Her Majesty's Australian ships (HMAS).
In the same year a universal training scheme was adopted calling
for elementary training for boys under military age followed by
some years of intensive training as adult members of a citizens
naval or army reserve.
Navy Office was established in Lonsdale St., opposite the law
courts in 1911, a four member Australian Commonwealth Naval Board
(ACNB) appointed, and after a decade of difficult groundwork,
the navy gathered steam and started to really make headway.
The now Rear Admiral Creswell was appointed First Naval Member,
a position he was to hold for the next 8 years; the 'recommendations
' of Admiral Henderson RN, sent out from UK to advise on the strategic
infrastructure needed for development of the ran, were acted upon;
and the first steps were taken to establish a royal Australian
Naval College. The imperative for action on matters of defence
was emphasised by mounting concerns over the situation in Europe
where tension between Britain and Germany was increasingly apparent,
and uncertainty over the intentions of Japan.
That Australia moved with increased momentum from 1911 onwards
proved very fortuitous - but it in no way justifies the fact that
the years of frustrating endeavour between 1901 and 1911 have
been virtually banished from the nation's naval history.
The birth and infancy of the nation's navy and the military forces
required input from
many. Men like Edmund Barton (top portrait), John Forrest, George
Reid (lower portrait) and Walter Thring (the latter a Royal
Navy officer of brilliant potential who was cast aside when Jackie
Fisher became first sea lord), all, at times, made contributions
of note, but in my view three men stand out clearly as men of
vision - two of them influential political figures and one a naval
Alfred Deakin and Andrew Fisher, Prime Ministers several times
in the first decade of the Commonwealth, were both very strong
advocates of the development of an independent national defence
capability (i.e. what we now call self-reliance). They differed
in terms of what they saw as the desirable composition of an Australian
Defence Force, but they shared the same strategic concept, displayed
a sound understanding of the need for strong maritime
defence, and it seems to me to be a pity that many of their successors
have had a lesser understanding of the importance of building
and maintaining naval forces capable not only of defending our
trade links and sea lines of communication but capable at the
same time of exerting powerful influence in support of our foreign
William Rooke Creswell, the third of the trio, must have been
a remarkable man. After a promising start to his career in the
RN, where he did quite well for himself financially through 'bounty
money', he left for medical reasons and migrated to Australia
in 1879. At the time of federation he was Naval Commandant in
Queensland and as early as 1899 he had gone on record advocating
the centralising of the States' Naval Brigades under a national
authority. He grew in influence and gave frequent voice to his
opinions in the early years of federation, and this led to him
being appointed in 1905 as the first director of the Australian
Naval Board of Administration.
From this point on he exerted steadily growing influence on all
aspect of the development and growth of the fledgling navy, and
one can only look back with awe and amazement that one man could
survive for 14 years the innumerable changes of political masters
and the bureaucratic in-fighting which must have attended the
nation's early years as the competing factions jostled for a share
of the meagre resources available. Not only did he survive, he
achieved, and by the time he retired in 1919 after 8 years as
the royal Australian Navy's first chief of naval staff he had
set the navy on a very firm course.
and images of Rear Admiral Creswell portray him as severe and
autocratic, about as happy looking as W.G. Grace when 'given
out for a duck', but Australia owes a great deal to this man
who has been seriously under-celebrated by the service to which
he gave so much.
It can hardly be regarded as surprising if Australians do not
generally know that their navy is 100 years old this year. For
the service has been less than vigorous in making this fact known
and I think it is likely that many of those interested in such
matters see this year as its 90th birthday.
How and why has this come about? I suggest there are several reasons.
First, the "silent service" syndrome was a very real factor
in days gone by. The navy took an almost perverse pride in keeping
silent, letting its deeds and people outside the service extol
and advertise it and make known its virtues. It has shed this
custom now, and in a PR driven, materialistic world it is up there
with the rest, promoting itself, communicating what it does, explaining
how it operates and selling itself to the community it serves.
It has to: if it doesn't, it runs the danger of being submarine-like
Secondly, to such an extent was the Australian Navy the
child of the royal navy that it aped its parent unbelievably for
the first half of last century - well into the 1950's. In uniforms,
administrative practices, operational procedures and across the
whole spectrum of naval activity it was almost an exact replica
of its mother service. There was very little singularly Australian
about it before 1911. Believe it or not, this extended even to
the curriculum at the RANC where those of who went through that
institution as 13 year old entries grew up learning naval history
not of the sinking of the Emden or HMAS Sydney's glorious action
against the Bartolomeo Colleoni or the battle of coral sea or
the action in Leyte Gulf, but rather of Nelson's victories in
the battles of Trafalgar, the Nile and Copenhagen. As a teenager
in those days one did not query or question the judgement of one's
superiors in such matters: It is only when one grows up and realises
the opportunities missed that one reflects on how idiotic it all
Thirdly, by the last quarter of the 20th century, with
no WW11 or Korea or confrontation or Vietnam war to keep the services
in the spotlight and with the well intentioned "peaceniks" starting
to influence public attitudes and incline a generation against
support for the defence force, there was a need to take opportunity
to gather publicity wherever one could. This was one factor which
led to the concept of the fleet review in Sydney Harbour in 1986,
billed and put before the public as the 75th anniversary for the
ran. Technically, it was correct in that it was 75 years since
the title royal was conferred on the Australian Navy and it was
a spectacular occasion which few who saw it will ever forget.
Regrettably, however, it had the effect of instilling in the public
mind the belief that the Australian Navy was born in 1911.
There are many other reasons but time constrains me to limiting
my observations to these three principal ones. This belief that
the Australian Navy's history began in 1911, as well as being
inaccurate and misleading, is in my view an insult to those who
laid the foundations of the service from 1901 through 1910 and
fought the bureaucratic battles which enabled the service to play
the significant part it did in world war 1, which broke out so
the navy's effort in that conflict, Billy Hughes (see portrait
left) , the then Prime Minister, was to say that "but for the
navy, the great cities of Australia would have been reduced to
ruins, coastwise shipping sunk and communications with the outside
world cut off".
These were fitting and appropriate words to draw the public's
attention to the contribution the navy made to the 'Great War'.
Though the navy continued to make a major contribution through
the rest of the first 100 years of federation it is difficult
to find other acknowledgments as generous as Billy Hughes'.
What can be done to set the record straight?
The answer begins with those of us here. we must take every opportunity
to right this wrong and to encourage recognition of the fact that
the Australian Navy's true birth date was the same as the army's
- 1st March 1901.
The army is under no illusion - it is proudly celebrating its
centenary this year and we should be doing the same.
In the fullness of time, constitutional change may have an influence.
For I see it as inevitable that Australia will become a republic
in due course and, when we do, the prefix "royal' will inevitably
disappear. Whether that is before 2011 - one hundred years on
from the conferring of that prefix - remains to be seen. I hope
I am there to find out as I hope all of you here in this room
today will also be.
Meanwhile, I congratulate John Wilkins and the Navy League on
achieving what they have today.
Next month in Sydney many Naval personnel past and present will
gather for a programme of activities which includes a fleet review
by the Duke of Edinburgh. I will be interested to see to what
extent the Navy's centenary is acknowledged there. (Ed. Unfortunately
events overtook the Fleet Review it has been cancelled as part
of the world's nations' preparation to act against terrorism).
But it is fitting that the first true celebration of this anniversary
be held here in Melbourne where the Commonwealth Navy has its
I ask you to rise and join with me in a toast to the Navy which
has served this country proudly in its first century of modern
nationhood. (Copyright J Dickson AM)