Australian Commonwealth Navy - R.A.N. Centenary 1901 - 2001

Inaugural Australian Navy Foundation Day Creswell oration - CDRE Jim Dickson.
(revised September 2004)

Australian Commonwealth Navy - From 1901

Historical Summary

Australian 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.

New South Wales
South Australia

The 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 year, 1901.
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) was born.
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 :

(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 .

On 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.

Name Class State Tonnage Launched/Paid off
Cerberus Ironclad Monitor Victoria 3340 1868-1924
Protector Cruiser Sth Aust 960 1884-1924
Gayundah Gunboat Q'land 360 1884-1918
Paluma Gunboat Q'land 360 1884-1916
Countess of Hopetoun 1st Class torpedo boat Victoria 75 1891-1924
Childers 1st Class torpedo boat Victoria 65 1884-1918
Nepean 2nd Class torpedo boat Victoria 12.5 1884-1911
Lonsdale 2nd Class torpedo boat Victoria 12.5 1884-1911
Gordon 2nd Class torpedo boat Victoria 12.5 1884-1914
No1 (ex Tasmania) 2nd Class torpedo boat South Australia 12.5 1884-1917
Mosquito 2nd Class torpedo boat Queensland 12.5 1884-1910
Midge Picket boat Queensland 11 1888-1914
Acheron 2nd Class torpedo boat NSW 16 1879-1902
Avernus 2nd Class torpedo boat NSW 16 1879-1902

This 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 Navy.
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 Department.
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"
A Commonwealth 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 Member.
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 Australia's Navy.
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 years later.
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 flown with pride for 56 years, and raised its own Australian Naval Ensign, the fourth ensign used by the Australian Navy.

Edited by CMDR John M Wilkins RFD* RANR
Copyright John Wilkins September 2001


Inaugural Address by Commodore Jim Dickson AM RAN Ret'd 20 September 2001

(c) Copyright J. Dickson AM September 2001

It 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 be included:
· 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 embryo fleet
· 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 Navy.
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 naval history.
In 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 in 1901?
Not much.
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 contingency.
Our founding fathers were very mindful of their responsibilities concerning defence.
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.
Prime 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, was born.
In 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.
In 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 them.
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 Navy.
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.
In 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.
Commonwealth 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 officer.
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 policy.
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.
Photos 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 and disappearing.
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 was.
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 soon thereafter.
Of 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 roots.
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)









































































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