- Goldrick, James, Commodore, RAN
- Early warships, Ship design and development
- RAN Ships
- HMAS AE2
- September 2011 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Notably, a parallel strategy for submarine warfare was adopted by the Netherlands for the Dutch East Indies and their regional fleet in 1939 included no less than twelve of their most modern submarines, while the Americans in the Philippines also maintained a substantial flotilla. In a conflict, the Admiralty assessed that the Australian boats could either be despatched to support the main effort in the South China Sea, or else constitute an independent sea denial force around such focal areas as the approaches to Darwin.
The Australian 1923 submarine program foundered for two reasons. The first was that it was too early. The pair of O class boats which the RAN acquired were also two of the three prototypes for the RN’s post-war patrol submarine fleet. They incorporated many new systems and, although developed in the light of the experience of 1914-18, were fundamentally new designs after a break of nearly a decade. The British themselves generally did not deploy prototype units to foreign stations until they had been properly tested and proven in service and the RAN was not ready nor equipped to deal with the problems that were soon encountered with Oxley and Otway. In fact, the new heavy cruisers Australia and Canberra experienced significant issues with their 8” main armament guns, which were also novel to the RN and RAN, but by their nature such difficulties could much more easily be concealed in peacetime than the engineering defects of the submarines. The British themselves did not despatch any new submarines to the Far East until 1930 when they could deploy in company with their new (and well equipped) depot ship and when most of the prototype problems had been ironed out.
The second was money and the associated problem of force generation. The Australian Navy maintained its plans for the expansion of the submarine flotilla to six boats with a new depot ship until as late as the end of 1928, when a new naval development plan was submitted to the Council of Defence. The RAN, however, came under increasing financial pressure as the Great Depression loomed and distribution of the little money available forced choices and heavy cuts that were in the nature of least unacceptable. From the funds that the Government was willing to allocate, the Australian Navy simply could not afford to maintain both a significant surface force and a submarine capability even if both were essential in providing a balanced contribution to the “Main Fleet to Singapore” strategy. The latter remained relatively expensive to operate and demanding on external resources. It would also take a much larger submarine force than was practicable to generate reasonable numbers of trained personnel. The cruisers, on the other hand, fulfilled the sea control role while also serving as training platforms and sustaining seagoing manpower at reasonably high levels.
In other words, in the extreme economic conditions of the day, the cruisers could preserve a core force in a way that would allow later expansion while still meeting at least one of the fundamental wartime roles of the RAN. In these circumstances, the handover of the two submarines to the Royal Navy represented the best solution. And there was another aspect to the British acceptance of the situation. Under the terms of the London Naval Disarmament Treaty (as it had been for the earlier Washington Treaty), British Empire naval strength was treated as one. With submarine tonnage now limited to 52,700 in total, the RN could not afford to waste it on less than effective units. If the RAN could not afford to operate the two O class submarines properly, they were better off in British hands.
It is true, however, that neither the internal naval debate that preceded the decision to give the submarines to the British nor Australian Cabinet discussion of the issue dealt properly with the consequence that the RAN no longer possessed a significant capacity to contribute to offensive operations in the region and thus make a real contribution to delaying any Japanese advance into the archipelago. In this context, Australian naval planners were almost as guilty of a ‘fortress Australia’ mindset as the Army colleagues whom they criticised because the operational concept of the RAN was thus largely defensive and almost wholly local. It was not emphasised enough by naval authorities that the needs of forward defence that would make Singapore any use at all as a protection for Australia were being neglected – and by Australia, not just Britain. It was true that the minimum trade protection requirements could still be met by the rump of the fleet that remained, but not much more than this would be possible. A small force of cruisers and destroyers might be dispatched to the South China Sea, but its strategic weight (and this was clearly demonstrated in 1941-42) was very limited indeed.