- A.N. Other and NHSA Webmaster
- Colonial navies
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 1980 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
WITH THE BASING of the Australian Squadron of the Royal Navy in Sydney, the State of New South Wales saw little need to raise a large naval force and turned most of its attention to the military forces. There was, of course, a Naval Brigade, a formation that had been in existence since 1865. The Brigade saw very little sea training and were more proficient as small arms experts than sailors. In times of emergency a variety of Government-owned craft could be commandeered for service and armaments were held in store for that purpose. With the paying off of HMCS Wolverene in 1892 the New South Wales Naval Forces had only two custom built warships, the torpedo-boats Acheron and Avernus. These boats had been built in Sydney in 1879 to a Thornycroft design and in 1901 were classed as being in fair condition.
As regards to the personnel of the NSW Naval Forces, two distinct groups existed. The first was the Naval Brigade equivalent to the Naval Reserve as we know it today. The second group were known as the Naval Artillery Volunteers, or more usually as the NAVs. These men were mainly employed manning the fixed defences and were more akin to the Royal Marine Artillery than the navy proper.
The headquarters of the Naval Forces was located in Fort Macquarie and on that establishment being dismantled at the turn of the century they moved to Rushcutters Bay, taking with them the old wooden drill hall that had been in the old fort enclosure.
In 1901, at the time that Federation came into force, the NSW Naval Forces comprised a total of 48 officers and 561 men and were subdivided in the following manner:
- The Naval Staff: 7 officers and 31 men.
- Naval Brigade: 24 officers and 304 men.
- NAVs: 17 officers and 226 men.
In times of emergency the whole force came under the control of Commander-in-Chief New South Wales and were always shown on the battle plans under the general heading of NSW Military & Naval Forces. In this case the navy was not the senior service and ranked after the army. The various naval groups had definite duties in the battle plans and we find they were divided up into the four main defence areas. The four main sections were Port Jackson, Botany Bay, Newcastle and Wollongong.
Taking each section individually we find that in Port Jackson the Naval Brigade were responsible for the examination anchorage and the improvised torpedo boats. Here we find a very odd situation, the two torpedo-boats Acheron and Avernus were manned by the Naval Artillery. The Naval staff was incorporated into the Port Jackson Section, together with 16 officers and 164 men of the Naval Brigade, plus 12 officers and 151 men of the NAVs. The NAVs were concentrated in the Middle Head Area where they manned a good proportion of the guns in the forts, but they seem to have been given the less modern guns to play with. Evidently the army decided that the breech loading guns were too modern for sailors, and let them look after the muzzle loaders. At Middle Head the NAVs were responsible for manning two 80-pounder RMLs in the Rock Casemate and two 80-pounders at Georges Head Battery. They were also given the flank armament of four 1½-inch Nordenfelt quick firers at the Armoured Casemate and two 1-inch machine guns at Obelisk Bay.
Acheron and Avernus were listed under the heading of ‘Colonial Floating Defences’ and are described as being single screw torpedo boats of 200 IHP and a speed of 16 knots. They were 82’6″ overall, a beam of 10’6″ and a draught of 4 feet. They were armed with dropping gear for torpedoes and were manned by a crew of eleven men. When the bunkers were filled to a maximum capacity of 4 tons of coal the full load displacement was given as 22 tons. The battle plan does not say why the tbs were manned by the NAVs.
In the Botany Bay section the Naval Brigade supplied 2 officers and 38 men, the NAVs 5 officers and 75 men. The naval brigade was again concentrated in the examination anchorage, with the NAVs manning the bulk of the guns in the Bare Island Fort. As far as the army was concerned, all they manned in Bare Island was one 6-inch disappearing gun, the rest of the equipment, comprising one 10-inch RML, one 9-inch RML and two 80-pounder RMLs was manned by the NAVs. The Fire Commander and his staff of four were NAVs. This was one section where the Navy were the senior service. In Botany Bay as well as Port Jackson, the Naval Brigade supplied telephone operators for a good deal of the defended area.
Newcastle and Wollongong
In Newcastle the battle plan allowed for 4 officers and 64 men of the Naval Brigade and in the case of the Wollongong defences there were 2 officers and 38 men of the Brigade. The NAVs were not employed at either of these two ports.
The Naval Brigade were trained as infantry and were armed with light field guns and machine guns on field carriages. They also had a fine band and this combination was in great demand at official functions. The biggest problem that faced the Brigade was the lack of sea training. It had been understood that the Australian Auxiliary Squadron, for which the colonies paid part of the maintenance costs and part of the cost of the construction of the ships, would be used to give training to the local naval forces but the Admiralty had other ideas. They were not particularly interested in Colonial Naval Forces, especially the part time volunteers. In February 1900 the First Lord of the Admiralty made a speech in the House of Commons in which he stated, concerning Colonial Naval Reserves ‘It would be difficult to get a sea-going Reserve for Australia at all.‘ Later years were to prove this line of thinking quite wrong, but at the turn of the century no great stocks were held for Australians as naval men in any shape or form.
In 1900 however, a contingent of naval personnel from Victoria and New South Wales went to China to help put down the Boxer Rebellion. The NSW Section was made up of men from the Naval Brigade and, although they did not see a great deal of actual fighting, they did prove that they were a quite efficient force. During their stay in China the NSW Naval Brigade was issued with some modern pieces of ordnance, 12-pounder ship’s guns on field carriages and 12-pounder naval field guns, and it would be quite probable that these were the most modern weapons used by the Brigade up to that time. In China there was another New South Wales Naval Force that is hard to identify. On the wall of the Dockyard Chapel on Garden Island is a marble plaque commemorating the men of the NSW Naval Brigade who died in China and three members are listed as MLI (Marine Light Infantry). It is thought that the MLI may have been the title used by the band of the NSW Naval Forces and this could be correct.
After 1903 the Naval Artillery Volunteers dropped out of sight, being either transferred to the Garrison Artillery or to the Naval Brigade proper. The Commonwealth Naval Force took over the various state naval forces and so the NSW Naval Brigade lost its identity, and after 1911 became known as the RAN Brigade, along with the brigades from the other states. By 1914 practically all signs of the NSW Naval Forces had gone. The torpedo boats were sold in 1902 and their old boatshed in Torpedo Bay turned over to the Quarantine Service. The RAN Brigade still operated from the old drill hall at Rushcutters Bay, which housed the old brass gun brought back from China after the Rebellion.
Today the NSW Naval Forces are virtually unknown and unremembered, but its part in the development of the RAN cannot be denied. In their own quiet way the Naval Brigade and the NAVs played a very important part in fostering a love for the sea and the naval tradition. They also were very much aware of the need for naval defence of their homeland.