The Factors that Led to the Formation of the RAN in 1911
Author : Sub Lieutenant P C Baston, BEng (Hons), RAN
July is the anniversary of HRH King George V granting the title of “Royal” for the Royal Australian Navy and its Permanent Commonwealth Naval Forces and the Royal Australian Naval Reserve in 1911. To celebrate this anniversary the following is reprinted from the April 1992 edition of the Naval Historical Review
The formation of the Royal Australian Navy in 1911 was brought about by many factors over a considerable period. Initially the defence of Australia was the responsibility of the Royal Navy, however with the increasing cost of maintaining and defending the Empire, the British government demanded part of this cost be recovered from the actual colonies to which it was providing protection.
Australian concern for self government and self defence late in the 19th Century led to Federation in 1901, but at that time the new government could not afford to pay for a substantial naval force, and chose to retain protection under the umbrella of the Royal Navy.
The influence of the Director of the Navy, Captain William Rooke Creswell, and the then Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin in the early 1900s led to the push for an Australian Navy. The gathering clouds of war in Europe was the point where the Royal Navy released its grip on the ships of the Australia Squadron, leading to the formation of the Australian Navy. The Royal Navy, however, still maintained military control over its operation.
Captain William Rooke Creswell agitated tirelessly for the establishment of an Australian navy and is recognised as a ‘founding father’ of the RAN
On 10 July 1911, His Majesty, King George V granted approval for the navy to be prefixed ‘Royal’ and autonomy was granted within a framework of treaties with the Empire. In 1913, the renewed Australian Fleet sailed into Sydney Harbour for the first time, which represented the birth of a nation.
Australia’s history is inextricably linked to that of Britain and the Royal Navy (RN). It was an Englishman, Lieutenant James Cook, RN who claimed Australia for Britain in the name of King George III on 22 August 1770. He named the land New South Wales. Undoubtedly, Cook was not the first European to the shores of the great southern land, ‘Terra Australis Incognita’. The Dutch, French and Portuguese had discovered the northern and western coast centuries previously but, being trading nations, were unimpressed with the barren and desolate landscape and turned their attentions to the more profitable East Indies.
With the American Declaration of Independence in 1783, Britain was deprived of a location to send her convicts, and an alternative destination had to be found. The destination selected was the southern land found a decade earlier, New South Wales, and in 1787 the ships comprising the First Fleet set sail. Captain Arthur Phillip, RN was charged with the command of the fleet and also appointed as the Governor of the new colony.
On 26 January 1788, the First Fleet anchored in Port Jackson and put a party ashore at Sydney Cove. That afternoon, the Ensign was hoisted to a volley of muskets signalling the arrival of the first European settlers. The fledgling colony was keenly watched from Britain, and although no naval vessel was permanently assigned, occasional visits from vessels of the East India Squadron reminded the colonists of their heritage and provided them with some token of protection. Britain was at war with France and in 1805, Nelson defeated the combined Spanish and French Fleet at Trafalgar. This victory ensured naval supremacy for Britain which was never threatened for more than 100 years. The token naval presence in Port Jackson was considered ample security for the colony since the British dominated every ocean. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, all presence of the Royal Navy in Australia vanished.
The Australian Station
With the increasing importance of maritime trade and communications to the isolated community, the Admiralty decided to maintain a man-o-war permanently at Sydney. The Australian Station was formed with the arrival of the 26-gun frigate CALLIOPE in 1821. This vessel crossed the Tasman Sea on many occasions to inspect the colonies of New Zealand and was also employed in the charting of Australian waters.
Merchant ships and colonial craft were instrumental in the development of settlement in Australia and the extension of British sovereignty over the entire continent. French ventures off the west coast forced the British to take the remainder of the continent, with a colony being established in Fremantle in 1829. Even so, the colonies grew slowly and the Admiralty found it unnecessary to station more than one frigate in Sydney.
Australian Colonies Act (1850)
By 1850, the population still did not warrant a large naval defence force. Settlement had occurred in other areas of Australia and they demanded statehood and self government. These issues were ratified in 1850 by the Australian Colonies Act which allowed them to establish their own democratic institutions for self government. Victoria, South Australia and Queensland had all achieved self government by 1859. The following year saw significant changes in the British posture. Gold strikes in Victoria and New South Wales started a gold rush and the population rose rapidly. As a consequence, the demand for stronger naval protection increased. By 1853, six small, poorly armed ships were stationed on the Australian Station. Deterioration in British-Russian relations, and the advent of the Crimean War, focused attention on the inadequacy of the ships on the Australian Station. Sightings of Russian ships in the Pacific forced the states to plan for their own coastal defences.
The Australia Squadron
Increasing pressure on the British government forced the Admiralty to agree to increasing the naval assets on the Australian Station. On 25 March 1859, Commodore William Loring, RN hoisted his blue pennant aboard HM frigate IRIS, as Commander-in-Chief, East Indies Squadron and thus the Australian Squadron of the Royal Navy came into being.. However, this did not result in an increased naval presence and the colonists were disappointed. The few ships in the squadron were old and neglected, and the costs of maintenance caused the Squadron to become a naval backwater.
Colonial Naval Defence Act (1865)
Britain was conscious of the increasing cost of the Empire and its defence and hinted that it should be relieved of some of the burden. In 1862 the House of Commons passed a resolution stating, ‘Colonies exercising the right of self government ought to be able to undertake the main responsibility of providing their own internal order and security, and ought to assist in their own external defence’’. This resolution was then enacted in 1865 to be the Colonial Naval Defence Act.
This invitation to establish local forces invoked little response from the states, with only token ships being built. Victoria was the largest builder with a turret ship CERBERUS. Pursuing this idea of user pays, the Admiralty in 1869 proposed to establish a permanent Australian naval force with the states paying half of the cost. This was rejected.
Later, a report published in 1879 based naval policy upon leaving offensive operations to the Australia Squadron, based at Sydney. The protection of maritime trade and inshore defence were to be the responsibility of the state Torpedo boats and gun emplacements, for this were to be manned by Australians. This plan also failed to be accepted.
The proposal of 1869 was revised and again put forward in 1881, and a Royal Commission in the same year supported the proposal, yet it was again rejected. The states, disunited, independently built up their own naval forces, and hence by 1884, five separate naval forces existed for the defence of Australia. Tired and frustrated by the Australian colonies inaction and indecision, the Admiralty appointed Rear Admiral George Tyson, RN as the first Flag Officer commanding the Australia Squadron. His task was to make the states accept responsibility for a greater share in the defence of Australia.
His first attempt was to suggest that the local defence vessels come under the control of the Commander-in-Chief in Australia and that the states all contribute to the cost of construction and maintenance of these vessels. The state governments rejected the idea on the grounds that they would lose control of the port defence vessels for which they were responsible.
A revised scheme in 1885 included the establishment of an Auxiliary Squadron of five 3rd class cruisers. This was also rejected, but the states were agreed that some contribution should be made toward seaward defence. Tyson had achieved part of his objective.
Australian Defence Act (1887)
At the Colonial Conference in London in 1887, discussions were revived on colonial defence, and the Australian Defence Act emerged. This act provided for the existing Australia Squadron to be supplemented by an Auxiliary Squadron as suggested in 1885, but at British expense. For this additional naval protection, the states had agreed to pay five percent of the initial cost plus a yearly subsidy.
The Auxiliary Squadron proved a failure to both parties. The Admiralty was unused to the limited control it had over the Squadron, and the Australian government regarded it as poor value for money, since it provided none of the ‘personal service’ in training Australian seamen. With the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900, two ships from the Australia Squadron, one ship from the Auxiliary Squadron, and the South Australian ship PROTECTOR were loaned to the China Squadron. This was the last straw for the Australians who now thought that Australian men and ships should not be sent to fight for causes of no concern to Australia.
Torpedo Gun Boat HMS Boomerang (EX HMS Whiting). Boomerang was one of seven warships supplied and manned by the Royal Navy as an Auxiliary Squadron for the defence of Australia
The Federation of Australia followed on 1 January 1901 with the combining of all states into the Commonwealth of Australia. On 1 March 1901, all the states passed their naval forces and personnel to the Federal Government, but they were old and neglected. The time for an Australian Navy was not opportune.
At the 1902 Colonial Conference, Australia was represented by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Defence. The most important matters to be discussed were trade and defence, where Australia negotiated a new but less satisfactory naval agreement. The annual contribution was increased and the Admiralty still retained control over the naval units, however three stipulations were made:
- the Australia Squadron was to be increased in tonnage, armament and defence,
- a portion of the Squadron was to be manned by Australian and New Zealand sailors, and
- there should be three ships of a seagoing and fighting quality used to train Australian and New Zealand sailors.
At the time there were three squadrons in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, they were the East Indies Squadron, the China Squadron and the Australia Squadron. The agreement stated that they would all have the duty of mutual support, that is to come to each other’s aid should the Empire be challenged. Additionally, it was agreed that the Australia Squadron would be the force in Australian waters.
It was also noticed that moves were afoot to establish an Australian Navy, but the government considered that the type of navy required would be too costly. The subsidy being paid to the Royal Navy was the best compromise, and this agreement would facilitate the training of Australian sailors to be ready to man any future Australian Navy.
In addition, the Admiralty reviewed the status of the Australia Squadron, and appointed a Vice-Admiral to the command.
Commonwealth Defence Act (1903)
Defence planning floundered until 1904 when the government proclaimed the Commonwealth Defence Act, This act created a post of Naval Officer Commanding Commonwealth Naval Forces. No single person held this post, and later it was renamed Director of Naval Forces.
Prime Minister Alfred Deakin (1903–04, 1905–08 & 1909–10) was an integral political leader who fought for the RAN
Captain William Rooke Creswell was appointed to this post late in 1904. An ex-Royal Navy Lieutenant who emigrated to Australia, he advocated the need for a strong, local, independent naval force manned by Australians. He was to play a major role in the establishment of the Australian Navy, and was promoted Rear Admiral in 1911, and retired a Vice-Admiral in 1922.
In 1903, Barton was replaced by Deakin as Prime Minister. Public opinion was against the new naval agreement, and when Japan defeated the Russian Fleet in 1905, much concern for defence was heard. Deakin, with the support of the Labour Party, pressed for an Australian Navy.
In 1906, Creswell was sent to England to study naval developments. He received sympathy from the First Sea Lord, but no understanding from the Committee on Imperial Defence. Deakin was firm and set aside 250,000 pounds for harbour and coastal defence.
At the Imperial Conference in 1907, the application for an Australian Navy received favourable consideration. In 1908, Deakin was succeeded by Andrew Fisher as Prime Minister, who used the money set aside, and the Colonial Defence Act, to order three torpedo destroyers.
By 1909, the Admiralty was concerned with the German naval build-up, and anticipated war. At a conference on war, Australia offered to pay for the building of a battleship and hoped in return it would be deployed to the South Pacific. This conference was a momentous occasion for both Australia and Canada because the Admiralty finally accepted the concept of separate navies. Compulsory military training of youths was enacted in Australia, and the Australia Squadron became the Australian Navy.
Royal Australian Navy
The destroyers ordered by Fisher reached Australia in 1910, and on 10 July 1911, His Majesty, King George V granted the prefix ‘Royal’ to the Australian Navy. In a reconstituted Naval Board, Creswell was named First Naval Member.
In July 1913, all the Royal Navy establishments in Australia were handed over to the Royal Australian Navy, and on 4 October 1913, the Australian Fleet sailed into Sydney Harbour for the first time. The fleet was composed of the flagship, a battle cruiser AUSTRALIA, the cruisers MELBOURNE, SYDNEY and ENCOUNTER, and the destroyers PARRAMATTA, YARRA and WARREGO. Still under construction was a cruiser BRISBANE, three destroyers, two submarines, a depot ship and a fleet oiler.
This arrival brought to an end the involvement of the Admiralty for the Australia Squadron. It was also a sign of nationhood and provided the means to protect Australia.
From left to right, the battle cruiser HMAS Australia (I) and the Light Cruisers HMAS Melbourne (I) and Sydney (I) dressed overall after the first entry of the Australian Fleet Unit into Sydney Harbour, 4th October 1913.
Factors leading to the formation of the RAN
Australian Factors. The Australian population wanted their own navy from about the 1850s. They were always conscious that the ships of the Australia Squadron could be deployed elsewhere to support the Empire at short notice, hence leaving Australia vulnerable. This was the main reason behind British attempts to unite the Australian naval forces in the 1860’s through to Federation. The formation and subsequent failure of the Auxiliary Squadron is proof of these factors. The loan of ships for the Boxer Rebellion brought this sentiment to the fore, as did the ever increasing annual payment for protection. To Australia then,the only benefit was seaward defence in the time of war.
British Factors. The increasing costs of maintaining and defending the Empire forced the British to demand compensation from the colonies. Increased resistance to this compensation was being encountered. The Admiralty wanted to release the ships to the colonies to maintain but wanted to keep the control of them in case of need. Obviously, the colonies saw this and rejected the idea. In 1909 the Admiralty was concerned with the German naval build-up and, anticipating war, focused its attentions to home. This heralded the formation of a navy which was to be manned and maintained by the Commonwealth, and hence the RAN was formed.
External Factors. Several external influences can be identified. In the early years of settlement, the possibility of French incursion led to the settlement of the entire continent and the spread of British sovereignty. During the Crimean War, sightings of Russian ships led to thefear of inadequate naval protection. Later, the war between Russia and Japan renewed the idea of inadequacy and cemented in the minds of Australians the need for our own capable naval defence force.
Australia’s early history is inextricably linked to that of Britain and the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy played a large part in the founding and settlement of Australia, and in the defence and charting of our waters.
As the colony grew and matured into a nation, several factors led to the development of the Royal Australian Navy, least of which was Federation in 1901. For years Australians wanted their own navy to do with as they pleased, to ensure that it would always be ready. In reality, however, they could not afford such a luxury, and had to compromise with an annual payment to the British for which they were protected under the umbrella of Empire. Eventually the cost became too great and fortunately, world events coincided with the push for an independent navy.
The birth of the Royal Australian Navy in 1911 signified the birth of a nation, one which has grown into a formidable, but caring, regional power.
CROWLEY, F K: ‘Modern Australia in Documents 1901-1931’ – Wren Publishing
Dept of Defence: ‘Royal Australian Navy A Brief History’ – Australian Government Publishing Service 1987
Dept of Defence: ‘An Outline of Australian Naval History’ – Australian Government Publishing Service 1976
MILLAR, T B: ‘Australian in Peace and War: 1788-1977’ – ANU Press Canberra 1978