- Periodical, RNZN Navy Today
- History - Between the wars
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2007 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The warships of Commonwealth Navies regularly visit Singapore, berthed alongside the ANZUK wharf to undertake routine maintenance. This wharf was originally the Stores Basin area of HM Naval Base, built before WWII, and which NZ helped to pay for.
By Richard Jackson (Editor of RNZN Navy Today), republished by kind permission of the author
From 1923 until the loss of Singapore in 1942, the ‘Singapore Strategy’ was at the heart of New Zealand’s defence planning. Australia, Malaya and India also depended on the ‘Singapore Strategy,’ Britain’s plan to defend the Empire in the Asia/Pacific area by sending a fleet east to operate from a new, well-defended base at Singapore.
Even though ‘the war to end all wars’ had ended in 1918, a naval arms race between Japan and the United States had begun. Both Japan and the US were building up their fleets, including the most powerful battleships in the world armed with 16” (406 mm) guns.
At that time, Britain had a fleet of 42 Dreadnoughts, but such had been the pace of naval development over the previous 12 years that about half of those ships (including the battlecruiser HMS New Zealand) were already obsolete. The Royal Navy wanted to build its own new class of 16” gunned capital ships (Nelson and Rodney).
When the United States proposed a naval arms conference, Britain readily accepted. The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 was a key milestone in arms control. For New Zealand it was one of the first international conferences at which we were represented in our own right. The outcome of the Washington Conference was that the major navies were constrained to a 5 : 5 : 3 : 1.7 ratio. That is, the US and the UK were allowed approximately 500,000 tons of capital ships each, Japan was limited to 300,000 tons and France and Italy were each set at 170,000 tons. (Germany’s Navy was separately limited by the Treaty of Versailles 1919).
In addition, the Anglo-Japanese alliance (first established in 1902) was allowed to lapse, replaced at the Conference by a Four Power Treaty, which among other things prohibited fortifications in the Pacific Ocean area (not including Hawaii, Singapore or Japan’s home islands) ((This treaty effectively prevented any further fortification of the small naval base at Hong Kong.)).
By the end of the conference it was clear there was only one potential threat to the British Empire – Japan. Both New Zealand and Australia in particular were concerned at that potential threat. So in London the Admiralty began to develop war contingency plans to address the possibility of conflict in the Asia/Pacific region.
It was clear that the Royal Navy would need a well-equipped base somewhere in that region. Hong Kong was considered too small and too vulnerable; Sydney was too far away from the likely areas of operations; similarly for ports in India. Thus the concept of a major fleet base at Singapore – complete with docking and repair facilities – was developed. Inherent in the concept was the idea that invasion of the Federated States of Malaya was unlikely, hence an overland attack on the new base was also unlikely.
By 1923 the concept of the Singapore base was in the public arena and the Dominions were approached for contributions. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Joseph Ward was a supporter of the idea. In Malaya the ruling Sultans were enthusiastic; even the colony of Newfoundland (then not part of Canada) was keen! Australia was cautious, India supportive. After much political debate and policy U-turns in London, the base went ahead. The Singapore colony gave the land for the base; Hong Kong gave funds, while New Zealand committed £1 million pounds over eight years (£125,000 per financial year) from 1928-1936. Australia did not contribute directly, but built up its fleet by ordering two (Kent class) heavy cruisers, HMA Ships Australia and Canberra.
The big debate was over the coastal defences for the new base, whether they were to be aircraft or guns. The British recognised that if war in the Pacific suddenly broke out, it would take up to 42 days for the fleet to reach Singapore (later that period was extended to 70 days, then by 1939 was estimated as 180 days). To protect the base in that period before the fleet arrived, coast defence guns – or RAF bombers – would be needed to fend off an attacking sea-borne force. There was much inter-service rivalry in London over this decision; the newly-established RAF wanted this responsibility; the Navy wanted fixed defences that could not be moved elsewhere.