- Cowman, Ian, Dr
- History - general, Biographies and personal histories
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 1996 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
From that ministerial point of view the facts of the case were simple. The behaviour of Hughes-Onslow alone had reduced the Board of the Navy to ‘a state of paralysis‘. Though the Minister attempted to secure a compromise Hughes-Onslow stated he would be unable to return to duty unless certain conditions were met. It was therefore suggested that Hughes-Onslow resign. He refused and was then dismissed. But this simplistic version of the events hid a more complicated pattern, one that involved not simply one personality or even a number of personalities, but one that encompassed the very administration of the Naval Board, its operating and administrative procedures, as well as the nature and formulation of Australian naval strategy itself.
Naval Board Administration
Indeed the seeds of the dispute had been gestating for some time, and they had first been sown at the inception of the Australian Naval Board, indeed almost from the moment the proposal setting it up had first been framed. On 24 May 1910 Cabinet had made a decision to seek the advice of a British expert about succeeding stages in the creation of an independent Royal Australian Navy. Initially the Secretary of Defence, Senator Pearce had come up with three names: Sir Lewis Beaumont, Sir Edward Seymour, and S.G. Noel6 Instead the choice fell upon the recently retired Admiral Sir Reginald Henderson.7 Henderson had never held a sea going command, but significantly had spent the last ten years of his active service life controlling dockyards and reserves. His brief was to investigate likely locations for naval bases and training facilities.
Admiral Lord Fisher strongly recommended him as did the new First Sea Lord Admiral Sir A.K. Wilson.8 He was also known to Creswell, Australia’s leading naval figure and future Chief of Naval Staff. In 1869 Creswell, as a young midshipman, had served with Henderson as a Lieutenant in H.M.S. Phoebe during the world cruise of Admiral Hornby’s flying squadron.9 Henderson and three assistants arrived in Western Australia in August 1910 to begin work, and he submitted his recommendations on 1 March 1911.
Henderson was adamant that any controlling body of the service be outside politics. It was to be composed of senior naval officers and constituted on lines similar to those of the Admiralty. The intention underlying Admiral Henderson’s proposal was that the Naval Board should control the Department – in other words ‘the system must admit of complete parliamentary control and responsibility; but as far as possible control should in practice be restricted to matters of policy and finance and the power of parliament to interfere in matters of detail in the administration of the navy should be reserved for very exceptional circumstances.‘ Normal practice within the Admiralty called for consensus among members of the Board to be first arrived at, with the civilian member of the Board representing Admiralty opinion in Parliament. Henderson was particularly critical of the idea that the Australian Minister of State for Defence be left in control of any proposed organisation. From his position as President of the Board he felt it would be unfortunate if the Minister held dual positions as supreme controller and a duly constituted member; he feared the implied absolutism of that position, for the Board would be reduced to nothing more than an advisory committee. He was equally critical of the idea that Board members be merely department heads. Board members had to be in a position to censure or remove any head who might naturally be biased in favour of their particular patch. Heads had to be servants of the Board not its master. Henderson felt the best arrangement was a Board of five including a civilian member who would act as a Permanent Secretary, but who would not vote as a member of the Board with the chain of command extending directly down from the Governor General.10
But this was something the Australian Government could never allow. Effectively it meant the Royal Australian Navy would be in the hands of British authorities, and the Government had already worked hard against considerable Admiralty opposition – to create a truly independent force. Unfortunately then the suspicion that developed around the Henderson proposal tarred the rest of his other more sensible suggestions with the same brush of ‘evil intent’. In a move that was obviously designed as a political rather than a military solution, the Minister retained control. Indeed the incumbent, Senator Pearce, insisted the Board’s relationship with the Government must be limited to an advisory role. Politics dictated such an arrangement – ‘it can never be anything else in a Cabinet Government’. Under the full Cabinet system the Minister had to have the right to direct the acts of his department, and that department in turn had to be accountable to him.