- A.N. Other
- History - general, Ship design and development, Infrastructure and Facilities, Australian Warships
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Yarra I, HMAS Otama, HMAS Australia I, HMAS Parramatta I
- December 2022 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By CMDR Tony Vine RAN Rtd
The River Clyde in Scotland has long been described as the cradle of the British shipbuilding industry and in 1909 it became the foundation stone of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) when the Federal Government ordered its first two ships, HMAS Parramatta (I) and HMAS Yarra (I) from Clyde based shipyards. In fact, four of the first seven vessels ordered for the RAN were constructed on the Clyde. For the next seventy years this thirty-mile waterway, from Glasgow in the east to Greenock in the west, would play an integral part in the composition of Australia’s fleet.
At least 42 commissioned ships of the RAN were constructed by nineteen different shipyards on the Clyde. They ranged in size from the 18,500 ton battle cruiser HMAS Australia (I), right down to the 290 ton tug HMAS Forceful. Thirteen of the ships were constructed specifically for the RAN. The remainder were a mix of Royal Navy (RN) vessels gifted or sold to the Commonwealth, RN owned vessels operated by the RAN, and civilian vessels taken up from trade. A further three Clyde-built ships served in the RAN as non-commissioned auxiliary vessels.
Their careers varied greatly. Some were covered in glory and served our nation for decades, others saw little or no action, but they shared two things. They proudly carried the title ‘His (or Her) Majesty’s Australian Ship’, and they were all Clyde built.
The Clyde starts its journey in South Lanarkshire and finishes in the Firth of Clyde near Gourock some 100 miles (170 km) later. What it lacks in length it makes up in its contribution to British shipbuilding and engineering. For many years its potential was constrained by only being navigable by large ships as far as Port Glasgow. This began to change in the late 1700s with the construction of training walls and dredging, allowing ships to travel as far east as Glasgow itself. It also saw a plethora of shipyards forming along the river.
Clyde Shipyards which completed Ships which served in the RAN
The expansion of shipbuilding was rapid, from only six yards in 1851 to a peak of over 200 during the Great War. The growth of shipbuilding on the Clyde can be attributed to several factors, not the least being that the Clyde had become a centre of excellence with respect to steam technology. James Watt, widely acknowledged as the father of the steam engine, was born on the Clyde and worked in Glasgow for much of his life. By the Great War many of the turbines fitted to British naval vessels were constructed on the Clyde by manufacturers including Yarrow and the US Company Babcock & Wilcox.
Another major factor was the pool of cheap skilled and unskilled labour available in Scotland. In the late 1800s many families were being turned off Highland properties and men were moving to Glasgow in search of work. Many of the jobs in the yards required brawn as much as brains.
The largest and probably the most famous Clyde shipyard was John Brown and Company at Clydebank, which produced famous ships such as the battle cruiser HMS Hood, the battleship HMS Vanguard, and the liners Lusitania, Queen Maryand Queen Elizabeth 2. The company started life as J & G Thompson in 1847 before being taken over by the Sheffield based steelmaker John Brown & Company in 1899.
In terms of tonnage John Brown contributed more than any other yard to the RAN, building Australia (1), HMAS Australia (2), HMAS Canberra (I), HMAS Platypus and HMAS Nizam, for a grand total of about 43,415 tons.
One famous Australian ship built on the Clyde was the light cruiser HMAS Sydney (I). This gallant ship, constructed by the London and Glasgow Engineering Company at Govan in Glasgow, took part in the capture of Rabaul in German New Guinea in September 1914 before despatching the German cruiser SMS Emden off Cocos Keeling Islands the following November. An exceptional effort for a ship which had only commissioned in mid-1913.
Another major contributor to the RAN was the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company at Govan. Commonly known as Fairfields, they built the full gambit of warships from battleships to torpedo boat destroyers. They constructed the first warship ordered for the RAN, Parramatta (I) and prefabricated Parramatta’s sister HMAS Warrego (I), before shipping the vessel as components to Australia where it was assembled at Cockatoo Island. They would later construct the destroyer HMAS Vampire (I) and the N-class destroyers HMAS Napier and HMAS Nestor. The five N-class destroyers, three of them Clyde built, were all owned by the Royal Navy but commissioned into the RAN and manned by Australians.
William Beardmore and Company of Glasgow are probably best known for constructing the Royal Navy’s first aircraft carrier HMS Argus in 1917. This yard, which at its peak employed 30,000 staff, also constructed three RAN vessels which began their lives in the RN. The first two were the destroyers HMAS Tasmania and HMAS Tattoo, which were gifted to Australia in 1920, but spent long periods in reserve until their disposal in the 1930s. The third ship was the heavy cruiser HMAS Shropshire, which was commissioned into the Australian Fleet to replace her sister ship Canberra (I) when she was lost off Savo Island in 1942. Considered a lucky ship, Shropshire earned five battle honours with the RAN in less than three years and survived numerous kamikaze attacks without either being struck or losing a single crew member to enemy action.
The smaller and lesser-known Clyde yards also left their mark on the RAN. Barclay Curle at Whiteinch, Glasgow, contributed the sloops HMAS Mallow and HMAS Moresby whilst the sloops HMAS Geranium and HMAS Margueritewere built at the Greenock and Grangemouth Shipyard at Greenock and the Dunlop Bremner yard at Port Glasgow respectively. These ships, all gifted by Great Britain to Australia in the 1920s, were employed primarily on survey and reservist training duties with only Moresby surviving until WW II.
The shipyard which constructed the largest number of vessels for Australia on the Clyde was Scotts Shipbuilding and Engineering Company1. This medium sized yard constructed all six of Australia’s Oberon-class submarines between 1964 and 1978 as well as the destroyer HMAS Swordsman in 1918.
Scotts also constructed the 2812-ton steamer SS Yunnan in 1934 for the China Navigation Company. In 1941 Yunnanescaped from China to Australia where she served initially as an auxiliary vessel and from September 1944 as HMAS Yunnan. Scotts had a long history of building submarines for the Royal Navy, the Royal Australian Navy and the Chilean navy with 43 submarines of twelve classes being constructed between 1914 and 1978. Many Australian submariners, including the author, had the unique experience of standing by submarines building at Greenock followed by interesting passages back to Australia.
One of the most innovative yards was William Denny and Brothers. This medium sized company was founded in 1840 and survived until 1963. They built a range of vessels including steamships, ferries and naval vessels and were pioneers in the development of ship stabilising systems. The company had its own ship model experiment tank which still exists, albeit as a museum exhibit. Denny’s, as they were commonly known, constructed the destroyers Yarra (I) and HMAS Anzac (I).
Denny’s also constructed the coaster SS Bingera in 1935 for the Australian Steam Navigation Co Ltd for the Queensland coastal trade. She was taken up for war service and commissioned as HMAS Bingera on 5 February 1940 as an ASW patrol vessel and was present during the Japanese midget submarine raid on Sydney Harbour in May 1942. She was returned to her owners in 1946 and survived in service until at least 1971 under various names. In the Great War and during the Second World War no less than 15 Clyde built civilian ships were requisitioned by the RAN and commissioned as naval vessels. Two of these were unique in that they had started their lives during the Great War as RN ships before being sold post war to the civilian trade only to be commissioned again in the 1940s.
The first was HMAS Doomba, completed as the Hunt-class minesweeper HMS Wexford in 1919 at the yard of William Simons at Renfrew. She was sold in 1921 and converted to a passenger ship, SS Doomba. As Doomba she operated on the Australian coast until she was requisitioned by the RAN in 1939 for service as a minehunter and later as an anti-submarine escort.
The second was the tug HMAS St Giles, constructed for the RN at the yard of Ferguson Brothers at Port Glasgow in 1919. Surplus to requirements she was sold into civilian service in 1921 and operated from the Port of Newcastle NSW as a salvage tug. She served in the RAN as a ASW and examination vessel before reverting to salvage work in 1945.
One of the shortest RAN careers belonged to the new passenger ship SS Berrima which was taken up from trade and commissioned as an Armed Merchant Cruiser (AMC) and troop transport at the outbreak of the Great War. Constructed by Caird & Company of Greenock for the Peninsula and Orient (P&O) Line, she transported elements of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force to New Guinea before decommissioning on 20 October 1914 — a RAN career of just sixty-four days. She later served as His Majesty’s Australian Transport (HMAT) Berrima (A35) until she was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1917. This sturdy ship survived the attack, was salvaged, and continued her war under British control.
Two of the hardest working Clyde ships taken up from trade were without doubt the coastal passenger liners HMAS Westralia, built by Harland Wolff Glasgow in 1929, and HMAS Manoora, built at Alex Stephens & Sons, Glasgow in 1935. Both ships were designed for quick conversion for war service and within months of the outbreak of war were commissioned as AMCs, each armed with seven 6–inch (152 mm) guns. By 1942, there was no longer a pressing need for AMCs and the ships, along with the Belfast-built HMAS Kanimbla, were converted to Infantry Landing Ships (LSI) serving with distinction in the South-West Pacific.
There were at least three Clyde built ships which served in the RAN as non-commissioned auxiliary vessels. These include Hankow, which started life as the sailing ship City of Hankow at the yard of Alex Stephens in 1869, serving the RAN as a coal hulk from 1913 until she was expended as a target in 1932. An even less glorious career was that of the Paisley built SS Upolu. Upolu was chartered by the RAN in August 1914 to be the Depot Ship for the submarines HMAS AE1 and HMAS AE2. She was an abject failure in this role, barely able to make 10 knots and mechanically unreliable. She was returned to her owners in December 1914. The third ship was the tanker RFA Bishopdale which served in the RAN from 1942-1945. This well designed and sound ship, constructed at Greenock by Lithgows in 1937, survived a mine strike, a collision and a kamikaze attack, remaining in service with the RN until 1959.
The only survivors of the 15 ships taken up from trade are the former Pilot Steamer ex-HMAS John Oxley and the tug ex-HMAS Forceful. John Oxley was constructed by Bow McLachlan of Paisley, Glasgow and commissioned as an examination vessel in 1943. She is now under restoration and is part of the Sydney Heritage Fleet. Forceful was built by Alexander Stephens and served pre-war with the Queensland Tug Company. She is now on display at the Queensland Maritime Museum.
The last built and the last of the Clyde ships to serve in the RAN was the submarine HMAS Otama. Otamacommissioned at the Custom House Quay wharf at Greenock, in the presence of her launching lady HRH Princess Anne, on 27 April 1978. Otama remained in commission until 15 December 2000 having made numerous intelligence-gathering patrols during her twenty-two years of service. At the time of writing, she is languishing in Westernport Bay in Victoria after attempts to preserve her ashore as a museum have been unsuccessful. Her Greenock built sisters HMAS Ovens,HMAS Onslow and components of HMAS Otway (2), have been preserved and they remain a testimony to the skills of the engineers and tradesmen of the Clyde.
Whilst there may never be another Clyde built warship commissioned into the RAN, links with the Clyde remain strong. In 2017 work commenced at the Govan yard of BAE Systems, the site of the now defunct Fairfield Shipbuilding Company, on the British Type 26 Frigate HMS Glasgow. Glasgow is the first of her class, which will ultimately include the nine ships of the RAN’s Hunter-class to be built by BAE Systems Maritime Australia (formerly ASC Shipbuilding) in Adelaide. Once again Australians are on the Clyde, this time BAE Systems (Australia) and ADF civilians working closely with the shipbuilder gaining invaluable knowledge in the construction process.
From the tiny Torpedo Boat Destroyer Parramatta laid down in 1909, through to the Cold War veteran submarine Otama, the shipyards of the Clyde constructed vessels which served our nation well throughout peace and war.
Gillett, R., Warships of the RAN, Doubleday, Aust, 1983.
RAN Ship Histories, RAN official website.
Lind, L., The Silent Service of HMAS Bingera, Naval Historical Society, 1984.
Tony Vine enlisted in the RAN as a 15-year-old Engine Room Artificer Apprentice in 1971. He completed Submarine training in 1977 and was a member of Otama’s commissioning crew. Tony was promoted to Warrant Officer in 1986 and commissioned in 1988. He served on exchange with the Royal Navy and the Canadian Forces and was the Marine Engineering Officer of HMAS Orion and Manoora. Senior appointments included postings as the Director of Submarine Certification, Fleet Marine Engineering Officer and CO Naval HQ – Tasmania. He is the author of two books and for nine years was the navy commentator for the ABC’s Anzac Day broadcast.
1 Scotts Shipbuilding amalgamated with the Lithgow Company of Greenock in 1968 and became Scott Lithgow. To distinguish between the yards they have been treated as separate identities.
|Survives at Queensland Maritime Museum.
|Coal Hulk – Aux Vessel
|ex- HMS Vampire lost in action Indian Ocean.
|ex HMS Mallow
|ex- HMS Silvio.
|ex HMS Shropshire.
|ex HMS Tasmania.
|ex HMS Tattoo.
|Survives at Sydney Heritage Fleet.
|Caird Company Greenock
|ex HMS Anzac.
|ex HMS Marguerite.
|RN Loan, lost in action Mediterranean.
|ex HMS Vendetta.
|Constructed in Glasgow, completed in Australia
|RN 1919-21. Merchant Service 1921-40.
|Fleming & Ferguson
|ex-Merchant Navy – Aux Vessel
|Greenoch & Grangemouth
|Greenoch & Grangemouth
|ex HMS Geranium
|Harland Wolff Glasgow
|Lent to RN 1917-1919 as HMS Platypus.
|Lost in Action Savo Island.
|RN Loan – RFA
|Served with US small ships 1942-44.
|London & Glasgow
|Murdoch & Murray
|RN 1919-25 as St Erthe, Merchant Service as Heros.
|ex RN HMS Penguin
|ex HMS Swordsman
|Museum Ship ANMM
|Casing and fin preserved Holbrook NSW
|Museum Ship WA Maritime Museum
|RN 1919-21 as HMS Wexford. Merchant Service 1925-39