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Australian Navy in WW1 - First To Fight!




At the outbreak of World War One Britain insisted that all Commonwealth Naval Forces be concentrated in the North Sea and nearby waters to protect 'the heart of the empire', and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, claimed that there was no need to keep Battle Cruisers in the Pacific.


This was in accord with Australian Government thinking for, on the 3 August 1914, two days before the outbreak of war was received by Australia, the Australian cabinet had met in Melbourne and, realizing that war was imminent, had offered the Australian Fleet to Britain.




Personnel in the permanent force then totalled 3,800 of whom one quarter were on loan from the Royal Navy. In the reserve there were 493 Adults and another 1153 adults and 3092 cadets under a compulsory training scheme. A total of 4738.


The fleet was commanded during the war in turn by Vice Admiral Patey, Rear Admiral Sir William Packenham, Rear Admiral Arthur Leveson and Rear Admiral Sir Lionel Halsey, HMAS Australia was the flagship throughout the war. The R.A.N.'s proud wartime activities were spread far and wide - the Far East, Mediterranean, East Africa and north Sea.


Fighting ships of the fleet were: Australia (battle cruiser), Sydney, Melbourne, Encounter and Pioneer (light cruisers), Yarra, Parramatta, Warrego (destroyers) and the submarines AE1 and AE2 with the parent ship Protector.


In 1914 Germany had extensive territories in the Pacific - in the Caroline and Marshall Islands, part of the Solomon's, the islands now known as New Britain and New Ireland, German New Guinea and Samoa. It also had a pacific naval squadron and a naval base in Tsingtao, China. Its capital ships included the Cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.


Above: HMAS ENCOUNTER & Sopwith Camel


Before all else, the first task for the R.A.N. was to assist in the seizure of Germany's Pacific colonies. It was timely that Japan entered the war on the side of the Allies in August 1914 and using its powerful navy, occupied some German islands including the Marshalls, Carolines and Marianas.


At the same time the Australian and New Zealand naval forces seized the German territory in New Guinea and the Bismarck, Ellice, New Britain, Samoa and Solomon Islands. German New Guinea surrendered with surprisingly little resistance to a combined Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force - ANMEF, which took over communications at Rabaul (New Britain) on 11 September 1914. Rabaul was Germany's Pacific Headquarters and its seizure was of utmost importance. One naval officer, one army medical officer and four sailors were killed in the brief action, the R.A.N's first and indeed Australia's first casualties of the war.


Three days later the R.A.N suffered a bigger loss when the submarine AE1 disappeared with all hands.


During the last week of October 1914 a fleet of ships assembled at Albany in Western Australia, to sail in convoy with a large force of Australian and new Zealand troops for Egypt (the original ANZACS). On 1 November the convoy left King George Sound heading into the Indian Ocean.


The large convoy of 28 Australian and 10 New Zealand transports was protected by 4 big warships - the cruisers Melbourne and Sydney (Australian), Minotaur (Britain) and Ibuki (Japan). There was some apprehension for it was suspected that the German cruisers Konigsberg and Emden would be lurking along the route.



Emden Sinking
Above - Emden defeated, beached and out of the War.


Emden had already achieved a formidable reputation and to date had been responsible for sinking or capturing over 100,000 tons of shipping. In a particularly daring raid whilst disguised as a British merchantman she had slipped into Penang Harbour and calmly destroyed the Russian Cruiser Zemtchug and the French Destroyer Mosquet before escaping to the Indian Ocean.


Britain had sent the word out to all the allied navies "Get Emden!"


As the big convoy steamed northward toward the Middle East and leaving the Cocos Islands to the west, Captain von Muller, ignorant of the convoy's existence was planning a raid on the Cocos Islands to destroy all communications. he anchored Emden off the Cocos and sent a landing party ashore. The alert and alarmed islanders sent out a morse message stating "Strange warship approaching" and repeated it again with the prefix SOS. The message, the last from the Cocos was picked up by the convoy and Sydney was detached at full speed to investigate. She left the convoy at 7:00am and reached the Cocos two hours later. Emden was caught napping with their raiding party still ashore as Sydney closed in.


Von Muller, full of confidence that his battle tried ship could match any in the region prepared for the fight and leaving his raiding party ashore steamed out to confront Sydney. Captain Glossop (Sydney) knew that he had a superior ship and decided to close within 9,500 yards before opening fire. Emden opened fire at 10,500 yards and its 10 4.1" guns firing 38lb shells. The action began at 9:30 and lasted for two hours, Sydney took some direct hits and four sailors were killed and 12 wounded. Emden on the other hand was hit repeatedly by Sydney's eight six inch guns firing 100lb shells and suffered 134 killed and 65 wounded.


Glossop and Von Muller



Von Muller ran Emden aground (pictured above) whilst Sydney sped off to get the German Merchantman Buresk. Sydney caught her and boarded her but it was too late as her crew had already scuttled her. Sydney's victory - the R.A.N's only ship to ship action of the war as a great baptism of fire for the new navy. Australian ships served with distinction across the globe in the Mediterranean, North American station, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Sea, Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and with the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow, and during the war the RAN's strength increased to 5668 permanent and 5772 reserve. Wartime casualties were 15 officers and 156 sailors.


WW1 Flying Ace Robert Little


One Australian of the several hundred that served in the Royal Navy during the war received very little recognition for outstanding heroism. Flight Commander Robert Alexander Little (above) from Hawthorn in Victoria, was awarded the DSO and Bar, DSC and Bar, and the Croix de Guerre for service with the Royal Naval Air Service. He was killed in France in May 1918 after shooting down 47 aircraft. He is, still to this day, Australia's top scoring fighter ace but is unknown to many Australians.