The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) is hosting an International Fleet Review, to be held in Sydney from 3 to 11 October 2013. This high-profile event, which will showcase ships from some 20 nations, is being held to mark the centenary of the first fleet entry of the fledgling RAN into Sydney in 1913.
The arrival of the Australian Fleet into Sydney Harbour, for October 1913.
Why was the arrival of the RAN’s first fleet important?
The fleet entry of 1913 meant Australia now had a credible ocean-going fleet. The fleet’s arrival signified the final realisation of the recently established RAN. The Minister for Defence, Senator Edward Millen, declared, “Since Captain Cook’s arrival, no more memorable event has happened than the advent of the Australian fleet. As the former marked the birth of Australia, so the latter announces its coming of age.” The fleet entry was indeed a significant achievement, as prior to 1913 Australia had largely relied on Britain’s Royal Navy for its naval defence.
Commemorative medalet : First visit of the Commonwealth Fleet to Sydney, 4 October 1913, front.
Commemorative medalet : First visit of the Commonwealth Fleet to Sydney, 4 October 1913, back
The protection of Australian waters has formed an essential part of the nation’s approach to strategic defence since colonial times. A strong navy was needed not just to deter potential threats by foreign powers, but also to protect the extensive shipping routes and trade centres upon which Australia’s economy depended from pirates and raiders.
This naval defence was paid for by Great Britain. However, since the Napoleonic wars of the early nineteenth century, Britain had been downsizing the Royal Navy – a policy felt particularly in outlying colonies like Australia. With the dangers posed by increasing Russian naval power, demonstrated during the Crimean War, many colonists felt that the naval protection of Australia should be given more priority.
In response to appeals made by Australian colonial ministers in 1859, Britain gave Australia its own permanent Naval Station and Squadron, thereby recognising Australia’s distinct territorial significance and its strategic concerns.
Black full dress tail coat : Lieutenant F O Handfield, Victorian Colonial Navy
Pattern 1858 Naval Rifle: Victorian Volunteer Navy
In an attempt to shoulder some responsibility for their own defence, several colonies had already begun to invest in local infrastructure, raise forces, and obtain their own ships. Ships such as HMCS Victoria, a steam-powered sloop obtained by the Victorian government in 1856, served the colony by providing a measure of coastal defence, and by conducting maritime rescue operations, survey operations, and mail runs. Victoria also served the interests of the British government through logistical support, coastal patrols, civilian evacuation, and even shore bombardment during the New Zealand Wars of the mid-nineteenth century.
Telescope used for navigational purposes by officer aboard HMCS Victoria
However, the British Government wished to discourage the development of colonial navies. It was clear to the British Admiralty that a more effective naval scheme would be for the colonies to contribute money to be put towards maintaining the Royal Navy.
While many colonists argued over how much should be contributed, several of the colonies, particularly Victoria, enthusiastically pursued the building of their own naval defence forces. In 1865, the British government passed the Colonial Naval Defence Act, which at last granted the colonies formal approval to assemble, sustain, and operate ships and personnel for self-defence, and to establish a force of volunteers to form part of the Royal Naval Reserve.
A wood engraving published in 'Engineering' in 1868 of one of the designs for the 'Cerberus'.
Piece of HMCS Protector: Lieutenant J D E Turner, Royal Australian Navy
Sailors of the NSW Naval Brigade during a training exercise, probably on the coast of NSW, c. 1895
However, paying for it all proved more difficult. In 1859 the British government had stationed a small force of Royal Navy warships in Sydney Harbour known as the Australian Squadron. And so, in 1887, in the face of the inability of the colonies to adequately fund and man their own navies, this Australian Squadron was augmented by the Auxiliary Squadron to address the need for a well-maintained and well-trained sea-going navy. These additional Royal Navy vessels were managed by the Commander in Chief of the Australia Station, and could not be redeployed elsewhere without the consent of the colonial government. Although costs were shared between Britain and Australia, this was nevertheless a further step towards the creation of a recognisably Australian navy.