The story of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) starts in 1901, at Federation, with the formation of the Commonwealth Naval Forces. A significant naval expansion program from 1909 -1911 saw the Commonwealth’s forces become the RAN, as the role of the Navy was expanding, post-federation.
The RAN was first deployed in active service in 1914, upon the outbreak of World War One. The RAN’s first assignment was the capture of German occupied New Britain and New Guinea, which it did successfully.
In 1914, the RAN saw its first significant military victory, with HMAS Sydney sinking the German Light Cruiser Emden, near the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean. RAN vessels were also instrumental in the Mediterranean and North Seas at this time.
During World War One 109 RAN soldiers lost their lives, among them 11 Tasmanians. Two ships were lost, the submarines AE1 and AE2. Cyril Lefroy Baker, 21, a telegraphist from Mathinna, Tasmania, “drowned due to the accidental loss of HMAS AE1 at St George's Channel, New Pomerania, Bismarck Archipelago, German New Guinea” on 14 September 1941. The AE1 the RAN’s first submarine, was commissioned in the United Kingdom on 28 February 1914.
Naval activity during World War One saw the establishment of the HMAS Huon Naval Base on Hobart’s Derwent River, and the appointment of a District Naval Officer. The roles of the Base included recruitment and training, and maintenance of the signal station for the possibility of war.
Fifty years later, the base transitioned to become the main support, recruitment and reserve cadet training facility in Tasmania.
Despite the closure of the Base in 1994, Tasmania continues its involvement in the recruitment and training of RAN recruits, in some years providing approximately 10 per cent of new naval recruits.
Following World War One, the actions of the RAN were restricted by the Washington Naval Treaty. The Treaty, which was an agreement between Britain, the United States, Japan, France and Italy, was designed to prevent a naval arms race. HMAS Australia was even ordered to be sunk off Sydney in 1924 due to tonnage restrictions.
The Treaty inevitably fell apart with the outbreak of the World War Two, and the RAN experienced another rapid expansion.
At its peak during World War Two the Royal Australian Navy was the fifth largest navy in the world.
Australia’s largest naval tragedy occurred in November 1941 when HMAS Sydney (II) went missing on a route off the west coast of Australia. Following successful battles in the Mediterranean, HMAS Sydney was returning from a mission escorting troopships to South East Asia when the German Raider, HSK Kormoran, disguised as a Dutch Merchant vessel, shot the ship down leaving none of the 645 members alive. Among the perished were 36 Tasmanians, including Signalmen Terrence Lockard.
For a long time, until 2008 when the ships were recovered, this account of events was disputed, with the only surviving witnesses being crew members of the Kormoran.
World War Two also saw the first domestic attacks in Australia. In May 1942 HMAS Kuttabul was sunk in Sydney Harbour by a Japanese midget submarine, bringing new meaning to the war for Australians as previously distant conflicts were suddenly on their doorstep.
1942 also saw the sinking of HMAS Armidale near Betano Bay, Timor. It was during this incident that Tasmanian Seaman Edward (Teddy) Sheean died during a remarkable act of bravery, shooting down two Japanese aircraft as he went down with the ship.
During World War Two 2 716 RAN service people, including 139 Tasmanians, were lost.
Following the Second World War, and the rising prominence of aviation in military conflicts, the Royal Australian Navy built its first aircraft carrier, HMAS Sydney (III), in 1964.
In 1990, three Australian vessels, HMAS Adelaide, HMAS Darwin, and HMAS Success were employed in the Gulf War. They were instrumental in the enforcement of sanctions against Iraq.
Today, the RAN’s role is largely one of peacekeeping and disaster relief.
On Christmas Eve 1974 Darwin was hit by Cyclone Tracey, one of Australia’s worst ever natural disasters. The Navy was required for its then largest ever peace-time mission: Operation Navy Help Darwin, involving 3 000 people, 13 ships and 11 aircraft. The RAN was responsible for clearing 4 740 houses in the northern suburbs of Darwin, and evacuees were housed on RAN vessels in Sydney and Brisbane. Clearance divers surveyed damage to patrol boats and searched for missing vessels. Aircraft were sent carrying blood transfusion equipment, Red Cross personnel and Navy clearance divers. They were then tasked with evacuating residents. The RAN later played a role surveying the harbour and locating sunken trawlers and other navigational hazards.
Little more than a week after the disaster, the RAN’s services were required in Tasmania, when the Tasman Bridge was hit by a bulk ore carrier, MV Lake Illawarra, and collapsed. 12 people were killed, including five motorists who plunged into the water, and seven of the ship’s crew. The RAN committed 14 divers for a search and recovery mission. With strong river currents, poor visibility and debris still plunging into the water, the divers helped salvage the vehicles and survey the scene.