- Book reviewer
- RAN operations, History - WW1, Book reviews, Naval Engagements, Operations and Capabilities
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- RAN Ships
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- March 2014 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
They Sang Like Kangaroos: Australia’s Tinpot Navy in the Great War. By Anthony Delano: Australian Scholarly Press, Melbourne, Dec 2012. rrp $34.95
As his title may suggest, Doctor Delano has written an entertaining book covering the major features of the Australian Navy’s participation in World War I. In fact, it comes from a ballad created by the self-appointed ‘Poet Laureate’ of the Royal Navy, Sir Henry Newbolt, to celebrate the destruction of the German cruiser Emden by HMAS Sydney in November 1914. Delano’s use of part of this doggerel for the book’s title is for theatrical effect, because the series of linked episodes he discusses demonstrates that, despite ignorance in all quarters on the capability of the new Australian Navy at both ends of the Melbourne-London axis, its performance in the war was far from ‘tinpot’, and that it deserves a more balanced consideration.
Working from thorough research, but applying the degree of journalistic licence his experience permits, Delano’s accounts are delivered in ebullient tones. Whether or not Commander Claude Cumberlege, leading three black-painted destroyers through a tropical night into Rabaul Harbour towards a potential confrontation with the German Far East Asiatic Squadron on 11 August 1914, though exactly as the author describes is beside the point. They serve to set the scene which might have turned out to be the first fleet confrontation of World War I, and they are reasonable hypotheses. It isn’t a historian’s history but makes the same points in more colourful terms.
This approach is used by Delano in his accounts of the travails of Admiral Sir George Patey, trying desperately to get to grips with the Germans but being frustrated at every turn by ignorance and wishful thinking in London, but Melbourne doesn’t escape his critical scrutiny either. He carries on this design in outlining the origins of the RAN, the RAN’s involvement in the occupation of German New Guinea, the destruction of Emden, the eventual destruction of her sister ship Königsberg in East Africa, the tedious hunt for German agents and bases throughout Southeast Asia 1915 to 1917, the Australian destroyer flotilla on the Otranto Barrage patrol 1917-1918 and wearisome sojourn of the light cruisers and the battle cruiser HMAS Australia with the Grand Fleet in the North Sea.
Delano also examines the role played by Australian Guy Gaunt, serving in the RN, in the manipulation of American opinion towards war with Germany, and the contribution of sailors from Australia in the famous assault on Zeebrugge in Belgium in 1918. The poor treatment handed out to Acting Commander Thomas Biddlecombe by the Australian Naval Board at the behest of the Admiralty is used to illustrate the power which Whitehall exercised over Australian government agencies. Delano describes the Naval Board as ‘supine’: ’inexperienced and out of its depth’ might be a more apt description, especially of the First Naval Member, Admiral Creswell.
And for those who are unaware that the Royal Australian Navy operated briefly in the Sea of Azov, described by Delano as ‘the world’s biggest puddle‘, at the end of 1918, the author provides a lively account of the expedition to find evidence to support more Allied military assistance to the Don Cossacks fighting Bolshevik forces. Rather curiously, there is also an account of problems of command in the Queensland colonial navy, involving the arrest of the commanding officer of HMQS Gayundah. This incident might have suggested the adjective ‘tinpot’.
There are, however, two points in Delano’s account with which one could take issue. It seems de rigueur for commentators to take one swipe or many at Winston Churchill’s perceived conspiracies to get his way. This makes for good press, but are these charges supported by fact? He made many mistakes, and his failure to unleash Patey and the Australian fleet to chase after the Germans in the Pacific was one of them: for that, after the Battle of Coronel, he had 1,600 British lives on his conscience. But his obsession with making sure the Royal Navy had sufficient strength in the North Sea to defeat any attempt by the German High Seas Fleet to break out of its bases was surely sound policy. And once the German cruisers had been accounted for, was there any point in having an RAN battle cruiser swanning around the Pacific?
Second, it is true that the Admiralty directed the deployment of RAN ships during World War I and senior positions on the upper and lower decks were occupied, predominantly, by British personnel. They clearly believed that the system that had produced the finest navy in the world provided the most appropriate model for the new Australian fleet to follow. The Naval Board might have advised the Australian government to take a more independent stance on these issues, but it simply wasn’t in a position to do so and, in the final analysis, what alternatives did it have to acceding to Admiralty requests and practices? To perform to RN standards was their most devout wish.
Finally, there are some editorial errors and omissions: the book lacks a proper bibliography, there are few maps, and the quality of some of the photographs is less than one would expect. There are some mistakes and typos as well. And I am a great believer in notes – end or foot: either will do – to show what sources an author is citing. It keeps we scribblers honest.
In summary, They Sang like Kangaroos will interest and inform some readers and provoke others to rage. My view is that it is a timely and appropriate addition to the history of a period of Australia’s naval history not well covered in other texts, and which has the potential for exciting interest in and the study of more conventional presentations.
Reviewed by Dr Ian Pfennigwerth