- A.N. Other and NHSA Webmaster
- Early warships
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Stalwart I, HMAS Tattoo, HMAS Geranium, HMAS Marguerite, HMAS Anzac I, HMAS Mallow, HMAS Swordsman, HMAS Stuart I, HMAS Tasmania, HMAS Success I
- December 1980 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The Gift Fleet – from the RN to Australia, 1919
WITH THE END OF THE GREAT WAR the Imperial Government found itself with a considerable number of naval vessels on hand and with little possibility of being able to put them all to work. General reductions in both men and ships soon got under way, the bulk of the ships would have to be placed in reserve or sold. Of the ships that had been completed before 1914, the obvious thing was for them to be sold as scrap. Some would be able to be used in subsidiary services, but on the whole it would be prudent to scrap them altogether. Of the ships completed during hostilities, most of them would be retained as they were modern, with the lessons of the war built into them. One other avenue was open to the Imperial Government. It could turn some of the newer ships over to the Colonial and Dominion Governments to build up their naval strengths. This latter course was adopted, the main recipient being the Commonwealth of Australia.
In 1919 a well balanced squadron of three minesweepers, six submarines, one flotilla leader and five destroyers were presented to the Royal Australian Navy in recognition of the assistance given by that service during the Great War. The gift fleet was a mixed lot, but all were seaworthy, and the five destroyers were still not in a completed state at the time of the presentation. They were in fact brand new.
The three minesweepers were units of the Flower class of single screwed ships classified as ‘fleet sweeping vessels’ and were designed to act as sweepers and escort sloops. The three ships allocated to Australia were Mallow, Marguerite and Geranium, three ships that had been sent over to Australian waters to sweep up the mines laid by the raider Wolf.
Although of one basic class, they represented two distinct types and with three schemes of gun armament. The smaller of the two types was known as the Acacia type and was represented in the gift fleet by Mallow. This ship had a standard displacement of 1,200 tons and had been launched in July 1915. Her gun armament on arrival in Australia consisted of a 12 pdr 12 cwt QF gun on the foc’sle and a 3 pounder on a high angle mounting aft. Her speed of 16.5 knots gave her a comfortable margin over the average merchantman of the day, enabling her to act as an escort, and being coal fired meant that she could take on fuel practically anywhere in the world. Her main engine developed 1,800 IHP, with steam supplied by two scotch boilers.
Her sister ships were of the slightly improved Arabis type. There was an increase of 50 tons in the displacement and an increase of 7 feet in the overall length when compared with the Acacia’s, but they were for all intents and purposes the same general class.
Geranium had been launched in November 1915, whilst the third ship of the group, Marguerite, had been launched the same month as Geranium. The armament in this pair was quite different. Geranium carried a QF 4.7 gun, while Marguerite had a BL 4 inch gun. Both mounted two 3 pounder AA guns.
The three ships arrived in Australia in June 1919 and after mine clearance operations paid off in Sydney on 18th October 1919 for transfer to the RAN. The intention was for them to be used as a minesweeping training unit, but this did not eventuate. Geranium and Marguerite commissioned as minesweepers in February and January 1920 respectively, but in the case of Geranium this was only a run of four months. She recommissioned as a surveying vessel on 1st July 1920 and soldiered on in this capacity until finally paid off on 10th October 1927.
Marguerite became a Reserves Training Ship, many of the old system compulsory training reserves saw service in this little ship. She finally paid off on 23rd July 1929, but during her training days she had paid off and recommissioned on many occasions.
The other Flower class sloop, Mallow, saw very little use, and spent a good part of her life at Westernport, Victoria, in reserve. In 1928 she returned to Sydney and lay idle in ‘rotten row’ until the Government decided that she was of no further use. In the latter half of 1932 the three Flowers were sent up to Cockatoo Island, where all useful fittings were removed. In 1935 the three were laid to rest in the ship’s graveyard outside Sydney Heads, two of them being used as gunnery targets.
The six submarines were the infamous ‘J’ boats and were not a very reliable group of ships. They had been hurriedly designed on the strength of faulty intelligence, it being understood that the German Navy had submarines capable of 20 knots on the surface. This was found to be wrong, but not until the ‘J’ boats were well and truly heading towards completion.
To get close to the alleged 20 knots the ships were given three screws by the simple expedient of fitting three instead of two standard submarine diesel engines. This gave the ships a speed on the surface of 19½ knots but they were only armed with 18 inch torpedoes. The class had a nasty habit of snapping propeller shafts. They arrived in Sydney after a very unpleasant delivery voyage in August 1919. After a much needed refit, the flotilla was transferred to Corio Bay, near Geelong, where a submarine base had been opened in the buildings that had been the original RAN College. The arrangement did not last very long and on 22nd July 1922 the flotilla paid off. Declared for disposal in January 1924, four boats (J1, J2, J4 and J5) were sold in February 1924 to the Melbourne Salvage Syndicate and, after stripping, their bare hulls were scuttled outside Barwon Heads, Victoria.
J4 had caused some concern by sinking alongside the wharf at Williamstown while being dismantled, but she was eventually raised and joined her three sisters off Barwon Heads. J3 and J7 were retained slightly longer but in 1926 J3 was sold. Her hull is still visible today as she lies ashore on Swan Island. She is rusting badly but enough of her remains to identify her as a J boat. J7 remained in service until 1929, being used as a floating station at Flinders Naval Depot. Her hull still exists at Hampton, Victoria. She was originally purchased to form a breakwater for the yacht club and in this role she was quite successful. When a marina was built the old hulk was badly rusted and it was near impossible to remove it, so the marina was built over the remains.
The six submarines were not identical in appearance. J1 was built with bridge wings, where as J2, J3, J4 and J5 did not. J7 had a completely different profile to the other five. Her conning tower was built further aft on the casing but her gun was mounted forrard on deck. The other boats had their gun one deck higher, being carried on a platform on the face of the conning tower.
In length of service these ships were quite young when sold. The first five had been all launched at the end of 1915, J7 being launched in February 1917 and had only a couple of years war service. They were handed over to the RAN on the 25th March 1919, so when considering that they paid off in July 1922, their service in the RAN was only a matter of three years and four months. The exception in this case was of course J7 but she did not operate as a submarine for her last seven years. Taken all round, the J Class submarines were not a very spectacular group by any means. They did provide training in submarine warfare for a short time, but were not missed, or regretted, when sold.
The flotilla leader in the gift fleet was ANZAC (1), a unit of the later ‘Marksman’ class of leaders. She was a well liked ship, but was regarded as being somewhat odd by many people. She was our last triple screwed destroyer, the first to mount super-firing guns and the only one with three funnels. Launched in January 1917 and completed three months later, she saw service with the Royal Navy’s 14th Destroyer Flotilla, her half leader being Vampire, which was later to join the RAN. ANZAC headed a flotilla of five Admiralty ‘S’ class destroyers, named Swordsman, Success, Stalwart, Tasmania and Tattoo.
The ‘S’ boats were all building when the war ended and were transferred to the RAN on completion. They never commissioned as HM Ships. Although turned over in March and April 1919, the six ships had to remain in the United Kingdom until 1920 when crews could be found to make the delivery voyage out to Australia. The crews were mainly Royal Navy men loaned for a two year commission. Many transferred to the RAN on completion of the two year period and became permanent residents of Australia.
After the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1920, the Australian Squadron settled down to full peace time routine and one of the worst features was the cutting down on manpower. Only three destroyers were kept in full commission, the ‘S’ boats rotating between full commission and reserve fleet status. The depression era had a marked effect on the RAN and the destroyers in particular. One by one the boats were paid off and in 1931 only one, ANZAC, was in commission. In July 1931 she too paid off into reserve, her place as sole destroyer being taken by Tattoo.
With the arrival of Stuart (1) and the four V & W class destroyers in 1933, Tattoo was relegated to training duties and by 1936 she too had reached the end of the line.
ANZAC was sold in August 1935, followed by the five Ss in June 1937. The gift fleet had gone. Little remains today to remind us of this group and our historians have been in the habit of neglecting them for the more famous named ships of the RAN but during their service they made a very commendable contribution to the training and efficiency of the RAN. It is pleasing to note that our destroyer tender of the present time is named Stalwart and that the replacement fleet replenishment ship is to be named Success. It had been stated that it is intended to build a second ship of this type and it is to be hoped that she will be named Swordsman to keep the tradition alive.
The ‘J’ Class submarines were, in their day, comparable with the present Oberon class. They were classed as fleet submarines and were in fact very large boats. With a length of 274 feet, a beam of 23 feet 6 inches and a draught of 14 feet, they were almost as big as our present boats, although the standard surface displacement of 1,260 tons is much smaller than the 2,030 tons of the Oberons. The ‘S’ boats were small ships by destroyer standards, but they were fast and above all they were brand new. The minesweeping sloops were very good, all round ships, but were never utilised to their full capacity. Financial difficulties played a very large part in the break up of the Gift Fleet, unfortunately denying Australia a group of ships that could have been very useful in 1939.