- Cowman, Ian, Dr
- History - general, Biographies and personal histories
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 1996 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
In Australia there was developing paranoia about Japan’s rapidly growing regional naval presence and power. The RAN saw her rather than Germany as the main enemy, so amid predictions that Japan would have as many as twenty seven Dreadnoughts by 1920, war in Australasian waters was expected to be ‘on the grand scale,’ involving full scale invasion or land assault of the Australian continent, together with all the naval backing that might require. Australia was expected to play a major if not central role in any Pacific wide conflict, though it was recognized that this nation alone and unaided could not stem the tide against the full might of Imperial Japan. Rather than concentrating merely on local naval defence it was believed Australian naval forces ought to be part of an Empire wide defence system based on unity, cooperation, and common ends.29 Here heavy reliance was placed on the power of the Royal Navy and its ability to come to the rescue. Under wartime conditions the objective would be command of the sea, but to achieve sea supremacy would require time. The period between the outbreak of hostilities and when command of the sea was affected was seen by Henderson as a window of vulnerability for Australia.
Australian naval forces therefore had to be of sufficient size to prevent an enemy ‘who attempts invasion on a large scale’ from landing or evading them. In addition the immensity of the Australian coastline, its large shipping and coastal trade, its significance from the point of view of overseas cable communications, the vulnerability of ports and shipping to cruiser raids and hostile incursions, all required protection.
Henderson’s programme called for the creation of a fleet of some eight battle cruisers or armoured cruisers, ten light or protected cruisers, eighteen destroyers, twelve submarines, three depot and one repair ship. The Fleet was to be divided into an Eastern and a Western Division and then into squadrons for the heavy ships and flotillas for the lighter vessels. Fremantle and Sydney were to be the two principal bases with Thursday Island and Darwin as secondary bases and Hobart, Brisbane, Albany, Port Lincoln, Cone Bay, and Port Stephens acting as sub-bases. Creswell’s own hand can be seen in this proliferation – their distribution was carefully modelled on political considerations at State level.30 The fact that many of them were destroyer bases also demonstrated a continued commitment to local naval defence.31 As one might have imagined such construction was going to require enormous financial expenditure, the strain of which was to be relieved by extending programme completion across some twenty two years over four main phases. Because the first phase (of seven years) was to be devoted to establishing harbour and docking facilities, training institutions, and the necessary infrastructure to support an estimated personnel strength of some 14,844 men, only a depot ship, three submarines, and six destroyers were planned for between 1913 and 1918.32
The Henderson Scheme Under Fire
Two radically different strategies evolved from the Henderson Report. These might be termed, for want of a better word, the forehand and backhand solutions. One devised by Hughes-Onslow and Commander Thring (Assistant to the First Naval Member),33 supported the idea of an Empire fleet based along a strategic line from Singapore to the Solomon Islands; the other – proposed by Manisty – favoured the trading of space for time by a concentration of naval forces on bases in the southern half of Australia, which would then become the focal points for a reconquest of the ceded territories by fleet units, beginning first in the Indian Ocean from Australia’s westernmost base at Cockburn Sound along the line Fremantle to Colombo, and then in the South Pacific from Sydney and then Auckland.34
From early March to June of 1913 Brigadier General Gordon, then Chief of the Australian General Staff, together with Hughes-Onslow and Thring had visited most of the likely base sites in Northern Australia and Papua New Guinea. The main purpose of the visit was to report on Thursday Island as a fortified base and wireless station, but both the naval men took it upon themselves to place the general strategic considerations of the Henderson Report under scrutiny. Hughes-Onslow’s solution resulted from this investigation of Henderson’s proposals about a new defence infrastructure. The Thring-Onslow scheme considered relinquishing part of the Henderson programme, and in particular the emphasis on the construction of naval bases to the south on both sides of the continent. Instead concentration on a line encompassing Java, Timor, Papua, and Fiji was favoured. Three main fleet bases would be created: one at Bynoe Harbour near Port Darwin, the second in South East Papua and the third in the Solomons.35