23/04/2008 - 22:00

WW1 heroics started early

23/04/2008 - 22:00


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WORLD War I commenced during the first week of August 1914, nearly nine months before an Australian and New Zealand amphibious force landed on an isolated Turkish beach.

WORLD War I commenced during the first week of August 1914, nearly nine months before an Australian and New Zealand amphibious force landed on an isolated Turkish beach.

But did Australians do anything worthwhile and memorable from early August 1914 to late April 1915, when the Gallipoli landing took place?

The ongoing focus upon Gallipoli’s Anzacs can give the impression that nothing of note occurred.

One who has balked at such a perception of those crucial first months is historian, Lieutenant Commander Glen Kerr, RAN.

He has written: “Late 1914 witnessed some notable Australian firsts; the first land operation of the war, the first amphibious landing, the first joint operation, the first coalition operations, the first offshore military expedition planned and co-ordinated by Australia, the first bravery decoration of the war, the first combat casualties of the war, the first RAN warship lost, and the first enemy warship destroyed.”

Also not generally appreciated is the fact that Australia, on the eve of the Great War, boasted a battle cruiser, the HMAS Australia; two new cruisers (with a third under construction); two older cruisers; three destroyers (with three building); two ‘E’ class submarines; and some old colonial warships.

“This force far outmatched that of its local rival, the German East Asiatic Squadron (GEAS) commanded by Vice-Admiral Graf von Spee,” says Kerr.

“In 1914, HMAS Australia was the most powerful warship in the entire Southern Hemisphere.

“Von Spee was aware of the threat, stating in a letter to his wife that the battle cruiser ‘by itself, is an adversary so much stronger than our squadron that one would be bound to avoid it’.”

Germany’s Pacific possessions included New Guinea (Kaiser-Wilhelmsland – Bismarck Archipelago), Northern Solomons, Bougainville, Nauru, Palau, Samoa and Kiaochow-Tsingtau in China.

It’s worth considering that these ‘firsts’ took place when a 4 million-strong new nation became the premier naval power of the Southern Hemisphere and also managed to dispatch, with its New Zealand neighbour, a force to Egypt from Albany’s King George Sound in November 1914 that engaged German-trained Turkish units six months later.

In early August 1914, Britain’s war office asked Australia to seize German colonies in Nauru, New Guinea and the Caroline Islands, because the recently built German Pacific basin wireless station network was passing messages to the threatening China-based GEAS.

The prompt removal of this network by Australia included a joint action with New Zealand and French forces landing on German Western Samoa.

Crucial wireless facilities in previously unheard of places like Herbertshohe and Angaur, in the Palau Islands, were therefore, to use military parlance, neutralised, and largely without loss of Australian lives.

All these joint, and sometimes coalition landing actions, meant that by October 1914 von Spee’s link with headquarters in Germany was broken, thereby ensuring Australia’s safety.

One only need imagine what havoc the GEAS could have inflicted if its wireless links with Berlin had been maintained well into 1915 or even beyond.

The Japanese midget submarine raid on Sydney in May 1942 gives us an insight here.

In other words the GEAS had the potential to threaten at least Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, and Auckland and Wellington.

Australia’s neutralising of the GEAS well before Christmas 1914 was in some ways equivalent to what the 240-strong American submarine force – The Silent Service – did to the Japanese maritime fleet during World War II; that is, annihilated it.

But not all these now largely forgotten but crucial actions against German Pacific communications and refuelling outposts were taken without casualties.

At Bitapaka, near Rabaul, Australians sustained the first combat casualties of the war with the loss of four seamen and an attached army doctor.

Rabaul, just north of Australia, was one of Germany’s major supply stations for the GEAS’s operations in the Pacific and East Asian waters and had two wireless facilities – at Bitapaka and Herbertshohe.

These actions involved the loss of one of Australia’s submarines, AE1, near Rabaul, the first submarine loss of the war.

According to one source: “The AE1 was possibly lost to accident, or to an armed German cutter.

“Mystery still surrounds the tragedy; the wreck and its crew have never been found.” 

The GEAS included the light cruisers Nurnberg and Dresden, cruiser Gneisenau and von Spee’s flagship Scharnhost, making it a major potential threat to both Australia and New Zealand, like Japan’s navy in the Pacific War of 1941-45. 

Furthermore, RAN ships captured several German merchant ships, thereby further neutralising the potentially threatening German presence in both the Indian and Pacific oceans.

HMAS Pioneer captured the steamers Neumunster and Thuringen off Western Australia.

With the GEAS’s southern supply stations and wireless communications network captured, von Spee made a dash for Europe via South America.

According to one source: “On 1 November the fleet was intercepted off the Chilean port of Coronel by a British naval squadron where, having a large advantage in firepower, the encounter ended with a resounding victory for the Germans.”

That victory over the world’s leading navy shows how lethal the Germans were and gives an idea of the damage von Spee could have inflicted in Australian and New Zealand waters had they not struck pre-emptively.

“The British Admiralty reacted swiftly, dispatching a powerful naval force to the South Atlantic to confront the German Squadron, and on 9 December battle commenced some 120 miles south-west of the Falkland Islands,” the source continued.

“Outnumbered, out-gunned and outpaced by the British force, the Battle of the Falkland Islands was over by nightfall.

“Admiral von Spee and the entire complement of his flagship Scharnhorst perished in the icy waters, and with Leipzig, Nurnberg and Gneisenau also sunk.

“The GEAS was routed. 

“Only the Dresden escaped and when she was scuttled in Chilean waters four months later, the German East Asiatic Squadron ceased to exist.”

Australians clearly played a key opening role in this first crucial and victorious turning point of that war. 

In the previous month, November 1914, Australia, or more correctly, the cruiser HMAS Sydney, struck another crucial blow.

While escorting the Anzac convoy from Albany to Egypt, the Sydney was despatched to engage the German light cruiser, Emden, which was raiding the Cocos Island group.

The Emden’s captain, von Muller, had landed a raiding party on one of the islands in a bid to cut the submarine cable linking Australia.

Fortunately the personnel on Cocos managed to radio for help and their message was picked up by the nearby Sydney, which went to their assistance.

Von Muller was forced to beach his battered ship and its support vessel, Buresk, was also scuttled.

Emden had departed its China station with the GEAS to be a raider across the Indian Ocean.

Lt-Col Kerr writes: “The destruction of Emden freed the shipping routes of the Indian Ocean from raiding warships.”

With von Spee’s contemporaneous decision to head for Europe, Australian interests across two of the world’s great oceans were secured until Pearl Harbor was bombed in December 1941.

Strangely, the Japanese navy that attacked Pearl Harbor had assisted Australian and British naval efforts many years previously, during the latter months of 1914.

That assistance included the Japanese ship, Ibuki, alongside HMAS Sydney, escorting the Anzac convoy from Albany to help ensure Australian and New Zealand troops reached British-controlled Egypt safely.

“While the RAN had grown to a strength of over 5,000 personnel and 37 ships during World War I, this paled against the experience of the 421,809 men enlisted in the AIF and its 215,585 casualties (including 61,720 dead),” Kerr says.

“The national psyche and sense of nationhood had firmly shifted from a naval to an army focus.”

Despite that emotional shift, we should not overlook the significance of Australia’s prompt but rarely highlighted Pacific and Indian Ocean military achievements that came ahead of the first Anzac Day on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean.


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