of Australia’s naval defence would be complete without the role played by
one man who figured so prominently, that of the ‘Father of the Royal
Australian Navy’ - Sir William Rooke Creswell. Born in
Gibraltar in 1852 where it was said the “sight of oaken bulwarks” of the
British fleet seduced him to enter the Royal Navy as a cadet in December
1865; at Laroot River, Penang in 1873 while on the gunboard Midge he
performed gallantly against Chinese pirates and suffered a severe wound. In
September 1878 with the lack of promotion and with his health having been
affected by fever, he retired with the rank of lieutenant and migrated to
Australia. Efforts as a pastoralist in Queensland and Northern Territory
went without much success in spite of Creswell’s determination to succeed.
In 1885 he moved to South Australia and when the lure of the sea became too
great he was appointed first-lieutenant of HMCS Protector in October
of that year. The following year marked the beginning of a silent but
influential campaign to increase the size and deployment of Australia’s
inadequate naval defence force instead of subsidising the support of the
British squadron; not until Federation could the idea of an Australian Navy
be realised. Creswell was appointed commandant of the Queensland Naval
Forces in May 1900, but returned to command his old ship Protector in
the Boxer Rebellion from August 1900 to January 1901, an event that was, as
The Herald described, “the first time a colonial ship of war had ever
been despatched on Imperial service”. Upon his return, he was later
appointed naval adviser to the Minister for Defence enabling Creswell a
direct avenue to advocate the establishment of an Australian Navy and it was
said that “his knowledge of the limits of political possibilities was
unrivalled”. It wasn’t until 1909 at the Imperial Defence Conference that a
firm course of action was adopted; by October 1913, Australia had a
commanding fleet consisting of the battle cruiser HMAS
the light cruisers Melbourne, Sydney and Encounter, the
Yarra and Warrego, and two E-Class submarines AE.1 and
later joined the fleet in September 1915 replacing Encounter.
In 1911, Creswell was knighted and appointed Chief of Naval Staff continuing
in the role until his retirement in 1919 and oversaw the administration of
the navy during WWI. Promoted to vice-admiral in 1922, he died on 20
April 1933 aged 80 after a prolonged illness and was accorded a state funeral.
(above) Sir William
(Image courtesy of the
Australian War Memorial,106183)
ADB Volume 8 1891-1939 (Cl-Gib).
Grant, I., “A Dictionary of Australian
Military History” (1992).
The Argus 21 & 24 April 1933.
The Age 21 & 24 April 1933.
The Herald 21 April 1933.
Reveille 1 December 1938.
AWM “Biographical Cards for the Official
History 1914-18”, AWM140.
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