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Sinking of HMAS AUSTRALIA I

In 1922, Australia's first naval flagship, HMAS AUSTRALIA, succumbed to the disarmament requirements outlined in the Washington Naval Treaty. The Australian Government ordered the vessel be scuttled. Intense protestations were communicated from various fronts. Senator Newland of South Australia called it an 'act of desecration' and one Australian serviceman claimed, 'we, as a people, must be cursed with a total lack of imagination!' Despite these objections, some from within the Royal Australian Navy agreed with the decision. Commodore J S Dumaresq noted in 1920 that the vessel had deteriorated so badly it was essentially 'crippled'.

In January 1924, AUSTRALIA was sold by the government for £3,000 to Messers G C Wright and Kent Hughes who were acting on behalf of a group of Melbourne investors known as the 'Sorrento Syndicate'. The battle cruiser was then interned at Garden Island in Sydney to be dismantled.

On 11 April 1924, naval ratings visited the vessel to pay their respects before it was towed to its final resting place, some 37 kilometres off Sydney Heads. One declared, 'I simply had to have a look at my old ship'. The ship would have been barely recognisable, as it had been completely gutted during the previous three months. The original Australian flag and White Ensign which was first hoisted 11 years previously was all that was left. More than 200 tokens of appreciation were received before the flagship departed Garden Island.

On the morning of 12 April, towed by the tugs HEROIC, HEROINE, CHAMPION and ST OLAVES, AUSTRALIA took more than six hours to reach the place of its sinking. Other vessels present at the sinking included HMA Ships BRISBANE, MELBOURNE, ADELAIDE, ANZAC and STALWART, along with HM Ships DELHI, DANAE, DAUNTLESS and DRAGON. Fifteen crew members were specially chosen to stay on board AUSTRALIA as the 'sinking party' and three of those stayed on board to ensure the demolition charges were set off and the seacocks opened.

At 2:31pm, the three remaining officers, Captain A G Craufurd, RN, Engineer Commander P E McNeil, RAN, and Commander R C Garsia, RAN sent the final message before departing the vessel, 'Everything is open'. As the charges were detonated and the seacocks were opened, the water rushed into the hull and AUSTRALIA listed to port. After completely turning over, the battle cruiser finally slipped beneath the surface of the water. A gun salute from the naval vessels ensued, while the spectator ferries chimed in with their horns.

Reports of the flagship's demise are dramatic and demonstrate how the vessel illustrated through the media. The 'Sydney Morning Herald' described that AUSTRALIA had:

'... imported a national, almost personal, sense of loss as of the passing of a well-loved heroic soul. The AUSTRALIA was well named - she did in very truth ... represent this Australian people ... she helped us largely to our nationhood. If that nationhood was born at Anzac, it was christened when the ship that bore its name patrolled the waters of the world and bore so well the heat and burden of the war.'
['Sydney Morning Herald', 12 Apr 1924, p 16]

In March 2007 the deepest ever remote operated shipwreck survey was undertaken some 50 kilometres off Sydney. The survey was a joint venture between the Royal Australian Navy, Defence Maritime Services and the Heritage Office, NSW Department of Planning. The visiting US Navy submersible CURV descended 380 metres down to the 180-metre long, 19,000 ton shipwreck - the largest in Australian waters. The site is protected under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act (1976).