On 12 April 1924, after being decorated with wreaths and honoured a 21-gun salute, the first flagship of the Royal Australian Navy slipped beneath the surface at Sydney Heads, marking the end of a spectacular career.
92 years later, HMAS Australia’s memory lives on as one of the most important ships in Australian military history.
Construction of the 179-metre long indefatigable-class battle cruiser began in Scotland in 1920. Her motto, “Endeavour”, was chosen in honour of Captain James Cook’s ship.
HMAS Australia arrives in Sydney Harbour [Image: Royal Australian Navy]
With 14 quick-firing guns, four lots of breech-loading guns and side-firing torpedos, the armour-plated HMAS Australia marked our nation’s coming of age. Australia was no longer reliant on British warships for protection.
After the outbreak of World War I, HMAS Australia assisted in capturing New Britain and New Guinea, both German-occupied territories. In 1915, she captured and sank Eleonora Woermann, a German supply liner.
Her missions in the Pacific complete, HMAS Sydney was deployed to the North Sea, patrolling for German invasions. Crew members’ participation in raids on Zeebrugge and Ostend earned them commendations.
Following the end of the war, HMAS Australia became a gunnery and torpedo drill ship in Victoria. HMAS Melbourne took her place as the navy’s flagship.
In 1922, the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty required naval strength to be reduced. Much to the public’s disappointment, the government decided HMAS Australia would be scuttled.
After the removal of valuable materials and items of historical importance, HMAS Australia was scuttled with full military honours.
HMAS Australia is scuttled off Sydney Heads [Image: Royal Australian Navy]
The eulogy from Prime Minister Stanley Bruce showed the nation’s depth of loss.
"In her passing, she symbolises our contribution to the cause of peace. We sacrifice her with a regret rendered poignant by the memory of her great service but tempered with the hope that the world will see the magnitude of our offering ... The passing of Australia closes a glorious chapter in the history of the Australian Navy."
For almost 80 years, HMAS Australia sat hidden in the depths. In 1990, her wreck was found accidentally during a telecommunications survey – but she sat far below commercial diving limits (400 metres) and couldn’t be fully explored.
In 2013, the CSIRO’s Marine National Facility research vessel, Southern Surveyor, captured images of the upside-down but remarkably intact ship, providing the first detailed survey of the wreck.