Australia’s Argonauts: The Remarkable Story of the First Class to enter the Royal Australian Naval College. By Vice Admiral Peter Jones, RAN (Ret.) Echo Books, West Geelong, 2016.
Reviewed by Dr Gregory P. Gilbert
ON 1 February 1913 the first class of students entered the newly established Royal Australian Naval College (RANC) in what was to be one of the most interesting social experiments in our nation’s history. Twenty eight 13-year-old boys had been selected to be schooled in the naval profession, to be turned into uniquely Australian naval officers who could serve alongside their British equivalents with pride. ‘Australia’s Argonauts’ is the story of how these boys developed into young naval officers during World War I and, in many cases, into the naval commanders of World War II. A few survived the war and post-war demobilisation to help establish Australia’s naval policy for much of the second half of the 20th Century.
When these boys were selected many people in Australia and overseas did not believe that young Australians could be moulded into loyal, disciplined and dedicated naval gentlemen. There was a belief that Australian colonials did not have the right stuff, being far too wild to be efficient officers akin to their Royal Navy equivalents. The first class to enter the RANC was to prove the doubters wrong. From the start the 1913 Entry saw themselves as ‘Pioneers’ who were selected from the best of the best across the country, based upon academic and physical abilities rather than class or family connections, and their professional training was as exacting as the training of Royal Navy officers at BRITANNIA Naval College in the UK, if not more so. The Australian Government was committed to see the RANC succeed and ensured that it was suitably funded. The RANC ‘Pioneers’ became the shining example of what Australians could achieve when they put their minds to it and the boys selected on behalf of the nation did not let anyone down.
While the RANC is the link that brings the 1913 class together ‘Australia’s Argonauts’ is very much more than a story about military education and the college. Peter Jones sees people as a fundamental component of the Royal Australian Navy as an institution. By presenting a well-written narrative based upon the interwoven lives of these 28 men, Jones is able to construct a framework that reflects upon the historical events that contributed to the professionalization of the Royal Australian Navy. The result is an absorbing story of people, places and occurrences, spread over fifty years or more, where events pop-up and then fade away revealing information which will inform and indeed inspire the reader. The characters’ lives in the book move in and out of view like individual strands of spaghetti in a ‘spaghetti diagram’ (or ‘point-to-point flow chart) – however, not all spaghetti strands extend across the diagram as many are cut short by disease, accident or war. While the navy dominated some character’s lives, others led fruitful and meaningful lives when their naval careers ceased much sooner than anyone expected.
John Collins, the most famous of the ‘Pioneer’ class who later became Australia’s first Chief of Naval Staff and Vice-Admiral, was certainly correct when he attributed his successful naval career more to luck than any other cause. Although Collins probably understated his capabilities, it is true that a number of other members of the 1913 Entry would have reached the highest levels of the Australia naval profession if their luck held out or their circumstances were only slightly different.
Despite the selection process ensuring that only the fittest and the physically strong formed the 1913 Entry, the first to give his life was Otto Albert through meningitis in May 1914. Three Cadet Midshipmen were discharged before graduation returning to civil life and uncertain futures. The next to die was Dick Cunningham, along with 47 other crew members, in the RN submarine K17 following a collision in what was to become known as the Battle of May Island on 31 January 1918. The ‘Pioneer’ class’s casualty list continued to grow after the war ended. Frank Larkins accidentally lost his life when he was swept overboard off the casing of the RAN submarine J2 on the night of 19/20 June 1919 while transiting past Sumatra on his return to Australia.
Such lesser known events are followed by some of the more common events of Australian naval history during WWII – HMAS SYDNEY in the Mediterranean, the loss of Singapore, the Coast Watchers and naval intelligence, the loss of HMAS CANBERRA, HMA Ships AUSTRALIA and SHROPSHIRE in the Philippines. By looking through the lens of the 1913 Entry biographies, Peter Jones is able to refocus these events portraying a much more personal and nuanced story of these events as they unfolded. The chapter ‘Sad Songs of the Death of Sailors’ describes the savage losses from late 1941 until early 1943.
In 1939 John Collins and Harold Farncomb were both seen as possible future Australian Chiefs of Naval Staff, however by 1945 Farncomb was considered a political liability due to his excess alcohol consumption (off-duty). Having commanded both Australian and British warships, including HMS ATTACKER, as well as the Australian Squadron – December 1944 to July 1945 – Farncomb was somewhat worn-out by the end of the war. The Naval Board could have rested him after the war but effectively chose not to and this ultimately led to Farncomb leaving the Service and becoming a Barrister.
‘Australia’s Argonauts’ is a remarkably rewarding tale of some of our nation’s lesser known people who are linked but not necessarily defined by their naval experience. It tells of the men who experienced the joys, frustrations and tragedies of naval life in the 20th Century. It is a well-researched and original history, not just of naval officers but of the lesser known ‘Pioneers’ who helped form our nation, its people and its values.
‘Australia’s Argonauts’, although more than 640 pages long, is well written and a pleasure to read. The 150 photographs accompanying the text provide a window into these people’s lives. It is highly recommended for anyone who is interested in Australian history and a must for those who are looking for a modern approach to Australian naval history.
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