Australia's Argonauts

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 RAN 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 RAN. 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.

Dr Greg Gilbert, The Australian Naval Institute

This is a gracious book, as befits an elegant and gracious Admiral and teacher, who led his crews at sea and ashore with quiet confidence and conviction. An ‘Admiral-by-accident’ for, if things had worked out differently, Peter would have been an Architect! A great loss for Navy if he had done so. Jones’ passion for design and thinking, and his compassion for Navy nevertheless comes out in his (and Tony Grazebrook’s) story of the First Argonauts and of Australia in the 20th Century. It says much of Jones that he also contributed to this story and to Navy in his own time. For the spirit lives on and nowhere is this more important than today as we redesign and reshape Navy for the 21st and 22nd Centuries.

‘The sands were running out for the Pioneer class…and their remarkable wives and the support they rendered their husbands throughout their lives’, Jones eloquently writes. I wonder though, for it seems to me those sands were used to build the very foundations upon which Navy stands today, brick-by-brick, where they may they never run out. A Navy now distinct and in a class of its own, thanks to these men and women of the Pioneering Class. Our Argonauts did not come home, for they did not need to – they built their own. Perceptively identified is the role of Naval Intelligence and Commander Rupert Long OBE RAN, in particular. British naval intelligence officers regarded Long as ‘one of the ablest of them all’, and Eric Feldt considered that, in a war when ‘too little was done too late’, Long ‘did enough and he did it in time’. Naval Intelligence was never the oxymoron of MI. As Navy reshapes for the future, these skills (a new branch?) are needed again – in Cyber and elsewhere. Some say that “the Pioneer Class were not only the first, but the greatest class to graduate from the Naval College”. I beg to differ. There will be other great entries and classes. They may indeed be greater but there greatness will always rest humbly on the achievements of the Argonauts. Admiral Colvin wrote of The Argonauts in 1942 ‘that they were never mere copyists’ but ‘blended something peculiar to themselves’, and the ‘result was unmistakable and unmistakably good’. As the Baton passes to the next generations, we can have confidence it will be blending the goods of the old with the goods of today. A great read, thank you Peter.

The Navy Magazine

War has been one of the central features of Australian history, and the two world wars defined the generations that participated. The Pioneer Class of the Royal Australian Naval College, joined their fledgling service in the glorious days of 1913, when the nation’s ambitions were high and the new fleet was not only a widespread source of pride, but also seen as a sign of peace that came from being prepared for war. Preparations included those practical measures intended to ensure that the navy and its ships would eventually be commanded by Australian-trained officers. Through a regime of strict discipline, intense study and sporting pursuits, those who founded the Naval College sought to produce naval leaders ready and willing to serve their nation whenever and wherever required. How well the College performed is evident in the engrossing story told so well here by Peter Jones.

The creation of this narrative represents a significant achievement. Works on Australian naval social history are rare, and Peter has had to delve into areas of service and professional culture never previously examined. He has also needed to distil the essence of 28 very different careers, while at the same time balancing the attention given to the individual, class and the organisation to which they belonged. Moreover, these men were also an integral part of a wider Australia. Much more than a purely naval history, Peter has provided a lens through which we can view many aspects of national life and development across the twentieth century.

Despite the enormous amount of work, the writing of Australia’s Argonauts has clearly been a labour of love. As one who has followed the manuscript’s progress over many years, I can only admire Peter’s patience, tenacity and thoroughness. That he himself joined the navy at an early age, has commanded ships in war, and rose to highest ranks of the service, has allowed him unique insights into many of the issues discussed. Far more than the casual observer, he understands that none of these men were one-dimensional and the even-handed discussion of their varied strengths and failings is particularly noteworthy.

Australia’s Argonauts makes an important contribution to our national and naval knowledge. I have no doubt that those who read it will better appreciate the contribution of 28 Australians, who lived out their lives against the backdrop of some of the most tumultuous times in our history. Not all achieved lasting fame, but their collective deeds, in no small measure built the national society that we continue to enjoy.
Dr David Stevens, author of In All Respects Ready & winner of the 2015 Frank Broeze Memorial Maritime History Book Prize

With Australia's Argonauts, Peter Jones has opened a window into our past that for too long was closed and shuttered. This is not just a story of remarkable Australians. Nor is it simply a story of the Australian Navy during its years of endurance. This is a story of what Australia was, what it wanted to be and what it became as the twentieth century advanced. Australia's Argonauts shows how the members of the first entry to the Royal Australian Naval College profoundly influenced our national life. The unique experiment that began at Osborne House in 1913 paid dividends for the nation unimaginable at the time. Their ideas and their actions played a critical part in defending Australia during its darkest hours, but they also contributed to the arts, to technology and to business, to education and to the wider community in a host of ways. From battle at sea to ballet, Australia's Argonauts spans Australia’s history and national experience. It is a fascinating book.
Rear Admiral James Goldrick, author of Before Jutland.

'unrelenting research ... It is much more than a chronicle of the 1913 Entry, this is a window on the nation at war, societal attitudes and practises of our nation from the early days of Federation. Not only for old and young salts but also the nation's readers at large'.    

Vice Admiral Ian MacDougall AC, AFSM RAN (Retired), Chief of Naval Staff (1991-1994).

Reviews

Although they graduated a century ago, I feel a personal connection with the first class to enter the RAN College. My first commanding officer had been trained at sea during the Second World War by members of the pioneer year and I suspect some of their enduring influence shaped my own entry's formative experiences. Peter Jones has not only captured the spirit animating that remarkable group of naval officers, he has helped scholars and students to understand why they were so revered and how they transformed the RAN from a remote Dominion squadron into a medium-sized naval force with it own distinctive ethos. This thoroughly engaging and deeply moving work is marked by painstaking research, nuanced analysis and sensitive handling of both brutalising events and human frailty. It will become a classic text in the RAN’s evolving history.
Professor Tom Frame, author of Where Fate Calls and a member of RANC Junior Entry 1979.