CAPTAIN Arthur Phillip’s eyes must have widened to the size of dinner plates when he sailed through Sydney Heads in February 1788 – the first European sailor to glimpse the world’s most spectacular harbour where “a thousand sail of the line may ride in the most perfect security”.
There simply is no better place on earth for any navy to present themselves at their finest than in Sydney Harbour. It is the perfect amphitheatre for international navies to strut their stuff – just one of the marvellous side effects we’ll see when members of the world’s great fleets join in our celebrations marking the first entry of the Royal Australian Navy’s brand-new fleet into Sydney Harbour a century ago.
It was a moment that changed the nation forever. On October 4, 1913, as thousands of Sydneysiders held their breath on the Harbour foreshores, the battlecruiser Australia materialised through the Heads from a sea mist, the remainder of the convoy following in single column.
Each ship’s appearance was equally dramatic – HMAS Sydney, Encounter, Melbourne, Warrego, Parramatta and Yarra.
With its very own navy, Australia now had an adult’s voice on the world stage. Today our Harbour is in gridlock with the arrival of warships from all over the world – certainly, there are those representing our traditional allies New Zealand, England and the United States – but it’s fascinating to witness the arrival of unexpected friends such as China, India, Thailand, Spain, France, Japan, Tonga, Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, Brunei and even Nigeria.
Their participation in this commemorative event speaks volumes for the esteem in which our navy is held by other nations.
The RAN may not have the centuries-old lineage of some navies but its reputation as one of the world’s most-respected professional fighting forces has been well-earned in the short space of 100 years.
Yet it’s not only the combination of the RAN’s anniversary and the majestic setting of Sydney’s Harbour that is responsible for creating such a celebratory atmosphere.
Our enthusiasm for a warship’s arrival and presence in the Harbour is world-renowned. It’s as though we are hardwired to party as soon as a fleet arrives.
And, historically speaking, it’s fairly understandable.
As an island nation with no terrestrial borders bobbing around between the Indian and Pacific oceans, navies have been at the forefront of European Australians’ minds since the arrival of the First Fleet.
Terrified of being forgotten by the rest of the world, the arrival of a naval flotilla brought an instant sigh of relief – as though the world wanted to come to us.
It was prime minister Alfred Deakin’s invitation for the US Fleet to visit Australia during its around-the-world goodwill tour that kicked off Sydney’s love of naval pageantry.
In 1908, 16 US battleships painted a dazzling white sailed through the heads to be welcomed by a crowd of half a million Sydneysiders – astonishing when the city’s population was only 600,000.
The Royal Navy conducted a similar world publicity tour in 1924. The magnificent Special Service Squadron steamed into Sydney Harbour headed by the battle-cruiser HMS Hood – at the time, the most sophisticated weapon the world had ever seen.
A Daily Telegraph journalist travelling with the fleet from Hobart to Sydney wrote that “the entry into Sydney Harbour should be the scenic event of the century”.
But then again, our reporter didn’t quite live long enough to see the spectacle unfolding today.
When you see the mighty warships moored in our fabulous Harbour this week, see if you can imagine the very first time a Sydneysider glimpsed our very first warships as they steamed through the mist 100 years ago.
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