RAN in the Second World War

JH Straczek

From the outbreak of the Second World War until the cessation of hostilities in August 1945 the men, women and ships of the Royal Australian Navy served in every theatre of operations, from the tropical Pacific to the frigid Russian convoys. They took part in almost every major naval battle from the hunting of the Bismarck, the landings on D-Day through to the savage kamikaze attacks in the Philippines and Okinawa.

The personnel and ships of the RAN helped the Allied Navies establish and maintain command of the seas. It was this command that allowed the troops, equipment and material of war to flow to the battle fronts in the Middle East, Europe, Asia and the Pacific. Ultimately, it was command at sea that allowed the Allied forces to finally win the war.

At the outbreak of the war HMAS Perth (I) was the first Australian unit on active service. After the final surrender ships of the Royal Australian Navy were employed in the repatriation of Australian service personnel and the acceptance of Japanese surrenders throughout the southwest Pacific. After the war RAN ships were involved in the dangerous but important task of clearing Australian waters of mines.


The Royal Australian navy paid a heavy price during the Second World War. A total of 2176 men and women died during the war. This represents 5.5% of the peak wartime strength of the RAN. 1740 Australians died serving in RAN ships, included in this native crewmen and civilian canteen staff. The peak wartime strength of the Navy, on 30 June 1945, was 39,650 personnel of all ranks. This included the Women's Royal Australian Naval Service and the Nursing Services.


During the Second World War members of the RAN received the following awards:

GC 4*
CB 3
Bar to DSO 3
DSO 18
OBE 31
MBE 42
2nd Bar to DSC 2
Bar to DSC 10
DSC 149
Albert Medal 1
Bar to GM 3
GM 9
Bar to DSM 2
DSM 157
BEM(Mil) 35
MID 601
Commendations 12

* The George Cross is equivalent to but ranks behind the Victoria Cross

A large number of foreign awards were also bestowed upon members of the RAN.


Prior to the outbreak of war in September 1939 the seagoing strength of the RAN consisted of:

HMAS Australia (II) Heavy Cruiser
HMAS Canberra (I) Heavy Cruiser
HMAS Hobart (I) Light Cruiser
HMAS Sydney (II) Light Cruiser
HMAS Voyager (I) Destroyer
HMAS Swan (II) Sloop
HMAS Yarra (II) Sloop

The light cruiser HMAS Perth (I) which had commissioned in June 1939 was overseas at this time.

Other ships were either in reserve or under the orders of non-operational authorities.

On 30 June 1945 the main combat strength of the RAN consisted of:

Heavy Cruiser 2
Light Cruiser 2
Destroyer 11
Frigate 6
Sloop 2
Corvettes 53
Fairmile Motor Launches 33
Harbour Defence Motor Launches 28
Landing Ship Infantry 3
Anti-Submarine Auxiliaries 3
Auxiliary Minesweepers 6
Minelayer 1

These ships were supported by over 200 other vessels ranging from fleet oilers and repair ships through to Auxiliary Patrol vessels and tugs.

Of the ships in commission prior to the outbreak of war all except HMAS Hobart (I) and HMAS Swan (II) were sunk. Though Hobart did sustain serious damage as a result of a torpedo hit.

The major losses suffered by the RAN include:

Heavy Cruiser 1
Light Cruiser 2
Destroyer 4
Corvettes 3
Fairmile Motor Launches 2
Minesweepers 1
Stores Carrier 3
Water Carrier 1
Depot Ship 1
Small Survey Vessel 1

In addition to the regular naval vessels over 600 pleasure craft served as part of the Naval Auxiliary Patrol providing protection to Australia's ports. Many of these craft were subsequently used as Air Sea Rescue vessels.

Over 200 other vessels were also requisitioned for naval service in roles ranging from harbour support to Landing Ship Infantry.

Ship building

The following warships were built in Australia for the RAN during the war:

Tribal Class destroyers 3
Bathurst Class corvettes (as well as 4 for India) 56
Frigates 6
Fairmile Motor Launches 35
80ft Harbour Defence Motor Launches 9
Boom Defence Vessels 4

In excess of 30,000 small craft were also built for the RAN as well as the Army, RAAF and Allied forces.

Ship repair

Throughout the war Australian industry carried out repairs, refits and maintenance on ships of the RAN and allied navies.

The number of ship jobs undertaken consisted of:

Navy Ships Tons
Royal Australian Navy 4008 2,150,000
Royal Navy 391 1,671,000
United States Navy 513 800,000
Dutch Navy 171 220,000
French Navy 44 92,000

In addition to this naval tonnage some 51,962,480 tons of merchant shipping underwent repair or major maintenance and a further 6,020,240 tons was slipped or dry docked.

Industrial production

The war placed large demands on Australian manufacturing industry. Items which in the past were imported had to be manufactured in Australia.

During the course of the war Australian industry provided for the RAN:

4-inch guns 266
Naval mines 12,336
Radar equipment sets 374
Mk VII depth charges 24,000
Type M depth charges 3,600

Work also commenced on the construction of a torpedo factory and this facility had commenced production by the end of the war.

In addition to this production, repair and modification work was also carried out. This work included:

Relining of, 4-inch, 4.7-inch and 8-inch naval guns.

Modifying over 280 Army 40mm Bofors guns for mounting on RAN and British Pacific Fleet ships.

Designing and modifying twin Oerlikon mountings to take 40 mm Bofors (designated Boffin). Over 100 mountings were delivered.

Design and production of a powered Bofors mounting.

Coastal convoys

During the course of the war in excess of 1100 coastal convoys were escorted by units of the RAN. This does not include a number of special convoys or troop convoys.

Only six ships were lost in convoys and a further two damaged.

In twenty trips from Tobruk HMA Ships Vampire (I) and Vendetta (I) evacuated 3391 personnel, including prisoners of war.


Minesweeping groups consisting of requisitioned craft were based on Australian ports as follows:

Sydney - M/S Group 50
Melbourne - M/S Group 54
Hobart - M/S Group 60
Adelaide - M/S Group 63
Fremantle - M/S Group 66
Darwin - M/S Group 70
Brisbane - M/S Group 74
Newcastle - M/S Group 77

After the war RAN vessels were involved in the clearing of all known minefields. This operation resulted in the loss of HMAS Warrnambool (I) and the deaths of four sailors.

Mine laying

The minelayer HMAS Bungaree laid approximately 10,000 mines in Australian and New Zealand waters during the war.

Additional minefields were also laid to defend the main Australian ports.

Anti-submarine measures

In order to protect Australian coastal shipping convoys were introduced early in the war. From December 1941 until August 1945 only six ships were lost whilst travelling in convoys. Over the same period 18 ships travelling independently were sunk by submarines off the east coast.

Some 2300 personnel were trained in anti-submarine warfare during the war. Of the RAN personnel trained 36% served with the Royal Navy and this number made up approximately 10% of the Royal Navy's anti-submarine warfare specialists.

RAN ships are credited with the destruction of one German U-boat, two Italian submarines and three Japanese submarines. In addition, three Japanese midget submarines were lost during the attack on Sydney Harbour in May 1942.

RAN personnel serving with the RN are also credited with the destruction of a number of submarines.