The Origin of RAN Squadron and National Insignia

By John Perryman
Artwork: Gary Kinkade

The then Commander Australian Fleet, Rear Admiral Tim Barrett, AM, CSC RAN, (left) presents the commanding officer SPS Cantabria, Commander Jose Luis Nieto, an iconic red kangaroo in recognition of her ten month attachment to the RAN, 13 June 2013
The then Commander Australian Fleet, Rear Admiral Tim Barrett, AM, CSC RAN, (left) presents the commanding officer SPS Cantabria, Commander Jose Luis Nieto, an iconic red kangaroo in recognition of her ten month attachment to the RAN, 13 June 2013

On 10 July 1911 King George V formally approved the Permanent Naval Forces of the Commonwealth being designated the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). At the same time it was decreed that all ships and vessels of the Royal Australian Navy shall fly at the stern the White Ensign as the symbol of the authority of the Crown, and at the Jack Staff the distinctive flag of the Australian Commonwealth [1].

When warships are at sea it is customary to fly only an ensign to identify a ship’s nationality and for many years ships of the RAN risked being mistaken for those of the Royal Navy (RN) with which it proudly shared the White Ensign. This did not sit well with all, and it appears to have been one of the reasons for the introduction of a uniquely Australian national symbol appearing on RAN ships.

One of the first documented examples of an RAN warship taking measures to make clear its nationality is that of HMAS Anzac (II) during the Korean War in 1953. On that occasion a large sheet of brass was cut by Anzac's shipwrights to form the shape of a kangaroo, a symbol instantly recognisable as being uniquely Australian. The design is believed to have been taken from the reverse of an Australian penny which depicted a kangaroo 'in flight'. The brass kangaroo was burnished and subsequently mounted atop Anzac’s mainmast as a visible reminder to ships in company that she was very much an Australian vessel. Photographic evidence suggests that the appearance of a kangaroo style insignia may have been used even earlier by Fairmile motor launches operating alongside US forces in New Guinea in 1945.

Able Seaman J Conway on watch in ML 802, Jacquinot Bay, New Guinea, 28 Jan 1945. Note the kangaroo visible in the background. (AWM 078677)
Able Seaman J Conway on watch in ML 802, Jacquinot Bay, New Guinea, 28 Jan 1945. Note the kangaroo cut-out attached above the gun mount. (AWM 078677)

The first known instance of an RAN warship affixing a red kangaroo to her funnel/superstructure occurred in 1955 when HMAS Queenborough was attached to the Royal Navy 6th frigate Squadron operating from Londonderry, Northern Ireland. The 6th Frigate squadron had as its squadron insignia the 'Red Hand of Ulster'. In keeping with that squadron's tradition, Queenborough conformed to the practice but also added a red kangaroo to denote her Australian origin.

HMAS Queenborough wearing the a red kangaroo above the insignia of the Royal Navy 6th Frigate Squadron, Londonderry, Northern Ireland, 1955
HMAS Queenborough wearing a red kangaroo above the insignia of the Royal Navy 6th Frigate Squadron, Londonderry, Northern Ireland, 1955

On 1 March 1967 the Australian White Ensign was introduced to replace the Royal Navy White Ensign and this went some way to alleviating ongoing confusion between British and Australian warships. By then, however, the RAN was operating US designed and built Charles F Adams class guided missile destroyers (DDGs) that were serving alongside their US counterparts on active service in Vietnam. National pride again became a consideration when Australian DDGs were occasionally mistaken for American ships of the same class.

In 1968 the Australian Naval Board instituted US style squadron nomenclature and numbers throughout the RAN fleet [2]. The new squadrons included:

First Australian Destroyer Squadron AUSDESRON 1
Second Australian Destroyer Squadron AUSDESRON 2
Third Australian Destroyer Squadron AUSDESRON 3
First Australian Training Squadron AUSTRARON 1
First Australian Submarine Squadron AUSSUBRON 1
First Australian Min Countermeasures Squadron AUSMINRON 1
First Australian Patrol Boat Squadron AUSPABRON 1
Papua/New Guinea Patrol Boat Squadron PNGPABRON

The respective commanders of each of the squadrons adopted the prefix ‘COM’ to designate their status e.g. COMAUSDESRON 1 – Commander First Australian Destroyer Squadron.

Following the implementation of the new squadron designations single numerals were painted or affixed on the funnels of ships to indicate which squadron they belonged to. This had been a long standing RN practice and it was not without precedent in the RAN which for many years had operated squadrons under the British system.

The implementation of the kangaroo insignia can be traced to the early 1970s when the ships of AUSDESRONs 1 and 2 affixed a red kangaroo to their funnels emblazoned with their respective squadron number. A broad black band painted around the top of the funnel cap was a further distinction to indicate the commander of each squadron.

The squadron insignia adopted by AUSDESRONs 1 and 2.

In March 1972 AUSDESRON 3 comprising HMA Ships Yarra, Parramatta, Stuart, Derwent, Swan and Torrens adopted the practice although on that occasion the chosen symbol was a green kangaroo with the numeral 3 emblazoned in gold, to symbolise the Australian sporting colours.

The arrival of the first of the Oliver Hazard Perry class guided missile frigates HMA Ships Adelaide, Canberra and Sydney saw them assume the mantle of AUSDESRON 2 and in a continuation of the tradition green kangaroos displaying the numeral 2 were affixed in a prominent position on either side of their forward superstructure.


The squadron insignia adopted by AUSDESRON 3.

The squadron insignia adopted following the arrival of the guided missile frigates.
HMAS Hobart c.1986 wearing the plain red kangaroo on her forward funnel
HMAS Hobart c.1986 wearing the plain red kangaroo on her forward funnel

In 1985 the practice of operating separate squadrons ceased and henceforth a plain red kangaroo, with no embellishment, became the approved national insignia for RAN major fleet units. The custom continues to this day with ships of the contemporary fleet proudly displaying the red kangaroo as a national symbol.

The plain red kangaroo adopted by all major surface fleet units is 1985.
The plain red kangaroo adopted by all major surface fleet units in 1985.
HMAS Adelaide wearing the post 1985 plain red kangaroo insignia. Note also the presence of the gold star on her bridging, indicating that she is the holder of the coveted Duke of Gloucester Cup for overall efficiency
HMAS Adelaide wearing the post 1985 plain red kangaroo insignia. Note also the presence of the gold star on her bridge wing, indicating that she is the holder of the coveted Duke of Gloucester Cup for overall efficiency

The Australian Submarine Squadron Insignia

On 20 January 1976 the Australian Naval Board approved a special squadron insignia for use by Oberon class submarines of the Royal Australian Navy Submarine Squadron [3]. Known as an ‘Oberang’, it comprised a white letter ‘O’ with a red boomerang vertically imposed over it. This was the submarine equivalent of the red kangaroos worn by major fleet units.

The ‘Oberang’ insignia was worn on each side of the fin of the six Oberon class vessels in harbour or at the direction of the Submarine Squadron Commander.

An unofficial derivative of the ‘Oberang’ was the ‘Eberang’, or ‘E-merang’ as it was sometimes known, which was adopted by several Oberon class submarines after they won the Submarine Squadron Fighting Efficiency Shield. This motif was based on the ‘Oberang’ but included the addition of a yellow letter ‘E’ imposed over the existing device to symbolise efficiency.

Following the introduction of the Collins class submarines an adaptation of the ‘Oberang’ was adopted substituting the letter ‘C’ for the letter ‘O’. A name change followed with the motif being designated the ‘C-merang’. When Collins class submarines are in harbour it is normally displayed on a cover placed over the Intercept array located on the forward casing of the vessel and at the top of the 'fin'.

HMAS Dechaineux alongside in HMAS Stirling with the C-merang visible on her intercept array
HMAS Dechaineux alongside in HMAS Stirling with the C-merang visible on her intercept array
Officials and crew of HMAS Collins following her rededication into service on 1 December 2005. Note the chrome C-merang visible at the top of the 'fin'.
Officials and crew of HMAS Collins following her rededication into service on 1 December 2005. Note the chrome C-merang visible at the top of the 'fin'.

RAN Amphibious Squadron Insignia

The first official use of squadron insignia for RAN amphibious vessels was instituted c.1975 when landing craft of the First Australian Heavy Landing Craft Squadron (AUSLANCRON ONE) adopted a derivative of the British combined operations badge as its motif. The badge was affixed to the funnels of the Balikpapan class landing craft heavy and later to the heavy lift ship HMAS Tobruk (II). The device comprised a navy-blue field with a naval crown above an anchor, superimposed with crossed swords and a kangaroo ‘in flight’ all picked out in red.

The squadron insignia adopted by the RAN's amphibious forces had its origins with the First Australian Heavy Landing Craft Squadron
The squadron insignia adopted by the RAN's amphibious forces had its origins with the First Australian Heavy Landing Craft Squadron

RAN Patrol Boat Insignia

Since the late1960s RAN patrol boats have been home-ported in differing geographic regions around Australia. From the 1960s to the mid 1980s the patrol boat force comprised three main squadrons operating from Sydney, Cairns and Darwin.

Vessels of each squadron initially wore on their funnel the corresponding numeral of their squadron: 1, 2 or 3 and, over time, this practice evolved to include additional motifs relevant to the geographical area at which they were based. Following the disestablishment of separate patrol boat squadrons in the mid 1980s, the practice of including numerals was discontinued.

AUSPABRON 1 was based in Sydney and it adopted a red kangaroo superimposed over the silhouette of the Sydney Harbour Bridge as its distinctive squadron insignia.

HMAS Advance displaying the Sydney Harbour Bridge insignia on her funnel
HMAS Advance displaying the Sydney Harbour Bridge insignia on her funnel

Those patrol boats assigned to AUSPABRON 2 based in Cairns adopted the motif of a blue marlin within a gold surround incorporating the numeral 2 as their squadron insignia. The selection of the marlin was derived from the central device found on the official badge for HMAS Cairns.

HMAS Barricade displaying the blue marlin with a number 2 on her funnel
HMAS Barricade displaying the blue marlin with a number 2 on her funnel

 

HMAS Launceston (III), a Cairns based patrol boat signified by the blue marlin on her funnel
HMAS Launceston (III), a Cairns based patrol boat signified by the blue marlin on her funnel

Darwin-based patrol boats forming AUSPABRON 3 adopted a similar practice using the head of a water buffalo surmounted with the numeral 3 as their squadron insignia.

Darwin based patrol boats adopted the head of a water buffalo as their unique squadron insignia.
Darwin based patrol boats adopted the head of a water buffalo as their unique squadron insignia.
Darwin based patrol boats adopted the head of a water buffalo as their unique squadron insignia.

Those patrol boats assigned in support of Royal Australian Naval Reserve port divisions in Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania adopted symbols synonymous with those localities: a black swan, an Australian piping shrike (magpie) and a Tasmanian devil. At HMAS Cerberus the mythical three-headed dog was adopted by patrol boats based there.

HMAS Aware displaying an Australian piping shrike on her funnel
HMAS Aware displaying an Australian piping shrike on her funnel

 

HMAS Attack displaying the mythical three headed dog on her funnel
HMAS Attack displaying the mythical three headed dog on her funnel

 

Attack class patrol boats operating with the Papua and New Guinea Division of the patrol boat force displayed a palm tree with a shark circling beneath it as their squadron insignia. This motif, which proved very popular amongst PNG sailors, was unofficially sanctioned by Vice Admiral Sir Victor Smith, KBE, CB, DSC, RAN when Chief of Naval Staff.

HMAS Geraldton displaying a black swan on her funnel
HMAS Geraldton displaying a black swan on her funnel

Mine Countermeasure Vessels

The first use of a distinctive motif for the mine countermeasures (MCM) force appeared in the early 1970s when the Ton class minesweepers selected a black sea mine with a red kangaroo as its motif. This design has been worn variously by vessels assigned to the MCM group and its use continues in the contemporary fleet.

HMAS Curlew displaying the black mine with a red kangaroo on her funnel
HMAS Curlew displaying the black mine with a red kangaroo on her funnel

 

HMAS Ibis displaying the black mine with a red kangaroo on her funnel
HMAS Ibis displaying the black mine with a red kangaroo on her funnel

 

MSA Brolga displaying the black mine with a red kangaroo on her funnel
MSA Brolga displaying the black mine with a red kangaroo on her funnel

HMAS Cook Funnel Insignia

In 1983 HMAS Cook (Commander Peter Cooke-Russell, RAN) was conducting hydrographic surveys off the NSW coast. In support of that activity, two radio fixing camps were established ashore - one at Ulladulla, the other at Bermagui. Commander Cooke-Russell, always a captain concerned for the welfare of his crew, proceeded ashore to visit them and check on how they were getting on. He first visited his team at Ulladulla before travelling to Bermagui to check on the second team. He then stayed overnight at a caravan park in Narooma where he and six members of his team went for dinner at the Narooma Golf Club. It was there that the golf club’s motif of a seahorse, printed on a beer mat, caught his eye. A quick committee of taste followed and it was subsequently determined that the seahorse should be adopted as the funnel emblem for HMAS Cook to recognise her as the 'workhorse' of the scientific force.

On returning to his command, the services of his shipwrights were duly enlisted to fabricate a plywood seahorse (painted black) which was then affixed to the buff coloured funnel. The action was not questioned and in time the seahorse became synonymous with Cook and the hydrographic force.

HMAS Cook displaying her unique seahorse insignia on her funnel
HMAS Cook displaying her unique seahorse insignia on her funnel

HMAS Diamantina Funnel Insignia

The oceanographic research ship HMAS Diamantina was for many years based in Western Australia. In 1979 she adpoted the distinctive emblem used to commemorated the 150th anniversarry of the founding of Western Australia. The emblem incorporated a black swan.

HMAS Diamantina displaying the black swan on her funnel
HMAS Diamantina displaying the commemorative swan on her funnel

HMAS Kimbla Funnel Insignia

HMAS Kimbla, a boom defence vessel commissioned on 26 March 1956, had the distinction of being the last vessel in the RAN to use a reciprocating steam engine as a form of propulsion. Capable of achieving only 10 knots she was affectionately dubbed the ‘snail’ and it was this motif that she adopted as her distinctive funnel insignia during her twilight years. Kimbla decommissioned on 15 February 1985 having steamed an arduous 363,038 nautical miles.

HMAS Kimbla entering Sydney Harbour for the last time. Note the yellow snail on her funnel
HMAS Kimbla entering Sydney Harbour for the last time. Note the yellow snail on her funnel

Endnotes

  1. Commonwealth Naval Orders 77 & 78 published 5 October 1911.
  2. Australian Naval Order 522/68 published 2 October 1968.
  3. Australian Naval Order 369/75 published 20 January 1976.