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Q&A :: Sea Power Centre – Dr David Stevens

On 19th May 2013, to mark the centenary of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), the Australian National Maritime Museum, in conjunction with the Sea Power Centre, hosted this year’s RAN Centenary Annual lecture, to offer new perspectives on the Navy’s roles during World War 1. Dr David Stevens is Director of Strategic and Historical Studies at the Sea Power Centre. Paula Grunseit spoke with him about the lecture, the upcoming International Fleet Review and his work as Navy historian.

Sea Power Centre:
Dr David Stevens describes the Sea Power Centre which was established in the early 1990s, as “the Navy’s think-tank”. “We conduct research into maritime strategy, maritime affairs and naval history”, he says. “And we are responsible for collecting and preserving.” The Centre also runs conferences, publishes books and publications including conference and seminar proceedings. The history department consists of a small team headed by Dr Stevens and the Centre’s website provides a rich gateway to a wide range of resources of interest to general historians and those researching their family history.

Stevens says one of the Centre’s most useful online resources is the publication of the Navy Lists. “Starting in around 1905, this is a list of all the officers who served in the Navy each year listing details including birth date and rank. This means you can download each year’s list and track your relative’s career. You can also use our website to look at the ship histories for the particular ship your relative served on.” Information about aircraft, Fleet Air Arm squadrons, establishments, naval personalities, Commonwealth Naval Orders and Navy News is also accessible. Says Stevens:

“More and more information is going online as we are going through a big process of digitisation. For example we’ve just done all the daily intelligence reports for WWII in the Pacific so you can have a look there and see what people thought was happening on a daily basis during the war. Don’t forget that another way of finding out about a relative’s Naval career is through the National Archives of Australia. They have digitised all the service cards for people serving in the navy (officers and men) so that’s also a great resource”.

Click to watch a video of the 1913 fleet
Click to watch a video of the 1913 fleet

International Fleet Review:
On 4 October 1913 the flagship, HMAS Australia led the new Australian Fleet Unit comprising HMA Ships Melbourne, Sydney, Encounter, Warrego, Parramatta and Yarra into Sydney Harbour for the first time. To mark the centenary of this event, the Navy is holding an historic International Fleet Review in October 2013 and this high profile event is the Navy’s signature commemorative event for 2013. Planned in partnership with the NSW State Government and the City of Sydney, it is anticipated that approximately 40 visiting warships and 12 tall ships will participate with tall ships entering Sydney Harbour on Thursday 3 October and all warships entering on Friday 4 October — exactly 100 years after the first RAN Fleet entry. The RAN Sea Power Conference 2013 and Pacific 2013 International Maritime Congress and Exposition, are also scheduled to be held at Darling Harbour from 7 October 2013 to coincide with the IFR. Says Dr Stevens: “We’ve invited Navies from around the world including China, Russia, the US, the Royal Navy and regional navies. Over the course of a week there will be various events taking place including the ships coming into Sydney Harbour, a combined naval street march, fly-pasts, naval displays and demonstrations.” Other plans include ships being open to the public, inter-navy sporting competitions, naval memorial and religious services, and a range of community and cultural events.

Dr Stevens explains the significance of the first RAN Fleet entry which occurred in October 1913. “The fleet unit’s arrival — which is what we’re commemorating — is particularly important because this was the moment in history where Australia became a player on the world stage. In 1901 we had just federated and a lot of people saw themselves as citizens of a state before they were an Australian. The Navy was the first federal organisation that allowed all the states to play a part and that’s why the flagship was called Australia and the two cruisers were named Sydney and Melbourne because it was an inclusive force. The arrival in Sydney in Oct 1913 demonstrated Australia’s arrival on the world stage because once you have a Navy you have a diplomatic tool you can use. You can show the flag in various places; you can say you are a player in events. A lot of the talk at the time was how this shows that Australia is now a mature nation, that we are past our growing period and that we have appeared. And it’s interesting to compare that with Gallipoli two years later where again that sort of argument came up about Australia having reached its maturity but the good thing about the Navy was its arrival did that without having to kill people.”

“Since Captain Cook’s arrival, no more memorable event has happened than the advent of the Australian Fleet. As the former marked the birth of Australia, so the latter announces its coming of age, its recognition of the growing responsibilities of nationhood, and its resolve to accept and discharge them as a duty both to itself and to the Empire. The Australian Fleet is not merely the embodiment of force. It is the expression of Australia’s resolve to pursue, in freedom, its national ideals, and to hand down unimpaired and unsullied the heritage it has received, and which it holds and cherishes as an inviolable trust. It is in this spirit that Australia welcomes its Fleet, not as an instrument of war, but as the harbinger of peace.” Joseph Cook, Australian Prime Minister, 1913

Dr Stevens has had a long and distinguished career in the Navy and as a historian. He explains: “My father joined the Navy as a teenager during the Second World War and that was probably my most important inspiration for me to decide to join later on and then, after I had retired from the Navy, to become the Naval historian. Having joined the RAN in 1974, Stevens served in a variety of Australian warships and specialised in anti-submarine warfare. He completed an MA in Strategic Studies in 1992 and his PhD in Naval History at UNSW ADFA in 2000. From Feb to April of 2003 he served as the historian to the Australian Task Group Commander in Iraq. “In 2003 I put on my reserve uniform as a Commander and joined the Commander of the Australian Task Group in the Gulf and was the on-board historian”, Stevens says. “I was recording interviews with people and making sure that the records would be preserved so that we would have a proper record of what took place. I was also offering advice on record keeping and assisting with the collection of artefacts which were then donated to the Australian War Memorial.”

Stevens is writing a new history of the RAN in WWI which is to be published by Oxford University Press in November 2014. The publication represents one of the Navy’s contributions to the commemoration surrounding the centenary of the First World War. Stevens says: “Rather than making discoveries, the book is more about reminding people of things that don’t get mentioned. Our First World War history tends to be very much concentrated on Gallipoli and the Western Front. We forget that it was a world war and that there were operations going on all over the world particularly from a Naval point of view. The Australian Navy was operating off East Africa, in the South China Sea, Philippines, off the north coast of America as well as the Mediterranean, the North Sea and in the South Pacific. So from the Australian Navy’s point of view, it was very much a global war. What I’ve been looking at is the various reasons why the Navy was in those areas and what it was doing and why it was important to how the war was eventually fought and won.”

Other useful links:
Australian National Maritime Museum – click here
Australian War Memorial, WW1 RAN Infosheet – click here
Legacy/IFR Secondary Schools NSW and ACT History Essay Competition – click here
National Archives of Australia, Service Records – click here
Sea Power Centre, Canberra – click here


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