When the war began, the Australian government immediately started work to build up naval strength. In all, the RAN requisitioned 200 civilian vessels for military use, mainly for coastal defense, transport, and search and rescue missions. Several small vessels were also converted into minesweepers. The government also ordered construction of several warships, including 3 destroyers, 6 frigates, 56 corvettes, and 35 motor launches. By the end of the war, the RAN had 337 vessels in service (and an additional 600 in the naval auxiliary) with 39,650 personnel.
At the beginning of the war, the Australian government sent its five destroyers into the Mediterranean to assist the British there. The Perth went to the East Indian station, and the Australia and the Canberra helped escort Australian troop convoys to Egypt. The RAN also converted three liners into armed merchant cruisers for Royal Navy use, two of them manned by Australian personnel. Two others were commissioned in the RAN. All were sent to the China station. After Italy entered the war, the Australian government sent the Sydney to the Mediterranean, where she sank an Italian destroyer and helped to sink an Italian cruiser. In December 1940, the Sydney was replaced in the Mediterranean by the Perth. Other naval units were also sent, and Australian ships took part in all the big Mediterranean battles, including that in Cape Matapan. Australian ships also participated in the hunt for the German battleship Bismarck and performed Atlantic convoy duty. Some 10 percent of the Royal Navy's total antisubmarine ships were from the RAN. Later in the war, eight RAN ships supported the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943.
The first real blow to the RAN came in November 1941 when the Sydney was sunk off Western Australia by a German armed merchant cruiser. After Japan entered the war in December 1941, nearly all Australian ships were withdrawn to the Pacific Theater either to Singapore or to Australia. The cruiser Perth was sunk in the Battle of Sunda Strait in February 1942. The Japanese air raid on Darwin, also in February, and the midget submarine attack in May on Sydney Harbor underscored the need for increased naval strength. By the end of 1942, the Japanese had sunk 30 ships in Australian waters through air, naval, or submarine attack.
For the rest of the war, RAN ships in the Pacific undertook several duties. They engaged in antisubmarine and convoy protection missions and were credited with sinking six Axis submarines and escorting some 1,100 convoys. The RAN also laid some 10,000 defensive mines around Australia and New Zealand and engaged in minesweeping operations throughout the Pacific. RAN ships also fought in the major battles of the theater, including the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Solomon Island Campaign (the cruiser Canberra was sunk in the Battle of Savo Island), and the Battle of Leyte Gulf. They also supported operations in Borneo and Burma and the Australian landings at Taraken, Brunei, and Balikpapan in 1945. In all, 45,800 men and 3,100 women served in the Royal Australian Navy during the war.
Thomas Lansford and Spencer C. Tucker
Day, David. The Great Betrayal: Britain, Australia and the Onset of the Pacific War, 1939–42. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.; Day, David. Reluctant Nation: Australia and the Allied Defeat of Japan, 1942–45. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.; Lockwood, Douglas. Australia's Pearl Harbour: Darwin, 1942. Melbourne, Australia: Cassell, 1966.; Thompson, Robert Smith. Empires on the Pacific: World War II and the Struggle for the Mastery of Asia. New York: Basic Books, 2001.; Winton, John. The Forgotten Fleet: The British Navy in the Pacific, 1944–1945. New York: Coward-McCann, 1969.