WITH Anzac Day coming up on the 25th of this month, my article is about an historic warship and one of its officers, William Fitzsimmons.
The ship, the light cruiser HMAS Encounter, had the honour during the First World War of being the first warship of the Royal Australian Navy to fire in anger during the bombardment of Toma Ridge in German New Guinea in support of Australia's Military and Naval Expeditionary Force. Much of their time was spent patrolling and escorting various convoys around Australia and into the Indian Ocean.
It seems that the personal experiences of Australia's sailors during the Great War have principally been eclipsed by the stories of soldiers on the Gallipoli peninsula or on the Western Front and the Middle East. Despite this, narratives exist of the courage and sacrifice amid the drudgery of life on the ocean patrols, blockading, shelling and escorting the numerous troopships.
With war declared, Australia was asked to contribute to the Allies' naval power. Built as a second-class protected cruiser, the Challenger class HMAS Encounter was constructed by His Majesty's Devonport Dockyard in England and commissioned at the end of 1905.
The warship was laid down on January 28, 1901. A sister ship, HMS Challenger, was also built, the only two of the Challenger class. They were initially operated by the Royal Navy and then the newly formed Royal Australian Navy. The cruiser spent its first six years of operation working with the Royal Navy's Australia Squadron.
The crew found the cruisers relatively easy to handle with their ample freeboard. They had coal-fired engines with an adequate coal bunkerage capacity which meant a sustained cruising duration. The two vessels had a slight variation in the design that made their identity easy as HMAS Encounter's funnel tops were horizontal, while Challenger's funnel tops were sloped aft.
Prior to the First World War, Great Britain and Germany were engrossed in a naval arms race to build bigger and better warships, which led to a revolution in warship design. When war broke out, the British were swift to exploit their long-term naval supremacy in introducing a trade blockade of Germany and its allies. It was realised that the prosperity of Great Britain and its Empire would hang on the domination of the world's oceans.
William would have found naval warfare brutal and terrifying. One of his jobs was to keep the vessel well ordered. The navy men were given reasonable rations if they had access to fresh stores. Unlike in Captain Cook's day, when there was a diet of salt meat, hard biscuit and sauerkraut, \the Royal Australian Navy endeavoured to provide regular, hot, protein-rich meals, along with the occasional beer ration.
William would have encountered various types of ships, and from other countries. He would have seen hospital ships, mine-sweepers, mine-layers, submarines, battleships, colliers, monitors with six inch guns, storeships, destroyers and others. They served in all types of weather, from thick fog and mist and mountainous seas to flat, tropical conditions.
All sailors on board were kept busy keeping the warship in good shape. The leading stoker and stokers worked in very hot conditions below deck shovelling coal into the boilers. The gun crews spent a good deal of effort in cleaning and polishing the light cruiser's six-inch guns. Some of the crew were 15 when they had joined before the war.
In late 1914, HMAS Encounter underwent a refit before continuing patrols in the Pacific. She landed army troops on Fanning Island to protect the cable station there in July 1915. Unfortunately, she became grounded on a coral reef at Johnson Island and went to Hong Kong to be repaired. By January 1916, the vessel was ordered to patrol waters in the East Indies, before returning to Australian waters until the end of the war.