Between the wars

Between the wars

“J” Class: The Gift Submarines

With the end of World War 1 the British Government found itself with a considerable number of surplus naval vessels with little possibility of being able to use them all.  General reductions in both manpower and ships soon got underway, the bulk of the ships being placed in reserve or sold.  The majority of ships that had been completed before 1914 were nominated for scrap, with some being retained for use in subsidiary services.  In hindsight it would have been prudent to scrap them altogether.  The majority of the shops that had been completed during hostilities were retained, as they were modern and had many of the lessons of the war built into them.  Another option open to the British Government for disposal of the vessels was to hand over some of the newer ships to the Colonial and Dominion Governments to build up their naval strengths.  This latter course was adopted, the main recipient being the Commonwealth of Australia.

Empire defence in the Pacific was significantly increased when it presented, as a gift to the Australian Government, a well-balanced Squadron the three minesweepers, five destroyers, six submarines and one flotilla leader.  The submarines were of the modern “J” Class, which had been designed for greater endurance than previous classes.  They also had long-range communications to enable them to reconnoitre in enemy waters.

Into Production

The large double-hulled ocean going submarines of the “J” class were built under the Emergency War Programme as a counter to some German vessels which were reported to have had a surface speed in excess of 18 knots.  The “J”s were the only triple-screwed British submarines ever built and when completed were the fastest submarines afloat.

Both J1 and J2 were built at Portsmouth Dockyard and launched in November 1915 and early 1916 respectively.  At the same time Pembroke Dockyard, South Wales built J3 and J4, launching J2 on 4 December 1915 and J4 on 2 February 1916.  The remaining submarines J5 and J7 were built at Devonport Dockyard, Plymouth, J5 being completed in April 1916 followed by J7 in November 1917.

Originally the submarines were designed to carry the 4-in gun on a raised platform forward of the conning tower, but later this was extended to the bow and merged into the hull-form to improve cruising qualities.  The gun was then mounted on top of a special platform erected forward of the conning tower.  The conning tower in the first five was place forward of the mid-ships line, but in J7 it was placed further aft.  J7 differed somewhat in appearance and displaced some 60 tons less than the others submerged.  A total seven of the class had been built, however, J6 was accidentally sunk by a British “Q” ship, in mistake for a German submarine, in the North Sea on 15 October 1918.  J1 also differed slightly from her sister-ships in having wings, supported on pillars, built each side of the gun platform.

The submarines, manned largely by Royal Navy personnel, left Portsmouth with HMAS PLATYPUS on 9 April 1919, escorted by HMAS SYDNEY. On passage through the Red Sea, and J5 having broken down, she was taken in tow by HMAS BRISBANE, eventually arriving in Sydney towards the end of June.  The main flotilla reached Thursday Island on 29 June 1919 and Sydney on 10 July.  Having arrived in poor condition the boats were taken in hand for refitting at Garden Island Dockyard, Sydney.  With their refits complete, J1 and J4 sailed on 16 February 1920 in company with HMAS PLATYPUS for Geelong, Victoria, where a submarine base was established.  J2, J3 and J5 followed.  Apart from a southward voyage from Sydney, a visit to Tasmania early in 1921 and occasional local exercises, the “J's" spent little time at sea and their service with the RAN proved brief and uneventful.

J7’s refit was not completed until June 1922, however, only a month prior to that, the decision had been taken to pay the submarine flotilla off.  The great expense in maintaining the submarines, coupled with the deteriorating economic conditions of the period, had effectively thwarted this, the second attempt to add an effective submarine arm to the RAN.  The “J” boats were therefore laid up in reserve and put up for disposal.

The Class comes to an end

In 1923 there was a vigorous debate on the subject of whether Australia could or should build replacement submarines for the “J” class using Australian industry.

In the first half of 1924 the submarines J1, J2, J4 and J5 were sold to a Melbourne salvage syndicate for a total sum of 15,470 pounds.  One by one, they were docked at Williamstown, stripped of fittings and equipment, and their hulls towed away and scuttled.  The hulls of J1 and J2 were sunk off Barwon Heads on 26 May and June 1926 respectively.  After sinking at her moorings at Williamstown on 10 July 1924, J4 was raised, towed out and scuttled in the same position as J1 and J2.  Having been towed out by J7, the hull of J3 was sunk as a breakwater at Swan Island Victoria.  J7 was the last to go.  She lay at Flinders Naval Depot, Westernport where she was used for some time as an auxiliary power plant.  In 1929 she was sold to Morris & Watt Pty Ltd, South Melbourne and, on 4 December 1929 she was towed to Melbourne for dismantling.  In 1930 her hull was likewise sunk as a breakwater at Hampton, Port Phillip Bay.

The SIA has commissioned renowned historian Graham Seal AO to compile various historical articles on Australian submarines.  Click here to download the article 'J Boats at peace' (990 KB PDF)


DISPLACEMENT:  Surface 1,210 tons; Submerged, J7 1, 1760 tons. Remainder 1,820 tons
LENGTH:  275 ft (83.8m) overall
BEAM:  22 ft (6.70m)
ARMAMENT:  Six 18-in (457mm) torpedo tubes (four at bows, one on each beam); one 4in (102mm) gun
MACHINERY:  Triple screws.  Surface, three sets 12-culinder diesels; submerged, battery-driven electric motor
HORSEPOWER:  Diesels, 3,600; electric motors, 1,400
SPEED:  Surface, 9 knots; Submerged, 9.5 knots
FUEL CAPACITY:  About 90 tons
RANGE:  About 4,000 miles at 12 knots

“O” Class: A New Breed

The third attempt to establish Australia’s Submarine force began in April and June 1927 when HMAS OTWAY and HMAS OXLEY were commissioned in the Royal Australian Navy.

OTWAY and OXLEY were modified units of the British “O” class submarines, from which they differed slightly in appearance.  The “O”s were the first class of submarines of post-World War I design built specifically for the Royal Navy, and the first class of British submarines to bear names instead of numbers.

The “O”s were a development of the successful wartime “L” class, with an increase in size, which permitted the mounting of a heavier torpedo armament.  They were among the first British submarines fitted with reversible diesels.

Vickers Ltd at Barrow-in-Furness, Lancashire, built both OTWAY and OXLEY.  OTWAY was laid down in 1925, launched on 7 September 1926 and commissioned on 15 June 1927.  The first commanding officer was Lieutenant Commander George Tweedie RN.  Originally she was to have been numbered OA2, however, she was named and launched HMAS OTWAY.

OXLEY was also laid down in 1925 but was launched on 29 June 1926 and commissioned on April 1927, under Commander H.R. Marrack RN.  Lieutenant F.E. Getting RAN, was her First Lieutenant (XO) who went on to be promoted Captain; however, he died of wounds when HMAS CANBERRA was lost on 9 August 1942.  OXLEY was to have been numbered OA1, but instead was named and launched as HMAS OXLEY in honour of Lieutenant John Oxley RM, early Surveyor General of New South Wales and famous explorer.

On completion the submarines were attached temporarily to the 5th Submarine Flotilla of the Royal Navy.  On 8 February 1928, they both departed Portsmouth for Australia.  Their delivery voyage was the longest unescorted passage ever undertaken by British submarines up to that time.  They were ordered to conduct the voyage to Australia on the surface and were not allowed to submerge at any time whilst en route.

During the passage through the Bay of Biscay, very heavy weather was encountered whereupon cracks appeared in OTWAY's engine columns.  On arrival at Malta, OLXEY’s engine columns were examined and were found also to have cracks.  As a result of these defects both vessels were laid up at Malta for some eight and a half months.  During this period Lieutenant Commander Tweedie returned to England and Commander Gordon Hine assumed command of OTWAY.  Finally, engine columns of an improved design were installed and the submarines sailed in November 1928 to continue their journey to Australia.

The submarines reached Sydney on 14 February 1929.  Their arrival in Australian waters coincided with the deepening economic depression which heavy cuts were being made in defence expenditure.  They were maintained in commission until the end of 1929, when the decision was taken to pay them off into reserve.  Twice a month they were taken to sea for diving exercises by these intermittent attempts to maintain the submarines in operational condition proved not only costly buy also quite inadequate.

The Class is returned

The London Naval Treaty of 1930 limited Britain to a submarine tonnage of 52,700.  This figure included both OTWAY and OXLEY.  The Australian Government therefore decided, that in the interests of the Empire’s defence, to hand over the two submarines to the Royal Navy, in order that they might be properly maintained as fully effective units of the British submarine force.  Accordingly, they were offered to Britain – accepted – as a gift.  On 10 April 1931, at Sydney, they were transferred to the Royal Navy and were taken to England by RN crews sent out to Australia to man them.

So ended the third attempt to maintain a submarine component within the structure of the RAN.  Apart from a small ex Dutch submarine (K9), used for training purposes during World War II, Australia was not to operate submarines again for some thirty-six years.

HM Submarine OTWAY served in the Mediterranean during World War II.  She survived the war and in August 1945 was taken to Inverkiething, Scotland, where she was scrapped.

HM Submarine OXLEY was serving in British home waters at the outbreak of war in 1939.  On 9 September 1939 she became the first Allied naval casualty of World War II when she was sunk by a torpedo from a fellow British submarine, HMS TRITON.  The apparent cause of this tragedy was an incorrect response to a recognition challenge.

Historian Graham Seal AO has compiled an article on OXLEY and OTWAY I with particular emphasis on OXLEY's magazine, the 'OXLEY Outlook'.  Click here to download a copy (2.2 MB PDF).


DISPLACEMENT:  Surface, 1,350 tons; submerged, 1,870 tons
LENGTH:  275 ft (83.82m) overall
BEAM:  27.75 ft (8.45m)
DRAUGHT:  13.25 ft (4.03m) mean
ARMAMENT:  Eight 21-in (533-mm) torpedo-tubes (6 at bow, 2 at stern); one 4-in 102mm gun and two machine guns
MACHINERY:  Twin screws. Surface, diesels; submerged, battery-driven electric motors
HORSEPOWER:  Diesels, 3,000; electric motors, 1,350
SPEED:  Surface, 15.5 knots; submerged 9 knots
FUEL CAPACITY:  195 tons
COST:  Over 400,000 pounds sterling each, complete with stores and armament

“K9” Training Submarine

The Submarine K9 was built in 1922 by K.M. de Shelde, of Flushing, Holland.  She was one of a class of three vessels all built at the same yard for the Royal Netherlands Navy.  Prior to extending World War II operations to the Pacific, K9 had operated as a unit of the RNN force stationed in the East Indies.  When Java fell to the Japanese in 1942 she was one of the vessels deployed to Australia.

On the night of 31 May 1942, during the Japanese-midget submarine attack on Sydney Harbour, K9 was secured alongside HMAS KUTTABUL at Garden Island.  The torpedo which sank KUTTABUL actually passed under K9, however, she escaped serious damage.

In response to an offer from the senior RNN Officer in Australia, K9 was accepted by the RAN for service as an anti-submarine training target.  She was commissioned into the RAN on 26 June 1943 at Sydney.  Manned by a mixed RN and RAN ship’s company, she was attached to HNMAS RUSHCUTTER as a tender for antisubmarine training.  K9 was the only foreign submarine to serve as a unit of the RAN.  Her pennant number for RAN service was N39.

Owing to engine defects, coupled with some problems resulting from her age and origin, K9 did not become fully operational until September 1943 and in the following months she performed some useful service to ani-submarine escorts working up from Sydney.

On 22 January 1944 one of her batteries exploded as she sailed out of Port Jackson. As a result of a subsequent general survey it was decided not to persevere with her and she was paid off on 31 March 1944 for return to the RNlN.

Having been converted to an oil lighter, K9 left Sydney on 7 June 1945, en route northward, under tow of the RNN vessel ABRAHAM CRUNSSEN (which had also served for a time with the RAN).  The next day ABRAHAM CRUNSSEN lost the tow and K9 was driven ashore and wrecked on Toina Beach, near Seal Rocks, New South Wales.

On 20 July 1945, K9’s wreck was sold by the Commonwealth Disposals Commission to Messrs Humphrey and Batt of Sydney for 985 pounds.


DISPLACEMENT:  Surface, 521 tons; submerged, 712 tons
LENGTH:  210.25 ft (64.07m)
BEAM:  17.75 ft (5.41m)
DRAUGHT:  10.67 ft (3.55m)
ARMAMENT:  One 3.5-in (89-mm) AA gun; one 12.7-mm AA gun; four 17.7-in (450-mm) torpedo-tubes (two at bow, two at stern)
MACHINERY:  Two Shelde-Sulzer type diesels
HORSEPOWER:  1,500 surface, 630 submerged
SPEED:  15 knots surface, 9.5 knots submerged

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