Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022: Ozzie Bird Boat
Here we see something of an ugly duckling, the Royal Australian Navy’s seaplane carrier HMAS Albatross in Hobart around 1930 with five of her six early Supermarine Seagull amphibians aloft. She is considered by many to be the first aircraft carrier of the RAN, sparking a tradition that endures almost a century later.
Purpose-built for her role at the Cockatoo Docks, she was the size of a small cruiser, weighing some 7,000-tons (full load) on a 444-foot long steel hull. She was the largest ship built in dominion at the time. Powered by a quartet of Yarrow boilers driving a pair of Parsons steam turbines, she could make 22.5 knots which was reasonably fast for the age. She carried four QF 4.7-inch Mk VIII naval guns with two forward and two over her stern as well as a variety of Vickers 40mm pom-poms and .303-caliber machine guns, equivalent to a decently armed destroyer.
However, her primary purpose and armament was her airwing of up to nine (six active, three stowed in reserve) floatplanes or amphibians. These would augment and support the RAN’s two planned new Kent (County) class heavy cruisers, HMAS Australia (I84/D84/C01) and HMAS Canberra (I33/D33), who would also carry the same type of catapult-launched/crane recovered seaplanes as Albatross. In fact, it was felt that Albatross could operate in conjunction with those two cruisers in the Pacific, with the seaplane carrier forward deploying to anticipated areas in advance of the more capable surface ships to screen their operations with her aircraft. Besides, her cruise speed was the same rate as the warships.
Her aviation facilities included safe stowage of 9,967 gallons of avgas– enough for at least 80 sorties for the planned floatplanes she would carry– a large forward hangar space, and two large cranes capable of lifting aircraft aboard.
Albatross, the only Australian warship ever named for the large and iconic seabird, was laid down in 1926 and commissioned on 23 January 1929.
It was originally thought Albatross would carry and operate RAN’s fleet of six Fairey 111D seaplanes, which they had received starting in 1921. One was awarded the Britannia Trophy in 1924 by the Royal Aero Club for circumnavigating Australia in 44 days.
However, the Supermarine Seagull III, an amphibian design by Reginald Joseph Mitchell— father of the Spitfire– superseded the Fairy floatplane before Albatross entered the fleet, with nine of the flying boats delivered by 1927. Able to remain aloft for five-hour patrols, the Seagull III was the direct antecedent of the Walrus (Seagull V), one of the best amphibians of WWII.
As explained by the Fleet Air Arm Association of Australia in reference to the Seagull III:
A total of nine of these aircraft were delivered to the RAAF 101 Fleet Cooperation Flight, who worked closely with the RAN. Of the nine, two were wrecked in (separate) storms whilst at mooring, one crashed after entering a spin during a gunnery spotting exercise (fatal) and six survived for eventual retirement.
Six Seagulls were attached to HMAS Albatross in 1929, but their low freeboard and relatively low powered engine gave poor performance at sea, including the ability to only operate in relatively low sea states.
Albatross’s RAN career was not lengthy, with LCDR Geoffrey B Mason RN (Rtd)’s Naval History Homepage detailing that she completed trials and workups in 1929 to include embarking the Governor-General and wife for a visit to the Australian Mandated Territories in the Pacific then completed a series of local deployments. The next couple of years were spent in a cycle of winter cruises to the New Guinea area, spring cruises in coastal Australian waters, and various fleet exercises.
HMAS Albatross craning an amphibian aboard.
In April 1933, her Seagulls were disembarked, and the vessel was reduced to reserve status, used occasionally to tend visiting seaplanes. While in reserve in 1936 she was briefly reactivated for the installation and testing of a new catapult then returned to storage.
In 1937, the Australian government brokered a deal to swap the still very young and low-mileage Albatross to the British Admiralty in partial payment for the recently completed Leander-class light cruiser HMS Apollo, soon to be the HMAS Hobart (D63). The cruiser arrived in Australia at the end of 1938– and went on to earn eight battle honors for her WWII service: “Mediterranean 1941”, “Indian Ocean 1941”, “Coral Sea 1942”, “Savo Island 1942”, “Guadalcanal 1942”, “Pacific 1942–45”, “East Indies 1940”, and “Borneo 1945,” while Albatross, recommissioned 19 April 1938, waved goodbye to Sydney for the last time that July.
Meet HMS Albatross
Arriving at Portsmouth in September 1938, Albatross was paid off by the Australians and officially transferred to the Royal Navy, a force that promptly put her in reserve with a wartime mission being to provide air surveillance with a force of Walrus amphibians. Her reserve time would be short, as she was fully manned and commissioned as HMS Albatross in June 1939 on the lead-up to Hitler marching into Poland.
Outfitted with six (later nine) Walruses of 710 Naval Air Squadron, she was dispatched in September 1939 to West Africa with a homeport at Freetown– along with visits to Bathurst in the Gambia and French naval base at Dakar– tasked with searching for German blockade runners, U-boats, and commerce raiders plying the South Atlantic.
When France fell in June 1940, Albatross carried Jutland veteran RADM George Hamilton D’Oyly Lyon (CiC Africa Station) to Dakar to try and negotiate the neutralization of the French Fleet there, and her aircraft shadowed the incomplete but still dangerous battleship, Richelieu.
Except for a brief refit in Mobile, Alabama, Albatross would maintain her quiet Freetown outpost station for 31 months until, fresh from her Dixie overhaul, she was assigned to the East Indies Station in May 1942 for trade defense against the Japanese and long-ranging German and Italian raiders/submarines.
After sailing around the Cape of Good Hope with convoy WS18– and dodging Axis minefields– she was soon part of South African-born RADM Edward Syfret’s Force H for Operation(s) Ironclad/Stream Line Jane, the seizure of the Vichy French colony of Mayotte, the port of Diego-Suarez, and the island of Madagascar, where the Japanese hoped to base long-ranging Kaidai-type submarines.
The extended Madagascar operation was a sideshow, historically significant as it was the first British amphibious assault since the disastrous landings in the Dardanelles in 1915. During the seven-month campaign, Albatross provided care and feeding for her pack of 710 NAS Walruses used in ASW patrols against Japanese RADM Noboru Ishizaki’s 8th Submarine Squadron and five locally-based Vichy subs as Syfret had the large the aircraft carriers HMS Illustrious and HMS Indomitable— equipped with a mix of Martlets, Albacores, and Swordfish– for heavy lifting and to cover the landings themselves.
Embarrassingly, the old battleship HMS Ramillies was heavily damaged while in the “protected” Diego-Suarez harbor at the end of May after Japanese midget submarines, launched from IJN I-16 and I-20, penetrated the layered defenses.
Post-Madagascar, Albatross would continue her Indian Ocean service as a headquarters and combined operations training ship at Bombay until July 1943 when, as the Japanese threat to the region had receded, she was sent back to European waters. The Walruses of 710 Squadron were put ashore at Kilindini and ferried to Nairobi before the ship sailed without aircraft, the squadron disbanding at RNAS Lee-on-Solent soon after arrival.
Arriving at Devonport in September, Albatross was paid off for conversion from a seaplane tender to a floating repair ship, a change that included the removal of her catapult and forward main armament while her hangar space was converted to workshops. As she would be sent in harm’s way still, a Type 286 air search radar was fitted as was a half dozen Oerlikons.
Assigned to Force S for the upcoming Operation Neptune, the RN’s support of the D-Day landings at Normandy, she was part of the huge invasion fleet on 6 June 1966 on “The Longest Day.” Her role would be to help install and tend the Gooseberry 5 (Sword Beach) breakwater while plying her repair services there for small craft.
She had a busy month, as noted by Mason, logging an air attack from a German Me109, taking shore fire that killed one rating, providing naval gunfire support and AAA defense of the anchorage, surviving the infamously fierce gale of 19 June, and saving 79 craft from total loss while enabling 132 others to resume service off the beachhead.
By July, Albatross was given a short break to resupply and was then back at it, working repairs off Juno Beach. There, in the pre-dawn darkness of 11 August, she was hit by a new type of German long-range/low-speed circling torpedo– a G7e/TIIID Dackel (dachshund) fired by S-boats (S79, S97, and S177 engaged in the attack, with 10 torpedos fired) of out of Le Harve that killed 66 men and left her with a 15-degree list.
Towed to Portsmouth by a “Free Dutch” salvage tug, Albatross spent most of the remainder of the war under repair with the eye to keep her around as a minesweeper tender. However, as the conflict soon wound down, on 3 August 1945 she was paid off to the reserve and laid up at the Isle of Wright.
Post War career
Placed on the Disposal List in 1946, she was sold to the South Western Steam Navigation Company for continued merchant use. Initially named SS Pride of Torquay in line with a plan to convert her to a floating casino by the Chatham Dockyards, in October 1948 she was bought at auction by the Greek-owned China Hellenic Lines, and she soon became SS Hellenic Prince, ostensibly to recognize the birth of Prince Charles in November, himself the son of Greek nobility, WWII-naval veteran Prince Phillip. Her bread and butter would be to carry World War II refugees to new lives abroad.
Reuben Goossens, who details the lives of classic 20th Century liners, has an interesting page covering Hellenic Prince’s short career with the CHL and Pacific Salvage Co. Ltd, which included turning “migrant voyages into a living hell” from Europe to Australia that included allegations of mutiny and a stint as a troopship taking Commonwealth ground forces to Kenya to fight the Mau Mau.
He notes this about the vessel:
The completed 6.558 GRT (Gross Registered Tons) SS Hellenic Prince was certainly no luxury liner, was able to accommodate up 1,200 persons in 200 cabins and dormitories with up to 20 persons, as well some eight and some 4 bunk cabins all having the most basic of facilities, yet all accommodations were fully air-conditioned. The spacious Dining Room seated 560 persons and this venue at certain times also was used as a lounge area, for there were no formal lounges, but there were two Cinemas for entertainment. In the three bays of her hangar deck there were three separate Hospitals – one for men, one for women, and an isolation Ward for sick children who would most likely have come out of one of the concentration camps of post-war Europe.
Sold to a British Ship-breaker in 1954, ex-HMAS/HMS Albatross was broken up in Hong Kong where she arrived in tow on 12th August 1954. As far as I can tell, there is little that remains of her in terms of relics.
A Portuguese sister?
Portuguese Navy Capt. Artur de Sacadura Freire Cabral was famed for the first flight across the South Atlantic Ocean in 1922– a 5,200nm trip from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro that took 79 days to log 62 hours of flight time! His aircraft was dubbed Lusitania, a Fairey III-D seaplane specifically outfitted for the journey and, if you remember, the same type of aircraft the Australians intended to operate from HMAS Albatross.
Portugal this month celebrated the centennial of that feat.
Sadly, Cabral would disappear two years later while flying over the foggy English Channel and never be recovered.
In a salute to him, the Portuguese Navy in 1931 planned the acquisition of a seaplane tender based on Albatross to be constructed at an Italian yard. To be built at Cantieri Riunii dell Adriatico at Trieste as part of an extensive naval shipbuilding program, funding was never realized and all we have is the 1931 Jane’s entry for the vessel.
Albatross is remembered in Australia via a variety of maritime art.
The Royal Australian Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, including four squadrons of helicopters (723, 725, 808, and 816) along with one of UAVs (822X Squadron), and the Fleet Air Arm Museum, are located at a shore establishment near Nowra, New South Wales. The base, originally formed in 1942 by the Royal Australian Air Force as RAAF Nowra, was transferred to the RAN in 1944 and commissioned in 1948 as HMAS Albatross, recognizing the name of the old seaplane carrier.
Further, the RAN would revisit aircraft carrier operations with the Colossus-class light aircraft carrier HMS Vengeance (as HMAS Vengeance, from 1952 to 1955) along with the Majestic-class light aircraft carriers HMS Majestic (as HMAS Melbourne, from 1955 to 1982) and HMS Terrible (as HMAS Sydney from 1948 to 1973), spanning a solid 34 years of running fixed-wing flattops.
Today, the RAN’s pair of Canberra-class LHDs, big ships of some 27,500-tons and 757-feet overall length, can carry as many as 18 helicopters and it is thought they could eventually operate F-35B models, continuing the legacy the humble Albatross began a century ago.
As seaplane tender/carrier
Displacement: 4,800 tons (standard), 7,000 full
Length 443 ft 7 in
Beam: 58 ft molded, 77.75 ft at sponsons
1930: 16 ft 11.5 in
1936: 17.25 ft
Propulsion: 4 × Yarrow boilers, 2 x Parsons Turbines, 12,000 shp, 2 shafts
Speed: 22 knots
4,280 nm at 22 knots; 7,900 nm at 10 knots on 942 tons of oil
Complement: 29 RAN officers, 375 RAN sailors, 8 RAAF officers, 38 RAAF enlisted
4 x 120/40 QF Mk VIII guns
2 x single 2-pounder (40-mm) pom-poms (later replaced by quadruple pom-poms in 1943)
4 x 47/40 3pdr Hotchkiss Mk I saluting guns
Aircraft carried: 9 aircraft (six actives, three reserves)
As Hellenic Prince (1949-54, Lloyd’s specs)
Tonnage: 6.558 GRT.
Length: 443.7 ft
Draught: 17.25 ft
Propulsion: 4 × Yarrow boilers, Parsons Turbines, 12,000 SHP
Speed: 17 knots service speed, 22 maximum.
Passengers: around 1,000, but up to 1,200 maximum in Steerage.
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