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HMCS Protector (1884)

Protector in 1900

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HMCS (later HMAS) Protector was a large flat-iron gunboat commissioned and purchased by the South Australian government in 1884, for the purpose of defending the local coastline against possible attacks in the aftermath of the ‘Russian scare', of the 1870's. She arrived in Adelaide in September 1884 and subsequently served in the Boxer Rebellion, World War I and World War II.

Description and armament

Built at William Armstrong & Co, Newcastle-on-Tyne, England, Protector was built to a standard type F1 flat-iron gunboat design, but was one of the largest of its type, and was classified as a light cruiser, with a displacement of 920 tons. Her length was 180 feet 6 inches (55.02 m), with two compound surface-condensing engines that produced 1,500 horsepower (1,100 kW). Her top speed was 14 knots (26 km/h; 16 mph). To conserve fuel (coal) she was also originally rigged as a topsail schooner.

For her size, Protector was exceptionally heavily armed.  Her largest weapon was the 8-inch (203 mm) Armstrong rifled breech-loading gun mounted at the bow.  The gun weighed 12 tons and could fire a 180-pound (82 kg) shell 7,500 yards (6,900 m) using a charge of 90 lb. (41 kg) of black powder.

Other armaments included five 6-inch (152 mm) Woolwich-Armstrong rifled breech-loading guns; four 3-pounder 1.85 calibre Hotchkiss QF guns and five 10-barrel (1.6 mm) Gatling machine guns. Her small arms consisted of: 200 0.45 Martini-Henry rifles Mk IV; 100 breech-loading revolvers; 100 cutlasses and 30 boarding pikes.

At the outbreak of World War I, her armament was increased to include two 4-inch (100 mm) guns, two 12-pounder guns and four 3-pounder guns.

She had a complement: of 85 to 96 men.

Operational history

Protector sail plan
Starboard elevation and deck plan, 1888.

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In July 1882, motions were brought forward in both houses of the Parliament of South Australia to establish a naval force with the creation of a cruiser-type warship, capable of defending the local coastline and harbours. At the suggestion of Sir William Jervois, William Armstrong & Co. of Newcastle upon Tyne were chosen to build the vessel, named Protector, for approximately £40,000 to £50,000 pounds sterling. The builder’s estimate was £63,600 pounds. The contract authorizing construction was signed on 16 November 1882 and the time allotted was fourteen months. The final cost was £65,000 pounds sterling.

A number of alterations were incorporated during the vessel’s time on the builder’s slip, delaying completion until May 1884. On 19 June, the Protector was ready for sea. She was officially commissioned and during the day undertook her initial speed trial run over a four-hour period with the average speed attained being 14 knots (26 km/h). The guns were then tested in the open sea.

Protector sailed from Newcastle upon Tyne on 27 June 1884, en route to Australia and arrived in Gibraltar on 5 July. Sailing via Malta and Port Said, the Protector anchored at Suez on 25 July. Rigged as a topsail schooner the gunboat sailed on to Colombo (Sri Lanka), leaving there on 25 August. During her voyage to Adelaide Protector flew the blue ensign. She left King George’s Sound in late September and on 30 September, arrived at Port Adelaide.

Protector’s first commanding officer was Commander J.C.P. Walcott RN, who brought her out from England and served as commander in charge of the South Australian Naval Forces until August 1893, when he was succeeded by Captain Creswell. Protector remained in South Australian waters for the next 15 uneventful years. Her only activities comprised regular deployments on station at Largs Bay.

Boxer Rebellion

Around the turn of the 20th century, all Australian colonies were involved in the Boer War in South Africa, when a call from Britain came to help defeat the Chinese secret society known as the Boxers. South Australia responded by offering Protector and her crew.

Protector was to join an international force composed of sailors, marines, and soldiers from Britain, France, Italy, the United States, Japan, and Russia, to protect the lives of foreign nationals and to defend their economic interests. The British asked that the ship be commanded and manned by British personnel, and although the South Australian government did not agree to the crewing request, commanding officer Chapman James Clare was temporarily demoted to second in command, with William Rooke Creswell, a British officer and Commandant of the Queensland Maritime Defence Force installed as the ship's captain. Protector sailed from Adelaide, flying the White Ensign, on 6 August 1900. She was temporarily commissioned as HMS Protector for legal reasons, and arrived at Hong Kong on 11 September 1900. A week later, she departed for Shanghai.

In Chinese waters, the expected use of shallow draught vessels such as Protector was not called for, but she performed useful work as a survey vessel and in carrying dispatches in the Gulf of Pechili. By the beginning of November, the Admiralty had decided it could dispense with her services, and she was released to return to Adelaide on 2 November 1900. During her return voyage, Protector participated in the ceremonies inaugurating the Australian Commonwealth in Sydney on 1 January 1901.

Australian Commonwealth

HMAS Protector 1901
Protector in 1901

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In 1901, Protector was transferred to the Australian Commonwealth Government and became a Commonwealth naval vessel primarily based in Sydney. In the years leading up to the establishment of an Australian Naval Fleet, Protector was active around the southern and eastern seaboards. Her main role was to train the Naval Militia Forces of New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia, a duty which she continued on following the foundation of the Royal Australian Navy. From September 1913, she served as a tender to the naval base HMAS Cerberus in Williamstown, Victoria.

World War I

When World War I broke out in 1914, Protector was sent to Sydney and she began service as a parent/depot ship to two Australian submarines, AE1 and AE2. On 28 August 1914, she sailed from Sydney as escort to the submarines headed for German New Guinea colonies. After the surrender of these colonies on 17 September, Protector remained based at Rabaul as a port guard ship until early October 1914, when she sailed for Sydney in the company of HMAS Fantome.

Protector remained in Australian waters, mainly at Melbourne, until October 1915, when she sailed for the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean to report on the wreck of the German cruiser Emden. Emden had been driven ashore on North Keeling Island by HMAS Sydney on 9 November 1914.

Protector returned to Australia in December 1915 and thereafter, for the remainder of the war period, was employed again as a tender to HMAS Cerberus and seagoing duty for a period as a minesweeper in Victorian coastal waters.

Between the wars

In the post war period, she continued to serve as a tender to HMAS Cerberus at Williamstown. In May 1920, she carried the advance party to Flinders Naval depot on Westernport Bay in preparation for the official opening which took place on 1 September 1920.

On 1 April 1921, the Protector lost her thirty-seven-year-old identity when she was renamed HMAS Cerberus. (In turn, the then HMAS Cerberus was renamed Platypus II.)

Battle honours

She earned two Battle Honours, China 1900 and Rabaul 1914


In June 1924, Protector's 40-year naval career came to a close when she was paid off for disposal and was sold to Mr. J. Hill of Melbourne for £677 and 10 shillings. Protector was dismantled and her armament, engines and all movable parts were sold at auction. Conversion work to a lighter then took place and was completed in November 1929. Her old ammunition magazines served as a tank for approximately 300 tons of oil fuel.

In 1931, she was re-sold to the Victorian Lighterage Co and was renamed Sidney. For several years she served as a wool lighter.

World War II

During July 1943, Protector was requisitioned for war service by the US Army. En route to New Guinea and off Gladstone, she was damaged in a collision with a tug and abandoned. The hull was subsequently taken to Heron Island off the Queensland coast and later sunk for use as a breakwater.

Present Day

Protector today
The remains of Protector at Heron Island in 2008 at low tide (broadside)

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Today, only the deteriorated and rusted iron hull of Protector remains, which is clearly visible from Heron Island as a breakwater in position. The wreck can also be reached by walking at low tide. The reef around the wreck provides good diving and snorkeling at high tide.

Protector's stern 6-inch (150 mm) breech-loading gun mounting was located at Semaphore's foreshore, a historic seaside suburb of Adelaide, South Australia, for many years.  It is now located a short distance away outside TS Adelaide at the Birkenhead Naval Depot in Birkenhead, South Australia.

A 4-inch (100 mm) QF gun from Protector is on display outside the Elizabeth and Salisbury Navy Club in Elizabeth, South Australia. The ship's wheel is on display at the Royal Australian Navy Heritage Centre in Sydney.

Following an overhaul of the RAN battle honours system, completed in March 2010, Protector was retroactively awarded the honours "China 1900" and "Rabaul 1914".