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HMVS Cerberus


HMVS Cerberus is a Cerberus Class Breastwork Monitor that served in the Victoria Naval Forces, the Commonwealth Naval Forces (CNF), and the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) between 1871 and 1924.

In 1866, the Victorian government ordered a ship to supplement the shore-based fortifications of Port Philip Bay, and to defend the colony in the event of a Russian attack.  Cerberus was ordered on the understanding that if she operated in any role other than the defence of Victoria, she would revert to Admiralty control.

The ship was designed by Edward James Reed, Chief Constructor to the Royal Navy, and built by Palmers Shipbuilding at their Jarrow-on-Tyne shipyard under the supervision of Charles Pasley.  Cerberus was laid down on 1 August 1867, launched on 2 December 1868, completed in 1870. 

Design


Ceberus at Williamstown in 1871

Click on image for a better view.
Named for Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of Hades from Greek mythology, Cerberus was the first of the 'breastwork monitors', which differed from previous ironclad warships by the fitting of a central superstructure containing rotating turrets.

Cerberus was also the first British warship to be solely steam-powered.  Her twin screws were driven by two horizontal twin-cylinder, double-acting steam engines made by Maudslay Son Field.  Cerberus had a maximum speed of 9.75 knots (18.06 km/h; 11.22 mph), with an economical speed of 6 knots (11 km/h; 6.9 mph).  The monitor had a bunkerage of 240 tons of coal; this would last just under five days at maximum speed (50 tons consumed per day), and ten days at economical speed (24 tons per day).

That ten day range and the lack of a keel meant that the Cerberus was not well suited to ocean travel.

Cerberus was 225 feet (68.6 m) long, 45 feet 1 inch (13.7 m) wide, and with a draught of 15 feet 6 inches (4.7 m).  She had a freeboard of 4 feet (1.2 m), while her breastwork extended 7 feet (2.1 m) above the deck, and she was 112 feet (34 m) long.

The ship had armour plating ranging from 6 to 8 inches (150 to 200 mm) in thickness for the waterline armoured belt on her hull, which was backed by 9 to 11 inches (230 to 280 mm) of teak.  The citadel armour protecting the breastwork ranged in thickness from 8 to 9 inches (200 to 230 mm), and gun turrets had 10-inch (250 mm) faces and 9-inch (230 mm) sides.  Cerberus was protected by an armored deck that was 1 to 1.25 inches (25 to 32 mm) thick.  For added protection, Cerberus could take water into ballast tanks, decreasing her already low freeboard until only the turrets and breastwork were visible.

The main armament was four 10-inch guns, mounted in two turrets.  The four guns weighed 18 long tons each, were muzzle-loaded, and had to be withdrawn completely inside the turret to be reloaded.  They could fire a 400-pound (180 kg) shell up to 4,000 yards (3,700 m) once every three minutes.  The turrets were mounted fore and aft; each had a crew of 33, and had a 270 field of fire.  The guuns had to be hand-cranked into position. 

She also had two 12-pdr bronze howitzers.  In 1883, four, 4-barrel 1-inch Nordenfelt guns were added.  She was fitted with torpedo netting and spars in 1887.   In 1890 two Nordenfelt 6-pdr QF Guns were added, and in 1897 another two Maxim-Nordenfelt 14-pdr QF Guns were added.

She had a standard ship's company of 12 officers and 84 sailors, with an additional 40 to man the ship in wartime.

Operational history

On completion, Cerberus was registered as a merchant vessel for the voyage to Australia.  For the journey, the sides of the hull were built up to the height of the breastwork along the length of the ship, to improve seakeeping. 

She first attempted to sail from Chatham for Melbourne on 29 October 1870, but returned within days because of gale conditions, which made the ship uncontrollable.  After returning to British waters, Cerberus was fitted with temporary masts so she could be rigged as a three-masted barque; this was to maximise her range before recoaling was required.

HMVS Ceberus
Detail of the front gun turret of HMVS Cerberuswith its 10 inch (25 cm) main guns

Click on image for a better view.
Cerberus departed for a second time on 7 November, and despite similar conditions, was able to persevere.  The ship travelled via the Suez Canal (during which she flew the flag of Victoria instead of the Red Ensign and so reduced the transit rates for warships that could otherwise have been claimed),  with frequent stops to refuel wherever possible because of her ten-day bunker capacity.  Her flat bottom and shallow draught meant that the monitor could roll up to 40 from the centreline in bad weather.  Her ship's company nearly mutinied on several occasions.

The monitor reached Melbourne on the morning of 9 April 1871.  Following her arrival, she was designated flagship of the Victorian Navy.  At the time of her arrival, public opinion of the ship was low, and she quickly attracted the nickname of 'Floating Gasometer'.

On 5 March 1881, five men from Cerberus were killed when their boat was destroyed by a mine during exercises.  These were the only personnel from the ship to be killed during her operational history.

Following the flooding of the New Australasian Gold Mine at Creswick, Victoria in December 1882, two divers from Cerberus were sent to help find miners trapped in air pockets deep in the mine.  They arrived on 14 December, two days after the flooding, but could not assist because incorrectly fitting dive suits had been sent with them, and only 500 feet (150 m) of air hose was available, despite the miners being at least 1,500 feet (460 m) from the mine's entrance.

In May 1900, one of the ship's company began to show the symptoms of the bubonic plague.  Consequently, all of Cerberus' personnel were quarantined at Point Nepean.

At some point in the 1890's, Cerberus was retasked as a storeship.

Following the Federation of Australia in 1901, Cerberus, like all other colonial naval ships, was transferred to the Commonwealth Naval Forces (CNF).  She was absorbed into the CNF initially, and was renamed HMAS Cerberus when the navy finally became the RAN. 

By 1909, Cerberus could not generate enough steam to propel herself.  When the Royal Australian Naval College was founded in 1913, its personnel were initially listed on the paybooks of Cerberus, as the college was not a commissioned establishment.

She was used as a guard ship and munitions storeship during World War I.  By 1914, the monitor's main guns were inoperable, and she was reliant on her light weapons for defence.

Following the transfer of six J class submarines to the RAN, Cerberus was renamed HMAS Platypus II on 1 April 1921 (taking her name from the submarine tender HMAS Platypus) and reclassified as a secondary submarine tender.  For this role, she was towed to Geelong.

Decommissioning and fate

Between this date and the monitor's departure from service in 1924, HMAS Protector took the name Cerberus and was attached to the training base at Western Port Bay; the base in turn took the name in 1921. 

Cerberus was sold to the Melbourne Salvage Company for 409 on 23 April 1924, with the buyer to break her up for scrap.  The warship was towed from Corio Bay to Williamstown Naval Dockyard on 14 May for disassembly.  After the salvage company removed what they could, she was then sold on to the Sandringham council for 150.  She was scuttled on 26 September 1926 at Half Moon Bay to serve as a breakwater for the Black Rock Yacht Club.  During her life, Cerberus never left Port Philip Bay, and never fired in anger.

The wreck sits in approximately 10 feet (3.0 m) deep, and less than 650 feet (200 m) from shore.  Over time, the breakwater became a popular site for scuba diving. The ship was penetrable from many openings along both sides, and featured two submerged deck levels with heavy silting.  With care and lights, it was possible to travel from stem to stern without leaving the ship, or so it was reported.

The interior of the ship has also seen use as a training course for assault swimmers; while her exposed decks were regularly used for picnics.

During the 1970's, the Cerberus Preservation Trust was formed to study the feasibility of raising and restoring Cerberus.  However, by 1983, the Trust had made little apparent progress.

In 1993, there was a major structural collapse after rusting deck supports and stanchions gave way, leaving only the deck beams to support the deck, turrets, and superstructure.  Cerberus began to subside at 16 millimetres (0.63 in) per year.   Following this, a 100 metres (330 ft) exclusion zone was placed around the wreck.

In 2001, the Friends of the Cerberus organisation was formed, with the goal of preserving Cerberus.  After campaigning by Friends of the Cerberus for funding to remove the four 18-ton guns to reduce the load placed on the monitor's deck, the Victorian government provided an $80,000 grant, and the work was project managed by Heritage Victoria in October 2004.  After being coated with preservative and receiving an electrolysis treatment, the guns were placed on the sea-bed next to the wreck.

From late 2005, Friends of the Cerberus began to campaign  to raise $5.5 million in funding to stabilise the wreck site, first by installing additional supports for the deck and turrets (the latter weighing 200 tons each), then raising the ship off the seabed and placing her in an underwater cradle.

To help attract funds from the Federal and Victorian governments, the wreck was nominated by Friends of the Cerberus and the National Trust for heritage listing, which was achieved on 14 December 2005; Cerberus was also listed on the Victorian Heritage Register and is included on the local Heritage Overlay.

In July 2008, an application by Friends of the Cerberus for a grant of $500,000 of federal funding was successful, with the National Trust of Victoria holding the funds on behalf of Friends of the Cerberus.  The money was originally intended for the construction of a jacking frame and support cradle, but in late 2010, it was instead earmarked for structural preservation work on the monitor's gun turrets.

By April 2012, the target of the funding had changed again, with plans to spend the grant on corrosion control of the wreck, along with "interpretive devices" on the nearby shore.

the battle to save the Ceberus continues.