China's Qingdao joins the celebrations. Photo: Nick Moir
Before dawn, the sky had been heavy with clouds threatening rain. A clammy fog had shrouded the coast, chilling the handful of people who had come early to South Head, one of the grand sandstone ramparts that guard the entrance to Sydney Harbour.
But at sunrise the clouds slowly drifted out to sea, the fog faded to a light mist and the springtime air grew warmer, the day bright with promise. Trams from the city and ferries from Circular Quay and the northern foreshores emptied their passengers at the small ﬁshing village of Watsons Bay, more of them by the minute. As the morning wore on, the crowd swelled from hundreds to thousands, men in their smartest suits and straw boaters, women in ankle-length skirts, their children skipping and chattering beside them, all hurrying to the cliff top. Some carried heavy wicker picnic baskets. Fruit sellers hawked oranges and bananas. Police on horseback kept a watchful eye. The celebrated aeronaut Captain Taylor Penfold soared above in a hot-air balloon. Some folk had brought telescopes or opera glasses, keen for the ﬁrst glimpse of an occasion they knew would make history.
It was Saturday, October 4, 1913. The people of Sydney had been awaiting this moment for weeks. The Royal Australian Navy - their navy - was about to make its ﬁrst grand entry into the vast waterway that Captain Arthur Phillip's First Fleet had discovered and settled 125 years earlier. ''Without exception, the ﬁnest harbour in the world,'' Phillip had written to his patron in London, Lord Lansdowne. ''Here a Thousand Sail of the Line may ride in the most perfect Security.''
Sail had long given way to steam in the world's navies. The ﬁrst hint of this new ﬂeet was not a ﬂeck of canvas on the eastern horizon but the merest smudge of coal smoke, a brown haze melding with the mist. At half-past nine, Mr Alfred Gibson, the master of the South Head signal station, passed the word to the throng that the ﬂeet was in sight some 24 kilometres away, and there was a stir of anticipation.
Gradually, the grey bulk of the ﬂagship, the battlecruiser HMAS Australia, began to appear, every inch a man-o'-war, smoke pouring from her three tall funnels as she ploughed gracefully through the light swell. Then came her consorts in line astern: smaller ships, the light cruisers Melbourne, Sydney and Encounter, lean and elegant. And, bringing up the rear, three slender torpedo boat destroyers: Warrego, Parramatta and Yarra, all pleasingly named for Australian rivers.
As the shapes grew larger and more distinct, the crowds could pick out Australia's 12-inch guns, eight of them in four twin turrets, trained rigidly fore and aft. The proud White Ensign of the King's navy ﬂew from her mainmast. At her foremast, there was the smaller red and white ﬂag of a rear admiral, and the Australian ﬂag itself, which a Herald reporter later described for readers unsure of what it looked like. ''It is the Blue Ensign, with a Southern Cross on the ﬁeld, made of ﬁve-pointed stars and a six-pointed star underneath the Union Jack in the centre,'' he wrote. The explanation − inaccurate though it was − might well have been necessary. The new Federation and its ﬂag were barely 12 years old.
At ﬁrst, there was hardly a sound from the cliff tops. There was a deep hush, as if the thousands gathered there were in awe of the armada arrayed beneath them. Sydney had been a naval port from the ﬁrst day of white settlement, but it had not seen anything like this before. 'The appearance of the Fleet on its entry into the harbour was not signalised by any great demonstration. But everyone gazed at the boats in wrapt [sic] attention, noted the glittering brasswork, the grim looking guns, and other appurtenances which go to make the vessels more dangerous and more difﬁcult to purchase. The admiration held them,'' the Herald said.
Then the thrall broke. Promptly at 10.30am, as Australia's bow nosed between the two headlands, north and south, the band arrayed on her quarterdeck broke into that stirring anthem of British Admiralty, Rule Britannia. Wave upon wave of cheering rang out in return. On South Head itself, the intrepid Captain Penfold hurled ''bombs'' from the wicker basket of his balloon - festive ﬁrecrackers that burst in the air to the delight of all.
Another ﬂeet had gathered on the harbour in welcome: gentlemen's yachts and small sailing dinghies, skiffs and rowing shells, public ferries and pleasure steamers big and small. The spanking new ferry Kubu bustled to the fore. Chartered by the federal government, it bore the newly elected Liberal Party prime minister Joseph Cook, his defence minister, Senator Edward Millen, and their wives and most of the cabinet. The turbulent politics of the times had been buried for the occasion. National pride and unity were the watchwords. Cook had also invited senior members of the opposition to join him, including its leader, Andrew Fisher. Before he emigrated in 1885 at the age of 23, Fisher had been a coalminer in Scotland. In his new home, he had risen to become the nation's ﬁfth prime minister, and a moving spirit in the drive to build a truly Australian navy. He was one of the navalists, as they had become known, those men of affairs who believed that the new island nation must stand ready to defend herself at sea. On this great day for his country, as he saw his vision realised in smoke and steel, grey paint and coloured signal ﬂags, he turned quietly to those with him on the deck of the Kubu. ''The thing is done and there is now no turning back,'' he said.
This is an edited extract from First Victory - 1914 - HMAS Sydney's hunt for the German raider Emden, by Mike Carlton. Published by Random House Australia, $45.