Defence connections between Australia and Sri Lanka (Ceylon) over the 75 Years by PAUL COONEY
Source: Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade
The geographical location of Sri Lanka, being one of Australia’s Indian Ocean neighbours has resulted in regular Naval interaction for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) through Goodwill Visits and when transiting to or from the Arabian Sea or Europe via the Suez Canal. The progression of three HMA Ships Melbourne is a good case study of this.
HMAS Melbourne (I)
HMAS Melbourne (I) was a Town Class Light Cruiser introduced into the RAN not long before the declaration of the First World War and took part in the seizure of the German Pacific possessions. On 9 September 1914, the Melbourne (I) landed a naval party on Nauru Island to carry out the destruction of the German wireless station, one of the less well-known battles Australians took part in prior to the Gallipoli campaign. The Melbourne (I) and was involved in escort duties for the Australian fleets to the European Theatre for the war, arriving in Colombo for the first time on 14 November 1914, however she spent most of World War One and the 1920s in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
On the night of 21/22 January 1922 north of New Zealand, HMAS Melbourne (I) rescued 18 people from a sinking US registered schooner, the Helen B Sterling bound for San Francisco with a cargo of coal. Melbourne launched its cutter when the crew fired a line across to the schooner and then rigged a breeches buoy (a type of flying fox) which was used to bring the crew over to the cutter one by one. Amongst those rescued was the Master of the Helen B Sterling, his wife and 12yo son, who was on his first trip to sea. The master’s son, Leslie Harris, received various pieces of memorabilia following the rescue, among them an HMAS Melbourne tally band (Band on a sailors hat indicating the ship he is stationed on) which was eventually passed on to his grandson, Michael. Michael Harris went on to join the RAN, and in 2009 Commander Harris became the Commanding Officer of HMAS Melbourne (III)! Melbourne (I) was broken up in 1929 in Scotland for scrap after decommissioning.
HMAS Melbourne (II) (R21)
HMAS Melbourne (II) (R21) was a Modified Majestic Class Light Fleet Carrier and was the Flagship of the RAN (from 12 May 1956). After being refitted from her planned role as the British Royal Navy (RN) HM Ship Majestic, left uncompleted due to the end of the Second World War. While still in construction in Glasgow, various updates to suit the technological changes that had occurred since the mid 1940’s, particularly relating to jet aircraft operational requirements, were conducted on the ship prior to transfer from the RN on 27 October 1955. Now under the command of the RAN, on 10 April 1956 the Melbourne (II) visited Colombo on her maiden voyage before crossing the Indian Ocean and arriving in her first Australian port, Fremantle, 13 days later.
HMAS Melbourne (II) participated in Exercise JET 61 in the Indian Ocean off Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the third JET exercise to include Australia, and involved some 41 naval units from six countries. The success of the exercises was tempered, however, when one of the Ship’s Sycamore helicopters ditched into the sea near HMS Hermes while conducting a personnel transfer to the British carrier. The Sycamore’s crew and all four passengers were safely retrieved by Hermes. At the end of Commonwealth Exercise JET 1961, the RAN ships HMAS Quickmatch and Queensborough escorting HMAS
Melbourne [II], reached Trincomalee on 10 March 1961.
Limited records of the Flagship visiting Sri Lanka exist during the 1970s however Melbourne (II) did visit in May 1977 whilst transiting to the UK to participate in the Spithead Naval Review, commemorating the Silver Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. A significant period during the decade was spent on exercises in the Pacific and in extensive refits, as the Melbourne was beginning to show her age.
In September 1980 she led a RAN task force into the Indian Ocean, the largest and longest RAN deployment to the area since World War II. During this deployment the venerable aircraft carrier celebrated 25 years in commission The Melbourne (II) performed a 25th Anniversary Silver Jubilee Tour as part of this deployment, including a visit to Colombo between 13 and 20 October 1980.
Melbourne (II) was the final conventional aircraft carrier to serve in the RAN and was the flagship of the RAN for its period in service. She was laid up in 1982. Sold to China for scrap in 1985, but not before a proposal to convert it into a floating casino and a subsequent sale fell through in 1984.
HMAS Melbourne (III) (FFG05)
HMAS Melbourne (III) (FFG05) was an Adelaide class guided missile frigate commissioned in 1992. has been on active service four times, in the Persian Gulf (1996, 2002 and 2003) and in East Timor in support of INTERFET operations in 2000.
HMAS Melbourne (III) Visited Colombo on 24 January 2011 to 29 January 2011 whilst CDRE Michael Harris was the CO, great grandson of the Master of the Helen B Sterling, saved by the crew of HMAS Melbourne (I) almost 90 years before! Students from the Sri Lankan Defence Services Command and Staff College visited the ship on 26 January to help in widening their horizons.
HMAS Melbourne (III) has since made multiple visits to Colombo, 21 February 2014 to 28 February 2014 following a five month deployment to the Middle east carrying out multiple operations, seizing narcotics with an estimated Australian street value of $1.214 billion, the largest being $706 million dollars’ worth of heroin located and removed from a dhow off the coast of Tanzania, and from 29 August 2015 until 2 September 2015 followed by exercises with Sri Lankan Navy (SLN) Ships Sagara and Samudura.
In August 2017 the Sri Lankan Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Jayanath Colombage, visited Australia and during this visit he visited the Fleet Base East in Sydney and boarded HMAS Melbourne (III) and made an impromptu speech highlighting the key factors of SLN counter-terrorism operations.
After more than 27 years of service in the Royal Australian Navy, HMAS Melbourne (III) decommissioned at Garden Island, Fleet Base East on 26 October 2019. The regular cooperative visits and exercising with the SLN by HMAS Melbourne through its three iterations is a great display of the friendship both nations proudly share.
HMAS Melbourne (III) continues to serve as the Almirante Latorre, a Ship of the “Armada de Chile” or Chilean Navy. Ex HMAS Newcastle, now named Captain Pratt, was also sold to Chile.