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August 5, 2010
WHEN we look back at the
RAN during WWI, the
name HMAS Pioneer is
not often recalled -- but
she could have been more famous than
HMAS Sydney had she not suffered
It should have been Pioneer that sank
Pioneer had a noteworthy history
before she missed her chance at immor-
Originally built and commissioned
by the Royal Navy as HMS Pioneer in
1900, she had a short service life of just
four years spent in the Mediterranean,
before returning to England to be placed
in reserve in 1904.
On November 29, 1912, she was
decommissioned from the Royal Navy
to be gifted to the RAN who recommis-
sioned her in March 1913 as HMAS
When war broke out with Germany
on August 4, 1914, Pioneer was ordered
from Port Phillip Bay to Fremantle to
patrol the west coast of Australia.
As she arrived on station on August
16, Pioneer captured the German steam-
er Neumunster off Rottnest Island.
Neumunster was claimed by Australia
as a prize of war and renamed Cooee.
Ten days later, Pioneer brought in anoth-
er German ship, Thuringen, again off
On November 1, 1914, Pioneer
sailed with the first transport convoy of
38 transport ships headed for the war in
Part of her orders was to leave the
main convoy to inspect the Cocos
Islands, where SMS Emden was even-
tually engaged by HMAS Sydney.
Unfortunately for Pioneer, she suffered
engine failure when taking up her station
and was ordered to return to Fremantle
With repairs completed, Pioneer was
tasked to join a blockade of the German-
held east coast of Africa where the
German cruiser Konigsberg was taking
refuge south of Zanzibar.
Pioneer was joined on station by the
battleship HMS Goliath, cruisers HM
Ships Weymouth, Hyacinth and Pyramus,
as well as armed merchant ship Kinfauns
Konigsberg was not drawn from her
hiding place, so two heavy monitors were
towed into place.
Pioneer and Hyacinth lay down cov-
ering fire as the monitors closed with-
in range of Konigsberg and began their
Konigsberg returned fire with all six
guns but eventually reduced her rate of
fire and finally ceased firing altogether.
Neither monitor was able to destroy the
cruiser despite firing 600 six-inch shells.
Six days later the monitors went in
again, this time hitting the Konigsberg
and setting fire to the ship. The Germans
were forced to scuttle the cruiser.
By the time Pioneer's patrol had
ended, the ship had been at sea for a full
six months with the exception of just nine
days ashore. She spent six weeks in refit
Returning on station from her refit,
Pioneer spent the next six months patrol-
ling the southern region of German-held
With the arrival of the new British
flagship HMS Vengeance, Pioneer and
Hyacinth moved into Dar-esSalaam
where the Germans were reported to have
the hospital ship Tabora, which had been
Pioneer was tasked to guard the har-
bour and open fire on any ships manoeu-
vring within. She fired several four-inch
rounds as warning shots but ceased as
Vengeance awaited a reply from Tabora
about sending an inspection team aboard.
With no reply, Tabora was instruct-
ed to remove her patients from the ship
before Pioneer, Hyacinth and Vengeance
opened fire and sank the suspect vessel.
Following the sinking of Tabora,
Pioneer patrolled the northern and south-
ern regions of the east coast of Africa
and, in June, she joined with HMS
Challenger in the bombardment of Tanga
in support of land-based operations to
capture the town.
In July Pioneer, Hyacinth and
Vengeance bombarded Dar-esSalaam as a
precursor to British land forces capturing
On August 8, 1915 Pioneer was
ordered home for decommissioning,
arriving in Sydney on October 22.
She was decommissioned on
November 7, 1916, and scuttled off
Sydney Heads on February 18, 1931.
Obsolete and decrepit, Pioneer saw
more actual combat than any other
Australian ship in WWI.
Pelorus-class light cruiser
Commissioned: March 1, 1913
Displacement: 2200 tons
36 feet 6 inches
8x 4-inch (25-pounder) guns
8x 3-pounder guns
2x 14-inch torpedo tubes (above water)
2x field guns
3x .45 Maxim guns
Main machinery: Inverted three-cylinder
triple expansion steam
engines, two shafts
But for a twist of fate, WWI light cruiser HMAS Pioneer
would have earned the fame that instead went to HMAS
Sydney. LSIS Paul McCallum reports.
19TH CENTURY TECH: Built for the Royal Navy in the 1890s, Pioneer only served for a few years before
being gifted to the RAN, where she saw active duty for a further two-and-a-half years.
Photos courtesy Australian War Memorial
FISH OUT OF WATER: Pioneer in dry dock in
Symonstown, South Africa, for cleaning and paint-
ing in 1915. The structure (marked X) on the deck
behind the main mast was the wireless telegraph
office. The large building on the dock housed the
crew while the ship was in dock and the small
shed beside it was used as the kitchen.
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