Defence connections between Australia and Sri Lanka (Ceylon) over the 75 Years

Paul Cooney
January 28, 2022

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)

HMASMelbourne (I) at sea (A.V Gregory)

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)

HMASMelbourne (II) R21 in Sydney Harbour.

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

HMASMelbourne (II) R21

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.

HMASMelbourne (II) R21 – Indian Ocean Tour 1980 - 25th Anniversary

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) Cartoon – Indian Ocean Tour 1980 - 25th Anniversary – Colombo 13 -20 October. Note the snake image for Sri Lanka. (from Temora Air Museum)

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.

HMASMelbourne III exercising with SLN ships Sagara and Samudura, dated 2 Sept 2015

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.

HMASMelbourne (III) arrives in Colombo Harbour in August 2015

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.