HMCS Protector 1884 – 1924

HMCS Protector at Heron Island during low tide. Photo: C.J. Ison.

There lie the remains of an old ship on the Southern Great Barrier Reef which holds a fascinating story spanning almost 140 years.    The rusting hull now serves as a breakwater protecting the entrance to the boating channel accessing Heron Island, but its history goes back to 1884.

Her Majesties Colonial Ship (HMCS) Protector was launched at Newcastle on Tyne in 1884 to see service in South Australian waters.    The colonial government had sought the ship at a time when there were heightened fears of a Russian invasion.    The 55metre long F1 flat-iron gunboat displaced 920 tons and had a top speed of 14 knots (26km/h).   Originally she was crewed by about 90 men.   

South Australian gunboat Protector circa 1885. Photo Courtesy SLV.

Her armaments included one 8-in breech-loading gun on the bow, as well as five 6-in guns, four 3-pounder quick-firing (QF) guns and five Gatling machine guns.   From 1914 that was changed to three QF 4in MkIII guns, two QF 12-pounder guns and four QF 3-pounders.  

HMCS Protector regularly patrolled the South Australian coast for the next fifteen years and not surprisingly made an uneventful time of it.   Then, on the eve of Federation, she was called upon to join the international force assembled to suppress the “Boxer Rebellion” in China.  

HMCS Protector. Courtesy State Library of South Australia, B18116.

In August 1900 she farewelled Adelaide and was commissioned as HMS Protector for the duration of her overseas service.   She arrived in Shanghai in late September but was not needed for combat operations.   She spent a few weeks carrying out surveys and running despatches between Shanghai and forces in Pechili Gulf further north.  Then, in November she was released to return home to Australia.   

In January 1901 HMCS Protector was transferred to the Commonwealth Government and stationed in Sydney where she mainly functioned as a training ship for Naval Militia Forces.    Then, with the formation of the Royal Australian Navy in 1913, she was renamed HMAS Protector and for a period served as a tender to HMAS Cerberus stationed at Williamstown in Port Phillip Bay.

With the outbreak of the First World War, HMAS Protector was sent to Sydney and served as a depot ship to Australia’s two submarines, AE1 and AE2.   In August 1914 she and her submarines were sent to help capture the German colonies in New Guinea.   HMAS Protector remained based at Rabaul until October when she was ordered to return to Sydney. 

HMAS Protector after being rearmed in 1914. Photo Courtesy SLV.

Then, in October 1915 she was dispatched to report on the wreck of the German cruiser Emden which had been destroyed by HMAS Sydney at the Cocos Islands almost a year earlier.   See my blog Australia’s first “ship on ship” naval action.

On 1 April 1921, the Protector was briefly renamed HMAS Cerberus, before being decommissioned three years later.    Her guns and engines were removed and she was sold off.   In November 1829 she was converted to a lighter and renamed Sidney.    But her military service was not quite over yet. In July 1943 the Protector was brought back into service as a lighter for the U.S. Army in New Guinea.   However, as she was being towed north she collided with a tug off Gladstone, Queensland.  The wreck was abandoned on a beach until a local businessman bought it reputedly for £10.   He floated it off and towed it to Heron Island where it was used as a breakwater.   HMAS Protector’s rusting hull is still there today.

HMCS Protector at Heron Island. Photo: C.J. Ison.

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2022.

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4 thoughts on “HMCS Protector 1884 – 1924

  1. it would be interesting to know why they renamed it HMAS CERBERUS (I assume the ‘other’ Cerberus was decommissioned about then.) instead of letting it continue under its own name HMCS/HMAS PROTECTOR. A ship with its own important history but links to three wars and to importantly historical navel vessels (AE1, AE2 and HMAS CERBERUS).


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