The Australian National Maritime Museum opened in 1991 and is operated by the federal government. Located in Darling Harbour, it houses seven galleries, each dedicated to one topic, such as “Navy,” “Shaped by the Sea,” “On the Waterfront,” and “Passengers” (about some of the many immigrants to Australia over the years, including refugees and war brides). An additional four galleries house temporary exhibits. Four museum ships are open to the public, including HMAS Vampire, nicknamed “The Bat.”
During the 1940s, the Australian government decided to design and construct a new class of ship. In the end, the vessels were considered “super destroyers” and were the last group of destroyer gunships built in Australia. The Darings were the first prefabricated and all-welded ships to be built in Australia. Based on a British design, they surpassed traditional destroyer specifications, and there was considerable discussion about whether they should be considered light cruisers.
The class was tasked with aircraft and submarine defense and often served as carrier escorts and provided gunfire support. The goal of the Daring class was maximum armament in combination with high speed. Much of the superstructure was made of aluminum alloys. The Daring-class Vampire was one of the first ships provided with an alternating current (AC) system, allowing both television reception and air conditioning—undoubtedly a welcome addition during service in the humid tropics. Instead of the traditional hammocks, the crew had built-in bunks, which were raised out of the way between 0800 and 1200.
On her many deployments, the Vampire sailed with the Royal New Zealand Navy and British forces. She won the famous Duke of Gloucester Cup in 1960, 1961, and again in 1963 for being the most efficient ship in the Royal Australian Navy. From 1964 to 1966, the ship patrolled the waters off Malaysia to interdict fighters and weapons headed there, twice providing gunfire support. During the Vietnam War, the Vampire repeatedly escorted HMAS Sydney, which served as a troop transport for Australian soldiers traveling to Vietnam.
A major refit was ordered during 1970 –71 at the Williamstown Naval Dockyard in Victoria. More than 2,000 modifications were made, including new Dutch M-22 gunfire control systems, air-warning radars, an enclosed bridge (a first for Australian destroyers), reworked 4.5-inch turrets, and expansion of the air conditioning system.
For U.S. bicentennial celebrations, the Vampire visited the West Coast. In 1977, the ship served as the Royal Australian Navy’s escort to Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia as Queen Elizabeth II toured Australia. The Queen and Prince Philip congratulated the Vampire’s crew on her escort duties and “smart appearance.” She then instructed the ship to “Splice the mainbrace.” From 1980 the Vampire served as a training ship, with cruises to several Australian ports as well as Fiji, New Zealand, and Singapore. Finally, on 13 August 1986, she was decommissioned.
Daring-class ships were narrow, so much of the machinery was staggered from the vessel’s center line, also increasing survivability from possible battle damage. Notably, only distilled water was used in the boilers, to keep them free of corrosive salts and oxygen. Two evaporators each produced 50 tons of water daily. Twenty of those tons were for boiler use and the rest for other uses. At sea, showers were limited to two minutes.
The mess hall staff consisted of 25 sailors who baked fresh bread every other day. Stainless steel compartment trays were originally used to serve food, but the crew decided they did not like them, so the trays were replaced by “proper” plates and bowls. According my tour guide on the ship, himself a former Vampire sailor, the food was quite good. Once though, before the guide’s time, in 1960, canned (or “tinned,” according to the Australians) carrots were served. Later it was discovered the carrots had been placed in the cans in 1946; they had not kept well and many of the crew became ill. Normally, no medical officer was on board, except on longer independent operations. Usually, each destroyer was deployed near a hospital-equipped ship.
The Royal Navy’s White Ensign was flown by the Royal Australian Navy from its beginning in 1911 until 1967, when Australia’s White Ensign, prominently featuring the Southern Cross, replaced it. In 1997, the Royal Australian Navy granted permission to fly the White Ensign from the decommissioned Vampire, as a mark of respect. Since 1985, each major Australian ship carries a plain red kangaroo silhouette; the Vampire’s is on the stack.
The Vampire’s motto was Audamus—Latin for “We are daring.” Her badge displays the ship’s name, a picture of a bat, and the motto.
The Australian National Maritime Museum itself is large, with several buildings and a large harbor area containing a total of 14 vessels. The entrance building has a large white roof, constructed to resemble billowing sails. Accessed through the main entrance, the building spreads out to the left and right, so vast it would likely take a full day or more to fully explore. Opposite the entrance in the main building, visitors can access the harbor. Four museum ships are open to the public: a replica of HMS Bark Endeavour (Captain James Cook’s vessel), the Vampire, the submarine HMAS Onslow, and the Dutch vessel Duyfken. Other vessels may be viewed but are closed to boarding. All the vessels, several other buildings, and the Cape Bowling Green Lighthouse are located in the harbor area. The lighthouse was originally built in Townsville, Queensland, but the museum acquired it and shipped it to its present site in 1987.
The museum also contains a research museum related to maritime matters, a Welcome Wall with the names of more than 30,000 immigrants to Australia, and a large collection of objects of the Bardi Australian indigenous people from Western Australia. The Australian Maritime College, located in Tasmania, conducts postgraduate courses on the museum grounds.
Having averaged more than 300,000 thousand visitors each year of its first decade, the museum is well known even outside Australia. The Sunday Times of London, in 2010, declared the Australian National Maritime Museum one of the “World’s 10 Coolest Museums.” It is certainly well designed and organized.