The Commonwealth became responsible for defence at Federation. Previously, each colony had been responsible for its own defence.
The first Commonwealth Department of Defence [I] (CA 6) was established in 1901 and was responsible for naval and military defence and defence policy. However, in 1915, control of naval defence was transferred to the new Department of the Navy [I] (CA 13). Then, in 1921, the Department of Defence [I] (CA 6) and the Department of the Navy [I] (CA 13) were amalgamated to form a new Department of Defence [II] (CA 19). The new department was responsible for all defence matters, including naval, army and air defence, munitions and civil aviation.
In 1938–39, defence was reorganised, and the Department of Defence [II] was replaced by a number of departments including the Department of Civil Aviation (CA 29), the Department of Supply and Development (CA 33) (for munitions and defence supplies), the Departments of Air (CA 35), Army (CA 36) and Navy [II] (CA 38) and the Department of Defence Co-ordination (CA 37).
The Department of Defence Co-ordination was responsible for defence policy as well as the financial and administrative coordination of the service and supply departments. In 1942, the Department of Defence Co-ordination was replaced by a new Department of Defence [III] (CA 46), which continued its predecessor's functions.
In 1973, the three Service departments – Air, Army and Navy – were abolished and their functions passed to the Department of Defence [III].
Defence – Air Force
Image 10: Citation for Lieutenant-Colonel E E ‘Weary’ Dunlop, 1947. Department of the Army, Central Office (CA 36).
NAA: MP742/1, D/5/2044
The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) was established in 1921. The Air Board (CA 90) was responsible for the administration and control of the Air Force under the direction of the Air Council (CA 483), which reported to the Minister for Defence. In 1929, the Air Council was abolished and, from that time on, the Air Board reported directly to the Minister.
In 1939, the Department of Air (CA 35) was established and it assumed the function of administrative support to the Air Force previously carried out by the Department of Defence [II] (CA 19). The Air Board continued to function but now reported to the Minister for Air.
In 1973, the Department of Air was incorporated into the Department of Defence [III] (CA 46), and its functions passed to the newly established Air Office (CA 1567) within the Department of Defence [III]. However, in 1974, the Air Office was abolished and its functions reverted to the Department of Defence [III].
Defence – Army
Until 1870, land defence of the Australian colonies was primarily the responsibility of British troops stationed in the colonies, supplemented by local volunteer forces. In 1870, all British troops were withdrawn from the Australian colonies and, thereafter, each colony was responsible for its own land defence.
At Federation, the Commonwealth government took control of the colonial forces, and formed the Australian Military Forces (AMF). Administration of the military forces was undertaken by the Military Board (CA 89), which consisted of the Minister for Defence and four other members.
The Military Board was initially part of the Department of Defence [I] (CA 6) and the Department of Defence [II] (CA 19), before passing to the newly established Department of the Army (CA 36) in 1939, which was responsible for military defence.
From 1942 to 1946 the Military Board did not function and its powers were exercised by the Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Military Forces (CA 1471).
Upon abolition of the Department of the Army in 1973, the Military Board passed to the control of the Department of Defence [III] (CA 46), before being abolished in 1976.
Defence – Navy
Image 11: Order of the day, ‘Surrender of Japanese’, 1945. Headquarters, Australian Women’s Army Service (CA 7090).
NAA: B5499, volume 11
The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) was established in 1910. Previously, Australia's naval defence had been undertaken by the Royal Navy (RN) and upplemented by an Australian auxiliary squadron.
In 1905, the Naval Board (CA 88) was established to administer and control naval defence. The Naval Board consisted of the Minister responsible for naval defence and two other members. In 1911, the Naval Board was reconstituted and membership expanded to five with each member made responsible for a particular sphere of naval administration.
The office of the Naval Board was known as Navy Office. Navy Office was responsible for the administration of naval defence up until 1976, passing between the Departments of Defence and Navy several times. Navy Office [I] (CA 575) initially functioned within the Department of Defence [I] (CA 6) before moving to the newly created Department of the Navy [I] in 1915. Navy Office [II] (CA 13) then functioned as the Central Administration of the new Department.
The Department of the Navy [I] was responsible for naval defence, naval bases, dockyards and works. However, in 1921 it was abolished and its functions, and Navy Office [III] (CA 2456) transferred to the new Department of Defence [II] (CA 19).
On 13 November 1939, a new Department of the Navy [II] was established, taking over responsibility for naval defence. On the same date, Navy Office [III] became Navy Office [IV] (CA 38) and functioned as the Central Administration of the new department.
On 30 November 1973, the Department of the Navy [II] was abolished and the Navy Office [IV] became Navy Office [V] (CA 1569) within the Department of Defence [III] (CA 46). Finally, in 1974, Navy Office [V] was abolished, followed by the abolition of the Naval Board (CA 88) in 1976. Their functions were subsequently carried out by the Department of Defence [III].
Holdings of defence records are substantial because the Head Offices of the Department of Defence and the three Service departments were originally located in Melbourne. They moved to Canberra in the late 1950s.
The records held include pre-Federation records relating to Victoria's defence forces created by the Chief Secretary (CA 1329) and Victorian Department of Defence (CA 1340). They include correspondence files, muster rolls and pay lists for the Victorian militia, muster rolls and enrolment sheets of the Victorian Naval Reserve, plans and drawings of defence sites, and records relating to Australian contingents to the Boer War.
The period from Federation to just after World War II is well represented. Records of the Departments of Defence [I], [II] and [III]; Navy [I] and [II]; Air, Army and Defence Coordination are held, as are records of the Air Board, Naval Board, Navy Office [I] and [III] and Military Board. The records cover a number of subject areas, including defence sites, establishments and installations, defence intelligence, defence research, munitions and supply, as well as Australia's involvement in the First and Second World Wars and other overseas conflicts.
Related records held by other institutions
The Australian War Memorial in Canberra also holds records relating to defence. The Memorial's collection documents Australia's involvement in overseas conflicts from the colonial period to the present day. Information about the official records holdings of the Australian War Memorial is available from the Archives' RecordSearch database.