Named after the three-headed mythological guard dog, Australia's HMVS Cerberus was purpose-built for the Victorian Colonial Navy in 1868.
The prototype for modern steam-powered battleships, her unique design laid the foundations for all surface, gun-armed warships for a century until the advent of guided missiles in the late 1960s. The heavy iron superstructure and lighter iron hull were a radical departure from the wooden warships that had previously dominated world navies.
Preparing for attack
In the 1860s, the Victorian government was in the market for a powerful warship. Britain and Russia prepared to face each other in battle as the threat of a second Crimean War grew. The Australian colonies, half a world away from Britain, faced the possibility of hostile attack by a Russian flotilla.
HMVS Cerberus was the flagship of the Victorian Colonial Navy, protecting Melbourne and Victoria's rich gold resources from foreign attack. At Federation in 1901 she was transferred to the Commonwealth naval forces and then became an inaugural unit of the Royal Australian Navy in 1911.
Decommissioning the Cerberus
By 1924 she was declared surplus to the Navy and was sold to a salvage company. Stripped of any fixtures of value, the remaining hulk was purchased for 150 pounds by the then Sandringham Council. She was eventually scuttled as a breakwater in 1926 at her current location, a few hundred metres off the beach at Half Moon Bay, Black Rock.
An innovative design
HMVS Cerberus was the first iron hulled British warship to be designed without masts and to be powered purely by steam. She had a low freeboard, breastwork armour, and a central superstructure with turrets above deck both fore and aft.
Her main armament consisted of four 10-inch muzzle loading guns mounted in two turrets. Cerberus' guns were capable of firing a round every 1.5 minutes, which was fast for the standards of the day.
She also had ballast tanks that could be filled to sink the hull and lower her freeboard to further reduce her profile in battle.
Throughout her 53 years of service, HMVS Cerberus was never required to fire a shell at an enemy.
Although she was an outstanding example of technical achievement and ingenuity, the Cerberus was an experimental and transitional model that was not suited to ocean-going and was soon superseded.
Today, this unique relic of our naval heritage continues to be hailed for her place in the evolution of the battleship.
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