Submarine war on Australia

By Dr Robert Nichols, who worked on the Australian War Memorial's display of the Japanese midget submarine in its new ANZAC Hall, and who is currently the Memorial's Editor.

The Japanese Navy first used its midget submarines during the surprise Pearl Harbor raid of 7 December 1941. Two were sunk trying to enter the harbour and another drifted around to the east coast of Oahu, where it was captured on the day after the attack. Despite this failure, the midgets were given another chance. At the end of May 1942 separate attack groups mounted simultaneous attacks on two Allied harbours: Sydney and Diego Suarez (in Madagascar).

At Diego Suarez three midgets were used: one failed to launch, but at least one of the others penetrated the harbour and damaged one ship (the British battleship Ramillies) and sank another (the tanker British Loyalty).

The midget submarine attack on Sydney Harbour was a major Japanese operation that, in the end, achieved little. Neither of the principal targets (the cruisers USS Chicago and HMAS Canberra) was hit, with only the converted ferry Kuttabul sunk for the loss of twenty-one lives.

After the attack, Sydney was in turmoil, with the harbour the scene of intense activity. Kuttabul was raised, the bodies recovered, and the dead mourned. The public avidly followed the retrieval from the harbour of the wrecked midget submarines. Sydney Harbour's defences were increased in case the Japanese returned.

One of the most harrowing tasks in the days immediately after the attack was recovering the bodies of the sailors killed when Kuttabul was destroyed. Then, amid much controversy, the bodies of the four Japanese submariners were cremated with full military honors and their ashes returned to Japan.

But Sydney was in for another surprise. Eight days after the midget submarine attack, two large Japanese "mother" submarines lying off shore fired shells at Sydney and Newcastle. The aim was simply to create a sense of unease among the population. None of these shells caused any real damage or serious injury, but for many Sydneysiders, it seemed time to move to the country. Others dug air raid shelters in their backyards. Membership of volunteer defence organisations swelled to over 80,000.

Ironically, the Japanese midget submarines contributed to Australia's war effort. Over the next year, the submarines were taken on an extensive fund-raising tour of rural New South Wales and Victoria before finally arriving at the Australian War Memorial.

Even as the Japanese submarines were shelling Sydney and Newcastle, the course of the war in the Pacific was changing dramatically. At the battle of Midway the Japanese Navy suffered a decisive defeat, losing four aircraft carriers. The US Navy lost one.

Although the tide had turned against the Japanese, attacks on Australia continued until the end of 1943. Their submarines began to attack merchant shipping along the east coast of Australia. The first ship sunk was the SS Iron Chieftain on 3 June 1942. In all, seventeen ships and more than 400 lives were lost.

A year later, the nation was outraged by the loss of 268 men and women in the sinking off Brisbane of the hospital ship Centaur. Of the 12 nurses on board, only one, Sister Ellen Savage, survived the attack.

The attacks on merchant shipping represented Japan's best chance to hamper Australia's war effort. But the Japanese Navy preferred to have their submarines hunt warships rather than merchant ships, and as the situation became more desperate, they turned their attention elsewhere. By the end of 1943, the Japanese Navy had abandoned submarine operations in Australian waters, preferring to hunt warships rather than merchant ships.

After their failure in Sydney, midget submarines were hardly ever used again, and never successfully. But the midget submarine raid remains a potent symbol of the extent of Japanese operations against Australia during the Second World War.