Remembering 1942: The Loss of HMAS Perth Dr Peter Stanley

Originally presented by Dr Peter Stanley on Friday, 1 March 2002 beside the Roll of Honour at the Memorial, as part of the Roll of Honour Talks series.

Download the talk - 08:51 min (2Mb Mp3)


Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen and welcome to the Australian War Memorial and especially to its Roll of Honour. Here Australia records the names of those who have died in its service in war. This talk is one of a series of addresses - 'Roll of Honour talks' - in which the Memorial's historians explain the events which led to these names being placed on this wall.

Sixty years ago today the Australian light cruiser, HMAS Perth, was lost in the battle of the Sunda Strait. The loss of the Perth was the heaviest sacrifice made by the Royal Australian Navy during the tragic months of 1941-42 as Japanese forces advanced into south-east Asia. How did this event happen?

Perth was one of three modified 'Leander' class light cruisers commissioned into the Royal Australian Navy between 1935 and 1939. Its sister-ships were HMA Ships Sydney and Hobart. As we know, only Hobart survived the war. Between them the loss of Sydney (in November 1941) and Perth accounted for just over half of the 1,951 members of the Royal Australian Navy to die in the Second World War. The loss of HMAS Perth was therefore a tragedy second only to the loss of Sydney.

Perth had had a busy war up to 1942. It had served as part of the Mediterranean Fleet, taking part in the battle off Cape Matapan in March 1941 and in the evacuation of Crete in May 1941. Perth's captain was Hector Waller, a distinguished Australian officer who had started the war in destroyers.

By February 1942 Perth was one of all-too-few major Allied warships in what was known as the ABDA area, that is, the combined Australian, British, Dutch and American theatre in south-east Asia. Hastily formed in a desperate and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to stem the Japanese advance, the ABDA forces were a motley assemblage. The available naval forces in the waters of what was then the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) included warships from all four nations. They included two Dutch cruisers (de Ruyter and Java), the British Exeter, the American Houston and the Perth. They were under the command of the Dutch Admiral Karel Doorman.

As Japanese invasion forces approached Java late in February 1942 the ABDA squadron steamed from Surabaya in eastern Java to intercept and oppose them.

This led to the battle of the Java Sea, on 27 February. This was a running fight as the Allied and Japanese forces steamed westwards during a tropical afternoon. Beginning with exchanges of gunfire at long and then close range, the engagement later saw Japanese destroyers racing to make torpedo attacks. Perth covered a Dutch destroyer hit by a torpedo until it blew up and then moved to support the damaged HMS Exeter. By nightfall three Allied destroyers had been lost and the damaged Exeter had withdrawn. Admiral Doorman drew away from the Japanese force but then turned to renew the attack.

In the dark the battle resumed. Both of the Dutch cruisers were hit by torpedoes and sank, taking Admiral Doorman with them. No Japanese ships had been lost. The costly action had delayed the Japanese invasion by a day.

Captain Waller of the Perth took command of the USS Houston - all that remained of the Allied squadron - and headed to the port of Tanjong Priok on Java's north coast. The following day, 28 February, Waller re-fuelled and at evening left port to make course through the Sunda Strait, around Java's west coast toward Tjilatjap, on the island's south coast.

Late that evening, as the two ships entered the Strait, Waller encountered warships. He was in fact steaming toward the main Japanese invasion convoy, lying at anchor in Bantam Bay. The warships he saw were not (as he had expected) Allied, but were the Japanese covering force. He ordered the ships to action stations and opened fire.

In a night battle, under fire from Japanese cruisers and destroyers, Perth and Houston steamed in a great semi-circle nearly ten miles or sixteen kilometres across. All the while they were under fire from torpedoes and shells. At about midnight a shell holed Perth's hull near the waterline and other hits followed. Waller decided to try a dash for the Strait. Just as he ordered 'full ahead' a torpedo struck, followed by a second a few minutes later.

Waller ordered his crew to abandon ship. Twenty minutes later the Perth heeled over and sank. The Houston too fought on until it sank after hits by torpedoes. In two battles over three days Allied sea-power in the Netherlands East Indies had been all but destroyed. Nothing could now prevent the Japanese from invading Java, and the Allied navies' task would be to evacuate as many servicemen and civilian refugees as possible. In the course of this effort more ships and lives would be lost. The casualties would include the Australian sloop HMAS Yarra, sunk while fighting off a Japanese squadron a few days later.

Of Perth's complement of 680 men some 357 were lost during or just after its brief final action. They included Captain Waller. Survivors described how he was last seen 'standing with his arms on the front of the bridge, looking down at the silent turrets'. One of the Royal Australian Navy's new 'Collins' class submarines commemorates Waller.

Those who survived were gradually picked up by Japanese warships and became prisoners of war. They were held at first in Java, then were sent north to labour on the Burma-Thailand railway. Of the 320 who were captured 105 - almost exactly one man in three - died before they were liberated in 1945. The Houston's survivors also laboured and died as prisoners of war in Java, Thailand and Japan, the two main groups of Allied naval prisoners of war in south-east Asia.

The Perth's story has been told in various ways, and it deserves to be re-told. Books on the subject include David Burchell's remarkable account of the discovery of the wreck of the Perth, The Bells of Sunda Strait. As a result of this expedition the Memorial acquired the bell of HMAS Perth that is on display in the Second World War gallery. Also in the Memorial's collection is Denis Adams's evocative painting of the Sunda Strait battle, with the flash of the guns illuminating the white ensign amid the glow of star shells drifting down. Eight other books exist on the Perth, from straightforward accounts of the ship's service to heartfelt stories about those who served and died, such as Brendan Whiting's Ship of Courage.

Perhaps the most powerful telling of the tale has been the trilogy written by Ray Parkin: Out of the Smoke, Into the Smother and The Sword and the Blossom. This memoir, which begins aboard HMAS Perth and ends with the author's liberation from captivity, is one of the great pieces of Australian war literature. Among the several remarkable aspects of the books are that they were partly written while he was a prisoner of war, in Java and on the Burma-Thailand railway. This is a testimony to Parkin's inspiring capacity to surmount the horrors of his situation even while describing it so fully, movingly and even beautifully. It is interesting to note too that it was through Into the Smother that the service of the medical officer Lieutenant Colonel Edward 'Weary' Dunlop began to be widely known among Australians.

Ray Parkin's books are regarded as among the best of the memoirs published by former prisoners of the Japanese. They stand as enduring pieces of Australian war literature, informing subsequent generations about an experience unimaginable except through the descriptions of those who survived. Ray Parkin, has since gained further honour as an author and marine artist following his recent book on Cook's Endeavour. It was fitting that he was one of those veterans interviewed as part of the 2001 television series Australians at War.

Together, these works inform us of one of the epic fights of the Royal Australian Navy in the Second World War. Standing here, beside the Roll of Honour recording the names of those men of HMAS Perth who died in the Sunda Strait or in jungle camps, we remember them.

Lest we forget.