Remembering 1942: The sinking of HMAS Vampire

22 March 2011

Chris Coulthard-Clark

9 April 1942

Dr Chris Coulthard-ClarkDr Chris Coulthard-Clark

Presented by Dr Chris Coulthard-Clark on Tuesday 9 April 2002 beside the Roll of Honour at the Memorial. (AWM PASU0173)

Download the talk - 10:10 min (2.4Mb Mp3e)


Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Australian War Memorial. I am Chris Coulthard-Clark, from the Military History Section here at the Memorial. It is my pleasure to be giving one of the "Roll of Honour" talks that have been planned for delivery throughout this year, to mark the anniversary of each of the many significant events of the Second World War which took place during 1942.

Today we pause to remember the loss of the HMAS Vampire, a destroyer of the Royal Australian Navy. This day sixty years ago, this ship and her crew fell victim to Japanese bombers off Ceylon, while escorting the British light aircraft carrier HMS Hermes, itself lost in the same action. It was not the first time Vampire had found herself in such a situation.

Almost exactly four months earlier, on 10 December 1941, the Australian destroyer had been with Force Z when that squadron was met and overwhelmed by Japanese aircraft off the east coast of Malaya. The core of Force Z was the new battleship Prince of Wales and the First World War-vintage battle cruiser Repulse, neither of which survived their first encounter with the enemy.

Fortunately the Japanese torpedo bombers focused their attention that day on the capital ships, not bothering to waste precious torpedoes on lesser targets like the three destroyers escorting Prince of Wales and Repulse. Consequently, the destroyers were able to pick up survivors, with Vampire rescuing more than 200 of the 800 men not killed when Repulse went down.

The key element in the tragic outcome of 10 December was the lack of air cover for the allied ships. Without any friendly aircraft on hand to break up the formations of torpedo and high-level bombers deployed by the Japanese, the ships had been forced to rely on their own visually-aimed anti-aircraft guns. These proved totally inadequate in providing protection. In Vampire, there were some smaller calibre anti-aircraft weapons, but her main armament of 4-inch guns was completely useless and their crews could do nothing more than stand by and watch events unfold.

In March 1942-having conquered Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies, seized the Andaman Islands and parts of New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and having struck at bases on the Australian mainland, most notably Darwin-the Japanese embarked on naval operations into the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. These were limited forays aimed at supporting the land conquest of Burma by disrupting allied shipping, weakening the British hold on India, and if possible destroying the British Eastern Fleet which had been reinforced and was now deployed at bases around the Indian Ocean.

The main element of the Japanese striking force was a powerful group under the command of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo which comprised five aircraft carriers with 300 planes on board (the same carriers which had attacked Pearl Harbor and Darwin), supported by battleships, cruisers and destroyers. These ships left Staring Bay in the Celebes Islands on 26 March and entered the Indian Ocean via the Sunda Strait on 3 April. Nagumo took his force towards Ceylon (Sri Lanka as it is now known) with the objective of destroying British naval and air forces in that area.

Available to the commander of the Eastern Fleet, Admiral Sir James Somerville, were just two modern fleet carriers (HMS Formidable and Indomitable) and the old light carrier Hermes, with a total of 100 aircraft embarked. Having been informed that the Japanese had sailed from the Celebes, he initially kept his ships at Addu Atoll in the Maldive Islands.

When the anticipated enemy threat had failed to materialise by 2 April, Somerville assumed that either the intelligence that he had received was wrong or that the Japanese had cancelled their operation. He accordingly sent Hermes, with HMAS Vampire as escort, back to Ceylon for repairs, along with the heavy cruisers Cornwall and Dorsetshire. Finally learning of the Japanese presence, he set out on 4 April but failed to make contact.

Meanwhile, Nagumo prepared to attack the port of Colombo. By the time 50 Japanese bombers protected by fighters appeared over the target on the morning of 5 April, the city had been placed on full alert and the attackers had little success, losing eighteen aircraft in the process. The cruisers Cornwall and Dorsetshire had cleared the port and already put to sea, but were discovered by reconnaissance planes later that day 200 miles south-west of the island. Here they were attacked by 53 dive-bombers, and both ships were sunk within little more than fifteen minutes with the loss of 424 lives.

Had Nagumo made a close search in the south-westly direction that the British cruisers had been steaming, he would probably have located Somerville's main fleet. Instead, the British-realising that they were up against a muc h-superior enemy - used radar to stay out of Japanese search range. Four days later Nagumo sent aircraft to raid Trincomalee, the naval base on the opposite side and end of Ceylon. Again the target was well warned of the impending attack, and Hermes and Vampire were able to leave harbour the previous night. The raid, however, when it came at 7 a.m. on 9 April, was heavily successful: shore facilities were smashed and nearly forty British aircraft destroyed.

Unfortunately for Hermes and Vampire, they were to have the same luck as the cruisers. Having waited out the fury of the Japanese raid from a position about 60 miles to the south, along the island's east coast, they were actually returning to port when they were spotted at 8.55 a.m. by a reconnaissance aircraft. The ships were ordered to race for Trincomalee, where air protection could at least be provided, and informed that fighters were being sent to cover them. It was a case of too little, too late. Delays in getting the promised fighters off the ground meant that air cover did not arrive on the scene until after 12 noon.

At 10.35 am off Batticaloa, seventy Japanese dive-bombers attacked the light carrier, which had no operational aircraft embarked. In the space of ten minutes an estimated 40 hits had smothered the ship, causing it to capsize before disappearing under the waves with 307 of its crew. At the same time, another sixteen dive-bombers focused attention on Vampire.

The destroyer fought off the attackers with her anti-aircraft guns and survived two near-misses with a severe shaking. But then a bomb scored a direct hit in the boiler room and the ship was brought to a dead stop. Now a sitting duck, she suffered four more hits in quick succession. Commander William Moran, the captain of Vampire, ordered his men to abandon ship and take to rafts and floats. Then another hit broke the destroyer's back; the bow quickly sank, followed by the stern a few minutes after 11 a.m. Moran and seven ratings perished. A British hospital ship, Vita, was fortunately able to pluck 590 survivors from both ships out of the sea and brought them to Colombo.

The eight men who died in this action are recorded on the Roll of Honour here behind me, along with another rating (R. A. H. MacDonald) who died four days later of wounds received. The tenth name recorded on this panel (D. J. Kimber) was a member of the ship's company who died earlier, on 15 February 1942.

In terms of the greater purposes which had given rise to the various actions, the Japanese had apparently triumphed again. Not only had the operation destroyed several important fighting units of the limited British forces, causing Somerville to retire to East Africa for the next eighteen months, but 23 merchantmen totalling over 112,000 tons had been sunk (not including another 32,000 tons of shipping which fell victim to Japanese submarines). Indian shore installations were also attacked and coastal traffic disrupted for weeks.

For all that, however, the foray's effects were not long-lasting. On 18 April, as Nagumo's carriers were passing the Philippines on their way back to Japan, it was learnt that while employed 3000 miles away in the Indian Ocean, a resurgent US Navy had launched attacks against the Japanese homeland-the famous Doolittle raid. None of the larger objectives behind the Japanese operation had been achieved, especially in terms of causing India to topple into revolt. Allied shipping was not seriously interrupted beyond a month or so. It was, as various accounts have put it, an "expensive excursion" and "a half-measure ... [which] accordingly achieved only partial results".

The loss of Vampire sixty years ago today was, happily, not the end of that ship's name in the RAN. In June 1959 a second HMAS Vampire, a Daring Class destroyer, entered service with the Navy. Three crew members of this new ship, including its commanding officer, Captain Eric Peel, were survivors of the first Vampire's sinking. The second HMAS Vampire paid off in August 1986 and these days is preserved on public display at the Australian National Maritime Museum at Darling Harbour in Sydney.

Chris Coulthard-Clark