- Wright, Ken
- WWII operations, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2009 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
‘We Sent the Japs to Hell and There They Learnt to Swim’
In 1942, the involvement of the Royal Australian Navy in operations against the Japanese in Malaya, Java, Timor, the Bay of Bengal and the Solomon Islands resulted in the loss of HMA Ships Perth, Yarra, Vampire, Canberra, Voyager and Armidale as well as a number of smaller vessels. It was the RAN’s blackest year but also one of hope as Allied fortunes began to turn in the Pacific war.
With both the Australian and American governments in agreement, the American President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed General Douglas MacArthur as Supreme Commander of the South West Pacific Area. MacArthur and his public relations machine arrived in Australia on 18 March 1942 and found his command was limited to a mixed air corps consisting of the Royal Australian Air Force and United States Army Air Force (5th Air Force) personnel, aircraft, service troops but no combat ready fighting units. The Japanese had by then occupied the strategically important harbour and airfield of Rabaul in New Britain and had captured the airfields of Lae and Salamaua in New Guinea. They were now very close to mainland Australia and were already dropping bombs on Darwin in the Northern Territory as well as Broome and Wyndham at the top end of Western Australia. The Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-21 shelled the city of Newcastle and the I-24 shelled an eastern suburb of Sydney. Three midget submarines entered Sydney harbour; one submarine fired two torpedoes at the USS Chicago but missed and exploded under the ferry Kuttabul. Twenty one sailors were killed and ten wounded. War had arrived on Australian soil.
Attack on Port Moresby
With Rabaul firmly in their grip, the Japanese High Command now planned a two-pronged attack on Port Moresby in New Guinea. The capture of Port Moresby would put their forces even closer to Australia. The first attack was to be a seaborne invasion and the second an overland assault over the Owen Stanley Mountains and along the Kokoda Track. Admiral Inouye’s plans for the seaborne invasion ended on 7-8 May 1942, at the Battle of the Coral Sea. Although the battle was a tactical draw for both sides it was a triumph of American naval air power. The overland assault continued as planned and began on 21 July when the first 2,000 Japanese troops, including Major General Tomitaro Horii’s battle hardened elite South Seas Detachment and engineers, began landing at Buna and Gona at the northern end of the Kokoda Track. If New Guinea fell, a direct invasion of Australia was possible. It was not known at the time that the Japanese never seriously considered invading Australia but Darwin had to be neutralised as it was ringed by airfields and provided a staging point for Allied supply vessels and warships which could interfere with their ambitions elsewhere in the South Pacific area.
In Australia, USAAF General George C. Kenney had arrived on 4 August 1942 to take up his position as commander of the combined Australian and American Air Forces in the South West Pacific Area.
General Kenney was the most senior allied Air Force officer next to the overall theatre commander, General Douglas MacArthur. Kenney began to clean up the air units he had at his disposal and organise then into a force capable of going on the offensive. He had a mixed bag of aircrews as the Royal Australian Air Force supplied personnel to almost every United States Army Air Force bomber and transport unit in Australia from early 1942 until mid 1943, a fact which is generally not known and sadly neglected by military historians.
While the Australian soldiers were fighting along the Kokoda Track, on 25 August a Japanese naval convoy landed 2,700 troops, supported by several tanks, at Milne Bay on the northernmost tip of New Guinea. Facing them were 8,824 combined Australian and American troops. This was the first time Australian militia, regular AIF and Americans fought together and after 11 days of heavy fighting, they had beaten a common enemy. On 5 September, Japanese ships evacuated what remained of their troops. They had suffered their first defeat losing 311 personnel with 700 missing. The victory bolstered the confidence of the Allies who were beginning to think the Japanese were invincible. On November 2, the Australian flag was hoisted above the Kokoda plateau but three more months of bloody fighting lay ahead before the Australians, joined at last by American troops, pushed on towards Buna and Gona. The Japanese soldiers received their last reinforcements and resupplies at Buna and they knew this was their last stand. Surrender or evacuation was out of the question and they were to either be victorious or die for the Emperor and the glory of Japan.
The Imperial Japanese forces now began to sufferer more reversals, starting with the Allied naval victory at Midway and Australian victories with American assistance at Milne Bay in New Guinea, and by successes at Buna, Gona and Sanananda between November 1942 and January 1943. These defeats left the Japanese forces in New Guinea in desperate need of reinforcements and supplies. The Japanese High Command began planning a re-supply to their forces in Lae on the east coast of New Guinea by a large convoy of ships. Although Allied intelligence became aware through intercepted and translated radio messages that the Japanese planned to reinforce their garrison at Lae by ship, the timing was not known. The convoy left Rabaul at night under strict radio silence and an umbrella of bad weather