- Book reviewer
- Naval Engagements, Operations and Capabilities, Submarines, WWII operations, History - WW2, Book reviews
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Canberra I
- September 2007 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
A Very Rude Awakening: The night the Japanese midget subs came to Sydney Harbour.
By Peter Grose
Allen & Unwin
Reviewed by Tim Duchesne
On 31 May 1942, three cruisers, two large troop transports, two destroyers, three corvettes and one submarine were in Sydney Harbour. Additionally, many smaller craft charged with Harbour Defence were at various states of readiness. The most important vessels present, and therefore the prime targets in any attack, were the cruisers USS Chicago and HMAS Canberra.
Apart from the harbour defence craft, all those ships were enjoying a short break from operations at sea, and carrying out the hundred and one maintenance and repair tasks which cannot be done whilst underway. The young men on board them were a mix of a small minority of long-service professionals who had joined in peacetime and to whom service of one’s country at sea in a disciplined fighting service had great appeal – particularly at a time of high unemployment – and a much greater majority who had either volunteered or had been called up for the duration of hostilities. With few exceptions, the harbour defence craft, whose role was to prove so crucial that night and next morning, were manned by sketchily trained Reserve officers and sailors consigned to what was very much the second eleven in the Navy’s Order of Battle.
As dusk fell on Sydney on Sunday 31 May 1942, these men were for the most part unaware that at about 4 am the previous morning, a small float plane was heard and seen to fly round the harbour, paying particular attention to the Chicago. That plane had been launched from a Japanese submarine about 70 kms northeast of North Head. The plane capsized and sank on landing in rising seas on its return to its mother ship, but its pilot and observer survived and reported the number and positions of the major ships in Sydney Harbour. So far as our people were concerned at the time, no particular significance was attached to this apparent ‘joy-flight’ by some unknown little float plane.
What followed the next night when three midget submarines penetrated the harbour was a text-book example of ‘the fog of war’. Clarification was not helped by both the Captain of Chicago and the Rear Admiral-in-Charge Sydney, at about midnight, repairing from a dinner party in the Admiral’s residence ‘Tresco’, by their individual gig and barge, to the Chicago and Channel Patrol Boat Lolita respectively, insisting that no submarines were in the harbour and demanding to know why guns were being fired and depth charges dropped. Events rapidly enlightened them.
Peter Grose has teased out a logical and convincing narrative of events by dint of comprehensive and painstaking research which he has further enlivened with the provision of historical background and many personal accounts which, I am sure, have for the first time been brought together in one coherent and fascinating story. In Sydney Harbour at the time, communications were primitive and derisory, and any meaningful command and control by the standards of today was impossible.
We must beware of the trap of hindsight and bear in mind the equipment limitations under which our predecessors strove to do their best. Nonetheless, preparations and organisation could have been much better and leadership at the highest level could have been much more effective. In the event, a daring and very brave attack was contained and beaten by a combination of good luck initially and then by a determined and spirited response by many individuals. The story of that extraordinary night and its historical, operational and personal context has been extremely well told by this author. I thoroughly recommend this book.