By Rohan Goyne
I refer to the excellent article Antarctica the forgotten Continent by Hugh Farmer in the Naval Historical Review Vol. 38 No2 June 2017 and offer the following comments: Macquarie Island is territorially part of the State of Tasmania and not in the same category as Heard and McDonald Islands which are overseas territories for the purposes of International Law. The RAN also operated in the Antarctic during WWII with the expedition of HMAS Australia to mine the Kerguelen Islands to deny their harbours to German raiders operating in the Indian Ocean. The attached copy of my article on this operation published in Sabretache, Vol. 55 Issue 3 (September 2014), the journal of the Military Historical Society of Australia (MHSA) may be of interest to your members.
The genesis for the article was from the memoirs of Australia’s Antarctic pioneer Dr Philip Law – Antarctic Odyssey – where Dr Law refers to his expedition to establish an Australian base on Heard Island and stopping over at the Kerguelen Archipelago. In the introduction to the chapter on Iles de Kerguelen, Dr Laws notes that HMAS Australia visited the island in 1941 to lay sea mines to deny the enemy use of the main harbours of this Sub-Antarctic island.
The official history records Australia’s operation in the Kerguelen as: ‘For the rest of the year she was on escort and patrol duties on the South Atlantic Station, this period included a brief visit to Kerguelen to seek for possible raiders’.1For example, the official history also records that the German raider Komet was present at Kerguelen in March 1941.
On 1 November 1941, Australia under the command of Captain George Moore, RAN arrived at Kerguelen Island and proceeded to undertake a sweep of the island to detect if there was any evidence of the activity of German commerce raiders utilising the island’s sheltered harbours as refuges whilst undertaking offensive operations against allied shipping lanes in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
On the strength of her investigations Australia laid magnetic mines in four locations at the entrances to the harbours of Kerguelen Island.2In particular sea mines were laid at the entrance to the old French whaling station at Port Jeanne d’Arc, as shown on the map of the island.
The strategic importance the German Navy placed upon Kerguelen Island is represented by the German plans to establish a meteorological station on the island as late as May 1942. The German raider Michel transferred a meteorologist and two radio technicians to a supply ship which was to transport them to Kerguelen Island to establish the station. Whilst in transit the orders were countermanded thus the plan was never put into action. The effectiveness of the sea mining operation conducted by Australia was therefore never tested as to whether the mines could deny enemy shipping access to the secure anchorages on the island.
Subsequently, the continued presence of the magnetic mines laid by Australia was reported by Phillip Law in 1949 as affecting the passage of the Landing Ship Tank, HMAS Labuan whilst making a landing at Kerguelen. The ship was supporting the Australian Antarctic Expedition to the continent, which was being led by Dr Law.
‘The passage to the anchorage was hazardous, for the mines laid in 1941 by HMAS Australia had blocked the normal entrances and the ship was forced to pass through a narrow gap 120 feet wide between two rocky islets’3
The continued presence of the sea mines is reported in the literature associated with the island as recently as 2008.
Gill, G.H. Australia in the War of 1939-45 – Navy 1939-42, p 511
ADM 1/12148, Review of Kerguelen Sea Mining by HMAS Australia 1941-1944, National Archives of the UK
Law, Dr P. Antarctic Odyssey, Heinemann, Melbourne, 1983, p 53