- Roberts, Keith
- Ship histories and stories, WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Australia I
- March 1990 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
On the night of October 20, 1944, the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia, part of the Task Group 77.3 under command of Rear Admiral R.S. Berkey, US Navy, took up position in Leyte Gulf with the immense array of American and Allied ships.
The heavy cruiser HMAS Shropshire, the Australian destroyers Warramunga and Arunta, the Royal Australian Navy landing ships Infantry (LSI) Kanimbla, Manoora and Westralia, also formed part of that group. The Royal Navy was represented by the minelayer HMS Ariadne.
Given the size of the force, and the lack of experience among the commanding officers of many of the United States ships, it was an orderly performance. No sooner had the major ships anchored in position and everyone settled in their ‘Alert Positions’ to see out the night, than a lone Japanese aircraft appeared. Within gun range of the immense armada and with breathtaking audacity, the plane flew right down the line of ships, all of which, according to Lt David Wells (communications officer and Flag Lieutenant onboard AUSTRALIA) had loaded and manned guns sticking out like porcupine spines. Captain shouted orders to engage, but by the time one ship’s captain had ordered his guns crews to open fire, the aircraft had passed out of range.
And so it went on until finally the plane’s pilot carefully selected his target, torpedoed the US Carrier HONOLULU and flew away. The torpedo hit just forward of the bridge, tearing a huge hole in the ship’s side, killing 60 officers and men.
Since for a long time there had been no air attacks on any of the hundreds of ships that were assembled, many of them had never been attacked, and thousands of men, even at that late stage of the war, had never been shot at, or had shot anything, there was an inbuilt reluctance to open fire, but once firing began everyone wanted to be in it.
‘After HONOLULU was hit, the landing force Commander, the Admiral, the General, and Uncle Tom Cobley, all got on the TBS (circuit to all ships) in turn and swore in unseemly terms to everyone’, writes Lt. Wells. The boldness and success of the Japanese pilot’s attack was silently admired by the professionals in our force.
On the morning of October 21, Wells was in his position on the bridge of Australia with Commodore John Collins, the commander of the Task Group 74, with some 40 others, and a further 60 in the air defence position above the bridge and just behind it.
At first light radar picked up an approaching plane. Everyone in the Fleet was still smarting under the poor performance which led to the torpedoing of the Honolulu. Wells had his head down and his anti-flash gloves off, taking a signal from Commodore Collins for transmissions to the rest of the group. At first they thought there was only one plane, then someone in the air defence position shouted there were three and then four.
AUSTRALIA had anchored in Leyte Gulf during the night and had weighed anchor, standing by to provide fire support as needed by the American forces ashore. She was beginning to pick up speed, but not enough to take evasive action.
Lieut. David Hamer (now Senator Hamer), who had just joined the ship, was sitting on top of one of the 8” gun turrets, everyone in those days slept at their action stations, and he found the top of the turret the coolest place to be.
The early morning was balmy, and Hamer was enjoying it, and around 0630 he saw two aircraft. Usually there were a lot of American planes about, but these were very different. ‘They’re Japs’ he shouted to the two single Oerlikons on the Quarterdeck which opened fire. Lieutenant Commander Richard Peek, the Gunnery Officer, was on the bridge and saw a plane about the same time astern and about a mile from AUSTRALIA, travelling at about 300 feet above the water, and on a course almost the same as AUSTRALIA.
‘Just look at this’ Peek called to Captain E.P.P. Dechaineux, ‘she’s aiming for us’. Captain Dechaineux one of the most admired officers in the Royal Australian Navy, walked across to the port side of the compass platform to join Peek.