- Ireland, G.W.
- History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Platypus
- March 1985 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
HMAS PLATYPUS was built in England during WWI as a Submarine Tender to the ’J’ class Submarines and as such she had workshops, oil stowage and storage for torpedoes.
Platypus was now the Mother Ship to about 22 small ships as well as corvettes, destroyers and various other craft. At times ‘Plats’, as she was well known, looked like a broody hen with brood around her.
War came to Australian soil for the first time in our history as a bolt from the blue sky.
Darwin and its harbour basking in brilliant sunshine at 1000 on 19 February 1942 rocked to the blast of Japanese bombs in an attack that spread death, destruction and horror. It was Japan’s first blow at the Australian mainland and it was the hardest they were ever permitted to strike.
Visibility was excellent, the sea was calm and a few light clouds drifted above Darwin. In from the direction of Bathurst Island roared the Japanese Airforce strikeforce of 18 high level bombers, 54 dive-bombers and a fighter screen of 18 Zeros.
A warning that many aircraft were crossing Bathurst Island was sent to RAAF Operations at 0937, however the alarm only sounded a minute or so before the first bombs crashed down on Darwin at 1000. The first bomb to fall on an Australian Port – a 1,000 pounder crashed on the Darwin wharf which was crowded with wharf labourers at work. Twenty men were killed instantly and a large section of the wharf was sliced away on the landward side. Many men were isolated on the seaward side of the wrecked wharf, those who stayed there were all killed by the explosions of bombs and ammunition, those who dived into the harbour perished in the flames that leapt from blazing oil from the bombed tankers, Benjamin Franklin and British Motorist. Oil from punctured pipelines also poured flaming into the sea and soon the harbour was a raging inferno.
Shattering explosions shook the area as the Neptuna blew up and turned on her side.
The British Motorist managed to swing away from the wharf in the first attack and backed into the harbour, however she did not get far before the Japs, wheeling and swooping in formations pounced upon her. Of the four transports, the Meigs and Mauna Loa were sunk with their military equipment. The Tortmar was breached and the Tulagi was badly damaged. Near misses sprung plates of an American ship the Admiral Halstead, she was loaded with 14,000 drums of high octane petrol, but by some freak of fate she did not catch fire.
Bombs struck home in a sheet on the merchantman Don Isidro which was burnt so badly that she was beached and abandoned near Melville Island. Florence D, a small island steamer went to the assistance of the Don Isidro, but was sent to the bottom in a furious bombing attack. After concentrating first on naval vessels and transports, the Japanese then attacked each merchant ship in turn.
Five times dive bombers hit the US Destroyer Peary, she was trying to put a smoke screen around the Hospital Ship Manunda. USS Peary was a brave little ship to the very last, she took bombs in the engine room, magazines, but right to the last, she kept firing her ack-ack gun while water lapped around the base of the gun. Peary sank by the stem with a terrible loss of life, with only one officer surviving.
It was towards the end of the harbour onslaught that the last of the Dive-bombers attacked the hospital ship Manunda. This first blow by the Japanese cost 243 people their lives, of these 160 were killed by bombs falling on ships in the harbour or were drowned or burnt to death in blazing oil. They were crew members of Peary, Neptuna, Meigs, Manunda, Mauna Loa, Swan, British Motorist, Zealender, Port, Mar, Don Isidro, Florence D and Gun Blower. There were 39 civilians who died on the wharf and 14 in the town, service deaths totalled 24. Between 300 to 400 people were injured (These are very conservative figures).
Some records say we had 51 to 69 or more raids on Darwin, however my reckoning would be more like 90 raids. I don’t think the true number will ever be known.
It was during the first raid that Platypus was near missed 3 times, one bomb went under our stern, luckily did not explode, one on our port side which sank the lugger Mavie and blowing our quarter deck awning to bits, the third bomb exploded on our starboard side – this bomb damaged our condensers and we were without steam and so we had to swing around the buoy for the remainder of many raids.
Our crew had to take up quarters ashore until repairs were made and that was some weeks. Considering our problems there was never any panic, we were a very happy crew and everyone pulled their weight. I was a member of the 4” H/A Gun Crew for many raids and later was Coxswain to the Captain.
As Coxswain my job was to stand off the quarter during raids for any rescue purposes. During one raid I had to take a working party off the floating deck. The Zeros had belly tanks and when over the harbour they would release them and on this occasion one tank came very close to hitting my boat with the working party on board, anyhow I picked up this tank and took it back to Platypus for the intelligence people to examine.
When a raid was signalled Platypus would sound the alarm, it could be heard all over Darwin, Platypus had the most mournful Whoop, Whoop siren you every heard. I remember on one raid the tug Wato was steaming around the harbour when the Japs let go a stick of bombs at her, they fell each side and Wato went up in a fountain of water, settled back and carried on as if nothing had happened.
When we had to live ashore awhile we had anti-paratroop parties as we believed the Japs may drop paratroops, we never had much to hit back with though,.303 bayonet and one clip of ammo. Believe me in those early days of the blitz we had very little of anything, however morale was of the highest in the Navy, admittedly there were a few who couldn’t take any more and were sent south. The night we went ashore we had to sleep under the cliffs facing the harbour. At daybreak we marched through the town to our quarters, on the way we didn’t see a soul, only a few chickens running around, the town was bare, everyone had shot through, some of the personnel were found far and wide from Darwin.
HMAS Platypus was a valuable unit, lightly armed – one 4″ L/A Gun which was no good anyway, one 4″ H/A Gun, two machine guns on the bridge and two machine guns aft with the H/A Gun. The morale of the Darwin Navy was of the highest order at all times, they did sterling work undertaking duties of wharfies, storemen, salvage repairs, you name it they did it.
The doctor we had on Platypus was Dr. D’Arcy Sutherland, a wonderful person, today he is one of the greatest heart specialists in Australia. After the first raid, bodies drifted in the harbour for days, bodies were picked up and given a decent burial, though some were buried where they were found.