- A.N. Other and NHSA Webmaster
- Ship histories and stories, WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Perth I, HMAS Australia II
- December 2007 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The success of the first two days, Friday and Saturday, when the landing was accomplished and great forces of attacking aircraft repelled, seemed to augur easy victory. The price paid on Saturday night was a warning of the intense struggle that was needed to set the seal on Guadalcanal. Never has there been so dark a night or such unbroken floods of driving rain. Somewhere in that darkness and rain the alarm was given. In the pitchy blackness, a stream of flashes marked the passage of shells in the air-whose shells no one could tell, but all prayed they were ours. Then the glow of fires appeared. Ships were on fire – whose ships no one could tell, but all prayed they were the Japs. And Australia could do nothing. Ordered out of the line by the Landing Force Commander towards midnight, she was just returning to her station when twenty miles away the action commenced. She could do nothing but watch and strengthen the inner defences. If the enemy broke through she would be more than ever needed there.
The night wore on and the enemy did not break through. The rain continued. Then the signals came flooding in. One after the other they told of disaster. By morning scraps of information could be pieced together and our losses could be counted. Chicago came in with flags flying and a great bite taken out of her bows. Destroyers came in crowded with men rescued from the sea. But HMAS Canberra and US Ships Astoria, Quincy and Vincennes did not come back. And all that Sunday morning, a dry thunder rolled in the distance. It was rumoured the Japs had been caught by the guns of the new battleship USS Washington – but the defeat had no such palliation. All that day unloading was pressed on and the lately elated forces continued their patrol, now plunged in the deepest gloom. At sunset, the ships departed from Guadalcanal and everyone in Australia wondered by what miracle they were still in that company.
In the Coral Sea, a new method of warfare never before experienced was established. Never before had naval forces fought each other hundreds of miles apart, their blows launched through the air by bombers. It was a type of warfare which before long was familiar to everyone in the Pacific – too familiar for the Japs. Australia was with American carriers when the Japanese got their second costly lesson in such warfare north of Santa Cruz. Seventy planes were shot down within sight of the fleet, and a carrier was sunk 200 miles away.
At Guadalcanal the Japanese introduced night warfare for fleet surface actions. Night actions had been fought before, but never on such a scale or with such skill. Naval doctrine was opposed to risking major warships in night encounters and at any rate the Japanese were supposed to be inept at such affairs. The lesson, however, was learnt, learnt in such a way that many a Jap must rue it. The night of 8th August was the tragic prelude to as yet unbroken American success at night.
So Australia and the remnants of the task force returned to the Coral Sea and the support of Milne Bay, all eager to avenge the losses at Guadalcanal. When Milne Bay was beleaguered the task force remained in the offing vainly hoping the Jap would show his head again. But the attacking warships did not come again. So for many a month the Coral Sea was patrolled. ‘The paddock’ it was called, without affection, or ‘the cabbage patch’. The troops who went to New Guinea and eventually took Buna did not see the task force, but for five months without intermission every ship that passed north was covered by the force. Sadly the warships heard of battles off Guadalcanal in which they could take no part; their job lay in ‘the cabbage patch’, till the Admiral swore a furrow had been worn in the sea and the navigator claimed he could recognize every wave.
After that came lazy days. The patrols almost ceased and the task force lay at anchor or schooled itself in night combat in the hope that its turn for action would come. Ships came and went, the force was always changing in composition, but the old three-funneled ship was always there. At many an island of the Barrier Reef her bulky outline was a familiar sight. Most sailors rarely see their own ship except when alongside a wharf, but many and many a time the men of Australia saw her lying at anchor silhouetted at sunset, as they returned from leave ashore. Very many perhaps remember her most vividly in the setting of Palm Island, with the drone of Wilbur, the wonderful Duck, overhead, as it returned from Townsville with mail and steak, and then alighted with a roar.