This account records an incident in the Japanese submarine campaign off Australia and the efforts of the RAAF and VAOC to protect coastal shipping.
As the attractive blonde 17 year old rode her push bike to work on the cold morning of 22 July, 1942, the Japanese submarine 1-11 had already torpedoed the American Liberty Ship, SS William Dawes approximately 15 miles off the Australian east coast township of Merimbula. Lorna Stafford was a member of the little-known Volunteer Air Observers Corps, which was established by the Royal Australian Air Force Directorate of Intelligence in the last few months of 1941.
The VAOC’s work was the sighting and reporting of enemy aircraft over Australian territory as well as coastal surveillance. Observation posts were established and manned by volunteer observers under the control of a Chief observer and linked to control posts under a civilian Commandant. The control posts such as where Lorna reported to begin her daytime shift used existing Civil Defence and Volunteer Defence Force facilities wherever possible. Any relevant information was reported directly to the main control posts in each state capital city. Communications were carried by an `Airflash’ priority system through the normal telephone system backed up by B3 radios between control and main centres. Using this method which overrode the normal telephone lines, it allowed information to be transmitted to a main control post in one or two minutes. All volunteers were to be of Australian/British nationality, of good character and have passed the basic hearing and eyesight test. All went through a stringent aircraft recognition training course and where possible, members were recruited locally. Lorna Stafford lived close to the small fishing town of Tathra where the observation post in a small wooden hut had been established because of its commanding view up and down the coast. It was freezing in the winter and hot in the summer and was only equipped with the mandatory log and code books, telephone, clock and binoculars.
Lorna normally began her official day time shift at 9 am (9 am-1 pm) but had arrived early this particular morning and was shown a report from the night shift observer that at approximately 5.30 am that morning, a loud explosion was heard out to sea down towards Merimbula. Little did the teenager realise she was about to become a part of military history generally unknown today outside the local area.
In mid July, three type A1 Japanese long-range fleet submarines arrived off the east coast of Australia from the shipyards in Kure, with orders to attack all merchant shipping. The largest boat was the 2900 ton 1-11 commanded by Commander Tsuneo Shichiji. The 1-11 was also the flagship of Rear Admiral Kono Chimaki’s 3rd Submarine Squadron. The Type A1 was developed from the Type J3 design with a hangar opening forward from the conning tower. This was for access to a forward mounted catapult, which allowed advantage to be taken of the forward movement of the boat to launch the `Glen’ seaplane. The 1-11 and the two other boats, 1-9 and 1-10 were all equipped with communications equipment that enabled them to operate as command ships for groups of submarines. For the time, they were massive boats with a crew of 114 officers and men. All three submarines operated along the east coast of Australia from July to the beginning of August and official Japanese records credited the three submarines with sinking ten Allied merchant ships. In fact, only three were sunk, all by the 1-11.
Commander Tsuneo Shichiji began his war in the 1-11 with the night sinking of the Greek ship, SS George S Livanos (4835 tons) approximately 15 miles off Jervis Bay on 20 July. Fortunately, there were no casualties. Three hours later in almost the same area, the 1-11 torpedoed and sank the American vessel, SS Coast Farmer (3290 tons). After the attack; the 1-11 surfaced to examine the sinking ship by searchlight and submerged a short time later. The crew were not harmed in any way but one crew member had been killed in the attack. Twenty seven hours later, in the early morning darkness of 22 July 1942, the 1-11 attacked the 5576 ton American Liberty Ship, SS William Dawes ((SS William Dawes was named after the revolutionary patriot minuteman who rode with Paul Revere and Samuel Prescott during the American War of Independence. She was launched from the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation, Portland on 7 February, 1942 as a United States Army Transport.)). The Japanese Commander’s tactics were to attack ships at night, preferring surface attacks using a combination of torpedoes and the 155mm deck gun.