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- RAN operations, WWII operations, History - WW2
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- June 2010 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
One of the early moves was the establishment of a unified Allied command in the area. By arrangement between the Democratic Powers concerned, both Sea and Land Commands were vested in American naval and military leaders. These, in their respective spheres, were in supreme command, although Australian leaders retained control of the naval and military forces engaged in the local protection of the Commonwealth.
With the southward advance of the Japanese, the reinforcement of the Australian Mandated Territories had been undertaken by the Australian Government. In this work, in patrolling, in escorting troop transports and supply ships, the Royal Australian Navy in conjunction with the Royal Australian Air Force, played a major part. Much arduous, dangerous, and monotonous work was carried out by the ships and their crews, often in the face of enemy attack by intensive bombing. It was unspectacular work, which by its very nature had no public recognition, but it was work which the ships of the RAN – the cruisers, AMS vessels, minesweepers and others; the ships and men of the Australian Merchant Service; and those of our American, Dutch, Norwegian, and Free French Allies carried on by day and night and, in conjunction with the Allied Air Force, have won for us our present immunity from direct attack.
It is such work that has received little or no publicity, and by its nature must largely be kept out of the public eye. But one of these days, when the full history of the war is told, the true value of the work of these ships and men will be known. It is inevitable that certain ships should, by taking part in spectacular operations that make world news, receive present publicity. But the work of the other and lesser known ships – that of such ships as the cruiser HMAS Adelaide, for instance, which has been continuous, monotonous, and exacting – has been every bit as valuable and deserving of recognition, as the story will one day show.
With the Japanese advance slowed down, and Allied strength in the South West Pacific growing, the Allies began to hit back. Between May 4 and May 9, a series of engagements against the enemy was fought in the Coral Sea, where a major defeat was inflicted on the Japanese, in which they lost 15 ships, including the aircraft carrier Ryukaku, and three heavy cruisers, while the carrier Shokaku was severely damaged. The American naval forces – which fought the major action against the Japanese – lost three ships, the aircraft carrier Lexington, the destroyer Sims, and the tanker Neosho.
Brilliant evasive action
Australian naval forces took part in this battle, which was not a single clash, but a series of engagements fought over a period of days and covering a wide area. The main actions took part south of the Solomon Islands. To prevent, however, any enemy attempt against Port Moresby or north-eastern Australia, an Allied force under the command of Rear-Admiral J.G. Crace, CB, Rear-Admiral Commanding the Australian Squadron, flying his flag in HMAS Australia (Captain H.B. Farncombe, MVO RAN), was operating in the western area of the Coral Sea, to the southward of New Guinea. This force successfully withstood, without damage or loss of personnel, a fierce attack by enemy aircraft on the afternoon of May 7. The attack, which consisted of both torpedo attacks and high-level bombing, was delivered by eight Japanese twin-engine torpedo bombers, and 19 heavy bombers. The Allied force, which was without fighter protection, won the day through brilliant evasive action and the intensity and accuracy of the anti-aircraft barrage. Three of the enemy machines were shot down.
In May, and during June and July, the Japanese carried out a series of submarine attacks on merchant shipping off the east coast of Australia, and a number of ships were lost, with some loss of life. The attacks did not, however, go unavenged. On the night of May 31 – June 1, a determined but abortive attack by midget submarines, of the type used by the Japanese at Pearl Harbour, was made on shipping in Sydney Harbour. The only dividend to the Japanese on this occasion was the torpedoing of an old ferry boat, being used as a naval depot ship, resulting in the deaths of and injuries to a small number of naval ratings. Apparently four submarines attempted the entry of the harbour. Of these at least three were destroyed by the naval defences, the wrecks of two of them subsequently being recovered from the harbour floor. In this incident, the Naval Auxiliary Patrol had its first real opportunity to display its paces, and it came out with a very fine showing.