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Enemy Action on the Australian Station 1939-45

In 1942, Australia was stunned firstly when Darwin was bombed in February and then again in May when midget submarines entered Sydney Harbour. The air attack on Darwin signalled the start of nearly seventeen months of air attacks against Northern Australia. However, the midget submarine attack was only the most startling development in the constant struggle for control of the sealanes around the Australian coastline that continued throughout the war. In 1939, Australia was responsible for the naval defence of an area known as the Australian Station which embraced the mainland of Australia and islands to the north and east of the continent and the surrounding seas. It also extended westward from the coast for some 1500 miles into the Indian Ocean. Excluding Papua New Guinea where Japanese land forces were present, this article will look at the attacks on shipping by both Germany and Japan within the Australian Station.

It was less than three months after war had been declared that the war at sea came near the Australian Station when a small British tanker was sunk in the Indian Ocean by the German pocket battleship, Admiral Graf Spee. Throughout the years 1939 to 1945, ships in Australian waters were on guard against attack from mines, surface raiders, submarines and aircraft. During 1940, four German armed merchant cruisers or surface raiders were operating in or near the Australian Station. In June 1940, mines laid by the raider Orion sank a ship near Auckland. Two months later the Orion shelled and sunk two further ships; one  from Newcastle bound for New Caledonia and a second from Sydney that was nearing New Zealand waters. From the Tasman Sea, the Orion sailed to the Indian Ocean in September 1940 where it laid dummy mines near Albany, WA before retracing its steps to meet with a German supply ship in mid Pacific in October. The first sinkings in Australian waters occurred in November from mines laid by the Pinguin and the Storstad, a captured Norwegian tanker. They laid minefields between Sydney and Newcastle, in Bass Strait, off Hobart and in the Spencer Gulf.

Both ships returned to the Indian Ocean and on 20 and 21 November sank by gunfire two ships 800 miles west of Fremantle. The Pinguin, Storstad and Orion laid 234 mines in Australian waters which sank three ships and damaged a fourth in the last two months of 1940 killing nine seamen. Casualties from mines in Australian waters in 1941 were fortunately few with only one trawler being lost. The Millimumul sank with the loss of seven crew in March 1941 after hitting a mine that had been laid five months before by the Pinguin. On 14 July two ratings from a Rendering Mines Safe party were killed by a mine that had been laid in Spencer Gulf and had washed up onto a beach at Beachport, South Australia.

The German raider Kormoran had entered the Indian Ocean in May 1941 and in the following six months sank eight merchant ships, none in Australian waters although it sailed within the Australian Station. At 4 pm on 19 November 1941, HMAS Sydney returning to Fremantle from Java sighted the Kormoran about 200 miles west of Carnarvon, Western Australia. For 90 minutes the Kormoran tried to pass itself off as a Dutch vessel but when all chance of deception evaporated opened fire on HMAS Sydney with guns and torpedoes. The action lasted 30 minutes with both ships being crippled and set ablaze. Both sank and the entire complement of HMAS Sydney was lost.

During the first two years of the war it was German surface raiders that were active on the Australian Station. As well as the increased threat to shipping from Japanese submarines, 1942 saw the introduction into the Indian Ocean of large numbers of German U-boats. On 20 January 1942, six weeks after Pearl Harbour, a Japanese submarine I-124, specially equipped for minelaying was sunk 60 miles west of Darwin. It probably laid the mines that were reported at that time in the northern approaches to Darwin, four of which washed ashore on 11 February. Eight days later Darwin was attacked by carrier-borne planes which sank eight ships and damaged many more in the harbour. Less than three months later a larger carrier force was turned back in the Battle of the Coral Sea (4-8 May 1942). The submarines that accompanied the Japanese fleet in the Coral Sea were ordered to proceed to Truk to equip with midget submarines.

On 20 May, an aircraft from Japanese submarine I-29 carried out an unobserved reconnaissance of Sydney. Ten days later, an aircraft from I-21 carried out another reconnaissance of Sydney. The following evening, Sunday, 31 May three midget submarines entered Sydney Harbour. The midget submarines were sunk but the depot ship HMAS Kuttabul and 19 naval ratings were lost. On 8 June, the I-24 fired 10 high explosive shells at Sydney's eastern suburbs and I-21 fired 6 high explosive shells at Newcastle. This was the last enemy action against the Australian mainland from ships, although air attacks continued in Northern Australia. During the period June to August 1942, seven Japanese submarines operated along the eastern coast of Australia sinking seven ships. In November 1942, 1400 miles north west of Fremantle, an Australian built ship, HMIS Bengal sank one of the two Japanese raiders that operated in the Indian Ocean.

In January 1943, Japanese submarine I-1 returned to the Australian east coast and sank or damaged five ships in four weeks. From April until June five Japanese submarines operated along the Australian eastern coast attacking fifteen ships and sinking eight. Among those sunk was the hospital ship Centaur, torpedoed off Brisbane with the loss of 268 lives. On 16 June the Portmar sank with the loss of one crewman in what was the last Japanese sinking along the eastern Australian coast.

During 1943, surface raiders and submarines operated in the Indian Ocean but mainly along the African and Indian coasts. In June 1943 a German raider sank two ships about 1000 miles off the Western Australian coast, outbound from Fremantle and Exmouth. Surface raiders and submarines continued to operate in the Indian Ocean in 1944 to the south of India and into the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. The last sinkings on both the eastern and western coasts of Australia were made by the same German U-boat, U-862. It left Djakarta on 17 November 1944 to operate off the west coast of Australia but then continued along the south coast through Bass Strait into the Tasman Sea. On 25 December, U-862 sunk the Liberty ship Robert J Walker, 100 miles north of Gabo Island and on 6 February 1945 while returning to Djakarta sank the motor vessel Peter Silvester. This was the last submarine attack on the Australian Station.


l. Australia in the War of 1939-1945 Australian War Memorial. Both the Naval and Air series should be consulted. All ships attacked in the Australian Station and many ships attacked in the Indian Ocean are not only mentioned but detailed circumstances are related. In addition to the three maps illustrated there are many other relevant maps and diagrams in both series

G Herman Gill Royal Australian Navy 1939-1942

G Herman Gill Royal Australian Navy 1942-1945

Douglas Gillison Royal Australian Air Force 1939-1942

George Odgers Air War Against Japan 1943-1945

2. Steven L Carruthers Australia Under Siege, Sydney 1942

3. Articles

Ian A Miller, First of the Gallant Six Thousand, The Medal Collector, Dec 1986, Vol 37 No 12 pp 22-27

John E Price, The Merchant Navy Memorial, Sabretache, Jul-Dec 1986, Vol 27 No 4 pp 15-20

Maps courtesy Australian War Memorial, from G Herman Gill, Royal Australian Navy 1939-1942 and Royal Australian Navy 1942-1945