An unprecedented battle at sea lasting just four days secured a crucial win for Australia against the Japanese – but Sydney itself was soon under direct attack.
An unprecedented battle at sea lasting just four days secured a crucial win for Australia against the Japanese – but Sydney itself was soon under direct attack.

The extraordinary battle that saved Australia

As Australia prepares to mark 75 years since the end of WWII, Warren Brown looks at the war, its importance and its grim legacy. TODAY: PART FIVE

In the five months since the attack on Pearl Harbour, even the Japanese were astonished at how rapid and successful their onslaught through the Pacific theatre had been. In early 1942 there had even been a suggestion from the Japanese Navy proposing an invasion of the Australian mainland, but after a brief argument with a vastly overstretched army it was decided to continue with a plan to keep Australia isolated from the United States.

 

A WWII convoy heading to Darwin from Alice Springs stops on
A WWII convoy heading to Darwin from Alice Springs stops on "The Track" — a hastily-built supply route. File picture

 

Because of Japanese control of the sea, Northern Australia was now the subject of increasing air attack - Broome, Townsville, Bathurst Island - the port of Darwin had been cut off and was now being bombed routinely.

Supplying Darwin overland became a matter of urgency - there was no road connecting the frontier town from the southern states - and so a 1600km track to run convoys of army supply trucks from the railhead at Alice Springs was built in a matter of weeks.

PART ONE: Incredible ways WWII shaped your world

PART TWO: How Hitler played Aussie PM

PART THREE: Ordinary Aussies answer call to arms

PART FOUR: Horrors mount as Japan enters war

The Japanese were still pushing south, now with the intention of mounting a seaborne invasion of Port Moresby on the southern edge of New Guinea.

In May 1942, a seemingly unstoppable Japanese fleet was intercepted by a combined US and Australian naval force in the Coral Sea north east of Brisbane.

 

US air force Mitchell B25 bombers attack Japanese ships during the Battle of the Coral Sea. File picture
US air force Mitchell B25 bombers attack Japanese ships during the Battle of the Coral Sea. File picture

 

Despite the loss of aircraft, ships and the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, the result of the ensuing four-day battle was an Allied victory, forcing the Japanese to recall their Moresby invasion fleet.

Significantly, it was the first time during the war the Japanese Navy had been stopped - the victory in the Coral Sea has often been referred to as the battle that saved Australia.

 

Sailors abandon the USS Lexington after it was attacked and hit by Japanese aircraft. File picture
Sailors abandon the USS Lexington after it was attacked and hit by Japanese aircraft. File picture

 

The Japanese ship Shoho is destroyed in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Picture: Supplied / Australian War Memorial
The Japanese ship Shoho is destroyed in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Picture: Supplied / Australian War Memorial

 

HMAS Australia comes under attack during the critical battle. File picture
HMAS Australia comes under attack during the critical battle. File picture

 

HMAS Australia was a flagship of Rear Admiral J.G. Crace's support force. File picture
HMAS Australia was a flagship of Rear Admiral J.G. Crace's support force. File picture

 

News of the battle made headlines at home, including in The Mercury.
News of the battle made headlines at home, including in The Mercury.

 

Cruiser HMAS Hobart is seen from HMAS Australia in the Coral Sea. File picture
Cruiser HMAS Hobart is seen from HMAS Australia in the Coral Sea. File picture

 

See more dramatic scenes from the battle in this video from the Australian National Maritime Museum

The growing fear of a Japanese invasion had become the only topic of conversation among a nervous Australian public, and the events of the night of 1 June 1942 only increased their fear.

Under cover of darkness three Japanese mini-submarines entered Sydney Harbour - yet only one managed to launch a torpedo, attempting to destroy the heavy cruiser USS Chicago. However it struck and sank HMAS Kuttabul - a ferry converted into a depot ship, killing 21.

A week later, Japanese submarines prowling the east coast shelled Sydney and Newcastle but damage was minimal.

 

One of the Japanese mini-submarines that infiltrated Sydney Harbour is pulled to the surface. File picture
One of the Japanese mini-submarines that infiltrated Sydney Harbour is pulled to the surface. File picture

 

The success of the Battle of the Coral Sea in May was the prelude to the Battle of Midway only a month later, where in a violent three-day naval engagement the United States Navy decisively destroyed Japanese Admiral Yamamoto's carrier fleet.

Yet despite this devastating naval defeat, the Japanese had not lost their fixation on seizing Port Moresby, hastily revising their plans to march overland across New Guinea - if they obtained their objective they could then bomb northern Australia from a land base, making it more difficult for the Americans to reinforce.

 

 

On 21 July 1942, the Japanese army's South Seas Detachment landed at Gona and Buna on the northern edge of Papua and quickly pushed south, attempting to use an almost impassable mountain route traversing the Owen Stanley Ranges - listed on maps as the Kokoda Track.

Their intention was to gain hold of the airstrip at the village of Kokoda, resupply and continue south to Port Moresby.

But there were other enemies along the track for which the invaders were not well-prepared - near-vertical labyrinthine terrain, the merciless tropical weather, ever-present mud and more frighteningly - death from malaria carrying mosquitoes.

 

Members of Australia’s D Company, 39th Battalion, return to their base camp after a battle at Isurava on the Kokoda Track. Picture: Damien Parer
Members of Australia’s D Company, 39th Battalion, return to their base camp after a battle at Isurava on the Kokoda Track. Picture: Damien Parer

 

By August, 13,500 Japanese troops had landed and were pushing hard along the track, engaging with the outnumbered and poorly supplied Australian defenders and capturing the vital airstrip at Kokoda - the only place along the track supply aircraft could land for 100km in either direction.

Meanwhile the veteran Australian 7th Division rushed from Queensland to New Guinea.

A two-pronged Japanese offensive was launched to land troops by sea at Milne Bay on the south eastern tip of Papua and to finally smash the Australian defenders at Isurava half way along the Track.

 

Corporal J.A. Canty of the 39th Battalion readies for action against the Japanese at Isurava. File picture
Corporal J.A. Canty of the 39th Battalion readies for action against the Japanese at Isurava. File picture

 

Yet the landing of 2000 soldiers at Milne Bay was a disaster for the Japanese who were shocked to discover the region defended by two Australian brigades and two RAAF squadrons of Kittyhawk fighters, defeating the invasion force after a brutal 12 days of fighting - astonishingly this was the first time the Japanese had been defeated on land.

But things were turning for the worse at Isurava where the Australians, realising they could no longer hold their position staged a fighting withdrawal.

US General Douglas MacArthur, based in Melbourne, criticised the Australians for their withdrawal - the unpopular Australian commander General Thomas Blamey accused his soldiers of 'running like rabbits'.

 

Australian General Thomas Blamey with US General Douglas MacArthur. File picture
Australian General Thomas Blamey with US General Douglas MacArthur. File picture

 

The battled-hardened Japanese pushed Australian resistance back even further, eventually arriving within sight of their objective Port Moresby - but because Japanese command had now become distracted in fighting the Americans at the island of Guadalcanal, their supply line had dwindled to being almost non-existent. They were ordered to begin a withdrawal.

An Australian counter attack ensued, the Japanese ultimately taking up defensive positions on the coast at Gona and Buna where they had initially landed. Japanese reinforcements had arrived from Rabaul and 9000 were dug in a fortified line.

 

Japanese troops advance through New Guinea towards Australian positions. File picture
Japanese troops advance through New Guinea towards Australian positions. File picture

 

The battleground had changed from ragged mountains to leech infested swamps - malaria, Blackwater fever, typhus and dysentery were new enemies to contend with. The savagery of the fighting against fanatical Japanese continued for two months - on 22 January 1943 organised Japanese resistance ended.

While Australia was well and truly entrenched in the Pacific war, the 9th Division was still fighting with British and Commonwealth forces in the Western Desert, where the Australians became the focus of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's attentions during the decisive battle of El Alamein in Egypt - fierce assaults were mounted by Panzer divisions but the Australians held their ground.

 

Allied troops move through the smoking battlefield after the clash that defeated Rommel. File picture
Allied troops move through the smoking battlefield after the clash that defeated Rommel. File picture

 

While Rommel concentrated his strength on the Australian anti-tank guns, Commonwealth troops broke the German defences and British tanks poured through. Rommel realised his situation was hopeless and withdrew so that the shattered remains of his army could escape.

With the war in the desert decided, the 9th were now on their way to fight in the Pacific.

 

The Centaur clearly bore the red crosses of a hospital ship when it was torpedoed. File picture
The Centaur clearly bore the red crosses of a hospital ship when it was torpedoed. File picture

 

On the night of 14 May 1943, the Australian Hospital Ship Centaur was targeted by a Japanese submarine off the coast of Queensland - the ship brightly illuminated to display the large red crosses on its sides indicating its status of immunity. A torpedo struck the Centaur, killing 268 of 332 medical and civilian staff on board.

 

US sailors and Australian soldiers enjoy a beer in Brisbane.
US sailors and Australian soldiers enjoy a beer in Brisbane.

 

Locals provided a warm welcome for the Allied troops.
Locals provided a warm welcome for the Allied troops.

 

More beer drinking during well-deserved leave in Sydney. File pictures
More beer drinking during well-deserved leave in Sydney. File pictures

 

At home some 250,000 American servicemen poured into Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane - the majority of whom were welcomed by a grateful public, but eventually raised the ire of Australian servicemen who disdainfully referred to the Americans as 'overpaid, oversexed and over here'.

Tensions came to a head in Brisbane when a riot broke out between Australian and US servicemen - 'The Battle of Brisbane'.

 

In Europe, Italy surrendered after the invasion by mostly British an Americans forces, swapping sides and joining the Allies - Benito Mussolini's government overthrown. Seven Australian fighter squadrons flew over 600 operations assisting the Allies ground attack in forcing the occupying Germans to retreat.

Perhaps the greatest Allied gamble of the war was the implementation of Operation Overlord on 6 June 1944 - the invasion of occupied Europe - D-DAY.

 

Soldiers wade to the beach during the D-Day landing at Normandy, France. Picture: Time-LIFE
Soldiers wade to the beach during the D-Day landing at Normandy, France. Picture: Time-LIFE

 

This offensive was the largest amphibious operation in history - 6000 ships crossed the English Channel carrying 185,000 men and 20,000 vehicles to land ashore on the German-held beaches at Normandy - some 25,000 paratroops rained from the skies. It was an operation on an unimaginable scale - and fraught with risk - if it failed then the chance to take the fight to Germany again would not happen for years - if at all.

 

Securing a foothold on the continent meant Germany was now simultaneously squeezed by the Allies in the west and from the Russians in the east.

Australia's contribution was small but significant, with the deployment of six RAAF squadrons of Spitfires, Mosquito fighter-bombers and Halifax and Lancaster heavy bombers as part of an overwhelming air campaign targeting coastal defences and railways in France. About 500 Royal Australian Navy seamen serving with the Royal Navy held numerous positions on D-Day, operating landing craft, minesweepers and the command of a destroyer.

 

 

 

Yet as the Allied armies began crushing Germany from the west and the Russians from the east, to their horror they were to discover the unthinkable - death camps scattered across Nazi occupied Europe operating as extermination factories - murdering millions of men, women and children. Camps such as Auschwitz, Belsen, Treblinka and Sobibor become horrific monuments to Nazi evil.

But trouble of a different kind was unfolding at home - in August 1944 Japanese prisoners of war stormed the perimeter of the POW compound at Cowra in central NSW. Armed with makeshift weapons, clubs and kitchen knives many of the 1104 Japanese held in the camp escaped - but soon surrendered or were recaptured. Nevertheless 234 Japanese were killed - many through suicide - along with four prison guards. The Cowra breakout was the largest prison break of WWII.

DON'T MISS: Warren Brown's exclusive series continues this week

 

 

• 'Stories of Service' video courtesy of the Department of Veterans' Affairs

Originally published as The extraordinary battle that saved Australia


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