An Overview of Japanese Submarine Operations off Australia during 1943 Part I

IJN Submarine I-21

Starr King sinking after being attacked by I-21 near Port Macquarie on 10 February 1943.

The Japanese never again mounted the kind of coordinated submarine attacks on Australia witnessed during mid-1942, when the Eastern Advance Detachment launched the midget attacks on Sydney Harbour and also bombarded the Sydney suburbs and the city of Newcastle. However, the Japanese did not entirely disappear from the waters around the continent, and several submarines were dispatched to harass coastal shipping and convoys throughout 1943. The submarines operated individually, and although they sank or damaged several Allied ships, their collective impact on the Australian war machine was slight, really constituted no more than a series of nuisance attacks designed to demonstrate a continued Japanese ability to strike at the Australian home front. Australian anti-submarine defences continued to develop, based on the fast corvettes, and Japanese submarine skippers became increasingly wary of the types of bold attacks they had made earlier in the war. The change in Australian naval tactics with the introduction of convoys in 1941 also had an effect on the effectiveness of Japanese submarines. Only six ships were sunk and two damaged by Japanese submarine attacks on convoys, while roving Japanese boats between 1941 and 1944 successfully destroyed eighteen ships that were travelling unescorted, proving the value of the convoy system.

The experienced I-21, famous for bombarding Newcastle in 1942, was to achieve a string of successes along the Australian coast during January and February 1943. Commander Matsumura took his boat out from the Japanese base at Rabaul on her fourth war patrol on 7 January, bound for the busy waters off Australia’s east coast. By the 15th the I-21 had arrived off Sydney and continued her patrol into the Tasman Sea off New South Wales where she achieved her first kill of the patrol on the 18th. Many vessels were still to be found sailing unescorted along the Australian coast, particularly smaller vessels plying the coastal trade routes, and these had always been a submariner’s targets of choice. Submarine skippers viewed these unprotected ships as easy prey, as they would not have to avoid a sudden corvette or destroyer counter-attack, and, as long as the submarine attacked swiftly and devastatingly, it was unlikely that help would arrive before the stricken merchantman was finished off.

The small 2,051-ton Australian freighter Kalingo had departed from Sydney and was setting out across the Pacific for Plymouth in New Zealand when Matsumura came upon her on 18 January. Attacking while submerged, two torpedoes were fired at the Kalingo, which was critically damaged. Matsumura then surfaced and in a humanitarian gesture not usually demonstrated by officers of the Imperial Navy, he gave the crew of the freighter sufficient time to take to the ship’s lifeboats before moving in to finish the vessel off. Once the merchantman’s crew were safely out of harm’s way, the I-21 launched a third torpedo which hastened the end of the Kalingo, and Matsumura departed from the scene triumphant.

Matsumura’s days work was not done, however, and later that evening a far more substantial target presented itself. This was the huge American tanker Mobilube, which had a small escort ship assigned to protect her. At 9.50 p.m. two torpedoes were unleashed towards the 10,222-ton ship, but the huge detonation of at least one strike failed to sink the tanker. Ignoring the escort vessel for the time being, Matsumura ordered his boat to the surface, and the deck-gunners began banging away at the huge tanker, until her escort returned their fire which forced the I-21 back beneath the waves in a crash-dive. As Matsumura guided his boat out of danger, the escort dumped a pattern of six depth charges over the spot where the Japanese submarine had disappeared, but although the Japanese sailors were jolted about by the sonic detonations, their vessel escaped any damage and Matsumura made off confident that the Mobilube had been fatally wounded. Indeed, his assumption of another victory was correct, for although the great tanker was towed into port she was declared a total loss and later cut up for scrap.

The hunting off New South Wales, along the shipping lanes fanning out from Sydney, was to continue to provide Matsumura and the I-21 with plenty of interdiction opportunities. The I-21 crippled an American Liberty ship, the Peter H. Burnett, on 22 January, firing two torpedoes while at periscope depth. One struck home, severely damaging the vessel. As the I-21 departed from the scene the American escort USS Zane and an Australian, HMAS Mildura, towed the vessel into Sydney where the ship’s cargo of wool and mail were salvaged. The Peter H. Burnett was declared a total loss and met the same fate as the Mobilube in a breaker’s yard reduced to scrap.

As well as attacking Allied ships along the coast of New South Wales, the I-21 was also detailed to conduct a reconnaissance of the coastline. Once again, the usefulness of the Yokosuka E14Y1 floatplane proved its worth, and Warrant Officer (Flying) Susumu Ito carried out a successful flight over Sydney Harbour on the night of 25 January. Ito reported the presence of at least one heavy cruiser and ten smaller warships inside the harbour. On 30 January Matsumura launched a single torpedo at a small British merchantman, the 1,036-ton Giang Ann, and would almost certainly have sunk her but for a torpedo malfunction. The torpedo began its run smoothly, but then detonated prematurely, allowing the British ship time to escape any further attention from the Japanese submarine. Matsumura was nothing if not bold, and on 8 February he located a convoy of ten ships off Montague Island. Convoy OC68 was making its way from Whyalla to Newcastle, and Matsumura scored an immediate hit on the lead ship, the 4,812-ton Iron Knight, a British ship carrying a cargo of iron ore. The torpedo strike under the bridge on the starboard side was so devastating that the Iron Knight went down like a stone in under two minutes, giving the crew virtually no time to abandon her. The Free French destroyer Le Triomphant, one of the convoy escorts, pulled fourteen survivors from off a floating life raft. Two days later off Port Macquarie Matsumura launched a spread of four torpedoes at the 7,176-ton American Liberty ship Starr King. This was an important prize to sink for the Starr King was loaded down with 7,000 tons of supplies destined for the US Army fighting the Japanese in New Caledonia. She was struck by two of the Japanese torpedoes, but did not sink immediately. The Australian escort vessel HMAS Warramunga rushed alongside the stricken freighter and took off the surviving members of her crew, and then attempted to take the Starr King in tow to hopefully prevent her loss. However, the freighter started to founder, and the commanding officer of the Warramunga ordered the tow lines severed, and the crew watched helplessly as the Starr King and all of her valuable supplies were swallowed up by the ocean.

Ito took to the skies once again over the Australian coast on 19 February, the sortie proving a success despite his aircraft being detected by Australian radar. Whether the photographs his observer took were of any military value is questionable, but the fact that Ito’s aircraft was not challenged in so sensitive an area for the second occasion during the submarine’s patrol, and in an area that had already witnessed extensive Japanese submarine and aerial activity, indicated that the Australians still had some way to go to secure this particular stretch of coastline from enemy infiltration. Thereafter, Matsumura headed for Japan as his boat was in need of an overhaul after extensive operations so far from base, and the I-21 concluded her war patrol at the giant Yokosuka Naval Base south of Tokyo on 3 March.

As Matsumura headed in to Japan to celebrate his most successful war patrol to Australia, another large I-boat was headed in the opposite direction. This was the I-26, under Commander Yokota. His mission was the same as that of his colleague Matsumura, with the exception of not launching any photographic reconnaissance sorties. The I-26 was not nearly as successful as Matsumura’s recent run along the New South Wales coast. On 11 April the I-26 was nineteen miles off Cape Howe, Victoria, when her lookouts spotted Convoy QC86, which was making its way from Whyalla to Newcastle. Yokota struck and sank with torpedoes a Yugoslavian ship, the 4,732-ton Recina. She was carrying a cargo of iron ore, and was under Australian government charter. There followed for the I-26 a period of inaction, as no targets presented themselves until 24 April. Then, when thirty-five miles east of Bowen the I-26 found a lone ship and attacked her. The Australian Kowarra (2,125-tons) was heading from Bowen to Brisbane loaded down with sugar, and she sank quickly after a single Japanese torpedo strike. This was Yokota’s second and final kill of the patrol, and he headed back to base at Truk undoubtedly frustrated that more targets and opportunities had eluded his search.

The Type KD7 submarine I-177 under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Hajime Nakagawa left Truk on its first war patrol on 10 April 1943 in company with sister submarines I-178 and I-180. All were bound for the east coast of Australia, favoured hunting ground of the Imperial Navy’s submarines. On 26 April the I-177 was twenty miles south-east of Cape Byron, close to the city of Brisbane, when she encountered an escorted convoy. Moving quickly into an attack position, Nakagawa managed to sink the 8,724-ton British freighter Limerick, and also to avoid two depth charges dropped by the convoy escorts. On the same day Lieutenant-Commander Toshio Kusaka aboard the I-180 also launched an attack on an unidentified merchantman, but the freighter escaped and Kusaka end up wasting three of his torpedoes. The following day the I-178, under Commander Hidejiro Utsuki, was 100 miles off Port Stephens. Utsuki attacked and sank an American Liberty ship, the 7,176-ton Lydia M. Childs, which was loaded with tanks. However, on this occasion the RAAF attempted to take some measure of revenge against the Japanese submarine, a Catalina flying boat launching three bombing runs over the I-178 an hour after she had sunk the Liberty. The I-178 escaped without suffering any damage and made it unscathed back to Truk on 18 May.

During May 1943 the Australian army was heavily engaged against the Japanese on the island of Papua New Guinea. Fierce battles had raged at Buna, Gona and Sanananda, necessitating the evacuation of wounded soldiers to Australia for more extensive medical treatment. The Centaur, a large motor passenger ship, had undergone conversion into a hospital ship earlier in 1943, which had involved a radical alteration of not just her internal compartments, but also in her outward appearance. When the vessel left Sydney harbour on 12 May bound for Port Moresby in New Guinea, she was painted a brilliant white, with thick green stripes running the length of her hull broken by huge red crosses. On her bows was painted the number ‘47’, providing information that any enemy submarine skipper could investigate to determine the ship’s identity and purpose. The number was the Centaur’s registration lodged with the International Red Cross in Switzerland, the IRC having informed the Japanese government of the ship’s new role as a non-combatant vessel protected by International Law from any kind of attack. Although Japan had not signed the 1929 Geneva Conventions, she had nonetheless agreed prior to the outbreak of war to abide by the provisions concerning non-combatant status, and the rules regarding hospital ships that had been established as long ago as 1907.

The Centaur’s first task was to sail from Sydney to Cairns through Australian coastal waters regularly patrolled by Japanese submarines, and thence on to Port Moresby to collect wounded. Aboard her for the journey to New Guinea were sixty-four medical staff, including twelve Australian Army Medical Service nurses, who would stay on the ship to treat the wounded, and the 149 men, plus an additional forty-four attached personnel, of the 2/12th Field Ambulance who would be landed at Port Moresby to provide casualty clearing stations and aid posts for the front-line fighting troops. The Centaur had a crew of seventy-five men of the Merchant Navy, giving a total aboard of 332 souls all headed north into the war zone.

The captain of the Centaur was sailing directly into seas where Japanese submarines had been recently operating and sinking Allied ships, trusting in his ship’s clearly marked non-combatant status for protection. He was aware that the Japanese had been informed of his ship’s status as a hospital vessel on 5 February, and he knew that their superiors would have apprised any roving submarine skippers of this fact. With hindsight, it is possible to see that the disaster that followed occurred as a result of a Japanese unwillingness to follow any rules concerning conduct in war, other than their own military code. The track record of the Japanese army and navy in conducting war since 1937 in China and throughout the Pacific and south-east Asia after 1941 was a litany of atrocities and flagrant breaches of internationally agreed codes of military and naval conduct, even those rules to which Japan was bound or had agreed to honour. Put simply, the Japanese left much of the observance of these rules to individual commanders, who reacted depending upon the situation they faced, or the degree to which any such rules meant anything to them. The Japanese officer corps was renowned for being obsessively loyal to the Emperor to the ignorance of everything else, and slavishly obedient to the Bushido code of feudal Japan that took no account of prisoners or non-combatants within its ethos. Many officers were simply brutal and very often what we might subsequently define as sadistic in dealing with the enemies of Japan, and the Centaur was about to run foul of one the navy’s most brutal submarine skippers. Lieutenant-Commander Hajime Nakagawa was on his first war patrol to Australian waters as commanding officer of the submarine I-177, a KD7 type completed in December 1942. Nakagawa, along with submarines I-178 and I-180, formed Submarine Division 22, 3rd Submarine Squadron based at Truk. Nakagawa’s career had been marred by an incident before the war that meant that his promotion chances were very few and far between. On 2 February 1939, when Nakagawa was commanding the I-60, he had been conducting training exercises in the Bungo Straits in Japan, simulating attacks, when he had accidentally rammed the submarine I-63 in the early morning gloom. The pressure hull breached, the I-63 had immediately sunk, taking eighty-two of her crew with her, and Nakagawa had been placed before a court martial. He was found guilty of negligence and suspended from the navy. In 1940 he was reassigned to the command of the I-58, and then the I-177, which he took to Australian waters.

On the 26 April 1943 Nakagawa had intercepted and sunk the 8,724-ton British merchant ship Limerick, a member of an escorted convoy, off Cape Byron near Brisbane and escaped the resulting attack by the convoy escorts on his boat. The Limerick was one of five merchant ships sunk between 18 January and 29 April off the New South Wales and Queensland coasts by Japanese submarines resulting in a great loss of life among the merchant crews. Nakagawa was a man driven by a need to restore his reputation after having lost face during his court martial in 1939. Perhaps the way in which to restore his professional reputation was through achieving as many kills as possible against his country’s enemies.

As the brightly lit Centaur crossed his path in the early hours of 14 May 1943 he did not hesitate in ordering a torpedo attack launched against her. The Centaur was strung with electric light bulbs that illuminated her red crosses and IRC number on the bows for all to see, but Nakagawa turned his head from the periscope eye-piece and began to issue orders for the attack plot to be drawn, and one or more torpedo tubes made ready to fire. He knew absolutely that his next actions were illegal under the rules of war, the Geneva Conventions and International Law, yet he ruthlessly ignored these facts and prepared to launch an attack. There are several ways to rationalize Nakagawa’s sinking of the Centaur, and one is the fact that a hospital ship was tasked with collecting wounded soldiers and taking them home for treatment so that some might be returned fighting fit to once again oppose the Japanese advance. If Nakagawa sank a hospital ship he might reason that he was serving the Emperor by removing one of the links by which Australia supported her forces defending New Guinea. Perhaps what followed was revenge for Allied attacks on Japanese hospital ships? In the Allies defence, even they pointed out that the Japanese were of a habit of not properly or clearly marking their hospital ships, which led to some cases of mistaken identity. The war in the Pacific was subsequently famous for the brutality displayed by both Japanese and Allied forces towards each other, and Nakagawa may also have been aware of recent American attacks on Japanese troop transports. In January the Americans had sunk a troop transport, and thousands of the 9,500 Japanese soldiers aboard the vessel were machine gunned in the water after abandoning the sinking ship. Christopher Milligan and John Foley in Australian Hospital Ship Centaur: The Myth of Immunity point out that in early March 1943 American aircraft had sunk an entire Japanese convoy of twenty-two ships. The majority of these vessels were troop transports, which was of course a legitimate target. However, for seven days following the initial sinking of this convoy American ships and aircraft systematically set about eliminating the survivors, machine gunning and bombing more than 3,000 of them. This action was against the established rules of war and the Geneva Conventions, which the United States had most certainly signed. The ferocity of both combatants in the war in Asia and the Pacific was legendary, and the rule of law was very often put aside in a multitude of cases.

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