HMAS Australia II

HMAS Shropshire carrying out a shore bombardment, circa 1944.

Left: Captain JM Armstrong, RAN in conversation with Mr SM Bruce, the Australian High Commissioner to England, in July 1945 following the ship’s arrival at Plymouth. Visible in the foreground is the propeller of one of the Japanese kamikaze aircraft that struck Australia during the bitter fighting in the seas surrounding the Philippines. Right: One of the aircraft relics now preserved and on display at the RAN Heritage Centre, Sydney.

Luck continued to ride with Shropshire. She was attacked by several aircraft during the afternoon, one of them crossing from port to starboard over the bridge and very nearly giving a haircut to Stan Nicholls, a 19-year-old from Woodville in South Australia, the navigator’s yeoman. At his action station on the compass platform, Stan was so close he could see the white scarf wrapped around the pilot’s forehead. He dived to the deck and found out only later that he’d wet his pants in fear. That aircraft smashed into the sea. Later, at 6.30 that evening, a dive bomber came at them almost vertically, just off the port quarter. Mac Gregory was Officer of the Watch:

Looking into the sun I saw an aircraft at about 1,000 feet diving straight for the bridge. We cleared the bridge, and flattened out on the deck of the wing of the bridge. There was a tremendous explosion. I believed we were hit by this Kamikaze, as liquid splashed all around me I thought it was petrol and expected it to burst into flames at any moment. I reached out my hand to run it across the splash, and licked my fingers, salt water, not petrol after all.

What a relief, Roy Cazaly had quickly seen this attack, swung his Pom Pom around and onto the target, with a devastating burst of fire, he shot this Japanese aircraft in two, half falling close to our starboard side, where a bomb on board exploded. The bridge is 60 feet above sea level, and the force of the impact and explosion threw a wave of sea water up onto the bridge. The other half of this plane crashed close to our port side, adjacent to the bridge.

I was still in one piece, but it left me shaken but very grateful to the skill of Leading Seaman Roy Cazaly, who was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal for his efforts. It was indeed, a close run thing, and but for the Captain of the Port Pom Pom, I would not be alive today.

Some men on the upper deck saw a small figure parachute from that aircraft before it came apart, and there were cries to Cazaly to ‘shoot the bastard’, but he refrained, and seconds later the man slipped from the harness and plummeted into the sea.

There was one more attack on Shropshire that evening, and in this she was saved by the nearby Gascoyne, who marvellously scored a direct hit with her after 4-inch gun at a long range of about 4000 metres. Debris splattered onto the cruiser’s quarter-deck, prompting a cheerful signal from Captain Nichols asking Gascoyne to be more careful about where she dropped her rubbish next time. The Australians were looking out for each other.

Afterwards, the Bombardment Group stood out to sea again, for a mercifully quiet night in which, once more, Australia disposed of her dead. Now there were only enough people to man one 4-inch gun on either side, but, battered and bruised, she carried on.

The next day, 7 January, was quieter in the gulf, as if the enemy was also regathering, and there were no flies to be bothered with. Both cruisers carried out some routine shore bombardments, retired again for the night and were back early on the morning of 8 January.

Impossible as it seems, Australia was hit again. And again once more. The sun was still low in the east, still rising over the land mass of Luzon as she moved into line in Lingayen at the rear of the Bombardment Group. On this fourth day at action stations, the ship’s company by now was operating on adrenalin alone, somehow finding the reserves of strength and will to carry on when every nerve and muscle cried out for rest and respite, for a place of safety.

They did not have long to wait for the action to begin again. It was 7.20 am when the first zombie came in on the port quarter, the enemy’s preferred position for an attack. They recognised a Dinah, a twin-engined Mitsubishi Ki-46 normally used as an army reconnaissance plane, swooping in with four Wildcats from the Combat Air Patrol hot on its tail. Ordnance Artificer Cluny McPherson, a 23-year-old from Glen Iris in Melbourne, saw it coming:

All guns opened fire but he still came on. When only 50 feet from our port quarter the plane disintegrated under the heavy fire from the port pom-pom and short range weapons aft. A large piece of the engine hit the ship’s side, making a hole three feet square in the captain’s day cabin and glanced off into the water. The gun crews on X-turret and the quarterdeck were drenched with high octane petrol, which fortunately did not ignite.

Surprisingly, no one was killed or even scratched. But the damage control parties were still cleaning up when a second Dinah appeared, this time amidships on the port beam and barely skimming the water, its intentions very clear. Every gun that could be brought to bear poured a heavy fire into it and, at about ten metres away, the propeller of its starboard engine flew off and cartwheeled onto the ship, slicing into a Carley float lashed to the galley bulkhead. The gunfire beat the aircraft down into the sea but its bomb exploded right at the ship’s side, tearing her plates open into a hole on the waterline of around five metres by four metres, opening her up to the sea. Fairly quickly, Australia took on a list of some five degrees to port, which was slowly corrected by shoring up bulkheads and pumping and flooding. Again, no one was injured, although the impact had been very close to the transmitting station, where it could have wreaked havoc.

Still she carried on. And so did her men. In this new and terrible form of warfare, it was the people on the upper decks who were now in the firing line, and they knew it all too well. Once, it had been the men below who felt themselves to be in the most danger, from a torpedo fired by some unseen submarine, or shell fire from an enemy on the surface, and they would joke morbidly about their slender chances of survival, of getting out. In this Kamikaze onslaught, though, they were relatively protected, for the suicide planes did not have the power or the momentum to penetrate into a ship’s vitals. It was their shipmates up top who got it now, and there was something utterly alien, even obscene, in the thought that a man was willing to kill himself in an effort to kill you. Part of the Kamikaze weaponry was psychological, the sheer terror these planes aroused as you could see them coming straight for you, and it began to tell, pressing even strong men to the edge and more.

The ship’s doctors, already occupied with the burnt, wounded and maimed, now had to surmount their own fears and turn to what they called neurotic casualties, sailors broken in mind and spirit but just as certainly victims of war. Curiously, they noted that many of those most severely affected were men also recognised as some of the best, most loyal and competent in the ship. And, more often than not, they were older men, too, with wives and children at home. The symptoms were obvious, distressingly so. These men were pale and grey, often weeping and trembling, with convulsive attacks, vomiting, and sometimes confusion and loss of memory:

The men felt that their ship was singled out for special attack – a counter-attack on Australia in a double sense. Even if an enemy plane were 50 miles away, they were convinced that, among dozens of ships, it was coming straight for their own. After these assaults many exhaustion states were seen: men lost their grip, and cried out that they could stand no more. In such circumstances it was difficult to treat large numbers of serious injuries and mental casualties as well.

‘Guts’ Flattery, the Surgeon Commander, prescribed injections of morphine to calm them, and later they were given bromides as well, along with a constant and very deliberate assurance that they were not cowards, that their fears were normal and understood. Some responded well and recovered quickly, but there were others who could not.

It was true that some men, a handful, left their posts as lookouts and the like and ran for cover when a plane was coming. In theory, it was desertion in the face of the enemy, but it was also the desperate urge to survive, and it mattered not a jot in the scheme of things. If you were not working a gun, there was no point, none at all, in simply standing nakedly exposed for the sake of it. And other men found in themselves a store of courage that perhaps they never knew they had. David Hamer wrote in his memoirs:

during the second Dinah attack I was leaning over the side of the ADP, looking at the Bofors gun crew below and hoping that they would shoot it down (for the aircraft always seemed to be coming straight at you) … many of the crews were undertrained replacements, and one 17yr old I was watching was loading the clips of ammunition into a Bofors. It was certainly his first action, and he had only loaded a Bofors gun once before. The aircraft must have seemed to be coming straight at him, he must have been terribly scared, but he wouldn’t look up, just concentrated on loading the gun accurately. It was beautiful.

The rest of that day passed without an attack, and Australia limped into position at a cautious 15 knots to carry out her assigned bombardment. Soon, they found that firing her for’ard 8-inch guns out to port was straining nearby bulkheads, so they fired only to starboard. The Japanese had shifted their attention to the invasion convoy coming up from Leyte, a force that included the Australian transports Kanimbla, Manoora and Westralia, and they were jumped at about 7 pm. Westralia shot down a Zeke that was aiming for her bridge, sending it crashing into the water astern.

In Australia, the fear that they were being singled out was becoming widespread. The enemy seemed hell-bent on destroying the Australian flagship above all, for no other ship had taken four hits at Lingayen. Certainly, the Japanese knew she was there, for she had been threatened several times by the propaganda broadcaster Tokyo Rose, and in some detail, even down to naming the captain. And Australia’s distinctive three funnels were easy enough to pick from the air. Shropshire, although looking almost identical, had not been hit once. Perhaps it was Commodore Farncomb’s red-and-white broad pennant that made the flagship stand out, some people thought, but that was a long bow to draw, for it would have been nigh impossible for a pilot to see it as he flew and jinked at speed through the smoky puffs of anti-aircraft fire.

The invasion began well before dawn the next day – S-Day, 9 January – the troopships and transports and landing craft sweeping into Lingayen under starlit skies with almost choreographed precision. The Americans were well practised now, with the lessons of Guadalcanal and Leyte and the Gilbert Islands and so many more taken and learnt. As the sun rose, a new bombardment began. So, too, did a new Kamikaze attack, with the light cruiser Columbia taking her second hit, killing 24 men.

At 9.30 am, the bombardment halted and the landings began, wave after wave of landing craft ploughing in towards the beaches for the rest of the morning. There was little opposition from the enemy on land, and by the afternoon the beach head was secure enough for Douglas MacArthur himself to go ashore from the cruiser Boise. His landing craft took him close by Shropshire. ‘G’day, Doug!’ they shouted.

But Australia was struck once more. It was early in the afternoon, at 1.11 pm. Four Vals turned up out of the blue. Two were shot down by the Combat Air Patrol, and one aimed for the battleship Mississippi, scraping across her fo’c’sle and plunging into the water nearby, where its bomb detonated and took 22 lives. The fourth plane aimed for Australia in a long, curving dive. Des Shinkfield was standing on the deck outside the fore director, getting some sun and fresh air, when he saw it coming off the port bow. The Oerlikons on top of B-turret began firing and Des raced back inside to take what little shelter there was:

I thought there would be a big explosion and I really thought this would be it. I kept my eyes on this aircraft to the very last minute. It came so close that I felt I could have touched the wing with my outstretched arm …

Nearby, in the air defence position, David Hamer also saw it. By this time, the young lieutenant had taken enough, more than enough. His blood rose. Impulsively, he jumped up onto the plotting table as the plane headed for him, standing there in the open air. The men who watched him do this said he shook his fist at the oncoming Val, like the Greek god Ajax defying the lightning, although Hamer later had no memory of doing so. The aircraft roared over the top of him, about two metres above his head. One wing scraped the 8-inch director and then clipped one of the tripod legs of the foremast, which sent the plane smashing into the for’ard funnel, which was cut almost in half. Some of the debris went down the remains of the funnel – the pilot’s torso was found there a day later – but the rest of the plane went over the side and its bomb did not explode. Hamer, a little embarrassed, climbed back down from his table. No one was hurt, not even scratched.

This was the final attack on Australia. She was like a punch-drunk boxer now, battered and bloodied but still on her feet, still at her duty. Her men were at their emotional end, mentally and physically exhausted, wracked by uncertainty, haunted by fear, driven beyond endurance and yet with no choice but to endure, which somehow most of them did. They moved like automatons, unthinking, unquestioning.

Happily, the rest of the afternoon was quiet, with Australia able to transfer 12 of her more severely wounded men to Manoora, which carried better medical facilities. That evening, at the danger hour, all the ships were told to make smoke to conceal them from the air; a choking blanket lay over Lingayen, and no suicide plane got through.

Then Australia was told that she had done enough, that she could go. Her long agony was over. A wave of relief ran through the cruiser. That night, with Arunta and some of the damaged American ships, she was ordered out of Lingayen and south in a convoy back to Leyte. She went with the acclaim of her comrades in arms, a spontaneous outpouring of admiration and affection from around the fleet. Admiral Oldendorf signalled personally: ‘Your gallant conduct and that of your ship has been an inspiration to all of us.’ From the battleship New Mexico, the British observer, Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, sent a long message. ‘I feel very proud of the RAN,’ he said. ‘I thought the Australia, which seemed to be singled out for attack, dealt with every situation with great courage and determination, and this fact speaks for itself for, after all the damage she sustained, she carried out her duties until the landings had been completed and the task accomplished.’ Fraser knew what he was talking about: he had been in command at the stirring Battle of North Cape off Norway on Boxing Day 1943, where the German battleship Scharnhorst was sunk.

Shropshire stayed on at Lingayen, and luck stayed with her. She and the rest of the fleet were roughed up in a storm off the gulf that pounded them with ten-metre waves, but no Kamikaze ever touched her. Yet it had been a costly exercise for the Allied navies in those first two weeks of January, with 24 ships sunk by Kamikazes and another 67 damaged.

Australia arrived at Leyte on Friday 12 January, out of harm’s way at last, her men relieved but subdued after their torment and the death of so many of their shipmates. The silence was strange, almost eerie, a return to another world without the deafening scream of aircraft and the crash of gunfire. For a while, men spoke to each other almost in whispers, as if talking too loudly might bring the horrors down upon them again. A temporary patch was put on the cruiser’s damaged side, and slowly life began to return to something approaching normal. Spirits soared when they learnt that they would be going home, via Manus. Nobody knew it or even suspected it, but Australia had fired the last shots of her war.