Tobruk: The Desert Rats Defy Rommel 1941

Italy’s invasion of Libya in 1911 meant that Mussolini already had one possession in North Africa. By the outbreak of the Second World War, some 150,000 Italian colonists lived there. So when the British rejected Hitler’s peace overtures, Mussolini turned his attention to Egypt, which had been in British hands since 1882. He ordered Marshal Graziani to launch an offensive eastwards against the British troops in Egypt, who were under the command of General Sir Archibald Wavell. On 13 September 1940, the Italian 10th Army took the small border port of Sollum. They then advanced a further fifty miles into Egypt and occupied the British base at Sidi Barrani on 16 September. Six weeks later the British Western Desert Force under Lieutenant-General Richard O’Connor started a ‘five day raid’ which pushed the Italians back across the border on 10 December. Reinforced by the Australians, the Western Desert Force continued the advance and took the small port of Tobruk in northeast Libya on 21 January 1941. By the time the Italians had surrendered, on 7 February, they had been driven back for a distance of 500 miles by the British. Over 130,000 Italian prisoners had been taken, along with 400 tanks and 1,290 guns. Meeting no further resistance, the Western Desert Force could have gone on to take Tripoli, but their supply lines were already over-stretched and British prime minister Winston Churchill wanted to divert men and resources to Greece.

Hitler came to Mussolini’s aid. On 6 February, General Erwin Rommel, who had spearheaded the Panzer drive to the Channel, was sent with his Afrika Korps to Tripoli. He attacked El Agheila on 24 March, capturing O’Connor and throwing the British column back in the direction from which it had come. However, Wavell decided to hold Tobruk while the rest of the British force retreated into Egypt to regroup. As Tobruk had fallen so effortlessly on 21 January, its fortifications were largely intact. Its strongpoints, which were set out in alternating rows, were protected by concrete walls that were three feet thick. These offered protection against 15cm guns, the heaviest the Afrika Korps had at the time. It had an anti-tank ditch that was covered in camouflaged planks and sand and the perimeter defences described an arc that ran for twenty-eight miles around the port and reached a further nine miles inland. This was to be defended by the 9th Australian Division, reinforced by a brigade of the 7th, and the Sikhs of the 18th Cavalry Regiment. Major-General Leslie Morshead, commander of the 9th, told his men: ‘There will be no Dunkirk here. If we have to get out, we will fight our way out. No surrender and no retreat.’

Artillery support was supplied by the Australian Royal Artillery and the Royal Horse Artillery. Although their twenty-five-pounder field guns were not designed as anti-tank weapons, they were very effective against Rommel’s Panzers, bearing in mind that the standard anti-tank gun was the two-pounder. Tobruk was also defended by anti-aircraft batteries with seventy-five guns between them. Four Hurricanes were stationed there in the early days of the siege, but these were either shot down or withdrawn.

On 10 April, Rommel reached Tobruk and sent a motorised detachment to storm the town, but it was repulsed by heavy gunfire which killed its commander. On the night of 13 April, an infantry battalion of the Afrika Korps’ 5th Light Division made its way through a minefield and across the anti-tank ditch. A counterattack destroyed the infantry battalion and Jack Edmondson, an Australian defender who went on fighting even though he was mortally wounded, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Meanwhile elements of the Afrika Korps had bypassed Tobruk and had reached the Egyptian border. From now on, the 22,000 men at Tobruk would have to be supplied by sea.

This was a dangerous business because the Luftwaffe had complete air superiority. However, the anti-aircraft gunners managed to keep the harbour open. The heavy batteries were armed with British 3.7-inch guns, which produced shrapnel, while light anti-aircraft batteries used Bofors 40mm guns backed up by captured Italian 20mm and 40mm Breda guns, which fired tracer shells that exploded on impact. Between them, they would throw up a barrage at a predetermined height. The German pilots got wise to this, however, and started hanging back to see what height the barrage had been fixed at before starting their bombing runs. The barrage was then spread more thinly, and over varying heights, to make it more difficult to penetrate. The Luftwaffe’s response was to began dive-bombing the sites of the heavy guns, so the light anti-aircraft batteries with their rapid-fire tracers were moved in closer as protection.

Just before dawn on 14 April the Panzers attacked for the first time. They came on the left of the road that led south to El Adem. Thirty-eight tanks broke through the two lines of the zig-zagged perimeter defences and headed for the town. Three miles on they hit the second line of defence – the Blue Line. There they met point blank fire from British twenty-five-pounders. The Germans’ artillery support and machine-gunners had been held up by the Australian infantry who stayed in position when the tanks broke through. In the face of the twenty-five-pounders, the Panzers had no choice but to retreat. As they did so, British tanks and Australian anti-tank guns pummelled their flanks. The routed Germans left seventeen tanks behind. Twelve aircraft had been shot down, 110 men killed and 254 were captured. It was the first time that Hitler’s Panzers had tasted defeat.

Rommel realised that Tobruk could only be taken with an all-out attack, but he lacked the resources. Even the 15th Panzer Division, which was on its way, had suffered significant losses when the convoy carrying it was attacked on its way to Libya. By that time operations in the Balkans, and afterwards the Soviet Union, had starved Rommel of the tanks and men he needed for the capture of Tobruk. This small port later became the setting for the longest siege in British history.

Rommel bided his time for the next two weeks, bringing up more forces. By the end of the month he had some 400 German and Italian tanks at his disposal, against the defenders’ thirty-one. On the evening of 30 April, he threw his men at Hill 209, known as Ras el Medauur, which was near the water tower on the southwest corner of the perimeter. Twenty-two Stukas began dive-bombing the Australian positions at 19.15 hours and an artillery barrage opened up at 20.00. This cut the telephone lines and neutralized the front-line defences.

Under the cover of the bombardment, the Germans blew gaps in the wire and cleared paths through the minefield. By 21.15 a German machine-gun battalion, positioned a mile inside the perimeter, opened fire on the reserve company. The Australians began a counterattack, but with poor communication, and they could not find the beleaguered perimeter posts in the darkness. By the following morning it was clear that the Germans had punched a hole through the outer defences that was a mile and a half wide. They captured seven perimeter posts and took more than a hundred prisoners. However, the Australians had put up such a determined resistance that they had taken the momentum out of the German attack.

Soon after 08.00 the Germans advanced again with forty tanks, but they were stopped by a mine-field. Heavy shelling forced them to retreat, although a dust storm covered their withdrawal. Rommel tried to draw in the Allied armour by using a diversionary tactic with some twenty tanks, but Morshead was reluctant to commit his own tanks. He preferred to let mines and artillery shells do their work before risking his precious armoured reserve. Repeated air attacks failed to knock out the Allied artillery and by 09.00 the German attack had petered out.

As they could make no further progress in a forwards direction, Rommel’s Panzers and their infantry support attacked the posts at either side of the mouth of the German bridgehead. One of them fell by noon, but the heavy shelling prevented the Panzers from coordinating their efforts with their supporting infantry. Consequently, their attempts to take the other post failed. However, twenty-five light Panzers got beyond the perimeter posts and ran around the southern edge of the minefield. They were shelled all the way but by 09.15 they had reached Post R12, three miles east of Hill 209. There they were halted by fourteen cruiser tanks. Rommel then sent in another nine tanks. A sporadic tank battle broke out, but in spite of their superior numbers the Panzers were forced to withdraw after three of them had been lost.

The Germans tanks refuelled and began a new attack that afternoon. They were once more met by accurate British shelling. The Australians in the perimeter posts, armed only with Bren guns and rifles, put up fierce resistance. Two heavy Panzers tried to bombard one post into surrender from a range of seventy-five yards, but the Germans were repeatedly beaten back. By dusk half the defenders were wounded. The Germans attacked again in the twilight with tanks and flame-throwers and they took the post at 19.30. A second post fell on the following morning.

Having abandoned any attempt to drive forward directly onto the harbour, Rommel continued to push on inside the perimeter in the southeast until the bridgehead cleared the southern minefield. But he was stopped that evening by a counterattack against Hill 209.Impeded by the fading light and the dust kicked up by enemy shelling, the Australians advanced for more than a mile before they met resistance from anti-tank and machine-gun emplacements. By then they had lost the cover of their artillery barrage. Lacking the machine-guns they needed, the men withdrew. They had not retaken Hill 209, but they had had forced the enemy onto the defensive and had prevented the Germans from skirting around a vital minefield.

The German advance was halted by a sandstorm on 2 May, giving the defenders time to lay new minefields, bring up fresh infantry and strengthen their positions. The artillery continued to pummel the German positions and the Germans did not resume their offensive when the storm cleared next day. The garrison had lost just five tanks, while out of the eighty-one German tanks that Rommel had started with there were only thirty-five left in action. Of the forty-six that had been lost, however, only twelve had been completely destroyed. However, the Panzers had suffered their second defeat and their morale was shaken. On the other hand, the Germans had made a breach in the de-fences and had held a large salient.

Morshead planned to do something about that. He would send two battalions to attack the shoulders of the salient, retake the lost posts and cut off the enemy spearhead. At the same time, a third battalion would make deep raids into enemy territory. The problem was that the Germans held Hill 209 so they could watch as the Australians assembled. This gave them ample warning of the attack. After dark the Australians advanced under an artillery barrage and the Germans fought back with heavy machine-gun fire. Flares lit up the sky and German mortar and artillery fire brought the Australian advance on the northern flank to a standstill. On the southern flank, they retook one post but attacked another without success. The other attacks pushed the German outposts back by more than half a mile. The Germans had lost 1,700 men, compared to the garrisons’ casualties of 797 – fifty-nine killed, 355 wounded and 383 missing. However, the German High Command grew alarmed at the losses and ordered Rommel not to attack again.

Morshead was jubilant. ‘The actions before Tobruk in April and May are the first in which armoured formations of the German Army have been defied and defeated,’ he said.

Churchill was also impressed. He sent a telegram which read: ‘The whole Empire is watching your steadfast and spirited defence of this important outpost of Egypt with gratitude and admiration.’

Wavell’s message to Morshead struck a more practical note. It read: ‘Your magnificent defence is upsetting enemy’s plans for attack on Egypt and giving us time to build up force for counter offensive. You could NOT repeat NOT be doing better service.’

The German radio propagandist William Joyce – known as in Britain as ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ because of his sneering voice – ignored the problems that Rommel was having. He crowed that the garrison were caught ‘like rats in a trap’. A German newspaper then dubbed the British defenders the ‘Rats of Tobruk’, an insult they quickly embraced, calling themselves the ‘Desert Rats’.

Tobruk was psychologically important from the Allied point of view, because it showed, for the first time, that the Germans could be stopped. The Panzers were not invincible. The German Blitzkrieg could defeated by minefields and artillery fire and infantry who stood their ground. Even the terror-bombers could be thwarted by dedicated anti-aircraft gunners. It also added a vital fillip to British prestige in the Arab world. Strategically, Rommel would have rolled on through Egypt if Tobruk had fallen. He would have taken the Suez Canal and the oilfields in the Persian Gulf and cut the British Empire in two. As it was, Britain was given time to recover from the disasters of Greece and Crete. The British forces could regroup in Egypt, while fresh American aid arrived via Britain.

The defence of Tobruk also kept Turkey – a German ally in the First World War – out of the war. Accordingly, Hitler was prevented from using Turkey as a southern springboard for his attack on the Soviet Union, which delayed him by at least a month. Because winter is considered to be Russia’s greatest general, this may have been crucial.

The greatest measure of the defenders of Tobruk’s success was the fact that it took three battalions of Rommel’s best troops and four Italian divisions to hold the salient around Hill 209. Morshead capitalised on this by maintaining a strategy of aggressive night patrolling in order to dominate no man’s land and undermine the enemy’s morale. In the meantime, the British maintained their harassing attacks on Rommel’s forces on the Egyptian frontier, even though they were short of tanks. Their aim was to keep him from regrouping his whole force and turning it on Tobruk.

After the evacuation of Greece, fifty tanks were diverted to Egypt. Wavell quickly organised Operation Brevity in order to relieve Tobruk. On 15 May 1941 the British captured the Halfaya Pass on the way to Sollum. But they were forced to withdraw on 17 May and the Germans retook the pass.

On the night of 15 May, the Germans launched an attack on three perimeter posts at Tobruk. It was thought that all three were lost, but when one was recaptured it was found that the other two had held out although they were desperately short of ammunition. Once they were resupplied, the Australians discovered that they were ‘on a roll’ and so they tried to recapture more of their outposts. Supporting fire came from thirty-nine British guns and a smoke screen was laid in order that machine-gunners from the Northumberland Fusiliers could sweep into the disputed area without being observed from Hill 209. The Germans laid their own smoke screen and barrage, however, and the British tanks lost their way in the dust and smoke. Even so, the Australian infantry carried on alone through intense fire in an attempt to take two posts. Unfortunately, the Germans were too well established and they not only held the concrete posts but also the intermediate positions that were able to provide flanking fire. At that point the Australians withdrew.

By June the two sides were consolidating their defensive positions. In the salient, the Germans had fallen back to a defensive line that was behind the positions they held on 3 May. By 26 June the Australians had been able to advance their line by 1,000 yards, reducing its length from over five miles to under four. This allowed the Australians to take one battalion out of the line and place it on reserve. On the other hand, the German line was more closely packed and the Germans had also mined no man’s land, preventing any further Australian advances.

Wavell made a second attempt to relieve Tobruk, starting on 15 June. When this was beaten back by the 15th Panzer Division, General Sir Claude Auchinleck replaced Wavell as commander-in-chief in the Middle East on 1 July.

The Australians had held out in Tobruk for over three months. Factors such as heat, dust, flies, sand and poor food were affecting fighting ability and the Australian government asked that they be withdrawn. The bulk of the troops were evacuated in the late summer and replaced by the British 17th Division under Major-General Scobie. They were supported by the 1st Polish Carpathian Brigade and a Czechoslovakian battalion. However, some Australians stayed on with the original British forces.

While Rommel planned a new attack, General Auchinleck began organising Operation Crusader, a third attempt to relieve Tobruk, forming the 8th Army under General Sir Alan Cunningham. Cunningham’s plan was to send XXX Corps across the Libyan border to the south and deploy it at a place called Gabr Saleh. He hoped that Rommel and his Panzers would seize the opportunity for a tank battle because he believed that the better equipped and more numerous British and South African forces would win. Meanwhile, XIII Corps would overrun the frontier positions on the coast and push up the coast road towards Tobruk while Rommel was being crushed in the desert. The danger was that there would be a large gap between the two columns so the British would be vulnerable. Another column was drawn up between them, therefore, but it drew its strength from XXX Corps, thereby considerably weakening the force that was intended to take on Rommel.

Crusader got underway in torrential rain on 18 November. Unfortunately Rommel had plans of his own. Because he was making ready to take Tobruk, he kept his armour around Gambut on the coast road instead of moving to meet XXX Corps at Gabr Saleh. Worse yet was to befall Cunningham. The Eighth Army’s operational plans fell into enemy hands after being brought to the front by a careless British officer. Because Rommel failed to meet XXX Corps at Gabr Saleh, the British pressed on. On 19 November, however, fifty of their new Crusader tanks were destroyed when they tried to take Bir el Gubi to the south of Tobruk. Another column pushed on towards Tobruk, but it was met by the Afrika Korps at Sidi Rezegh, who mounted a counterattack which destroyed much of their armour. Rommel could have wiped out the whole of XXX Corps if he had followed up on the following day. Instead, he took a gamble. With a hundred tanks he made a dash across the desert to the Egyptian border with the intention of cutting off the entire Eighth Army and attacking it from the rear.

The reverses took a terrible toll on Cunningham, who wanted to withdraw. Auchinleck urged him on in the belief that Rommel’s bold move was an act of desperation. However, the strain was too much for Cunningham and on 26 November Auchinleck had to replace him with his own deputy chief of staff, Major-General Neil Methuen Ritchie. It was now Auchinleck who was really in command.

In a letter home, Rommel described his ‘dash to the wire’ as a great success. In fact, he had made little impression on the 4th Indian Division holding the rear, nor did he deprive Eighth Army of its supplies. Worse, his radio had broken down and he had left his Panzer group without orders for four days.

While XXX Corps had been decimated to the south, XIII Corps had been given an easier time of it while they were running along the coast road. The New Zealand Division broke through and on 25 November Scobie received a telegram telling him that the New Zealanders would make another attack on Sidi Rezegh on the following day. At the same time, the garrison was to attempt to break out. They did this in the midst of fierce fighting. At 13.00 hours they saw tanks on the horizon and then suddenly three red rockets burst in the sky. It was the 8th Army’s recognition signal. Tobruk had been relieved at last. But not for long. In Rommel’s absence, the 21st Panzer Division, which had been on the Egyptian border, was ordered to retreat. Rommel confirmed this order when he reappeared at his headquarters on the 27th. A confused battle followed in which the New Zealand Division was cut in two, with one half being sent back to Tobruk. In the mêlée, the commander of the 21st Panzer Division, General von Ravenstein, was captured.

Meanwhile, Auchinleck reinforced and reorganised XXX Corps and catapulted it back into battle. Rommel now only had a few tanks left so he withdrew his forces when he was told that he was not going to be resupplied until the latter part of December. He then attacked Tobruk from the east on 5 December. On the following day, a final counterattack failed and he ordered a general retreat, leaving behind an Italian division with orders to hold out as long as possible. Short of food and ammunition, it surrendered on 17 January.

The Siege of Tobruk lasted 242 days from 10 April to 7 December 1941, 55 days longer than the siege of Mafeking in the Boer War. It was the first defeat of German land forces in the Second World War.

Although the British managed to push Rommel 300 miles down the coast road he rallied at Gazala, in a counterattack that sent the British into full retreat. In June 1942, he finally captured Tobruk, which fell to the British again on 13 November 1942 after General Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein.

IJN Submarines – East Coast Australia

In the days after the Sydney raid, the Australian Department of Information monitored Japanese broadcasts around the clock, but picked up no public broadcast relating to the Sydney attack until 5 June.

The Imperial Navy made an attack on Sydney Harbour with midget submarines on 31 May. We have succeeded in entering the harbour and sinking one warship. The three midget submarines which took part in this operation have not reported back.

Although MacArthur’s headquarters issued a brief statement on 1 June, the first detailed reports of the raid came from American and British broadcasts. The Sydney press was particularly outraged when the initial news came from Melbourne, not Sydney. When the Minister for the Navy came under fierce fire in the House of Representatives for not allowing Sydney to release the news, Mr Makin replied: “It was thought undesirable to make an earlier announcement because enemy ships might still have been in the vicinity.”

In response to the Japanese raid on Sydney, the Deputy Prime Minister, Francis Forde, made the following speech in Parliament:

The public should not complacently count on this as the last attack in these waters. The attempted raid brings the war much nearer to the industrial heart of Australia. It should clearly indicate the absolute necessity for eternal vigilance by all services. It should act as a new stimulus to the whole of the people to co-operate wholeheartedly on a complete war effort.

Forde’s words were both true and prophetic. On 3 June, Sasaki brought I-21 to the surface 40 miles off Sydney and attacked the Australian steamer Age with gunfire. Unarmed, the steamer ran for safety and arrived in Newcastle the following day without further incident.

At 11:30 pm, soon after the Age was attacked, I-24 sank the Australian coaster, Iron Chieftain, which was on passage from Newcastle to Whyalla. Iron Chieftain had sailed from Newcastle at 10:00 pm but was only able to make good six knots against the heavy seas. Twenty seven miles from Newcastle Harbour, the submarine surfaced and fired a torpedo at the coaster. Laden with coke, Iron Chieftain sank in five minutes, taking with her 12 crew including the master and third mate who were last seen on the bridge.

One of the survivors, Naval gunner Cyril Sheraton, gave the following account of the Iron Chieftan attack in the Sydney Morning Herald:

I was in my pyjamas and watch coat beside my gun when the torpedo struck. I tried to get my gun into action but did not have a chance. The captain and third mate were on the bridge and were watching the submarine for five or six minutes before the skipper shouted “Hard a’starboard”. The torpedo struck before the ship could swing. I could see the submarine 200 yards away on the port side. As the ship sank under me, I was dragged onto a raft. After the ship sank, the submarine circled our raft and we thought that we might be machine-gunned so we laid still. The submarine finally left and we drifted in the darkness.

When news of the Iron Chieftain’s sinking reached Sydney, Rear-Admiral Muirhead-Gould closed the ports of Sydney and Newcastle to outward bound shipping, and ships at sea were warned to “zigzag”. The anti-submarine vessel Bingera sailed from Sydney to search for survivors and picked up some of the crew, including Sheraton. Another 25 crewmen were found 30 hours later after rowing their open boat ashore.

With Second Officer Brady in charge, the lifeboat picked up as many men as could be seen in the water. When no more survivors could be found, they began to row through the heavy swell, taking turns at the oars to keep warm. After some hours the sea abated and conditions became easier. The men began singing to boost their morale, but it was a dismal attempt and ceased after a while. They continued to row in silence. Thirty hours later they arrived about a mile off The Entrance, north of Sydney. Unfamiliar with the area, Brady fired distress flares into the sky, but local fishermen did not understand their meaning. When help failed to arrive, the men rowed slowly ashore, weary, drenched and cold. The exhausted Second Officer was reluctant to surrender his charge to the police and had to be threatened with violence before he would consent to go to bed and warm up.

At dawn on 4 June, six hours after Iron Chieftain was sunk, I-27, en route to Tasmanian waters, surfaced and attacked the Australian steamer Barwon 30 miles off Gabo Island. The submarine commenced the attack with gunfire, followed by a torpedo, which exploded prematurely alongside the steamer. Fragments of metal landed on the ship but there was no damage or casualties. Barwon was able to escape by outrunning her attacker.

At 4:45 pm on the same day, I-27 torpedoed the Australian ship Iron Crown, laden with manganese ore and bound for Newcastle. Iron Crown went down in one minute, taking with her 37 crew, including the captain. The submarine was forced to crash dive when an Australian Hudson aircraft suddenly appeared over the horizon.

Australian naval authorities became exceedingly jittery about the increasing Japanese submarine activity and frequent molesting of Allied shipping. On 4 June the Australian Naval Board decided to suspend all merchant sailings from eastern and southern Australian ports. However, merchant vessels already at sea before the Naval Board directive continued to fall victim to elements of the Third Submarine Company. In the absence of enemy warships, the Japanese naval authorities considered merchant vessels legitimate targets.

It was the Japanese Navy’s policy to limit the number of torpedoes that a submarine commander could fire at a particular target. Merchant ships and destroyers were allotted only one torpedo, cruisers warranted three, and battleships and aircraft carriers were allotted maximum torpedo firepower. Since this policy reduced the chances of sinking a merchant ship, Captain Sasaki ordered his submarine force to resort to surface gunfire attacks in an effort to economise on torpedoes.

While Sasaki’s submarine force waged its campaign of destruction, Allied aircraft continued to scour the sea in search of the submarine raiders. During this period there were many reported sightings of periscopes. However, to confuse the enemy, Sasaki’s force released decoy periscopes along Australia’s east coast. These decoys were made of long bamboo sticks, painted black, at the top of which were attached mirrors that would glint in the sunlight. Below the surface were two sake bottles lashed to the decoy periscope. The glass bottles were half-filled with sand and half-filled with diesel oil. The weight of the sand would cause the bamboo stick to float upright in the water, and the oil was to convince the enemy of a successful attack when it floated to the surface once the bottles shattered following a bomb or depth charge attack.

One of these decoy periscopes was responsible for a reported sighting by a Dutch aircraft eight miles south-east of Sydney on the morning of 6 June. The aircraft attacked and reported damaging a submarine at periscope depth after thick diesel oil was seen on the surface.

A decoy periscope was later recovered offshore by a commercial fisherman who turned it over to Muirhead-Gould’s staff for examination.

Also on 6 June, 22-year-old Flight Lieutenant G. J. Hitchcock taxied his Lockheed Hudson bomber across the tarmac at Williamtown, north of Newcastle, and, with only a scratch crew, took off to search for enemy submarines. The base medical officer had been invited to join the flight with the promise that Hitchcock would sink a submarine. Hitchcock’s promise almost became a reality.

Flying at 2,000 feet, the air gunner, Flight Sergeant A. T. Morton, sighted a periscope 80 miles east of Sydney. Hitchcock descended abruptly to 500 feet and commenced his attack. The Hudson accidentally dropped its entire bomb load, which fell astern of the periscope. Hitchcock recalled that the aircraft received an almighty thump from behind when the bombs exploded. The Hudson circled the area for half an hour. While bubbles were seen rising to the surface, there was no oil. Hitchcock considered his attack was unsuccessful, but newspaper accounts thought otherwise, crediting the Hudson with “the first Australian killing”. Hitchcock told the author that the newspaper accounts had the effect of lifting morale and he and his crew became temporarily famous.

In the days that followed the Sydney Harbour attack, residents had begun to settle back into their normal daily routines. However, they were not without foreboding as they read press reports of submarine attacks on merchant shipping along the coast.

Sydney’s apprehensive mood turned to panic when Sasaki’s submarine force interrupted their campaign against Allied shipping and turned their attention to frightening the civil population. On 8 June, shortly after midnight, I-24 surfaced 12 miles off the coast of Sydney and fired 10 high explosive shells.

The examination vessel HMAS Adele, which was responsible for challenging suspicious vessels attempting to enter harbour, sighted the gunfire flashes out to sea, as did the Outer South Head army battery, which probed the sea with searchlights. Five minutes later the air raid alarm was sounded and city and coastal navigation lights were temporarily extinguished. The submarine submerged before the coastal defences could return fire.

There were no major casualties reported from this unexpected shelling, although one resident – a refugee from Nazi Germany – was terrified when a shell crashed though his bedroom wall. According to newspaper accounts, the man leapt out of bed, fracturing his ankle, and the shell failed to explode.

The remaining shells exploded in the suburbs of Rose Bay and Bellevue Hill, shattering windows and causing only superficial damage. One shell exploded harmlessly in Manion Avenue, Rose Bay, where a large crater was formed in the roadway.

The main objective of the shellfire was to destroy the Sydney Harbour Bridge, however, the Japanese also wanted to frighten the population. Although they failed in their first objective, they succeeded in the second beyond their expectations.

During the shelling, panic broke out when confused residents ran screaming into the streets thinking the air raid siren meant that Sydney was under attack by enemy aircraft. Urban Australians did not react very favourably when, later that morning, harbour front and other wealthy Eastern Suburb residents put their houses up for sale and fled to the Blue Mountains and even further inland, fearing a Japanese invasion at any moment.

A steady trickle of harbourside residents had been leaving Sydney following the Japanese attack on Sydney Harbour more than a week earlier; but with the shelling of the Eastern Suburbs, the trickle increased to a frenzied stream of panicky citizens. When every house, boarding house and hotel in the Blue Mountains was crammed, these “escapees” retreated further inland to Orange in the central-west of New South Wales. Some people fled from Sydney to the Hunter Valley – to towns like Singleton and Muswellbroook – but they were turned away when every available accommodation space had been taken. This is a good indication of how serious the belief was that Australia would be invaded by the “Yellow Peril”.

Compared with Londoners during the Blitz, these Australians behaved with less than Churchillian courage. Only after the war was over did many of them sheepishly return, some buying back their houses at vastly inflated prices.

Scenting an opportunity, poverty-stricken European refugees, many of them Jewish émigrés who had weathered far greater ordeals in Europe, quickly moved into the area. They shrewdly bought up the vacated real-estate at absurdly deflated prices and, after the war, many became millionaires overnight. One Eastern Suburbs real estate agent, Mr Karl Malouf, told the author that the exodus of the rich had been extensive. He remembers the harbourside suburbs of Vaucluse and Bellevue Hill were a forest of “For Sale signs.” Malouf‘s company went on to become one of Sydney’s best known realtors.

Just over two hours after I-24 shelled Sydney, I-21 surfaced three miles off Newcastle. The submarine fired 20 star shells over the industrial heart of the city, followed by six high explosive shells, only three of which exploded. Close examination of the unexploded shells later that day revealed that they had been manufactured in England in 1914! The nose sections were very rough, with some fuses bent and damaged, which explained why the majority of shells failed to explode.

The main Japanese target at Newcastle was the BHP steelworks. As with Sydney, however, the shells landed over a wide area, one shell exploding on the road behind Fort Scratchley, a coastal Army battery, and another some distance away near Nobby’s Head. Two star shells also exploded above the corvette Whyalla, which had recently arrived in Newcastle after searching for enemy submarines off the coast.

Fort Scratchley, overlooking Newcastle Harbour, was originally built during the Russian scare of the nineteenth century and was modified and reactivated for World War II. In the early hours of the morning, the duty sergeant at the Fort reported to the searchlight commander, Captain W. J. Harvey, that he could see flares in the sky and that something unusual appeared to be happening. Gun flashes were then seen and the searchlights probed the sea. At the extreme range of the searchlights, Gunner Colin Curie reported sighting a submarine. The battery commander, Captain Walter Watson, put the battery on alert and the guns were loaded ready to fire. Suddenly, Watson saw a gun flash and cried “Duck!” The shell exploded in Parnell Place, narrowly missing the observation post. Watson telephoned fire command for permission to open fire and, when he received no reply, opened fire anyway. The telephonist then reported, “Fire command says engage when ready, Sir!” Watson retorted, “Tell them I bloody-well have!” He then gave ranging corrections to his gunners and fired a second salvo.

The pilot steamer Birubi was at sea off Nobby’s Head when the shelling began. In her haste to run for the harbour entrance and safety, the pilot vessel emitted huge clouds of thick black smoke, which obscured Watson’s field of vision and he was unable to correct the range of fire. Sasaki submerged before Fort Scratchley could fire a third salvo. The pilot vessel later reported that the first salvo had fallen short of the submarine and the second had overshot.

Some remarkable escapes were made from the Newcastle shelling. Residents had heard an air raid siren shortly after midnight, followed by the “All Clear”, which actually signified the end of the shelling attack on Sydney. When, an hour later, firing commenced on Newcastle, residents were confused and caught unaware.

In Parnell Place, Mrs Wilson had decided to evacuate her two young children from their home above a shop: “I thought it was only air raid drill or practice. Then I realised it wasn’t… The shells were screaming across. The worst part was not knowing where they were going to hit.”

Scooping her two children from their bed, Mrs Wilson was making her way downstairs when a shell exploded on the road outside. It was not until daylight that the young mother realised how close she and her children had come to death. She discovered shrapnel from the blast had torn through a wire mattress base where the children had been sleeping and, when she rolled back the mattress, a huge, gaping hole was revealed in the wall.

There were only two casualties reported from the Newcastle shelling, both victims of shrapnel from the blast in Parnell Place. Bombardier Stan Newton had been on his way to Fort Scratchley when he was knocked unconscious by a piece of shrapnel that struck him in the forehead. Regaining consciousness, he was greeted by a surprised air raid warden. Newton then ran on to the Fort to take up his position, unaware the shrapnel was still lodged in his head.

Meanwhile, naval authorities ordered a total blackout of the Newcastle and Sydney coastal areas. HMAS Whyalla and the American destroyer Perkins were ordered to escort eight merchant ships from Newcastle to Melbourne.

Submarine bombardment of enemy cities was employed by the Japanese only on limited occasions. From the time of surfacing, often over a minute passed before the submarines could commence firing. Ranges had to be estimated from charts, and to score a direct hit was extremely difficult. The rangefinders they used were portable and inaccurate, making the whole operation a rather clumsy exercise. Also, only 20 shells could be stored at one time in the ammunition locker on the upper deck. If more ammunition was required, it had to be brought up from below, thus creating a dangerous situation, especially if the submarine had to submerge in a hurry.

After the shelling of Sydney and Newcastle, I-24 and I-21 turned their attention back to terrorising merchant ships off the coast. At 1:00 am on 9 June, I-24 pursued and shelled the British merchant ship Orestes 90 miles south of Sydney. Steaming independently from Sydney to Melbourne, Orestes presented a prime target for I-24, which chased the merchantman for five hours. During the running battle, Orestes suffered several direct hits, resulting in a large fire. Believing the merchant vessel was doomed, I-24 broke off the attack; but Orestes succeeded in extinguishing the fire and made Melbourne safely the next day.

Not so fortunate was the Panamanian vessel Guatemala. At 1:15 am on 12 June, I-24 intercepted and successfully sank the merchant ship 40 miles from Sydney. Guatemala had left Newcastle in the convoy escorted by Perkins and Whyalla, but soon found herself straggling behind the convoy. The Norwegian master, Captain A. G. Bang, heard two gunshots to starboard but saw nothing. A few minutes later, the second officer saw the track of a torpedo, which struck the ship before he could take evasive action. The crews took to the lifeboats and Guatemala sank an hour later without any casualties. Soon afterwards the Australian minesweeper Doomba picked up the 51 crew and transported them to Sydney.

The Japanese account of the Guatemala’s sinking varies slightly from official Australian records. In his book, Sunk, Mochitsura Hasimoto records the submarine fired one torpedo at Guatemala, which detonated prematurely. The submarine then surfaced and engaged the Panamanian vessel with gunfire, but found it difficult to score a direct hit in the darkness. The submarine intercepted an SOS from the ship announcing she was under attack and asking for assistance. Eventually, one of I-24’s shells hit its target, after which Guatemala’s crew stopped the ship and took to the lifeboats. The submarine then fired a second torpedo, which sank the doomed ship.

This was the last enemy submarine attack in Australian waters for about six weeks.

From the time of the Sydney Harbour raid until the sinking of Guatemala, the Third Submarine Company had sunk four ships with the loss of 73 lives over a period of 12 days. From mid-July until the beginning of August, three more large Japanese submarines – I-11, I-174 and I-175 – joined with I-24 to continue Japan’s campaign of destruction along the coast. They succeeded in sinking another four vessels before leaving Australian waters.

Thereafter, a period of calm followed until January 1943 when I-21 returned to Australian waters and sank six ships off Sydney over the following month. Then, in April 1943, I-26 sank two vessels off Brisbane, and a further six ships were sunk between April and mid-June 1943.

When Japan lost her forward bases at Rabaul and Truk, distant operations into Australian waters were rendered progressively more difficult. By the end of July 1943, submarine operations became almost impossible.

Between June 1942 and December 1944, a total of 27 merchant ships were sunk in Australian waters with the loss of 577 lives, including the 21 sailors who lost their lives on Kuttabul. Of the total fatalities, 268 lives were lost in one attack when the Australian hospital ship, Centaur, was sunk 40 miles east of Brisbane on 14 May 1943. The Centaur sank in about three minutes with only 64 survivors, who spent 36 hours in the water before rescue. The Japanese submarine thought responsible for the sinking was 1-177 commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Nakagawa, who was later tried as a war criminal and spent four years in prison for firing on survivors from a British merchant vessel torpedoed in the Indian Ocean. The sinking of Centaur was not raised at his trial.

Sinking Japanese Submarine I-1

By Bruce Petty

A pair of New Zealand minesweepers teamed up to sink a Japanese submarine off Guadalcanal.

Gordon Bridson was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1909, but shortly thereafter his family moved to Auckland, where he attended Auckland Grammar School. Bridson was larger than most children his age, and into adulthood he continued to stand taller than most men.

Given the near-religious aura that rugby held in the psyche of many New Zealanders, one would think that Bridson would have gravitated toward that sport. For whatever reason, however, and in spite of his size, he gravitated toward swimming, rising to the top of that sport in New Zealand in the 1920s and early 1930s, consistently winning ribbons and cups in national competitions. In 1930, he even went to the Empire Games in Canada, where he won a silver medal. For reasons never explained or expressed, he showed little interest in swimming after that.

In 1927, aged 18 and still an active swimmer, he joined the Royal New Zealand Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNZVR) and received his commission in February 1928 as a probationary sub-lieutenant. Twelve years later, almost a year after World War II started in Europe, he was promoted to lieutenant commander in the RNZVR. A month later, in May 1940, he left with the first draft of volunteers to serve with the Royal Navy in Great Britain, a common practice in those days for New Zealand naval personnel, being British Commonwealth citizens.

As was the case in the United States, when war came to England and British Commonwealth countries, they were caught woefully unprepared. They had few ships, and even fewer, once German submarines began to sink them in large numbers. Commercial vessels were therefore appropriated and converted to military use. For example, HMNZS Matai, a former lighthouse tender, was converted to military use as a minesweeper.

Once in Britain, Bridson was put in command of HMS Walnut, which was 164 feet long, had a complement of 35 men, and did a whopping 11.5 knots when the engines were in good working order. This was also the estimated top speed of mass-produced American Liberty ships that were being launched in American shipyards at about this time. Bridson commanded Walnut for 14 months, from July 23, 1940 to September 26, 1941, and as the Battle of Britain was fought between July and October 1940, one can only imagine the adventures and sights these men at sea witnessed.

The Walnut was part of a 10-ship flotilla that escorted ships in coastal British waters, and though all the ships in this flotilla were part of the Royal Navy, they were manned for the most part by New Zealand officers and ratings. They were often attacked by German ships and planes, and it was during this time that Bridson was awarded his first of many medals, the Distinguished Service Cross.

In October 1941, less than two months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and pulled the United States into World War II, Bridson took command of the newly built Bird-class minesweeper Kiwi (T102). Compared to Walnut, Kiwi was 168 feet long and was capable of a breathtaking 13 knots.

When commissioned, Kiwi’s armament consisted of one World War I-vintage 4-inch gun, a few machine guns, and 40 depth charges. With depth charge racks and “Y” launchers, these minesweepers, which were originally ordered as training vessels, were obviously prepared for a multitude of combat-related jobs, including antisubmarine warfare.

Once Kiwi and her sister ship Moa were fitted for sea, they set out on their long voyage for the Pacific. However, before becoming involved in the fighting in Pacific waters, Kiwi and Moa first had to get there. That meant surviving a crossing of a North Atlantic infested with U-boats, which at the time looked capable of crippling Britain’s war effort, as had almost happened a generation earlier during World War I.

Kiwi took up the rear of a convoy that was set to leave British waters for Halifax, Nova  Scotia, in the closing days of 1941. The thoughts of Lt. Cmdr. Bridson and his crew may have been on the threat of U-boat attacks as they set off, but what really came close to sinking them was one of the worst recorded Atlantic hurricanes of the century. South of Iceland, the weather turned nasty, and Kiwi found herself battling seas of up to 80 feet. The crew was confined below decks, except when one of the depth charges broke loose and a work party had to be sent on deck to secure it. Then, on January 9, Kiwi rode the crest of a monster wave and then was sent airborne by a following sea that almost sank her. The damage was severe with bulkheads crumpled and flooding in various parts of the ship, including the bridge where windows gave way. Abandoning ship in Arctic waters would have spelled doom for any crewmen who attempted it, unless they were picked up almost immediately, and being at the end of the convoy, that was not likely. Thanks to skilled seamanship and perhaps a bit of luck, however, Kiwi survived.

A lull in the storm came on January 11, allowing temporary repairs to be made to damaged parts of the ship. Other members of the crew were sent topside to chip away the tons of ice that had accumulated on the rigging and other parts of the ship. With all the damage done to the ship below decks, Kiwi did not need the risk of capsizing from the added weight of accumulated ice topside.

On January 16, Kiwi and her crew were in sight of Newfoundland. Escaping attack from patrolling U-boats in the area, Kiwi put into port where the ship spent two weeks in drydock having emergency repairs done. Likewise, the crew relaxed and caught up on much-needed sleep after the many stressful days and nights of fighting the hurricane.

On January 30, Kiwi left Newfoundland bound for Boston. She left through U-boat-infested waters but arrived without incident. In Boston, Kiwi spent an additional month in Bethlehem Shipyard undergoing further repairs before she was deemed seaworthy again. She was a lucky ship in more ways than one. Not only had she survived one of the worst hurricanes to hit the North Atlantic that century, but she also evaded the U-boats that dominated Atlantic waters at that time. In January 1942, a total of 46 ships were lost to U-boat attacks, and most of them were lost in the North Atlantic.

After a month spent in Boston to repair not only Kiwi but also give her crew a rest, the ship set out again, but this time for warmer waters. Kiwi sailed through the Caribbean and transited the Panama Canal on its long voyage to Auckland before setting off to join the U.S. Pacific Fleet in its struggle to turn the tide against Japan in the waters around the Solomon Islands.

Being a small ship that needed regular refueling stops along the way, Kiwi took a circuitous route to New Zealand, sailing up the west coast of Latin America to San Diego, California. She then headed west to Hawaii, then southwest to Fiji before reaching Auckland and what must have been a welcome time at home with friends and family. Bridson and many others in his crew had been away from home for almost two years.

Tulagi, a small island off the coast of the larger Florida Island in the Solomons, became the first home port for New Zealand’s 25th Minesweeping Flotilla in the South Pacific Theater, then under the command of U.S. Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey. They may have been a minesweeping flotilla, but in the early days of the Pacific War, there were not enough ships of various types to satisfy the myriad needs of a navy unprepared for a world war. As a result, these New Zealand corvettes served a variety of functions, including antisubmarine patrols.

The 25th Minesweeping Flotilla was made up of six ships. Matai, originally commanded by A.D. Holden, was the command ship of the flotilla. Prior to the war, Matai served at various times as a lighthouse tender and a governor’s yacht before being requisitioned for wartime use. Likewise, HMNZS Gale and Breeze served as coastal cargo vessels and were owned by the Canterbury Steamship Company before being put to military use. Comparatively speaking, only HMNZS Kiwi, Tui, and Moa were what one might refer to as purpose-built, though even they were constructed on trawler hulls. All three were built in the Henry Robb Shipyards in Leith, Scotland.

Kiwi and Moa were the first of the New Zealand corvettes to see action in the South Pacific. With little in the way of armament, Kiwi and Moa, literally days before going into combat for the first time, traded several bottles of rum (some say it was gin) for some 20mm Oerlikons. As Leading Signalman J. Slater recalled, “The Kiwi mounted one of hers straight in front of her 4-inch gun on the foredeck, and we [aboard the Moa] mounted ours slightly to starboard of the 4-inch.” However, Ewan Stevenson, an underwater archaeologist who has explored and photographed the sunken Moa more than once, says it is mounted on the bow forward of the 4-inch gun and on the centerline.

Thanks to the success of Allied code breakers, Admiral Halsey’s command knew that the Japanese were reinforcing and resupplying their troops on “Starvation Island,” as the Japanese came to call Guadalcanal. This was because they had failed not only to eradicate the Allied presence on Guadalcanal, but had also lost the ability to resupply their forces by conventional means. They were thus forced to pull not only many of their destroyers from their designated task of engaging the enemy but also many of their submarines in an effort to save the situation and avoid defeat. However, what Allied intelligence did not know was that at about this time the Japanese had concluded that the situation on Guadalcanal was not salvageable. The resupply efforts would soon give way to evacuating as many troops as possible, something that was soon to be accomplished at night using destroyers.

On the night of January 29, 1943, though, Kiwi and Moa were directed by the commander of Naval Base Cactus to patrol on a line off Kamimbo Bay on the northwest coast of Guadalcanal for a distance of two miles on either side of the bay’s center line. As Lt. Cmdr. Bridson related in his after-action report, Kiwi proceeded with Moa and commenced patrolling at 6:30 pm. Both Bridson aboard Kiwi and Lt. Cmdr. Peter Phipps (later admiral), skipper of Moa, agreed beforehand to patrol line-abreast with a distance of approximately one mile between them. Less than five hours into their patrol, Able Seaman E. McVinnie, the ASDIC operator aboard Kiwi, made a contact at 9:05 pm at a distance of 300 yards and identified it as a submarine. Soon thereafter, Moa confirmed the contact, and Kiwi then altered course 10 degrees to starboard in order to pass ahead of the submarine. Kiwi then attacked with depth charges, while Moa stood back and directed Kiwi with her sonar.

Interestingly enough, the submarine detection gear known as ASDIC, or sonar, was in part the World War I-era invention of a New Zealander: Ernest (later Lord) Rutherford, born near the town of Nelson on New Zealand’s South Island. Rutherford today is referred to as the father of nuclear physics and won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1908. During World War I, he turned his attention to submarine detection, resulting in the development of sonar, and it was this innovation that came to be used by all the navies of the world to detect enemy submarines. It was sonar that allowed Kiwi and Moa to first find and then depth-charge the Japanese submarine I-1.

At the time neither Bridson nor Phipps knew that their adversary was the I-1. Nor did they know it was faster than and also twice as big as their two small minesweepers. All they knew was that they had found a submarine and that it was most likely Japanese. Nonetheless, they were committed, and retreat appears not to have been an option. I-1 also had a deck gun that was much larger than anything either Kiwi or Moa had. Still, following the phosphorescent wake of the submerged submarine, Kiwi moved in and dropped six depth charges.

The resulting underwater detonations knocked sailors aboard I-1 off their feet, and a leak appeared in one of the aft provision spaces. Kiwi then pulled away to make sonar contact again. At about 400 yards, Kiwi reestablished contact and moved in to drop another pattern of depth charges. Further damage was done to the steering engine and port shaft of I-1. Pumps were disabled, and a high-pressure manifold was ruptured, filling the control room with a watery mist. The main switchboard was damaged as well, and all the lights went out on the sub. She then developed a 45-degree down angle and plunged well below her designed limit to an estimated depth of 590 feet. Leaks then appeared in her forward torpedo room. Her captain, Lt. Cmdr. Sakamoto Eiichi, ordered the forward group of main ballast tanks blown and a full reverse on the remaining drive shaft. As a result, the loss of I-1 was prevented, if only temporarily.

I-1 surfaced, but seawater had damaged her batteries. That left only her starboard diesel engine operational, and with Kiwi 2,000 yards away, I-1 made a run for it on the surface at 11 knots. Sakamoto then took the helm and ordered the sub’s 125mm deck gun manned, as well as its machine guns. Simultaneously, Kiwi opened up with her 4-inch gun, manned by Leading Seaman W.I. Steele, Able Seaman J.W.C. Kroening, and Able Seaman J. Washer. Likewise, Kiwi’s 20mm Oerlikons opened up while Leading Signalman C. Buchanan illuminated I-1 with Kiwi’s 10-inch searchlight. Moa lent a hand by firing off star shells that not only illuminated I-1 further but also illuminated Kiwi for the Japanese.

The opening barrage of what proved to be a close-in surface battle reminiscent of a bygone era worked to Kiwi’s advantage. Almost immediately, Lt. Cmdr. Sakamoto and the entire Japanese bridge crew were mowed down, including most of the gun crew. Barges lashed to the sub aft of the conning tower filled with supplies for the stranded and starving Japanese troops on Guadalcanal were set alight.

With the bridge crew either dead or wounded, I-1 started to lose speed and drift to starboard. Lieutenant Koreeda Sadayoshi, I-1’s torpedo officer, then came topside and took command. (Koreeda survived the sinking of I-1 and commanded a number of other subs later in the war, including RO-115 and RO-63.)

With Kiwi close aboard, Koreeda concluded that the enemy was planning to capture the sub. He ordered a reserve gun crew on deck and brought up others with rifles in an attempt to prevent the unthinkable from happening. He even sent the officers to fetch their samurai swords.

Sometime during this action, one of the gunners aboard Kiwi testified that he saw somebody in the conning tower of I-1 throw a box overboard that sank immediately. Whether the box contained codebooks or other documents was never ascertained. According to W.J. Holmes in his book Double Edged Secrets, escaping crewmembers of I-1 took “current code books” and buried them ashore, but left behind “call lists, old code books, and charts.” Allied divers later salvaged these, and they proved of great value.

At 9:20 pm, Kiwi altered course to ram I-1, hitting the sub on the port side abaft the conning tower. Soldiers meant to land on Guadalcanal along with the supply barges were seen jumping overboard at this point. Bridson in his after-action report observed as he backed off I-1 that she was “definitely holed.” Kiwi’s 20mm Oerlikons again raked the sub in an attempt to suppress any further return fire. However, I-1 continued to make good speed at an estimated nine knots.

Bridson decided to ram her a second and then a third time. The second attempt was a glancing below, and Bridson reported that it was at this time that Kiwi suffered her first and only casualty of the battle. Leading Signalman C. Buchanan, who was manning the 10-inch searchlight, was wounded, but he continued to man his post until relieved at the conclusion of the battle. He died of his wounds two days later and was honored by both the New Zealand and American navies. He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, one of only nine non-Americans to be so honored in World War II.

Although Bridson was formal in his after-action report of the events that took place on the night of January 29, 1943, another account, this one by Admiral Halsey, gives a livelier picture of the events: “The skipper immediately put his helm over and rang up full speed on his telegraph, which so astonished the chief that he yelled up the speaking tube, ‘What’s the matter, you bastard? Have you gone crazy?’ ‘Shut up!’ the skipper yelled back. ‘There’s a weekend’s leave in Auckland dead ahead of us! Give me everything you’ve got, or I’ll come below and kick hell out of you!’ Then Bridson rams again, this time ‘for a week’s leave.’ Ramming I-1 for the third time, he is reported as correcting himself in saying, ‘Once more for a fortnight!’”

In addition to Halsey’s account, another version that added to the reputation, if not the mystique, of Gordon Bridson was shared some years after the war by David Graham, who served on HMNZS Kiwi with Bridson. He described in part the encounter with I-1 as follows: “He [Bridson] shouted down the voice tube, ‘Stand by to ram!’ When the voice replied back from the engine room, ‘What the hell do you do when you ram?’ he [Bridson] replied, ‘I don’t know, I’ve never done it before.’”

Also at this time, Lieutenant Sakai Toshimi, I-1’s navigator with sword in hand, tried to board Kiwi but fell into the sea as it pulled away. He was later rescued and served out the war on two other subs before going down with RO-114 the following year.

Kiwi’s third ramming of the I-1 punctured one of the sub’s main ballast tanks, and the minesweeper’s hull slid up onto the sub’s after deck. She tilted precariously to one side before sliding off. Her stem was badly damaged, as was her sonar gear.

By this time the battle had been going on for almost an hour, and Kiwi’s guns had overheated, forcing her to withdraw. Moa then took up the chase, firing all she had and making more hits on the sub. At 11:15 pm, I-1 ran aground just inside Fish Reef north of Kamimbo Bay. The after part of the sub filled with water and sank, while the bow rose at a steep angle above the reef. Lieutenant Koreeda, the senior surviving officer aboard I-1, ordered his men to abandon ship. Sixty-six soldiers and sailors aboard the stricken I-1 escaped to shore and were later evacuated to Rabaul.

In an interview that appeared in The New Zealand Herald the following March, Bridson reported that aboard Kiwi during this battle, there were two Guadalcanal islanders. No explanation was given for why they were aboard, other than to say that during the battle, they joined in by passing up ammunition for the guns. When Kiwi returned to port, the relatives of the two men came aboard “and completely ignoring George and Benny asked me if they had shown fright in front of the Japanese. I assured them they had not, and immediately the pair became centers of attention of an admiring throng.”

In another interview that same month with The Auckland Star, Bridson expressed thanks to the Americans for always giving them timely warning if anything too big to handle might be coming their way. “They didn’t waste any time,” he said. “If they told us to scram, we scrammed.”

Today, we know that these warnings came as a result of Allied efforts at breaking the various Japanese codes, efforts that went back to World War I when the Japanese diplomatic code was first cracked. If Bridson suspected as much, he never expressed it. At the very least, individuals serving in the Solomon Islands knew about the work of the coast watchers and, of course, Allied submarines and aircraft, many with photoreconnaissance capability, which supplemented what the codebreakers could not always provide. At the same time, the intelligence people and high-ranking military personnel on the receiving end of intelligence made sure that snooper aircraft were spotted by the enemy, making them think that their movements were detected by means other than a compromise of their codes.

Although the two minesweepers suffered only one casualty, there easily could have been more. After the battle and damage to both ships was assessed, it was found that one of the 20mm Oerlikons had been hit more than once either by machine-gun bullets or shrapnel. Able Seaman Dalton, who was manning one of them, was therefore one lucky lad.

Besides damage to the forward part of Kiwi from ramming I-1, she also suffered damage to her stern, but not from I-1: it resulted from the premature detonation of one of her own depth charges. In addition, bullet holes were found above the waterline on the port bow, the shrouds on the starboard side of the foremast were shot away, windows on the starboard side of the wheelhouse were shattered, and the winch and wheel covers on the foredeck were destroyed. Most of the damage appears to have been on the starboard side of Kiwi, but how much was the result of hostile gunfire or of the ramming action was not made absolutely clear in the report.

Moa, on the other hand, came out relatively unscathed, even though she joined in the final stage of the battle after Kiwi’s guns overheated. The down side for Moa, however, was that she had to remain on station while Kiwi returned home for repairs and a hero’s welcome for the officers and ratings. The sailors were greeted by large crowds and marched through Auckland in a parade dedicated to them, and this after less than two months in a combat zone. Moa was later sunk off the coast of Tulagi in April 1943 as a result of enemy action.

Even before the sinking of I-1, these little New Zealand ships had a reputation in the South Pacific. Part of it stemmed from envy by their American allies, because the New Zealand Navy, being part of the British Commonwealth, was “wet” (i.e., they allowed liquor aboard their ships), but the U.S. Navy was “dry.” As a result, American naval officers were more than willing to ingratiate themselves to their counterparts in the Royal New Zealand Navy in order to receive invites to the ship’s pub when in port. Of course, a couple of bottles of rum had bought 20mm Oerlikons for Kiwi, and another two bought some for Moa, making a big difference in the battle with the Japanese submarine.

Likewise, the ratings in both navies engaged in a barter system that was symbiotic. Most New Zealand Pacific War veterans confessed that American chow was head and shoulders above anything they were served in their messes, whether aboard ship or ashore. Additionally, American servicemen were paid more than New Zealand servicemen, moving the enterprising New Zealanders to find a variety of ways to supplement their comparatively low wages. Robert Gordon Dunlop, who served in the Solomon Islands as part of the only New Zealand Army division to serve in the Pacific (the 3rd), related the following in a 2007 oral history interview: “We had a camp [on Guadalcanal] that was almost backed on to an American rations store, and a couple of our fellows set up a still. We would go over to the American camp and get a lot of grapefruit juice tins and put it through the still—the distiller—and then sell it back to the Yanks. They gave $30 a bottle for it. It was their own ingredients they gave to us, and then bought it back at $30 a bottle. You could put a match to it and get an almost colorless flame—pretty pure spirits, really.”

Similarly, Charles Laid, who was in a Royal New Zealand Air Force squadron of Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boats based near Tulagi, commented, “The 505 Seabees were the Americans that did the net and boom [on Tulagi], and they used to come to our base. As you know, the American Navy is dry, but every week the Seabees used to bring a barge-load of booze over to us, and then on Wednesday and Saturday nights, the American servicemen would come over to our base and help us drink it. The incongruity of it occurred to me only after the war.”

In the case of HMNZS Kiwi, the sailors from New Zealand were well known for another reason. The skipper of Kiwi, Lt. Cmdr. Bridson, was not as stiff and formal as one might expect from a naval officer, especially one brought up in the tradition of the Royal Navy. Talking to his oldest son Nils, one is left with the impression that he was a big man with a big heart, and also had a sense of humor that helped him and his crew through some difficult times a long way from home and loved ones. To relieve some of the tension and perhaps even some of the boredom, Bridson and two of his fellow officers aboard Kiwi took to holding three-man parades while in port.

Again, Admiral Halsey in his autobiography relates having been witness to at least one of these parades: “Three of the Kiwi’s officers—the captain, the medical officer, and the chief engineer—were famous from the Solomons to Auckland. Everyone knew them at least by sight. Not only were they the most mastodonic men I ever laid eyes on—their combined weights were close to 800 pounds—but whenever the Kiwi put into Noumea, these monsters would stage a three-man parade through the town, one of them puffing into a dented trombone, another tooting a jazz whistle, and the third playing a concertina.”

Admiral Halsey also felt that the actions of Kiwi and Moa on the night of January 29 were important enough to deserve some recognition, not only from the New Zealand Navy, but also the U.S. Navy. He therefore recommended Bridson and Phipps for the Navy Cross. Engineering Officer W. Southward was awarded the Silver Star.

Regardless of the honor of being among the few non-Americans to be so awarded in World War II, the three New Zealanders arrived at Admiral Halsey’s office for the ceremony prelubricated. As Admiral Halsey put it, “I had to support them with one hand while I pinned on the crosses with the other. They thanked me, saluted, and rumbled away. The last I saw of them, they picked up the medical officer and their musical instruments, and were forming another parade.”

Bruce Petty is the author of five books, four of which concern World War II in the Pacific. He is a resident of New Plymouth, New Zealand.

Kokoda Trail

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Japanese offensive in the Owen Stanleys, 21 July-26 September 1942.

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Scene of a bitterly fought and difficult offensive in New Guinea during July-November 1942, in which the Japanese sought to capture Port Moresby by an overland route following the defeat of a naval operation to seize that place.

General Tomitaro Horii’s South Seas Detachment, meanwhile, were not relieved of their duty. It was decided that instead of coming across the beaches, they would attack overland, across the Owen Stanley Mountains which form the jagged spine of the Bird’s Tail. On July 21, Horii landed on the north shore of the Bird’s Tail in the area of the villages of Buna, Gona, and Sanananda, with around 6,500 men. They then attempted to hike across the mountains on the rough, 65-mile Kokoda Track, a trail which climbs to 3,380 feet through some of the most difficult terrain on earth. Opposing the Japanese were small understrength Australian units – and the land itself.

New Guinea was such a difficult place to wage war that the troops found it a triumph when they managed to march a mile a day through its dense forests. These jungles, with their slippery hillsides tangled in forests and foliage where the sun had never shown, and where visibility is often measured in inches rather than yards, were literally hell on earth for most troops who dared to challenge them.

Being located barely south of the equator gives New Guinea a climate in which a veritable encyclopedia of tropical diseases can flourish. The troops discovered that malaria was almost routine and maladies such as dysentery were actually routine.

Initially the South Seas Force under Major-General Tomitaro Horii made rapid and easy progress. The Papuan Infantry Battalion (a Melanesian unit 310 strong) and elements of the 39th Australian Battalion (a militia unit) clashed with the enemy near Awala on 23 July, before falling back on Kokoda. There a confused night action occurred on 28-29 July which resulted in the Australians being forced out. An attempt was made to retake Kokoda on 8 August, but both sides sustained severe casualties and the 39th Battalion and PIB were again obliged to fall back on Deniki. After several Japanese attacks were beaten off over the next week, on 14 August the Australians began a withdrawal along the jungle track (later dubbed the `Kokoda Trail’) over the Owen Stanley Range towards Isurava. For ten days after the abandonment of Deniki the Australians were not heavily pressed by the Japanese. During that time the 39th Battalion was joined by the 53rd Battalion and the headquarters of the 30th Brigade under Brigadier Selwyn Porter, and by 23 August the 21st Brigade commanded by Brigadier Arnold Potts had also arrived at Isurava.

While this augmentation of strength was invaluable to stopping the enemy’s progress, the commander of 1st Australian Corps at Port Moresby, Lieut.-General Sydney Rowell, faced a major problem in keeping up an adequate quantity of supplies to even such a meagre force as had been deployed forward. The tired 39th Battalion was accordingly withdrawn to ease the pressure.

On 26 August the Japanese resumed their advance, and fairly quickly Potts’ brigade was forced to mount a series of desperate delaying actions as it fell back first to Eora Creek on 30 August, then to Templeton’s Crossing on 2 September and Efogi on 5 September. Although Australian resistance was becoming increasingly better organised, and the Japanese beginning to feel the strain of their own extended supply line, the effectiveness of units involved in the defence was noticeably reduced through exhaustion and sickness entailed in operating over such harsh terrain. On 10 September Potts handed over command to Brigadier Porter, who withdrew his troops (now called `Maroubra Force’) to Ioribaiwa. The Japanese attacked here the next day, but made little progress. Not only was their advance losing impetus but the Australians were beginning to feel the benefits of the arrival of fresh units. By now the fighting along the track involved brigades of the seasoned AIF 7th Division under Major-General Arthur Allen, and on 14 September command in the forward area was passed to Brigadier Kenneth Eather.

Severe fighting continued around Ioribaiwa for a week, prompting a further withdrawal on 17 September to Imita Ridge, the last effective barrier which was virtually within sight of Port Moresby. This proved to be the limit of the enemy advance, since not only had the South Seas Force outrun its own supply lines but General Horii was ordered onto the defensive because of the reverse sustained by other Japanese forces in operations at Guadalcanal. After he received instructions to establish a primary defensive position on the north coast, he began withdrawing on 24 September. Under Eather’s determined leadership, the retiring enemy were followed back up the trail by the Australians until Kokoda was retaken on 2 November.

In the campaign to this point 607 Australians had been killed and 1,015 sustained wounds in battle; estimates put the rate of sickness at between twice to three times that of combat casualties. No overall figures for losses among the 6,000 troops committed along the track by the Japanese are available, but captured documents dated 2 November 1942 reveal that in the case of two of the five enemy battalions involved the numbers killed, wounded or sick were over 75 per cent of original strength.

Raymond Paull (1958) Retreat from Kokoda, London: William Heinemann; Dudley McCarthy(1959) South-West Pacific Area-First Year: Kokoda to Wau, Canberra: Australian War Memorial; Lex McAulay (1991) Blood and Iron, Sydney: Hutchinson Australia

Alternative WWII: Alamein to Basra, 1942 Part I

The White House, Washington

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the telegram announcing the fall of Tobruk to his distinguished guest in the Oval Office, he was taken somewhat aback by the depth of feeling with which the information was greeted. “Defeat is one thing; disgrace is another,” gloomily intoned Winston S. Churchill, the British Prime Minister, who was visibly shaken by the news. He went on to compare the loss of the desert fortress—together with some 33,000 prisoners of war and immeasurable logistic resources—with the equally bitter humiliation of Singapore a mere four months earlier. Even more than Singapore, perhaps, Tobruk had been held up as a symbol of determined resistance, since it had successfully withstood an eight-month siege all through the summer of 1941, effectively halting a brilliant German offensive dead in its tracks. Now, on June 20-21, 1942, the same fortress had fallen within the space of just thirty-six hours, almost before anyone noticed that it was again being attacked. From symbolizing the British bulldog spirit, it had instantly been transformed into a telling icon of unfocused British ineffectiveness; of feebleness, congenital bumbling, and apparently unending defeat. The general public reaction in Britain would be demonstrated within a week, when the government lost the Maldon by-election, after which a vote of no confidence was moved in the House of Commons.

It was no consolation to Churchill that Erwin Rommel, the tireless “Desert Fox,” was promoted field marshal (the youngest in the German Army) just one day after he had accepted Tobruk’s surrender. Nor did it help the British Prime Minister that his generals had repeatedly warned him that they never had any intention of holding Tobruk once the main Gazala position, farther to the west, had been broken. A series of military experts had carefully itemized all the gaping deficiencies in the Tobruk defenses, which had been comprehensively pillaged to strengthen the front line. Finally, it was very cold comfort to be told that 2nd South African Division, assigned as the Tobruk garrison, had been raw, inexperienced, and far from the high-fighting efficiency of the veteran Australians who performed the same duty so staunchly in the previous year. The division lost in Tobruk represented no less than one-third of the total manpower contributed to the war by the Dominion of South Africa, and its capture dealt a shattering blow to the already shaky solidarity of the Commonwealth worldwide.

Far from lessening the force of the blow, the many preparatory warnings about Tobruk made its dramatic but obviously inevitable fall all the more difficult for Churchill to swallow. He was only too well aware that he was personally directly responsible for the scale of the debacle. In his heart of hearts he well knew that he had ignored all the warnings, out of personal pride and a misguided view of press relations. From Washington, some 4,000 miles distant, he had tried to will the success of Tobruk’s defenders, as if he could somehow create minefields, ditches, antitank guns, and high-fighting morale solely by the prodigious charismatic force of his thought waves. In the case of Tobruk, this technique had failed in the most signal and public manner possible, with the result that Churchill now knew that he should never have attempted it at all. He had almost unilaterally overruled his military experts, throwing a monkey wrench into their plans with his last minute insistence that Tobruk should be defended. He must secretly have seen himself as a man who demanded bricks to be made without straw, and who caused the 8th Army’s smooth evacuation eastward to be fatally disrupted by a politically motivated attempt to hold an untenable town merely because its name was known to the public.

When President Roosevelt tried to probe the inner mood of his distinguished guest, he was quickly met with an outward wall of optimism and reassurance. Churchill might have been suffering from personal turmoil and even guilt, but he’d been active in public life long enough to cover such setbacks with the minimum of detectable consternation. Having made his acid observations on how closely Tobruk reminded him of Singapore, he quickly returned to the business that had brought him to the Second Washington Conference in the first place; namely, the vital plans for an early U.S. amphibious landing somewhere within the German area of operations. The Americans and Russians wanted this to be in France, but to Churchill, such an attempt appeared both premature and highly dangerous. His preference was for the landing to be made in Morocco and Algeria, as a means of hastening the complete conquest of North Africa. Once that had been achieved, the whole “soft underbelly” of southern Europe, east as well as west, would lie open to allied attack. Indeed, if it were not achieved, the awful news from Tobruk suggested that the whole British position in Egypt might itself be in dire jeopardy.

With considerable difficulty, Churchill would eventually manage to secure American agreement for the landing in Algeria, but he was always acutely aware that his more urgent business was to stop the rot in the desert, and sooner rather than later. The developing news was far from reassuring. As early as June 23 the proposed Sollum position to cover the Egyptian frontier had been outflanked and abandoned without a fight, as Gen. Neil Ritchie’s battered 8th Army determined instead to make its all-out stand at Mersa Matruh, some 120 waterless miles farther to the rear. On this same day, Ritchie’s immediate superior, Gen. Claude Auchinleck, the Commander in Chief, Middle East (CinC ME), offered his resignation to Gen. Sir Alan Brooke, the chief of the Imperial General Staff. The “Auk” by now had little confidence in either Ritchie or the Matruh plan, and he was acutely aware that this supposed “coastal fortress” was no more than a dangerous cul-de-sac that could easily be bypassed on the landward side, and in which a large force could all too easily be imprisoned. It could boast a number of aging minefields and a plentiful infantry garrison, but its essential armored backup was hastily assembled, badly coordinated, and—perhaps most important—weighed down by a crushing awareness of defeat at Gazala and the vast distances that had subsequently been covered in the retreat. Auchinleck knew that the responsibility for all the recent defeats ultimately rested on his own shoulders, so he felt he should now ask for either an official endorsement of his position or a replacement.

Auchinleck’s letter arrived on Churchill’s desk during the trickiest part of the American negotiations, so it was not perhaps accorded the full reflection it deserved. What Churchill did know was that he had been mightily disappointed by the fall of Tobruk, and so was psychologically ready to accept the offer of a new broom in the Middle East. Auchinleck’s resignation was therefore duly accepted, and Gen. Sir Harold Alexander, who fortuitously happened to be on his way through Cairo on his way to the UK from India, was made CinC ME in his place. Alexander in turn dismissed Ritchie on June 26, replacing him in the 8th Army command by Gen. W.H.E. “Strafer” Gott, a veteran desert hand who was currently commanding XIII Corps outside Matruh.

The “Alamein Line,” Egypt

“Strafer” had an enviable and a bellicose fighting record—as his nickname suggested—which extended back through the whole of the Libyan campaign since the start of the war. He was in many ways the ideal savior for the flagging 8th Army, and even, in his own solid British way, a warrior who sprang from much the same mold as Rommel himself. But by late June 1942 even his friends found Gott tired and mentally oppressed by defeat and by the scale of his responsibilities—he had, after all, risen from command of a brigade to that of an army corps within a short eight months. As a corps commander he had perhaps been promoted one rank above his competence, or at least above the arena in which his sense of aggressive maneuver could operate freely. Maybe it was simply that he had always enjoyed a certain brand of intermittent success when commanding a brigade or a division, but no such result had been accorded to him in the bruising Gazala battle, when he commanded a corps.

In these circumstances, Churchill’s high hopes for his radical hand-over of command were not, alas, destined to be gratified. Alexander was still very new to the theater, and essentially an infantry general coming from the relatively slow moving and tank-free warfare in the Burmese jungle, so he was still feeling his way in this totally novel mechanized environment. In contrast, Gott, who had previously been holding the XIII Corps armor ready to strike from the inland flank, was a true armored warrior, but he was fatally distracted at a critical moment in the battle. He found himself brusquely called into the coastal town of Matruh, introduced to a whole new staff and modus operandi, and in particular was suddenly and disorientatingly invited to share in all the anxieties of W. G. Holmes’s inexperienced, infantry-heavy X Corps. No good could possibly come from this mixture, and in fact Rommel’s first spearhead of just twenty tanks in 21st Panzer Division almost effortlessly managed to bluff the British (who had a total of over 150 tanks in the area) into a precipitate and undignified withdrawal from the Matruh area. By the morning of June 29, after “a night of chaos,” Gott’s totally disorganized command had escaped eastward out of the clutches of its heavily outnumbered attackers, leaving behind some 6,000 prisoners and over forty tanks. In strictly military terms, this actually represented a far more shameful and humiliating outcome than the far bigger loss of Tobruk, which had been a politically designed battle, fought against the advice of the soldiers.

The next supposedly “impregnable” position east of Matruh was the El Alamein line, which was also the final defensible line before Cairo, Alexandria, and the delta. It extended some thirty-eight miles southward from the railway station of Alamein, and it was noteworthy because—unlike its predecessors at Gazala, Sollum, or Matruh—it could not be turned by the inland, or desert, flank. The vast Quattara Depression prohibited the movement of armies south of the line, thereby giving the British a rare opportunity to stand firm and consolidate on a narrow front. It was known that Rommel was by now short of fuel, water, and armored striking power, with a greatly extended line of communication that was under constant bombardment by the RAF. His men were exhausted, and driven forward solely by his own single-minded willpower. In essence, Rommel knew that he would get only one honest shot at the Alamein position, after which—if he failed to break through—he would be doomed to an everlasting logistic deficiency in the face of a rapidly escalating British buildup. If he did succeed in carrying off the coup, however, he would win through to the fabulously supply-rich Nile delta base area, all his replenishment problems solved. Everything therefore depended on the speed with which the Germans could mount their assault, as compared to the skill with which Alexander and Gott could patch together their last minute defenses.

Unfortunately for the British, very little had been prepared on the ground at Alamein, where the famous “line” existed only on maps and the ground itself was often too rocky to allow the rapid digging of trenches. The position rested primarily on a fortified, well-mined, and partially wired “box,” manned by the 3rd South African Brigade, with the battered remainder of 1st South African Division in rear. The box was anchored firmly on the coast and covered a radius of about four miles around the Alamein rail station. The 6th New Zealand Brigade held a smaller box at Bab el Quattara, some thirteen miles farther south, although it had no minefield; and finally, the 9th Indian Brigade held a poorly fortified position at Naqb Abu Dweis, perched on the rim of the Quattara Depression on the extreme left flank. In the wide gaps between these three firm points there was little more than a shifting population of disorganized units still coming in from the west, mixed with a mobile screen of light forces, including all that remained of the once mighty 7th Armored Division. Also, the 18th Indian Brigade, newly arrived from Iraq, was now digging in at Deir el Shein, halfway between the Alamein and Bab el Quattara boxes. In the rear there was little more than the remainder of the New Zealand Division, the two demoralized tank brigades of the 1st Armored Division, commanded by the (equally demoralized) Herbert Lumsden, and then, scattered around Gott’s new HQ at El Imayid, some hastily assembling columns made up of the numerous defeated and unorganized men whom Alexander did not want to continue their retreat any farther back toward the delta.

The new CinC ME was no less well aware than Rommel himself that the coming battle would be decisive for the whole theater, and in order to help him win it, Alexander was particularly anxious to restore morale both at the front and in the rear areas, where rumors were spreading that further withdrawals were already being planned. His personal experience in both France and Burma had been in the management of humiliating retreats, and he was determined not to preside over yet another one now. He therefore cancelled all movement toward the rear, as well as all building of defenses behind the front line, and issued a famously stark general order on the evening of June 30 that decreed that “Alamein will be defended to the last. There will be no further retreat.”

For his part, Rommel instinctively, albeit recklessly, opted not to spend time in careful preparations or reconnaissance, but began his attack as soon as he could, at 0300 on Wednesday, July 1—perhaps the most ominous of all anniversaries for the British Army. He hoped to encircle the Alamein box with the 90th Light Division, while the main striking force, with fifty-five tanks, would advance level with it at first, but would then turn south to drive through the center and rear of the British positions. It was an essentially sound and typically aggressive plan, but it soon bogged down because of poor going and the unexpected discovery of the 18th Indian Brigade directly in the path of the advancing Deutsches Afrika Korps (DAK), whose commander, Gen. Walther Nehring, decided to make a frontal assault. This led to a fierce battle that continued throughout the day until the brave but inexperienced defense eventually succumbed before the Germans’ overwhelming force and incomparable familiarity with desert combat tactics. Meanwhile, the 90th Light Division, farther north, received a rude shock when it encountered the massed fire of the entire South African divisional artillery and was pinned down. Then, while the Axis forces were attempting to maintain and replenish their vehicles overnight, they and their supply echelons were illuminated by flares and subjected to almost continuous bombing.

On the credit side, however, Rommel noted that not only wasn’t the “Alamein line” a line at all, but that the British 1st Armored Division had remained apparently supine and inactive all day. He was also gratified to receive news that the Mediterranean fleet had shown prudence, not unmixed with indecent haste, by abruptly removing itself from Alexandria, which was now just ninety miles away from the most advanced Axis airstrips. Also on this day came news that the assault by the 2nd Panzer Army in the Ukraine had caused the Russian front to break “like glass under a hammer,” thereby posing a major long-term threat to the strategic rear of the British Middle East Command.

On his side, Gott might admire and be grateful for the gallant last stand of the 18th Indian Brigade, but he was seriously alarmed by the thirteen-mile gap that its fall had opened in his front line. His staff urged him to pull back the 6th New Zealand and 9th Indian Brigades from the exposed left flank before they could be picked off in turn, but mindful of Alexander’s firm determination to stand and fight, he refused permission for any withdrawal. Instead he urged the 1st Armored Division, which had again been made up to a total of almost 150 tanks, to smash the DAK—now reduced to just thirty-seven tanks—by a frontal assault designed to retake the area of Deir el Shein, after which it would turn north to cut the coast road that fed the Axis rear. In making these decisions, Gott demonstrated that he had not entirely lost his old opportunistic fighting instincts; yet by his apparently resigned and unquestioning acceptance of Alexander’s brutally simplistic “stand firm” order, he once again offered evidence to historians that he was tired. Very tired.

If a sharper team had been available to tide the 8th Army through the battle of Alamein, the final result might well have been different, but both parts of Gott’s plan for July 2 turned out to be badly misjudged. In the first place, Rommel made the shrewd analysis that the plight of the 90th Light Division near the coast was not in fact the key issue that it at first seemed. He was prepared to leave it without fuel and unsupported (except by the Italian “Trento” Division) as a “gambit” to absorb the attention of the British artillery and reserves. Meanwhile, he correctly identified the more southerly allied boxes as the true schwerpunkt, so he sent most of the DAK and the remaining Italian forces against them. At the same time, in order to cover his center and the continuing mopping up at Deir el Shein, he left a strong force of infantry, artillery, and antitank guns to hold that position. This force successfully absorbed the eventual attack by Lumsden’s 1st Armored Division, while the DAK’s own armor completed the investment of the two infantry boxes at Bab el Quattara and Naqb Abu Dweis.

Lumsden committed the classic 8th Army error of sending the tanks of the 22nd Armored Brigade forward against unsuppressed antitank guns, while his preliminary artillery barrage fell in the wrong place. The tanks were badly mauled and made no progress against the enemy position. Meanwhile the 4th Armored Brigade suffered from all the usual problems of soft sand and poor radio communication, together with a certain unacknowledged “combat shyness,” with the result that it penetrated only a little way into the notional enemy “front line” and failed to find any significant enemy force to attack. By the end of the day, the 1st Armored Division had achieved practically nothing, but had seen its 150 tanks fall to a total of about ninety, of which only one squadron was still operating the famous American Grants.

Meanwhile, Nehring’s DAK, with Rommel motoring at its head, had failed to overrun the 6th New Zealand Brigade in its first attack on Bab el Quattara, but it succeeded in surrounding and masking it with what remained of the Brescia Division and the Italian XX Armored Corps. The German armor then pushed on relentlessly farther to the south, and by a felicitous mixture of speed, surprise, and shock action managed to pull off a brilliant coup de main against the 9th Indian Brigade at Naqb Abu Dweis, which was overrun in classic style. By nightfall the DAK was encamped on the lip of the Quattara Depression and had effectively turned the flank of the 8th Army’s supposedly “flankless” position. It had also destroyed or neutralized almost 40 percent of the effective allied fighting strength and—still more precious to the new German field marshal—it had captured a large convoy of fuel wagons intact.

On the morning of July 3, Rommel again had his men up and moving early, heading northeast directly toward the rear elements of the New Zealand Division and the remnants of the 7th Armored Division. He was relieved to note that ever since he had moved inland away from the distinctive coast road, he was able to enjoy the anonymity of the trackless desert and could therefore be located far less readily by allied airpower. As for the concentrated artillery that had stymied the 90th Light Division on the Alamein perimeter, it had remained stolidly in place, and only small mobile artillery columns remained in contact with the DAK itself; more a nuisance than a serious threat. The only stiff resistance the Germans encountered came from the New Zealand Division box at Deir el Munassib, which had to be surrounded, masked, and immobilized in the same manner that 6th New Zealand Brigade had been on the previous day. A significant part of its essential transport was cut off and destroyed, leaving its infantry stranded until it could be relieved by the main British armored striking force.

On the “fireworks day” of July 4, the Germans were poised and ready to beat off precisely such a relief attempt. They had reorganized themselves and set up an antitank ambush along the line of the prominent Alam Nayil ridge, which ran east to west on a line some four miles north of the beleaguered New Zealanders. With horrible predictability, Lumsden’s armor duly arrived from the north around noon, and attacked directly into the sun. The result was a turkey shoot in which the twenty remaining German tanks did not need to participate at all. The lurking 50mm and 88mm guns were sufficient to pick off over half the attackers before they retired back to the Ruweisat Ridge from which they had started, leaving only a few medical Dingoes and tracked carriers to pick up the wounded. At 1600, Rommel ordered the pursuit to start, but not due north into the heavily defended Ruweisat area. Instead, he would use his last fuel reserves to drive east-northeast to seize the crucial Alam el Haifa feature, which dominated the deep rear of the British and from which a shrewd artilleryman could even lob a 105mm shell straight onto Gott’s HQ caravan at El Imayid. By nightfall all this had indeed been achieved, and to all intents and purposes the decisive Battle of Alamein had been won.

Ambush at the ford

MANGAPIKO STREAM, WAIKATO, NEW ZEALAND, 1864

After the United Kingdom had signed the Treaty of Waitangi with chiefs of the indigenous Maori people in 1840, the British regarded the whole of New Zealand as a colony within their empire. Many Maori saw the situation differently. Disagreements over the treaty’s implications for their rights to land sparked a sequence of conflicts now known collectively as the New Zealand Wars, which took place intermittently between 1845 and 1872. Not all Maori actively resisted colonisation; some even joined the ‘British’ side to fight alongside local militiamen and members of the regular army. Those Maori who opposed colonial expansion – considered ‘rebels’ by the British – were skilled combatants and creative strategists, but were eventually overcome by the weight of superior numbers and firepower.

This map depicts an incident that took place on 11 February 1864, during the Waikato War. Maori forces launched a surprise attack on some British troops who were bathing at a ford in the Mangapiko Stream (shown at lower right). The Maori position is marked with dark blue dots in the scrub inside the curve of the stream. Reinforcements were called in – the great Maori fortress of Paterangi (at top left) and a British camp (at left) were both nearby – and soon several hundred men were fighting on each side. Six British soldiers and about 28 Maori were killed.

Although this was not a major battle, it was brought to wider notice because of the actions of Charles Heaphy, a major in the Auckland Militia. He rescued an injured soldier under intense fire – so heavy that ‘Five balls pierced his clothes and cap’ – and continued to help wounded men, despite being badly hurt himself. As a result of his actions, Heaphy was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest gallantry medal for members of the British armed services. He was both the first colonial soldier and the first non-regular soldier to earn this honour. This and another map, both drawn by Heaphy himself, were included in a dossier of evidence submitted to the War Office in support of his claim to the medal.

Heaphy’s father, Thomas, was a talented painter who had served the Duke of Wellington as an artist during the Peninsular War. Charles also trained as an artist himself, at the Royal Academy in London. In 1839, aged about nineteen, he became a draughtsman working for the New Zealand Company, which set out to colonise those islands. For much of his career, he worked for the colonial government in various roles connected to land administration, including the surveying of lands taken from Maori after the wars. He also served for a time as a member of the New Zealand House of Representatives and as a judge in the Native Lands Court. Heaphy’s official career, however, was undistinguished compared to his artistic achievements, and he is best remembered for his fine topographical views. This beautifully drawn map reflects his skill as a draughtsman no less than his bravery as a soldier.

The Red Sea 1940–41

The Red Sea, 1940–1941

Long months of torture in the blazing heat and incredible humidity of Massawa had left us apathetic and drained of hope of escape.

—Edward Ellsberg, No Banners No Bugles

Italy’s East African possessions, particularly its Red Sea base at Massawa, were situated strategically astride the sea route to Suez. With the Sicilian Channel closed to normal transit, Italy theoretically possessed the ability to block maritime access to Egypt.

Between 1935 and 1940 Italy’s planners envisioned the construction of an oceanic fleet that, in its most realistic version, would have consisted of two cruisers, eight destroyers, and twelve submarines, all fitted for tropical service and supported by a network of bases along Italian Somaliland’s Indian Ocean coast. However, this Flotta d’evasione proved more than Rome could afford. Thus, Rear Admiral Carlo Balsamo, who commanded Italy’s East African naval squadron, deployed eight modern submarines, seven middle-aged destroyers, two old torpedo boats, five World War I–era MAS boats, and a large colonial sloop, all concentrated at Massawa. In Supermarina’s view, the squadron’s limited stocks of fuel and ammunition restricted its role to one of survival and sea denial, relying mainly upon the submarines, for the duration of a six-month war.

Great Britain intercepted Italy’s 19 May orders for the “immediate and secret mobilization of the army and air force in east Africa,” whereupon the Royal Navy reinforced its Rea Sea Squadron, which consisted of the Dominion light cruisers Leander and Hobart, the old antiaircraft cruiser Carlisle, three sloops, and four ships of the 28th Destroyer Flotilla. This force was tasked with preventing Italian reinforcements, engaging the Massawa squadron, blockading the coast of Italian Somaliland, and protecting the shipping lanes to Suez and Aden.

On 10 June Italy’s Red Sea submarines occupied, or were on their way to, their patrol stations, but their forewarned enemy had already halted all mercantile shipping to the Red Sea on 24 May. They enjoyed only one success, when Galilei sank the Norwegian tanker James Stove (8,215 GRT) on 16 June. In exchange the Italians lost four boats. Crew poisoning caused by the release of methyl chloride, used as a cheap substitute for freon in the air-conditioning system (a defect that inadequate testing and training under realistic battle conditions failed to reveal), led to the stranding and wrecking of Macallé on 15 June. Galilei attempted to fight it out on the surface with the 650-ton trawler Moonstone on 19 June, but two well-aimed shells from the auxiliary’s 4-inch gun killed Galilei’s captain and all the officers except a midshipman. A British boarding party captured the submarine and a set of operational orders. These enabled the sloop Falmouth to track down and sink Galvani in the Persian Gulf on 24 June. The same intelligence led to the interception of Torricelli, the fourth Red Sea submarine lost in the war’s first fortnight.

Destroyers Kandahar, Kingston, and Khartoum, along with sloops Shoreham and Indus, intercepted Torricelli north of Perim Island, at the entrance to the Red Sea, at 0418 on 23 June. The Italian submarine, initially seeing only one sloop, and considering her damage and the clear waters that made a submerged boat easy to track, elected to run on the surface for the Italian shore batteries at Assab. In the ensuring fight, Torricelli, firing her deck gun, almost hit Shoreham, which reported “two shells falling close ahead.” Then the three destroyers appeared and closed rapidly.

Kingston opened fire with her forward guns at 0536. Torricelli, trailing a wide ribbon of oil, launched four torpedoes back at the destroyer, but their wakes were clearly visible in the calm sea and Kingston easily evaded. At first the British tried to clear the submarine’s decks, to permit a boarding attempt. However, Kingston’s 40-mm shells struck one of her own antennas and wounded eight crewmen. After that the destroyers shot to sink, but they had to expend nearly seven hundred 4.7-inch rounds before a shell finally wrecked Torricelli’s forward bow planes at 0605 and flooded the torpedo room. The submarine sank at 0624.

After rescue operations Khartoum, with prisoners embarked, set course for Perim while the other ships headed for Aden to refuel. At 1150 a torpedo in Khartoum’s aft quintuple mount suddenly exploded, igniting a huge fire in the after lobby. The crew could not control the conflagration, and Khartoum ran for Perim Harbor, seven miles distant. There her men (and the prisoners) abandoned ship, swimming for their lives. At 1245, no. 3 magazine blew up, rendering the destroyer a total loss.

Red Sea Convoys

The first of the Red Sea convoys, collectively the BN/BS series, consisting of nine ships including six tankers, gathered in the Gulf of Aden on 2 July. Thereafter these convoys sailed up and down the Red Sea on a regular schedule. Admiral Balsamo attempted to attack this traffic, but the war’s opening months held little but frustration for his destroyers. On six occasions in July, August, and September, they sortied at night in response to aerial reports of Allied vessels but in every case failed to make contact. Aircraft and the surviving submarines did little better. Guglielomotti torpedoed the Greek tanker Atlas (4,008 GRT) from Convoy BN4 on 6 September 1940, while high-level bombing attacks damaged the steamship Bhima (5,280 GRT) from BN5, which four Italian destroyers had failed to locate, on 20 September.

As Italian warships burned their oil reserves on unsuccessful sorties, the Allied Red Sea Squadron grew stronger, deploying by the end of August four light cruisers, three destroyers, and eight sloops. Other warships passed through on their way to and from the Mediterranean. In September, as traffic volume swelled, the Mediterranean Fleet lent the newly arrived antiaircraft cruiser Coventry, which alternated with Carlisle along the Aden–Suez route to provide extra protection against air attacks.

By October the Italian ships faced mechanical breakdowns, the increasing exhaustion of crews by the extreme climate, and a growing shortage of fuel. Nonetheless, they continued to sail. On the evening of 20 October, four destroyers weighed anchor to search for BN7, which aerial reconnaissance had spotted sailing north. The plan called for the slower and more heavily armed Pantera and Leone to distract the escort while Sauro and Nullo slipped in to send a spread of torpedoes toward the merchant ships.

Australian sloop HMAS Yarra

Italian destroyer Pantera

Attack on Convoy BN7 and Battle of Harmil Island, 20–21 October 1940, 2320–0640

Conditions: Bright moon, calm sea

Allied ships—

BN7 Escort (Captain H. E. Horan): CL: Leander (NZ) (F); DD: KimberleyD2; DS: Auckland (NZ), Indus (IN), Yarra (AU); MS: Derby, Huntley

BN7: thirty-two merchant ships and tankers

Italian ships—

Section I (Commander Moretti degli Adimari): DD: Sauro (F), Nullo Sunk

Section II (Commander Paolo Aloisi): DD: Pantera (F), Leone

The convoy timed its progress to pass Massawa around midnight. The moon was bright, but haze reduced visibility toward the African coast. At 2115 the Italian sections separated, and at 2321 Pantera detected smoke off her starboard bow. She reported the contact to Sauro and began maneuvering at twenty-two knots to position the low-hanging moon behind the contact.

BN7 was thirty-five miles north-northwest of Jabal-al-Tair Island (itself 110 miles east-northeast of Massawa) when Yarra, zigzagging in company with Auckland, sighted Captain Aloisi’s ships ahead. Yarra challenged and Pantera replied with a pair of torpedoes at 2331 and then another pair at 2334, at ranges fifty-five and sixty-five hundred yards, respectively. Shooting over Yarra, she “lobbed a few shells” into the convoy. According to a wartime British account, “a lifeboat in the commodore’s ship was damaged by splinters, but otherwise no harm was done.” Leone, which trailed Pantera by 875 yards, never fixed a target and thus did not fire torpedoes.

Yarra saw the torpedo flashes from broad on her port bow and turned toward the enemy. Both sloops opened fire as torpedoes boiled past, narrowly missing. The Italian ships altered away, shooting with their aft mounts. Aloisi reported explosions and claimed two torpedo hits, but in fact, his weapons missed. Kimberley was trailing the convoy. She rang up thirty knots and steered northwest to close the action. Leander, sailing on the convoy’s port beam, headed southwest, while the sloops and minesweepers stayed with the merchantmen. Pantera and Leone, considering their mission successfully accomplished, continued west-southwest and broke contact. They eventually returned to Massawa via the south channel.

After the gunfire died away, Captain Horan steered Leander northwest to cover Harmil Channel believing the enemy ships had retired in that direction.

Upon receiving Pantera’s report, Sauro and Nullo had turned to clear the area while the first group attacked and to put themselves in a favorable position relative to the moon. This involved a ninety-degree port turn at 0016 on 21 October and another at 0050. The section then headed southeast, but for nearly an hour it encountered nothing. Finally, at 0148, Leander and another ship hove into view. Sauro snapped off a single torpedo at the cruiser (another misfired). In response Leander lofted star shell, and then ten broadsides flashed from her main batteries in two minutes before she lost sight of the target. Italian accounts say this engagement occurred at sixteen hundred yards, while Leander’s report stated the enemy was more than eight thousand yards away.

Sauro turned south by southwest and at 0207 attempted another torpedo attack against the convoy. One weapon misfired, and although Sauro claimed a hit with the other, it missed. At the same time Nullo detected flashes that she believed came from an enemy torpedo launch, and within minutes a lookout shouted that wakes were streaking toward the Italian destroyer’s bow. At 0212 Sauro turned north and disengaged, eventually circling behind the British and taking the south channel to Massawa. Nullo’s captain, however, put his helm over even harder, “because it was [his] intention to attack, being still in an opportune position to launch against the convoy, before taking station in formation.” However, the rudder jammed for several minutes, causing Nullo to circle and lose contact with Sauro.

At 0220 Leander’s spotlights fastened onto “a vessel painted light grey proceeding from left to right”—in fact, Nullo steaming north. The cruiser engaged from forty-six hundred yards off the Italian’s starboard bow. Nullo returned fire, first against “destroyers” spotted astern (probably Auckland) and then at Leander. The ships dueled for about ten minutes. The Italian enjoyed one advantage: she employed flashless powder (the British noted only two enemy salvos), whereas British muzzles flared brightly with each discharge. Leander fired eight blind salvos (“little could be seen of their effect”), but several rounds nonetheless hit home, damaging Nullo’s gyrocompass and gunnery director. With this the Italian destroyer abandoned her attack attempt and turned west-northwest running for Harmil Channel at thirty knots. In the two actions Leander fired 129 6-inch rounds.

Guessing Nullo’s intention, the cruiser pursued in the correct direction. At 0300 Kimberley joined, and at 0305 Leander turned back, “appreciating that the enemy was drawing away from her at the rate of seven knots and that the convoy might be attacked.” Kimberley continued, hoping to intercept.

The British destroyer arrived off Harmil Island before dawn. At 0540 her lookouts reported a shape to the south-southeast, and she closed to investigate. Nullo’s lookouts likewise reported a contact. The sharp angle of approach made it impossible to be certain, but the Italian captain assumed it was Sauro, especially when it seemed to signal the Harmil Island station. He was more “worried about the shallows scattered around the mouth of the northeast passage and above all of the 3.7 meter sandbank immediately north of his estimated 0500 position.”

At 0553 the British destroyer opened fire from 12,400 yards. Surprised, Nullo took four minutes to reply and at 0605 swung sharply from a northwest heading to a south-by-southwest course. By 0611 the range was down to 10,300 yards. Due to her prior damage, Nullo’s gunners fired over open sights, while human chains passed shells up from the magazine. Harmil Island’s battery of four 4.7-inch guns joined the action at 0615 from eighteen thousand yards. At the same time, with the range now eighty-five hundred yards, Kimberley turned south, emitting black funnel smoke, causing Nullo’s gunners to think they had scored a hit.

At 0620 Nullo scraped a reef, opening her hull to flooding and damaging a screw. Then, while the ship was setting course to round Harmil Island, a shell exploded in the forward engine room and a second slammed into the aft engine room. Nullo skewed sharply to the left and lost all power; splinters swept the upper works. The captain ordered his men to prepare to abandon ship while he angled the ship toward Harmil in an attempt to run it aground. The aft mount continued in action until the heel became excessive.

Having expended 115 salvoes, Kimberley launched a torpedo to dispatch her adversary; it missed, so she closed range and uncorked another. The second torpedo slammed into Nullo at 0635 and blasted her in two. Meanwhile, the Harmil battery finally found the range, and a shell struck Kimberley’s engine room, wounding three men. Splinters cut the steam pipes; the British destroyer lost power and came to a halt.

Kimberley’s men frantically patched the damage while the drifting ship’s guns remained in action, shooting forty-five rounds of HE from no. 3 mount, and achieving some hits that wounded four of the shore battery’s crew. After a few long minutes, the destroyer restored partial power and pulled away at fifteen knots. The shore battery fired its final shots at 0645, when the range had opened to nineteen thousand yards. During the battle Kimberley expended 596 SAP and 97 HE rounds.

After she was clear the destroyer lost steam pressure again. Finally Leander arrived and towed Kimberley to Port Sudan. Nullo remained above water; her guns ended up equipping a shore battery. On 21 October three Blenheims reported destroying a wreck east of Harmil Island. This led the British to conclude two enemy ships had been involved in the action.

The Aden command faulted the escort (except for Kimberley) for demonstrating a lack of aggressiveness, although deserting the convoy to chase unknown numbers of enemy destroyers through a murky night does not in retrospect seem the best course of action either. The Italian ships, although outnumbered, delivered two hit-and-run torpedo attacks, according to their plan. However, while using widely separated divisions increased the probability of finding the enemy, a natural consideration given the history of failed interception attempts, it also guaranteed that the Italian forces would lack the punch to take on the escort and deliver a meaningful attack. In fact, the first Italian attack seemed more formulaic than a serious attempt to cause damage.

The Italian East African squadron conducted another (fruitless) sortie on 3 December 1940. It aborted a mission planned for early January after British aircraft damaged Manin, one of the participants, and on 24 January it sortied again, without results. On the night of 2 February 1941, however, three destroyers departed Massawa and deployed in a rake formation to search for a large convoy known to be at sea.

Attack on Convoy BN14, 3 February 1941

Conditions: n/a

Allied ships—

Convoy Escort: CL: Caledon; DD: Kingston; DS: Indus (IN), Shoreham

Convoy BN14: thirty-nine freighters

Italian ships—

DD: Pantera, Tigre, Sauro

Sauro spotted the enemy, made a sighting report, and immediately maneuvered to attack. She launched three torpedoes at a group of steamships and then, a minute later, at another dimly seen target marked by a large cloud of smoke. She then turned away at speed. Her two sisters did not receive the report, but ten minutes later Pantera stumbled across the enemy and also fired torpedoes. The Italians heard explosions and later claimed “probable” hits on two freighters. Tigre never made contact.

On her way to Massawa’s south channel, Sauro encountered Kingston. Out of torpedoes, the Italian retreated at full speed. Concerned that the British were attempting another ambush, the squadron concentrated on Sauro and radioed for air support at dawn. In the event, the three destroyers safely made port. The Italian East African press reported two freighters as probably hit, but despite this claim, all torpedoes missed.

By April 1941 Imperial spearheads were probing Massawa’s defensive perimeter. With Supermarina’s approval, Rear Admiral Mario Bonetti, Balsamo’s replacement from December 1940, ordered a last grand gesture—an attack by the three largest destroyers (Leone, Pantera, and Tigre) against Port Suez, five hundred miles north, and a concurrent raid by the smaller destroyers Battisti, Manin, and Sauro against Port Sudan. The British Middle Eastern command had considered such an attack possible and had reinforced Port Suez with two J-class destroyers and sent Eagle’s experienced air group south to Port Sudan, while the carrier waited for mines to be swept from the Suez Canal so she could proceed south.

The Italian venture ran into problems early when Leone struck an uncharted rock forty-five miles out of Massawa. Flooding and fires in her engine room forced her crew to abandon ship. Her two companions returned to port, as the rescue operation left insufficient time for them to continue the mission.

On the afternoon of 2 April the remaining Italian destroyers sailed once again, this time against Port Sudan, 265 miles north. British aircraft attacked them about two hours out of port but caused no damage. Then Battisti suffered engine problems and scuttled herself on the Arabian coast. The other four continued at top speed through the night and by dawn were thirty miles short of their objective. However, Eagle’s Swordfish squadrons intervened, sinking Sauro at 0715. The other ships headed for the opposite shore, under attack as they went. Bombs crippled Manin at 0845. She eventually capsized and sank about a hundred miles northeast of Port Sudan. Pantera and Tigre made it to the Arabian coast and were scuttled there.

Caught off guard by the Italian sortie, British warships rushed north. At 1700 Kingston found Pantera’s and Tigre’s wrecks. The two ships had already been worked over by Wellesley bombers, but Kingston shelled Pantera’s hulk and then torpedoed it, just to be sure.

The biggest Italian naval success in the Red Sea was a Parthian shot that occurred on 8 April, with Massawa’s defenses breached and ships scuttling themselves on all sides. MAS213, a World War I relic no longer capable of even fifteen knots, ambushed the old light cruiser Capetown, which was escorting minesweepers north of the port, and scored a torpedo hit from just over three hundred yards. After spending a year in repair, the cruiser sat out the rest of the war as an accommodation ship.

This was the Italian navy’s final blow in East Africa. The capture of Massawa relieved Great Britain of the need to convoy the entire length of the Red Sea and released valuable escorts for other duties. On 10 June an Indian battalion captured Assab, Italy’s last Red Sea outpost, eliminating a pair of improvised torpedo boats. After that President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the narrow sea a nonwar zone, permitting the entry of American shipping.

However, German aircraft continued to exert a distant influence over the Red Sea, by mining the Suez Canal and attacking shipping that accumulated to the south of the canal. As late at 18 September Admiral Cunningham complained to Admiral Pound that “the Red Sea position is unsatisfactory . . . about 5 of 6 ships attacked, one sunk [Steel Seafarer (6,000 GRT)] and two damaged. . . . The imminent arrival at Suez of the monster liners is giving me much anxiety. They are crammed with men and we can’t afford to have them hit up.” In October 1941 the Suez Escort Force still tied up four light cruisers, two fleet destroyers, two Hunt-class destroyers, and two sloops. The British maintained a blockade off French Somaliland until December 1942.

Australia to join US military effort to protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz

Troops, planes and warships to help guard strait in Middle East where tensions are flaring with Iran, but critics warn involvement could breach international law.

Australian forces will make a “modest, meaningful and time-limited” contribution to a United States-led mission in the Strait of Hormuz aimed at protecting freedom of navigation in the Gulf region.

Labor has supported the new mission as “appropriate”, but critics are warning the involvement of Australia’s military in the region could be seen as an “act of aggression” in breach of international law.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, announced on Wednesday that Australia would send forces to the Middle East because “destabilising behaviour” in the Gulf was a threat to Australian interests.

“The government has been concerned over incidents involving shipping in the Strait of Hormuz over the past few months,” Morrison said.

US defence strategy in Indo-Pacific region faces ‘unprecedented crisis’

“This destabilising behaviour is a threat to our interests in the region, particularly our enduring interest in the security of global sea lanes.

“The government has decided it’s in Australia’s national interests to work with our international partners to contribute to an international maritime security mission … in the Middle East.”

Morrison said about 15% of crude oil and 30% of refined oil destined for Australia came through the Strait of Hormuz, meaning instability in the region was also an economic threat that needed to be confronted.

“Freedom of navigation through international waters is a fundamental right of all states under international law,” he said.

“All states have a right to expect safe passage of their maritime trade consistent with international law.”

Australia has committed a frigate, surveillance and patrol aircraft and personnel to the Middle East as part of the US-led mission, known as the international maritime security construct (IMSC).

The United Kingdom and Bahrain are the only other countries to join the US in the Strait of Hormuz, but the UK has appealed to European allies to join the mission to safeguard shipping lanes.

Australian defence force members will join the IMSC taskforce based in Bahrain, which hosts the US navy’s central command and fifth fleet.

The defence minister, Linda Reynolds, said the Royal Australian Air Force would send a P-8A poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft to the region for one month before the end of 2019, while an Australian frigate would be present for six months from January.

“Australia’s core interest in this mission is de-escalation,” Reynolds said.

“The announcement today is clearly in Australia’s national interest and we’re very proud to be working with our allies and our friends to promote the global rules-based order and also the rule of law.”

Labor’s shadow minister for defence Richard Marles said the opposition supported the commitment on the basis that it was “tightly framed” around freedom of navigation for commercial shipping in the Gulf.

“This is an appropriate measure for Australia to take,” Marles said.

The commitment to join the US comes after tensions simmered in the region over the seizure of an Iranian ship by Gibraltar, with the backing of the UK, that was believed to be heading to Syria in breach of UN sanctions.

In July, Iran seized two oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, which marked a dramatic escalation in the worsening standoff in the Gulf.

The US and Iran have been engaged in brinkmanship in the Gulf since the US withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, after which the US announced a “maximum-pressure” strategy on Tehran.

Former secretary of the defence department, Paul Barratt, told the Guardian Australian involvement in potential military action in the Gulf could be illegal, and argued it was “very foolish for us to get involved in this provocative behaviour”.

“This is an application of military force. There ought to be a debate in the parliament, and we ought not to engage in any activity that would foreseeably involve the use of military force without that debate.”

In correspondence with the prime minister, Barratt, now president of Australians for War Powers Reform, argued that in the absence of any credible threat to Australia or an authorising resolution of the UN security council, any Australian involvement in attacks on Iran would be an act of aggression and therefore illegal.

“We appeal to you for a debate in our parliament on the growing tensions between the US and Iran, and steps which Australia could take to reduce them. Such a debate and a vote by all our elected representatives, and authorisation by the governor general, as the only person with the constitutional power to authorise the deployment of the ADF into international armed conflict, must be absolute prerequisites before any military action is undertaken.”

In response to Barratt, assistant minister to the prime minister, Ben Morton, said the Australian government was deeply concerned by current tensions in the Middle East. “A deterioration in the situation would be counter to regional security, global trade and the best interests of Australia and the world. We have urged Iran to refrain from escalatory action.”

Morton said the Australian government supported the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, “which serves the international community’s interests in non-proliferation”.

Defence White Paper Expert Panel report, Guarding against uncertainty: Australian attitudes to defence [PDF 1.7 MB]