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

IJN Submarine I-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

AHS Centaur following her conversion to a hospital ship. The Red Cross designation “47” can be seen on the bow. Of the 332 medical personnel and civilian crew aboard, 268 died, including 63 of the 65 army personnel.

At 4.10 a.m. on 14 May the Centaur was off Moretan Island, Queensland when a Japanese torpedo struck home with deadly effect. Most of the medical staff was asleep at the moment of impact, as an enormous explosion shook the ship violently, and she caught fire and started to sink by the stern. Seaman Matthew Morris of the Centaur’s crew recalled those terrifying few moments as the ship foundered:

I finished the twelve to four watch and I called the four to eight watch to go down, including me mate. And I was just havin’ a cup of tea – and this big explosion, and the ship gave a shudder, and the skylight fell in on us.

In the ensuing panic Morris was able to get clear of the rapidly sinking Centaur:

I don’t really know how I got out of the mess room…and I’d say there was a dozen steps up to the deck. And I really can’t remember going up them. But then I was washed off the back of the ship and then I realised I was in the water.

Sister Ellen Savage, one of twelve members of the Australian Army Nursing Corps onboard the Centaur, was woken up by the torpedo slamming into the ship:

Merle Morton and myself were awakened by two terrific explosions and practically thrown out of bed…I registered mentally that it was a torpedo explosion.

Lurching through the stricken ship onto the boat deck, the young nurses were unsure of what to do next:

…we ran into Colonel Manson, our commanding officer, in full dress even to his cap and ‘Mae West’ life-jacket, who kindly said ‘That’s right girlies, jump for it now.’ The first words I spoke was to say ‘Will I have time to go back for my greatcoat?’ as we were only in our pyjamas. He said ‘No’ and with that climbed the deck and jumped and I followed.

Savage recorded that the Centaur sank in only about three minutes, providing little time for the crew and passengers to abandon ship, and no time to launch any of the ship’s lifeboats. Hundreds of terrified soldiers and sailors leaped into the roiling sea, and the Centaur disappeared taking scores of lives with her, many already dead from the torpedo impact or trapped below with no way out. The suction created by the ship plunging to the depths dragged hapless swimmers deep underwater, including Savage. She eventually surfaced in a patch of oil, suffering from an assortment of painful injuries after having been tossed and battered in the underwater whirlpool created by the Centaur. As Savage gasped air at the surface pain wracked her body from broken ribs, perforated eardrums and severe bruising all over. Her nose was also broken, along with her palate, but she had survived. Now came the awful realization, shared with the hundreds treading water around her, that they were far out to sea, many were injured, and there was no immediate hope of rescue.

The I-177 was seen to surface close to the point where the Centaur had gone down, and many of the survivors wondered what the next Japanese move would be. The Japanese, however, made no move towards the survivors, and shortly afterwards the submarine was seen to submerge and depart from the scene, leaving the survivors to their fate.

Seaman Morris, after being washed off the stern of the Centaur as she sank, also found himself alone. Fortunately, Morris came upon a small, damaged life raft and clambered aboard. Later, Morris saved his friend, Seaman Teenie, by pulling him onto the raft. For many of the men and women who had managed to throw themselves clear of the Centaur their fates were terrible. Many could not swim and drowned after failing to find life jackets or rafts. The noises emitted by the sinking Centaur, as well as the thrashing of survivors in the sea and the smell of blood everywhere around the area attracted dozens of large sharks. The sharks probably scavenged floating bodies, but soon moved on to hapless swimmers and people clinging to bits of wreckage. High pitched screaming continued for hours after the sinking as people were killed by sharks and devoured. Morris and Teenie drifted on their small raft amid the horror, comforting one another, until the dawn light revealed a much more substantial raft drifting close by. It was on this raft that Savage had managed to pull herself, along with many others, to get clear of the sharks and rest. Morris and his companion paddled over and joined the others aboard what came to be christened ‘Survival Island’.

Second Officer Rippon of the Centaur was the senior officer to have survived the sinking and he took charge of the raft. Rippon knew that the Japanese attack had been so sudden that no distress call had been sent before the ship sank. The survivors were in dire straights unless help arrived quickly as they possessed only a little food and fresh water, and no medical supplies with which to treat the many injured lying around them. Most of the survivors were dressed in nightclothes and would suffer from exposure and hypothermia over the coming hours. Sharks constantly bumped against the raft with their snouts, or patrolled the waters all around, attacking an occasional person still in the water, or a corpse floating at the surface. Rescue was to be thirty-six hours later, and in the meantime still more of the survivors who had managed to get off the ship and onto a raft died. Morris lay next to a badly burned soldier who had ceased moving. Morris caught Savage’s attention, knowing that she was a nurse, and said, ‘I think this young chap’s dead.’ Savage leaned over and closely examined the man, confirming Morris’s suspicions. Morris: ‘…took his identification disc off him and his name was John Wälder…I gave his…disc to Sister Savage and she said: “Will you answer the Rosary?” I said: “Yes, I’ll do my best.”’ Private Walder was one of many buried at sea, though most likely this was more of a gesture than a possibility as bodies put over the side of the raft would have been attacked by the patrolling sharks.

Eventually Morris, Savage and the other survivors were plucked to safety by the American destroyer USS Mugford on 15 May, and Australia began to count the cost in lives occasioned by the loss of the Centaur. Of the 332 men and women on board when the ship departed from Sydney on 12 May, only sixty-seven men and one woman had been rescued by the Mugford four days later. It has been estimated that over 200 survived the torpedo strike and made it into the sea, but just over a quarter of those would live. Sharks, injury, drowning and despair took care of the rest, including eleven of the twelve nurses who were aboard the Centaur. The sinking of the Centaur stands as Australia’s worst disaster from a submarine attack.

As for Sister Ellen Savage, the sole surviving nurse, she had spent thirty-six hours on ‘Survival Island’ working tirelessly to ease the suffering and pain of her companions, even though she was badly injured herself. For her courage she was awarded the George Medal. Australian Prime Minister Curtin lodged an official complaint through the neutral powers with the Japanese government over the ‘barbaric’ attack on an Australian hospital ship. Initially, Curtin called upon the Japanese to punish those officers responsible for the attack, but was later forced to tone down his outrage as he and other politicians feared that the Japanese might have exacted revenge on the thousands of Australian prisoners-of-war in their hands.

The man responsible for all the suffering of the people aboard the Centaur, Hajime Nakagawa, had actually behaved in a restrained manner considering what he was later to inflict on innocent civilians who fell into his grasp. In December 1943 Nakagawa had assumed command of submarine I-37 (though he had still not been promoted to commander), and by February 1944 was on patrol in the Indian Ocean. On 22 February he torpedoed and sank the grain tanker British Chivalry. After taking the captain prisoner he ordered machine-gun fire opened up on the helpless crewmen, who were in a pair of lifeboats and lying on four rafts. Bullets rippled backwards and forwards over the defenceless survivors, the hapless captain forced to watch the massacre. Twenty sailors were killed in cold blood, and for no reason. Nakagawa struck again on 26 February, sinking the British freighter Sutlej, and he once again ordered his crew to machine-gun the survivors. On 29 February the I-37 sank the British merchant ship Ascot, and the crew had taken to lifeboats, life rafts or were swimming in the sea. The Japanese skipper first ordered his submarine to deliberately ram the Ascot’s lifeboats, killing some of the survivors and tipping the rest into the ocean. Machine guns were turned once more upon the fifty-two men struggling in the sea, other Japanese took pot-shots at their bobbing heads with pistols, some were even dragged aboard the deck and carved up with swords and a few finished off by being pounded to death with sledge hammers before their bodies were dumped back into the sea. Forty-four men were killed in this manner before the Japanese slunk away.

Judged in the light of these appalling later crimes, it is intriguing as to why Nakagawa did not let loose his evident bloodlust upon the survivors of the Centaur eight months before. Combined Fleet Headquarters had issued an order to submarine skippers on 20 March 1943 which stated: ‘Do not stop with the sinking of enemy ships and cargoes; at the same time that you carry out the complete destruction of the crews of enemy ships, if possible, seize part of the crew and endeavour to secure information about the enemy.’ The application of this chilling order appears to have been left to the discretion of individual commanders. Nakagawa, when placed on trial in 1949 for the various outrages he had ordered committed, used the ‘I was only following orders’ plea to attempt to deflect his guilt. Sadly, much of the evidence entered in the trial was disallowed, and this meant that Nakagawa was classed as a Category B war criminal and only received eight years hard labour. In 1954, after only six years, the mass murderer submariner was released, and continued to deny that he had ever sunk the Centaur up until his death. Indeed, the Japanese government only officially acknowledged that the I-177 had sunk the Centaur in 1979.

After sinking the Centaur Nakagawa took the I-177 back to Truk and made a second war patrol to the Australian east coast in June, but went to Rabaul in July after making no further attacks on Allied ships.

On 29 April the I-180 found the small Norwegian freighter Fingal that was on her way from Sydney to Port Darwin under Australian government contract, transporting ammunition to Coffs Harbour, New South Wales. The Fingal was not such an inviting opportunity as she was under escort by the powerful American destroyer escort USS Patterson. Kusaka pressed home his attack regardless of the risk and managed to place a torpedo portside aft, with another smashing into the engine room tearing the guts out of the 2,137-ton ship. The Norwegian sank in less than one minute, taking several of her crew with her. The Patterson eventually rescued nineteen out of the crew of thirty-one.

The I-180 continued to lurk around Coffs Harbour into May, and Kusaka’s patience was rewarded with another good target that presented itself on the 12th. Convoy PG50, consisting of fifteen ships, was sailing from Cairns to Sydney. Kusaka fired a spread of torpedoes, and would have been more successful if not for torpedo malfunction. One torpedo detonated inside the 5,832-ton American freighter Ormiston, loaded with bagged sugar, blowing a hole in her portside. A second torpedo struck the Australian ship Caradale, but the contact exploder fitted to the warhead failed to detonate and the torpedo did nothing more than leave a dent in the freighter’s hull before sinking to the seabed. Two Australian and an American warship took the Ormiston in tow, and after temporary repairs were effected in Coffs Harbour the freighter continued on her way to Sydney. By the end of May Kusaka and the I-180 were back in Truk after a disappointing patrol.

Meanwhile, the I-178 returned to Australia for a second war patrol, and on 17 June while the submarine was sixty-five miles south-east of Coffs Harbour, a Beaufort of 32 Squadron, RAAF, pounced on her. A second Beaufort joined in the attack on the surfaced submarine, inflicting some damage. The aircraft left the scene after reporting that the submarine was trailing a large oil slick in her wake, and the I-178 was never heard from again. It was a notable kill for the Australians, eighty-nine Japanese losing their lives.

Formerly the I-74, the re-numbered I-174 under the command of Lieutenant Nobukiyo Nambu departed Truk on 16 May 1943 with orders to patrol off the east coast of Australia. In her earlier incarnation as the I-74 she had participated in the Pearl Harbor operation, as well as assisting with the flying boat raid on Pearl Harbor in May 1942, all under her then skipper, Lieutenant-Commander Kusaka. Nambu assumed command of the boat on 12 November 1942, as Kusaka had left to assist with the working-up of the I-180 and was later to command the giant I-400. On 27 May 1943 Nambu and the I-174 appeared off the Australian coast at Sandy Cape and began patrolling for targets along the coast. The next day the submarine was spotted on radar by a Bristol Beaufort of 32 Squadron, RAAF, which was on antisubmarine patrol from Bundaberg. Sharp-eyed lookouts on the Japanese boat spied the Beaufort as it attempted to creep up on the submarine and Nambu was able to crash-dive and escape.

On 1 June the I-174 was seventy miles east of Brisbane, hoping for an encounter with an enemy ship. Sailing towards the Japanese hunter was a lone merchant ship, and Nambu immediately began manoeuvring his submarine into an attack position. The vessel was a 3,303-ton American freighter, Point San Pedro, sailing towards Brisbane from the Panama Canal. When the merchant captain sighted the submarine he immediately began zigzagging in a desperate attempt to throw off the Japanese officers’ aim, but four torpedoes were nonetheless launched at the ship. By sheer good luck, and perhaps because of the ship’s erratic movements, all four torpedoes completely missed, and the radio operator was instructed to inform the Australian authorities of a Japanese submarine lurking close to Brisbane. The Australians reacted with the dispatch of an Avro Anson maritime bomber of 71 Squadron, RAAF, with orders to seek out and destroy the boat. A further six Anson’s left the airfields at Lowood and Coffs Harbour to join in the search but found no trace of the I-174.

Nambu was a submarine skipper of some temerity and, some might say, suicidal impulses. On the afternoon of 3 June he sighted a small convoy of six freighters being escorted by three destroyers off Brisbane, and he decided to attempt an attack. Coming to the surface at 6 p.m., he ordered his diesel engines full ahead, and grinding hastily through the waves Nambu began to pursue the convoy. Not surprisingly his submarine was soon spotted by lookouts on the various ships, and the destroyers swung around and began to close the distance between the convoy and the I-174. The Japanese submarine crash-dived and fled from the scene before the convoy escorts could plaster the boat with depth charges and Hedgehog mortar bombs.

The next day Nambu attempted to intercept another lone ship, this time a US Army transport named the Edward Chambers, another ship on her way from the Panama Canal to Brisbane loaded with supplies. Nambu spotted the 4,113-ton merchantman at 8.45 a.m. off Cape Moreton while his submarine was submerged, and he made belaboured efforts to close the distance between the two vessels in order to launch his torpedoes. Deciding instead to blow the Edward Chambers out of the water with his deck-gun Nambu ordered the I-174 to the surface. At 9.48 a.m. the gunners unmasked their fire, nine shells sailing past the merchant ship without achieving a single hit. In fact, the army gunners aboard the Edward Chambers returned fire using a 3-inch gun mounted on the stern, and twelve American shells splashed into the sea close to the submarine, which caused Nambu to break off his attack and submerge. By now large numbers of Australian aircraft had been sent aloft to search out the errant submarine, and the I-174 remained submerged for the rest of the day fearing aerial attack.

At 10.25 a.m. on 5 June the I-174 was still submerged sixty miles north-east of Coffs Harbour, the hydrophone operator listening for enemy activity. What was clearly discerned were the propeller sounds of several ships that were apparently moving in a convoy several miles from the submarine. Nambu moved the I-174 behind convoy PG53, and surfaced in poor weather. The weather was bad enough to have concealed the approach of Nambu’s boat, but he decided to take no chances so when a shadowing patrol aircraft came close he submerged and waited for it to move off before he resumed closing in on the convoy’s tail. The pursuit took Nambu all day, and by the time the sun was beginning to fade on the horizon he had managed to bring his vessel to within 6,000 yards of the convoy without being spotted. Creeping ever closer Nambu prepared to fire but an escorting destroyer spotted the shadowing Japanese submarine and turned hard about and charged. His approach ruined, Nambu had no choice but to crash-dive once more. No depth charges followed the submarine’s descent, and at 9.45 p.m. Nambu brought the I-174 back to the surface for another try at the convoy. Another charge by a destroyer forced him back beneath the waves, but Nambu had already noted the convoy’s course and speed and he decided that instead of constantly popping up behind the ships, and attracting the unwanted attentions of the escorts, he would instead pile on the speed and attempt to place his submarine in a position by first light ahead of the convoy. Running his diesels at the surface Nambu brought the I-174 to the position where he estimated the convoy would eventually appear and then settled down at periscope depth to wait.

On the morning of 6 June the I-174 ascended to the surface, but Nambu’s careful planning had placed him at too great a range to intercept the convoy passing in front of him in the distance without risking being caught by patrolling Australian aircraft as he tried to close the gap. Undoubtedly disappointed he abandoned stalking convoy PG53 and instead motored off towards the south, heading for the waters around Newcastle and Sydney that he hoped would be teeming with ships.

The next day the I-174 was 100 miles east of Sydney. Lookouts spotted a single ship at 4.50 a.m., and Nambu began once more to plan his approach and attack. The ship was the John Bartram, a 7,176-ton American Liberty approaching Sydney after crossing the Pacific from San Francisco. As the submarine charged down the distance between the two vessels the American captain began zigzagging to stall the inevitable torpedo attack that was to follow. Nambu managed to get the I-174 ahead of his target and launched a spread of four torpedoes at 6.06 a.m. In a confused attack two of the torpedoes definitely missed the ship, and another exploded prematurely, rocking the I-174. Perhaps wanting to finally record a kill, Nambu erroneously believed that he had struck the John Bartram. The I-174 departed the scene in some haste, its commander satisfied that he had sunk his target. The John Bartram sailed on undamaged.

Nambu next spent several days hanging around the approaches to Sydney without sighting a single ship, which was unusual considering the density of merchant and warship traffic travelling in and out of the port. At 2 p.m. on 13 June Nambu finally sighted a small convoy of approximately six transport ships, escorted by a pair of destroyers, about thirty miles east of the Wollongong Lighthouse. Once again, the I-174 surfaced too far from the ships to allow an interception to be attempted and Nambu was forced to submerge again and wait. The next night, another Beaufort on anti-submarine duty pounced on the I-174, and the submarine narrowly avoided a hail of bombs. After staying submerged for over half an hour Nambu resurfaced only to discover that the Australian aircraft was still circling the area and he was attacked again and forced once more beneath the waves.

On 16 June, when the I-174 was south-east of Coffs Harbour, Nambu finally discovered a convoy that he was in a position to attack. Five corvettes screened the convoy, including HMAS Deloraine, but the I-174 slipped past the warships and, at 5.20 p.m., fired two torpedoes at a pair of transports. The first torpedo Struck the 5,000-ton Landing Ship Tank, LST 469 in the starboard side, towards the stern. The detonation completely destroyed the vessel’s steering gear and also killed twenty-six men, but LST-469 remained afloat. A few moments later the second torpedo struck the starboard side of the 5,551-ton US Army transport ship Portmar. The detonation of the Japanese torpedo set a massive fire in the Portmar’s holds, which in turn set off ammunition stored aboard the ship. The crew soon abandoned the stricken ship, and after only seven minutes the Portmar sank. Two of the escorting corvettes ineffectually depth-charged the I-174. Lieutenant Nambu goes down in history as the last Japanese submarine skipper to successfully sink a ship off the east coast of Australia, and on 20 June the I-174 was ordered back to Truk. Nambu was later reassigned as commander of the submarine aircraft carrier I-401, and American aircraft east of Truk destroyed his former command, the I-174, on 12 April 1944.

Australians in Bomber Command

The Bomber Command operating fields were divided into Groups. By March 1943 the groups from the north were: 6 (Royal Canadian Air Force) Group in the Tyne valley and north Yorkshire, 4 Group in north and east Yorkshire, 1 Group south of the Humber in north Lincolnshire, 5 Group from Scampton in central Lincolnshire to Woodall Spa in the south, 2 (later 100) Group in north Norfolk, 3 Group in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire, and 8 (Path Finder Force) Group further west in Cambridgeshire centred on its headquarters in Huntingdon. Of the main Australian squadrons, 460 was in 1 Group (Lancasters), 462 was in 4 Group and then 100 Group (Halifaxes), and 466 was in 4 Group (Halifaxes), 463 and 467 in 5 Group (Lancasters). Other Australian squadrons that operated in Bomber Command were 455 (1941-42 then transferred to Coastal Command), 458 (1941 then transferred to the Middle East) and 464 (1942-43 then transferred to Second Tactical Air Force).

Airmen feared being a squadron spare, the bomb-aimer called up to fly with the crew whose bomb-aimer was injured, sick or for other reasons relieved of flying duties. That meant flying with strangers, no reassuring voices in the earphones, no confidence in mutual competence, a high chance of filling-in again and again with inexperienced crews, and no friends to share the easing of postflight tension and the generous breakfast prepared for returning crews. R. J. Cantillon, a wireless operator, was told at the last moment to replace a sick crewman in a Halifax. He found himself flying as mid-upper gunner with two Englishmen, a Scot, an Irishman, a Canadian and an American on their first operation deep into Germany. They were without teamwork and they survived long enough to bale out over Holland on the return flight.

Men who came as a replacement to an experienced crew could not hope to complete a tour in one crew. When the original crew finished its 30 operations the replacement had to shift to another crew and that might mean joining a sprog crew and again going through the hazards of those first four or five raids. Even where a crew began operations together, and all demonstrated the capacity to do their job when reality replaced practice, they were unlikely to do all their flying together. Men became ill, were wounded or involved in minor accidents. Cliff O’Riordan went to `Quite a bright party’ that started in the mess, tapered off in the early hours of the morning, then resumed at ten the next morning. It was some time later that O’Riordan tried to ride a horse, fell off and broke a bone in his arm. He missed operations.

Experienced men could be asked to fly with new crews, and some volunteered. Bob Murphy went with several crews on their first trip over enemy territory `to point out the difference between light flak and heavy flak and what the different searchlights were and so on’. And to boost their confidence. After his first tour Arthur Doubleday sometimes flew with a scratch crew. Given that it was both his duty and his inclination to ensure that the bombs fell in the right place, this would have been both exhilarating and terrifying. Doubleday also learnt the danger of flying with unknown men. Over the target he heard the unfamiliar voice of the bomb-aimer say in a matter-of-fact voice, `Flak on the port, skipper’. Normally, says Doubleday, a flat statement like that implied the flak was some distance away. But he had no idea that his scratch crew bomb-aimer was not given to excitement or exaggeration. This bomb-aimer meant exactly what he said. The flak was in fact on the port wing, and within a few feet of the bomb-aimer’s nose.

Bob Kellow, who flew as wireless operator in Les Knight’s dambuster crew, said that their crew was together through 27 successful raids: `We had the utmost confidence in each other and were like a little band of brothers’. That crew of two Australians (Knight and Kellow), three Englishmen and two Canadians was unusually stable. But even in that group which was bound together by extraordinary training, operations and publicity, the flight engineer Ray Grayson, an Englishman, had joined late and was going to have to complete his tour with another crew, having done seven less operations than the rest of the crew. In fact they did not return from their 28th operation. Knight was killed, Kellow evaded capture and Grayson was one of those taken prisoner. Most crews, having selected themselves, were welded together by experience and tried to stay together. Often four or five stuck together, but very few crews flew a tour unchanged.

By the time most dominion men were being fed into Bomber Command, the slow, low-flying, under-powered and under-armed early bombers were being replaced by Wellingtons, Stirlings and Halifaxes. Stirlings and Wellingtons were then phased out of major operations in October and November 1943, and from 1944 the superior Mark III Halifax replaced less efficient models. From early 1942 the two most efficient and admired aircraft in Bomber Command, the Mosquito and Lancaster, were being delivered to operating squadrons. The sleek two-engine Mosquitoes, relying on their superior speed to keep out of trouble, marauded widely. Carrying a light bomb load, the Mosquitoes guided the main bomber stream by dropping marker flares at turning points and over the target; flew independent raids (sometimes on distant and specific targets); confused German defences about the direction of the main force raid; gathered weather information; checked the damage done to targets; and fought the German night fighters. The Mosquito was much less likely than any of the main aircraft in Bomber Command to be destroyed by the enemy, and equalled the Lancaster in its low accident rate. But the Lancaster transformed the destructive capacity of the bomber.

In some of the major final raids of the war, there might be about 500 Lancasters, 250 Halifaxes and six Mosquitoes, and sometimes the Lancaster was the only heavy bomber. But the Halifax had its supporters. David Leicester, who flew 30 missions in a Halifax and more in a Lancaster, thought the later Halifaxes were easy to fly and could be manoeuvred quickly at height and when fully loaded, and that was essential to keep out of trouble. Ivan Pellas said `We loved our Halibags’. The Halifax Mark III was, he claims, mild in manner, stable in flight, and while they could be flown with one finger, they could also be thrown around the sky. One Halifax of 158 Squadron, known as Friday the 13th, flew 128 missions. Grateful and astonished crews gave it an unofficial VC. It was also more difficult to bale out of a Lancaster. Aircrew in terminally damaged bombers had more chance of getting to and through the escape hatches on a Halifax than they did on a Lancaster. By the end of the war, however, the Lancaster was dominant. Although not used on a raid until 3 March 1942, Lancasters went to war nearly twice as often as any other heavy bomber: 156,192 times compared with the Halifaxes’ 82,773.

When the crews of 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds heard late in 1942 that they were changing from Halifaxes to Lancasters `Pandemonium broke out … The dark days were over’. In September 1942, 460 Squadron was running out of operational aircraft; its Wellingtons were not being replaced because the squadron was about to convert to Halifaxes. When it had just five aircraft left, the squadron was taken off operations to learn to fly the four-engine Halifaxes, but on 20 October the squadron was suddenly switched to Lancasters, a `very popular’ decision. Lancaster crews cheered when they learnt that other bombers, such as Stirlings, were on the same raid. The Stirlings, lower and slower, were likely to draw the German night fighters.

Air Officer Commander-in-Chief Harris had no doubt that the Lancaster was the `finest bomber of the war’:

Not only could it take heavier bomb loads, not only was it easier to handle, and not only were there fewer accidents with this than with other types; throughout the war the casualty rate of Lancasters was also consistently below that of other types. It is true that in 1944 the wastage of Lancasters from casualties became equal to, and at times even greater than, the wastage of Halifaxes, but this was the exception that proved the rule; at that time I invariably used Lancasters alone for those attacks which involved the deepest penetration into Germany and were consequently the most dangerous.

Harris so admired the Lancaster that he wanted to lose a year’s production of Halifaxes while the factories were converted to Lancaster production. His superiors thought the cost too high and did not agree. Because Harris pressed as many Lancasters as possible into front-line service, few were available for training, and the crews began their heavy bomber flying on Wellingtons, Stirlings and Halifaxes. Often these aircraft were worn, battered, early models, and some of the enthusiasm for crews for the Lancaster was simply a result of encountering for the first time an aircraft that was new, the most advanced available, and carefully maintained.

Harris was right in his claim about the performance and reliability of the Lancaster. The number of Lancasters on operations that crashed in England was significantly less than that of Halifaxes, half that of Stirlings and one-quarter that of Wellingtons. In its capacity to avoid flak and fighters, the Lancaster’s superiority was not so marked, but the Lancaster’s loss rate was still marginally less than that of the Halifax, clearly less than that of the Wellington and markedly better than that of the Stirling. The enthusiasm of squadrons when they learnt they were converting to Lancasters might have been tempered had they known that their commander was now going to ask more of them and their machines, but on the figures – then yet to be recorded – their celebration was justified.

The Lancaster gave pilots hope, and they returned admiration, even affection. George Hawes encountered the Lancaster soon after it was used in operations. He told his family in April 1942, `They certainly are wizard kites’. After his first solo flight in a Lancaster Geoff Maddern wrote in his diary: `They are the most beautiful kites imaginable to fly – they climb like a bat out of hell, very light and responsive to the controls. The main trouble is trying to keep the speed down … Quite easy to land – you feel them down like a Tiger Moth’. A few days later he tested it further by `shooting up’ Scunthorpe and then: `Coming back feathered an engine and flew hands and feet off on three. Cut another engine and flew on two. It maintains height easily … They’re wizard’. At the other end of the aircraft Tom Simpson, a rear gunner, liked the stability of the Lancaster: `To me every time that you climbed into the Lanc it seemed to say “Pleased to have you aboard. I’ll try to make the flight comfortable” ‘. The Lancaster could climb on three engines; bent and battered it would get the crew home. Fifty years after he flew K for Kitty, Dan Conway wrote: `Just to sit in the cockpit and admire its layout was a great pleasure’.


Western Egypt: Operations against the Senussi

Operations against the Senussi. One of Major the Duke of Westminster’s Armoured Cars at Es Sollum, April 1916.

A bogged armoured car of the 1st Armoured Car Battery (Australia), which was operating on the western frontier of Egypt, against the Senussi, being pulled out of the sand over de-ditching boards.

Area of operations, Senussi Campaign, 1915-1918

Very few regiments of the British Army saw service in as many theatres of war from 1914 to 1919 as did the Middlesex. In 1914 and 1915 in Flanders and France and Gallipoli, battalions of the regiment had already crossed bayonets with the enemy, and the story now turns to Western Egypt, where, at the close of 1915, the 2/7th and 2/8th Battalions first became involved in operations against the Senussi. The beginning of the rupture between Great Britain and the Senussi — a powerful desert tribe — is thus described in the official despatches: “As early as May, 1915, signs were apparent that the steadily increasing pressure brought to bear upon the Senussi by the Turkish party in Tripoli, under the leadership of Nuri Bey, a half-brother of Enver Pasha, was beginning to take effect. For some time, even after the outbreak of hostilities between Great Britain and Turkey in 1914, the anti-British influence of this party was not strongly felt and the attitude of the Senussi towards Egypt remained friendly. It was not until the advent of Gaafer, a Germanised Turk of considerable ability, who arrived in Tripoli in April, 1915, with a considerable supply of arms and money, that this attitude underwent a change.”

For several months it was evident that the Turkish influence was gaining ground, and on the 16th August, 1915, the first hostile incident of any importance occurred. Two British submarines, sheltering from the weather near Ras Lick on the coast of Cyrenaica, were treacherously fired on by Arabs, commanded by a white officer, and casualties were suffered on both sides. For this incident, however, the Senussi apologised profusely, but in November, other incidents occurred which placed beyond doubt the hostile intentions of this Arab tribe. The crews of two British boats, H.M.S. Tara and H.M.T. Moorina — torpedoed by enemy submarines on the 5th and 6th of the month — landed in Cyrenaica and were captured and held prisoners by the Senussi, who, in reply to strong representations for their immediate release, feigned ignorance. On the night of the 14th-15th, Muhafizia (Senussi regulars) rushed two Egyptian sentries at Sollum and carried off their rifles and bayonets: the following night the company at Sollum was sniped. Again on the 17th, at Sidi Barrani (fifty miles east of Sollum), the Zawia was occupied by some three hundred Muhafizia, and on the 18th, during the night, the Coastguard Barracks at that place were twice attacked, one coastguard being killed. On the 20th a similar attack was made on a coastguard outpost at Sabil, a small post about thirty miles S.E. of Sollum, though, as at Barrani, the attack failed.

There was now no alternative but to recognise a state of war and to take action accordingly. The Western Frontier posts were ordered to withdraw to Mersa Matruh, and it was decided to concentrate in the latter place a force sufficient to deal swiftly with the situation. The Alexandria-Dabaa Railway was to be secured as a secondary line of communication by land with the railhead at Dabaa: the Wadi Natrun and the Fayum were to be occupied as measures of precaution, while the Oasis of Moghara was to be kept under constant observation and reconnaissance.

Orders for the assembly of two composite brigades (one mounted and the other infantry) were issued on the 20th November, after news had been received of the enemy’s attack at Barrani. The Mounted Brigade consisted chiefly of Yeomanry and Australian Light Horse, with a battery of horse artillery. The infantry brigade was made up of 1/6th Royal Scots (T.F.), 1/7th and 2/8th Battalions Middlesex Regiment (T.F.), 15th Sikhs, and some auxiliary troops. The whole force was commanded by Major-General A. Wallace, and the Infantry Brigade by Brigadier-General the Earl of Lucan.

Both the 2/7th and 2/8th Middlesex had disembarked at Alexandria from Gibraltar on the 1st September.

A year had passed since the formation of the 2/7th. Middlesex was authorised by the War Office, and during that period the Battalion had passed through varied experiences. After several busy weeks spent in recruiting the men and preliminary training, the 2/7th had left Hornsey on the 24th September, 1914, for Barnet, where officers and men were billeted. On the last day of the month the first consignment of uniforms was received and, by the end of October, the whole unit was in service dress. Another move, this time to Egham, took place on the 20th November, the Battalion joining the Middlesex Brigade of the Home Counties Division. In Windsor Great Park hard training was continued, though as only fifty rifles were in possession of the Battalion, instruction in musketry presented the greatest difficulties. “All through these weeks of hard work,” said Lieut.-Colonel J. S. Drew, who commanded the 2/7th, “the discipline and soldierly spirit of the Battalion steadily improved.” On the 27th January, 1915, orders were received to embark for Gibraltar at an early date. “This was a great shock, for high hopes had been entertained that the Battalion would be sent to France.” However, the Battalion swallowed its disappointment and, on the 1st February, entrained for Southampton, embarking on arrival at the docks aboard the Grantully Castle, being joined later in the day by the 2/8th Middlesex, who were also bound for “Gib.”

After a rough voyage lasting several days, the two Battalions reached Gibraltar on the 7th February, though they did not disembark until the following day. On the way up the Rock the 2/7th met the 1/7th marching down to embark for France. This was the only occasion on which the two Battalions met throughout the whole course of the War.

For the next six months the Battalion continued its training, especially in musketry, for which special facilities were available. On the 3rd July orders were received to send a draft of 3 officers and 260 other ranks to the 1/7th Battalion in France. Their departure was a heavy blow to the Battalion, which, by this time, had attained a high degree of efficiency. The draft, however, was replaced the same day by the arrival of a similar number of men from England.

On the 12th August the Battalion was ordered to prepare for Egypt, and, with the 2/8th Middlesex, embarked on H.M.T. Minnewaska. Out at sea the destination of the. ship was changed, and a few days later the vessel steamed into Mudros Harbour, the greatest excitement prevailing on board, as everyone expected to land on the Gallipoli Peninsula. At Mudros, however, it was made evident that the move to that Island was due to a Staff misunderstanding, and that the proper destination of the vessel was Alexandria. So, again choking down their disappointment, the Middlesex men saw their hopes of immediate active service dashed, and the boat put out to sea once more, for Egypt. Alexandria was reached on the 31st August, and on the following day the Battalion disembarked and entrained for Cairo, taking over the Citadel from Australian troops, a strong detachment of the Middlesex being sent off to guard prisoners of war at Maadi.

Ten pleasant weeks were spent at Cairo, and then, early in November, there were rumours of trouble brewing with the Senussi tribes of Western Egypt. On the 20th November the Composite Cavalry and Infantry Brigades were formed, and on the 22nd the 2/7th Middlesex was ordered to join the latter Brigade at once at Alexandria. The Brigade went into camp at Qamaria and refitted.

With the exception of its formation the history of the 2/8th Middlesex is largely that of the 2/7th Battalion.

The 2/8th Middlesex was formed at Hampton Court on the 14th September, 1914, its first C.O. being Lieut.-Colonel L. C. Dams. The Battalion was quartered in the Cavalry Barracks, Hampton Court, Hampton Court House, and other houses in the neighbourhood. Training was carried out in Bushey Park, though no uniforms or rifles were then available. On the 15th November, 1914, the Battalion moved to Staines, becoming (like the 2/7th Battalion) part of the Middlesex Brigade of the Home Counties Division. From this period onwards there is little in the early history of the 2/8th which differs from that of the 2/7th, though on the day of the departure of the two Battalions from Southampton, great was the excitement aboard the Grantully Castle when, at the last moment, a draft of three officers and a small number of men joined the 2/8th: the men wore scarlet tunics! Like the 2/7th, the 2/8th also sent a large draft of officers and men to France, but to the 1/8th Battalion. When the Battalion left Gibraltar and arrived at Alexandria on the 31st August, the 2/8th was likewise quartered in Cairo, moving back to Alexandria on the 22nd November to join the Composite Infantry Brigade.

By the 23rd November the concentration of the Force under General Wallace was completed, and the troops began to move to Mersa Matruh. It was not, however, until several days later that the two Middlesex Battalions received their orders. The 2/8th was the first to leave Alexandria, the Battalion embarking on trawlers — two platoons per trawler — for Mersa Matruh on the 4th December. The trawlers reached their destination on the 5th, and the Middlesex men were landed and pitched camp close to the village. On the 6th December Battalion Headquarters and “A” and “B” Companies of the 2/7th Middlesex embarked on trawlers and aboard H.M.S. ‘Clematis’ for Mersa Matruh, “C” and “D” Companies remaining at Alexandria.

Concentration of the Force at Matruh was completed on the 7th December, and the village was prepared as a fortified base from which the Senussi could be attacked.

With the 2/8th, the 2/7th Middlesex was allotted a sector of the defences, and at once began digging operations. An insufficient supply of water was only one of the many difficulties. Wells were dug in the beach, but only brackish water was obtainable, and this had to be drunk in the form of tea: even then it was most unpleasant.

The first encounter with the Senussi took place on the 11th December, but neither of the Middlesex Battalions were engaged in the operations, which were carried out by other troops.

At midnight on the 14th December, Colonel Dams was ordered to take his Battalion out to Old Matruh to assist the 15th Sikhs and 6th Royal Scots (under Colonel Gordon), who had gone out in the morning and had been heavily engaged with the enemy. After marching through the night, the 2/8th Middlesex, at dawn, took up a defensive position, through which Colonel Gordon’s force retired. Colonel Dams then threw forward two companies of his Battalion on the flank of the retiring column and engaged the enemy, H.M.S. ‘Clematis’ firing her 6-inch guns over the heads of the Middlesex men into the enemy, who were massed in the hills on the Battalion’s flank. The 2/8th finally formed a rearguard to the force retiring, until the latter reached camp at Matruh. “The whole thing,” said Colonel Dams, “worked like an Aldershot field-day — the Battalion carried out the various movements with drill-book precision.”

For the first fortnight the 2/7th Middlesex, without seeing anything of the fighting, had a strenuous existence. Three times the line of defence was changed, each change necessitating the digging and wiring of several miles of trenches; many stone sangars were also constructed.

On the night of the 18th-19th December the camps of both Battalions, which occupied somewhat exposed positions, were heavily sniped by the Senussi. An advanced post of the 2/7th was also attacked, but beat off its assailants without difficulty. This was the first occasion on which the 2/7th and 2/8th Middlesex during the War came under rifle fire from the enemy.

The 2/8th Battalion each night mounted picquets round the camp, most of the picquets being situated on a line of hills running parallel with the sea and about half a mile from it. During the night of the 19th December a detached picquet (known as Pinnacle Picquet) was sniped by a small body of Senussi. The Middlesex men returned the fire, but so far as could be seen no casualties were inflicted on the enemy.

From the 15th to the 23rd December no operation of importance was undertaken against the enemy, but in the meantime it was known that he was concentrating in the neighbourhood of Gebel Medwa, about eight miles south-west of Matruh, his forces being estimated at about 5,000, with four guns and some machine guns, commanded by Gaafer.

On the 25th December (Xmas Day) General Wallace attacked these forces. He divided his Command into two columns — the Right and the Left. The former consisted mostly of infantry, which included the 2/8th Middlesex; the latter column was a mobile force of cavalry.

Before dawn on the 25th both columns left camp, and by 7.30a.m. the cavalry had cleared the Wadi Toweiwa, about seven miles south of Matruh. The Right Column moved westwards, and at 6.30 a.m. the advanced guard came under fire from artillery and machine guns from the south-west. But the enemy was soon driven off, and by 7.15 a.m. the main body of General Wallace’s Force had crossed the Wadi Rami, and could see the enemy in occupation of an encampment about a mile south of Gebel Medwa.

At 7.30 a.m. the 15th Sikhs were ordered to attack the enemy’s right flank, the Bucks Hussars and 2/8th Middlesex to co-operate by making a containing attack along his front, to be launched simultaneously with the attack of the Sikhs. Deploying west of the road and despatching one Company to occupy Gebel Medwa in order to secure their right, the Sikhs advanced. At the same time the Bucks Hussars moved forward, while the Middlesex, keeping to the north-east of Gebel Medwa, sent a Company to relieve a company of 15th Sikhs occupying the hill, which thereupon rejoined the Battalion. This Company of Middlesex men was apparently the only one of the Battalion which saw fighting on the 25th December, the action being thus described by an officer then serving with the Battalion: “The whole Battalion took part in a big attack on enemy forces about seven or eight miles inland from the camp. A start was made before dawn on Xmas Day, and the fighting lasted all day. The Battalion bivouacked that night in the desert, and returned to camp the following morning. Only one Company (‘C’ Company, under Captain Alliston) actually found themselves in the front line of the attack, and suffered casualties (three men wounded). The attack was a great success, and a considerable number of the enemy was killed or captured.”

The attack by the Sikhs was successfully carried out, and by 2.15 p.m. the nullahs at the head of the Wadi Majid had been cleared, and by about 4 p.m. the Wadi itself was taken. The enemy’s losses were over 100 dead, 34 prisoners, 80 camels and much livestock, also 30,000 rounds of S.A.A. and a quantity of artillery ammunition.

In this action the 2/7th Middlesex took no part, but from the 28th to 30th December the Battalion formed part of a mobile column intended to attack a Senussi camp some twenty miles distant, at Jerawla. On the approach of the column the enemy forsook his camp and fled, leaving behind large quantities of grain, nearly 100 camels and about 500 sheep. The camp was burned, and on the 30th the column returned to Matruh.

This affair carries the narrative of operations in Western Egypt up to the end of 1915.

Captain Palmer, 2/8th Middlesex R.


Tom Hardy’s character’s experience in the Dunkirk movie most closely resembles that of New Zealand Spitfire pilot Alan Christopher Deere.

Dunkirk (2017) History vs. Hollywood

When Allied defense against the German FALL GELB operation broke, London organized Operation DYNAMO: a desperate withdrawal of 340,000 British, Commonwealth, and other Allied (120,000 French and 20,000 Belgian) troops from the beaches and port of Dunkirk. The operation lasted from May 25 to June 2, 1940. Many clamored aboard rescue ships without even basic equipment, while all tanks, trucks, and heavy weapons were abandoned on the beaches. This massive amphibious retreat was made necessary by a German breakthrough that split the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and some French and Belgian divisions from the rest of the French Army which forced surrender by Belgium on May 28. There was significant misunderstanding and hostility at first between British and French troops in the enclave, as most of the French who were evacuated were not embarked until nearly all British troops had already left. The main reason was that the French High Command refused to accept the need for any evacuations until after the Belgian surrender on May 28, but later used the British evacuation as an excuse for military failure and signature of the armistice on June 22.

The evacuation was accomplished with the aid of hundreds of civilian craft of all types and sizes, the famed “Little Ships” that included personal yachts, London river barges, and fishing vessels. But mainly it was carried out by Royal Navy minesweepers, destroyers, and other warships. A heroic rearguard defense was made by elements of French 1st Army and selected British and Canadian units, while the RAF fended off Luftwaffe attacks on the beaches and ships and the Royal Navy fought off German E-boats. The RAF lost nearly 200 fighters over nine days defending the Dunkirk enclave; the Luftwaffe lost 240 planes attacking it. The Allies also lost 9 large warships ships and 9 destroyers, with 19 more destroyers damaged. Daylight ship runs stopped on June 1. Another 60,000 French troops and elements of the British perimeter force were evacuated under cover of night on June 2.

Escape of over 320,000 enemy soldiers from Dunkirk was made possible by Adolf Hitler`s “stop order.” For two critical days, May 24-25, he forbade Panzer forces to pursue a retreating and badly demoralized enemy. But it is important to note that the generals of the OKH agreed with Hitler: their attention was drawn south to what they believed would be a large battle in front of Paris. Hitler and the OKH alike wanted to preserve worn and tired Panzer divisions for that fight and to let slower arriving German infantry and the Luftwaffe finish the job along the coast. About 120,000 British troops remained in France after Dunkirk. Smaller evacuations got some men out, but most of the 51st Highland Division was compelled to surrender on June 12. Over 156,000 British, Canadian, and Polish troops were then evacuated from Cherbourg. although 3,000 died when their departing liner was bombed by the Luftwaffe just off the French coast. Behind the German lines, Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS carried out several massacres of French civilians-a sign of occupation practices to come. There were also instances along the perimeter of British troops shooting unarmed or individual surrendering Germans. Dunkirk was not the first time that British forces were chased from Europe by the Wehrmacht and forced into desperate evacuation by sea-British failure in northern Norway was contemporaneous. More dark days and forced amphibious departures from Greece and Crete still lay in the future for the British Army and its Commonwealth and minor European allies. And as Churchill told the House of Commons on June 4: “Wars are not won by evacuations.”


France, the battle launched on 10 May 1940 when German forces attacked through Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, and forced the capitulation of France on 22 June. Some 40 Australian airmen took part in this brief campaign as members of Royal Air Force squadrons, and ten of them were lost in action. Three were killed while flying protective sorties over the Dunkirk beachheads during the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force in late May and early June. While none of these pilots were in formed units of the Royal Australian Air Force or retained a formal association with that service, many had received their initial flying training in the RAAF before being seconded (and then usually transferred) to the RAF.

Under these arrangements, the pilots concerned were permitted to wear out their RAAF uniforms before being required to replace them with RAF clothing. It is recorded that at least one man, Flying Officer Leslie Clisby, was still wearing his RAAF tunic-although in an advanced state of disrepair-when shot down over Neuville, France, on 14 May. At the time of his death, Clisby was officially credited with having destroyed fourteen enemy aircraft in combat (his unofficial tally was reportedly nineteen, and possibly higher). Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Clisby was arguably the first `Australian’ air ace of the Second World War.

Lex McAulay (1991) Six Aces: Australian Fighter Pilots 1939-45, Brunswick, Vic.: Banner Books

Siege of Matarikoriko

Note. The interiors of the covered Pits were lined with Fern &c. and used as sleeping places. Food was also cooked in them.
J. R. Jobbins.

Matarikoriko, one of the pas (forts) comprising the main Maori stronghold on the Waitara River in New Zealand’s Taranaki district, was besieged by troops under Major-General Thomas Pratt (commander-in-chief of British forces in Australia) on 29-31 December 1860. Located eight kilometres from the sea, on the river’s southern shore, it was the first-encountered of three formidable fortifications sited on the Kairau plateau and was accordingly the first tackled by Pratt when he took to the field on 28 December. Moving up with 900 men and four guns, the next day the British began constructing a redoubt able to accommodate 500 men about 730 metres from the Maori positions. This was intended to serve as a depot and start-point for a sap to facilitate an attack against the pa, and also for an attack on the next Maori work at Huirangi.

Under a brisk fire from well-concealed rifle pits less than 150 metres away, the British troops laboured all day and received little rest during the night from incessant Maori harassing fire. The exchange of fire on this day was remarkably heavy, with the British alone using an estimated 70,000 bullets along with 120 artillery rounds. The next day, Sunday, a white flag was flown over the stockade and its defenders insisted that they did not wish to desecrate the Sabbath by shedding blood. An armistice was accordingly arranged for the rest of the day, although this did not stop the British from working to finish and improve their redoubt’s parapets, and in preparing barbettes and platforms for mounting two 8-inch guns. Next morning it was found that the Maoris had abandoned the pa, leaving twelve of their dead buried within it. The cost to Pratt’s troops had been three killed and twenty wounded.

The action is principally of note because of the involvement in the British force of a naval brigade of 138 officers and men. Included in this corps were two officers and 30 sailors from the Victorian government’s auxiliary-screw warship Victoria (variously described as a barque, sloop or corvette), this being the first military operation carried out by any Australian armed unit overseas.

James Cowan (1922-23) The New Zealand Wars, 2 vols, Wellington, NZ: W. A. G. Skinner; Tom Gibson (1974) The Maori Wars, Wellington, NZ: A. H. & A. W. Reed; Colin Jones (1986) Australian Colonial Navies, Canberra: Australian War Memorial


Eureka Stockade, Australia, 1854

Swearing Allegiance to the Southern Cross, watercolour by Charles Doudiet, Art Gallery of Ballarat.

Depiction of the Eureka Stockade by Beryl Ireland (1891)

The spark that detonated rebellion came in October 1854 with the murder of a digger. The culprit, his mates had good reason to think, was the publican of the Eureka Hotel at Ballarat and a known crony of the goldfields police. A mob of 5000 angry diggers burned the pub down. Three diggers who were marginally involved in the bonfire and riot were arrested: yet another injustice. When a deputation of diggers-Humffray, Black and Kennedy-went to Melbourne to petition for their mates’ release, Governor Hotham promised to look into the affair but then ordered police and companies from two regiments, the 12th (East Suffolk) and the 40th (Somerset) to march to Ballarat, a decision that broke any trust the diggers had in him.

On 29 November 1854 thousands of diggers gathered in the sunshine on Bakery Hill, beneath a flag of their own devising, the Southern Cross. The German Friedrich Vern called upon them to burn their licences rather than submit to the government. Peter Lalor spoke next, reminding the men that here was tyranny as bad as that in old Ireland. The Italian Raffaello Carboni, who had come to Australia to find happiness, wine and song, called on them to fight tyranny. Not for the last time in dramatic episodes in Australian history, the grog had been freely passed around, and when a couple of diggers burned their licences hundreds more threw theirs into a great bonfire.

Next day, when Commissioner Rede and his force attempted to inspect licences he was greeted with jeers, oaths and laughter. ‘We’ve burned them! ‘ the diggers shouted and marched in a mob through the heat to Bakery Hill. Here, in the late afternoon, Lalor again hoisted the Southern Cross and called upon all those among the 2 0 0 0 assembled who were willing to fight, to stand together. Kneeling in the dust, he led them in an oath: ‘We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties.’ It was stirring, but it was treason. Others shouted for the vote, for short parliaments, for democracy.

1854: Eureka Stockade Battle

Over the next two days the diggers built a fortress from timber slabs on Bakery Hill-the Eureka Stockade-and fashioned crude pikes from staves and knives. Lalor organised them into ‘divisions’ like an army, under the command of his confederates, Ross (a Canadian) and Thonen (a German). Few of the rebels had guns. By Saturday night only 150 diggers were still with Lalor, the rest having melted away.

It was Sunday, 3 December 1854, and this battle was being fought on the goldfields of Ballarat, Victoria, between Peter Lalor and his band of goldminers sheltering in a makeshift fortress-the Eureka Stockade-and the freshly arrived forces of the British colonial government of Victoria, troops from Melbourne with police in support.

The government forces had crept out of their nearby camp under the cover of darkness and quietly assembled within striking distance of the stockade by 3 a. m., when they started their surprise attack.

These troops were just as ruthless as Major Johnston’s had been in 1804, cunningly waiting till most miners had left the stockade on Saturday night to return home to families and attend church on the Sabbath. Although 800 miners had been guarding the stockade, only 200 had stayed-including Lalor-in case of attack.

Captain J. W. Thomas now began advancing stealthily towards the stockade leading his party of 276 men, all armed to the teeth with the latest weapons. They included 152 infantry, 24 cavalry and 100 mounted and foot police.

The troops had timed their attack well, as most of the remaining miners were sound asleep, but one alert sentry saw their shadowy shapes and fired a shot.

Captain Thomas warned his men: `We are seen. Forward and steady, men! Don’t fire, let the insurgents fire first. You wait for the sound of the bugle’. Meanwhile, the miners woken by the sentry’s shot leapt to their feet, groped for weapons and rushed to man the barricade with rifles, revolvers, cutlasses, swords, pikes, pitchforks or whatever they could lay their hands on.

Just 300 metres short of the stockade, Thomas ordered his centre section to prepare for a full frontal assault, one section to advance on the right flank and another on the left, to prevent miners-such as Lalor-escaping. He also ordered a final section to remain behind as reserves.

Then the troops charged, running across the open ground straight for the makeshift fortification which they could just see in the dark, along with the glint of the gun barrels and blades brandished by determined defenders. These defenders waited until the troops got to within 150 metres of the stockade and then opened fire, sending a scattered volley into the uniformed ranks, felling several men, who fell clutching their wounds.

Taking aim at an officer directing the troops, one of the miners shot Captain Henry Wise, who stumbled wounded to the ground. Picking himself up, the bleeding captain bravely pushed on only to be shot again, a wound that would prove fatal eighteen days later.

The miners let out a whoop of joy. Their first hit at officer level. Things were looking good. The army bugler then sounded his long-awaited signal and the disciplined troops opened fire in the pre-dawn light, from the front and both flanks, pouring lead into the stockade and the poorly armed souls defending their wooden fort.

Miners lucky enough to have rifles or revolvers tried to shoot back; others, like the Irish pikemen, had to wait for hand-to-hand combat. But the miners had neither the training nor the weapons of the troops and could not stop them targeting miner after miner, filling the stockade with wounded and dying men.

Firing his rifle at the fast-approaching troops, Lalor was shouting encouragement to his men when he was shot in the left arm and knocked to the ground. Knowing he would be a prime target once the troopers scaled the stockade, Lalor took refuge under a pile of timber, then called out to a couple of comrades to help whisk him away before it got light. Amid the smoke, noise and confusion of the battle, the two smuggled their wounded leader out through an opening at the rear of the stockade.

Realising they were overwhelmed, Lalor urged others to escape. But it was too late. When the troops scaled the barricades they shot or bayoneted any miners resisting them. Captain Thomas demanded the miners surrender. Routed, they threw down their arms.

By the time the troopers let up-twenty-five minutes after the battle began-they had killed fourteen miners outright (most of whom were Irish) and wounded another eight who later died of wounds. They also wounded twelve others (including Peter Lalor), who all escaped and recovered, and also captured 100 prisoners.

After the battle the government forces killed at least two more. Witnesses said some of the troops `ran amok’ and killed two bystanders before destroying the miners’ tents and property. The miners were so outclassed that defenceless women ran forward and threw themselves over the injured to prevent further indiscriminate killing by the troops.

Some of the wounded fled to surrounding bush, where they died a lonely death without being counted in the toll. The official record of deaths in the Ballarat District Register shows twenty-seven names associated with the stockade battle at Eureka.

By 8 a. m. Captain Pasley, the second-in-command of the British forces, sickened by the carnage, saved a group of prisoners from being bayoneted and threatened to shoot any police or soldiers who continued with the slaughter. But some soldiers and police did go wild, destroying tents and property without reason, bayoneting the wounded and even shooting two innocent bystanders. Because of this aftermath, some witnesses called Eureka a massacre.

Lalor certainly agreed, writing:

As the inhuman brutalities practised by the troops are so well known, it is unnecessary for me to repeat them. There were 34 digger casualties of which 22 died. The unusual proportion of the killed to the wounded is owing to the butchery of the military and troopers after the surrender.

The battle might have been overwhelmingly one-sided and brief, but the miners put up a brave fight in their short-lived attempt to defend their stockade and the call for freedom that the fortress represented. They did better than their Irish predecessors at Vinegar Hill in 1804.

Seventeen soldiers and one trooper were killed or wounded, twenty-four diggers lay dead; another twenty or more wounded (including Lalor, who was hidden by a priest and later had his arm amputated). The 114 prisoners were thrown into gaol to await trial. The bourgeois shuddered at word of Eureka. Even Henry Parkes called the revolt an ‘un-British error’ probably caused by foreigners. He was correct: of the fourteen diggers killed on the day, eight were Irish and two German. One was an Englishman and only one was Australian-born. Hotham made one last error: he ordered that thirteen of the ringleaders be charged with high treason, the only penalty for which was death. The trial became a farce and the sentences were lenient. David Syme’s Age pronounced the general feeling: It was the government that was rotten, not the people. When Governor Hotham caught a chill and died in early 1855, much of the bitterness of Eureka was buried with him.

Eureka would live on in folklore as the day of the Good Fight. ‘Stand up my young Australian, in the brave light of the sun, and hear how Freedom’s battle was in the old days lost-and won,’Victor Daley (another Irish nationalist) would write in ballad. ‘Ere the year was over, Freedom rolled in like a flood/They gave us all we asked for-when we asked for it in blood.’