- Andrews, Grahame, (Honorary Life Member)
- Ship histories and stories, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Adelaide I, HMAS Australia I, HMAS Sydney I, HMAS Melbourne I
- June 2005 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Early in 1940 Adelaide was working patrols and convoys from the Brisbane area but by 22 April 1940 was off Fremantle, in company with the converted passenger liner, armed merchant cruiser HMAS Westralia. At this time various German raiders had been working in the Indian Ocean but Adelaide did not come within their area of operations.
German raider Orion
Adelaide was in refit in Sydney in August 1940 when the German raider Orion, one of three German raiders in the Australian area, sank ships in the Tasman Sea. Before that she had been escorting convoys along the coast and could well have found herself engaging one of these ships, but fate decreed otherwise.
On 3 September, Adelaide collided with the steamer Coptic off the north coast of NSW, while en route New Caledonia. Her mission was to escort Free French, Gaullist officials to Noumea to assist the pro-Gaullist French population, whose unpopular leaders were Vichy French sympathisers and were supported by a modern French colonial sloop (frigate), the 1935 Durmont D’urville.
The strategic position of the islands of New Caledonia across the shipping lanes between Australia and America, together with the area’s production of vital war materials chrome and nickel, made the establishment of a friendly government of great importance to the Allies and to Australia. It was considered likely that the Vichy French might seek help from the Japanese.
Adelaide reached Noumea on 19 September 1940 and the implied force of the cruiser’s 152mm (6in.) guns eventually won the day, despite the threat of arrival of a second French colonial frigate of the same type. (( J. S. McLeod, Leading Steward in Adelaide September 1938 to 1941.))
It may be interesting to contemplate the situation that would have applied if the Vichy French had not decided to back down gracefully. The sloop Durmont D’urville mounted three 138mm (5.5in.) guns firing a shell of a similar weight, to a slightly longer range than could be reached by the five gun broadside of Adelaide. The sloop carried a floatplane which could have been used in action to spot for the sloop’s gunfire. The guns of the fort were actually ordered by the French Governor Denis to fire on the cruiser but the order was cancelled as the fort’s commander seems to have refused the order. If fired on Captain Showers would have had the problem of returning fire at a ship alongside a wharf in front of the city with the obvious risk to citizens who were, basically, supporting Adelaide. His ship’s fire would have had to be split between the fort and the colonial sloop and the tactical position would have been poor.
‘When we arrived there we bluffed our way in and convinced a modern Vichy light cruiser (sic) she should get out. When we finally landed on shore, we were asked where the rest of our fleet was, we finally admitted we were there on our own; had this been known when we first arrived, we could have been blown out of the water.’ (Doug Malloch, Leading Stoker in Adelaide, August 1939 to December 1942).
This is one situation in which diplomacy and implied force worked to the RAN’s (and Australia’s) advantage. If the New Caledonia area had stayed under Vichy control it would have represented a serious threat to the shipping lanes from the USA to Australia when Japan began hostilities.
In April 1941 Adelaide escorted the liner Zealandia to Rabaul with about 740 troops, and in October the cruiser escorted Zealandia to the west and handed her over to the protection of cruiser HMAS Sydney for escort to the Sunda Strait. After Zealandia was handed over to another escort, Sydney headed south for home. She met, instead, the German raider Kormoran and both ships sank each other off the coast not far from Shark Bay.
‘Commence hostilities with Japan’
Adelaide had moved on to Port Moresby and was there when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour and the signal ‘Commence hostilities with Japan’ arrived. While hypothetical situations can never be other than just that, it is interesting to consider a situation in which it was Adelaide which confronted Kormoran.
Disregarding the tactical position in which it may be argued that Sydney was placed in a vulnerable position, let us consider the known facts about the two Australian cruisers. Both had a speed advantage over the German ship. Both had an effective gun advantage over the Kormoran but Sydney had one disadvantage in the actual close range situation, which derived from her more modern design. Sydney’s eight 152mm (6in.) guns were mounted in twin turrets, positioned either end of the ship. These guns were electrically manoeuvered, with firing control provided by means of the gunnery director atop the bridge, through the gunnery Transmitting Station (using an analogue computer known as an Admiralty Fire Control Table).