- Roberts, Keith
- Ship histories and stories, WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Australia I
- March 1990 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
As Gunnery Officer, Peek found himself in a terrifying and impossible situation, watching what he described as a brilliantly and bravely executed attack. The safety came which had been fitted to prevent the ship’s guns from hitting their own superstructure, also prevented the 4” guns and the Pom Poms from firing until the aircraft was at an angle of 30 degrees.
There was little he could do but watch transfixed as the plane headed straight for the bridge of AUSTRALIA. Not until it was virtually over the stern could the 4” guns or Pom Poms open fire. The plane suffered no such disability, and its cannon raked the upper deck of the cruiser causing many casualties among the guns’ crews. Two other planes, which Wells believed to be Zekes, also strafed the ship, but gunfire from other ships shot them both down.
The two single Bofors on the quarterdeck had opened fire, but against suicide planes they were about as useful as pea shooters. AUSTRALIA’S only weapons which had any chance of stopping the suicide planes, were 4” twin mountings which in the absence of proximity fuses, required an almost direct hit to be successful, and the two eight barrelled Pom Poms, none of which could be brought into play until it was too late, although one shot did knock a chunk off the plane’s wing.
Hamer had dived to his action station through the open hatch of his turret to meet his communications number, who was coming up just as the plane crashed into the ship. The root of the plane’s starboard wing struck the foremast, and some of the plane hit the forward 8” gun director, and the rest went over the side into the sea.
The fuel tank exploded, drenching the Captain, Peek, Lt Morris Jones the officer of the watch, and the navigation officer Commander J.R. Rayment. Debris and burning fuel sprayed on to the air defence position (above the compass platform), the high angle gun director, and the decks around them, particularly on the port side, killing 30 and wounding another 64, 26 of them seriously. Many of the killed were fearfully injured and with their clothes burnt off were scarcely recognisable.
The whole area burst into flames. ‘I seemed to be the only conscious survivor, and may have been the only ultimate survivor on the compass platform’, says Peek.
Seeking help, I looked over the forward corner of the compass platform and saw Major Ron Horsburgh our bombardment liaison officer, lying flat on his back on ‘B’ deck. Peek, staggering and burning, shouted, ‘Don’t lie there on your*@$%! back Horsburgh, we are burning up here, do something’.
Horsburgh, who was just recovering from the shock of the impact, looked up, and horrified by Peek’s appearance answered, ‘Good God it’s Guns’.
Wells had seen a bit come off the wing of the plane, but judged it to be still very much under control as it came straight down towards the bridge. Because the men in the director were all killed, no one in the rest of the ship knew at first what had happened. The first report came from ‘B’ turret that a plane had dropped its petrol tank on the bridge.
‘B’ turret did not think the plane was a suicide, it had dropped no bomb, and there had been no bomb damage. Wells, whose shockingly burnt hands had saved his face, gave the first account of what happened before being taken below to be so heavily bandaged, that for several days no one knew who he was. He was reported missing in action, which as he put it, ‘was not good for my young wife’.
Receiving no further orders, Hamer told the after director he was going to the bridge to see if he could help. On the way up he met Commander Harley Wright, who was about to set up an emergency conning position aft, so he told Hamer to take over as navigator and fix the ship.
This was a problem, all the charts had been destroyed, and the ship had to proceed very slowly. While he was doing that a message came from the surgeon that Captain Dechaineux (who had received very bad burns when the plane hit) had died.
Hamer was asked to identify some of the killed, and then volunteered to take over as air defence officer. There was no point, he said, in sitting on an 8” gun turret waiting for something to happen. That night AUSTRALIA was ordered out with the torpedoed HONOLULU to Manus.
The following day October 24, the Japanese planes made the heaviest attack so far on the Leyte beach area.