- Zammitt, Alan
- Biographies and personal histories
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Sydney III
- June 1981 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Australia’s first action against the Japanese was the Coral Sea Battle in May 1942. With Hobart, Chicago and three US destroyers, Australia acted as a covering force. The Battle of the Coral Sea lasted from 4th to 9th May. Rear Admiral Crace, with his flag in Australia, was the force commander, his squadron having no fighter protection.
On 7th May eleven Japanese twin-engined land-based torpedo bombers, each armed with two torpedoes, and escorted by ‘Zero’ fighters, attacked the squadron. Torpedoes were dropped between one mile and half a mile from the ships, the aircraft then strafing the squadron with machine gun fire. By Captain Farncomb’s skilful handling, Australia avoided two torpedoes. A number of the enemy aircraft were shot down.
A short time later nineteen bombers attacked the squadron. Some twenty 500-pound bombs were dropped in a pattern around Australia, her upper deck being drenched with spray. Jack Langrell, who was standing behind ‘A’ turret, was soaked to the skin from the splash of a near miss, and a dye from the bomb formed on his skin, but washed away without much trouble.
The Japanese aircraft attack was followed up by an attack by US B26 bombers from Townsville, who mistook the ships for Japanese.
In August 1942 Australia was the flagship of Rear Admiral V.A. Critchley, VC, RN, in operations at Tulagi and Guadalcanal. During this period three American cruisers and HMAS Canberra were lost near Savo Island. Canberra lost 83 of her ship’s company.
The sinking of Canberra meant that three of the six RAN cruisers had been lost in nine months. Of the three remaining, Adelaide was of pre-World War One design, and was therefore the oldest British designed cruiser to serve on active service when paid off in 1945. Adelaide performed good convoy and patrol work, but was not suitable for active service against enemy aircraft, so the RAN was left with only two modern cruisers until Shropshire was transferred to the RAN in 1943. After the Australia secured from action stations at Guadalcanal, a bridge messenger had phoned the canteen to ask could he get a jug of goffers for the bridge crew. Victor answered the canteen phone saying ‘Man O’ War Steps’. The sailor laughed and the officer-of-the-watch chatted the sailor about laughing.
The sailor said: ‘I could not help it, I phoned the canteen and Jesus said ‘Man O’ War Steps’.’ Captain Farncomb, who was usually very serious, laughed too.
The incident came to rest there and then.
There is no doubt that Aussie and all who served in her in 1942 were very lucky to have Captain Farncomb, nicknamed ‘Fearless Frank’, as their captain. He saved the ship on more than one occasion.
In November 1942 new radar was fitted, diesel generators were installed, six Oerlikons were mounted and to save top weight, Australia’s torpedo tubes were removed.
January 1942 saw the loss of USS Chicago.
This ship had been engaged in operations with Australia many times. She was hit by a torpedo during an air attack. Having lost ship control, Chicago was taken under tow by a tug the following day. Enemy torpedo bombers struck again, and put four torpedoes into her side. Chicago was abandoned, and soon after rolled over and sank.
Hobart was torpedoed in July 1943 by a Japanese submarine, whose captain most likely had aimed at the larger Australia, but missed and hit Hobart who was 600 yards astern of Australia. Hobart was put out of action for over seventeen months.