BOOKS: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
A VERY RUDE AWAKENING: The night the Japanese midget subs came to Sydney Harbour
, June 23, 2007
The price of unpreparednessA VERY RUDE AWAKENING:
The night the Japanese midget subs came to Sydney Harbour
by Peter Grose
Sydney: Allen & Unwin
Paperback: 328 pages
Rec. price: $32.95The exhibit that I remember most vividly, from a family visit to the Australian War Memorial when I was a teenager, is that of the Japanese midget submarine. It seemed ludicrous that anyone could squeeze themselves into such a small tin can and attempt a raid using such a vessel which only had the potential to become their coffin!
Peter Grose's book A Very Rude Awakening
has been published to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the raid on Sydney Harbour by Japanese midget submarines on the night of May 31/June 1, 1942.
The Japanese had previously used midget subs, with negligible impact, as part of the raid on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941.
While the Americans recovered a damaged midget submarine, they neglected to share with their allies the information they gained from their discovery.
The result was that the Japanese later successfully used their midget subs in a raid on British warships, on May 30, 1942, at Diego Suarez, Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean.
The commander of the midget submarine flotilla decided to launch a raid against shipping in Sydney, after conducting reconnaissance flights over Melbourne and Sydney without being detected. The prime target was the USS Chicago
When watchmen Jimmy Cargill and Bill Nangle spotted a midget submarine near the defence net, they reported the suspicious object to navy patrol-boat crews who did not take the finding seriously.
Confirmation that the object was indeed a submarine began what could only be described as a night of terror and mayhem.
Gross reconstructs the events of the night by re-examining the evidence, including archival material that has previously been glossed over. (In the appendices he includes a copy of the naval report, together with other documents).
The Japanese raid largely failed in spite of Allied naval incompetence, which was typified by the ease with which the submarines were able to gain access to Sydney Harbour.
Grose chronicles the lack of effective and immediate response, poor communications, dithering and chaos that occurred that night.
Chief amongst the reasons for the failure of the raid were the design flaws of the midget submarines themselves, especially their poor manoeuvrability.
The major damage inflicted by the Japanese was the sinking of a converted suburban ferry HMAS Kuttabul
- resulting in the deaths of 27 personnel - by a torpedo intended for the USS Chicago
Eventually, two of the three Japanese submarines known to have entered the harbour were successfully immobilised. A third escaped, only to be intercepted outside the harbour and sunk.
Embarrassed by the failure of effective action, the authorities largely glossed over the mishaps. If nothing else, the event was, like the title of Grose's book, a "very rude awakening", revealing Sydney's lack of preparedness for a raid, let alone an invasion.
Ironically, the naval officer responsible for sinking the most menacing midget sub had himself only recently been commissioned and been in charge of his vessel for only a few hours. His success, however, was to be largely forgotten, the authorities having failed to appreciate what he had done.Terrifying night
Grose also analyses the reactions of civilians, many of whom spent a terrifying night hiding under tables or in improvised air-raid shelters in their back-yards.
Whilst some people moved their families away from Sydney immediately after the incident, there was no mass exodus from the city.
Grose also demonstrates that, contrary to popular opinion, housing prices did not drop dramatically in areas bordered by the harbour, such as Rose Bay.A Very Rude Awakening
is a fascinating account of one of the more bizarre episodes from World War II.