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Australia's War 1939 - 1945
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HMAS Australia in action, Guadalcanal, 8 August 1942, Dennis Adams, 1943.
[Oil on canvas 61.2 x 60.8 cm, AWM ART22189]


The survivors from HMAS Canberra arriving in Sydney on board the transport ship USS President Grant on 20 August 1942.
[AWM 305628]
The Naval Memorial, Plymouth, Devon, England, is on the Hoe looking out over Plymouth Sound.
[Image by Marcus Taylor]

'Ironbottom Sound'
The Battle of Savo Island.

The Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal and Guadalcanal saved the Pacific.

With these words , the United States Navy’s Admiral William ‘Bull’ Halsey, commander of the South Pacific forces retaking Guadalcanal, relayed his appreciation to the Australian Coastwatchers for their warnings of enemy movements during the battle for Guadalcanal.

At 9.30 am on 7 August 1942, from his concealed position on South Bougainville in the Solomon Islands, Coastwatcher Paul Mason observed a Japanese air strike force which had taken off from Rabaul, New Britain. This strike force was responding to the Allied landings taking place at Guadalcanal and nearby Tulagi earlier that morning. It was still more than 500 kilometres from their objective when Mason transmitted his warning:

From STO. Twenty-four bombers headed yours.

Coastwatchers
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The action, which was intended to protect Allied communication and supply lines, was the beginning of the island-hopping Allied offensive that would isolate Rabaul, the major Japanese base in the Pacific. Amongst the 77 Allied ships were the cruisers HMA Ships Hobart, Australia and Canberra.

Rear-Admiral Victor Crutchley, a Royal Navy officer who had been seconded to the RAN, was placed in charge of a screening force to protect the transports and supply ships against air, submarine and surface attack. His force comprised three groups, two of which patrolled the west and south approaches and which included HMA Ships Australia and Canberra and USS Chicago and the east patrol group, which included HMAS Hobart.

Roy Scrivener in HMAS Hobart described their role:

… it was Hobart’s and Australia’s and USS Chicago’s and attached destroyers’ duty to keep the enemy at bay and away from the troops who were landing.
… it was our duty to keep the supply of the troops ashore and their equipment up to scratch and flowing.

[Roy Scrivener, HMAS Hobart, interview, June 1989, Keith Murdoch Sound Archive, AWM]

video
video still
'preparing for war'
[AWM F01909]

Thanks to both Paul Mason and a simultaneous intelligence report of approaching enemy submarines, all Allied ships were under way and carrier fighter aircraft were in position to intercept by the time the Japanese aircraft arrived over Guadalcanal on 7 August.

However, early in the morning of 9 August 1942, Australian and American warships, supporting US marines landing on the Japanese-held islands of Guadalcanal and Tulagi, were surprised and defeated by a Japanese strike force. The action that developed that night is known as the Battle of Savo Island.

The Japanese naval area commander, Vice-Admiral Gunichi Mikawa, decided to make a night attack and on 8 August his force sailed south from the northern Solomons. Despite being detected by two RAAF Hudson bombers on reconnaissance, this critical intelligence didn’t reach the Allied commanders off Guadalcanal and Admiral Mikawa and his seven kilometre, single line of ships was able to pass between Allied ships without being detected.

We were each night taken away from the transports to protect, through patrol, the areas by which everyone enters the waterways between Tulagi and Guadalcanal. Spaced probably 30 miles apart. Tulagi to the east of Guadalcanal. In the middle and north was Savo Island … Hobart (was) patrolling one area while Quincy, Vincennes, Astoria and Canberra were patrolling another area. At about ten past one on this very black night, I was a surface lookout. … I was on the bridge when there was a flash off our starboard bow, but many miles distant.

[Roy Scrivener, HMAS Hobart, interview, June 1989, Keith Murdoch Sound Archive, AWM]

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The cruiser HMAS Canberra on fire and sinking, with a US
destroyer standing by, during the Battle of Guadalcanal
in the Solomon Islands, 9 August 1942.
[AWM P02018.132]

When the Japanese ships encountered the southern patrol group that included HMAS Canberra and USS Chicago, they launched torpedoes that hit the Chicago, badly damaging but not sinking the ship. They missed the Canberra but before Canberra could return fire, explosions rocked the ship as Japanese warships fired on her. Canberra lost power and was quickly out of the action.

Next, the three American heavy cruisers, Vincennes, Astoria and Quincy, were destroyed by shellfire in what has been described as ‘a model action and tactical masterpiece’ by the Japanese. The US Navy suffered 1593 casualties of whom nearly 1000 were killed or died of wounds. The RAN suffered 193 casualties of whom 84, all crewmen in Canberra, were killed or died of wounds. The commanding officer of Canberra, Captain Frank Getting, was amongst those who died.

The crew of the disabled Canberra, now without power and water pressure, was unable to fight the fierce fire on board. Francis Pickup, a signaller in HMAS Canberra, gave this account of his ship’s last hours:

The fire raged and cancer-like, the flames, fuelled by several coats of paint since 1925, spread uncontrollably. Much was done between the hours of 0143 to 0600 to attend the wounded and dying men. I was amongst the group gathered on the quarterdeck. Everybody kept calm despite the situation. Flames burned amidships and at one stage were licking at the Walrus amphibious aircraft mounted on the catapult. The bombs on both wings seemed likely at one stage to explode. The fuel tank of 2000 gallons [9000 litres] was in danger of catching alight. Thankfully nothing eventuated.

At 0600 the order to ‘abandon ship’ came and the US destroyer received the survivors after a slide down the lifelines on the port side.

[Francis Pickup, www.australiansatwar.gov.au]

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One of the young survivors
of the Canberra’s crew on the
American transport ship USS
President Grant kitted
out in American clothes by
his rescuers.
[AWM 150403]

The Canberra remained afloat until the next morning, which enabled all of the survivors to be embarked on to American destroyers. They were transferred to the USS President Grant where the wounded were treated and accommodated in bunks and cabins. Others were housed in the ship’s holds, fed and issued with warm clothing. American destroyers sank the damaged Canberra in ‘Ironbottom Sound’ at 8.00 am on 10 August 1942. The survivors arrived in Sydney on the President Grant ten days later.

The Battle of Savo Island has been dogged with controversy. On the one hand American accounts of the battle have often alleged that Australian failings contributed to the Japanese successes. The official Australian naval history, written years later, put the sinking of the Canberra down to 24 Japanese shells that had hit the ship. More recent studies suggest that the damage to Canberra, which had prevented the cruiser from fighting back, was caused by a torpedo fired from the American destroyer, USS Bagley.

[Chris Coulthard-Clark, ‘Savo Island’, Where Australians Fought: The Encyclopaedia of Australia’s Battles, St Leonards, 1998, pp.224-226]

 

 

Australia at war 3 September 1939
Libya and the Siege of Tobruk 1941
Greece and Crete April-May 1941
Syria and Lebanon June 1941
Malaya December 1941 to Moresby May 1942
Australia under attack 1940-1945
Coral Sea, Kokoda, Milne Bay May-September 1942
El Alamein October-November 1942
The Home Front 1939-1945
The Coastwatchers 1941-1945
Australian prisoners of war 1940-1945
Little-known operations 1939-1945
Papua 1942-1943
The Japanese retreat March 1943-January 1944
War at sea 1939-1945
Air war Europe 1939-1945
Bougainville, Borneo, New Britain, New Guinea 1944-1945
8 May 1945/15 August 1945
Australia at war 3 September 1939
Libya and the Siege of Tobruk 1941
Greece and Crete April-May 1941
Syria and Lebanon June 1941
Malaya December 1941 to Moresby May 1942
Australia under attack 1940-1945
Coral Sea, Kokoda, Milne Bay May-September 1942
El Alamein October-November 1942
The Home Front 1939-1945
The Coastwatchers 1941-1945
Australian prisoners of war 1940-1945
Little-known operations 1939-1945
Papua 1942-1943
The Japanese retreat March 1943-January 1944
War at sea 1939-1945
Air war Europe 1939-1945
Bougainville, Borneo, New Britain, New Guinea 1944-1945
8 May 1945/15 August 1945
HMAS Australia in action, Guadalcanal, 8 August 1942, Dennis Adams, 1943.
[Oil on canvas 61.2 x 60.8 cm, AWM ART22189]
The survivors from HMAS Canberra arriving in Sydney on board the transport ship USS President Grant on 20 August 1942.
[AWM 305628]
The Naval Memorial, Plymouth, Devon, England, is on the Hoe looking out over Plymouth Sound.
[Image by Marcus Taylor]
The Plymouth Naval Memorial, one of three erected in the United Kingdom after the end of World War I, lists the names of Royal Navy personnel whose home port was Plymouth as well as Royal Australian Navy (RAN) personnel from both world wars who have no known grave but the sea. Altogether 1936 men of the RAN are commemorated by name on the memorial – 73 from World War I and 1863 from World War II.