1942 Our Navy's War

In 1942 the Royal Australian Navy faced a new and powerful enemy – the Imperial Japanese Navy and its powerful land and sea-borne Air Service. In 1942 four of five major R.A.N ships lost were lost to the Pacific War.  

1942 Our Navy's War

Image: HMAS Canberra would be lost in combat

In the first years of the Second World War much of Australia’s Navy was deployed far from home, fighting the forces of Germany, Italy and the Vichy French.  But on 8 December 1941 the Royal Australian Navy had a new enemy – the Imperial Japanese Navy and its powerful land and sea-borne Air Service.  With direct threat to Australia possible, the Australian Government called for the return of most R.A.N. ships operating in the northern hemisphere.

When Britain’s naval and air bases at Singapore fell on 15 February 1942 Australia knew it could not rely on the Empire for the support it needed. Defence of the Asia-Pacific would rely mainly on Australia and the United States of America. The Royal Australian Navy would be called upon to play a big role in defensive and offensive actions for the remainder of the war.

One of the first R.A.N. ships to see action against the Japanese was the Destroyer HMAS Vampire. She witnessed the might of Japanese airpower when watched HM Ships Prince of Wales and Repulse succumb to Japanese bombers on 10 December 1941 during an ill-fated attack on Japanese landing forces at Kuantan on Malaysia's east coast. Vampire was spared on that occasion and rescued 225 survivors but was herself sunk by bombers four months later.

By the end of March 1942 Japan had swept through most of South-East Asia and large areas of the Pacific, and in late April launched an invasion force to take Port Moresby – just 500km from mainland Australia. This invasion was thwarted in early May when the IJN recalled its troopships after spotting an Australian led naval taskforce blocking the Jomard Passage off the south-eastern tip of New Guinea.  At the same time the Japanese invasion force’s aircraft carriers were engaged by U.S. carriers in what became the Battle of Coral Sea.  

When Allied forces landed on Guadalcanal on 7 August they were support by R.A.N. and U.S. cruisers and destroyers, including HMA Ships Australia, Canberra and Hobart. The ships were attacked on 8 August near Savo Island and Canberra was severely damaged by at least two torpedoes. She was scuttled the next day.  The heavy cruiser remains the biggest R.A.N. ship to be lost in action.

In 1942 four of five major R.A.N ships lost were lost to the Pacific War.  By war’s end the Royal Australian Navy had lost more than 30 vessels and almost 2,200 men and women.  

The tireless and courageous work of Navy in defending Australia’s interest in the Asia-Pacific in 1942 is commemorated in the new Australia at War series especially created to remember 1942 and the impact it had on Australia and the outcome of the Second World War.

Australia at War will be available online in mid-March 2017.

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