Seventy-seven years ago today, on Sunday May 31 1942, three Japanese mini-submarines entered Sydney Harbour. The Sydney Morning Herald didn’t report it until Tuesday, June 2, 1942:

First news of the attempted raid was contained in the following special communiqué issued at General Headquarters, Melbourne, yesterday. It was: “In an attempted submarine raid on Sydney three enemy midget submarines are believed to have been destroyed, one by gunfire, two by depth charges. The enemy’s attack was completely unsuccessful. Damage was confined to one small harbour vessel of no military value.”

The ‘one small vessel’ was HMAS Kuttabul, housing seamen at Garden Island.

Wounded Man Interviewed: Seaman Eric Davies, who lives in Allum St, Bankstown, and who played soccer football with St George, said that soon after midnight he went to bed in a hammock on the lower deck of the ferry. He was asleep for about an hour when the roar of an explosion awakened him. It was the bursting of the torpedo. ‘The flooring of the deck above must have been torn right open,’ he said. ‘I was thrown up into a hole in the woodwork, half through to the top deck. I had to struggle to extricate myself from the splinters of timber into which I had become wedged.’[1]

The torpedo – possibly aiming at the US warship USS Chicago moored nearby – went too low and hit the sea wall, with the explosion sinking the Kuttabul. A casualty list was published on June 3 on page 7 of the Herald – eventually twenty-one (Allied) men were quietly declared dead from the action, the Sydney men buried with full honours in the naval sections at Rookwood cemetery.

One of the submarines had caught itself in the Boom Net that protected Port Jackson, stretched between Georges Head, Mosman and Green Point, Watsons Bay. When they realised they were trapped, the two Japanese sailors scuttled the submarine, killing themselves in the process. The second submarine was the one that fired its torpedo then escaped from the harbour – its remains located only in November 2006. The third submarine was attacked as it entered the harbour, but it recovered and made its way to Taylors Bay, between Bradleys Head and Chowder Head, where it was destroyed by Royal Australian Navy fire. [2] The two sailors on board also killed themselves.

The two submarines in the harbour were retrieved, and, on the order of Rear Admiral Muirhead Gould (Naval Officer in Command, Sydney), the bodies of the four Japanese sailors cremated in a military ceremony – their remains were returned to Japan, a gesture that is still remembered with gratitude by Japanese officials and relatives of the men.

On June 8 one of the ‘mother’ submarines that had brought the midget submarines this far shelled Woollahra “from Rose Bay to Bradley Ave, on the heights of Bellevue Hill”[3], possibly targeting the flying boat base at Rose Bay that had been expanded across Lyne Park to accommodate the huge flying boat patrol bombers. The mayor, KD Manion, reported that he had inspected the ten areas that had been shelled, and that only one person had been injured.

Shell tore through wall above bed. [The shell] tore a hole through the two brick thicknesses above the head of Mrs Hirsch’s bed, skidded along the wall flanking her bed, bursting the bricks through in a large gash … then pierced the third wall of Mrs Hirsch’s room below the end of her bed, tore through the two walls flanking a hall and finished up on a staircase between the first or second floors.[4]

Newsreels from the time show the unflappable inhabitants of houses and apartments displaying the remains of curtains and holes in their walls – the people laugh as they tell how they put their hands through the wall; little boys play in the rubble, looking for souvenirs of shrapnel.

The abject failure of Sydney’s defences in May/June 1942 was hotly denied by officials. Peter Grose calls it ‘The Battle of Sydney Harbour’[5] and suggests its importance was downplayed – including the failure to award medals – to avoid proper examination of flaws in communication, equipment and lines of command.

One contributor to a book of memories about life in Kings Cross recalls that after the sinking of the Kuttabul: “The Cross was a strange sight – Macleay Street and other streets full with house removalist wagons. I remember standing outside ‘Macleay Regis’ and counting 28 flats vacant. The owners of ‘Franconia’ offered us a flat for two pounds ten shillings per week just to have people in the building …”.[6] One commentator suggests that misgivings about living near the harbour were not completely dispelled until the building of the Opera House.[7]


[1] SMH June 3, 1942

[2] http://www.naa.gov.au/Publications/fact_sheets/fs192.html

[3] Jervis, J. The History of Woollahra. Municipal Council of Woollahra, 1960 p.144.

[4] SMH June 8, 1942

[5] A Very Rude Awakening. Peter Grose, Allen & Unwin, 2007

[6] Memories: Kings Cross 1936-1946, Kings Cross Community Aid and Information Service, 1981, p108.

[7] Peter Webber, ‘Chapter 1: The Nature of the City’, in GP Webber (ed.), The Design of Sydney, The Law Book Co Ltd, 1988, p1.