The 70th anniversary of the Second World War events of 1942— ‘Australia’s perilous year’: April to December

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The 70th anniversary of the Second World War events of 1942— ‘Australia’s perilous year’: April to December

Posted 23/03/2012 by Marty Harris


Australian troops at Milne Bay, Papua, October 1942;
image source: Australian War Memorial
On 19 February 2012, the 70th anniversary of the first bombing of Darwin, Prime Minister Julia Gillard described 1942 as ‘the darkest year in Australia’s history’. Throughout 2012, 70th anniversary commemorations will be held for some of the most crucial events in Australian military history.

Following on from a previous post noting some of the important 70th anniversaries occurring in February and March, this post highlights important anniversaries from April to December 2012. Details of special 70th anniversary commemorative events are included where they are known, but all the incidents discussed below are commemorated in some way every year.
 
 
April–May

Following an eventful start to the war (including as part of the ‘Tobruk Ferry Service’), the destroyer HMAS Vampire (I) operated from Ceylon in March and April 1942 as part of the Royal Navy’s Eastern Fleet. On 5 April 1942 Japanese bombers began to attack the port of Colombo, and on 9 April Vampire and the Royal Navy aircraft carrier it was escorting, HMS Hermes, were both sunk off Ceylon. HMS Hermes lost 307 crew. Nine members of Vampire’s 600 crew perished and their names are recorded on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial.

There are currently no known 70th anniversary commemorative events scheduled.


Battle of the Coral Sea (4–8 May 1942)

The Battle of the Coral Sea occurred off the northeast coast of Australia in early May 1942 and was significant because it was:
  • the first fleet action where aircraft carriers engaged each other, but none of the opposing vessels ever sighted or fired directly on each other
  • considered a strategic victory for the Allies—it thwarted Japanese plans to occupy Port Moresby by sea, which would have severely disrupted communication between Australia and the US and made it easier for Japanese aircraft to attack targets in northeast Australia, and
  • considered a tactical victory for Japan as the Allies lost more ships, including the fleet carrier USS Lexington. However, the damaged sustained by Japanese carriers Zuikaku and Shokaku prevented those ships from participating in the decisive Battle of Midway in June 1942.
Australian involvement consisted of the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia (II) and the light cruiser HMAS Hobart (I), both of which were attacked by Japanese aircraft on 7 May, without damage. Japan subsequently attempted to capture Port Moresby using an overland route, leading to the Kokoda Campaign.
 
The Australian-American Association (Gold Coast Division) is hosting a dinner at Queensland Parliament House on 4 May 2012 and a service at Calvill Memorial Park in Surfers Paradise on 6 May 2012, to mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea. 
 
The most recent ‘Saluting Their Service’ grants from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs allocated funds for 70th anniversary events in both Queensland and NSW. 
 
 
Submarine attacks on Sydney harbour (31 May 1942)
 
On the night of 31 May, three Japanese midget submarines entered Sydney Harbour in an attempt to attack Allied warships stationed there. One of the submarines fired two torpedoes at the heavy cruiser USS Chicago, which was anchored at Garden Island. Both torpedoes missed, one running aground on Garden Island and the other hitting a seawall where the converted ferry HMAS Kuttabul and the Dutch submarine K-9 were moored. The K-9 was only slightly damaged, but Kuttabul split in two and sank, killing 21 sailors (19 Australians and two British).
 
Since February 2011, the Kuttabul Commemoration Project (KCP), along with Genes Reunited, have been attempting to locate relatives of the servicemen who died on the Kuttabul. The KCP are planning to host a 70th anniversary charity cruise on Sydney Harbour on 31 May 2012. 
 
The NSW Historic Houses Trust is also hosting a symposium on the submarine attacks on 2 June featuring talks by Peter Stanley from the Australian National Museum and Tim Smith, the NSW State Government Maritime Archaeologist. 
 
 
July–September 
 
The sinking of the Montevideo Maru (1 July 1942)
 
On 1 July 1942, the American submarine USS Sturgeon sank the Japanese auxiliary ship the Montevideo Maru in the South China Sea. The 1051 Australian military and civilian prisoners-of-war on board all perished, representing the greatest loss of Australian lives at sea in either war or peace. 
 
On 1 July 2012, a new memorial will be dedicated within the grounds of the Australian War Memorial to commemorate those who died at Rabaul on the Montevideo Maru.  
 
 
The Kokoda campaign (23 July–18 November 1942)
 
The first fighting of the infamous Kokoda Campaign occurred on 23 July at Alawa, two days after Japanese forces landed at Gona. By 17 September, Australian forces had retreated to Itima Ridge. A counter-attack was launched on 23 September, and on 2 November Kokoda village itself was retaken. By 18 November, Australian forces had crossed the Kumusi River at Wairopi, effectively ending the Kokoda Campaign.
 
In some of the most desperate and vicious fighting experienced by Australians in the Second World War, 625 Australian soldiers lost their lives and 1600 were wounded. Private Bruce Kingsbury was awarded the Victoria Cross for the Kokoda Campaign.
 
A joint initiative—‘Kokoda 70’— has been set up by private companies, with the support of the Papua New Guinean Government, the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby and the Returned and Services League (RSL), to ‘create awareness of the 70th Anniversary of the Kokoda Campaign and honour the legacy of those that fought in the campaign’. 
 
A 70th anniversary service will be held at the Isurava Memorial, PNG on 28 July 2012. 
 
 
Women’s Land Army formation (27 July 1942)
 
The Australian Women’s Land Army, formed in July 1942, had 3400 members at its peak in December 1943. These women volunteered in factories and on farms to maintain food production while many farmers were away at war. 
 
According to the RSL, the Federal Government is ‘currently considering a number of options for further recognition of the service rendered by members of the AWLA during World War II to coincide with the 70th anniversary’. 
 
 
The sinking of HMAS Canberra (9 August 1942) 
 
The heavy cruiser HMAS Canberra (I) was sunk during the Battle of Savo Island during the US occupation of Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, from 7 August 1942. Early on 9 August the naval force screening the invading troops was surprised by a group of Japanese vessels. Canberra was immediately struck by shellfire and torpedoes killing 84 of the crew, including Captain Frank Getting. Damaged beyond repair, Canberra was deliberately sunk the next day by US vessels. Also lost in the battle were cruisers USS Quincy, Vincennes, and Astoria, and 939 US servicemen. 
 
There are currently no known 70th anniversary commemorative events scheduled.
 
 
Battle of Milne Bay (25 August–7 September 1942)
 
Japanese forces landed at Milne Bay in eastern Papua on 25 August 1942. Expecting light defences, they were confronted by 9000 Allied troops (mostly of the 7th and 18th Infantry Brigades). Japanese forces withdrew by 7 September, and Milne Bay is considered the first decisive defeat of a Japanese land attack in the war. The Battle cost 167 Australian, 14 American, and at least 700 Japanese lives.
 
The Battle of Milne Bay is commemorated annually on the Battle for Australia Day, held on the first Wednesday in September.
 
 
October–December
 
Second Battle of el-Alamein (23 October–11 November 1942)
 
Following the initial success in the Western Desert Campaign (December 1940–February 1941), Commonwealth forces were forced back into Egypt by Rommel’s Afrika Korps. 
 
On 23 October 1942, the Commonwealth 8th Army (which included the Australian 9th Division) launched their counter-attack, known as the Second Battle of el-Alamein. By the time the battle ended on 11 November, 2350 Commonwealth troops had been killed (620 Australians), but the North African campaign had turned decisively in the Allies’ favour. On 13 May 1943 Axis forces surrendered in Tunisia, ending the North African Campaign.
 
Two Australians from the 2/48th Infantry Battalion, Private Percival Gratwick and Sergeant William Kibby, were posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for action at el-Alamein. 
 
There are currently no known 70th anniversary commemorative events scheduled, although this anniversary will attract significant interest in Australia, New Zealand and the UK. 
 
 
The sinking of HMAS Armidale (1 December 1942)
Having been commissioned in June 1942, HMAS Armidale, together with HMAS Kuru and HMAS Castlemaine, were tasked in November with resupplying guerrilla forces in Timor. On 1 December 1942, Armidale was sunk by two Japanese torpedoes.
Forty of the 83 crew on board died, along with 60 Dutch East Indies soldiers. Ordinary Seaman Teddy Sheean was posthumously Mentioned in Despatches and is under consideration for further gallantry awards in the current DHAAT Inquiry into unresolved recognition for past acts of naval and military gallantry and valour (the Victoria Cross inquiry). The RAN honoured Sheean in 1999 by naming the fifth Collins-class submarine HMAS Sheean, the first time a RAN vessel was named after an ordinary seaman.
The loss of HMAS Armidale is commemorated on 1 December each year with a service at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance. There are currently no known 70th anniversary commemorative events scheduled.


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