Commemorating 1942, the Royal Australian Navy's darkest year

This article has photo gallery Published on Mr John Perryman (author), LSIS Paul McCallum (photographer)

Topic(s): Naval Heritage and History, 75th Anniversary

HMAS Perth (I) was a modified Leander Class Light Cruiser which commissioned into the Royal Australian Navy in 1939. (photo: UNKNOWN)
HMAS Perth (I) was a modified Leander Class Light Cruiser which commissioned into the Royal Australian Navy in 1939.

During 2017 the Royal Australian Navy will pause to commemorate a number of significant 75th anniversaries as it focuses on what was, arguably, the Navy’s darkest year: 1942.

For Australia’s population at that time, 1942 began with a growing sense of trepidation as war spread to the Asia-Pacific following Japan’s attack on the United States Navy fleet in Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.

The war that had begun in Europe in September 1939 had become a truly global conflict.

The fast-moving events of December 1941 created genuine concern throughout Australia.

Not only had the United States Navy’s Pacific fleet been crippled in the attacks on Pearl Harbor, but two powerful British warships, the battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse, deployed to reinforce Singapore, had both been sunk within days of their arrival in the region.

The Imperial Japanese thrust southwards continued unabated and soon Malaya, Singapore and the Dutch East Indies had fallen.

Never in Australia’s short, modern history had its shores been under a more immediate threat.

Those concerns soon crystallised when on 19 February 1942 the first of 64 Japanese air raids took place on the strategically important port city of Darwin.

The war was by then well and truly on Australia’s doorstep.

In 1942 industry was essential in taking the fight to the enemy with maximum use being made of shipbuilding and repair facilities throughout Australia.

In response to the dramatic change to the deteriorating strategic situation in the Asia-Pacific, new alliances were formed, notably between Australia and the United States, and it was not long before units of the Royal Australian Navy and the United States Navy were in action in the hotly contested wrestle for sea control in the the Coral Sea.

The Battle of the Coral Sea in May saw Japanese attempts to invade Port Moresby by sea thwarted in what became the first fleet action in which planes launched from aircraft carriers, engaged the opposing forces.

It was also the first naval battle in history in which neither side’s ships sighted or fired directly upon the other.

Elsewhere in Australia, the industry continued to ramp up, and ship-building efforts were increased to provide the Navy with the vessels it would need to take the fight to the enemy.

Repair facilities were also in demand as an increasing number of damaged and war-weary ships returned to Australia for repairs and refits.

By the end of 1942 HMA Ships Perth, Yarra, Kuttabul, Canberra, Vampire, Voyager, Nestor and Armidale had all joined the growing list of Navy wartime losses in a year during which there was little to celebrate.

In a speech made in Parliament by then Prime Minister John Curtin on 8 May 1942, he referenced the battle of the Coral Sea and those involved.

“As I speak, those who are participating in the engagement are conforming to the sternest discipline and are subjecting themselves with all that they have - it may be for many of them the 'last full measure of their devotion' - to accomplish the increased safety and security of this territory,” he said.

With the number of surviving Second World War veterans rapidly diminishing, this year’s 75th anniversary commemorations will be all the more poignant as the Navy pauses to acknowledge their service and remember those who made the supreme sacrifice.