Coastal menace

During 1942, people in coastal areas considered the threat of attack to be very real. Barbed wire defences were strung out along beaches, including Bondi and Manly, to hinder any Japanese landing; air raid trenches were dug; and 'blackout' precautions minimised the glow of lighting from streetlights and buildings.

Gun emplacements were set up at various points around key harbours. Anti-aircraft guns and searchlights also were positioned, while garrison troops guarded important installations.

Out to sea, crews of naval and merchant ships had long contended with threats to their ships and lives. From the start of the war, German surface raiders had ventured into Australian waters, laying mines and intercepting some merchant ships in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The first vessels to be lost to enemy action in Australian waters were victims of mines laid by a German raider off the Victorian coast in 1940.

The main threat to shipping in Australian waters came in 1942 when the Japanese launched a submarine campaign off Australia's east coast. In the two months after the midget submarine attack on Sydney Harbour at the end of May 1942, 14 Allied merchant ships were attacked and six of those were sunk. Some 60 merchant seamen died in these attacks, with 29,000 tons of shipping lost. More merchant ships and the hospital ship Centaur were sunk in a second campaign in 1943.

The enemy submarines also took some action against shore positions. On 8 June 1942, the Japanese submarine I-24 fired ten rounds at Sydney Harbour in a five-minute period. Only one of the shells exploded, in Bellevue Hill.

East Coast attacks [AWM F00349]

Coinciding with the shelling of Sydney's eastern suburbs on 8 June 1942 was a short bombardment off Newcastle, 160 kilometres north of Sydney. At approximately 2.00 am, the Japanese submarine I-21, commanded by Captain Kanji Matsumura, approached Newcastle. Matsumura's orders were to attack the Newcastle shipyards. From about 2.15 am, he fired 34 shells from a position about nine kilometres north-east of Fort Scratchley, at the mouth of the Hunter River. Most of the shells landed in the vicinity of Customs House and the power station. All but one failed to explode but there was still some damage to buildings and houses near Parnell Place, behind Fort Scratchley. The attack lasted about 20 minutes, until just after fortress gunners fired in reply.

Sydney shelled [AWM F00349]

Two days after the attacks on Sydney and Newcastle, a Japanese submarine fired on the Age, an Australian coastal steamer travelling from Melbourne to Newcastle. An hour and a half later the merchant ship Iron Chieftain signalled that she had been torpedoed about 43 kilometres north-east of Sydney, in the same area. The Age reached Newcastle safely but the Iron Chieftain, loaded with coke for ship building in Whyalla, sank in about five minutes. Twelve of the crew, including the captain, went down with the ship while another 25 crewmen abandoned ship and landed in lifeboats on the beach at The Entrance.

After these attacks, the ports of Sydney and Newcastle were temporarily closed to outward traffic. The Naval Board suspended almost all merchant ship sailings from ports between Brisbane and Adelaide. Convoys were introduced in an attempt to protect shipping from attacks. There were surface and air searches for enemy submarines, and ships at sea were warned to zig-zag widely.

On 4 June, just south of Gabo Island, off southern New South Wales, a Japanese submarine attacked the steamer Barwon with torpedo and gunfire, the damaged steamer later limping into port. In the late afternoon on the same day, the Iron Crown was torpedoed in the same area and sank immediately. There were five survivors from a crew of 42. The Japanese submarine I-24, the 'mother ship' of one of the midget submarines that had raided Sydney Harbour, was suspected to be responsible. The I-24 reputedly sank three ships south of Sydney during this period.

Last updated: 1 February 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Coastal menace, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 26 September 2023,
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