The RAN at the Battle of the Coral Sea

... the captain is about to address the ship's company. Everyone stops talking; everyone listens. Japanese have been sighted coming down to the area south of New Guinea. They have occupied Tulagi. Aircraft from an American aircraft carrier have attacked Tulagi and sunk a number of vessels and put out of action a number of aircraft. We will be joining a United States Navy Fleet to intercept, if necessary, the Japanese force. Okay, off we went and within a day or two, we rendezvous with the most magnificent sight I had ever seen. The American Fleet, which had survived the Pearl Harbour problem, had sailed south, endeavouring to stop the Japanese advance ... There were two aircraft carriers, there were battle ships, there were cruisers, there were destroyers and trailing astern and a little separated, were the tankers with their destroyer escorts. I knew the number at the time, probably I knew every ship at the time. I knew them so personally but I can't recall them all now but what a sight! And what a wonderful feeling I had until I realised, my God, they're not here to play games. We're all here for fair dinkum trouble!

[Roy Scrivener, HMAS Hobart, interview, February 1989, Keith Murdoch Sound Archive, AWM]

Allied Task Force 17, under Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher, USN, included a group of three cruisers and three destroyers: Task Force 17.3. This force, commanded by Australian-born Royal Naval officer Rear-Admiral John Crace, included HMA Ships Australia and Hobart as well as the American cruiser USS Chicago. On 7 May, Fletcher detached Task Force 17.3 from the main Allied force and ordered it to head north-west to search for enemy carriers. Crace was to prevent, at any cost, the Port Moresby invasion group from passing through the Jomard Passage, which separates the islands of the Louisiade Archipelago from the eastern tip of the New Guinea mainland. During that afternoon, the ships in Crace's force came under attack from Japanese torpedo bombers.

First, the cruisers in Task Group 17.3 were attacked by torpedoes. Three were aimed at the Australia, one at the Hobart and another four at the USS Chicago. According to Rear Admiral Crace's post-action report:

The day was calm and sunny and the sea very blue so that the tracks were very easily seen. How those torpedoes were avoided beats me … They can only have missed by a matter of feet. Farncomb [the ship's commanding officer] handled the ship extremely well and it was entirely due to him and a great deal of luck that Australia was not hit.

[Quoted in Chris Coulthard-Clark, Action Stations Coral Sea: the Australian commander's story, North Sydney, 1991, p95]

After the torpedoes came the strafing. Jack Langrell, who was also on board the Australia, described the scene:

All of a sudden all hell broke loose so I quite realised then this was definitely the Japs coming in … One of the Japanese torpedo bombers would have been 100 feet from the ship's side and level with the upper deck as it passed down the port side. Unbeknown to me they were spraying the ship with machine-gun bullets.

[Quoted in Chris Coulthard-Clark, Action Stations Coral Sea, p95]

By skilful manoeuvring, the Allied warships avoided the torpedoes, but the strafing attacks caused nine injuries amongst the task group - six Australians were wounded: three on the Australia and three on the Hobart. Two of the three injured Americans on the Chicago subsequently died. During the next two days, Crace's force moved further and further away from Fletcher's carriers. Because of the radio silence, Crace was able to hear only fragments of monitored radio communications about the battle being fought between the American and Japanese carrier aircraft. Crace stayed in the area for two more days, but on the evening of 9 May, realising that the Battle of the Coral Sea had ended, Task Force 17.3 sailed for north Queensland.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), The RAN at the Battle of the Coral Sea, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 4 March 2024,
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