Ban’s torpedoes were fired from the centre of the harbour.(Peter Grose, 2007, p. 140. Illustration by Ian Faulkner
Date: 31 May–1 June 1942
Attack by: Japanese Type A midget submarines
Target: USN, RAN, RIN and RNN warships
While Admiral Ishizaki’s raiding group scouted for targets off southeast Africa, a similar group commanded by Capt Hanku Sasaki, overall commander of the Pearl Harbor midgets, prepared to make a surprise attack in Australian waters. Sasaki’s group consisted of the aircraft-carrying submarines I-21 and I-29 and the Type A carriers I-22, I-24, I-27 and I-28. The four latter were called from patrol duties off Port Moresby, New Guinea, on 11 May and ordered to the IJN’s base at Truk atoll in the eastern Carolines to take aboard Type As and their crews. Meanwhile, I-21 and I-29 made aerial reconnaissance of major anchorages at Suva in Fiji, Auckland in New Zealand, and on the east coast of Australia, in search of large Allied warships refitting after the Battle of the Coral Sea (5–8 May).
On 17 May, on the last leg of her voyage to Truk, I-28 was running on the surface SSE of the atoll when she was sighted by the US submarine Tautog (Cdr J. H. Willingham). A torpedo hit crippled the Japanese submarine, which managed a brief and unavailing burst of gunfire before a second torpedo hit under the conning tower sent her down with all hands. But I-22 (Cdr Kiyotake Ageta), I-24 (Cdr Hiroshi Hanabusa) and I-27 (Cdr Iwao Yoshimura) all arrived safely at Truk and sailed again with Type As aboard on c.20 May. By 29 May they had made rendezvous with I-21 and I-29 some 40nm (46 miles, 74km) ESE of Sydney, where reconnaissance flights on 20–23 May had reported the presence of major warships.
In fact, the only major Allied units in Sydney Harbour (Port Jackson) were the heavy cruisers USS Chicago (CA 29) and HMAS Canberra and the old light cruiser HMAS Adelaide. With them were the destroyer tender USS Dobbin, the destroyer USS Perkins (DD 377), the minelayer HMAS Bungaree, the armed merchant cruisers HMAS Kanimbla and Westralia, the corvettes HMAS Whyalla, HMAS Geelong and HMIS Bombay, the old Dutch submarine K.IX, and the depot ship HMAS Kuttabul. The harbour defence force – all Australian ships – consisted of the anti-submarine vessels Bingera and Yandra, two minesweepers, six channel patrol boats and four unarmed auxiliary patrol boats.
Although the probable presence of at least one unidentified submarine off Sydney had been reported by RNZAF aircraft on 26 and 29 May, no specific measures against submarine attack had been taken. Of the permanent anti-submarine installations, the outer magnetic indicator loop at the Heads (the points flanking the harbour’s 1.5-mile wide outer entrance) was unserviceable, and the anti-torpedo boom at the 1,500yd (1370m) wide inner entrance was only partially completed and had gaps at both ends. Around the 12-mile (19km) long harbour a “brown-out” was in force, but repair shops on Garden Island were brightly lit, silhouetting the warships in Man-of-War anchorage to the east.
Even the sighting of a reconnaissance plane over the harbour early on 30 May failed to rouse the defences. Lt Susumo Ito’s “Glen” seaplane was catapulted from I-21 at c.0300, some 30nm (35 miles, 56km) northeast of Sydney, and at 0420 flew over the inner harbour at 600ft (180m), circling twice over Chicago. The cruiser’s duty officer identified the Japanese monoplane as a Curtiss SOC Seagull biplane “from an American cruiser”, and apart from brief patrols by RAAF fighters no special precautions were taken. Ito’s aircraft was lost when he landed in rough water near I-21, but he and his observer survived to report “battleships and cruisers” at Sydney.
Crossing the Loop
At dusk (c.1630) on 31 May, some 7nm (8 miles, 13km) east of Sydney Heads. the Japanese fleet submarines launched their Type As: Ha 21 (Lt Matsuo Keiyu and PO Takeshi Omori) from I-22 an unidentified midget (SubLt Katsuhisa Ban and PO Mamoru Ashibe) from I-24; and Ha 14 (Lt Kenshi Chuman and PO Masao Takenaka) from I-27.
To reach their objective, the midgets would have to travel some 20nm (23 miles, 37km) through heavily-defended waters; their attack would stir up a hornets’ nest of air and surface activity, it was obvious that none would return. For their one-way journey, the crews were provided with excellent charts and aerial photographs, and (possibly as a “token” of the chance of survival) rations enough for one week – including staples like dried fish and pickled plums as well as such luxuries as chocolate and whisky.
As night closed down, the Type As were able to take navigational fixes from the lights on the Sydney Heads, entering the harbour approaches in darkness. Subsequent examination of the magnetic loop log revealed that Ha 14 was the first to enter the outer harbour, at 2000, although its “signature” was not then distinguished from that of other harbour traffic. This was Ha 14’s last piece of luck: by 2015 the midget had become entangled in the western section of the anti-torpedo boom, where it was spotted by a watchman in a rowing boat. Although reaction was leisurely – the channel patrol boat Yarroma did not arrive until c.2130 – Lt Chuman and PO Takenaka failed to free their craft. At 2235, as Yarroma opened fire with her two Vickers machine guns and prepared to drop her four depth charges, Chuman fired a demolition charge that destroyed Ha 14 and its crew.
Lt Ban’s Type A had already crossed the loop, at 2148, and was making its run-in of c.6nm (7 miles, 11km) to the “battleship” at Man-of-War anchorage. A general alarm was raised in Sydney Harbour at 2227, but the order to darken all ships did not come until 2314, and dockside lights were not doused until 2325. Thus, the harbour was still well lit at c.2257, when Ban’s Type A surfaced about 500yds (457m) off Chicago’s starboard quarter, where it was sighted and caught in the cruiser’s searchlight. Chicago opened fire, first with light weapons and then with her 5in (127mm) – some of the shells from the latter fell ashore, damaging buildings but not, as popular legend had it, killing a lion in Sydney Zoo. The Type A submerged and made off towards the north shore. Perkins (with defective sonar gear) made a brief patrol with the Australian corvettes Geelong and Whyalla, but was ordered to anchor by Capt H. D. Bode of Chicago, who probably believed that he had destroyed the intruder.
In fact, the Type A was unharmed, and at c.2310 Ban surfaced again to the northeast of Garden Island, whose dock lights illuminated Chicago’s berth. But before he could fire his torpedoes he was sighted and fired on by Geelong; and by the time he was ready to attack, at 2330, the dock lights had at last been switched off. Ban fired both tubes: one, a dud, ran ashore on Garden Island; the second narrowly missed Chicago, passed beneath the Dutch submarine K.IX, and exploded under the old harbour ferry Kuttabul, a naval barracks ship, killing 19 and wounding 10 of the seamen billeted aboard. Perkins, the corvettes and harbour defence craft immediately began intensive patrols – but again Ban was able to slip away, heading back towards the harbour entrance. A signature on the loop at 0158 is believed to have been that of Ban’s boat making its exit – but what became of the Type A after that is unknown, for it was never seen again.
The Hunt in Taylor Bay
The remaining midget, Lt Keiyu’s Ha 21, was detected on its inward journey, at c.2250, before reaching the loop, by the unarmed patrol boat Lauriana and the anti-submarine vessel Yandra. The latter attempted to ram the midget, lost contact temporarily, and at 2307 dropped six depth charges. Shaken, but with his boat still intact, Keiyu apparently decided to lie low for a while in the harbour approaches. By 0300 he was again attempting to penetrate the harbour, when the outward-bound Chicago reported a periscope close aboard in the loop area. It is difficult to trace Keiyu’s subsequent movements, for by this time the harbour was in uproar, with reports of contacts and periscope sightings from all quarters. It is possible that the contact fired upon by Kanimbla at 0350, from Neutral Bay, represented Ha 21’s deep penetration of the anchorage. By c.0530, Ha 21 was again outward bound, to be located and subjected to a three-hour hunt in Taylor Bay by Yarroma and the patrol boats Sea Mist and Steady Hour. Repeated depth charge attacks were made – but when Ha 21 was located by a diver later that day it was found that the Type A’s motor was still running and that Keiyu and Omori had committed suicide with their pistols after scuttling their boat. Ha 21’s torpedoes were still in their tubes, which had been fouled by the midget submarine’s bow-mounted net-cutter.
Ha 14 and Ha 21 were salvaged and cannibalized to build a single midget, which was toured through Australia to raise money for the Naval Relief Fund. The Japanese crews’ remains were cremated and given a funeral with full military honours – a proceeding which attracted some criticism, especially because the fleet submarines that had launched the midgets shelled the Sydney suburbs and the Newcastle industrial plant before heading homeward. But although Japanese propaganda claimed that the operation had resulted in the sinking of the battleship HMS Warspite, the Sydney raid represented the last major suicidal operation of the Type A midgets.