Kuttabul sinking remembered
By Graham Davis

Edition 5009, 31 May, 2007
WRECK: The Kuttabul after the midget submarine attack. Nineteen RAN sailors and two RN sailors died.
The night World War II came to Sydney – May 31/June 1, 1942 – will be remembered tomorrow (June 1).

Off the coast on that night large “mother” submarines launched three midget submarines each carrying a crew of two and a brace of torpedoes.

Earlier, on May 30, a Japanese seaplane – also launched from one of the mother subs – had circled Sydney without challenge.

Using information gathered from the flight, the commanders of the three midget submarines were under orders to enter Sydney Harbour and wreak havoc on the naval ships present including USS Chicago, at anchor off Rushcutters Bay.

Also at anchor were HMA Ships Canberra, Adelaide, Kanimbla Westralia, Whyalla and Geelong, HMIS Bombay and the Dutch submarine K 9.

The depot ship, the former wooden harbour ferry HMAS Kuttabul, was tethered to a wharf on the eastern seawall of Garden Island naval base. She provided sleeping quarters for RAN and RN sailors.

One of the midget submarines was caught in the anti-torpedo net near the west boom gate at the harbour entrance and destroyed by its crew.

Another was disabled by depth charges and settled on the bottom in Taylor’s Bay near Taronga Zoo. The crew shot themselves.
But a third submarine managed to fire two torpedoes at Chicago.

One torpedo passed near the huge warship and exploded under Kuttabul breaking her wooden back and sending her quickly to the bottom.

Nineteen RAN sailors and two RN sailors died that night. Many others had miraculous escapes.

The second torpedo failed to detonate and skidded ashore on Garden Island. The submarine made it out of the harbour but did not make it back to its mother ship. Its wreckage was not found until last year, lying on the seabed off Sydney’s northern beaches.

Meanwhile the land was being attacked from shells fired by a larger submarine off the coast. Some buildings in Vaucluse were damaged.

Chicago and many of the other ships weighed anchor.

Wreckage of the two submarines left in the harbour was later salvaged and parts from both were put together to make up a composite sub. It is now an exhibit at the Australian War Memorial. The conning tower of one on the subs is on exhibit at the Naval Heritage Centre on Garden Island.

Since its discovery by civilian divers, the third midget submarine has been declared a war grave and declared “out of bounds.”

A simple memorial has been erected at the point on Garden Island where Kuttabul was sunk.

It will be at this memorial on June 1, and marking the 65th anniversary of the attack, that a memorial service will be held.

Among the VIP guests will be a survivor of that night, Mr Neil Roberts.

He is expected to be joined by the Minister for Veterans Affairs, Mr Bruce Billson, either the Japanese ambassador or the consul general for Japan, and senior personnel from the RAN and returned service organisations. Because the sailors of Kuttabul had a strong bond with local schools during WWII a large number of local school children will also attend.

HMAS Kuttabul, named after the ferry, will provide an honour guard and catafalque party while the Sydney detachment of the RAN Band will provide the music.

The remembrance of that night will not only take place on land but on the harbour too.

Sydney Ferries Corporation will conduct two, two hour commemorative cruises using the Lady Class ferry Lady Heron.

The ferry will retrace the course taken by the three midget submarines.

The first tour will leave Circular Quay at 11am, the second at 1.30pm.

Ring 1800 005 113 for tickets

HARD TO PUT DOWN: Peter Grose’s new book A Very Rude Awakening, published by Allen and Unwin, details the World War II attack on Sydney that shocked Australia.
Sydney Harbour’s rude awakening

This book is an absolute cracker and is hard to put down.

Peter Grose has compiled a well researched and carefully written account of the Japanese attack that shook Sydney during World War II.

Entertaining and informative, his research, which includes information taken from first-hand accounts and the official after action reviews, lays bare how under-prepared and inept we were in defending ourselves at that time.

Uncompromisingly, Grose points the finger at those he concludes to be found wanting in their conduct leading up to, and during, the night of the attack.

Tracing the timeline of events is frustrating to the point of ridiculous.

Such as the fact it took five hours from the first sighting of a midget submarine to the time that Naval Officer in Command – Sydney, RADM Muirhead-Gould, sent a signal to ships in the harbour giving them any accurate information as to what was going on.

But that isn’t the only obvious flaw in communications, as Grose points out there was a fair amount known about Japanese activity in the waters around Australia at the time, which left me wondering how the attack could ever have been allowed to occur.

Also of great interest are some of the unsung heroes of the attack, which include the Navy clearance divers who in the days following worked in dangerous conditions to help recover the bodies of the 21 men killed on board Kuttabul and the two midget submarines – one of which still had its motor running during its initial recovery.

Others, such as the volunteer who defused the torpedo that ran aground on Garden Island or Jimmy Cargill, the first person to spot a midget submarine trapped in the anti-submarine net and who rowed to alert harbour defences, also make for interesting reading.

I also found myself viewing the Japanese attackers differently.

Grose tells of the lives of the Japanese who crewed the midget submarines and considers what it must have been like for them to go on what they knew to be all but a suicide mission.

Additionally, the book includes a detailed epilogue of what happened to the main characters in this historic tale, and of interest to many will the fate of the CO of USS Chicago CAPT Howard D. Bode, who after the attack in Sydney was involved in an engagement near Savo Island in the Solomons. Sadly his action during and after that event resulted in him taking his own life.

I’m sure that many will also be greatly interested in reading RADM Muirhead-Gould’s report into the attack on Sydney Harbour, which is also included in full.

By Sgt Damian Griffin