This weekend marks the anniversary of the one and only actual war time attack on Sydney. 

On the night of 31 May 1942, a Sunday, three Japanese midget submarines slipped through Sydney’s war time defences and took up position in the harbour to attack allied shipping.  The submarines had been launched from mother subs off of the coast and were running on intelligence gathered from a fly over by a Japanese sea plane the night before.

The sea plane, piloted by young naval airman Susumu Ito, had flown right over the harbour, Cockatoo Island and the harbourside suburbs without arousing much suspicion despite the city being on a war footing and US ships being at anchor.

So too, the submarines were able to slip in; well almost.  Three subs made their way through the outer submarine defences but were picked up by electronic indicators.  They were ignored by defenders who thought the blips were from ferries still running on the harbour.

At 10.27 the first one was spotted by the USS Chicago, their primary target.  The sailors on the Chicagoopened fire, while at the same time a smaller patrol boat spotted a second sub and dropped depth charges.  As the explosions began all hell broke loose.  Searchlights swept the water, patrol boats zipped around shooting and dropping charges, bullets and shells flew all over.  One even skipped like a stone off of the harbour water and struck the side of the Fort Denison tower, where the impact is still visible.

At about 12.30 one of the subs, under heavy fire, managed to fire two torpedoes at the USS Chicago.  Its aim was off though aHMAS Kuttabul sunk 1942, Garden Islandnd the torpedoes passed under the cruiser, with one sliding harmlessly onto the shore at Garden Island while the other struck the navy ferry HMAS Kuttabul, used for sailors quarters.  The explosion destroyed the ferry, killing 19 Australian and 2 British sailors; the first and last deaths due to enemy action in Sydney. 

The submarine submerged and disappeared. 

The other two were already sunk, one caught in the anti-submarine boom net and the crew shot themselves, the other smashed by depth charges. 

And then it all went quiet.

Afterwards in an incredibly generous and controversial gesture, the recovered bodies of the Japanese sailors were given full military honours, cremated and, through diplomatic circles, their ashes returned to Japan, all while the war raged on.

About 1 week later explosions in Sydney’s eastern suburbs and Newcastle signalled the Japanese return.  The mother subs, still off the coast waiting for their midget crews to return, surfaced and fired on the cities.  Shells fell in Rose Bay, Woollahra and Bellevue Hill damaging some houses.  Luckily only one exploded.

Recovered sub 1942 Australian War Memorial Collection
Midget sub being raised from the harbour

And that was that for another 64 years.

In November 2006   a group of divers discovered something 70 metres down off Sydney’s Northern Beaches.  On close inspection they realised that they had just solved one of Sydney’s great war time mysteries, the discovery of the wreckage of the M24, the missing midget submarine.  And so it rests, there still with its sailors inside; a silent war grave in the inky depths.

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