Our flagship in greatest sea fight
Author and broadcaster Mike Carlton has a lifelong commitment to Australian naval history. Flagship is his third book in a magnificent four-part series that began with Cruiser (2011), continued with First Victory (2014) and which will end with a final, so far untitled work that is yet to be completed.
Flagship deals with HMAS Australia II, a ship fast, spacious and modern by the standard of the times. It centres on the ship’s role during World War II in the great battles with Japan.
As Carlton explains towards the beginning of this helpfully mapped and well-illustrated book, in 1928 the Royal Australian Navy acquired a first-class heavy cruiser HMAS Australia, the second such ship to be so named. Yet following severe cuts to the defence budget during the Depression, when so many lives were blighted “by the withering touch of poverty”, it had been all but mothballed.
Indeed it was only after Britain and, as a result, Australia declared war on Hitler’s Germany in September 1939 that it became the flagship of our national fleet.
For a while, even though the spectre of Japanese aggression hovered in the background, our Asian neighbour remained formally neutral. But that was to change immediately after Japanese bombers attacked the American military base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on the morning of December 7, 1941. On that day Labor prime minister John Curtin declared that “from one hour ago, Australia has been at war with the Japanese Empire”.
On February 22, 1942, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt directed that the highly ambitious and media-savvy General Douglas MacArthur should move from the Philippine Islands to Australia. It was shortly after MacArthur became the supreme commander of all Allied forces in the southwest Pacific that our naval flagship came into its own in the war with Japan.
As Carlton evocatively elucidates, Australia II fought in the first sea offensive to stop the Japanese advance in the Pacific: the Battle of the Coral Sea, which occurred in May 1942 near Papua New Guinea. Our flagship also participated in what is arguably the greatest sea fight ever, the Battle of Leyte Gulf in The Philippines in October 1944. This resulted in Australia II becoming the first Allied warship to be hit by a kamikaze pilot. This ferocious Japa- nese bombing raid killed the captain, Tasmanian-born Emile Frank Verlaine Dechaineux, and 28 of his crew. Dechaineux, who had commanded the British destroyer HMS Vivacious at Dunkirk in May-June 1940, had only been captain of Australia II since March 1944.
As well as focusing on the pivotal role of Australia II during the war, and especially in the fight against Japan, Carlton’s book uncovers some shocking revelations. These include the fact that in 1942 the crew of Australia II witnessed a deeply disturbing murder on board. This resulted from an attack on a crew member who had made allegations of “practices of unnatural vice” that had been occurring on board “unknown to authorities”.
As a result of a court martial, two sailors on the ship were sentenced “to be hanged by the neck till they be dead — on board such one of His Majesty’s Australian Ships and at such time as the board of Administration of the Naval Forces shall direct”. But what eventually transpired I will not divulge here.
Flagship also deals in gripping detail with HMAS Australia II’s sister ships HMAS Canberra I and Shropshire. The military roles of the three ships were entwined “like strands of stout cable”, as Carlton aptly puts it.
Although this is not a comprehensive history of the war in the Pacific or even of the RAN’s part in this crucial conflict, it is an illuminating book. Despite its length, as with Carlton’s two previous naval histories, I found this meticulously researched, finely written and well-structured book utterly absorbing.
Carefully placed in historical context by Carlton, our naval exploits during World War II are intertwined with fascinating individual life stories, including the hopes and fears of a significant number of captains and crew members who served so well in three of his majesty’s Australian ships: Australia II, Canberra I and Shropshire.
Carlton also deals in sensitive detail with a number of Japanese admirals and commanders, as well as their crew and families.
In addition to acknowledging the assistance of the many men and women he interviewed in the course of researching Flagship, the author thanks the archive staff at the Australian War Memorial and especially at the National Library in Canberra, where the online database Trove is a national treasure.
While Carlton was researching and writing this praiseworthy book, he was appalled to discover that the federal government had slashed Trove’s funding. As a fellow Australian historian who has benefited by using Trove, I also regard this as an utter disgrace. is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
HMAS Australia after being hit by five Japanese kamikaze planes in 1944