Our flag­ship in great­est sea fight

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ross Fitzger­ald

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

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