A NEW book about Japanese submarine attacks on Australia in 1942 provides perhaps the most detailed account yet published of Newcastle under fire.
A Parting Shot, by Terry Jones and Steven Carruthers, delves into military archives and old records and uses interviews with witnesses to put together a compelling narrative that helps lay to rest some old myths and Novocastrian urban legends.
The authors have disproven, for example, the old story that some of the shells fired by the Japanese submarine I-21 had been made years before in Britain.
And the same close examination of the surviving shells and their distinctive markings has led to the authors’ theory that one shell at the Australian War Memorial – long thought to have been one of those fired on Sydney – is actually a star shell that was fired on Newcastle.
The authors have also taken issue with reports that as many as 34 shells fell on Newcastle.
This estimate was mistaken, they write, insisting that the number can have been no higher than 21 and was probably fewer.
Most were high explosive shells, several of which failed to explode.
Some were star shells, designed to illuminate the target area.
The book states that the Japanese were mainly intent on sowing fear in the population and had little real expectation of doing major damage.
Their targets in Newcastle were the BHP steelworks and the old Walsh Island dockyard – which they appeared not to realise had been dismantled years before.
The authors speculate that the submarine switched its attention to the direction of Fort Scratchley and Newcastle East in an attempt to douse the searchlights that had caught it in their beams.
History records that Fort Scratchley successfully frightened the submarine away.
But according to the book, chaos and confusion reigned in Newcastle on June 8, 1942, when the submarine opened fire.
The city’s defences were plagued by poor communication and, in some cases, uneasy relationships caused by the conflicting priorities of defence authorities and industry bosses.
A Parting Shot quotes an eyewitness account of the shelling by Lieutenant Ken Robin, aboard HMAS Allenwood, berthed at Kings Wharf in Newcastle Harbour.
‘‘I had a good view to the north, up the river to the steelworks,’’ Lieutenant Robin wrote. ‘‘The flare was white with a yellowish tinge and it floated down slowly on a parachute.
The idea was to illuminate the target for a business round, but they had got the range wrong.
‘‘The star shells burst to the seaward side of the steelworks and didn’t silhouette anything of importance. I would say a maximum of six star shells were fired. They burst over the river, working from north to south from the steelworks to the Horseshoe, opposite the Custom House.
‘‘We heard the case from the last one splash down in the river about 100metres off our starboard beam. There was a slight delay – perhaps 30seconds – after the star shells exploded. Then we heard three or four proper shells coming in. I don’t know where they would have gone. One explosion seemed to come from the seaward side of Fort Scratchley, the next somewhere in the city, south from the station.’’
The good news was that the submarine was frightened away.
The bad news was that the city’s defence communications were shown to be shaky, with the official censor’s report concluding that ‘‘the whole show was a disgrace and should be investigated’’.
ALMOST as interesting as the account of the night of the submarine attack is the book’s description of events a week later, at about 6.30pm on June 14.
Jumpy searchlight operators saw what they thought was a periscope entering Newcastle Harbour and issued a report ‘‘that led to panic and confusion’’.
The book relates that a gun at ‘‘Rail Battery’’ near Nobbys fired at the suspected periscope shortly after 7pm.
‘‘This was followed by light and heavy gunfire from Rail and Wave batteries as the object drifted backwards and forwards at the harbour entrance.
Located on opposite sides of the harbour entrance, both batteries were in each other’s crossfire at various times during the night as they fired at suspicious objects in the water.
The last shot was fired about 2335 hours.’’
During the scare Rail Battery fired five rounds and Wave Battery fired 17.
‘‘One shell ricocheted off the harbour waters and hit the Zaara Street power station, about 75feet above the ground level of No.2 boiler house, fracturing the buttress and making a large hole in the brickwork,’’ the book states.
‘‘Another struck the embankment protecting a petrol supply tank near the pilot station adjacent to HMAS Maitland and Shortland army camp. Several reports record a fragment from this shell made a small hole in the iron roof of a nearby drill hall.’’
The book also reports that a Lewis machine-gun on the northern wave trap at the harbour entrance slipped while being readied for action, firing a stream of bullets towards Newcastle East and forcing troops there to take cover.
The gun fired tracer bullets to illuminate the suspected periscope, but the bullets ricocheted off the water and passed over the army camp.
Searchlight operators and gun crews reported seeing the periscope and also a conning tower, and Wave Battery fired. One of its shells ‘‘struck a metal pole on the perimeter of the battery, cutting a cable, extinguishing the searchlight and slicing through communication lines to the fire commander on Shepherds Hill.’’
A shell fragment hit one artillery spotter’s steel helmet.
According to the book: ‘‘In a move that was either courageous or foolhardy, the RAAF launch Norlan, which was entering harbour when the shelling began, headed down the searchlight beam to look for the submarine during the gunfire.’’
The last shots were fired just before midnight, but the harbour was full of explosions for hours to come, as navy launches and a minesweeper raced around dropping grenades into the water at random intervals.
There appears to have been no submarine, but searchers found a steel drum, some driftwood and a large wooden case.
A Parting Shot will be launched at the Newcastle Maritime Centre on Thursday, January 17, 10 am to noon.