Midget submarine attack on Sydney 31 May – 1 June 1942

The wreck of M14 being recovered. Image: <a href="https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C48694">Australian War Memorial</a>, via Wikimedia.

The wreck of M14 being recovered. Image: Australian War Memorial, via Wikimedia.

My mother has often told me this story of the evening of Sunday 31st May 1942:

‘It had been a normal Sunday: Church, followed by lunch, a visit to my grandparents, some radio and then suddenly, while I was taking a bath, sirens split the air, Dad turned off the lights, and I shivered in the dark.’

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Sydney under attack!

Under the cover of darkness Japanese submarines stand north-east of Sydney ready to send three midget submarines with their two-man crews to victory and possible certain death. The date? 31 May 1942. The time? 8.01 pm and the first of the three submarines enters Sydney Harbour undetected.

In the hours that followed there was panic, indecision, bravery and death. One midget submarine became entangled in the boom nets – anti-submarine nets positioned across the inner harbour entrance; unable to release itself, the submariners blew the submarine and themselves up. A second submarine successfully fired two torpedoes, one of which struck the sea wall of Garden Island beneath the barracks ship HMAS Kuttabul. Twenty-one sleeping ratings were killed and another 10 injured. The third Japanese midget submarine was sunk by depth charges.

The mystery of what happened to the second submarine – M24 – was finally solved in November 2006 when its wreck was found off Sydney’s northern beaches. But what happened to the remains of the two submarines destroyed during the raid?

Their wrecked remains were recovered from the waters and the bow section of one was rebuilt into the stern section of the other. This largely intact composite submarine was then toured SW, Victoria and South Australia to raise money for the naval relief fund. Today it is magnificently displayed at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. The second remaining conning tower can be seen at the Naval Heritage Centre on Garden Island, Sydney.

With the 70th anniversary of the attack looming large it offers us a time to reflect and to remember the bravery of those involved – the sailors, the submariners, the volunteers, the civilians. And there is an opportunity for you to commemorate this important anniversary – join us on a harbour cruise on Saturday 2 June as we visit important sites connected with the attack.

Lindsey Shaw, senior curator