Tell someone under 60 that one time Sydney was attacked by Japanese submarines and they might call you a liar – but that’s exactly what happened 75 years ago this May.

Yep, our cushy coastal metropolis – usually luxuriously distant from such things – was once the target of sophisticated (read: scary) submarine attacks. If you’re thinking, ‘As if WWII made it to Sydney’, you feel much the same as folks did in 1942. Sydneysiders believed three infallible rules. Wars were fought elsewhere. Britain took the lead and Britain always won.

So what actually happened? Everyone knows about Pearl Harbor (because, like, Pearl Harbor), the preamble to our story. Failing in their attempts to sneak midget submarines into the Hawaiian port in 1941 (they did a lot of damage with other attack methods, though), Japan tried the sub tactic again the following year, this time in Australia.

Nobuo Fujita flew over Sydney on a reconnaissance mission on 17 February 1942. The seaplanes sent in May were the same kind.

In 1942, Japan started doing recon missions in seaplanes, but the Aussies’ incredulousness about the war reaching Sydney was strong, meaning even a strange plane identified by a secret radar unit in May didn’t raise an alarm. They chalked it up to a glitch because again, there’s no way this could be happening in Australia, right?

Did you know: A resident at the time (only credited as Mrs Jones) was as confident as any Navy general that Sydney could withstand an attack, quoted in the papers as saying, “If London can take it, Surry Hills can take it!

On 26 and 29 May, the New Zealand Naval Board warned Australia of an enemy unit 800 miles, then 40 miles, east of Sydney. This fell on deaf ears, and the Rear-Admiral Muirhead-Gould (a British officer on loan), added no extra defensive measures – for some confounding reason.

The Japanese Imperial Navy decided to jump on the opportunity, sending out three midget subs from three of its five war-rig submarines that were lurking just past the Heads. And by midget, I mean midget. Designed for stealth, the subs could barely fit two crew members, who were short and skinny enough to climb up and down the teensy conning tower.

Though the threat was real – two submarines actually made it into the harbour – all three submarines were lost, with two destroyed before launching any torpedoes. What’s insane is that they might’ve done more damage had they not experienced stability problems from initial attacks, which caused them to continually break the surface and be spotted.

  • Submarine #1

    The M-22 midget submarine on display at Garden Island’s Royal Australian Navy Heritage Centre shows dents the depth charges. The conning tower and control room shows the tiny access points two sailors had to squeeze through, and a portrait of the sailor who committed suicide inside.

    The first midget sub, the M-27, entered the harbour at 8pm and got stuck in Aussie government’s anti-submarine net (the finished bit of it, anyway: it was still a work in progress). The HMAS Yarroma and Lolita boats weren’t sent to investigate until nearly 10pm, but after a few attempts to destroy the sub, the two Japanese crewmen activated a scuttling charge – scuttling is when you deliberately sink a vessel – destroying the submarine’s forward section and killing themselves.

  • Submarine #2

    The M-24 was second, sneaking past the submarine net after a Manly ferry. It fired two torpedoes, breaking the Kuttabul in half and sending her to a watery grave and taking 19 Australian sailors and two Royal Navy men with her.

    The Chicago opened fire on M-24 with a 5 in (130 mm) gun (that’s a huge weapon – the type you see on a tank) and a quadruple machinegun mount but didn’t do much damage. The Whyalla and Geelong also fired on the “baby submarine” but it managed to submerge and escape, curiously never reaching the mother sub. More on this later…

  • Submarine #3

    The third and final submarine – the M-22, which entered around 11pm – was fired on by the Yandra and presumed sunk until it made a comeback four hours later and tried to fire its torpedoes. Since it was already pretty banged up, its attack was a bust, and it was blasted with depth charges by three Allied ships, the Seamist, the Steady Hour and the Yarroma. It was sunk some time after 3am and that was pretty much the last of it.

    Martello Tower, seen through a building on Fort Denison.

    Did you know? M-24, the second midget submarine to enter the harbour, was spotted by a searchlight operator on board the Chicago. The crew opened fire with a 130mm gun and a quadruple machinegun, but did little damage. Some of the shells bounced off the water and hit Fort Denison’s famous Martello Tower.

     

     

    Not a gigantic fish: Japanese midget submarine M-22 being raised from Taylor’s Bay, Sydney, June 10, 1942.

    The attack lasted about nine hours overnight between 31 May and 1 June, from the time the M-27 sub got caught in the entrance boom net at 8pm, to the time the HMAS Sea Mist sent the M-22 to its watery grave at about 3am. Some Sydneysiders were spooked and considered skipping town, but the majority came to watch the subs get wrenched out of the harbour.

    A wrecked submarine being hauled out of Taylor’s Bay, 1943.

    But what ever happened to the M-24, the only sub that had done any real damage? Its fate was unknown until 2006 – 64 years later! – when a group of scuba divers belonging to the No Frills Diving Club discovered it wrecked off Bungan Head on the Northern Beaches.

    Wanna know more? You can see the remaining artefacts – including a bungled torpedo fired by one of the subs and a section of the M-24 itself – this year as National Parks and Wildlife Service commemorates the event’s 75th anniversary with a Japanese mini-submarine tour.

    Take a historic ferry (built in the 1930s and in use at the time) and trace the movements of the seaplanes and submarines around Sydney Harbour, learning about the civilians and naval personnel involved in this forgotten story.

    The cruise includes morning tea on Fort Denison and a look at its cannon and Martello Tower embattlement, plus a visit to Garden Island’s naval museum.

    Captain and tour guide Dave (who has an endearing dad vibe) cruises around in a vintage ferry, Sydney Harbour.