top of page

Attack on Sydney Harbour

June 1942


Tom Lewis

Newport, NSW: Big Sky Publishing, 2022

Paperback    346pp  RRP: $24.99


Reviewer: Neville Taylor, May 2023


This narrative is yet another classic example of the disdain Australia and its military forces have been treated by The Mother Country in times of conflict.

Lewis opens with the scenario of Sydney on the evening of Sunday 31st May 1942. The next 100 pages examines the background to the conflict, the developments in warships, submarines, midget submarines and the Japanese submariners. Whilst the midget submarines raids were not regarded as being Kamikaze in nature, none of the five midgets survived the attack on Pearl Harbour six months earlier. The five ‘mother’ submarines waited off Sydney for three days for the return of the three that attacked Sydney Harbour’s ships.

Sydney Harbour was under the complete control of a British Royal Navy rear admiral regarded as an expert in anti-submarine defence, and with Pearl Harbour’s lessons in his CV. With the fall of Singapore in February 1942, there was an urgent need to upgrade the capability of the Garden Island graving dock. So much so, that work was around the clock under unshielded floodlight in a blacked-out city! The Sydney Harbour anti-submarine nets were incomplete to the point of there being open channels in excess of 200 yards at both ends. This same ‘expert’ discredited sailors who had examined the midget submarine trapped in the net telling them they were ‘imagining things’. Despite all of the aforementioned, he remained in the same post until the end of the War and made no bravery recommendations for the Australian Royal Australian Navy and civilian seamen involved in combat against the midget submarines and in the rescue of survivors after 21 lives were lost on the torpedoed Kattabul. The USS Chicago’s captain refused to chase a damaged midget submarine that it was engaging with machine gun fire, telling his crew their sightings of a periscope were figments of their imagination. This midget escaped Sydney Harbour and was eventually found off Newport in 2006.

Two Japanese aircraft were assembled on the decks of surfaced ‘mother’ submarines off the east coast and each successfully overflew the Harbour on separate occasions with no military response. There was no naval patrolling of the Tasman Sea off New South Wales’ coast and no RAAF provision for any aircraft to be ‘scrambled’ if required. The Federal Government played a typical ‘cover up/whitewash’ of the incident and praised the effectiveness of the preparation against such an attack. A golden opportunity to give a big ‘wake up’ (without panicking) call to a rather blasé civilian population was not taken advantage of.

Tom Lewis never lets his readers down. He has embedded a narrative with all the necessary historical and political background, photographs, maps, diagrams, pen-pictures of key players as well as a closing epilogue. Several previously undiscussed aspects of the Japanese raid have been visited, thus providing a complete rounding out of this historic event.  



The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

bottom of page