Darwin’s Submarine I-124
Kent Town, South Australia, Avonmore Books 2010
Paperback 317pp RRP $19.95
Reviewer: Neville Taylor, April 2020
A squadron of four Japanese submarines entered the Torres Straits in mid-January 1941, minelaying the waters off Bathurst and Melville Islands and then waited for a convoy to approach Darwin Harbour.
On 20th, I-123’s four torpedoes missed the US oiler USS Trinity and the 3-month old corvette HMAS Deloraine of the 24th Minesweeping Flotilla and other vessels joined battle against the Japanese submarines. The Deloraine only missed being torpedoed by a few metres through the skilful seamanship of her skipper Lieutenant Commander Desmond Menlove RANR. Supported by a US Catalina and two float planes, the ASDIC-equipped Deloraine dropped all her depth charges on the I-124 and, detecting tell-tale oil slicks, marked the location with buoys. She raced to re-arm (in darkness) at sea before re-joining the battle. The corvette HMAS Katoomba dragged the seabed and located the sunken I-124. By midday on the 21st, a RAN diving team attempted to reach the sunken submarine. This was not achieved for several days in the difficult underwater conditions. The surviving submarines left the area, but the Japanese were to achieve devastating results with their carrier-based air assault on Darwin on 19th February.
Lewis has gone to considerable lengths to provide accurate and illustrated details of the vessels involved and the professional and private lives of the officers commanding them. The 6th Submarine Squadron commander and his staff aboard I-124 took those lost in its sinking to 80 persons. After recounting the memorable naval action, he then turns to the aftermath of the sinking. Painstakingly thoroughly he dismembers the incredible rumours and legends that grew in the following days and decades. Overlaying all of this were the attempts to raise or salvage the I-124 by both the Australian and Japanese navies and private individuals. This led to the Historic Shipwrecks Bill of 1976 forbidding the removal of material from designated sites. The I-124 is now a recognized by both countries as an official War Grave (to be regularly inspected for signs of deterioration).
Interspersed in the text containing personal accounts are a considerable number of photographs, easy-to-follow-maps and diagrams. The company of both the Deloraine and the I-124 are included as appendices, a most-impressive and comprehensive list of references and a brief Index round out a well-balanced account of the first World War II naval engagement in Australian waters.
Tom Lewis had made a vital contribution by bringing to our attention that Darwin was not all about a February 1942 bombing raid.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.