A CORAL SEA EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT - Commodore Dacre Smyth, AO

At the time of the Battle of the Coral Sea, I was serving as the lowest form of marine life, a midshipman, in the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia. As early as 1 April 1942, the Japanese began preparations for "Operation MO" which was aimed at capturing Port Moresby in the Australian Territory of Papua and Tulagi in the British Solomon Islands. Our side knew quite a lot about what the Japanese were planning from reconnaissance, coast-watcher reports, radio eavesdropping, and code-breaking. The Allied code-breakers in Melbourne issued a report on 25 April 1942 that indicated an imminent move by Japan against Port Moresby and Tulagi, probably with three aircraft carriers, five heavy and four light cruisers, twelve destroyers and a submarine force.

The American Task Force 17, formed around Rear Admiral Fletcher's carrier USS Yorktown, was already in the Coral Sea. Task Force 11, formed around Rear Admiral Fitch's carrier USS Lexington, was further away to the north-east. My ship, together with HMAS Canberra and HMAS Hobart, comprised Rear Admiral Sir John Crace's Australian cruiser squadron known as Task Force 44. These three Allied naval task forces were ordered to rendezvous in the Coral Sea between 1 and 5 May 1942 to confront the Japanese seaborne invasion forces moving against Port Moresby and Tulagi. HMAS Canberra was still undergoing a refit at Sydney and was unable to participate in the coming battle. On 5 May 1942, all three Allied task forces had assembled in the Coral Sea. Incidentally, 5 May 1842 was my nineteenth birthday.

On 6 May we all fuelled from the US tanker Neosho which was then sent south with her destroyer escort USS Sims, ostensibly out of harm's way. We now know that while we were fuelling on 6 May, the Japanese carrier striking force was doing the same, and only 70 miles north of us.

Commodore Dacre Smyth, AO *

On 7 May, our cruiser squadron, together with the American heavy cruiser USS Chicago and three American destroyers, was detached from the main force and sent to the Jomard Entrance which separates the islands of the Louisiade Archipelago from the eastern tip of the New Guinea mainland. We were expecting the Japanese invasion force to traverse the Jomard Entrance on its way to Port Moresby. Our job was to block the southern exit to the Jomard Entrance to prevent the invasion force reaching Port Moresby. The US carriers remained further back, aiming to strike the enemy fleet carriers with their aircraft when they approached.

Having been sent to the Jomard Entrance, our cruiser force was without air cover. Being under constant threat from Japanese shore-based and carrier aircraft, our position was parlous. Quoting from my midshipman's journal: "Radar reports from Chicago were frequent during the forenoon, and several unidentified 'planes were sighted. At 1424 (2.24 pm) eleven 'planes appeared, and fire was opened on them. They turned away. A few minutes later, a US Navy Dauntless dive-bomber appeared. It had lost its carrier, and asked for directions. As it disappeared ahead, having been told to go to Port Moresby, a formation of some twelve two-engined aircraft appeared on our port bow, bunched together and flying very low." The official history by Herman Gill then takes up the story: "The first attack on Crace's force was most determined, but fortunately badly delivered. Torpedoes were dropped at ranges of between 1000 and 1500 yards; after which, the aircraft flew on and fired on the ships with machine-guns and cannon. Timely and skilful handling (by our Captain Harold Farncomb) enabled Australia to avoid three torpedoes which passed particularly close. Chicago also cleverly avoided three well-aimed torpedoes. Five of the aircraft were shot down".

I still claim that I heard the torpedoes in my action station in the bowels of the Australia.

A few minutes later, twenty-one heavy bombers (thought to be ''Nells"), escorted by eleven Zeros, attacked Australia from astern and up-sun at a height of about 18,000 feet. Bombing was accurate. Some twenty 500 lb bombs and several smaller ones were dropped, and we were straddled in all directions, and our upper decks were drenched with spray. These aircraft had only just gone when three more, flying even higher at 25,000 feet, dropped bombs close to the destroyer USS Perkins which was just ahead of us. Admiral Crace later reported that it was subsequently discovered that these aircraft were US Army B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers operating from Townsville. He also said in his report that they were good enough to photograph our force a few seconds after bomb release, thus proving that they had attacked their own ships.

During the rest of that day we were shadowed by a large four-engined flying boat, but no further attacks were made. The next day, the 8th, we were still patrolling (and facing several minor attacks) while the carriers again got busy. After that, we ourselves made no further contact because the Japanese withdrew.

ABOUT COMMODORE DACRE SMYTH

Dacre Smyth joined the Royal Australian Navy as a Matriculation Entry Cadet-Midshipman in 1940. In World War II he served in HMAS Australia in the Battle of the Coral Sea, in Motor Gun Boats in the English Channel, in HMS Danae at the Normandy invasion, in HMAS Norman in the Burma campaign, and in the British Pacific Fleet off Japan.

He was Aide de Camp to Australian Governor General Sir William McKell in 1948. He served in HMAS Bataan during the Korean War. He served in HMAS Hawkesbury from 1953-55, and his last seagoing command was HMAS Supply from 1968-70 in the Vietnam War. Six of his last eight years in the navy were as Naval Officer in Charge, Victoria, from which post he retired in 1978.

Dacre Smyth was Deputy Chairman until recently of the Trustees of Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance and is now a Life Governor of the Shrine. He is an artist, author, and publisher of twelve books of his paintings which are listed below his painting of HMAS Australia in the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Commodore Dacre Smyth depicts HMAS Australia under attack during the Battle of the Coral Sea

Published Works:

"The Bridges of the Yarra" (1979)

"The Lighthouses of Victoria" (1980)

"Historic Ships of Australia" (1982)

"Old Riverboats of the Murray" (1982)

"Views of Victoria in the Steps of von Guerard" (1984)

"The Bridges of Kananook Creek" (1986)

"Waterfalls of Victoria" (1988)

"Gallipoli Pilgrimage" (1990)

"Immigrant Ships to Australia" (1992)

"Pictures in my Life" (1994)

"Images of Melbourne" (1998)

"Australia from the Air" (2001)

CORALINDEX


* Painting of Commodore Dacre Smyth, AO reproduced with kind permission of the artist Ms Irene Hill.