Sixty-six years ago today, Fremantle faced one of her darkest hours.
In 1942, the Imperial Navy of Japan spent 11 days raiding in the Indian Ocean, before thought to be secure under British Naval and Air Force command. They were wrong.
The Japanese, at the cost of 20 of their airplanes, sank a British aircraft carrier, two cruisers, two destroyers, a sloop, 23 merchant ships, and more than 40 airplanes. The Allies were never secure in their part of the ocean again.
In March 1944, the Japanese again tried to raid into the Indian Ocean. This time they were not so lucky, but the standing orders were to kill any merchant sailors they came across except those (and the orders were specific who) who could be interrogated for useful information.
On March 6, an American Submarine (and the records don’t say who, and I don’t have the right resources to discover it right now) detected at least two very large Japanese ships coming through Lombok heading for the Indian Ocean. What Fremantle didn’t know what these ships, the Kinu and the Oi, were on their way to keep nearby Sundra Strait free and clear for the return of the raiders who were ALREADY hundreds of miles deep in the Indian Ocean.
Fremantle did some quick calculations and realized that it would take at least three days to get to Fremantle, but more likely the attack, if it did come, would come on March 11, the night of the full moon, which would give the best light to night-attacks.
The submarines were the best line of defense. Each crew, including the Redfin and Robalo, was quickly assembled, provisioned and all but thrown out of harbor to protect everyone. The Submarine Tenders, the moment all of their charges were in the open ocean, weighed anchor and fled for Albany, 200 miles south. The merchant ships in port were quickly scrambled and sent to weigh anchor in the sea lanes just outside of Fremantle. If this was a real attack, warning would hopefully come quickly enough that these ships could flee south or west, and if it never came, they were nearby. The British battleships and destroyers were also anchored in these same sea lanes. The harbor was closed, and, some say, rigged with explosives so if all defenses failed, the Japanese would at least not find a viable harbor to start their own base.
For days, while the submarines ranged far and wide searching for the enemy, everyone in Fremantle was on pins and needles.
Meanwhile, the raiders, consisting of three heavy cruisers, who WERE in the Indian Ocean, had found a British merchant vessel, the Behar, approximately halfway between Fremantle and Sri Lanka. She was carrying a cargo of zinc. The cruisers fired three shots, sinking the Behar, but not before she managed to get off a distress call.
Fearing that Fremantle might hear the call and rally some troops, the raiders turned and fled back home.
Most of the Behar’s crew, initially picked up by the cruiser Tone, were eventually murdered. Only 15 people survived, including the two women onboard. They had been dropped off near Jakarta Indonesia, the night before the rest were killed.
Fremantle didn’t hear the call, only one Fremantle-bound freighter did, but as days passed with no enemy in sight, panic slowly subsided and people started to resume normal life, though with a greater degree of passion to help the war effort than had been seen in months. By March 16, traffic had resumed in Fremantle’s harbor.
On March 17, the freighter who had heard Behar’s call, dropped anchor, but by then, no one was worried about raiders sneaking up on them, though security protocols were drastically tightened.
Redfin’s crew must have viewed this interlude as an interesting training run. I don’t know what Robalo’s crew may have thought about it, but being interrupted after only two days vacation, I’m sure they weren’t thrilled, though they did their duty. At least it didn’t count against their R&R!
For more information see:
E-Book “Australia in the War of 1939-1945: Chapter 13–Pacific Drive, Indian Ocean Interlude” You’ll need to scroll down to page 388 for the best account of this little-known emergency.