Newcastle Shelled by a Japanese Submarine on 8 June 1942
At about 0215 on 8 June 1942, Japanese submarine I-21 under the command of Captain Kanji Matsumura, shelled Newcastle in New South Wales. I-21 had travelled across Stockton Bight and positioned itself about 9 kms north east of Newcastle. I-21 travelled eastwards firing almost directly across the stern of the submarine. Their orders were to shell the Newcastle shipyards at Carrington. It is possible that it may have also targeted the BHP Works at Kooragang Island, Fort Scratchley and a large BHP-owned iron ore bulk carrier ship, the "Iron Knight" (4,812 tonns), which was moored at the steelworks docks. The "Iron Knight" was used to transport raw materials from BHP's Whyalla iron ore mines to the Newcastle steelworks. The "Iron Knight" eventually succumbed to the Japanese 8 months later when it was sunk by Japanese Submarine I-21 on 8 February 1943 approximately 15 miles off Montague Island, New South Wales with the loss of 36 crewmen of her complement of 50 men.
The Japanese gun crew broke out 20 shells (1400 mm) from the ready locker. They also brought up another 14 rounds from the armoury below decks. 8 of the shells were "illuminators" or "star shells". All 34 shells were fired at Newcastle. After 13 minutes of firing, the guns at Fort Scratchley returned fire with 4 rounds. I-21 continued firing for another 3 minutes until all 34 shells had been fired.
The shelling caused minimal damage and no casualties.
Fort Scratchley Battery could not locate the Japanese submarine in any searchlight beams, the gunners located it by observing its gun flashes at bearing 067 degrees and approx 5000 m. Four rounds were fired from Fort Scratchley Battery. After the fourth round was fired, there was no answering fire from the submarine. Personnel at Fort Scratchley reported that some Jap rounds fell left of their battery into the harbour and others appeared to pass overhead.
The Point of Impact for the 34 Shells Fired at Newcastle
Frank and his group at the Rail Battery had two Hothkiss 2 pounders. He thinks they were captured from the Germans in the First World War. They were dated 1919 on the breech The emplacements were still there recently. Frank was on the gun furthest away from Nobbys. Their job was to guard the river. They were informed of the movement of the tides so that if they saw anything moving against the tide they had orders to shoot. About the following weekend, Frank was on duty again and saw something moving up against the tide. He swung the gun around and fired. The soldier on the other gun must have seen it as well and fired his gun also. The next thing a mine sweeper, possibly HMAS Cowra, came down the river dropping depth charges, then the VDC opened up with their Vickers machine gun and there were tracers flying in all directions. They never ever found out if it was a submarine or not.
The Rail Battery was located on the breakwater under Nobbys Head. One gun was at the start of the breakwater and the other one was further along the breakwater about 100 yards from the first gun. The emplacements are still there.
Their quarters were on the shore below the first gun. Their food came from Fort Scratchley in a hot box. Washing facilities were either in the sea off the beach or up to the Fort. I think from memory the search light unit was between both guns. Frank has forgotten where the engine room was located. He knows it was driven by a Macdonald Imperial Diesel engine which run on kerosene. It had a 6 inch cylinder and was horizontal stroke. It had an 8 ft fly-wheel. They had a blow lamp which was lit and directed on the cylinder head till it got red hot, then they rocked the wheel back and forth until it kicked over. Sometimes it would go the wrong way and they would have to stop it and start again.
Ron Southgate told me that his father was stationed at Bob's Farm at this time with 41st Battalion. He recalls being told that one shell hit the main office of the steel works but did not explode, another hit the tram terminal at Nobby's but again this shell did not explode. Additionally he recalls that some of the guns (possibly randomly positioned for local defence around Nobby's) that returned fire on the submarine could not depress low enough to fire on the submarine because of their positioning. However on attempting to return fire, they managed to destroy part of the roof of the Electricity Commission office.
In 1980, Peter Doig was completing an urban survey study for University which involved a detailed door knock in a number of Newcastle suburbs. A few streets from the BHP steel works, just across the bridge, he interviewed an old couple (the man being 87 as he recalled). They lived in an 1890's type semi-terraced workers cottage. During the interview, he told Peter that one shell (it may have been more) came through the back wall of his house. He showed Peter were it came through. It didn't explode. He said that he was on night duty at the metal works at the time -- which was interesting, as he said that 4 rounds landed there also and did not explode. (Can anyone identify which house this was?) Peter Doig's description of the house location is as follows:- "If you face the ocean with the steel works in front of you, you will see a small bridge (I think it went over a railway line). Just over this bridge turn right; then after some metres turn left. I think his house was about six from the corner. If I had a street directory I could probably be more specific. Albeit, it is very close to the bridge. Just over the bridge opposite the works is a small group of shops."
Not long after the shelling started, a group of residents set up a search light at King Edward Park that was established for the cause to help Fort Scratchley locate the Japanese submarine. It proved useless since by the time it was fully set up, the submarine had gone and the surprise raid was over.
During the shelling of Newcastle, 4 shots were fired by the guns at Fort Scratchley at the Japanese submarine a few miles out at sea.
Extracts from Fort Scratchley War Diary
Time Line: 8 June 1942
On the morning of the bombing the HMAS Whyalla was docked on the city side of the port and was ordered to set sail out towards the submarine to fight for Newcastle.
A Singleton family by the name of Bradford had left their house in Singleton since it was so close to the airbase and bought a nice house near King Edward Park in Newcastle not too far from Fort Scratchley. The first Japanese attack on Newcastle awoke the whole family and they all gathered in the living room as shells whizzed above them. One of the eldest children remembers his mother saying "I think our boys are fighting in the wrong direction" and left to play the piano in the lounge room to drown out the sounds.
The only injury caused from the entire raid was that to a soldier on duty at Fort Scratchley who was sleeping during the raid. When he awoke to the explosions he leapt up quickly and twisted his ankle.
A boy, Peter Wilson and his brother, who were sleeping quietly in their Parnell Place enclosed verandah bedroom awoke to the first shells and simply watched from his window as rays of fire zoomed through the sky. It was only after the guns at Fort Scratchley began firing back, that his mother ran in and grabbed him and his brother and pulled them downstairs to the lounge room. At about that time a Japanese shell hit the house and destroyed the boys bedroom. In the Newcastle Morning Herald the following morning he was reported at "The Luckiest Boy in Town." All that remained in Peter's bedroom was a burnt iron bed, cut in two and the scatted remains of glass from his windows. There were two major injuries in the Parnell Place area.
When World War Two broke out, Novacastrians (Newcastle & Hunter Valley Residents) were told that it was a good idea to keep fragile windows open or replace them since the guns of Fort Scratchley were so strong the every window in the city's east end could be shattered. Most ignored this advice and when the guns were fired in the early hours of that morning most windows in the city cracked or smashed.
Jason Goulding recalls that in about 1993 a house that sits about 150-200 metres behind Fort Scratchley was being renovated. The workmen were removing the Hardie-plank cladding on the front of the house and noticed there were shrapnel holes in the original timber walls. Various people came to view it and it was in the Newcastle Herald at the time. They concluded it was from the Japanese shelling of WW2.
In February 1944, the Japanese submarine, I-21 which attacked Newcastle was sunk by an American vessel near Gilbert Islands in the Pacific.
It was also reported that Japanese planes had been mapping and spying on Newcastle since early May 1942. They had also reportedly recovered British maps of the area and used them to plan the attack.
The author would like to thank Matthew Endacott for his assistance with this home page, particularly with the details of where the 34 Japanese shells landed in Newcastle.
The author would like to thank Frank Zammitt NX112631, a "Gunner" at the Rail Battery at the time of the Japanese raid for his assistance with this home page.
The author would like to thank John Groves, Ron Southgate, Jason Goulding and Peter Doig for their assistance with this article.
Jenkins, David, "Battle Surface - Japan's Submarine War against Australia 1942 - 44", Random House Australia, 1992