The Battle That Saved Australia

The Battle of the Coral Sea, fought in May 1942 off Australia’s east coast, was a significant engagement between units of the Imperial Japanese Navy, and those of the US Navy and the RAN. Although the battle was not decisive, its result carried significant outcomes affecting the later Battle of Midway. Further, it signalled the demise of the battleship as the most important element of naval fleets, heralding the arrival of the aircraft carrier as its replacement. It was the first battle in which the opposing ships did not sight each other, and did not come within gun range.

Following Pearl Harbor, the Japanese forces had achieved remarkable success. They had attacked down the Malayan Peninsula and seized Singapore. The Philippines had fallen and General Douglas MacArthur, the supreme general of the Allied effort, had retreated south to Melbourne. They had achieved landings and consolidation through the islands that constitute what is now Indonesia.

Emboldened by their achievements, the Japanese commanders next planned to take and hold New Guinea. This would allow them to control the eastern seaboard of Australia, and thus deny this strategically placed continent to be used as an aircraft carrier by the British and Americans. Australia, Japan believed, would be too weak to stand by itself and eventually fall to the Japanese.

An invasion from the north, around the eastern end of New Guinea, to land in Port Moresby, was planned. A Japanese task force, focused on the light carrier Shoho, was placed to stop any interception. Two heavy carriers, the Shokaku and Zuikaku, were also placed to intercede where necessary. Two Allied task forces under Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher, centred around the carriers Yorktown and Lexington, manoeuvred to engage this force and stop the landings. However, due to a combination of weather and poor scouting, both forces had difficulty locating each other. Reconnaissance at sea was notoriously difficult in those days: ships seen from enough height for the searching aircraft to stay out of gun range were often misidentified. This characterised the early phases of the engagement: for three days the Allies searched for the Japanese, achieving little except a May 3 attack on the island of Tulagi, which was under assault by their enemy.

On May 7 both sides made serious errors. The Allied task force was split, with eight ships led by the heavy cruiser Australia sent off to destroy any invasion fleet. The remainder of the force, unaware of the true size of the enemy ranged against them, sent off an aerial strike force against what was reported to be “two carriers and four cruisers.” By good fortune the aerial forces spotted Shoho and her covering force and attacked. The ship was hit by 13 bombs and seven torpedoes and sunk. Meanwhile the Japanese force had sent off a strike element against what their reconnaissance told them was “a carrier and a cruiser” but actually was a US refuelling ship and a destroyer. Both were sunk.

By now the Japanese were aware of their danger and withdrew the landing force. Their carrier group continued to hunt for the main Allied units, and sent out an aerial strike force in the late afternoon. In poor weather, the Japanese planes could not find their target, and had to jettison their weapons to make it back to the carriers. They flew straight over the top of their enemy with predictably disastrous results: only seven of the 27 aircraft made it back to their ships.

The morning of May 8 heralded the first proper carrier battle in history. Both sides’ aircraft sorties found their targets. Shokaku was hit by two bombs and her flight deck damaged while a fire broke out in the vessel’s bow. The Japanese pilots hit Lexington with two torpedoes and two bombs, setting her on fire, and Yorktown was hit by a heavy bomb. The Lexington’s fires could not be controlled and she eventually sank. The Japanese lost 42 aircraft; the Americans 33.

The result of this long and patchy fight was significant: the Japanese attack on Port Moresby had been prevented, although Japan could still claim a tactical victory: Lexington was a much more significant loss than the far less capable Shoho. They also thought that their planned invasion of Midway Island would be strengthened by the Americans’ loss.  But neither Shokaku and Zuikaku would be able to participate in this battle. The Japanese check at the Battle of the Coral Sea was to turn to disaster at Midway, and begin the end of their rising fortunes.

Dr Tom Lewis OAM is a military historian. His recent book for upper primary/lower secondary school children, Australia Remembers 4: the Bombing of Darwin, was recently released by Big Sky Publishing

  • Ian MacDougall

    In military history, at least from the battles of Marathon (490 BC) onwards, there are many turning points which have decided the course of civilisation downstream from that event. The Battle of the Coral Sea is one such.

  • Peter Marriott

    Thanks Tom. Interesting piece, as all of your’s are for me.

  • STD

    Dare say the Chinese are manoeuvring in order to plagiarise the Japanese. Thou shall not covet.
    Always heartening Tom.

  • Watchman Williams

    The “Battle that saved Australia” only saved it for a time. The enemy within – the political class – has accomplished what the Japanese didn’t.

  • whitelaughter

    The Battle of the Coral Sea was the true turning point of the war, yes. But had it been lost, Australia would still have been able to fight. Yes, losing PNG would have been tragic. Yes, the opportunity to occupy New Caledonia would have made supply from/to the USA much harder. But even then, OZ was a lot harder to defeat that we realised.

  • cbattle1

    May I speak for Imperial Japan? After all, the war is over……… There was no initial plan or need to invade Australia. As Imperial Japan saw things, it had as much right to be a strong industrialised nation as the European powers, and to accomplish that end, it would need access to raw materials, and markets to sell its manufactured goods. The European powers obtained those raw materials and markets by establishing colonies in the Americas, Africa and Asia. The thirteen former British colonies in America, after gaining independence and federating into a new nation state, realised their destiny by expansion westward within the North American continent, and lastly took possession of the Philippines and Guam after its war with Spain. The logical step for Japan, to realise its destiny in parity with the other powers, was to colonise Korea and China, and it vigorously pursued that object. However, Japan came under increasing criticism, condemnation and then economic sanctions for its aggressive military expansion into China, by those other powers. Finally, those aforementioned colonial powers threatened to cut off Japan’s vital supplies of petroleum, rubber, tin and rice that it had to import from the South-East Asian colonies of the Europeans.
    Japan naturally felt insulted, indignant and aggrieved by the attitude of the Europeans and Americans, and perceived a component of racial superiority was active within the mindset of the White colonial powers in Asia. Japan felt that the only way to assert its equal right as a colonial power was to wage war against its enemies, and in true Bushido spirit, it was not lacking in its pursuit of that policy. After all, what right had the Europeans and Americans to their colonies? To this end, the Japanese devised the “Greater South-East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere”, which envisioned the ousting of the non-Asian colonisers, and theoretically, the liberation of South-East Asian peoples so that they could trade freely with Japan to the mutual benefit of both parties.
    As the island of New Guinea was in the possession of the Dutch and Australians, it too was part of the “decolonisation” plan. After the Battle of the Coral Sea, a seaborne landing at Port Moresby was no longer possible, and so the plan had to be continued via the overland route of the Kakoda Track. Against great odds, the Imperial Japanese forces fought their way within a “cooee” of Port Moresby, stopped only by the artillery present there, and the near impossibility of maintaining their forces over such a supply line forced their retreat. (The Japanese artillery was of smaller calibre, and had to be carried in pieces up and down the ridges of the Track, and the of course the ammunition and all other supplies had to be carried by shoulder and pack over that increasingly long supply line.)
    The great irony of all that terrible warfare in SE Asia is that the victors lost those colonies there anyway, and the defeat of Japan by the Allies freed China to grow and prosper and now assert its perceived rightful place among the other world powers! And now it is China that is being criticised and condemned by those who once sought to contain Imperial Japan! The only threat to Australia, as I see it, comes from within Australia itself!

  • Ian MacKenzie

    cbattle1, the fundamental difference between colonization of the western US and the Japanese colonization of Korea and attempted colonization of China is that the western US was populated by hunter-gatherers, but Korea and China were populated civilisations older than that of the Japanese. Neither Korea nor China benefitted from their interactions with Japan in the first half of the twentieth century. Both are almost certainly worse off now than they would have been had the Japanese stayed at home; China and North Korea both still suffering under oppressive Stalinist regimes brought to power during the Pacific War.
    It is perhaps instructive to consider the cost in lives caused by Japan’s unsuccessful attempts at colonization and the Pacific War which they initiated. Chinese casualties (dead and wounded) were more than 10 million, with some estimates up to 35 million. Kuomintang General Ho Ying-chin estimated the property loss suffered by the Chinese at 383 billion US dollars according to the currency exchange rate in July 1937, roughly 50 times the gross domestic product of Japan at that time (US$7.7 billion). In addition, the war created 95 million Chinese refugees. Between a half and one million Filipino civilians died due to either war-related shortages, massacres, or other military action. There were some 426,000 American casualties and 235,000 Commonwealth casualties. At least 800,000 Japanese civilians and over 2 million Japanese soldiers died during the war. As Korea participated in the Pacific War as a Japanese colony, their casualties are included in the Japanese statistics.
    Under Emperor Hirohito, the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy perpetrated numerous war crimes which resulted in the deaths of millions of people through massacre, human experimentation, starvation, and forced labor that was either directly perpetrated or condoned by the Japanese military and government. There are still Korean “comfort women”, who were forced into Japanese military brothels in their teens, seeking compensation today.
    However much Imperial Japan may have “ felt insulted, indignant and aggrieved by the attitude of the Europeans and Americans”, there is no possible excuse for the enormous devastation caused by Japan’s pursuit of power in the first half of the twentieth century.

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.