The Japanese midget submarine’s 4,000km journey to Canberra

31 October 2018

By Hugh Cullimore

With the entry of three Japanese midget submarines into Sydney Harbour on the night of 31 May 1942 coming three months after the first wave of Japanese bombing on Darwin, many Australians were worried about the country’s vulnerability to Japanese attack. 

While none of the Japanese submarines would make it back to their “mother” submarine, Midget 24 (M-24) was able to fire its torpedoes before being scuttled. Despite missing its target, the American Heavy Cruiser USS Chicago, one of its torpedoes hit the Royal Australian Navy depot ship HMAS Kuttabul, killing 21 navy ratings.  

HMAS Kuttabul, a converted Sydney Harbour ferry,  on which 21 ratings were killed, shown here after sinking.

HMAS Kuttabul, a converted Sydney Harbour ferry,  on which 21 ratings were killed, shown here after sinking.

The other two submarines, Midget 22 (M-22) and Midget 27 (M-27), were captured in a damaged state. M-27 had detonated its own 35 kg scuttling charge following its entanglement in a submarine net. M-22 was damaged by depth charges from Allied vessels and relocated before further critical damage. M-24 would leave Sydney Harbour at 1.58 am on 1 June, and was found 64 years later in 2006 by amateur divers off the coast of Sydney’s northern beaches.

While the mission was a Japanese failure, the two captured midget submarines would prove to be prized assets for the Australian home front. Following their extraction from Sydney Harbour and subsequent investigation and examination, the damaged submarines were dismantled and placed together to make up a complete craft.

This composite midget submarine toured Australia’s south-east during 1942 and 1943, starting in Sydney, completing a loop down to Adelaide and ending at the Australian War Memorial, where it remains today in ANZAC Hall. The submarine covered some 4,000 kilometres during its journey, all the while raising money for the Royal Australian Naval Relief Fund and the King George V Fund for Merchant Seamen.

M-22 being raised by the bows from the Harbour by a floating crane, 10 July 1942.

M-22 being raised by the bows from the Harbour by a floating crane, 10 July 1942.

On 30 July 1942, the composite submarine went on public display at Bennelong Park, Fort Macquarie. At the exhibition, opened by Acting Premier Jack Baddeley, souvenirs from the recovered submarines – from electric lamps to non-descript pieces of piping and other materials ­– were sold at public auction. With items ranging in price from one shilling to five pounds, a total of 30 pounds was raised. The two highest prices achieved were for cartridges recovered from “a submarine commander’s revolver,” which were sold for five and three pounds to the wife of the US Consul-General, Ely Palmer, and the Consul General for Denmark, Count Schack respectively. Today the Australian War Memorial holds within its collection several of the souvenirs auctioned that day , each accompanied with a souvenir tag.

Black Bakelite from the Japanese midget submarine with fundraising souvenir tag.

Black Bakelite from the Japanese midget submarine with fundraising souvenir tag.

The composite midget submarine would then stay on display at Fort Macquarie until 27 September 1942, attracting some 230,000 paying visitors and raising 14,000 pounds for the Royal Australian Naval Relief Fund and the King George V Fund for Merchant Seamen.

At the closure of the exhibition in Sydney, the submarine sections were loaded on to trucks and taken to Newcastle for display from 3-18 October, attracting a further 22,000 visitors and raising another 1,100 pounds. Following a return to Sydney the submarine parts were loaded onto custom modified trailers, and began the journey to Melbourne. After s topping at several towns along the way – including Goulburn, Canberra, Yass, Wagga Wagga, Tarcutta, and Albury – the submarine went on display at the Old Engineers’ Depot on Alexandra Avenue in Melbourne on 27 November 1942.

Prior to the submarine’s arrival, the Lord Mayor of Melbourne had made an application to bring the composite submarine into the town hall – a plan that never came to fruition. Regardless, the submarine convoy was greeted by thousands of people as it was paraded through the city centre to Alexandra Gardens in the city centre.

Crowds watch from balconies as the mid-section of the Japanese midget submarine is towed through Melbourne city centre. c. 22–27 November 1942.

Crowds watch from balconies as the mid-section of the Japanese midget submarine is towed through Melbourne city centre. c. 22–27 November 1942.

At the opening of the exhibition, several more souvenir parts of the submarine were auctioned, with the highest price paid being two pounds for a pressure gauge. The arrival in Melbourne prompted another souvenir that was initially made for sale exclusively in Melbourne: lead models of the midget submarine cast from lead from the batteries and ballast of the submarines. Today the Australian War Memorial holds several of these in its collection.

Small Japanese midget submarine lead model souvenir.

Small Japanese midget submarine lead model souvenir.

The composite submarine attracted some 140,000 people over a nine week period in Melbourne, raising a further 7,200 pounds, 1,100 pounds of which came from the sale of souvenirs. At its peak, the Melbourne exhibit attracted 15,466 people in one day, exceeding Sydney’s high of 14,325. From the opening of the exhibit in Sydney until leaving Melbourne, some 387,000 people had seen the submarine, raising 22,600 pounds.  

The submarine was then sent to Adelaide, with stops in Geelong, Colac, Camperdown, Terang, Warrnambool, Port Fairy, Hamilton, Heywood, Bordertown, Portland, Mount Gambier, Millicent, Kingston, Tailem Bend, Murray Bridge and Aldgate. In Adelaide the submarine was set up at the Torrens Parade Ground near the city centre, where it would spend almost a month (6 March–2 April 1943). During this period, a further 49,867 people viewed the submarine, raising 2,367 pounds.

Rear view of part of the wreckage of the Japanese midget submarine, being towed by a Diamond T Model 980 in November 1942. Photograph by John Goggs.

Rear view of part of the wreckage of the Japanese midget submarine, being towed by a Diamond T Model 980 in November 1942. Photograph by John Goggs.

After a successful visit to Adelaide, the submarine and its group of escorts (those who accompanied the submarine had seen active service in Europe) made its way to what would become its permanent home, the Australian War Memorial. Its route to Canberra featured stops in Murray Bridge, Keith, Bordertown, Nhill, Horsham, Ararat, Bendigo, Shepparton, Benalla, and Wangaratta. When the submarine reached the Australian War Memorial, however, the component parts were too large to fit through the Memorial’s doors. A temporary outdoor display area was quickly erected, where the composite submarine would stay for many years before later taking pride of place in ANZAC Hall.

Throughout its journey around Australia, the submarine was viewed by some half a million people in New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia, and raised around 28,000 pounds. Leftover postcards and souvenirs were then given to the Australian War Memorial to raise further funds.

Effect on the public

As well as raising a large sum of money, the tour had an important impact on the Australian psyche, showing the Australian public, particularly those in country New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia, just how close the Japanese were coming to Australian shores. While those parts of the country that were not visited had heard about the submarine, there was a sense of victory spread throughout the towns that were visited. On 29 October 1942, the Adelaide-based News wrote:

"something has happened to the Japanese midget submarines – something that would shame Tojo… Instead of lurking under the ocean to sink ships, they have been mounted on wheels to tour Australia just like a circus."

During the tour, people would sign their names on the submarine. During it 4,000km journey, there was a British ensign flying above the submarine, emphasising this small victory over the Japanese.

A lady chalks the name “Edith” on a section of the submarine in Melbourne between 30 November 1942 and 3 February 1943.

A lady chalks the name “Edith” on a section of the submarine in Melbourne between 30 November 1942 and 3 February 1943.

The Japanese attack on Sydney Harbour on the night of 31 May 1942 would be the closest that the Japanese fleet would make it to the economic heart of Australia. For many Australians, the midget submarine demonstrated the existence of an immediate threat. Seeing the submarine that had been pulled out of Sydney Harbour was physical proof not only of the force on Australia’s doorstep, but was also evidence that the Australian people were able to subdue this force and make a “circus” out of it.