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The cruiser HMAS Australia II and the Pacific War on Japan

In 1924, the grand old battle cruiser HMAS Australia I was sunk off Sydney Heads. Once she had been the pride of the navy and the nation. She had saved Australia from an attack by a German squadron in the Pacific in World War I.

But after the war she was obsolete, and a victim in the race to disarm after WWI. It was a day of national mourning when they blew the bottom out of her; she went to her sea grave smothered in flowers and wreaths sent from around the country.

Four years later, in 1928, the RAN acquired a new ship of the same name, the fast and modern heavy cruiser HMAS Australia II. During the Depression of the early 30s the navy virtually rotted on the beach – until the world so belatedly awoke to the menace of Hitler's Germany.

Australia saw her first action of World War II against the Vichy French, during the abortive 1940 attempt to install the young General de Gaulle as free French leader in Dakar, West Africa. She patrolled the North Atlantic on the lookout for German battleships and – in a feat of amazing seamanship – rescued the crew of a downed RAF Coastal Command aircraft in the teeth of an Atlantic gale. She was later bombed by the Luftwaffe in Liverpool.

Australia returned home to join the war against the Japanese, as the flagship of the RAN. Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane were flooded with Americans 'overpaid, oversexed and over here'. Many Australian servicemen resented the Yanks and their magnetic attraction for the local girls. The so-called Battle of Brisbane in 1942 was two days and nights of out-of-control brawling and rioting, with the Americans on one side and the Australians on the other. One Australian was killed, and dozens of other men were wounded. The whole affair was heavily censored.

In March 1942, the ship was stunned by a murder. One night at sea a sailor, Stoker Riley, was found stabbed and bleeding to death on the fo'c's'le. Before he died, he named his two attackers, fellow stokers Gordon and Elias. They'd tried to kill him, he said, because he'd threatened to expose their homosexual activities in the ship. At a hastily arranged court martial, Gordon and Elias were found guilty and sentenced to death under British Admiralty law. That provoked a major constitutional row, because the death penalty did not apply in Australia. Eventually they were reprieved.

Only weeks later Australia fought in the Battle of the Coral Sea near Papua New Guinea, the first sea battle to stop the Japanese advance in the Pacific. She was heavily attacked and bombed from the air but, with brilliant ship-handling, escaped unscathed.

That luck did not last. In 1944 she took part in the greatest sea fight of all time, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which returned the American General Douglas MacArthur to the Philippines. Australia was struck by a kamikaze bomber, killing her captain and 28 other men.

The next year, 1945, she was hit again and again, by no fewer than four kamikaze planes on four successive days, with another 44 men killed. She was, in fact, attacked by more kamikaze aircraft than any other allied ship in WWII.

That ended her war. She retired gracefully, laden with battle honours, and was scrapped in 1956 – the last of her name, for the navy no longer uses Australia for its ships.

Reviews

Author and broadcaster Mike Carlton has a lifelong commitment to Australian naval history. Flagship is his third book in a magnificent four-part series ... Meticulously researched, finely written and well-structured ...utterly absorbing. Carefully placed in historical context by Carlton, our naval exploits during World War II are intertwined with fascinating individual life stories ... Carlton also deals in sensitive detail with a number of Japanese admirals and commanders, as well as their crew and families.

Ross Fitzgerald, Australian

Mike Carlton is now distinguished by his own efforts with the pen as an able chronicler of the Royal Australian Navy ... [his] skills -- together with his empathetic assessments of our naval traditions -- are again prominent in his new book, Flagship ... an impressive book in a number of dimensions ... Carlton moves briskly and purposefully, with a clear determination to tell not only the story of Australia and her sister ships, but of the RAN at that point in our military history when imperial reliance upon Britain evolved into the challenge of alliance with the emerging power of the United States.

Stephen Loosley, The Strategist, Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Why is there such a blind spot in the general knowledge of the RAN’s role in the Pacific? What accounts for this national amnesia? It may owe much to the lack, until now, of one good book which is available and easily read by any who wish to learn what happened to Australian sailors at war in the Pacific. Australia’s naval history in World War II is a significant part of the nation’s story and deserves to be formally taught to each generation. Flagship is the book every school could use for this purpose.

Australian Naval Institute

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Formats & editions

  • Trade Paperback

    9780857987785

    August 14, 2017

    William Heinemann Australia

    656 pages

    RRP $34.99

    Online retailers

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  • Hardback

    9780857987778

    August 1, 2016

    William Heinemann Australia

    656 pages

    RRP $49.99

    Online retailers

    • Abbey's Bookshop
    • Angus & Robertson Bookworld
    • Booktopia
    • Boomerang Books
    • Collins Booksellers
    • Dymocks
    • Books Kinokuniya
    • The Nile
    • QBD
    • Readings
    • Robinsons Bookshop
    Or

    Find your local bookstore at booksellers.org.au

  • EBook

    9780857987792

    August 1, 2016

    Random House Australia

    656 pages

    Online retailers

    • iBooks
    • Amazon Kindle
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    Or

    Find your local bookstore at booksellers.org.au

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Death from Above

The terrifying Kamikaze threat to our flagship, HMAS Australia.

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The Last of Her Kind

Mike Carlton introduces the incredible story of the Flagship HMAS Australia II.

Book List
Floating Past

Breathtaking Australian naval histories told by journalist Mike Carlton.

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