Making Maps Under Fire: Surveying New Guinea in World War II

Filed in: War History  –  Author: JF Dowsett

HMAS Whyalla in camouflage in New Guinea

HMAS Whyalla in camouflage in New Guinea

On January 2nd 1943, the Australian Navy corvette HMAS Whyalla was anchored deep in the Maclaren Harbour inlet on the Cape Nelson Peninsula in New Guinea. She had been brought in close to the shoreline and camouflaged with a bewildering array of branches, vines and bushes that were doing their best to hide 730 tons of steel ship from the Imperial Japanese Air Service, who at that stage still menaced Allied naval operations in the area.

Like a lightning storm a force of 18 Japanese dive bombers approached undetected and attacked in a terrifyingly determined manner. The Whyalla had field survey parties out on duty and her two tenders, the requisitioned trawlers HMAS Stella and Polaris, were sounding off the harbour entrance. Several bombs narrowly missed the Whyalla, which suffered damage from debris and two casualties – members of the bridge Oerlikon gun crew who were seriously wounded.

The splashes from these near-misses raised several tons of water which deluged the bridge and washed the commanding officer’s map sheets overboard. They were found floating on the surface sometime later and, although legible, the accuracy of the drawings was ruined and the work had to be replotted – an intolerable labour which evidently was only remedied by violent expletives against all Japanese and a torrent of oaths that promised the inflicting of epic reprisals.

The Royal Australian Navy Hydrographic Survey Service

RAN Hydrographic Branch Dept. September 1944

RAN Hydrographic Branch Dept. September 1944 [Image courtesy Dowsett Memorial Library]

In September 1942 when the operations to evict the Japanese from their foothold at Buna were being planned, it was found that to reach Buna was no simple task. It was not possible to carry heavy equipment over the difficult Kokoda Trail, and seaborne transport was considered the only practical method for carrying sufficient men and equipment to the fighting area. Two sea routes were open to use by Allied shipping, one to the east and north of the Trobriand Islands was a deep-sea route, fairly clear of navigational dangers, but could not be used at that stage without exposing Allied forces to disastrous attacks from enemy aircraft and submarines. In addition, it was necessary to wait until sufficient amphibious craft were available in the area, as an attack to the north of Buna could only be made in force.

HMAS Stella (later Warreen)

HMAS Stella (later Warreen)

The duty of surveying the northeastern New Guinea coastline in preparation for the future campaigns was undertaken in November by two small vessels, HMAS Polaris and Stella, under the command of Lt-Commander G. D. Tancred and Lieutenant J. Cody, RAN. These two ships were joined shortly after by HMAS Whyalla, under the command of Lt-Commander K. E. Oom, RAN. On the personnel of these three vessels fell the arduous duties, during the following six months, of fulfilling the requirements of this surveying program, during which the surveyors and men worked hard for long hours, fixing and running lines of soundings, erecting beacons, and observing under hostile conditions.

As operations advanced northwards, the strength of the surveying service was augmented by the addition of HMAS Shepparton, and later in June 1942 by HMAS Benalla. In addition, a number of requisitioned tenders was assigned to the group and at the end of 1943 HMAS Moresby was commissioned for surveying duties. Thus, as time went on, the force increased considerably in numbers, with the consequent increase in the scope of the service’s abilities.

Cape Ward Hunt, Papua. 1944-05-20. Mitre Rock north of Cape Ward Hunt. The survey vessel HMAS Moresby was despatched to repair the navigation light that had recently been placed on top of Mitre Rock. A party from the Moresby repaired the light and the vessel remained at anchor overnight to ensure the light was operating.

Cape Ward Hunt, Papua. 1944-05-20. Mitre Rock north of Cape Ward Hunt. The survey vessel HMAS Moresby was later despatched to repair the navigation light that had recently been placed on top of Mitre Rock. A party from the Moresby repaired the light and the vessel remained at anchor overnight to ensure the light was operating.

Once during late 1942, HMAS Cape Leeuwin had been assigned the duty of erecting the light on Mitre Rock, a notorious landmark on the northeast coast of New Guinea. This imposing rock, which is forty feet high, is practically inaccessible and only by erecting special ladders could the upper portion of the stone cliff be reached. A midshipman was sent to get up through the undergrowth and secure a rope to the summit by which access could be achieved. He had not penetrated far before he became aware of the million or so local inhabitants – a particularly vicious type of ant rare to the coast region which set upon him with carnivorous enthusiasm, being the first meat they had encountered on that barren rock in aeons. In order to get down he had first to secure the rope, and thus was forced to carry on to the top. When this excruciating task was done, the watchers below were startled to see the midshipman fling himself out of the undergrowth, shoot down the rope in a skin-burning slide and then, without pause, dive headlong into the sea. It was quickly discovered that no man could work on the top, and that even the locals, who were requisitioned to cut down the undergrowth, went on a sit-down strike and refused to do “work belong bloody Navy”. Finally the ants were only culled by burning off the rock’s top with the assistance of fuel oil, petrol and cordite.

The survey of the extraordinarily deep gulf of Milne Bay was also undertaken by the Whyalla and the other vessels. Some parts of Milne Bay had been surveyed by the surveyors of HMS Dart as far back as 1885, but much of it required re-examination by modern methods. This was especially emphasized by the most recent survey of the Killerton Anchorage, which had previously been examined by Lieutenants Dawson and Messum of the Dart in 1886. In the southern entrance, right on the leading line, a rock with only eight feet of water covering it was discovered.

HMAS Shepparton (J248)

HMAS Shepparton (J248)

On weighing anchor next morning and proceeding out through the eastern entrance in the first light of dawn, the Whyalla discovered an extensive reef by running aground on it. Where the previous surveyors had marked thirteen fathoms, was indeed a reef a hundred yards in width with less than three feet of water covering it. During the next forty-eight hours, until the Whyalla floated itself off the reef unaided and undamaged, the surveyors had time to ruminate on the problem: “…did the coral grow out of over seventy feet of water in that time, or were the oysters on the reef so good that the earlier surveyors wished to keep the news hidden from other hungry seamen?” In honour of this unique event the two discoveries were called Messum Rock and Dawson Reef, which – although contravening accepted principles in nomenclature and awarding honour to whom it was least due – gave a subtle feeling of satisfaction, if not an answer to the conundrum in question.

The part played by the Surveying Services of the Royal Australian Navy was acknowledged by the Allied leaders of the Southwest Pacific Area as an integral factor contributing to the success of their campaigns in New Guinea. These surveys were later published in a set of charts that would also become vital to the safe navigation of ships in that area, both during the period of amphibious naval operations and equally important in guiding merchant ships supplying the varied units in forward areas.

The survey group continued to work between the New Guinea mainland and the D’Entrecastaux Islands where they were within 11 miles of Japanese forces and under frequent air attack, taking shelter in the mangroves. HMAS Stella and Polaris also went on to survey the landing routes at Salamaua and Finschhaven under covering fire from the corvettes Shepparton and Benalla.

The group was much decorated for these ventures; receiving the battle honours Pacific 1942–45, New Guinea 1942–44, and Okinawa 1945.

 

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27 comments

  1. I was in Williamstown the other day and saw the HMAS Castlemaine which was the same class as the Whyalla. Very interesting. I posted a couple of photos. Unfortunately I have had to go private but if you click the WP prompt I will open the door for you.

    Like

  2. Just when I thought I had all my questions pretty much answered about WWII you raise another one which really in the back of my mind I wondered about. Your posts are always worth reading. You should compile them in a book!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I just heard today – Monday 20th – that there is a new monument to the Z Force. I believe it was opened today. I think you are the best person to write about it. I know there has been a bit said about the Krait but only you can properly honour the whole of those blokes. I wait for your post.

    Liked by 1 person

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