“Guns Loaded, Target In Sight!” – Major Ralph Shelley MANSFIELD, Battery Commander – Middle Head Gun Battery the night that Sydney Harbour was Attacked!

Major Ralph Shelley MANSFIELD was battery commander of the guns at Middle Head (Sydney Harbour) on the night that the Japanese midget submarine attack took place on the 31st of May, 1942.  Born on the 12th of March, 1915 at Woollahra in Sydney; he would find himself in the very unique situation of defending Australia against the Japanese ….. in the general vicinity of his birth.  A Militia Officer in the A.M.F (Australian Military Forces) with the service number N73408, he transferred to the A.I.F on the 20th of August, 1942 and was allocated the service number NX105767.

The following narrative is part of a transcript; of an interview conducted between himself and his daughter Jennifer LAMB during 1999 and covers the period in Australia’s history when the very heart of Sydney was audaciously attacked by three Japanese midget submarines.  This attack resulted in the sinking of the naval depot ship, KUTTABUL and the loss of 21 allied lives.  It is the first in a series of personal histories which has been generously supplied to support the KUTTABUL COMMEMORATION PROJECT and reproduced with the kind permission of Ralph’s family.

IMAGE RIGHT: Major Ralph Shelley MANSFIELD photographed on ‘West Head’ in Sydney Harbour during the Second World War.

Major Ralph MANSFIELD:- I was moved to Middle Head at the end of 1941 as the Battery Commander.  The Battery Commander of the guns at Middle Head – the two 6 inch guns – was actually what was called the Inner Defence Fire Commander, so I was responsible for all the harbour defence water-wise.  There were other small Batteries – there was Shelley Bay and other very small ones – stationed around the harbour; Shelley Bay is just the other side of Manly.   Then there were smaller Beauforth guns at each end of the boom gate that went across the Harbour during the war.  I was responsible for all their running and functioning and everything else.  There was another lot of guns over at Parsley Bay – I am talking about Coast Artillery guns.

INTERVIEWER:- So you were responsible for things coming in by water

Major Ralph MANSFIELD:- By water only, not by air.  That was when the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary came in.  We were notified that they were coming.  We were sitting at Middle Head that morning and we saw the Queen Mary in the distance come around and head for the opening and come in at full speed – about 20 knots – round and down the harbour.  It was incredible.  Didn’t want the tugs at all, wasn’t interested in tugs.  It went down the harbour, it stopped, it turned around, faced north east and put its anchor down.  Magnificent sight, seamanship.

INTERVIEWER:- Why did they come in so fast?

Major Ralph MANSFIELD:- To be able to have full control of their turning; if they go slowly, they can’t keep rudder control.  It came through at full speed through the Heads; we thought they were going to come up on the rocks.  They were troopships then – they were completely gutted here and all the bunks put in.

IMAGE LEFT: The Queen Mary in harbour.  Launched in 1934 by Queen Mary herself, she served as a luxury cruise liner until converted to a troopship during 1940.  Her best defence against attack by a submarine was her speed.  She survived the war and now rests at Long Beach, California as a museum.

The Japanese Midget Submarine Attack – 31 May 1942

Major Ralph MANSFIELD:- We mustn’t forget, also, that the Japanese submarines came in on 31 May 1942 when I was the Inner Defence Fire Commander.  That is a story in itself: the Japanese submarines coming in.

What actually happened was that it was 8 o’clock at night, and, of course, during the war we had both searchlights going at Middle Head: one that went from North Head to South Head, just swinging slowly from Middle Head over to the North Head entrance and over to the South Head entrance of the Harbour; the other searchlight was stationary from Middle Head straight across to South Head – so any ships coming in would be illuminated by the searchlights.   The left hand number one searchlight on the north side of Middle Head was moving across the Heads backwards and forwards slowly so if anything came through the Heads you would see it. The other searchlight was stationary so that anything coming into the Harbour we could see it also. With the searchlights we could see any unidentified ships or submarines. And this is what happened.

At 8 o’clock on that night the number 1 searchlight was searching from South Head across to North Head when suddenly we saw this periscope go right in front of us.  We thought: “God!”   I rang up the Fire Commander and said that Middle Head (or Mead Battery which was our code) was opening fire on an unidentified submarine at only 2,500 yard range and a bearing of 044 (I think it was, from memory) – right in front of us.  The Fire Commander acknowledged it.  I had both the guns loaded.  I had told the guns to put in HE – fire explosive shells – and to get onto the submarine.  They could see the periscope, and both guns reported back: “Guns loaded; target in sight.”  I was just going to give the order to fire when the phone rang and the Fire Commander said: “Mead Battery, do not open fire on the submarines, the navy is taking over.”  In another three seconds I would have fired on the submarines.  I was a damn fool, I should have fired but I didn’t – because the Fire Commander told me not to fire because the Navy was taking over.  The Navy took an hour and a half to get there.  The submarine that we missed was the one that got caught in the net – that was only about a quarter of an hour after we were told not to fire on it as the navy was taking over.*

INTERVIEWER:- Would they have known they were in your sights?

Major Ralph MANSFIELD:- They would not have known about the guns, but they would have known there was a searchlight on them because the periscope was up and they would have seen the light.  They were moving very, very slowly.  They were getting themselves into position so that when the ferry went through the western boomgate they could follow that ferry in.  When any ferry or boat approached, they would open the boomgate, let the ferry or boat through and close it again.  That was why we had the number 2 searchlight which was always illuminating that area across to Watson’s Bay.

The submarines were landed by their mother submarine about 10-15 miles off the Heads.  They were not picked up by some of the other batteries with their gear, but, of course, they did not have the searchlights on outside the Heads.  We were the first ones to pick them up.  Three came in, two were sunk and one disappeared – they never found it.  The first one caught in the boomgate; it must have been following a ferry and misjudged the net, got caught in the net and blew itself up.  Another was found inside the Harbour in Taylor Bay and it was destroyed, but the third one that came in, they never found it.   It still must be somewhere in the Harbour, because, definitely, there were three submarines that entered the Harbour and were launched by the mother ship.

INTERVIEWER:- When you were given the order not to shoot, did you keep the submarine in sight? Were you able to train the searchlight on it?

Major Ralph MANSFIELD:- We kept our searchlight on it until it disappeared – it just went down.  As soon as it got to near where the boomgate was, it must have submerged – or pulled its periscope down and gone in.  The boomgate went right down to the bottom.  It was a net, pulled over by cables. It was like a great big fishing net, really.  A huge steel thing, very effective.  There was a boomgate on the western end and a boomgate on the eastern end.  The boomgate was opened for the Manly ferry and followed it.

When the submarine got jammed in the net, the first thing we knew about it was when we received a request from the Fire Commander to swing the number 2 searchlight around to the eastern side of the western gate because there was something there.  When we did move round our searchlight, we could see a man and a dinghy there.  Then a navy auxiliary patrol vessel went across to where the man in the dinghy was, and the man in the dinghy then rowed away.  On the navy auxiliary patrol vessel we could see a man at the stern; he had a boat hook and he was prodding the submarine because it was only about 10 feet under the water.  The next minute the submarine set off its charges inside it; they had demolishing charges – one in the stern and one in the bow – and the one in the stern blew up the one in the bow.  Of course the stern of the navy auxiliary patrol vessel shot out of the water, lifted up in a huge  rush of water, colossal water spout.  It made a bee line for Obelisk Bay and went aground there because it was leaking so badly. When the first submarine got jammed in the net and blew itself up, there was alarm and then all the ships started to come out.  In the meantime, the second submarine fired its torpedoes at the USS Chicago, then, as I said, all the vessels were coming out, the battle ships were coming out, the submarines were coming out – a great shemozzle for the rest of the night.

INTERVIEWER:- It blew up the Kuttabul – what was that?

Major Ralph MANSFIELD:- That was a punt that had been converted into accommodation for sailors and it was stationed against a wharf at Garden Island.  There were 19 men on board who were drowned.  The submarine fired its two torpedoes on the USS Chicago, but, fortunately for the Chicago, the 2 torpedoes, instead of going straight into the stern of the Chicago, started to veer out, missed the Chicago on both sides, and the left hand one hit underneath the Kuttabul and blew it up, and the right hand side one went up onto the rocks at Garden Island and made a helluva bang.

Then the panic was on.  You can just imagine.  The USS Chicago was firing at nothing – they reckoned they saw the submarine but didn’t – and they were firing anti-aircraft guns, and they were firing other guns – dear, oh dear, it was a helluva shemozzle.  There were a lot of other American ships in the Harbour, together with our own battle ships, and there were 2 Dutch submarines.  They all came out through the open boomgate, right out to the sea.  Panic stations the whole night, because they didn’t know how many submarines were inside.

All the ships getting the hell out of the Harbour went on all night.  Also there were Navy auxiliary boats which were small – nappies we called them: they were boats that were converted, with depth charges on the back of them, and some of them even had little 40mm guns on them.  They were going into Taylor Bay, which is the bay just the Manly side of the zoo entrance – and they were going in and dropping their depth charges there.  That is when they finally sank another submarine – that was the second one.  The first one was blown up when it was jammed in the net, the second one was sunk in Taylor Bay, and the third one they never found.+

INTERVIEWER:- So the second one must have sneaked in

Major Ralph MANSFIELD:- It must have sneaked in with all the kerfuffle, yes, it would have sneaked in then.  There were three submarines, definitely.  The first was the one we saw, the second must have sneaked in, and the third one must have sneaked in also.  There definitely was a third one in there – it was seen quite a lot.  At about 2.30 in the morning we heard a rumour – because we stayed on guard all the time with the guns there – we heard that a navy auxiliary patrol vessel went back to its moorings off Neilson Park.  When it went to what it thought was its moorings, there was a stick sticking out of the water and they said it was a periscope – and they were going to hook onto the periscope for their mooring.  That was the story that went out – but that could have been the third submarine that was just sitting there under the water in Neilson Park  I don’t know how true that is, but there was a lot of shemozzle at the time.

We never found out what the third submarine did.  There have been a lot of inquiries.  There were three mother ships that carried the midget submarines and they were waiting outside the heads for them to come back – but they never came back, so the mother ships went off.  It was a planned attack.  The night before a Japanese aeroplane was seen over Sydney Harbour but nobody took much notice of it, they thought it was one of our own planes. Incredible thing.

INTERVIEWER:- Who was responsible for searching the sky?

Major Ralph MANSFIELD:- I suppose the airforce would have been.

INTERVIEWER:- Did you often see Japanese planes flying?

Major Ralph MANSFIELD:- No.  It was a sea plane, a Japanese sea plane that flew over.  We didn’t see it, but nobody took any notice of it.  They thought it was an American plane because it was flying over the Harbour. What it was doing was reporting back to the mother ships that the Harbour was full of navy boats, American boats, etc, etc.  It was all planned, yes.

INTERVIEWER:- What was the reaction to it?

Major Ralph MANSFIELD:- The reaction was a great meeting of all the powers-that-be – the army, navy and airforce – the chiefs had a pow wow in Sydney with the admirals of the fleet and everything else, and that was that.  Nothing else came out in the news.  As far as we were concerned, we just continued on our normal routine after the excitement

INTERVIEWER:- What were your men’s feelings about having missed the chance to avert the danger?  Was there any bitterness?

Major Ralph MANSFIELD:- No that was part of your duty.  They were disappointed; they would have loved to have fired.  It would have been the first time the Sydney guns ever fired in anger.

INTERVIEWER:- Didn’t some of the shots go onto land?

Major Ralph MANSFIELD:- No.  About the following week – I think it was the Tuesday after the Saturday – one of the mother ships was off Botany Bay, about 15,000 yards off, and it fired its guns over Sydney Harbour and they landed mainly down in the Double Bay area, just near where our house was there – and Marjory was down in the cellar.  Five shots were fired; they exploded, nearly all of them, in the playing fields in that area.  They didn’t hit anyone at all

INTERVIEWER:- Why did they shoot them?

Major Ralph MANSFIELD:- They just wanted to make a mess of Sydney.  Stupid fools.  Just random targets – they would have been firing those guns full range.  Another submarine went up to Newcastle later and it was sunk off Newcastle by the RAAF – they dropped depth charges and sank it, one of the mother submarines.

INTERVIEWER:- Going back to 31 May, if you hadn’t have sighted the submarines, no one would have known about them?

Major Ralph MANSFIELD:- If we had not have sighted that one it could have been very serious because all three could have gone into the harbour unnoticed and caused havoc. As I said, they went in behind the ferry boat, whenever the boomgate was opened, they went in.

INTERVIEWER:- How often would the ferries go in?

Major Ralph MANSFIELD:- They would go in quite frequently.  I think, from memory, it was opened every half-hour.

INTERVIEWER:- Security wise, that was a bit silly

Major Ralph MANSFIELD:- Yes.

FOOTNOTE:  As indicated, the above extract is only part of an interview conducted by the family of Ralph Shelley MANSFIELD.  It is previously unpublished and the Kuttabul Commemoration Project committee asks that this transcript no be reproduced or published without the express permission of the MANSFIELD family (contact details obtained and inquires to Jennifer Lamb can be forwarded to her upon request).

Wish to know more about the KUTTABUL COMMEMORATION PROJECT?  Please visit our Facebook page:- http://www.facebook.com/gary.traynor3#!/pages/Kuttabul-Commemoration-Project/161665290588310?sk=photos

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About gary

Gary Traynor is the volunteer Administrator of the Militaria based website MEDALSGONEMISSING. The aim of this "NOT FOR PROFIT" website is to reunite families, with lost War Medals and other items of militaria. Anything from medals to items of uniform. What Gary refers to as their "lost heritage". He has been actively involved in the Militaria world and researching of Military History for well over 30 years. As a result, Gary also conducts valuations and offers advice on all items of militaria. He has acted as advisor to a number of television and Foxtel productions; including Sir Tony Robinson's "Tour of Duty" series which featured on the History Channel. Gary is a field historian and conducts tours to Gallipoli, The Western Front, Kokoda and many other major battle sites around the world. He was a member of the Australian Army Reserve (UNSWR & 4/3 RNSWR) and served for 23 years with the New South Wales Police Force. He is perhaps the only person who has been employed at the Australian War Memorial in all three capacities .... as a volunteer, part time and full time employee .... starting as a qualified tour guide, working in the public galleries as an Information Assistant and finally Assistant Curator in Military Heraldry & Technology. Medalsgonemissing is a website that will assist you in locating your family's lost war medals and other awards. If you have an ancestor who served in any of the British Commonwealth Armed Services at any time - and whose medals are lost/stolen or simply missing....then so long as the medals are out there - this site will help you to locate them. However the site also contains articles of interest in relation to Military History, War Memorials & Uniforms / kit. Please explore our website as there is sure to be something of interest to you.
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