People who were out in the open on the morning of February 26, 1942, would have heard and seen a small black aircraft flying slowly over the Mornington Peninsula.
It would not have occurred to them that it might be an enemy plane. Everyone knew that Japanese aircraft could not possibly reach this part of Australia. It was just too far. Singapore had surrendered almost two weeks before, but Singapore is a long way from Victoria. The raid on Pearl Harbour, however, had shown that the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) was capable of attacking targets over long distances. Few people in Victoria would have considered that the distance was greater from Japan to Pearl Harbour than from Melbourne to Rabaul, which had fallen at the end of January.
Though the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour had sunk or seriously damaged 16 warships, none of the US Navy’s aircraft carriers were in the harbour that morning. The IJN needed to know where the carriers were and the location of any fleet which might be preparing to strike against it. The pilot and observer in the little black plane were here to check on Port Phillip.
During WWII the IJN operated some of the largest submarines in the world, even a number which carried aircraft in a waterproof hangar. In the early hours of February 26 one of these, the I-25, had surfaced off the north-east tip of King Island. The small Yokosuka float-plane was removed from the hangar and, a couple of hours before dawn, launched from a catapult. It flew to Cape Otway, followed the coast to Point Lonsdale then turned towards Melbourne. Crossing the Bellarine Peninsula, it passed over Portarlington and flew into a cloud-bank.
To gain an idea of where he was the pilot descended to around 300m and broke out of the cloud right above the Laverton RAAF base. Because of the red roundel on the fuselage it was identified as Japanese by more than one at Laverton but it seems that no effort was made to pursue it. Continuing on his way, hiding in the clouds for a time, the pilot again dropped lower to determine his location and broke through the clouds above the anti-aircraft gun battery at Williamstown. As luck would have it, maintenance was being carried out on the guns and no shots were fired. The plane flew over Melbourne, observing the docks and ships in port, before turning to fly over St Kilda and Sandringham.
It then crossed the bay to Dromana and over the Peninsula to Cape Schanck where it turned towards King Island and landed in the sea close to the submarine. It was quickly lifted aboard, stored in its hangar and I-25 submerged and continued its reconnaissance voyage. Flights were then made over Hobart, Wellington and Auckland before I-25 returned to its base (it had flown over Sydney before coming to Melbourne).
Because the flights from I-25 showed that none of these ports were sheltering a strong naval force, attacks were not made on any of them. In early April a powerful IJN force attacked Ceylon (Sri Lanka) seeking the Royal Navy’s Eastern Fleet. The distance travelled was similar to a passage to Melbourne. Had the US carriers been in Port Phillip there is no doubt they would have been attacked.
In the days following the flight no mention was made in the Melbourne press. The Argus newspaper first reported it on August 20, 1945, (three years later) in an article copied from a New Zealand newspaper. Few Victorians then, or now, are aware of the day that WWII came so close.
By Maurie Hutchinson
President, Peninsula Ship Society
The Peninsula Ship Society meets at Hastings Yacht Club
on the fourth Tuesday of each month at 10am. Visitors always welcome.
T: Maurie 9787 5780