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The Battle of the Coral Sea is regarded by some as the action that saved Australia in WW2. That is an over-simplistic view in my opinion. It was certainly a major factor in turning the tide against Japan but it was one of a conglomerate of successful campaigns which, together, stopped their advance in the Pacific.

The Battle of the Coral Sea was fought between the Japanese Navy and the combined naval forces of the Allies but heavily dominated by the US carrier based task force. Together with the success of the Australians at Milne Bay and the Kokoda Track these three events were instrumental in the eventual defeat of the Japanese in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea.

The battle was fought between the 4th and 8th May, 1942.It was the first sea battle between forces built around aircraft carriers and fought by aircraft rather than ships.

The Coral Sea lies south of New Guinean and the Solomons and north east of the Queensland coast. The Japanese had a plan to isolate Australia and thereby deny the Americans use of it as a base from which to counter attack Japanese forces. The Japanese fleet in the Coral Sea was intended to land an invading force in New Guinea and simultaneously also at Tulagi in the Solomons. Tulagi was invaded successfully and became a key point of Japanese occupation of the Solomons.

Battle of the Coral Sea Map Japanese Plan 140dpi 1

Unbeknown to the Japanese, the American Navy had been able to penetrate the Japanese code system and had intercepted all Japanese naval communications. The result was that the Allies were able to assemble an opposing force to meet the Japanese fleet. This fleet consisted of two American task forces lead by the carriers Lexington and Yorktown. The Japanese had two carriers of similar size as the Americans as a covering force plus a third carrier as part of the landing force. In addition the British Naval contingent, comprised mainly of RAN ships,plus USS Chicago was a flotilla of surface vessels that were to deal with the Japanese landing force.

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This battle was unique because none of the air-craft carriers fired at one another. The Japanese plan to take

control of the Coral Sea was turned into a key victory for the Allies. This was the first ever land-sea battle in history.

The carrier forces of both sides did not engage each other directly. It was all done with their respective aircraft. The Americans sank the light carrier attached to the Japanese landing force and severely damaged one of the two larger carriers preventing any use of its aircraft.

In exchange, the Americans lost the carrier Lexington and suffered damage to the Yorktown which was not fatal.

 

The British naval force attacked the invasion fleet and sunk several of its ships. These losses and without the cover provided by the two major carriers, the Japanese withdrew and abandoned the plans for the landing at Port Moresby.

The decision of the Japanese was influenced by inaccurate battle reports from Japanese pilots when they returned to Rabaul. The reports were that the Japanese had sunk two allied battleships and a heavy cruiser. This information decided the Japanese not to launch further airstrikes from their land bases. The British force had no battleships.

BOCS BATTLE STATS small

Errors in navigation, recognition and predicted ship movements were made on both sides The Japanese mistook an American oiler for an aircraft carrier and bombed it without success. The Japanese surface ships made a similar error attacking the same oiler and lost two destroyers sunk.

It was not until 8th May that serious gains were made by both sides. Aircraft from Yorktown had difficulty locating their Japanese carrier targets due to rain squalls and when they did dropped their bombs from too high an altitude and most missed. Most, but not all. Some hit the target and set the Shokakuon fire preventing any aircraft movements from her decks.

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While the Planes from the American carriers were attacking Shokaku, another force of Japanese dive bombers and torpedo aircraft were approaching Lexington which at the time was receiving returning aircraft. When the Japanese arrived the US fighter force had only eight aircraft in the air. The Japanese got through and Lexington was hit by two torpedoes followed by more hits from dive bombers. The ship was on fire and then followed an explosion caused by leaking oil fumes. At 5.07pm the order was given to abandon ship followed by a final torpedo from a US destroyer which sent her to the bottom.

The crew were saved and transferred to Yorktown which was damaged to the extent that her maximum speed was reduced. The Americans withdrew and eventually arrived back at Pearl Harbour.

 The Japanese were ordered to pursue the Americans but their carriers were unable to find them and they had no aircraft left to make any impact so they too called off the chase.

Both sides claimed victory and in a sense both were right. The Americans had lost more ships than the Japanese but the Japanese had been prevented from landing and the success of the Australians on land had prevented the proposed, and any further, landings from taking place. The Australian ships involved were HMAS Australia acting as the flagship of Rear Admiral Grace, RN,and HMAS Hobart. The Japanese assault forces had, in fact, remained intact. All that stood between them and Port Moresby was the Australian led cruiser force but their air cover had been destroyed and they were ordered to withdraw.

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May 7, 1942: HMAS AUSTRALIA [II] under attack by three torpedo bombers at the Battle of the Coral Sea - USN photo.

Australia’s other contribution was from the unsung heroes of the coast watchers who provided a steady and constant flow of information on Japanese aircraft and ship movements. Their services were readily acknowledged by Admiral Nimitz who had control of the US Pacific Fleet.

Yorktown returned to Pearl Harbour. Her repairs were estimated to take two weeks. They were completed in 48 hours and she put to sea again to take part in the Battle of Midway which destroyed the Japanese Navy and any ability it had to undertake further carrier based operations. During that battle she sustained heavy damage, was taken in tow hoping to reach Pearl Harbour. While under tow she was again hit by torpedoes from a Japanese submarine and lost forever on 7th June. Her wreck was located in 1998.

Coral Sea Day was commemorated in Australia for many years to mark the significant event which has been credited with saving Australia from invasion. With the passage of time these ceremonies have withered and seemingly disappeared from memory of all but a few.

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