21 Feb 2020
Tales of military heroism
The darkened cruiser, HMAS Sydney, returned to her namesake city from wartime service in the Mediterranean late on the evening of February 9, 1941. In command was Captain John Collins, a remarkable sailor now justly regarded as the outstanding Australian naval leader of World War II.
Sydney’s performance in the Mediterranean as part of Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s 7th cruiser squadron had buoyed Australian morale in the fight against the Axis powers: Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.
In action against two Italian cruisers off Crete in July 1940, Sydney sank the Bartolomeo Colleoni. As AK McDougall records in his absorbing biography of the commander, Collins of the Sydney:
It had been an astonishing victory, and Sydney had become the first Allied warship to destroy an enemy cruiser by gunfire in almost a year of war. Indeed, like the battle between the first HMAS Sydney and Emden, in 1914, it was the first cruiser-to-cruiser battle of the entire war … and the victory came in one of the war’s darkest months.
The darkness of conflict was no stranger to John Collins. From the original intake of the Australian Naval College, he saw distinguished service in both World Wars. He is most famous for his command of Sydney and for his brilliant handling of the ship in that July of 1940 when alone he confronted the two Italian cruisers, Bartolomeo Colleoni and Bande Nere.
Collins of the Sydney
But the truly dark days were early 1942, as the Allied defence in Asia and the Pacific collapsed before the Japanese onslaught. The British and American forces were fighting separate, ultimately futile, wars in Malaya and The Philippines. In an effort to bridge the allied gap the ABDA (American British Dutch Australian) Command was created.
Finding himself on Java during the chaotic Allied retreat, Collins took leadership of the China Squadron and his command style of decisiveness, clarity and diplomacy won him much praise.
Having given up command of Sydney (which was tragically lost with all hands in an encounter with the German raider Kormoran in the Indian Ocean in November 1941), Collins’s career took him to the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay as Commodore Commanding the Australian Naval Squadron with HMAS Australia as his flagship.
MacDougall has written an engaging naval history that shines a sympathetic but searching light on one of the great figures of the Royal Australian Navy. At every stage in his life of command, Collins exhibited extraordinary qualities, whether it be in action in the Mediterranean, in defeat on Java or under the terrifying assaults of Japanese Kamikazes in Leyte Gulf. This is Australian military biography of a high standard.
Stephen Loosley is a senior fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.