Former Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia and top soldier Sir Peter Cosgrove has issued a stark warning to Australia.

General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK CVO MC (Retd) was the keynote speaker at the annual Defence of Sydney commemoration at North Head, Manly, on Friday (07 June) when he gave a stunning warning of the lack of preparedness of Australia’s armed forces to defend Australia against ‘real and highly potent’ threats.

The commemorative service marks the 82nd anniversary (31 May 1942) of the Japanese midget submarine attack on Sydney Harbour. 19 Australian and two British sailors aboard HMAS Kuttabul and six Japanese submariners aboard three submarines lost their lives in the night-time attack, which brought the war to Sydney.

Normally held outdoors at the Defence of Sydney Monument atop North Head, poor weather forced this years’ service to be held inside one of the large artillery hangars used by the former School of Artillery at the site.

General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK CVO MC (Retd) at the Defence of Sydney Commemoration

Sir Peter Cosgrove (main image and above), reminded the audience that Australia had long faced external threats, and established the context for the risks of modern day complacency to geostrategic reality.

“Imagine the first Australians standing on the foreshore, looking on with awe and foreboding, probably foreboding, at the sails of the First Fleet.

“Britain was concerned about the Pacific ambitions of the Russians in the first part of the nineteenth century. In December 1839, Sydneysiders were taken aback to discover that two American warships had calmly sailed into Sydney Harbour overnight.

“They were nonchalantly anchored within an easy cannon shot of Sydney town. If the citizenry were taken aback, you can imagine what the Royal Navy resident senior officer was feeling.

“We now know the ranking American officer of this small flotilla was uncomplimentary about the lack of vigilance and defensive accountability evidenced by all this,” said Sir Peter.

Defence of Sydney Commemoration

“As the size, wealth, and significance of Sydney and its harbour grew, so did the concern and concerted action about its defence. Forts, gun placements, signal towers and barracks were the order of the day then, and in the ensuing decades.

“Even when the defences of Sydney Harbour and the nearby alternate landing sites were adequately defended by batteries of guns, there was still that sense of exposure to the predations of great and emerging powers, balanced by the notion that this part of the Commonwealth would be under the umbrella of the Royal Navy, supplemented by our own Royal Australian Navy,” explained Sir Peter.

General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK CVO MC (Retd) at the Defence of Sydney Commemoration

With representatives from the Consul General of the USA and Consul General of Japan in attendance with around 300 others at Friday morning’s service, Sir Peter recounted the events of the Japanese attack on Sydney Harbour.

“The growing events of 1939 and thereafter, especially in our neck of the woods, shattered the sense of comfort and confidence in the hearts of our leaders, in the hearts of our people.

“The war had already come to Australia through the Japanese conquest of Southeast Asia, the Dutch East Indies, and the Empire’s predations into the Southwest Pacific.

“It had already come to Northern Australia, notably Darwin in February 1942 and Broome in March of that year. The waters off our east coast presented the deadly peril of submarine warfare.

“On 23 May [1942], a Japanese floatplane launched from a larger Japanese submarine off the coast for a reconnaissance mission within Sydney Harbour, to report back on the sorts of targets that might be found.

“This was followed up by what was probably a confirmatory reconnaissance mission by a floatplane from a different Japanese submarine.

“On the basis of this, three Japanese midget submarines launched from the mothership submarines to enter Sydney Harbour, and their job was to attack any large warships found,” recounted Sir Peter.

Defence of Sydney Commemoration

“The three midget submarines entered the Harbour on the night of the 31st of May 1942. There were more than 20 US and Royal Australian Navy ships to be attacked.

“One of the submarines got caught up in a half completed anti-submarine boom net, and the crew scuttled the sub and perished. Another was detected and attacked by warships in the Harbour, and sunk before causing damage.

“But the third attempted to sink by torpedo the USS Chicago. It wasn’t successful in that, but its torpedo hit the converted ferry HMAS Kuttabul, killing 21 naval ratings accommodated on that vessel.

“That submarine was able to leave Sydney Harbour, but it’s wreck was found off Sydney’s Northern Beaches in 2006. While this was the only known incursion into Sydney Harbour, the Japanese submarine presence continued along our east coast for many months afterwards.

“All this occurred at a time when the Japanese threat was entitled to be seen by all Australians as a juggernaut. Notions of a comfortable, filial reliance on Britain, or even the United States, had largely vanished,” said Sir Peter.

General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK CVO MC (Retd) at the Defence of Sydney Commemoration

Without directly naming the emerging threats to Australian sovereignty, Sir Peter sounded a clear warning of modern day threats to national security. He also lamented the running down of the defence force’s ability to defend Australia.

“Such experiences must always be a caution, instructive for those who follow. We spend this moment contemplating the contemporary challenges we must consider with wisdom and resolve.

“Back then, with Britain in a bitter struggle and constrained from more than nominal assistance to Australia, with the United States only at the start of its huge expansion of its armed forces and wartime industry, we were hoping for, and eventually receiving, the benefits of a sort of Pax Americana.

“That pre-eminence, which was realised, has dominated world affairs and especially the Indo-Pacific all the way from those dark and dangerous years, until recently.

“As a remote, peace-loving, like-minded and reliable nation, we have been a friend and an ally, and a beneficiary of that giant democracy, of Pax Americana.

“There’s probably amongst this group today, nobody more partial and biased than me in declaring my vast affection for, and admiration of our men and women in the Navy, the Army, and the Air Force,” said Sir Peter.

Defence of Sydney Commemoration

“But for understandable reasons, our governments and our military leaders have, over the last nearly 80-years, cut our cloth in numbers of uniformed men and women and the extent of the capabilities that they operate.

“We’ve cut our cloth to suit our needs. Simply, the confidence we had in the umbrella of the United States meant that the sorts of threats we encountered between 1941 and 1945 were inconceivable.

“These sorts of threats are sadly conceivable now. Not midget submarines into Sydney Harbour, or aerial bombardment from planes using island landing strips, but aggressive action against us in the cyber-world.

“Threats from missiles and the like, from a myriad of ways to affect our commerce. It might be in the ways that those Australians of the World War Two generation would struggle to comprehend, but real and highly potent nonetheless.

“I don’t think for one moment that the predisposition of the United States to help us to act against such threats, to continue to value us as a partner and an ally and a friend, would be in any way diminished, but the odds of success [such as] 1942 to 1945 are different,” said Sir Peter.

Defence of Sydney Commemoration

“So we have to do more. Those wonderful men and women who handed down the Anzac reputation through the way in which they defended Australia, and that wider population that cherish and stood behind those men and women in those dangerous days of the 1940s, have marvellous inheritors in uniform today.

“They are courageously committed, they are highly capable and they’re perpetually ready to adapt to new skills, new ways to keep Australia safe. There’s just not enough of them.

“As yet, there is not enough of a tsunami of new equipment and new weaponry for them. We must encourage and support our political leaders to play a vital part in this process of rapid adjustment to worrying times.

“Now, in this iconic place, at this time of reflection and reverence, there is no more appropriate time and place to say, we must work tirelessly and endlessly for peace and never stop doing so.

“We must also act wisely and energetically in case the peace we pray for cannot be maintained.

“Lest we forget,” warned Sir Peter.

Manly MP James Griffin at the Defence of Sydney Commemoration

With Sir Peter’s effective warning that, ‘those who forget history are doomed to repeat it’, still ringing in the ears of those present, Defence of Sydney commemoration host James Griffin MP (image above) endorsed the importance and timing of the message.

“It’s the old adage, that history repeats. What an important day to recognise how close the war at one point did come to Sydney and in particular the Northern Beaches, which is why we’re here.

“The message from Sir Peter wasn’t alarmist, but it was loud and clear, that we shouldn’t be complacent in preparing. It was wonderful to have him here as a national icon, reinforcing how important this service is,” said Mr Griffin.

Invictus Australia Chair and past President RSL NSW James Brown

Former Australian Army officer and Chair of Invictus Australia James Brown (image above) was also in attendance at the service. He once served under Sir Peter Cosgrove, and his overseas tours as a soldier included service in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Solomon Islands.

A Northern Beaches resident who is also a former President of RSL NSW, Mr Brown said the lack of military preparedness for emerging threats in our region needed to be addressed ‘urgently’, endorsing the remarks made by Sir Peter Cosgrove.

“He is someone who has served at the very top, who is saying that we are not doing enough for defence right now, and I couldn’t agree with him more.

“We know that the world is becoming a more dangerous place. We know that in the Indo-Pacific, countries are militarising faster than ever. They’re spending more money on defence than they have in many decades.

“At the same time, Australia’s Defence Force seems like it’s standing still, so there is a lot of work to be done. There is a lot of blame to go around for that, but we urgently need to improve the strength of our defence force.

“We urgently need to improve the technology that our defence force has access to. And as much as we want peace, we have got to take the risk of war seriously,” emphasised Mr Brown.

James Brown, Peter Cosgrove and John Platt at the Defence of Sydney Commemoration

The Defence of Sydney commemoration is organised by the Australia Remembers Northern Beaches and North Shore Committee. As Patron, James Griffin MP expressed his gratitude to all involved in the service.

“On behalf of the Committee, I extend my thanks to Sir Peter Cosgrove and to all who work behind the scenes to make this annual event such a success,” said Mr Griffin.

Images: Northern Beaches Advocate

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