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The war at home: Second World War shipwrecks in Australian waters

Ships wrecked in Australian waters during the Second World War profoundly effected the Australian people, both civilian and military.

A member of the crew of the HMAS Goorangai making adjustments to the minesweeping gear.

A member of the crew of the auxiliary minesweeper HMAS Goorangai making adjustments to the serrated edge of the minesweeping gear. The serrations were designed to sever the mooring cables of floating mines, c. 1940. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: 304919.

The first Australian warship to be lost in the Second World War was the auxiliary minesweeper HMAS Goorangai. On 20 November 1940, while crossing Port Phillip Bay, Victoria, the Goorangai collided with the coastal liner Duntroon - which was about 46 times her size. The minesweeper was cut in half. The Duntroon, which was carrying troops to Sydney, lowered lifeboats and fired rockets to alert nearby townspeople in Queenscliff, but was unable to stop or switch on searchlights due to wartime security. All 24 members of the Goorangai crew were lost. As only six bodies were ever found, the Goorangai wreck is considered a military grave.

On 19 November 1941, off the Western Australian coast, the HMAS Sydney (II) was lost with all hands; all 645 people on board died.

'there was a lot kept from the public. But we did know about the Sydney being sunk, and that was a very, very big thing - that was definitely gloom. Everybody felt it, even if you didn't have anybody on board, to think that there was a whole ship with 600, 700 sailors, and not a sign of one! It still amazes me.'
Hilda Grey, a member of the Australian Women's Land Army, interviewed in Blood Sweat and Tears, by Margaret Geddes. (Viking, Camberwell, 2004, p. 354)

A Japanese submarine torpedoed the Australian Hospital Ship Centaur on 14 May 1943, off the coast of Queensland. It sank in three minutes, with not even enough time to send a distress signal. Of the ship's 332 crew and medical personal, only 64 survived.

The Sydney and the Kormoran, 1941

Crew members of the RAN ligt cruiser HMAS Sydney (II) peer through a hole in the forward funnel

Damien Peter Parer, Crew members of the RAN light cruiser HMAS Sydney (II) peer through a hole in the forward funnel, 1940. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: 002435.

One third of all Australian sailors lost during the Second World War died when the HMAS Sydney II sank on 19 November 1941, taking all 645 members of her crew with her. The sinking shocked Australians deeply. Lack of information and wartime censorship on radio broadcasts helped foster rumours about the ship's fate. The loss of the Sydney was not confirmed by the Prime Minister until 1 December 1941 . Exactly how and why the Sydney went down with no survivors has remained a mystery.

The only accounts of the Sydney's last battle came from survivors of the HSK Kormoran, the German Raider responsible for sinking the Sydney. The Kormoran was also lost that day, and 81 German sailors lost their lives. Over the next week 317 members of the Kormoran's crew were rescued.

With so many deaths in one incident, it seemed that everyone knew someone with family or friends on board. The unsuccessful searches for the location of the two shipwrecks made it harder for the grieving families to accept their loss.

Most of what we know to date of the battle and the Sydney's last moments was reconstructed from interrogations of the Kormoran's survivors, and many questions are still unanswered:

Why did the Sydney get close enough for the Kormoran to sink her? Why were there no survivors? Was the search thorough or prompt enough? Rumours and theories abounded, from the claim that the Kormoran must have fired after raising a white flag to the theory that a Japanese submarine was also involved.

Painting depicting the sinking of both the Kormoran and the Sydney.

J. Sachse, Gefecht des Hilfskreuzer, Kormoran mit dem australischen Kreuzer Sydney am 19 November 1941 vor der westaustralische kuste, This painting by German naval artist Jochem Sachse depicts the sinking of both the Kormoran and the Sydney.[Newman Gallery]. Image courtesy of Australia's War 1939-1945.

The discovery of the Sydney's wreck off the coast of Western Australia on 16 March 2008 was so important for many families, as well as the Australian Government.

The discovery occurred after an extensive search by the Finding Sydney Foundation, which had also found the wreck of the German Raider HSK Kormoran four days earlier. The wrecks rest some 2700 metres down.

The establishment of a Commission of Inquiry was announced on 31 March 2008. With extensive video footage and still photographs of the wreck, it is hoped that some answers may finally be found.

The Bombing of six ships in Darwin Harbour, 1942

Darwin was seen as a key port for the Allied ships, planes and forces defending the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia and East Timor). Australia experienced the first attack on its mainland territory on 19 February 1942 with the bombing of Darwin. One hundred and eighty-eight Japanese planes attacked both land targets and shipping. This first attack lasted forty minutes and was followed by a second only an hour after the first ended. At least 243 Australians and allies were killed that day.

Neptuna, loaded with ammunition, has blown up at the wharf. In front of the explosion the tiny HMAS Vigilant carries out rescue work whilst in the centre background a floating dock holds Katoomba which escaped damage. In the right foreground is Zealandia, another ammunition ship, which was set afire and subsequently sank. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: 134955.

Six Allied ships - British Motorist , Mauna Loa, USS Meigs, USS Peary, and the Australian ships Neptuna and Zealandia - were all sunk in Darwin harbour as a result of that first air raid on Darwin in 1942. At least 134 people died on board these six ships that day.

On board the Neptuna, a sailor observed a formation of aircraft flying overhead, and remarked that the 'Yanks had at last arrived.' Another one said, 'Look they are dropping leaflets.'

Almost immediately there was a huge explosion on the wharf forward of Neptuna; the ship, hit below the waterline, began taking in water. On shore Air-Raid sirens started to sound. Neptuna then received a direct hit from a bomb. [...]

[Third Officer] Deburca then ordered 'Abandon Ship' and saw that everyone still alive on board escaped the ship, and where possible had a lifejacket, as the only egress available was over the side, either from the ship or the wharf. Neptuna was now burning badly, and the oil from the [damaged] pipeline was alight on the harbour.
Australia's Merchant Navy in the Second World War - MV Neptuna

The wrecks of the six Second World War ships were placed on the Northern Territory Heritage Register on 22 February 1995.

The Hospital Ship Centaur, 1943

When a Japanese submarine torpedoed the Australian Hospital Ship Centaur in May 1943, it became a symbol for Australians in their efforts to win the war. At the time, the attack on a clearly marked hospital ship provided evidence of the brutality of the enemy. Images of the ship and the slogan 'Avenge the Nurses' were used to raise money for war loans.

Work, save, fight and so avenge the nurses! poster

Work, save, fight and so avenge the nurses!, poster, c 1943-1945. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: ARTV09088

The Centaur sank so quickly that the crew were unable to send a distress signal, and the 64 survivors spent 36 hours clinging to makeshift rafts without food or water. They were rescued by the crew of the USS Mugford. Sister Ellen Savage, the only nurse to survive, was awarded the George Medal for her courage and fortitude.

Savage had been asleep in her bunk when the Centaur was struck:

Merle Morton and myself were awakened by two terrific explosions and practically thrown out of bed ... I registered mentally that it was a torpedo explosion ... In that instant the ship was in flames ... we ran into Colonel Manson, our commanding officer, in full dress even to his cap and 'Mae West' life-jacket, who kindly said 'That's right girlies, jump for it now.' The first words I spoke was to say 'Will I have time to go back for my great-coat?' as we were only in our pyjamas. He said 'No' and with that climbed the deck and jumped and I followed ... the ship was commencing to go down. It all happened in three minutes.
The Sinking of the Centaur

Since the end of the war, many people pushed to locate the wreck of the Centaur as a way of providing some solace to those family and friends who had lost loved ones, and to possibly answer some the unresolved questions surrounding its sinking.

A memorial was built on a cliff at Caloundra, Queensland, which points towards the Centaur's final resting place, and another was built in 1993 at Point Danger, Coolangatta, Queensland to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the sinking.

The Department of Veterans' Affairs developed a publication The Sinking of the Centaur to mark the 60th anniversary of the tragedy, 14 May 2003.

A search led by David Mearns discovered Centaur's wreck on 20 December 2009. Centaur was located about 30 nautical miles off the southern tip of Moreton Island, off Queensland's south-east coast, less than 1 nautical mile (1.85 kilometres) from that calculated by the navigator, 2nd Mate Gordon Rippon, who was on the bridge taking regular bearings the night Centaur was torpedoed.

The wreck was in one piece although it appears as though the hull broke in at least one, and maybe two, places.

Now that the wreck is found, it will be protected by the Australian government's Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976. The site will therefore become a memorial to the lives that were lost.

The midget submarines in Sydney Harbour - M24 & Kuttabul, 1942

Recreational divers discovered the wreck of the Japanese midget submarine, M24, off Sydney's Northern Beaches in November 2006. The resting place of the midget had been mystery since the 1942 attack in Sydney Harbour, which sank the HMAS Kuttabul, killing 19 Australian and two British sailors.

The midget M24 was responsible for sinking the Kuttabul, although its intended target was actually the USS Chicago, which was firing at the midget. After firing its two torpedoes, the M24 left the harbour but failed to return to its mother submarine, creating a mystery that lasted more than sixty years.

The wreck of the HMAS Kuttabul

The wreck of the depot ship HMAS Kuttabul, lying partly submerged at Garden Island, Sydney Harbour, 1942. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: 012422

The M24 was one of three midget submarines that entered Sydney Harbour on the night of 31 May 1942. None made it back to their waiting mother submarines. One was caught in an incomplete anti-submarine boom net that restricted access to the harbour, and the two-man crew blew up the submarine and themselves.

The other two midgets avoided the boom and made it into the harbour, but both were spotted and were fired upon by Allied ships. One was crippled, and when the wreck was later recovered the crew was found dead, having committed suicide.

The two wrecked midgets were recovered within a week, and the four Japanese crewmen were cremated at Sydney's Eastern Suburbs Crematorium with full naval honours.

The two recovered midget submarines were used to create a composite, which toured New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, being displayed to raise money for the Royal Australian Navy Relief Fund and the King George Fund for Merchant Sailors, before being delivered to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra in 1943 for display.

The wreck of the M24 is a protected heritage site under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 and the NSW State Heritage Act 1977.

Other wrecks

HMAS Maroubra on fire and sinking

Stores ship HMAS Maroubra on fire and sinking after being hit by Japanese aircraft at Millingimbi, 1943. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: 300992.

There were many other ships wrecked in Australian waters during the Second World War, from the merchant ships that fell foul of the mines laid by German surface raiders to the Japanese submarine I-124, which was attacked by both US Destroyers and Australian Corvettes. Among them were:

Japanese submarine I-124 sunk on 20 January 1942, in Clarence Strait near Bathurst Island, about 130 nautical miles from Darwin. It remains a protected, and controversial, wreck site.

HMAS Patricia Cam , a stores carrier and auxiliary minesweeper, sunk in the Northern Territory on 22 January 1943, by a Japanese floatplane. It was heading for Elcho Island carrying stores and personnel for outlying missions and settlements.

HMAS Warrnambool struck a mine during mine sweeping operations near Cockburn Reef in Queensland, two years after the end of the Second World War.

Useful links

HMAS Sydney

More information on shipwrecks

Last updated: 3rd March 2016