By Colin Kerr
High on Mount Scott, overlooking the city of Geraldton in Western Australia, a striking memorial has recently been erected in honour of the 645 men from HMAS Sydney lost at sea on November 19, 1941 in Australia’s worst-ever naval disaster.
Despite numerous enquiries and investigations, the details of this WWII drama are still somewhat sketchy and inconclusive, but what is clear is the emotion and feelings left behind with friends, family and loved ones. It’s hoped this new memorial is at least going to go some way towards reconciling the hurt.
According to the Australian War Memorial, HMAS Sydney was an outstandingly successful warship. Aesthetically elegant, she created headlines with her exploits in the Mediterranean, especially a brilliant action off Cape Spada.
On the other hand, Sydney’s nemesis, the German vessel Kormoran’s mission was to shun the limelight. Originally launched in 1938 as the HAPAG freighter, Steiermark, she weighed 8736 tons and had a length of 164 metres. Later converted to a warship, she was well armed with guns, torpedoes and mines, but this armament was carefully disguised so that only the closest scrutiny would reveal that she was not a merchant ship. It was not her role to fight fleet actions, but to operate alone against unescorted shipping for months at a time, avoiding publicity and supported by clandestine meetings with supply ships in remote locations.
The Australian War Memorial records the meeting of the two ships as occurring at 5:30pm off the Western Australian coast on November 19, 1941. Upon sighting the Kormoran, the Sydney challenged her. The Kormoran’s Captain Detmers attempted to bluff his way clear, claiming that he was the Dutch ship, Straat Malakka. When the Sydney demanded Straat Malakka’s secret call sign, Detmers realised that the game was up and opened fire.
Depending upon which report you read, the Sydney was located somewhere between 900 and 1500 metres away when the Kormoran opened fire, hitting Sydney with her 15-centimetre guns and a torpedo. The Australian vessel quickly caught alight, but was able to return fire, hitting the Kormoran in the engine room, which started an uncontrollable fire. Within five minutes of the commencement of action, both vessels were mortally wounded. Both ships sank during the night.
Five days later, two boats containing 103 German survivors landed at Quobba, north of Geraldton, and were taken to Carnarvon gaol. Another 213 survivors were picked up from lifeboats at sea. Seventy-eight German sailors remained unaccounted for. But no trace was ever found of the 645 officers and crew of HMAS Sydney - nor have the wrecks of either ship ever been located.
On February 6, 1942 an unidentified corpse washed ashore on Christmas Island and was later buried in an unmarked grave. Subsequent research concluded that it was “highly probable” that it was a sailor from the Sydney.
The full story of this tragedy is still unknown and remains one of the greatest sea mysteries of all time. Many theories still abound.
A small simple memorial has been in place at Quobba, north of Carnarvon, for many years, however the splendid new memorial at Geraldton somehow seems to be a more fitting tribute to those who were lost.
The project to build this wonderful memorial overlooking the Indian Ocean on which the Sydney went down, somewhere to the northwest of here, was initiated by the Rotary Club of Geraldton. The ship, in fact, had been in the Geraldton port for an R and R break only a few weeks before she was lost. It is reported that during their port visit, the crew put on a concert for the local community, attended a dance, went on picnics, played football and escorted school children on guided tours of the ship. The people of Geraldton’s affinity for the ship and her crew was obvious and clearly it has been a lasting one.
Other local groups and organisations joined with the Rotary Club and with funds raised from donations and contributions from Federal, State and local government, the memorial, in all costing just over $1 million, is now complete.
Standing atop Geraldton’s Mount Scott for a dedication ceremony for the chosen site for the memorial before construction got underway, Geraldton Rotarian Richard Larriera noticed a flock of seagulls flying in formation overhead as the Last Post was being sounded. It seems this incident sparked an idea that led to the 645 seagulls that now form the main dome of the majestic memorial standing proudly on the site. Birds are, historically, representative of the transcendence of the soul and the seagull traditionally represents the spirit of those lost at sea. Such inspiration seems somehow to be fitting and appropriate for this lasting memorial to HMAS Sydney and her crew. The interlocking stainless steel gulls, encased in the shape of a dome roof, are today referred to as the dome of souls. The dome is supported by seven pillars representing the seven seas. This beautiful memorial is intended to be uplifting in nature, while providing a sacred place of remembrance and a symbolic link to the men lost in this tragic naval event.
Standing nearby is a replica of Sydney’s hull serving as a stele or grave marker and looking out to sea is the bronze figure of a waiting woman (holding her hat against the sea breeze), representing the women who were left behind, waiting in vain for those who would never return. Through her, visitors can feel the pain of the loss felt by so many. A marble wall, engraved with the names of the missing sailors, their rank and state of origin is another poignant reminder of this wartime tragedy.
A visit to this splendid memorial designed and built with such creativity, sensitivity and thoughtfulness, is now a high priority for many visitors travelling up or down the Western Australian coast. To many who come, it is truly a moving experience and reminder of a signature event in Australian maritime and military history.