A lot of you will know this story, but for those who don’t we will give you a brief overview.
The loss of HMAS Sydney II and it’s 645 crew members on the night of 19th November 1941 is still regarded as Australia’s greatest naval tragedy.
HMAS Sydney II was the pride of the Australian Navy Fleet and, although only 6 years old, she had already had many successful battles, including famously sinking the Italian cruiser, Bartolomeo Colleoni. After a heros welcome back to Australia in February 1941, she was then given the job of escorting troop ships to South East Asia, following an Indian Ocean route along the west coast of Western Australia.
It was on the return from one of these trips that the Sydney encountered the German Raider HSK Kormoran. To hide their identity, the Kormoran was disguised as a Dutch merchant vessel. When the Sydney tried to signal them and ask them to identify themselves, they purposely got it wrong and stalled in an attempt to appear that they didn’t know what was going on, as it was a widely held belief that merchant seamen were poorly trained.
During this time the Sydney had cruised so close to the Kormoran that it had lost its advantage of heavy armour and gun range. The Kormoran on the other hand was able to now catch them by surprise and at 5.30pm was said to have hoisted the German flag, dropped its disguise and begun firing, all within 10 seconds. Their first shots basically took out the bridge and command posts on the Sydney.
Within 5 minutes of battle both ships were mortally wounded, but the battle continued. The Kormoran ceased firing around 6.30pm and they watched the wounded and ablaze Sydney head off to the south, until it was seen as just a glow on the horizon. The Kormoran was also severely wounded and the captain ordered his crew to abandon ship and it sank about 12.30am.
Although neither ship survived, the Sydney lost all its men, but the Kormoran (a much smaller ship) had more than half of their men survive. Their men were subsequently picked up and kept in prison here until after the war, when they were sent home.
At the time of the sinking, the Australian Government apparently kept it a secret for 12 days before the Prime Minister finally made they announcement and the nation went into mourning.
For years the only people who knew the true story were the survivors from the Kormoran, but generally they were dismissed as being unreliable. Finally years after the battle, in 2008 the Sydney and Kormoran wrecks were found just off the coast of WA, 120 nautical miles west of Shark Bay in 2468 meters of water. It was found that these wrecks laid exactly within the area told by the Germans. The Sydney was found just over 12 nautical miles south east of the Kormoran.
Finding the wrecks would have brought closure to the families who never knew exactly how or where their loved ones had died. On 16 April the HMAS ANZAC took up position over the wreck of the HMAS Sydney II, carrying relatives of the lost crew members, for a special dawn service.
HMAS SYDNEY II MEMORIAL (Geraldton)
This memorial was constructed in honour of all the lives lost on that fateful night. The Sydney was very special to the people of Geraldton, having visited a few times during her career. The last visit to Geraldton was for R&R from 18-20 October 1941, just a month before she was lost.
This whole memorial is probably the best we have ever seen. The thought that has gone into the structure and the eerie set of circumstances surrounding a few things is very fitting for such an important part of Australian history. You can’t help but get emotional when you visit this place.
The memorial is set in a circular plan, symbolising totality, wholeness, infinity and eternity. It is set out in separate sections, all with their own meaning as shown below.
The Wall of Remembrance – These two walls are at the front of the memorial where you walk through. They are engraved with the names of all 645 men who lost their lives. This is a semi-circular shaped wall to symbolise the ‘encircling arms of the Nation’ welcoming home it’s lost loved ones.The Sanctuary & Dome of Souls This is the heart of the entire memorial. The dome is formed by 645 stainless steel gulls, one for each person who was lost. Each gull touches at least 2 other gulls, to symbolise mateship and ensure that no one is left alone. They all point upwards to symbolise that they are headed for a better place. These birds traditionally represent spirits of those lost at sea. It was actually at the dedication ceremony for the memorial that, as The Last Post was playing, a large formation of silver gulls flew over the crowd.The Podium The circular sanctuary floor is constructed using WA granite (and we believe small pieces from all over Australia to honour that the men came from all over our country).
The inscription in the black granite says “IN MEMORY OF THE MEN LOST ON HMAS SYDNEY II 19TH NOVEMBER 1941. LEST WE FORGET”
A ships propeller takes pride of place in the centre and is used as a ceremonial wreath laying altar. Above this hangs the eternal flame, in red and green, representing the ship’s Port and Starboard lights.The Stele This huge structure towers over everything else in the memorial. It is based on the historical symbolisation of standing stones as grave markers. This huge vertical element in steel basically represents the bow of HMAS Sydney II. In a bizarre coincidence, when the wreck was found in 2008, they found that the bow had actually separated from the ship before it sank. Pool of Remembrance This is the only part of the memorial to be added since the wreck was found. At the centre of the pool is a 2m high silver gull with one wingtip pointing to the exact location of the Sydney’s final resting place. The floor of the pool forms a map, 5 meters across, showing the location of HMAS Sydney II. Also engraved into the granite are the images of 644 silver gull shadows, with the 645th gull being the one that stands alone in the centre marking the co-ordinates of the wreck site.The Waiting Woman Sculpture This sculpture is fantastic and almost lifelike. This depicts a woman staring into the wind, frozen in time. You can see her pained look staring into the horizon waiting anxiously for her husband, brother, father, son to come home. You can feel her pain of loss and emptiness, a life of heartache. This statue was installed long before anyone knew what happened to the Sydney. In an eerie coincidence, following the discovery of the wreck it was found that she was looking directly to the position of where the Sydney lays.If you look straight through her arm, that’s where the Sydney lays.
This museum has a great area dedicated to the HMAS Sydney II.There are many photos on display and information on both ships. They also show video footage, including shots taken from underwater when the wreck was found.
Some of the stories told in the museum make you realise just how short life is and just how much these brave men sacrificed for our freedom. It’s a very interesting story, one we both knew a little about but have since found out a lot more. There are so many stories and unknowns still out there, but it’s definitely a very sad, but interesting part of our history. This year actually marks the 75th anniversary.
~Lest We Forget~