Anniversary of the sinking of the HMAS Sydney

Photo: A semi-circular wall in black granite embedded with flecks of natural gold listing the names, rank and home base of 645 men who lost their lives on the HMAS Sydney in 1941

The tragic sinking of HMAS Sydney in November 1941 sent shockwaves reverberating through Australia, etching its place as the most significant loss of life in the country’s naval history. Prior to this fateful event, HMAS Sydney had garnered national acclaim for its victorious return from the Mediterranean, where it had dealt a decisive blow to the Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni near Crete in 1940. The ship and its crew were hailed as the ‘toast of the country,’ providing a much-needed morale boost to the Australian public in the early stages of World War II.

The ill-fated encounter occurred on November 19, 1941, off the West Australian coast when HMAS Sydney engaged the German raider Kormoran. The Kormoran, disguised as the Dutch freighter Straat Malakaa, cunningly lured the technologically superior Sydney into the range of its formidable guns and torpedoes. The ensuing battle left both ships critically damaged, and they ultimately sank in the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean. The tragic outcome claimed the lives of all 645 men on board HMAS Sydney, leaving no survivors.

The first earnest attempts to locate the Sydney were initiated on November 24 when the ship failed to return to port as scheduled. On that same evening, a British tanker crew reported rescuing 25 German seamen from a raft, providing the first clues to the encounter’s grim aftermath. Subsequent searches revealed 315 more survivors from Kormoran’s crew, shedding light on the magnitude of the maritime catastrophe.

For 67 years, the location of HMAS Sydney remained a mystery until its discovery in 2008, resting 2,468 meters below the ocean surface and approximately 20 kilometres from the wreckage of the Kormoran. The revelation of the site brought closure but also intensified the solemnity of the tragedy for the people of Australia, particularly the families of the victims.

The impact of the loss of HMAS Sydney extended beyond the immediate aftermath, as the circumstances surrounding its demise remained shrouded in mystery. People had to rely on the accounts of Kormoran’s survivors to piece together the events leading to the ship’s sinking.

One poignant story emerged from the tragedy—the tale of ‘the Unknown Sailor.’ It is believed that only one Australian sailor managed to reach a life raft during the sinking. Despite surviving the battle, he met a tragic end at sea. For 80 years, he remained nameless, remembered only as ‘the Unknown Sailor.’ However, on the anniversary of the sinking, it was revealed that new DNA evidence had conclusively identified him as Able Seaman Thomas Welsby Clark from New Farm in Brisbane.

In a move to honour all those who lost their lives on HMAS Sydney (II), the Office of Australian War Graves announced that next year, on the anniversary of his identification, Tom’s grave in Geraldton War Cemetery will be marked by a new headstone bearing his name. This marks a significant step in ensuring that the sacrifices of those aboard HMAS Sydney are remembered and commemorated appropriately.

As the nation reflects on the anniversary of the Sydney’s loss, it serves as a solemn occasion to remember the victims of this tragedy and pay tribute to all Australian servicemen and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country. The sinking of HMAS Sydney remains a poignant chapter in Australia’s naval history, a testament to the profound impact of war on individuals, families, and the collective memory of a nation.

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  • Steve Nugent November 13, 2023   Reply →

    The semi circular wall in black granite – is that at the location of the Geraldton War Cemetery or, is that wall located somewhere else along the coast in W.A. ??? (the article does not say). Thank you. Cheers – Steve.

  • Suzanne November 15, 2023   Reply →

    It’s Geraldton Steve, the magnificent memorial showing 645 seagulls, the tribute to lost sailors, and the ‘waiting woman’ a sombre melancholy statue of a woman looking out to sea. Amazingly she was placed there years prior to the discovery of the Sydney yet she is staring straight at its location to the exact measurements. Sculptors Smith & Smith.

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