The Pain of Waiting

More Australians lost their lives in HMAS Sydney than during the entire Vietnam War. For many years, her fate remained a mystery.

On the afternoon of 19 November 1941, the light cruiser HMAS Sydney was off the western coast of Australia, between Carnarvon and Geraldton, returning to Fremantle after escorting a troopship to Singapore. Just after 4 o’clock, lookouts spotted what appeared to be a Dutch merchant vessel. An hour later, with the ships less than a mile apart, the Dutch flag was lowered, German colours were unveiled, and HSK Kormoran opened fire with guns and torpedoes.

Both ships suffered catastrophic damage in the brief and brutal encounter. Kormoran was eventually scuttled, but not before most of her crew were able to escape. More than 300 were taken prisoner after being found on life rafts at sea or after landing ashore. Sydney was lost with all hands: none of the 645 servicemen on board survived.

The death toll suffered by the Royal Australian Navy that day eclipses any other single incident in its history. More Australians lost their lives in the Sydney than during the entire Vietnam War.

HMAS Sydney ship's company in 1940

HMAS Sydney ship's company in 1940

HMAS Sydney was the pride of the Australian fleet, with a sterling record of war service in the Mediterranean. Her loss came as a profound shock to Australia, not least because the details of the incident remained unknown for years, and attracted many tall tales and conspiracy theories. It was only in 2008 that the wreck of the ship was finally discovered.

There was a terrible ambiguity about the deaths of her sailors, as with so many others at sea. Families struggled with the feeling that they might one day be reunited with their husbands, fathers, and sons, and the rumours and stories merely added to the torment. Margaret Morse, a young girl when Sydney was sunk, later recalled the trauma of the absence of her father, Petty Officer John Stanley Davey:

‘Our mother did not cope with all the uncertainty; she walked the floor night after night. Later naval friends of Dad called to see us, always the talk was that after the war we would know just what happened to the Sydney… I waited till the end of the war always expecting my Dad to return.’

75 years on, several memorials in Australia pay tribute to the Sydney and her crew, including at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, and a memorial park in Geraldton. There, a bronze sculpture called the ‘Waiting Woman’ evokes the lifelong turmoil and bitter hope of the families of those lost at sea.

Memorial to HMAS Sydney, Geraldton, Western Australia

Memorial to HMAS Sydney, Geraldton, Western Australia

One of the earliest monuments honouring their memory was the CWGC Plymouth Naval Memorial. It was originally constructed by the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) in the 1920s to honour 7,000 naval dead of the First World War, and extended after the Second World War to incorporate 15,000 names from the later conflict. This was the official place of commemoration for nearly all of those who lost their lives on 19 November.

IWGC letter to RAN families

IWGC letter to RAN families

For most of those who had lost loved ones that day, Plymouth was far from home. After the unveiling of the memorial’s extension in November 1954, the IWGC wrote to the families of the Royal Australian Navy personnel commemorated there, enclosing a brochure and photographs, ‘to satisfy the requests of a large number of relatives.’ Although the Commission regretted that it was not possible to photograph every one of the more than 23,000 names on the memorial, ‘it is felt that the general views shown in the brochure will convey much more to you… It will also enable you to appreciate how the Imperial War Graves Commission is doing its utmost to ensure that their names will live on for evermore.’

One of those on board Sydney was eventually found. In February 1942, a life raft washed ashore on Christmas Island with the remains of a Commonwealth serviceman inside. Originally buried on the island, he was later reinterred at Geraldton War Cemetery and officially recognised as one of Sydney’s complement. Today he rests beneath a CWGC headstone bearing the inscription ‘Known Unto God’. His grave has come to represent all of his shipmates. Their names still live on, but for their families, the waiting never ended.

HMAS Sydney grave in CWGC Geraldton War Cemetery

HMAS Sydney grave in CWGC Geraldton War Cemetery