A very impressive dome-shaped structure perched high on a hill presides over the town of Geraldton in Western Australia. Passing through on a whistle-stop visit recently, it was a good decision to go and investigate. What we discovered was a stunning and very poignant war memorial with a difference, as it stands to the memory of the crew of an Australian warship that vanished in 1941.
When HMAS (His Majesty’s Australian Ship) Sydney II failed to return to Fremantle as scheduled on November 20, 1941 there was not too much concern. A troopship, Zelandia, which had been escorted by Sydney, had arrived a day later than expected in Singapore and so it was thought that Sydney was simply running behind schedule. She had also been ordered to maintain radio silence. Concern grew however when she had not arrived by Sunday evening, November 23 and signals were sent ordering her to report her position. But she did not respond. In spite of aerial searches which began some days later, there was no sign of her. And so began a mystery that lasted for 67 years.
About the same time that Sydney vanished, German sailors from the Kormoran were rescued by a number of ships and some other members of the crew came ashore on lifeboats. They claimed that their ship had been sunk by a ‘raider’. The Australian Government withheld the news that Sydney was missing until November 30th, while the relatives became more and more anxious about their loved ones. Finally, a statement was released confirming that HMAS Sydney was ‘presumed lost’ following engagement with a ‘heavily armed enemy raider, which she sank by gunfire’. The nation was stunned as the ship had been thought of as a ‘naval Titanic’ – invincible and indestructible.
HMAS Sydney, a light cruiser, was built in the world-famous shipyards of Newcastle – upon- Tyne in 1933 and was launched in 1934. Originally HMS Phaeton, she was renamed HMAS Sydney when bought by the Commonwealth of Australia. She was the pride of their fleet.
HMAS Sydney saw much action. She was involved in the bombardment of the Libyan port of Bardia in June 1940 and sank the Italian destroyer Espero just days later while on convoy escort duty. In July of that year, she came under fire from Italian warships and then disabled the Italian Bartolomeo Colleoni. She returned home to Australia in triumph after many successful engagements with the enemy. She undertook further convoy duties both overseas and off the coast of Western Australia. The port of Geraldton welcomed her on three visits, the last one being between the 18th and 20th October in 1941 just a month before she vanished, when the crew fielded teams against the locals in a variety of sports. Her last goodwill visit was to the people of Geraldton and they would not forget her. There was total shock in the town when the announcement came that she was lost. Stories about her were handed down through the generations so that she remained very much in the minds of the locals.
645 men went down on HMAS Sydney, and 80 of the 397 strong crew of the German ship were also drowned in the incident. The loss of 645 Australian men represented a loss of approximately 1/3rd of the total Navy personnel lost in the entire conflict. The war which had been played out in faraway lands of North Africa, and Europe had arrived on Australian shores. Fueled in large part by the silence of the authorities, all sorts of theories abounded as to the location and the fate of the Sydney. It was not until 1957 that the Royal Australian Navy offered any explanation and that was based largely on the accounts of the survivors of the Kormoran. And who would believe Germans? And could it really have been the Japanese who dispatched her?
Meanwhile, in Geraldton, there was talk of a Sydney memorial in the 1960s. These plans came to naught, but eventually came to fruition when the Geraldton Rotary Club took on the project to construct a memorial to the men who had visited the town shortly before they went to their watery graves. And so the very poignant Memorial was constructed atop Mount Scott in 1988.
It consists of five quite different but equally poignant elements.
Within is the impressive ‘Dome of Souls’ created with 645 stainless steel gulls, representing the spirits of those lost at sea, arranged in a massive dome that can be seen far below in the town and in the busy port. This feature was constructed from stone for every state of Australia, marking the fact that the crew were from all states.
A semi-circular black granite wall, the Wall of Remembrance, wraps around the site. It is engraved with the story of HMAS Sydney in images and with the names, rank and homebase of every crew member who served at the time of her disappearance.
At the front of the site is a bronze sculpture- ‘The Waiting Woman’ holding her hat and gazing out to sea hoping to see the ship sail into view. My grandchildren were particularly taken with her as she looked so real, and spoke of her for days afterwards!
Behind her is a representation of the bow of the ship – an actual size stone monument, a representation of the bow towering above, with the plimsoll lines marked out. This is also clearly visible for miles around.
But the mysterious story of HMAS Sydney was not to end there. On March 16, 2008, using modern technology, she was finally discovered on the sea bed, more or less where the German sailors had said she was. It was obvious that the Komoran had inflicted catastrophic damage. She lay in 2,468 metres of water.
And so another element was added to the Geraldton Memorial – an illuminated Pool of Remembrance in black polished granite. Etched on the edge of the pool are 644 gulls. At the centre is the 645th gull, two metres high with a wingtip pointing to the precise coordinates where HMAS Sydney lies on the sea bed. The pool was dedicated in 2011, on the 70th Anniversary of the loss of this ship and all hands. She and they are forever and beautifully remembered in Geraldton.
Anyone who visits this Australian National Memorial will be touched and saddened by this story that rolled on for decades. This memorial stands not only in remembrance of the lost ship and her crew, but in recognition of the determination of the people of Geraldton in making sure they are never forgotten.