Ellen Savage: Stories of Service

Running time
4 min 48 sec
Date made
Place made
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory

Department of Veterans' Affairs 2020

Nurses played a vital role in the Australian Army during the Second World War. Sister Ellen Savage was one of those nurses. She was on board the hospital ship Centaur when it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in May 1943. This tells the story of Ellen's experience during and after that tragic event. Her actions upheld the essential tradition of the nursing service. Her devotion to duty and compassion for others are revealed in this remarkable story of service and survival. It also tells of the threat to Australia from Japanese forces on and near the mainland.

Student inquiry activities

  1. Ellen Savage suffered several injuries as she abandoned AHS Centaur, yet she gave first aid to others on the life raft and in the water. What do those actions say about her character?
  2. The sinking of AHS Centaur quickly became a news item in Australia and other countries. What might have been the reactions of Australians when they found out a hospital ship had been sunk?
  3. Ellen Savage was awarded the George Medal in 1944. Read the newsclip George Medal for Sister Savage. How did she display 'high courage'?
  4. The sinking of AHS Centaur was one of many attacks by Japanese forces on or near Australia during World War II. Read about some of these attacks. How might Australians have reacted to the news of these attacks?


Opening credits - collage of drawings – soldiers, fighter aeroplane; video title 'Stories of Service: Second World War'; cartoonist drawing a steamship with large red crosses on the hull. One of the crosses becomes the main image on the screen, on a plain background.

[Music plays]

Large red cross on a plain background on the screen.

'Well, no doubt you would have seen this image. It's the international symbol of the Red Cross.'

Presenter Warren Brown sitting on a step in the doorway of an old stone building. He has a sketchpad in his lap. He wears a light-coloured shirt, dark trousers and boots.

'Now when used in war, the Red Cross indicates that a person, a vehicle, a ship or a building is not part of the fighting. Instead, they or it are providing medical help, and the Red Cross symbol is to be respected.'

Old photograph of a steamship. The ship has red crosses on the hull and a large horizontal band running the length of the hull. The ship has two masts and one funnel, in the middle of the superstructure.

'And this is the AHS - Australian Hospital Ship - Centaur. One of the best remembered hospital ships of the Second World War.'

Presenter Warren Brown sitting on a step in the doorway of the old stone building. He is seen from the waist up as he presents to the camera.

'Best remembered because, despite its Red Cross markings, on May 14 1943, this hospital ship was attacked and sunk by a Japanese submarine off the coast of Queensland.'

A collage of old photographs. The photograph to the left depicts a woman in a military nursing uniform sitting on a bench in a park. The photograph in the middle depicts the rear, or stern, of a ship on the water. The photograph to the right depicts AHS Centaur, with its red crosses clearly visible on the side of its hull.

'On board was (NFX76584) Sister Ellen Savage - a lieutenant and a nurse in the Australian Army. She had returned to Australia having seen service in the Middle East aboard a hospital ship just like the Centaur, providing medical assistance to wounded personnel. In May 1943, Sister Savage and 331 others sailed out of Sydney Harbour aboard the Centaur headed for New Guinea to assist and recover those wounded in the fighting to the north of Australia.

An old photograph of AHS Centaur on the water. The photograph has been manipulated to show the change from day to night; the red crosses and lights of Centaur become visible as the photograph becomes darker.

'So that she would not be mistaken as a warship, the Centaur was painted a bright white and at night sailed with all the lights switched on illuminating the large red crosses on her sides. For 2 days, the hospital ship sailed along the Australian coast, yet Sister Savage and everyone on board had no idea of the threat waiting for them beneath the waves.'

An animated image appears on screen. The image starts with a black circular border that becomes a view through the periscope of a submarine. There are cross-hairs in the view to represent the submarine's hunt for AHS Centaur.

'A Japanese submarine intercepted the Centaur and soon had the ship in its sights. At 10 past 4 in the morning of May 14, the ship was rocked by two enormous explosions.'

An image of water being churned up by a considerable force. An image from a World War II poster appears over the water image; the poster shows an artist’s impression of the sinking of AHS Centaur, with the ship on fire and sinking while survivors leap from the ship or scramble into life rafts in the water.

'Woken by the sound and sudden impact, Sister Ellen knew immediately they had been attacked. Struck by torpedoes, the Centaur was on fire - giant flames filled the night sky while tonnes of seawater poured through the ship's torn sides. Sister Ellen later recalled those terrifying moments.'

Old newsreel content of Ellen in a hospital ward, lying in a hospital bed. A male journalist sits to the left of the bed, facing Ellen. He holds a 1940s-style microphone in his left hand, near Ellen's chin.

[Journalist voice] 'Here is Sister Savage still too ill to leave hospital'

[Sister Savage voice] 'I remembered to hold my lifebelt ... in the right direction, so I wouldn't break my neck ... and just went into the water and by then, the ship was sinking.'

Old newspaper clippings and headlines covering the sinking of AHS Centaur.

'In 3 minutes, the ship had disappeared into the ocean, taking with her the lives of 268 people.'

Presenter Warren Brown sitting on a step in the doorway of the old stone building. He is seen from the waist up as he presents to the camera.

'Ellen jumped into the dark ocean and found herself being dragged under. Now as the ship sank, it created a powerful whirlpool and it dragged Sister Ellen deep beneath the water. She found herself flung among the debris that was spiralling around her, and she suffered some terrible injuries. Her ribs were smashed, her nose and palette were broken, her eardrums perforated from the sheer pressure of water.'

A cartoon depicting Ellen swimming through debris and burning oil from AHS Centaur. At the right of the cartoon, another survivor of the sinking is depicted sitting on some wreckage.

'But as it happened, Sister Ellen was a terrific swimmer - she managed to break free of the downward spiral and was suddenly hurled back to the surface in an oil slick. She managed to swim to a makeshift raft made from the Centaur's wheel house – a moment of safety.'

Presenter Warren Brown sitting on a step in the doorway of the old stone building. He is seen from the waist up as he presents to the camera.

'Sister Ellen then made it to a larger raft filled with wounded men. She was the only nurse to survive.'

A cartoon depicting Ellen and several male survivors from AHS Centaur sitting on a raft adrift on the ocean. Some of the men are wounded. The sea has been animated and moves under the raft, while in the background animated clouds drift by in the sky.

'Once on board, Sister Savage did something truly amazing. She continued her role as a nurse, concealing her own injuries to take care of the wounded. She looked after the few rations of food they could find and what little water they had, knowing that their greatest challenge would be to survive in the hope of being found.'

A cartoon depicting the raft with Ellen and the survivors, seen from above. The raft floats on a wide expanse of water and becomes smaller as though the viewer were in an aircraft that was climbing up above the scene.

'She kept up morale within the little group, keeping their spirits high, never losing hope.'

A cartoon depicting Ellen and the survivors sitting on the raft. Some of them have one arm raised as though they are trying to attract attention. The sea has been animated and moves beneath the raft. An animated cartoon depiction of the American Second World War ship USS Mugford appears in the right side of the cartoon, moving toward the raft.

'After another gruelling 34 hours, the raft was spotted and rescued by the destroyer USS Mugford. The nightmare was over.'

A collage of images. At left, is a painting depicting Ellen in her nursing uniform. She is seen from the waist up and wears a hat. In the middle and at left are newspaper clippings relating to the sinking of AHS Centaur and the medal awarded to Ellen. An image of the medal is at the top centre of the collage. It has a silver medallion and a ribbon with red and blue vertical stripes.

'In 1944, Ellen was awarded the George Medal for 'Conspicuous Service and High Courage.' She became the second Australian woman to be awarded this medal.'

Presenter Warren Brown sitting on a step in the doorway of the old stone building. He is seen from the waist up as he presents to the camera.

'Sister Ellen Savage died in 1985, leaving behind the legacy of her extraordinary story of service, survival and courage.'

Closing frame shows the crest of the Australian Government Department of Veterans' Affairs.

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