The Sinking of the Centaur

This education resource explores the sinking of the Australian Hospital Ship; Centaur. 

ISBN: 909153671

Background

On Wednesday 12 May, 1943 the hospital ship Centaur left Sydney bound for Port Moresby to embark casualties from the Buna and Gona battles. On board were 75 crew of the Merchant Navy, including one ship's pilot, 64 medical staff, including 12 nurses of the Australian Army Nursing Service, and 149 men of the 2/12th Field Ambulance with 44 attached personnel heading for a tour in Papua New Guinea.

Nobody who saw it would have been in any doubt that the Centaur was a hospital ship. As it steamed through the night all the lights were kept on. Running down the sides of the vessel were thick green stripes broken by three large red crosses. Painted on the bow was the number 47. This was the Centaur's registration number with the international Red Cross and indicated that, through diplomatic channels, the enemy had been notified of her status as a hospital ship.

In 1943 the oceans and seas off Australia were a battle zone. As it sailed up the coast of New South Wales towards Queensland the Centaur passed close to the last resting places of the Kalingo, the Lydia M Childs, the Wollongbar, the Fingal and the Limerick. These merchant ships had been sunk, some with great loss of life, by Japanese submarines between 18 January and 29 April. There could be no doubt of the intensity of enemy activity in the sea lanes by which the Centaur was making her way north.

The sinking

At 4.10 am on Friday, 14 May, the Centaur was east of the Cape Moreton Light on Moreton Island, off the coast of Queensland.

Seaman Matthew Morris remembers:

I finished the twelve to four watch and I called the four to eight watch to go down, including me mate. And I was just havin' a cup of tea - and this big explosion, and the ship gave a shudder, and the skylight fell in on us. And I don't really know how I got out of the mess room ... and I'd say there was a dozen steps up to the deck. And I really can't remember going up them. But then I was washed off the back of the ship and then I realised I was in the water.

Sister Ellen Savage was asleep in her bunk when the Centaur collapsed around her:

Merle Morton and myself were awakened by two terrific explosions and practically thrown out of bed ...I registered mentally that it was a torpedo explosion ... In that instant the ship was in flames ... we ran into Colonel Manson, our commanding officer, in full dress even to his cap and 'Mae West' life-jacket, who kindly said 'That's right girlies, jump for it now.' The first words I spoke was to say 'Will I have time to go back for my great-coat?' as we were only in our pyjamas. He said 'No' and with that climbed the deck and jumped and I followed ... the ship was commencing to go down. It all happened in three minutes.

The suction of the sinking Centaur dragged Sister Savage down into a whirlpool of moving metal and wood. Here her ribs, nose and palate were broken, her ear drums perforated and she sustained multiple bruising. Then she was propelled to the surface in the middle of an oil slick.

The Centaur had been hit by a torpedo fired from Submarine 1-177 commanded by Lieutenant Commander Nakagawa. This much was admitted in the official Japanese war history published in 1979. The sinking seems to have been Nakagawa's decision as commander and not the result of any official policy. Later in the Indian Ocean Nakagawa fired on the survivors from a British merchantman. For this, and other incidents, he was tried as a B Class war criminal and spent four years in prison. At his trial the sinking of the Centaur was not raised. Fellow officers praised Nakagawa as a professional sailor who would never knowingly have attacked a protected hospital ship. Nakagawa himself has never commented on the event. It is worth mentioning that eight months previously Japanese surface ships had trained their searchlights on the hospital ship Manunda at Milne Bay. The Manunda was similarly marked and illuminated to the Centaur and she was not fired on.

The survivors

Years later Seaman Morris recalled that the Centaur sank quickly. Morris found himself alone in the water, eyes full of salt and oil. He found a small raft and then spotted his mate, Bobbie Teenie, whom he hauled aboard. In their loneliness and fear he remembers they made a great fuss of each other. As day dawned they spotted a bigger raft on the horizon and pulled over to it as their own was slowly sinking. Sister Savage had also found her way to this bigger raft.

This larger raft was part of the Centaur's wheel-house. The senior surviving officer, Second Officer Rippon, encouraged all those clinging to smaller rafts and debris to make for this so-called 'survival island'. Little food and water was available; many, including Sister Savage, were lightly dressed; and medical supplies for the injured were non existent.

So, huddled together, the survivors spent the daylight hours of Friday 14 May. In this crisis individual example engendered optimism and hope. Seaman Morris led them in vigorous singing of 'Roll Out The Barrel' and 'Waltzing Matilda'. Captain Salt, a Torres Strait pilot, despite his severe burns, kept assuring everyone that rescue must be on the way. Lieutenant Colonel Outridge and Sister Savage did what they could for the wounded. Sharks circled them and occasionally nosed the rafts. On the raft Seaman Morris was crammed up next to the badly burned Private Walder. Morris recalls Walder's death

He'd died next to me and his burns just stuck on my arm … And I said to Sister Savage who was practically opposite me, I said: 'I think this young chap's dead'. And she said: 'Are you sure'. And I said: 'Well, I'm pretty sure'. As she felt over she said: 'He's passed on'. So I took his identification disc off him and his name was John Walder, New South Wales army man. I gave his identification disc to Sister Savage and she said: 'Will you answer the Rosary?'. And I said: 'Yes, I'll do my best'. She said the Rosary and I answered it and we buried him at sea.

On the afternoon of Saturday 15 May, 32 hours after the Centaur had slipped to the bottom, the Naval Officer in Charge Brisbane, Captain E P Thomas, received a message from the USS Mugford. The American destroyer was picking up survivors from the hospital ship Centaur 40 miles east of Cape Moreton. It was the first Australia knew of the nation's worst loss from submarine attack during the war.

So quickly had the Centaur sunk that no SOS message was sent. The Mugford had been escorting the British steamer Sussex clear of Australian coastal waters when a lookout spotted an object ahead in the water. An RAAF Avro-Anson providing air cover dived on the object and then headed back towards the destroyer signalling 'Rescue survivors in water ahead'.

Of the 332 who had sailed from Sydney only 64 were found clinging to rafts and debris. The 2/12th Field Ambulance had virtually been wiped out. Sister Savage was the only nurse to survive. For her inspiring example on the raft she was awarded the George Medal.

Sister Ellen Savage GM AANS

Sister Ellen Savage was asleep in her bunk when the Centaur collapsed around her:

Merle Morton and myself were awakened by two terrific explosions and practically thrown out of bed … I registered mentally that it was a torpedo explosion … In that instant the ship was in flames … we ran into Colonel Manson, our commanding officer, in full dress even to his cap and 'Mae West' life-jacket, who kindly said 'That's right girlies, jump for it now.' The first words I spoke was to say 'Will I have time to go back for my great-coat?' as we were only in our pyjamas. He said 'No' and with that climbed the deck and jumped and I followed … the ship was commencing to go down. It all happened in three minutes.

The suction of the sinking Centaur dragged Sister Savage down into a whirlpool of moving metal and wood. Here her ribs, nose and palate were broken, her ear drums perforated and she sustained multiple bruises. Then she was propelled to the surface in the middle of an oil slick.

Sister Savage found her way to a raft that was part of the Centaur's wheel-house. During the 36 hours on this makeshift raft, Sister Savage gave whatever medical care she could to survivors despite being badly injured herself.

Sister Savage was the only nurse to survive. For her courage and inspiring behaviour during this period Sister Savage was awarded the George Medal.

Commemoration

Few disasters during the Second World War touched Australians as deeply as the loss of the Centaur. At Caloundra, Queensland, a memorial on a cliff points out towards the Centaur's final resting place. Another memorial was unveiled at Point Danger, Coolangatta, Queensland, in 1993 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the sinking. The tragedy is also remembered in practical ways. In the late 1940s The Centaur Memorial Fund For Nurses in Queensland raised the enormous sum, for the period, of fifty thousand pounds. This money was invested to fund activities in memory of the nurses who went down with the ship.

In 1943 the Centaur quickly became a symbol of Australian determination to win the war. This attack on a clearly marked and illuminated hospital ship was taken as further evidence that Australia faced a brutal and uncompromising enemy. Posters appeared to raise money for war loans showing the sinking ship and carrying the words 'Avenge The Nurses'. And when a mosaic was put in place commemorating the women's services in the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial, it was the image of the Centaur which was used to illustrate the sacrifice involved in such service. It is the only reference in the Hall to an actual event in any of the wars in which Australians have fought and died. 'Remember the Centaur' the mosaic seems to say—this ship symbolises the courage of Australian women in war and reminds us of all Australians who served in war and have no graves but the sea.

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