War at sea 1939-1945

During World War II, Royal Australian Navy (RAN) ships carried troops, escorted merchant ships, carried out bombardments and provided support for Allied operations in the Mediterranean, the North Sea and the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Several hundred Australian naval personnel also served on British and Allied warships and some on merchant ships as gunners.

Two RAN ships were lost during the 'Tobruk Ferry' supply runs in 1941. On 30 June 1941, HMAS Waterhen was crippled by air attacks and sunk, but with no loss of crew. However there were only 23 survivors from the crew of 160 officers and men in HMAS Parramatta when it was sunk off Tobruk on 27 November 1941. Just a week earlier, on 19 November 1941, and much closer to home, HMAS Sydney had been attacked and sunk off the West Australian coast by the German raider Kormoran. None of Sydney's crew of 645 survived.

During 1942, the RAN's involvement in operations against the Japanese in Malaya, Java, Timor, the Bay of Bengal and the Solomon Islands resulted in the loss of HMA Ships Perth, Yarra, Vampire, Canberra, Voyager and Armidale. The depot ship HMAS Kuttabul was sunk in Sydney Harbour during the Japanese midget submarine attack on 31 May-1 June and the destroyer HMAS Nestor was lost in the Mediterranean in June 1942. Although the RAN lost other vessels of various classes during the next three years of the war, and some were badly damaged, the months of 1942 were 'the RAN's black months'.

The war at sea also involved air forces, with Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) squadrons participating in anti-submarine partrols and attacks on shipping. The most significant of these actions was in March 1943 when RAAF crews were involved in the destruction of a Japanese convoy heading for Lae through the Bismarck Sea.

On 14 May 1943 the Australian hospital ship AHS Centaur was sunk by a Japanese submarine off the coast of Queensland. Only 64 of the 332 crew on board survived. In September 1943, Australian and British commandos (soldiers and sailors) in the Special Reconnaissance Department sailed on 'Operation Jaywick' from Exmouth in Western Australia and successfully destroyed a number of Japanese ships in Singapore Harbour. In October 1944, Australian ships participated in the Battle of Surigao Strait during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Phillipines. Early in January 1945 Australian ships participated in the final Australian campaigns in Borneo (Brunei, Tarakan and Balikpapan), Bougainville, New Britain, and the mainland of New Guinea.

The sinking of the Centaur

The Centaur was, at 4 am on Friday May 14, a short distance off the Queensland coast. Weather was fine and clear and visibility good. The ship was brightly illuminated, in accordance with the Geneva Convention ... red crosses on each side of the hull, red crosses on the poop … the characteristic green painted band which encircles hospital ships.

[John Curtin, in Patsy Adam Smith, Australian Women at War, Melbourne, p.173]

On 14 May 1943 the hospital ship AHS Centaur was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine off the coast of Queensland. Of the 332 crew and medical personnel (including 12 nurses) on board the ship, only 64 (including one nurse) survived.

The AHS Centaur sank within three minutes, too quickly to transmit a distress signal, and for the next 36 hours Sister Ellen Savage with the other survivors clung to makeshift rafts with no food or water. Despite her own injuries, Sister Savage did her best to help the others. The survivors were finally rescued by the crew of the USS Mugford and Sister Savage was later awarded the George Medal for her courage and fortitude.

The 60th anniversary of the sinking of the AHS Centaur occurred on 14 May 2003. The Commemorations Branch of the Department of Veterans' Affairs has developed a feature 'The Sinking of the Centaur' to mark this anniversary.

Men of a service

Prime Minister John Curtin's acknowledgment of the role of the Merchant Navy recognised the value of the merchant ships and the risks faced by merchant crews.

The merchant navies of the United Nations are constantly in the fighting line. Silently, efficiently and without fuss they carry on the unending task of keeping the fighting men and supplies moving. The men of our merchant navy have established a high tradition and the Australian Government warmly acknowledges the great part they are playing in the war effort.

According to figures published by the Seamen's' Union of Australia (SUA) in 1972, 386 members of the union died as a consequence of enemy action. Since the Union's total membership at the beginning of World War II was 4500 men, the overall fatality rate of their members was 8.5%, a higher rate than that sustained by members of Australia's fighting services.

[Don Fraser, 'Men of a service': Australian merchant seamen in Wartime: Official Magazine of the Australian War Memorial, No 5 (1999) pp 53-57]

Their fathers' medals

On 2 April 1943, Jennifer Purtell (7 years) and Maxwell Reece (12 years) were presented with their father's Distinguished Service Medals (DSMs) in a ceremony at Rushcutters Bay Naval Depot in Sydney.

Maxwell's father, Petty Officer William Joseph Hodson Reece, was on board HMAS Perth when his ship was sunk in the Sunda Strait, between Sumatra and Java, during the night of 28 February/1 March 1942. Reece, who had been commended for his bravery in Perth during the Battle of Crete in 1941, was still listed as 'missing' in 1943 when Maxwell received the award from Admiral G C Muirhead-Gould. In 1945 Petty Officer Reece's family discovered that he had been killed in action during the sinking of HMAS Perth.

Chief Petty Officer Writer Edward Geoffrey Purtell, listed as 'missing, believed killed' at the time of the presentation, was later confirmed as having been killed in action when his ship, HMAS Parramatta, was sunk off Tobruk, Libya, on 27 November 1941.

Australian Hospital Ship Centaur

Australian Hospital Ship Centaur [AWM P00444.081]


Last updated: 13 March 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), War at sea 1939-1945, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 21 October 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/world-war-ii-1939-1945/events/war-sea-1939-1945
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