The nation's world wars have been largely land involvement – WWI: Gallipoli, the Middle East, the Western Front, New Guinea; and WWII: northern Africa, Middle East, Singapore, New Guinea, South East Asia, Europe. The air ware over northern Africa, Europe and New Guinea have formed a certain view of those lost..
The imagery of both world war's in books, film and documentaries have focused on these two areas (land and air) as this was where the attention was given. The war at sea with Australian losses was not an every day event, rather an occasional 'huge hit'. These are remembered, but they are one off's, whereas the land battles lasted months and years.
ABC television in mid 1980s put on air the two part documentary the "Wings of War" which detailed the Australians involved with Bomber Command in England. It started with the Air training schools in Australia, then the flight training schools in Canada followed by appointments to bomber air bases where the losses had been greatest.
Trobuk has had books and films and documentaries made on it as an Australian war "fight to the finish" success story as is Kakoda in Papua New Guinea. We grew up on these land and air battles.
Therefore there has been a tendency to feature those war diary events and limit the sea dead to those spasmodic losses. In the past two years in particular there has been an effort to correct this imbalance.
Counter the imbalance
On 19 November 1941, all 645 men on board HMAS Sydney were lost when sunk by the German raider Kormoran off the coast of Western Australia.
On 27 November, only eight days after the Sydney was lost, 138 officers and men died when HMAS Parramatta was sunk off Tobruk. When was the last time you can recall this being heralded in the Tobruk story. (www.ww2australia.gov.au)
The RAN lost five major ships and a number of smaller vessels in 1942. HMA Ships Perth and Yarra which had survived the actions in the Mediterranean in 1940 and 1941, as well as HMAS Canberra, which had patrolled the Indian Ocean trade routes, were among the Australian warships that returned to fight in the Pacific. The Japanese sank all three ships in the early months of the war against Japan. HMA Ships Vampire, Kuttabul, Voyager and Armidale were also lost in 1942.
Although other vessels were sunk or damaged and many lives were lost during the remaining years of World War II, 1942 was the 'blackest' period for the RAN.
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. 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.
Prime Minister John Curtin's acknowledgement of the role of the Merchant Navy recognised the value of the merchant ships and the risks faced by merchant crews. 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. (www.ww2australia.gov.au)
This ANZAC day we might ponder those lost at sea in both military and merchant and consider how many of our fighting men and women were transported by sea and how the nation relied on sea transportation in time of war.
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html