Monday, May 14, 2007

The Sinking of the Centaur

Most Australians are aware of two attacks on Australia during World War II; that is the bombing of Darwin in February 1942 by Japanese aircraft and the attack on Sydney Harbour in May 1942 by Japanese midget submarines.

However, the majority of Brisbane residents are probably unaware that the action of WWII did occur much closer to home, in fact, just off our coastline exactly 64 years ago today. On 14 May 1943 a Japanese submarine torpedoed and sunk the hospital ship Centaur just east of Moreton Island.

The following is from the Australian War Memorial Online Encyclopedia.

The Centaur, 2/3rd Australian Hospital Ship, was a motor passenger ship converted in early 1943 for use as a hospital ship. In November 1941 it had rescued survivors of the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran after it had sunk and been sunk by HMAS Sydney.

Sydney, NSW. 1943. Starboard bow view of the Hospital Ship Centaur. Prominent red crosses and green lines are painted on her hull. Red crosses are also attached to her funnel and stern with another lying horizontally on the after deckhouse.

On 12 May 1943 the Centaur sailed unescorted from Sydney at 0945 hours carrying her crew and normal staff, as well as stores and equipment of the 2/12th Field Ambulance but no patients. It was sunk without warning by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine on 14 May 1943 at approximately 0400 hours, its position being approximately 27°17' S, 153°58' E about 50 miles east north-east of Brisbane.

Of the 332 persons on board, only 64 survived. These survivors spent 35 hours on rafts before being rescued. Sister Ellen Savage, the only one of twelve nursing sisters on board to survive, though injured herself, gave great help to the other survivors and was awarded the George Medal for this work.

The ship had been appropriately lit and marked to indicate that it was a hospital ship and its sinking was regarded as an atrocity. The Australian Government delivered an official protest to Japan over the incident. The Japanese did not acknowledge responsibility for the incident for many years and the War Crimes Tribunal could not identify the responsible submarine. However, the Japanese official war history makes clear that it was submarine 1-177, under the command of Lt Commander Nakagawa who had sunk the Centaur. Lt Commander Nakagawa was convicted as a war criminal for firing on survivors of the British Chivalry which his ship had sunk in the Indian Ocean.

Also of interest is the following address to Parliament by the then Prime Minister, John Curtin.

It is with the deepest regret that the Commonwealth Government has learned of the loss of the Australian hospital ship "Centaur" and I know that the news will come also as a profound shock to the Australian people. The attack which took place within a few miles of the Queensland coast bears all the marks of wantonness and deliberation. Not only will it stir our people into a more acute realisation of the type of enemy against whom we are fighting, but I am confident also that this deed will shock the conscience of the whole civilised world and demonstrate to all who may have had any lingering doubts the unscrupulous and barbarous methods by which the Japanese conduct warfare. To the next-of-kin of those who are lost the Government and nation extend heartfelt sympathy, which is the deeper since those persons were non-combatants engaged on an errand of mercy, and were by all the laws of warfare immune from attack.

The full circumstances of the sinking of the "Centaur" are as follows:-The "Centaur" was at 4 o'clock in the morning of Friday 14th May a short distance off the Queensland coast. The weather was fine and clear, and the visibility was good. The ship was brightly illuminated in accordance with the Geneva Convention. Illuminations, in addition to the usual navigation lights, consisted of red crosses on each side of the hull, red crosses on each side of the funnel, a large red cross directed upwards on the poop, and rows of brilliant white lights along the sides of the hull to illuminate the characteristic green painted band - in this case five feet wide - which encircles hospital ships. On board the "Centaur" at the time were 352 persons, consisting solely of the ship's crew and medical personnel, including twelve nurses. There were no wounded on board. In all there were only 64 survivors including one nurse. Remaining 288 persons, including members of the ship's crew, nurses and other medical personnel, lost their lives.

Notice of intention to use the "CENTAUR" as a hospital ship, together with particulars of her dimensions, markings, and appearance, was communicated by the Commonwealth Government to the Axis Powers early this year; in the case of Japan on February 5th. In addition, full publicity including photographs of the ship was given in the Press, and particulars were broadcast in news broadcasts from Australian radio stations. There is therefore no reason to suppose that the Japanese Government and the Japanese naval authorities were not fully acquainted with the existence and purposes of this vessel. In all the circumstances, the Commonwealth Government is bound to regard the sinking of the "Centaur" as an entirely inexcusable act undertaken in violation of a convention to which Japan is a party and of all the principles of common humanity. An immediate and strong protest in these terms is being addressed to the Japanese Government, and the country may feel confident that the Government will do its utmost to establish right of redress and ensure that the war criminals responsible for this dastardly act are brought to justice.

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