80 years ago today
80 years ago today, Australia suffered the largest loss of life in our Navy’s history.
HMAS Sydney had been the pride of the Royal Australian Navy in the early years of the Second World War; she had been part of the bombardment of Bardia in June 1940, and played a role in the Malta-bound convoys as part of the British Mediterranean Battle Fleet.
Her sinking of the Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni near Crete in July 1940 made her ‘the toast of the country’. Her civic reception in Sydney and celebrations in Fremantle made her an icon for many Australians, with people lining the streets to cheer the triumphant crew.
On 11 November, 1941, HMAS Sydney left Fremantle to escort the troop ship Zealandia for some of its journey to Singapore.
Unknowingly, it was the last time her crew would see Australian shores.
Until 2008, the only information about Sydney’s fate came from the survivors of the German Raider Kormoran. Their accounts stated Sydney had sighted them 240 kilometres south-west of Carnarvon, Western Australia.
Disguised as the Dutch freighter Straat Malakaa, Kormoran lured the technologically superior Sydney into range of its guns and torpedoes.
In the battle that followed, both ships were critically damaged and eventually sank.
While 315 of the Kormoran’s 393 officers and men survived and were rescued, none of the Sydney’s 645-strong crew were ever recovered alive, despite an extensive land and sea search.
The final hours of Sydney and the fate of the 645 men on board remained controversial until she was found. The Kormoran survivors maintained the ship drifted off into the distance and the final flickering of the burning Sydney disappeared about midnight.
After 67 years Sydney’s final resting place was discovered, finally ending the mystery surrounding her fate.
Three months after the battle the body of a sailor from Sydney washed up in a heavily damaged raft on Christmas Island.
After so much time at sea his blue overalls had been bleached white and he was unable to be identified, spending the next eight decades simply named ‘The Unknown Sailor’.
Today, 80 years after his death he has been identified as Thomas Welsby Clark, a 21 year old from Brisbane.
We want to congratulate everyone who has been involved in identifying Able Seaman Clark, may he rest in peace.