Memories of the HMAS Sydney

Barbara with photos of her father.

 

THE recent release of the name of a sailor whose body was recovered after the sinking of HMAS Sydney in 1941 has brought memories flooding back to Tanilba’s Barbara Evans.

DNA testing has now identified him.

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He was Thomas Welsby Clark, a 21-year-old able seaman on the light cruiser.

No other trace has been found of the other 644 sailors who perished on that fateful day some 80 years ago.

His body and a liferaft were washed up on Christmas Island in early 1942.

But, dear reader, we are getting ahead of ourselves.

To set the scene for our maritime saga, we have to backtrack to WW1 and the original HMAS Sydney.

In Australia’s first major sea battle, the ‘Sydney’ was despatched from convoy duty to deal with the German cruiser ‘Emden’ in the Cocos Islands.

It was a decisive victory with Sydney pounding the ‘Emden’ into a battered hulk and driving it aground.

The ‘Emden’ received 100 hits and suffered the loss of 134 dead whilst the ‘Sydney’ was struck 16 times and three sailors died.

After service in the North Atlantic, ‘Sydney’ returned to Australia where it was broken up for scrap in 1929.

Its tripod mast still stands as a beacon on Bradley’s Head in the port after which it was named.

Other items from the vessel were donated to various cities and towns and bollards from the ship take pride of place atop pillars of the arched gates at Tanilba Bay.

The second Sydney was constructed in England in 1933.

It’s armament included 8×6 inch and 4×4 inch guns and eight torpedo tubes.

The ship served with great distinction in the Mediterranean campaign, sinking two large Italian warships and participating in shore bombardments.

For his outstanding leadership Captain Collins was decorated and his memory today lives on with our fleet of submarines bearing his name.

On arrival back in its home port, the vessel and crew were given a ticker-tape welcome.

Huge crowds gathered on the foreshore and schoolchildren were given a holiday to go and see the ship which still sported a large hole in its funnel where an Italian shell had left its mark.

These celebrations were soon to end and a sombre mood took hold of the nation when the Sydney was lost with all hands off Western Australia some time later.

It was whilst patrolling off the Western Australian coast near Carnarvon on 19 November 1941 that the ‘Sydney’ happened upon an unidentified ‘merchant’ ship.

Whilst declaring that she was the ‘Straat Malakka’ the vessel could not give its secret identifying official code number.

On top of this, the stated name of the craft did not appear on a list of allied shipping which were supposed to be in the area.

The new captain, Burnett, drew closer to try to clarify the situation but in reality he was being lured into a trap.

The ship in question was in fact the ‘Kormoran’, a disguised Germain raider.

It’s initial salvo swept away the bridge of the Sydney and did other extensive damage.

Both vessels exchanged gunfire and torpedoes were also launched.

According to ‘Kormoran’ survivors, ‘Sydney’ was last seen as a blazing wreck on the horizon.

The German raider also went down but most of the crew took to the lifeboats and ended up as POWs.

Despite exhaustive searches, nothing was found from the ‘Sydney’ until 1942 when the unidentified body and a life raft were washed ashore.

Another local link with the ship was established after the wreck was found.

In 2008, Member for Paterson Bob Baldwin, with other government and naval officials, cast wreaths upon the waters over the site to remember the greatest loss of life suffered in a single incident in the history of the Royal Australian Navy.

Barbara Evans’s links with the Sydney are very personal.

You see, her father, W/O J A E Fuller, was one of those lost.

She treasures small photos of him and still has his naval sword in her possession.

On top of this, the sprightly 91-year-old has a shard of the damaged Sydney’s funnel.

Her father brought it home for her all those years ago before setting sail on that last fatal voyage.

“The loss of my father had a devastating impact on our family,” she said.

“I was eleven years old at the time.

“My mother was left with three children to support on a pension of just four pounds ($8) per week.

“She was too proud to accept charity and went out to work to bring in money, leaving us to do all the chores,” she added.

 

By Geoff WALKER

 

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