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Brisbane Airfields | #The Sinking of the Centaur | Radar Station #23

Brisbane Airfields

     The 2 foremost airfields in the Brisbane area were Archerfield and Eagle Farm during the 1920s with other strips at Bulimba, Hemmant and Lytton.

     Though Archerfield was generally high and dry, Eagle Farm on the other hand was very muddy in inclement weather and many an accident occured at those times.

     "Smithy" (Sir Charles Kingsford Smith ) had trouble at Eagle Farm and chose to use the old army base at Lytton as the First World War, the "war to end all wars," was long gone and not likely to be repeated for a while.

     Lytton was not as close to the Brisbane central city area as Eagle Farm but it had the advantage of being a dry strip. So Smithy brought his 6 "Southern" series planes in 1929 and then had to rescue Amy Johnson when her plane skidded in the mud at Eagle Farm. He then flew her to Sydney while her plane was sent to Sydney by rail.

     The accompanying photograph shows Amy Johnson being interviewed by a reporter at Lytton. See also rules for flying in the 1920s.

                    The 6 "Southern " series a/c at Lytton :




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The sinking of the "Centaur"

The Ultimate Crime

On Wednesday, 19 May 1943, news was released of the deaths of all but one of the nurses aboard the hospital ship Centaur, off the Australian coast. The newspapers mirrored the cry of the people: 'The Ultimate Crime', they called it. 'Torpedoing of Hospital Ship' ran the headlines, reporting the sinking five days previously of what had, until that Friday, been known as 'the Luck' ship. One of the last ships to leave Singapore before it fell to the Japanese, she had escaped all air attacks without damage. The Centaur had been anchored in Darwin harbour when the Japanese made their first devastating attack in 1942.

During the ship's war career she had survived more than seventy near misses from enemy bombs. Throughout these adventures the 3 286 tonne vessel had been a freighter, but in early February 1943 it was converted to a hospital ship with accommodation for 250 patients, as well as medical and nursing staff and 70 crew. Among the latest fittings were modern ventilation and refrigeration, X-ray apparatus, 'ultra-modern' surgical and medical equipment, rows of double-tiered cots, and electric lifts.

Three months later, she was gone, and had taken 299 Australians with her. Australia was outraged. The sinking of a hospital ship was considered the ultimate crime among civilised nations. The barbarity of this deliberate attack (and what other ship at sea would have all lights blazing? they asked) etched even more firmly in Australian l11inds the conviction that their Japanese foes were savages. By flouting this most sacred convention, the Japanese had set themselves outside the ranks of civilised nations who went towar according to the rules. 'This act gained for the perpetrators a deeper stain of the infamy their nation had already earned,' read the leader of the Melbourne Argus, 'a fiendish act'.

John Curtin said, reporting the loss of the ship and all on board her: 'Notice of intention to use the Centaur as a hospital ship with particulars of her dimensions, markings and appearance, had been communicated by the   Commonwealth to Axis Powers early this year - in Japan's case on February 5. In addition, full publicity, including photographs of the ship, was given in the Press and particulars were broadcast in news from Australian stations.

‘There was therefore no reason to suppose that the Japanese Government and naval authorities were not fully acquainted with the existence and purposes of the ship.'

In a statement on the circumstances of the sinking, Mr Curtin said: 'The Centaur was at 4 a.m. 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. Illuminations, in addition to usual navigation lights, consisted of red crosses on each side of the hull, red crosses on the poop, and rows of brilliant lights along the side of the hull to illuminate the characteristic green painted band - in this case 5 feet wide - which encircles hospital ships.

On board the Centaur were 363 persons, consisting solely of ship's crew and medical personnel, including 12 nurses. There were no wounded on board. In all there were only 64 survivors, including one nurse. The remaining 299 persons, including members of the ship's crew, nurses, and other medical personnel, lost their lives.'

International law, which owes its authority to general acceptance by the nations of the world, is explicit on the inviolability not only of hospital ships but also of hospital personnel, such as comprised the sole complement of the ill-fated Centaur, apart from its crew. This principle was adopted at a Hague Conference of 1899, when it was sought to apply to naval warfare the principles already applying to land warfare by the Geneva Convention of 1864.

Briefly, it is laid down that hospital ships may be neither attacked nor seized. They must be used solely for the succour of wounded, sick and shipwrecked, and they must, if necessary, afford relief and assistance to the wounded of either belligerent. At a further Hague Conference a few years later, at which Japan was represented, a code of rules was adopted, one of these specifying that a hospital ship must be painted white outside, with a horizontal green band about five feet in width all round, and must hoist, together with its own national flag, the white flag with a red cross provided for by the Geneva Convention. It is the practice, too, to give the opposing belligerent particulars of hospital ships.

All these rules had been scrupulously obeyed by the Australian authorities. There could be no doubt, therefore, that the sinking of the hospital ship was, to quote the Prime Minister, 'an entirely inexcusable act, undertaken in violation of the convention to which Japan is a party and of all the principles of common humanity'.

There were no patients on the vessel, which was bound unescorted for New Guinea. Survivors included one medical officer, one nurse, 32 other medical personnel, 'and 30 members of the crew. Eighteen doctors, 11 nurses, and 193 other medical personnel were killed. Excepting members of the crew on duty, everyone was in bed when the torpedo struck. Survivors estimate that about 150 people succeeded in getting into the water. More than 200 were trapped below decks by water and flames, and many others were sucked down with the ship as it plunged to its doom. Anger and grief were experienced by the families of those who were lost. Mrs A.E. Johnson of North Fitzroy (Vic.) recalled that both her husband and her brother, Warrant Officer Williams, were never recovered from the sea.

A number were killed by the explosion and by falling debris, many were terribly burned and collapsed in the water; several were taken by shoals of sharks. Survivors said that before they got away they heard 'agonising cries of nurses' caught by flames billowing up to the promenade deck and of men trapped below. There was no chance to send out a wireless SOS or to get any lifeboats free. Some, on deck, in the few minutes it took the ship to sink, saw the outline of the submarine at close range. Apart from those burned while escaping, many suffered severely from hot oil scalding their eyes in the water. Some spent the whole time on planks, but the majority were able to form into two parties on rafts and wreckage which they fastened together.

Several rafts and the top of the wheelhouse were lashed together by another party numbering about 30 and including the only nurse who survived. Ronald Moate, chief pantryman, of Williamstown, said he was on the boat deck, where Captain G.A. Murray, Jack Stutter and Charlie Carey were trying to launch a lifeboat. 'Fire belched up and covered the bridge: he said, 'and the ship started to slide down. I saw a mast break away, and then we were sucked down. Only Stutter and I came up. I caught hold of a hatch cover, but it was torn out of my grasp. I then got a rubber raft, and Stutter and a badly-burned fellow joined me. About three hours later we met by another raft, on which were Stan Morgan, donkeyman, and another badly-burned man. This man died at sea, at dawn on Saturday. We were joined by two other rafts . Sister Savage was on one of them. She was so magnificent that we did not even know she had fractured ribs. There were finally over thirty in our party. We had 2,000 milk tablets, 2lbs of chocolates, a tin of prunes, a tin of raisins, some meat extract, and 2 gallons of water.'

The fortitude and courageous conduct of Sister Eleanor Savage was one of the dramatic features of the stories told by survivors. With grim detail they described their terrifying ordeal as they jumped or were swept from the sinking vessel into shark-infested waters. Sister Savage, of Sydney, only survivor of the twelve nurses aboard, suffered fractured ribs and lacerations to the face, apart from suffering severely from exposure, exhaustion, and shock. She had been an AIF nurse for two years, having previously served on the hospital ship Oranje, then operating for the Commonwealth to the Middle East.

Sister Savage and her cabin mate rushed to a window when the explosion awakened ,them. They saw the ship was on fire, so they seized their lifejackets and made for the deck. Sister Savage also snatched up her rosary beads. 'My best friend, Sister King, was in the next cabin,' she said. 'We had often talked over what we would do if we were ever torpedoed. Sister King could not swim, and it had been agreed that 1 should crocodile her - that is, take her across my shoulders - if we ever finished in the water. So after meeting on deck we jumped into the water together.

'Sister King was apparently killed by some debris, for 1 never saw her again. It was then that 1apparently injured my side, but 1never realised it at the time. 1 am a strong swimmer, and immediately struck away from the ship when 1reaIised Sister King had disappeared. 1climbed on to a section of the deck house with Robert Westwood, 15-year-old cabin boy, who had burns. We worked our way to two rafts, on which nearly twenty men were huddling.

1 had only torn pyjamas on, but one man gave me his khaki trousers, and another a greatcoat. 1gave Westwood what attention 1could, and sheltered him against me with the greatcoat. The greatcoat undoubtedly saved my life, for I could never have survived the cold otherwise. 1 had always wondered what 1 would do in such circumstances. My reaction was quite different from what 1 thought it would be. 1 had no thought of panic, but took immediate comfort in prayer. My first thought was to say a prayer that we might be saved, and that my friends might be saved too. Later 1led the prayers as we recited the Rosary, even those who were not Catholics joining in. It did much to brace our morale.'

Alex Cockrane of Subiaco (WA)was saved by an oil drum. He said all joined Sister Savage in reciting the Rosary. 'They were for many of us the most fervent prayers we have said in all our lives.'

Dr Leslie Outridge, medical officer, and other men rescued with Sister Savage, highly praised her courage, describing it as an inspiration. They said she took charge of the rationing of what food and water they had, working on the assumption that they would not be picked up for four days. 'She must have been in great pain all the time but never said a word about it, and her leadership was a great factor in the morale of her party.'

Jim Waterson, store man, of Basendean (WA) said he was trying to get to the boats when the stern reared up about twenty metres and the ship plunged down. He was swept off the deck and grabbed a raft on which there was another chap. He could hear screams of some of the nurses on the  burning promenade deck and of men trapped below. During the morning he saw Sister Savage on the hatch cover about fifty metres away and swam over with a rope, and the others dragged them back to the main raft.

Two planes passed over shortly after 9 a.m. on Friday. Flares and smoke candles were lit, but visibility had declined and the survivors were not seen. Later they saw two more planes and two ships, which were too far away to see distress signals. Before dawn on Saturday an engine was heard. At first it was thought to be an aeroplane, so lights were shown and flares lit. Then noise of a submarine coming to the surface was heard. Some survivors saw the silhouette of the submarine, realised it was an enemy craft, and all lights were doused, as it was feared the enemy would open fire with machineguns. After a short while the submarine disappeared.

There was almost continuous rain on Friday night and all suffered severely from cold. Although there was not very much sun on either day, at suffered from sunburn, against which few had any protection, as most had lost their pyjamas in the water. They had food enough in the form of milk tablets, chocolate, meat extract, prunes and raisins, but fresh water was the main worry. All had only enough to wet their lips on Friday evening and a mouthful just after dawn on Saturday.

A fifth plane was sighted on Saturday morning and another ship. Then at 1.45 p.m. they were sighted by a plane, which guided an allied vessel to the rescue. The first survivor was picked up about 2.15 and the last shortly after 4 p.m.

Those Yanks from the small allied rescue. vessel were marvellous: Trevor Hoggins said. 'Ignoring the sharks, they came overboard into the water to help those who were injured, burned, or otherwise too weak to climb aboard. They gave us clothes, food, and all the medical attention possible, and even their beds. They could not have done more.'

Many of the nurses had been on the hospital ship Oranje for up to two years before transferring to the Centaur. Among the eleven nurses who went down with the ship was Matron S.A. Jewell who had served in the Middle East and with Sea Transport, going backwards and forwards to Australia on troop transports. The sad irony of her death was that while on the transports she had no protection, such ships being fair game to an enemy. Yet her life was taken while on a ship guaranteed safe passage by all nations, including those whose submarine crew sent the torpedo into the unarmed vessel.

Captain Hajime Nakagawa of the Japanese Imperial Navy submarine 1-177, which torpedoed and sunk the Centaur, has consistently refused to speak of the event. A journalist from the Melbourne Herald asked Nakagawa's daughter in Japan in 1981 for help in speaking with her father. but the request was refused. The daughter, according to Ken Merrigah, the reporter, said that there was no point in resurrecting the matter. 'The winners of the war can talk about anything they wish. . . I think a winner is a winner and a loser is a loser.'

Mr Nakagawa was arrested after the war and tried as a war criminal. He spent four years in Sugamo prison for his part in activities in the Indian Ocean when he (and other Japanese captains) fired on survivors of torpedoed ships.

Post Script:

     Number 23 Radar Station on Signal Hill at Lytton  reported a submarine at this site the day before, the 13 may 1943, but the local Navy bod said, "We didn't have any subs there so it must be wrong".These plots were fixed by 3 different operators  yet no one would believe them.

     This same Radar Station also reported the 3 mother submarines who gathered off the Queensland coast for a while some 40 miles from lytton .

     On another occasion a B17 was lost in a thunderstorm west of Toowoomba and 23 R.S. picked it up and redirected it to amberley .

     I have a very good friend of mine whos husband was in Radar and  he left a lot of books and notes about his life in the service.

     There are a few books around called RAAF RADAR in WWII one does homeland and the other does overseas both are very interesting also from the library is available a very good book on the development of Radar .

     contact EW&eESimmonds 2/13 Cromer Rd Banora pt NSW .2486




Site last updated 16 March 2013

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