SINKING OF THE 2/3 HOSPITAL SHIP A.H.S. CENTAUR
BY JAPANESE SUBMARINE I-177 ON 14 MAY 1943
OFF THE QUEENSLAND COAST, EAST OF BRISBANE
Centaur found and now photographed and filmed
The search for the "Centaur"
(story and photos at the bottom of this page)
On 13 May 1943, No. 23 Radar Station RAAF had plotted a surface vessel which was located about 40 miles off the coast of Moreton Island. The blip was characteristic of a surfaced submarine. W.A.A.A.F. Operators P. Woodward, K. Rae and M. Hess reported the plots to the 8 Fighter Sector Headquarters in Brisbane. The plots were verified by the Commanding Officer of No. 23 Radar Station, Pilot Officer W. Fielder-Gill.
At approximately 4.15K hours on Friday 14 May 1943, the hospital ship A.H.S. Centaur, ablaze with lights, with a compliment of 332 persons on board, was torpedoed by Japanese submarine I-177 south east of Cape Moreton. The Centaur was struck in an oil fuel tank on the port side abaft No. 2 Hatch. Centaur caught fire immediately, and sank within two or three minutes. All its lights were on except two floodlights right forward, used for floodlighting the bows. These had been switched off because they affected sight from the bridge.
"Centaur" made no signals and there was no time to launch any boats although two boats broke adrift from the ship as she sunk.
State Library of Queensland:- Image number:17137
Australian Hospital Ship Centaur (AHS47)
268 persons died and only 64 survived this tragic event. Of the 12 Army Nurses on board, Sister Ellen Savage was the only survivor.
USS Mugford had been escorting the British Steamer "Sussex" on a voyage across the Tasman Sea. A lookout on board USS Mugford had spotted something on the horizon. Shortly after this an Avro Anson from 71 Squadron RAAF based at Lowood Airfield, spotted survivors in the water at 1400 hours on Saturday 15 May 1943 and radioed United States destroyer, USS Mugford, to "rescue survivors in water ahead". The Anson had been providing anti-submarine visual protection for Force "Z", which I assume was the USS Mugord and the British Steamer "Sussex".
complete list of those who
died and the survivors
Source:- AWM Web site on Centaur
Survivors in the first group of rafts recovered, told Lieutenant Commander H.J. Corey, the Captain of USS Mugford that they were from the hospital ship "Centaur".
The Naval Officer in Charge in Brisbane (N.O.I.C. Brisbane), Captain Edward Penry Thomas, received a signal from the USS Mugford that afternoon (at 0506 G.M.T) stating they were picking up many survivors from H.M.A. Hospital Ship "Centaur" at a position about 40 miles east of Cape Moreton. This was the first official indication on the mainland of this tragic event. USS Mugford had begun picking up many survivors at position 27º 03'S, 154º 12'E. USS Mugford advised that the "Centaur" had been sunk at 0400K on Friday 14 May 1943.
The Captain of USS Mugford requested the Anson to protect the "Sussex" while they continued to rescue the survivors of the "Centaur". A number of false alarms were reported on board USS Mugford of periscopes and torpedo trails. This caused a number of unnecessary distractions to the rescuers.
Three of the survivors stated that at about 0330k hours on the next day, Saturday 15 May 1943, they saw the Japanese submarine on the surface near the "Centaur's" boats.
The survivors were mostly found on rafts within a 2 mile radius of the main oil slick and wreckage. They were in two larger groups and three smaller groups. USS Mugford rescued 63 men and 1 woman, including 4 who were seriously injured at about 1430K hours on Saturday 15 May 1943 at a position approximately 20 miles NE of the location where "Centaur" was attacked.
Corporal Maurice Peter Thomas (VX64840) a member of the medical staff of AHS Centaur escaped from the sinking ship and managed to locate a piece of planking at Daybreak. Cpl Thomas and Privates Jones and Private McCosker, and Privates Taylor and three of the ships crew all clambered on this piece of planking. They spent all day on the planking. Between midnight and daybreak the next day (Saturday) they heard the sound of engines about 3/4 mile away. Two emergency flares were light by some survivors on two rafts. They could not see anything. A crew member of Centaur indicated that it was a submarine engine that they could hear. He instructed the survivors on the rafts to extinguish the flares. The engines stopped soon after this.
Second officer, Mr R. G. Rippon, indicated that he had heard the engines of a surfaced submarine between mid-night and 4 a.m. on Saturday 15 May 1943. Able Seaman J. Cecich and Seamen's Cook F. Martin indicated that they had also sighted the submarine.
USS Mugford arrived in Brisbane on Saturday 15th May with the survivors. The Captain of the USS Mugford passed over the command of the rescue the N.O.I.C's chief staff officer, Lieut-Commander McManus. Further searches of the area were completed at 6 pm on the 16 May 1943 by U .S .S . Helm, H.M.A.S. Lithgow, and four motor torpedo boats without success.
State Library of Queensland:- Image number:171125
Sister Kathleen Drynan administering
treatment to a soldier
who was rescued from the torpedoed hospital ship Centaur
Eastern Area Headquarters Operations Record Book
15 May 1943
LOW. 31/15. Outer anti-submarine patrol for Force "Z" to safe endurance was carried out by an Anson airborne at 1030K. Force was left in position at 1340K. At 1400K aircraft reported that it was over a ship's lifeboat containing 30 live persons. Aircraft visually contacted Force "Z" which picked up all visible survivors, aircraft returned to base, landing at 1545K. Patrol completed, negative enemy.
LOW. 30/15. Search of area for enemy submarine using two Ansons covering three details, from dawn to dusk. First was airborne at 0545K and last landed at 1807K. Search completed, negative enemy.
C.H. 26/15. Search of area for enemy submarines using two Ansons covering three details from dawn to dusk. First was airborne at 0600K and returned at 0810K due to adverse weather. Two other details were carried out and the last landed at 1730K. Search incomplete, negative enemy.
CAM. 45/15. Search for enemy submarines using three Ansons, the first airborne at 0600K, the last detail landed at 1725K. Search complete, negative enemy.
INTELLIGENCE (1) N.O.I.C. Brisbane reported that a hospital ship was sunk at 0400K/14 May and that many survivors were picked up by a destroyer at 1414K/15 May. A subsequent message stated one torpedo sunk the vessel In about two minutes , and that there were 54 men and one woman survivors - 4 of them seriously injured. The total number on board was given as approximately 326 - 68 crew, 38 medical staff, 220 army medical unit.
16 May 1943
LOW. 35/16. A parallel track search for survivors of hospital ship by four Ansons. The aircraft were airborne at 0615K and landed at 1115K. At 1046K an intercept message was received stating that there was a white lifeboat overturned and over an area of two miles radius 4 pontoons, 10 rafts and another lifeboat were sighted but there was no sign of life. A destroyer was directed to the position. Search completed, negative enemy.
LOW. 36/16. Search for survivors of hospital ship by three Ansons airborne at 0920K and landed at 1417K. This search was discontinued after 1300K and substituted by LOW. 37 and Low. 38. Search curtailed, negative enemy.
LOW. 34/16. Search along given tracks for enemy submarine using two Ansons covering three details. First was airborne at 0545K from Coff's Harbour where the third detail landed at 1745K. Patrol completed, negative enemy.
LOW. 37/16. Search along track for enemy submarines using one Anson to be on datum as soon after 1250K as possible until dusk. Aircraft was airborne at 1350K and landed at 1825K. Patrol complete, negative enemy.
LOW. 38/16. Search along track for enemy submarines using one Anson to be on datum as soon after 1250K and patrol until dusk. The ircraft was airborne at 1350K and landed at 1820K at Lowood. Patrol complete, negative enemy.
C.H. 27/16. Search along track for enemy submarines using two Ansons covering three details, from dawn to dusk. The first detail was airborne at 0600K and third landed at 1728K. Search complete, negative enemy.
CAM. 47/16. Search along track for enemy submarines using two Ansons for three details, from dawn to dusk. First Anson airborne at 0600K from Coff's Harbour. Second detail was cancelled as the aircraft was not available. Third detail was airborne at 1245K and landed at Coff's Harbour at 1718K. Search incomplete, negative enemy.
BOMBING RESTRICTIONS have been imposed in the BRISVANCAT area from 0900K/17 to 1800K/18.
INTELLIGENCE. (1) A further report on the sinking of the hospital ship states - sea was moderate, visibility excellent, course true north, speed 12 knots. Red Crosses on the ship were fully illuminated. Torpedo hit port side of ship after end No. 2 hatch. No submarine or torpedo track was observed before the attack. (2) Survivors state that at 150330K a submarine was sighted by them. It was about 300 feet long - had one gun forward of conning tower and what appeared to be a black superstructure abaft the conning tower. Some members of the crew of the submarine were seen on conning tower. Submarine remained on surface for about 20 minutes.
When the Hospital Ship Centaur was struck by the torpedo from Japanese submarine I-177, the flash was seen by members of the Nudgee Beach Searchlight Battery operated by 56 Battery Royal Australian Engineers (RAE). The members of the searchlight battery were sworn to secrecy the next day during a visit by the security personnel.
Delay in Public Announcement of the Tragedy
General MacArthur sent a Communique to Prime Minister John Curtin on Sunday 16 May 1943 stating as follows:-
"I contemplate announcing in the communiqué on Tuesday the details with regard to the loss of a hospital ship "Centaur". This delay is to permit of notification of the next of kin."
On Monday 17 May 1943, there were indications that the Army may not be able to notify all of the next of kin by Tuesday 18 May 1943. General Douglas MacArthur agreed to withhold announcement of the tragedy until advised that next of kin had been notified. On Monday 17 May 1943, the following message was received from Defence Secretariat, Brisbane:-
"I have had a request from Col. Diller of press relations and he has asked about the message from the Prime Minister and wants to know can we hurry it along as he says Mr. Beasley has mentioned (the sinking) in a speech in Sydney today."
On Monday 17 May 1943, General Douglas MacArthur sent the following teleprinter message to the Right Honourable John Curtin, Prime Minister of Australia:-
"Army Authorities expect to clear notification to next of kin by nine a.m. Tuesday. For psychological reasons I believe it to be essential that the loss be announced by us before an announcement by the enemy. It will therefore without fail be carried in the official communique released by GHQ at 12 Noon Tuesday. Press Relations report that announcement off loss was made in Sydney by Mr. Beasley but the censors have been instructed to suppress all press stories until 12 o'clock Tuesday simultaneously with release of Communique."
On Tuesday 18 May 1943, the Department of Navy, Navy Office, Melbourne sent a letter to The Secretary, Defence Department for the information of the Prime Minister that an Emergency Message had been received by the Admiralty and the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board from the First Sea Lord at Washington. The message dated 2150Z Hours, 17 May 1943 read as follows:-
"The circumstances regarding the torpedoing of the hospital ship "Centaur" have been examined by the Chiefs of Staff now at Washington. they are of the opinion that as a temporary measure every means to suppress publication of this should be taken."
The contents of the above message was passed on to General Douglas MacArthur by the Secretary, Defence Department via his Brisbane Secretariat at 1052 hours on Tuesday 19 May 1943. He similarly advised Prime Minister John Curtin at 1056 hours by Teleprinter message.
At 1142 hours on Tuesday 18 May 1943, General Douglas MacArthur responded as follows:-
"In view of the fact that the Press have had this news since its release by Mr. Beasley yesterday afternoon in Sydney, it is impossible at this late hour to suppress it."
Announcement of the Tragedy
Announcement of the loss of the "Centaur" was made via a Communique from General Headquarters SWPA in Brisbane on 18 May 1943 as follows:-
"At 4.10am on May 14th, an enemy submarine torpedoed and sank without warning the Australian hospital ship "Centaur" 40 miles east of Brisbane, while en route from Sydney to New Guinea. The vessel was travelling unescorted, was fully illuminated and marked with the Red Cross, and complying with all provisions of International Law governing hospital ships in time of war. The weather was clear and visibility excellent. The vessel capsized and sank within three minutes after being hit. Of the 363 members of the crew and medical staff and nurses on board, 64 were rescued. The remainder were lost. the survivors saw the enemy submarine which surfaced shortly after the attack."
The Communique mentioned that there were 363 members of the crew. The numbers of total crew and the number of survivors are shown inconsistently in some of the early messages created after the event. The correct makeup of those on board was clarified later that day by Mr Shedden as follows:-
Ships Crew 74
Ships Medical Staff 65
2/12 Australian Field Ambulance 192
Torres Strait Pilot 1
Statement by the Prime Minister
LOSS OF AUSTRALIAN HOSPITAL SHIP "CENTAUR"
It is with the deepest regret that the Commonwealth Government has learned of the loss of the Australian hospital ship "CENTAUR" and 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 have 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 these 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 ---
No. 69P Canberra, 18 May 1943.
Notice to Enemy of Intention to use "Centaur" as a Hospital Ship
Prime Minister's Department
Sent: 25th January, 1943.
Protest to the Japanese Government
Prime Minister John Curtin sent the following Secret Cablegram to the Commonwealth Government Accredited Representative in London for him to communicate with Swiss Officials to make strong protests to the Japanese Government about this barbaric attack on a Hospital Ship.
|Prime Minister's Department
PJC/MIL. Sent 18th May, 1943
DECYPHER to -
Commonwealth Government Accredited Representative,
73. Hospital ship "CENTAUR" was torpedoed at four o'clock on the morning of Friday 14th May off Queensland coast by a Japanese submarine. Please request Swiss Authorities to make strong protest to Japanese Government on following lines.
On Friday 14th of May, 1943, at approximately 4 o'clock in the morning the hospital ship "CENTAUR" was approximately 24 miles from Point Lookout on the coast of Queensland. The weather was fine and clear and the visibility good. The vessel was brightly illuminated and properly marked in accordance with Article 5 of the Hague Convention for the Adaptation to Maritime Warfare of the Principles of 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 illuminating the horizontal band of green painted on the vessel in accordance with the said Convention. Notice of intention to use the vessel in question as a hospital ship together with all necessary particulars of the dimensions, marking and appearance of the vessel, were communicated to the Japanese Government by the Protecting Power on 5th February, 1943. In addition to these legal requirements, full publicity and the particulars relating to the vessel were given by press and radio.
Notwithstanding full compliance with International Law and practice and the provisions of the Convention abovementioned, which provides for the respect of military hospital ships, the "CENTAUR" was attacked without any warning and struck by a torpedo discharged from a Japanese submarine in disregard of the provisions of the abovementioned Convention and of International Law. The "CENTAUR" caught fire immediately and sank within a few minutes.
On board the "CENTAUR" at the time of the attack were 332 persons consisting only of the ship's crew and medical personnel including 12 nurses. In all there were only 64 survivors, including one nurse from the vessel. The remaining 268 persons lost their lives.
His Majesty's Government in the Commonwealth of Australia most emphatically protests to the Japanese Government against this wanton attack in disregard not only of the Hague Convention and of International Law but also of the principles of common humanity accepted by all civilised nations. The Commonwealth Government demands that those responsible for the attack should be punished immediately and demands an assurance from the Japanese Government that there will be no repetition by the forces under the command of the Japanese Government of such an incident in violation of International Law and practice. The Commonwealth Government reserves the right to claim full indemnification and re-dress for the losses sustained.
Copy to - War Cabinet
19 May, 1943
Denial by the Japanese Government
An article in the "Argus" Newspaper of 2 December 1943 quoted a Japanese Information Board spokesman saying that Tokio Official radio had denied that a Japanese submarine had sunk the Australian hospital ship Centaur off the Queensland coast on May 5 (sic) of this year. The Japanese Government had rejected the Australian Protest.
The following Cablegram was received by the Prime Minister's Department from the High Commissioner's Office in London on 26 December 1942. The original document is very hard to read, so there may be some transcription areas below.
PRIME MINISTER'S DEPARTMENT
The High Commissioners Office,
244. S E C R E T
Your telegram 73 of 18th May.
The British Prime Minister at Berne has now telegraphed as follows:-
The Swiss Minister at Tokyo has received a communication from the Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs for transmission to the Australian Government of which the following is the substance:-
George Medal for Sister Ellen Savage
AWM Photo ID 044428
Sister Ellen Savage of the Australian Army
Nursing Service (AANS) being
interviewed at Greenslopes Army Hospital about 7 - 10 days after her rescue
|"Argus" Newspaper 19 August 1944
GEORGE MEDAL FOR SISTER SAVAGE
CANBERRA. Fri: the George medal has been awarded to Lieutenant Ellen Savage, of Gordon (NSW), for courage and fortitude when the Australian hospital ship Centaur was sunk in May 1943. Sister Savage was the sole survivor of the 12 officers of the Australian Army nursing staff on board.
Citation to the award which was announced today, states that, although suffering from severe injuries received as result of the explosion and immersion in the sea, she displayed great heroism during the period while she and some male members of the ship's staff were floating on a raft, to which they clung for about 34 hours before being rescued by a US destroyer. She gave conspicuous service while on the raft in attending to wounds and burns suffered by other survivors. Her courage and fortitude did much to maintain the morale of her companions.
Reports of Rifles on Board "Centaur"
Corporal Thomas (VX64840) remembered seeing four men from the AASC attached to the 2/12 Field Ambulance come on board Centaur in Sydney carrying their rifles. There have been many unsubstantiated rumours about armed troops on board Centaur and about her carrying stores of weapons and ammunition. The carrying of rifles by the AASC soldiers was in accordance with Article 8 of the "Convention for the Adaptation of the Principles of the Geneva Convention to Maritime Warfare" which allowed for the carrying of arms "for the maintenance of order and defence of the wounded and sick".
Australian War Crimes Commission
The War Crimes Commission held an Inquiry into the Sinking of the H.M.A.S. "Centaur" before his Honor Sir William Webb, Commissioner, in Melbourne in August 1944.
Mr. J.M. Brennan, Secretary appeared at the Inquiry to assist the Commissioner.
Witness - Leo Bidmead (VX90593)
Leo Bidmead (VX90593) was interviewed at the Commission. He was sleeping in his bunk two decks down when Centaur was torpedoed. Leo told the Commission that he had heard a rumour that some chap was supposed to have been on the wharf with a torch the night before they left Sydney. A crew member of Centaur jumped onto the wharf a grabbed him. This crew member was then supposedly severely spoken to by the Skipper of Centaur for interfering with civilians. As this was only a rumour the Commissioner said "We will not take any notice of that."
Leo Bidmead confirmed that Centaur was well lit and had large crosses on the sides. Leo was thrown out of his bunk violently when the torpedo struck the Centaur. He received a wound to his leg. Leo and Jimmie Jones went up a flight of stairs avoiding a sheet of flame. When they reached the deck another fellow called Taylor who was from their same sleeping quarters was knocking the pin out of one of the rafts. Five men from the 22 in their sleeping quarters survived this tragedy.
Leo Bidmead assisted Taylor to release the raft by standing on a rail and pulled a rope away and the raft then slipped off the rigging. Leo was still hanging on to the rope and went down with the raft. Leo managed to pull Jimmie Jones, "Squizzie" Taylor and W.A. Johnson and the 2nd and 3rd Cook on to the raft. Centaur went down as Leo was pulling W.A. Johnson onboard the raft.
Leo told the Commissioner that he noticed that all of the port side amidships of Centaur was blown out from water level up to the deck rail. By sunrise there were a total of 14 people onboard the little raft. The 2nd Engineer commented that she appeared to have broken her back as she slipped below the waves nose first.
Leo said that there was a secondary explosion. The 2nd Engineer, who was on the same raft, commented to Leo that the torpedo had probably hit the three main fuel tanks. Leo said that he saw the Japanese submarine the next evening about 50 - 60 feet away from them. He said that others had spotted its running lights. Leo said that they were picked up by the American destroyer USS Mugford 36 hours later on the Saturday afternoon.
Leo was in hospital for 7 weeks as a result of his leg injury.
Witness - Corporal Thomas Charles Malcolm (VX29354)
Corporal Malcolm's quarters were two decks below the main deck at the front of the ship. He was awoken when the torpedo hit the Centaur and he noticed flames coming from the hatch cover immediately above him. He grabbed his life belt. Staff Sergeant Metcalf who was in the lower bunk getting out of the sleeping quarters. He remembered seeing his friend Le Brun going to the staircase and that was the last he saw of him. He saw Carter on the deck.
Cpl Malcolm went to help someone release a raft but the Centaur sank quickly and he was flattened by the rush of water coming in from the starboard side. He was sucked down and managed to struggle to the surface. Almost straight away Sister Savage broke the surface more or less between his arms. He spoke to her as they both struggled to regain their breath. Cpl Malcolm and Sister Savage managed to climb on to a floating piece of the deck housing.
It was very dark and they could hardly see anything. He heard Private Coulson go past him on a small raft with Cpl Hobden. The raft was too small to accommodate Cpl Malcolm and Sister Savage as well.
Cpl. Malcolm called out to see if there was anyone else around on a larger raft. He heard a lady screaming who he thought may have been Sister McFarlane. They did not hear from her again.
Cpl Malcolm heard Chidgey's voice and called out to him. He was on a larger raft with Colonel Outridge, Sgt Hooper, Private Heggarty, S/Sgt Carter and a possible crew member of Centaur. Cpl Malcolm and Sister Savage transferred from their floating wreckage onto this raft. Col. Outridge was the Commanding Officer of the 12th Field Ambulance.
The next morning they joined up with a number of other rafts. One raft had two badly burnt men onboard. In the morning Chidgey and several others took a small raft and brought back a larger raft which had canvas, a little water and some food. The food was emergency rations, malted milk tablets, etc. By this time there were about 30 people on about half a dozen rafts.
Cpl Malcolm told the Commissioner that there were AASC men onboard Centaur carrying rifles. He said that the crew had objected to sailing as a result of this and there was considerable discussion. He said that Corporal Albert Edward Blair (VX14151) had since been interviewed by Military Intelligence.
Witness - Corporal Albert Edward Blair (VX14151)
Corporal Albert Edward Blair (VX14151) was a member of the 13th Australian Small Ships Company. Cpl Blair told the Commissioner that there had been a delay with the ship leaving Sydney. He had been told by members of the ship's crew that they had refused to take the ship to sea owing to rifles carried by the Australian Army Service Corps (A.A.S.C) Section of the Field Ambulance being on board. The crew thought that they could not be on a hospital ship.
There is always a Corps of them with a Field Ambulance unit to act as drivers of lorries etc and they must carry rifles for their protection. They carried their rifles aboard the Centaur but the crew thought they should not have done this. Cpl Blair believes they had to ring Melbourne to confirm whether it was OK to travel with rifles onboard in accordance with the Red Cross rules. Blair said that this was the "talk" from the crew members he spoke with.
Blair said that he had seen 50 or 60 stacked rifles on the wharf the night before they left Sydney. He did not see them come on board but he understood they did come onboard contrary to the orders of Lt Col. Manson, his Commanding Officer of the hospital ship.
Cpl Blair's quarters were in the aft of the ship on the port side two decks below the main deck. Cpl Blair also remembered two explosions. He ran up two flights of stairs and landed on the main deck. he saw the bosun and some of the crew trying to unshackle the lifeboats. Cpl. Blair confirmed that the ship was well lit. Cpl Blair jumped overboard and swum as far away from the ship as he could to avoid any suction as the ship sank. He climbe don a piece of wreckage from the forward end, a hatch cover. he turned around and saw a little red light on one of the crew's lifebelts.
Blair and about 19 others ended up on a small raft which capsized twice. They met up with a few others and 23 from their group were eventually picked up by the USS Mugford. Cpl Blair said that on the Saturday morning at about 4:10am they heard a sound like a motor boat. The lit one of their flares as did another raft. The noise stopped almost straight away. Two of the men then said that the noise was a submarine charging its batteries. Both rafts immediately snuffed their flares.
James Bond finds Name Board from "Centaur"
Photo:- James Bond
Sergeant Christopher Bond (QX62081) with the Name Board from Centaur that he found on the beach on Moreton Island
|Subject: AHS Centaur
As told by Jim Bond
In the early hours of Friday 14 May 1943 the hospital ship AHS Centaur, ablaze with lights, was torpedoed by Japanese submarine 1-177 off Moreton Island. The Centaur was struck in an oil fuel tank on the port side, caught fire, and sank within minutes. Of the 322 persons on board, only 64 survived.
My father, Sergeant Chris Bond (later WOII with BCOF and in Korea) was a hygeine inspector with the Australian Army Hygeine Service and was based on Moreton Island. His major role was in malaria prevention by finding breeding grounds of the Anopheles mosquito.
A capable horseman with experience pre-war in the 5th Light Horse, he was issued with a horse and from his base at Cowan Cowan covered Moreton Island on a week long patrol.
The story as I recall my father telling me was that some days after the "Centaur" was sunk part of the name-board of the "Centaur" was washed up on the shore of Moreton Island. He recovered it and handed it in to the unit office at Cowan.
Some weeks later he went to the carpenters shop to get timber to repair a sullage pit and the name-board was on the woodheap. He was told that he could use it.
My father wrapped the name-board in hessian and on his next leave pass to the mainland, brought the name-board to our home in Brisbane. Here it was hidden away.
After the war the Australian Red Cross held a "Centaur" Fair at the Kelvin Grove army barracks and here my father handed over the name-board for proper recognition. the conscience of the whole civilised world
Where it is now I do not know but with May 14 on our doorstep it would be fitting that the name-board could feature in remembrance services on that day.
Controversy over the location of the Centaur
There has been controversy over the years of the actual location of the wreckage of the Centaur. There are memorials at Point Danger and Caloundra. They were both erected in the belief that the Centaur had sunk off the coastline near the memorials.
On 29 June 2003, the Royal Australian Navy announced that investigations by five RAN ships over the previous three months had proven conclusively that the wreckage in 174 metres of water off Moreton Island was not the Centaur. The use of video and sonar images of the wreck by RAN mine-hunters HMAS Yarra, HMAS Hawkesbury and hydrographic ship HMAS Melville showed that the wreck's hull was only 55 metres long, much shorter than Centaur which was 96 metres long.
Captain Bruce Kafer, chief hydrographer for the Royal Australian Navy said that the navy and the media had been carried away by the 1995 claims by Don Dennis of Melbourne that he had located the Centaur. Captain Kafer claimed that the Navy still did not know where the real location of the Centaur was located.
The wreck reported by Don Dennis as the Centaur is believed to be the SS Kyogle, a ship which was used by the RAAF for target practice in the 1950's.
I was advised by a local diver that the RAN had located the wreck of the Centaur in 1,500 metres of water off Point Lookout on North Stradbroke Island using side scan sonar. They did did this search after their other search off Moreton Island but the did not bother to send a submersible down to the wreck.
Caloundra "Centaur" Memorials
The following photographs were taken at Centaur Park near Wickham Point, Caloundra on 14 May 2001, the anniversary of the sinking of the "Centaur".
|Sign advising that a section of the Headland Walkway has been dedicated by Caloundra City Council in conjunction with the Centaur Commemorative Committee of Caloundra and the RSL Sub-Branch as a War memorial.|
|Centaur Park near Wickham Point, Caloundra|
|Main memorial at Centaur Park near Wickham Point, Caloundra|
|Memorial Plaque for the forty-one members of the Australian Army Service Corps lost with AHS "Centaur" 14 May 1943|
|Closeup of the above Plaque - "In memory of the forty-one members of the Australian Army Service Corps lost with AHS "Centaur" 14 May 1943"|
|In memory of the twenty eight members of the 1st Netherlands Military Hospital ship Oranje who transferred to A.H.S. Centaur and the eighteen of these that lost their lives|
|50 Years Commemoration Plaque - 14 May 1993|
|Plaque for the memory of Nurses erected by Members of the Returned Sisters' Sub Branch R&SL A.|
|Plaque dedicated to the nurses on board "Centaur" erected by the Centaur memorial Fund.|
Point Danger "Centaur" Memorials
The following photos were taken at Point Danger on the border between Queensland and New South Wales on 9 February 2003
|In appreciation for crew of United States destroyer USS Mugford who rescued survivors from the Centaur|
|Centaur Memorial at Point Danger|
|Plaque on the Centaur Memorial at Point Danger|
|Plaque showing the fate of the 2/12 Field Ambulance|
|Plaque showing the fate of the Australian Army Ship's Medical Corps Staff|
|Plaque showing the fate of the Merchant Navy crew|
Karen Schuler from Sydney is the niece of John Frederick Schuler of Victoria whose fate during WWII has remained a mystery for the Schuler family. John Schuler left behind a wife and two children. He was originally Private John Schuler Serial No. 449358, who enlisted at Carlton, Melbourne on 31 July 1939.
The WWII Nominal Roll shows him being with the 6th Battalion (R.M.R) when he was discharged, but does not give his date of discharge which is listed as "Unknown". His records show he transferred to "A" Reserve with 6 Battalion on 13 September 1940, then he was pronounced "Efficient" and then transferred to Active Strength with "C" Company on 31 January 1941. This was the last entry on his "Statement of Services" on the "Attestation Form for Persons Voluntarily Enlisted in the Militia Forces" held in the National Archives of Australia.
John Frederick Schuler is not listed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission web site, nor the Australian War Memorial's "Roll of Honour" database. Karen Schuler, who has been researching her uncle's fate for nearly 10 years, saw the complete list of those who died and the survivors from the AWM web site on Centaur and spotted the entry in red at the top right hand side of page 2 (see below). She believes this hard-to-read words may say "Schuler Victor", with Victor being either a name he had assumed or meaning the state of Victoria.
Source:- AWM web site on Centaur
John Schuler's late sister Cath, had learnt that he had died on a ship that had been torpedoed during WWII. One of John Schuler's sons is still alive. If Karen's assumptions are ever proven correct, this would increase the number of deaths from 268 to 269 and rewrite part of the history of the Centaur.
Source:- AWM web site on Centaur
Close-up of the red notation
Japanese submarine I-177 had claimed an earlier victim in Australian waters when on 26 April 1943 it torpedoed and sunk the British ship "MV Limerick" (8,724 tons) at a position about 32 kms east of Cape Byron off northern New South Wales. "MV Limerick" was part of a convoy of five merchant ships travelling from Sydney to Brisbane escorted by RAN minesweepers, HMAS Colac and HMAS Ballarat.
On 3 October 1944, Japanese submarine I-177 was eventually sunk by USS Samuel S Miles with loss of all 101 crew members.
THE SEARCH FOR THE "CENTAUR"
Late on the evening of Saturday 12 December 2009, the search for the "Centaur" started in earnest when renowned shipwreck hunter David L. Mearns of Blue Water Recoveries and his team left Brisbane, Queensland on board the 72 metre search vessel "Seahorse Spirit". After months of research, David Mearns and his team were finally on their way to solve the mystery of the resting place of "Centaur". $4 million has been provided by the Australian and Queensland governments to fund the search for the "Centaur".
"The "Seahorse Spirit" was loaded with tons of specialised sonar equipment. The search was begun in an area about 40 km east of Moreton Island. David Mearns is basing his search area on the navigational skills of Centaur's navigator Gordon Rippon. The search area of 400 square nautical miles would take weeks to cover if "Centaur" was not found straight away. If it is not found in this initial search area, the search will move further to the north in the general area where the survivors were rescued by USS Mugford.
A pool television crew was embedded on board the "Seahorse Spirit" to provide media vision to the various media outlets. At about 1 pm on Monday, 14 December 2009, the Channel 7 helicopter flew to the location of the "Seahorse Spirit" and hovered above the ship for 30 minutes to beam vision from the ship to the helicopter and back to the Channel 7 studios in Brisbane.
Once the "Centaur" is located the "Seahorse Spirit" will return to Brisbane, unload its sonar equipment and pick up the remote submarine vehicle with its HD cameras and return to the site to capture historic vision of the wreck of the "Centaur".
On Sunday 13 December 2009, David Mearns and the search crew tested both sonars over the known shipwreck "Kyogle" which is located 17.9 km east north east of Cape Moreton. This wreck has sometimes been confused as the Centaur.
At 7:50 AM on Monday, 14 December the SM-30 side-scan sonar towfish started the search at the northern end of the search box. The sonar was towed at a speed of approximately 2.5 knots. The SM-30 sonar is a 30 khz sonar with an effective search corridor of over 5 kms. This sonar was used to locate possible targets and when the systematic search of the search box was finished, the AMS-60 sonar (60Khz sonar) was to be deployed. The AMS-60 provides higher resolution imagery to aid with confirmation of possible targets that have been identified with the SM-30 sonar. One promising target was identified in the first track line directly below the towfish. It was of similar size and shape to the Centaur but because it was directly below the towfish, the resolution of the images was not optimal. It was to be investigated later with the other higher resolution side-scan sonar towfish.
Photo:- Channel 7
Calibrating their two sonar rigs over the
known wreck of the ship "Kyogle".
Comparing a plan of "Kyogle" with the sonar image of "Kyogle" on the screen.
Photo:- Channel 7
"Seahorse Spirit" on the afternoon of Monday 14 December 2009
Photo:- Channel 7
David Mearns (at rear) and the
watching the various
screens onboard "Seahorse Spirit" on the afternoon of Monday 14 December 2009
The second track line of the search box was completed early in the morning of Tuesday, 15 December 2009. The sonar towfish was tethered at the end of a 10,000 metre cable. As a consequence of this, it took up to 6 hours to complete a turn to start the next search track line. The team encountered three large submarine canyons whose walls rise 600 m or more to exposed rocky cliff tops making the interpretation of images from the sonar very difficult. In fact the team has estimated that roughly 30% or more of the seabed along some of the track clients was virtually unsearchable and as a result of this the wreck of the Centaur would be difficult to detect amongst the rocks and undersea valleys.
By Wednesday 16th of December 2009 (Day 3) the team were nearing the end of the fifth of their fifteen search track lines. David Mearns planned to achieve 200% coverage using these 15 track lines. That is all areas would be scanned twice. This ensured that the area directly below the towfish was checked a second time with the towfish not directly above the same area. By Wednesday the team had identified two possible targets. They planned to search two more primary track lines over the next 24 hours and then investigate the two targets using a higher resolution setting on the SM-30 side-scan sonar.
By the start of day 4 of the search, Thursday 17 December 2009, the team had identified 5 possible targets. They planned to do one more primary track line on Thursday and then on Friday morning start their higher resolution scan of the most likely of the 5 identified targets.
At approximately 3:30 am on Friday 18 December 2009 (Day 5), whilst turning in preparation for the high resolution passes, they lost signal from the SM-30 side-scan sonar towfish. After pulling in the 2,000 metres of cable deployed at that time it became apparent that they had lost the sonar towfish and depressor in 1,800 metres of water. The cable had failed due to fatigue near the termination of the cable on the towfish. The turning manoeuvres and the impact of the strong currents encountered in the search box clearly contributed to the fatigue failure of the cable.
The team immediately attempted to locate the towfish by listening for signals from an emergency transponder on the towfish. If it was located they hoped to recover the towfish by activating an acoustic trigger which would release the towfish from the depressor allowing the towfish to float to the surface for recovery. If unsuccessful, alternative recovery arrangements would be activated.
The higher resolution AMS-60 Sonar will now be deployed to continue the search for the Centaur.
Williamson & Associates deployed the AMS-60 Sonar in the water by 5:20pm on Friday 18 December 2009 and had recommenced their search for the Centaur. Prior to the loss of the other sonar on Friday morning they had located 6 possible targets. They were able to eliminate 5 of the 6 possible targets during their first set of high-resolution tracklines with the AMS-60 sonar. David Mearns now believes the remaining target looks more promising based on the new higher resolution imagery. They can now see an acoustic shadow behind the target. It is the right approximate size and shape and it is in the area that Centaur's navigator George Rippon said it was.
David and the team planned to carry out some more high resolution scans on this remaining promising target on Saturday 19 December 2009. The rock formations and other geology around this target require the extra high resolution scans to decide whether these new scans continue to increase the confidence of the team that it may be a likely candidate to be the Centaur.
If the new scans provide conclusive evidence that this target is the Centaur then the "Seahorse Spirit" will return to Brisbane to load the remote submarine vehicle and its HD cameras on board.
At 8:14am on Sunday 20 December 2009, Premier Anna Bligh announced via her Twitter account that the Centaur had been found. A joint Media Release issued by Acting Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Queensland Premier Anna Bligh announced that the wreck of the Australian Hospital Ship Centaur had been located off the Queensland coast.
Mr Mearns said the wreck location is approximately 30 miles due east of the southern tip of Moreton Island (27 deg 16.98’ South, 153 deg 59.22’ East) at a depth of 2,059 metres. The team had finalised 5 high-resolution sonar tracklines over the target site, and on Sunday morning was conducting a further run to obtain a clearer picture of the wreck.
The first possible target that was identified by the team on Monday 14 December 2009 during the first trackline run turned out to be the Centaur. David Mearns commented that the position of the wreck was less than one nautical mile from the position calculated by Gordon Rippon, the Centaur's navigator.
The hull of the Centaur appears to be in one piece but there may be one or possibly two breaks in the hull.
Google Earth image
Final Resting Place of AHS Centaur
The team enjoyed a Christmas party lunch on board "Seahorse Spirit" on Sunday 20 December 2009 to celebrate their historic find earlier that morning. After lunch they planned to attempt to recover the SM-30 side-scan sonar towfish they had lost on Friday morning. Unfortunately they were unable to locate the lost sonar using the other high resolution sonar. They will have another look for the lost sonar some time after 4 January when they return to the area with their ROV.
The "Seahorse Spirit" started back to Brisbane on Monday 21 December 2009 and was expected to arrive at the Brisbane dock at about 10pm. The ROV will be trucked from Sydney on Tuesday 22 December 2009 and the "Seahorse Spirit" was expected to return to the search area around 4 January 2010.
The Queensland and Federal Governments have indicated that a Task Force which will include members of the Centaur Association, the RSL and the Centaur Nurses Fund will be set up to decide the best way to commemorate the sinking of the Centaur. One of two possible planned ceremonies will be held at a large Brisbane Church and may be open to the public. The other ceremony will most likely be held above the wreck site and be limited to family members, officials and dignitaries. 87 year old Martin Pash from Melbourne one of three living survivors, plans to attend any commemorative services held.
The Centaur Association has had a plaque made which they had blessed by Rev. Paul Weaver and Fr. Artur Wojtowicz, representing all faiths, in the 113 AGH Chapel at Concord Hospital, Sydney, New South Wales on Tuesday 22 December 2009. They hope that David Mearns and his crew will be able to place the plaque at the site of the wreck of the Centaur. The plaque has an encapsulated CD with the names of all personnel on board the ship, their home state or country, and the service which they belonged to. The plaque partly reads as follows:-
2/3 AHS CENTAUR
IN MEMORY OF SHIPMATES,
2/3 AHS CENTAUR ASSOCIATION
LEST WE FORGET
The Centaur Association decided not to show ranks for individuals as they considered all were equal in their duty to their country and in the sacrifice of their lives for their country. The CD also contains personal messages fro surviving family members.
After the announcement of the finding of the "Centaur", the Japanese Embassy in Canberra, ACT, Australia said that the circumstances in which the "Centaur" went down were not conclusive.
"The Japanese government had conducted its own inquiry into the Centaur,"
"The circumstances were not clear given that it occurred during the Second World War."
"We will see how the ongoing investigation by Australia unfolds."
The Japanese embassy said:-
"Since WWII Japan had made the greatest efforts for world peace and prosperity as a responsible member of the international community and has also developed a close relationship with Australia".
"Japan will continue these efforts and work to maintain that relationship."
The Japanese Embassy did not indicate when the Japanese Government had carried out its inquiry.
PHOTOGRAPHING AND FILMING THE WRECK OF THE CENTAUR
Remora 3, the $4M submersible Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) arrived in Brisbane and was loaded onboard the "Seahorse Spirit". Remora 3 is fitted with joystick controlled cameras. to allow the team to inspect the Centaur at a close distance using special lights to illuminate the wreck.
Photo by Charles Sonnex
Remora 3 the submersible ROV that will photograph the Centaur
The team onboard the "Seahorse Spirit" will also use the robotic arm on Remora 3 to place the Centaur Association's bronze plaque upright in a suitable place on or near the Centaur at a depth of 2059 metres. It is also hoped to use Remora 3 to help find the SM-30 side-scan sonar which was lost earlier in the search for Centaur.
The "Seahorse Spirit" left Brisbane again on Friday 8 January 2010. David Mearns and his team carried out three hours of commissioning testing of the Remora 3 by taking high definition footage of the wreck of the SS Kyogle at approximate position 26° 59.32’ South 153°38.58’ East at a depth of 178 metres before moving out to the site of the Centaur. This footage again confirmed that it was not the Centaur.
The "Seahorse Spirit" arrived over the Centaur at about 4:45pm on Saturday 9 January 2010. Remora 3 will make about four visits down to the Centaur. The first was a reconnaissance visit which started at 8:15pm on Saturday night, 9 January 2010. It was then intended to make three further visits to the site over the following two days.
The first photos of the hospital ship Centaur were taken at about 2:50am on the morning of Sunday 10 January 2010. The pictures confirm that Centaur is sitting on a sandy bottom at a depth of about 2059 metres and listing about 25 degrees to the port side. The Red Crosses indicating that it was a hospital ship are clearly visible in one of the first photos released. A distinctive star could also be seen on the bow along with the corroded identification number 47. It took almost 2 hours to lower Remora 3 down into position.
The pictures and footage have clearly shown the mast, anchor, guard rails and the paravane mounted on the starboard bow which was used for cutting cables on moored mines. The bow of Centaur is almost completely severed from the rest of the ship.
A problem with one of the "Seahorse Spirit's" main engines meant they had to limit the time of the first recce ROV dive. The strong seabed currents also created issues with "dust storms" created by disturbed sediment limiting camera vision on some occasions.
(AAP: Bruce Long)
The Centaur's red cross can be seen in the
footage taken of the ship since it sank in WWII.
Image courtesy of the Queensland Government
The foremast collapsed due to implosion as a result of the rapid sinking of the ship
Image courtesy of the Queensland Government
A solitary Slouch Hat sitting in the debris field
Image courtesy of the Queensland Government
A single ankle top boot
Image courtesy of the Queensland Government
The Memorial Plaque was placed on the
Centaur's fore deck just starboard of
the forward No. 1 Hatch opening at 0555 hours on Tuesday 12 January 2010
The wreck of the Centaur is listed as a war grave and is protected under the Commonwealth's Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976. On 15 January 2010, the Australian Government announced that an exclusion zone of 200 hectares has been established around the wreck of the hospital ship Centaur. Anyone wanting to enter the exclusion zone will need a permit. The Government will protect the wreck from damage and the removal of relics and use Coast Watch and Customs agencies to police the requirements.
Queensland Premier Anna Bligh announced on 4 April 2010 that a National Service of Thanksgiving and Remembrance was to be held at St John's Cathedral, Ann Street, Brisbane on 2 March 2010 at 11 AM.
This was the first of two major commemorations following the discovery of the AHS Centaur.
A second ceremony was conducted at sea for Centaur relatives.
I'd like to thank Jan Thomas from the 2/3 AHS Centaur Association for her assistance with this home page.
I'd also like to thank Peter Doherty for his assistance with this web page.
I'd like to thank Adrienne Marrone, Web Specialist, Online Communications, Department of Premier and Cabinet for her assistance with this web page.
Hospital Ship Centaur - The
Myth of Immunity"
By Christopher S. Milligan & John C.H. Foley.
Nairana Publications. 1993. 6A Doncaster Street, HENDRA. Queensland.
Printed by Watson Ferguson & Company, 35 Hamilton Road. MOOROOKA. Qld.
ISBN No. 0646 13715 8
National Archives of Australia
Loss of Hospital Ship, "Centaur"
National Archives of Australia
Sinking of the hospital ship Centaur 14th May 1943
National Archives of Australia
Australian War Crimes Commission. Transcript of evidence given at inquiry into the sinking of HMAS CENTAUR
Can anyone help me with more information?
"Australia @ War" WWII Research Products
© Peter Dunn OAM 2020
This page first produced 22 June 2001
This page last updated 04 March 2020