17 March 2003

As Australia sits poised on the brink of war, it seems timely to reflect on the human cost of past conflicts, so today's postcard comes to you from the recently dedicated memorial commemorating Australia's worst naval disaster.

On the evening of 19 November 1941, after various international engagements, HMAS Sydney II was returning home from escort duties in the Sunda Straits. An encounter with the German Raider HSK Kormoran off the Midwest coast resulted in a one-hour battle. Crippled and on fire, the Sydney steamed slowly away to the southeast. Neither her, nor her complement of 645 men were sighted again.

"With deep regret I have to inform you that your [relationship and name] is missing as a result of enemy action. Minister for Navy and Naval Board desire to express to you their sincere sympathy." The preceding official telegram to next of kin advising their loss was only reluctantly dispatched seven days after the battle, and only then to pre-empt the already spreading rumours.

A very dramatic monument to the 645 Australian deaths now overlooks the town of Geraldton from atop Mount Scott. It can be seen from many parts of town and affords a commanding view of the town, and more significantly the theatre of battle, the Indian Ocean.

A semi-circular wall in two halves, inscribed with the names of the dead and descriptions of their loss flanks the south west of the memorial site. It is intended to signify arms wrapping around those lost.

A lone woman stands out at the edge of the Mount Scott platform, leaning "anxiously into the wind, frozen in time and bronze", waiting for news of those she's lost.

"The Stele", one of the most dramatic elements of the memorial, "expresses the prow of the HMAS Sydney II... a focal point for the memorial from miles around."

Finally, the centrepiece of the complex comprises a filigree dome of 645 stainless steel silver gulls, one for each Australian sailor lost. This element was inspired by a flock of silver gulls, which swooped over the assembled crowd during the memorial site dedication ceremony on 19 November 1998, "while The Last Post rang out in the evening air at sunset, the last recorded moment in time when HMAS Sydney was seen".

Gulls have traditionally personified the souls of lost sailors.

Lest We Forget

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© Rob Morgan 2003