The sinking of Australian Hospital Ship Centaur

The AHS Centaur. Source: Wiki Commons

The stories of arguably the most obscenely brutal act of mass murder in Australian history and of a brave nurse, written in two parts, each impossible to recount without the other.

The sinking of Australian Hospital Ship Centaur

In the pre-dawn darkness of 14 May 1943, the AHS Centaur, en route from Sydney to Port Moresby with 332 people on board, was sunk by a torpedo fired from a Japanese submarine. The dreadful act occurred despite the fact Centaur was registered and clearly marked as a hospital ship.

A combined passenger and cargo vessel of 3,066 gross tons, Clyde-built in 1924 for the Ocean Steam Ship Company, Centaur had most recently been in merchant service in Western Australian waters. There was need of a fourth Australian hospital ship at the time and Centaur was able to fulfil the requirements when modified to carry up to 280 cot cases. She was equipped with a fully functional operating theatre capable of two surgical operations at the one time.

In accordance with the Geneva Convention of 1907, to which both Australia and Japan were signatories, Centaur was registered and clearly identified as a hospital ship and thus immune from attack (any such attack constituting a war crime). She was given a new livery, all over white with a 1.2-metre wide green band around her hull that was broken only for the insertion of three 2.1 metre red crosses on each side. She had two additional red crosses on her funnel. At night, ensuring there could be no mistake in either identity or purpose, she was brilliantly lit by spotlights and floodlights, “Lit up like glory,” according to one officer.

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Male medical staff came from the Australian Army Medical Corps, women from the Australian Army Nursing Service. The sturdy ship retained a civilian crew and still bore the name of a god half man, half horse from Greek mythology. After her conversion, she made two safe trips prior to that dreadful night.

On the afternoon of 12 May 1943, Centaur passed through Sydney Heads carrying 332 passengers and crew. Her journey north was uneventful until the torpedo struck, south-east of Moreton Island, in the dark just after 0400 on the 14th. The deadly projectile entered her port side and exploded, igniting her fuel tank. The resultant blast tore a great hole in her flank just forward of the bridge, immediately flooding holds and patient wards with sea water. A great number would have been killed in the instant of the explosion or the inrush of water, with many others carried to the sea floor trapped in the hull.

Centaur took only two to three minutes to sink.

As the shipwreck hunter David L Mearns says, “Whether he had murder on his mind or not …the Japanese commander (of submarine I-177) …ignored all visible signs that the ship was non-combatant.”  

A total 258 souls perished that morning, with just 64 surviving. All were affected by fuel oil and many injured, not least the sole surviving nursing sister, Eleanor ‘Ellen’ Savage. Although badly hurt, she disguised her wounds and her pain while doing everything in her power to comfort and sustain those around her.

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35 hours would elapse before they were discovered and rescued.

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Earlier this year I wrote a series of articles about many great Australians who deserve to be better known. Part 2 will recount the story of one of the greatest of them all, due to her role in the disaster.

Did you know of this tragic piece of Australian war history?