HMAS Sydney's Carley Float
One of the most poignant objects in the Australian War Memorial is the battered survivor of our worst-ever naval disaster. What happened to this liferaft and why is it so special?
Warren Brown talks to curator John White about this tiny, war-ravaged float from HMAS Sydney whose entire crew of 645 was lost when the ship sank after a mysterious battle off the West Australian coast in 1941.
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The Australian War Memorial is a shrine. It contains objects and relics that link us to our fighting men and women. And those objects remind us of their bravery and their sacrifice. One of the most poignant is the battered survivor of a devastating naval tragedy.
So what happened to this life raft, and why is it so special?
This shrapnel-torn Carley lifefloat is from the light cruiser HMAS Sydney, the pride of the Australian naval fleet during the early years of World War 2.
The Sydney and its crew were given a hero's welcome when they returned home from the Mediterranean in February 1941.
What the cheering crowds couldn’t know was that nine months later virtually all these sailors would be dead — 645 young lives lost at sea.
On 19 November 1941 Sydney encountered the German raider Kormoran off the West Australian coast. Now controversy and speculation surrounds that encounter because we don’t really know exactly what happened that day, but we do know that the Sydney and Kormoran engaged in a ferocious battle that saw the sinking of both ships. According to the survivors of the Kormoran, the last they saw of the Sydney she was sailing over the horizon, engulfed in flames.
This Carley float was found 300 kilometres out to sea, eight days after the battle, and that means it’s the only witness to the tragic loss of a warship and its entire crew.
John White is an expert on the Memorial’s naval collection.
The discovery of the Carley float seems to have raised more questions than it’s answered. John, for example, there are no markings on the Carley float, so how do we know it’s from Sydney?
Well the float was found near the general scene of the engagement, it’s battle damaged, and it’s the correct type for a Royal Australian Naval vessel. The Navy at the time was happy to accept it as a relic of Sydney, and so is the War Memorial.
According to the prisoners who were rescued from the Kormoran the Sydneysailed over the horizon ablaze, but there doesn’t seem to be any burn marks on that, either.
It’s a good question. Probably the best explanation would be that the float had been blown off the Sydney by gunfire early in the engagement and was left some way behind the main fight.
HMAS Sydney was lost at sea with all hands, but the Carley float found a new home. Six months after the float was discovered it was donated to the War Memorial. Now the only link to our worst ever naval disaster is locked safely behind glass, so we’ll always be able to see this National Treasure.