Australian Hospital ship Centaur Torpedoed by Japanese Submarine

See "Dad was a crewman on Hospital Ship HS Leinster"

Australian Hospital Ship Centaur. Sunk by Japanese Submarine I-177, on the 12th. of May 1943
The Australian Hospital Ship Centaur built on the Clyde at Grennock in 1924, was converted early in 1943 to serve in that capacity. It was in the Indian Ocean in November of 1941 that the ship rescued survivors of the German Armed Merchant ship Kormoran, which had been sunk in the fight to the death with the Australian Light Cruiser HMAS Sydney.

When fitted out as a Hospital Ship she had red crosses painted on her sides, funnel and stern, from the air, a red cross was evident, horizontally on the after deck house.

The ship sailed out of Sydney on the 12th. of May 1943, bound for New Guinea to collect a load of wounded, thus no patients were on board, but equipment and stores of the 2/12 Field Ambulance were loaded in the holds.

Two days later, at approximately 0410 ( 4.10 AM ) when some 50 miles East North East of Brisbane, Centaur was torpedoed without any warning by Japanese Submarine I-177. The resulting death toll was appaling, only 64 survived from 332 people on board, the worst Merchant Ship tragedy on the Australian coast during WW2.

Sister Ellen Savage the only Nursing Sister to survive Centaur sinking
Sister Ellen Savage the only Nursing Sister to survive Centaur sinking
Sister Ellen Savage was the only Nursing Sister from the 12 on board to survive, they spent 35 hours drifting on rafts before being found by a RAAF Anson aircraft, who homed the US Destroyer Mugford to their rescue. Ellen Savage although badly wounded herself, assisted other survivors to have her heroism later rewarded with a George Medal.

It was many years later before the Japanese Government admitted that Lieutenant Commander Hajime Nakagawa as the CO of I-177 had been responsible for this dastardly act, he had been found guilty as a War Criminal for having opened fire on survivors of the British Chivalry, a ship his Boat had sunk in the Indian Ocean. He was sentenced to four years in Sugumo prison.

At this time, the Deputy Prime Minister of England, Clement Attlee cabled the following message to the Australian Government:

"My colleagues and I are greatly shocked at the sinking of the Hospital Ship Centaur. Please accept our deep sympathy with Australia in this tragic loss."

Map showing position of Centaur when sunk
Map showing position of Centaur when sunk
Wreck of Centaur reported found. Or was it?
On the 13th. of May 1995, a Press Release by the Australian Government announced the wreck of Centaur had been found by the RAN. A Melbourne diver Don Dennis, claimed to have found the wreck at 170 metres about 9/10 miles off the Northern tip of Moreton Island Queensland, had dived on it and taken a video of the wreck. He later claimed to have shown the video to a Captain Foley, a Naval Historian who had published a book about Centaur and her ordeal, and also to have shown this tape to the former President of the Queensland Maritime Museum, both of whom have very recently denied ever seeing such a tape.

However, after the Government announcement, it was generally accepted that this site was the final resting place for the Centaur. Relatives of those who had died were relieved that the ship was at last found, and memorial services were carried out at sea over the position of the supposed wreck.

However it did seem strange that this wreck was but 10 miles off shore, whereas it had been reported the Hospital Ship was torpedoed 23 miles off the Queensland coast. The Australian TV programme "60 Minutes:" denies this wreck is Centaur. On Sunday the 18th. of May 2003, the TV show " 60 Minutes" went to air with a strong denial that this wreck is that of the Centaur.

Again Captain Foley and the former President of the Queensland Maritime Museum were interviewed on the programme, both agian denied ever having viewed the Dennis tape. He was accused of being both a liar and a confidence man, he had been given a three year suspended sentence for theft and deception in a case unrelated to the Centaur. Captain Foley pointed out the rounded type rudder of the ship purporting to be Centaur, whereas the Hospital Ship had a square rudder, both photographs and ship drawings proved this point quite conclusively.

Recent research found that the RAAF in 1995 had used the wreck of a smaller ship named Bombala, for bombing practice, and sank her in the position that was claimed to be the site of Centaur by Dennis. It does seem that a cruel hoax has been played out by Dennis, and that the authorities were only too ready to accept the claim that Centaur had been found, without properly checking the veracity of such a claim, and even declaring this site as a "War Grave."

So, 60 years on, the position of the wreck of the Australian Hospital Ship Centaur, still remains a complete mystery, will the puzzle ever be solved?

Post Script.
Monday the 19th. of May 2003. Navy launches quest for Wreck.
Two minehunters will begin searching off the south Queensland coast today in an effort to cast new light on one of the worst atrocities of WW2, the sinking of the Hospital Ship Centaur. HMA Ships Yarra and Hawkesbury will scour the waters off North Stradbroke and Moreton Islands in a bid to settle doubts about where the sunken ship may lie.

So, let us hope this latest search may yield results that at last lay to rest the actual and final resting place of the unlucky Centaur.


Memorial Plaque at Centaur Park, Caloundra Queensland

Memorial Plaque at Centaur Park, Caloundra Queensland


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