2023 MERCHANT NAVY ADDRESS DELIVERED BY GUEST OF HONOUR - REAR ADMIRAL CHRISTOPHER SMITH AM, CSM, RAN, COMMANDER AUSTRALIAN FLEET
Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, fellow Mariners.
I am honoured to be here with you today for the 58th commemoration at the Merchant Navy Memorial here in Rookwood. Today we honour the courage, resilience and sacrifice of Australian Merchant Seamen who served our great nation in conflict and in crisis.
The 14th of May this year will mark the 80th Anniversary of the sinking of the Australian Hospital Ship Centaur. The Centaur left Sydney, unescorted, at 0945 on May 12 1943, bound for Port Moresby, tasked to transport wounded soldiers from the battlefields of Nuna and Gona. On board were 75 Merchant navy crew, one ship’s pilot, 64 medical staff, including 12 nurses of the Australian Army Nursing Service, and 149 members of the 2/12th Field Ambulance and 44 embarked members heading for a tour in Papua New Guinea.
On May 14, at 0400 hours, The Centaur was torpedoed without warning by a Japanese submarine, approximately 50 miles east of Brisbane. Only 64 of the 332 passengers on board survived. The sinking of The Centaur was viewed as an atrocity, as it had been properly illuminated and adorned with Red Crosses to indicate her status as a Hospital Ship.
On the day of a merchant ship’s sinking, the crewmembers’ pay was terminated. They did not start getting paid again until they transferred to another ship. A 30-day survivor’s leave was granted, beginning on the day the ship went down. Survivor’s leave was unpaid. Any time spent in a lifeboat, regardless of length, counted towards the 30 days leave. Many merchant seaman joined the Navy, due to a severe shortage of experienced seaman. These men wore naval uniforms, served on commissioned naval ships under the white ensign, were subject to naval regulations and discipline, and werepaid at naval rates. However, at the end of the war, they were discharged as merchant seaman, and so were not eligible to receive any benefits or compensation.
The first combat fatality in World War Two was a merchant seaman, when a German U-boat sank the Athenia off the coast of Ireland. The last fatality, after the cessation of hostilities with Germany, was also a merchant seaman, whose ship was torpedoed in the North Atlantic three days after the war ended.
The Merchant Navy was to serve as The Commonwealth’s lifeline during both the First and Second World Wars. In particular, the 48 million-person island nation of Britain relied on marine trade to survive in 1939. Her 1,900 ocean-going commerce ships were a part of the biggest merchant fleet in the world, with personnel drawn from all around the Commonwealth.
When the war started, shipping lanes across the North Atlantic gained a lot of significance. Without a wide range of crucial imports from the United States and Canada, Britain would not be able to hold off Nazi Germany's superior military and industrial might for very long. The Battle of the Atlantic, between Allied and German naval forces, was fought mainly by merchant ships and it was the longest and most intense naval battle of World War 2; some 3,500 allied merchant ships sunk and more than 72,000 allied naval and merchant mariners were lost.
The Australian Merchant Navy played a critical role during this battle. Australian sailors were among the brave mariners who risked their lives to keep the supply lines open and were instrumental in protecting Allied ships from enemy submarines and ensuring that vital supplies continued to reach Europe.
Merchant men suffered the greatest percentage of deaths of any service during the Second World War but the number of Australian Merchant Mariners killed during conflict is difficult to estimate; not only were they attacked within sight of the Australian Coastline, but many of them travelled around the world and migrated from ship to ship, supporting the Allied effort. Over seventy years of peace, liberty, and our material wealth are owed to those gallant merchant naval sailors, who served under the red ensign. The strong and spirited character of our nation rests firmly on the inheritance from every one of the Merchant Naval Personnel who paid the ultimate price. It is our duty to ensure that their great sacrifice continues to be remembered and honoured.
We will remember them. Lest we forget.