My grandfather, Aubrey Bayly (right), was one of 268 people lost at sea when the Australian hospital ship (AHS) Centaur was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine during World War II. The attack is once again in the news with the recent discovery of the wreck of the Centaur, sixty-six years after it was sunk.
Aub and his brother John (known as Jack in the family) were drivers with the 2/12 Field Ambulance Division. They were aboard the Centaur with 330 others, bound for New Guinea. Disaster struck in the early hours of May 14, 1943 when the ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine off the southeast coast of Queensland, approximately 50 kilometres east of Moreton Island.
Christopher Milligan and John Foley describe the attack in their book Centaur: The Myth of Impunity (1993).
At 0410 AHS Centaur was a proud, fine and well-found vessel. Most of the 332 people on board slumbered peacefully in presumed safety. By 0413, three minutes later, she had disappeared off the face of the earth; gone, destroyed; a shattered fiery hulk plunging downwards through an unforgiving sea to a grave a thousand fathoms deep. With her went most of those 332 lives, cruelly snuffed out. Many, mercifully, died instantly, without realizing what had happened; many others did not, and many perished in unbelievably cruel and agonising circumstances.
. . . The torpedo struck the ship on the port side, just forward of the bridge. . . . Unfortunately for the Centaur this torpedo, unlike so many supplied to Japanese submarines at that time, did what it was supposed to do – it worked. When it struck the steel hull and drove back the firing pin, its detonator functioned perfectly. The lethal warhead exploded, and blew a hole in the hull possibly eight to ten metres in diameter, from the well below the waterline to the top of the green band. Speared in her side, the Centaur lurched to port. The blast penetrated the engine room, the upper and lower tween decks (the ward decks), and the main oil bunker tanks. About ten seconds later – all the time it took for the heat of the blast to vaporise the diesel oil – the bunkers exploded. Ironically, had the torpedo struck as little as five metres or so farther forward, in the holds, AHS Centaur might possibly have survived or at least stayed afloat long enough to save many lives. With brutal bad luck, this Japanese missile had hit the bunker tanks, and there was no escaping its effects. This second, tremendous blast heaved the ship over to starboard. A sheet of flame burst like a fireball in all directions, skyrocketing high into the air and into the ship itself. The Centaur was doomed.
Following is Milligan and Foly’s account of Aub’s death while attempting to abandon the sinking ship with his brother.
Pte John Bayly and his brother reached the deck together. They tried to unlash a raft but felt the ship sinking beneath them and decided to jump for it. They jumped over the rail simultaneously. Only one surfaced.
1915 - 1943
Right: Aub’s brother Jack, who survived the 1943 sinking of AHS Centaur.
Left: Aub, his wife Belle, and the couple's son Gordon (my Dad), pictured in the early 1940s on my grandmother’s family property, Flodden, located in the Purlewaugh District of Northwestern New South Wales.
Right: My Dad and his father.
on the Centaur, and a plaque honoring his father, Aub Bayly.
Wikipedia notes that the attack on the Centaur “resulted in public outrage as it was considered to be a war crime. Protests were made by the Australian and British governments to Japan and efforts were made to discover the people responsible so they could be tried at a war crimes tribunal. Despite this, it was not until the 1970s that identity of the attacking submarine, I-177, became public.”
For decades the exact location of the sunken Centaur remained a mystery. Last month, however, the wreck of the Centaur was discovered, and yesterday the first images of the sunken ship were released. Following is Agence France-Presse’s report on the publication of these images.
An Australian hospital ship which was torpedoed in World War II and sank with the loss of 268 lives was seen for the first time in 66 years Sunday when a remote-control camera captured footage of the wreck.
The clearly-marked Centaur was lost on May 14, 1943 and only found off Australia’s northeast coast last month when a high-tech search uncovered it at a depth of 2,059 metres (1.3 miles).
Search director David Mearns said he hoped Sunday’s photographic proof would remove all doubt and “hopefully end a 66-year quest for unanswered questions and bring comfort to many families across Australia and beyond.”
“The wreck was found leaning over towards its port side at an angle of approximately 25 degrees and the bow is almost completely severed from the rest of the hull in the area where the single torpedo hit,” he said.
“Although the wreck is very badly damaged, characteristic markings and features that identify the wreck as the Centaur were clearly visible.”
Australia believes the ship was struck without warning by a Japanese submarine but Japan says the circumstances around the sinking are unclear.
Among the distinctive features revealed Sunday by the remotely-operated submersible vehicle equipped with a camera are the large red cross on both sides of the bow and the number 47 that designated the vessel as Australian Hospital Ship 47.
Mearns said conditions for filming the wreck were not ideal because strong seabed currents were stirring up sand and other material which was obscuring the view. More dives would be needed to completely document the shipwreck, he said.
In announcing the search for the lost ship last year, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said the boat’s sinking “struck deeply at the heart of our nation, and became a symbol of our determination to fight on against a brutal enemy.”
But a statement issued by the Japanese Embassy in Canberra said the circumstances in which the Centaur went down were not conclusive.
On the 65th anniversary of the sinking of the Centaur in 2008, the Queensland Premier Anna Bligh, noted:
Centaur’s sinking and the subsequent loss of so many lives rightfully outraged the nation.
The sinking was the subject of rallying cries when all-but one of the 12 nurses on board was killed. “Avenge the nurses” posters were everywhere. They were used to raise funds for war loans.
Commemorative posters and postal stamps have since been linked to the sinking and such was the community response here in Queensland in 1948, the State’s nurses established the “Centaur Memorial Fund for Nurses” which raised money to establish “Centaur House” – a facility supporting out-of-town nurses with suitable accommodation.
As well there are many Centaur memorials across the nation – including those at Point Danger, Caloundra, Tweed Heads, Sydney’s Concord Repatriation Hospital and the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
In conclusion, I share further excerpts from Christopher Milligan and John Foley’s book Centaur: The Myth of Immunity (Nairana Publications, 1993).
Taking a collective look at the 332 people of AHS Centaur, we find 12 women and 320 men, ranging in age from 15 (Ordinary Seaman Bob Westwood) to 67 (Captain Salt). While most were Australian, other nationalities appeared: England and Scotland predominately but also Sweden (ship’s carpenter Brandin), Iceland (AB Long), Finland (AB Kali), Norway (steward Jonassen) and Canada (AB Le Blanc). There were at least eight sets of brothers aboard: Annis-Brown, Bayly, Bracken, Clark, Fortier, Hayward, Hoggins, Leask and Maynard.
. . . Within a minute of the initial [torpedo] strike the sea had taken a steadfast grip on the Centaur as seawater flooded into the forward hold and the lower tween deck. She was already down by the head. Her reserve buoyancy evaporated rapidly, yielding inexorably to the enveloping ocean. As she nosed downwards unsecured ironstone ballast and equipment loosened by the blast obeyed gravity and slid towards the bow. The ship’s longitudinal centre of gravity moved forward and intensified the capsizing force. After a minute or so she may have stabilised, the demanding sea held temporarily at bay by the main deck’s watertight integrity, but not for long. The sea would not be denied. The Centaur’s equilibrium worsened second by second; the capsizing moment gathered force and soon overcame all reserve buoyancy. Her bow dipped deep into the ocean. Her stern lifted high in the air, raising the propeller out of the water. At the end she hung there, just for a little while as it delaying her departure for a final farewell, and then she heeled over to starboard and speared down into the depths.
The human tragedy that accompanied those two to three brief minutes of horror is almost unimaginable. We know enough from contemporary interviews with survivors to take a guess at the unbridled terror and agony meted out to so many who never made it. Those who died instantly were the lucky ones.
The sea not only took the Centaur, it took hundreds of examples of human courage, agonising death, despair, perhaps cowardice, and numberless futile battles for survival. The best stories of the Centaur will be those that can never be told.
Recommended Off-site Links:
Centaur Wreck Pictures Shine Light on History – Tuck Thompson and David Barbeler (Courier Mail, January 10, 2010).
Glitches Delay Second Centaur Mission – David Barbeler (Australian Associated Press, January 10, 2010).
Japanese “Should Apologise for Centaur” – Darren Cartwright (Australian Associated Press, January 10, 2010).
Poignant Images of Centaur – Sydney Morning Herald (January 11, 2010).
Centaur Shipwreck Found Off Queensland Coast – Darren Cartwright (Australian Associated Press, December 20).
See also the related Wild Reed posts:
Remembering Nanna Smith
Happy Birthday, Dad
Happy Birthday, Mum
Congratulations, Mum and Dad
Catholic Rainbow (Australian) Parents
The Bayly Family - January 2009
My “Bone Country”
The White Rooster
One of These Boys . . .