The HMAS Sydney survivor

On the 6th of February 1942, a Carley float containing a body was seen drifting off Flying Fish Cove, an inlet on Christmas Island, an Australian dependency located 1,550 kms northwest of the Australian mainland. The island has a population of approximately 2,000, and phosphate mining has been the main industry since the turn of the 20th century.

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An inquest was held to determine the possible injuries of the body, as well as how the body could have ended up in the Carley float. The harbour master, medical officer and radio station manager each contributed to the report. It is unknown if the doctor performed an autopsy; if he did, that report has never been found. The body was interred in the Old European Cemetery with full military honours in an unmarked grave.

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The body was partly decomposed, and the eyes, nose and flesh from the right arm was missing, probably eaten by birds. It was clothed in a faded boilersuit, and had no dog-tags or other personal effects. A couple of shoes were found in the life raft. The float had been damaged by shellfire, with shrapnel in the outer covering. The underside was covered in barnacles, suggesting that it had been in the water for a long time.

When WW2 broke out, the island was a possible Japanese target due to the phosphate deposits, so a naval gun was installed on the island. Japanese submarines started patrols around the island, followed by bombing raids. The Japanese landed unopposed on the 31st of March 1942, partly due to a mutiny by Indian troops, who shot their British NCOs. The Japanese stayed for a few days, loaded some phosphate and then returned to the Dutch East Indies, except for a 20 man garrison, who stayed until the Japanese surrender in 1945. Many records, including the inquest on the body, appear to have been lost during the occupation.

So the obvious question was where did the body come from?

The Carley float was named after its inventor Horace Carley, and was standard issue on RN and RAN ships during the Second World War. So it is logical to believe that the float came from an Allied ship that had been sunk, and that the body was a survivor of that sinking. The officials on Christmas Island believed that the body on the float was from the HMAS Sydney, which had sunk off the Western Australian coast on the 18th of November 1941 after a battle with the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran. The crew of the Sydney numbered 645 – there were no survivors, except for the possibility that the body was a member of the Sydney who had managed to get off the ship before it sank. Giving creedence to this possibility was the wording on the float – “LYSAGHT DUA-ANNEAL ZINC. MADE IN AUSTRALIA”. Boilersuits were available to ships officers, commissioned warrant officers and warrant officers in the RAN, and were a popular working dress at the time. The Sydney was the only RAN ship to be involved in an engagement which would result in a Carley float being damaged.

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Carley float.

The 1998 Joint Standing Committee inquiry into the loss of the Sydney stated that on the balance of probabilities, the float and the body came from the Sydney. The Committee made recommendations that the grave should be found, the body exhumed and DNA testing done with living relatives of the Sydney’s crew, to determine if the body was the lone survivor of the Sydney. The body was located in October 2006. Following an autopsy and taking of body samples, the body was reburied with full military honours in the Geraldton Cemetery in November 2008.

HMAS Sydney II Memorial Service - Reburial of the Unknown Sailor
The headstone of the unknown survivor from HMAS Sydney after reinterment at Geraldton.

 

The Cole Inquiry in 2009 officially confirmed that the body was in fact a survivor of the Sydney. Interestingly enough, the RAN from the time of when the float was located until the Cole Enquiry steadfastly stated that the float was not from the Sydney, and that the body was not a Sydney crew member. The recovered body had the legs doubled up under the knee, which matches the recollections of witnesses who saw the body when it was discovered back in 1942.

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Drawing showing the location of the skeleton in the unmarked grave on Christmas Island.

 

The Cole Inquiry determined that the cause of death of the body was brain trauma, with shrapnel found embedded in the skull. The unknown sailor was believed to be aged somewhere between 22 and 31, had size 11 feet, was right-handed and was unusually tall for his generation – between 168 and 187 centimetres in height. The ankle joints had squatting facets, which suggested that the body has spent a lot of time squatting than sitting. This suggests a person who was involved in physical work, possibly in the country. DNA testing suggested that the body had red hair, blue eyes and pale skin. The body also had unique dental work – two missing teeth, wisdom teeth intact and nine gold fillings. Using contemporary enlistment and medical records, 330 members of the Sydney’s crew were eliminated as a possible match. By January 2014 the number of possible matches had been narrowed down to 50. The major stumbling block is to identify and track down a female descendant of the maternal line, so that their DNA and the DNA of the body can be compared. The sailors direct descendants do not share the same DNA. When the RAN has located a suitable relative they have no idea that they were related to a sailor from the Sydney. Hopefully the mystery of the lone surviving sailor will be solved in the near future.

Apart from the identity of the sailor, there are still some other unanswered questions:

1. Was the sailor the only crew member of the Sydney who managed to get onto a Carley float before the ship sank?

2.If there were other survivors who managed to get on the same Carley float, what happened to them? Could they have died and been thrown overboard by the remaining survivors, until only one was left?

3. Was the sailor injured before getting on the float, or did the explosions that occurred when the Sydney sank gave the fatal injuries to the sailor, as well as damaging the float?

4. Could the body have been machine-gunned by either a Japanese aircraft or a submarine while it drifted north from the Western Australian coast to Christmas Island?

The Carley float with the lone survivor was not the only Carley float from the HMAS Sydney that has survived. One other float was washed on the Western Australian coast, but it had no bodies or survivors in it when it was found, as seen in the following contemporary newspaper account.

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The HMAS Sydney memorial website and the Department of Defence Christmas Island survivor report pages were the primary sources for this blog post.

 

 

 

 

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Christmas wishes

I would like to take this opportunity to wish all of the followers of my blog a safe and peaceful Christmas, and hope that 2017 will be a good year for all of you.

I am humbled that there are 271 people who follow my blog – I had no idea that what I publish would be of interest to so many people. I also want to thank everyone who has taken the time to post a comment about the stories that I have posted.

I look forward to your contributions in 2017!

 

 

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A bizarre place to “park” a car…….

I have come across some unusual accidents and incidents through my reading of and watching motor racing events over many years, but one of the most unusual that I have ever come across was Major Peter Braid’s accident at the Blandford Army Camp in 1949.

Due to the rarity of purpose-built motor racing circuits in the UK in the late 1940’s, any venue that had sealed roads was pressed into service for racing, even if this was just a single airfield runway. The Blandford Army Camp in south-western Dorset was one of the better venues available, as its perimeter access road around the camp of just over 3 miles in length meant that a layout which was similar to purpose-built circuits could be used. The layout was fast and challenging, with competitors reaching over 100 mph on the two straights.

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The Blandford circuit layout.

 

After several motorcycle events were held from mid-1948 to April 1949, approval was granted by the Royal Automobile Club for the first car racing meeting to be held on the 27th of August. The meeting featured several sportscar races, as well as the new 500cc Formula 3, which were small rear-engined cars powered by motorcycle engines.

The events leading up to Braid’s accident occurred during the morning session of racing. During the third race for sportscars, Gordon Woods lost control of his Frazer Nash – BMW between Engineers Corner and Hood Corner. The car demolished a bus shelter, and Woods was thrown out of the cockpit, receiving critical head injuries from which he died in hospital later. In the current environment, the meeting would have been immediately stopped, but back then, the racing continued on. The demolished bus shelter was left in situ, and this would have a major impact on Braid’s accident.

Braid had only started racing in Formula 3 a couple of months previously, and had already achieved a win at Silverstone and a second place at Great Auclum. While leading the Formula 3 race in his Cooper Mk III powered by a J.A.P engine, Braid slid into the outer bank on the left side of the road. The car bounced back across the road to the other side, hitting the ruins of the bus shelter, previously destroyed in the Woods accident earlier in the day. This acted like a ramp, launching the Cooper over a fir tree and onto the roof of the Battalion Headquarters, located on the inside of the track.

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Baird’s Cooper on the roof of the Battalion Headquarters – other drivers said that it was disconcerting to see the car on the roof as they raced past!

 

The car appeared to be neatly parked the correct way up and facing the right direction, and remained there for the duration of the race. Braid survived with only some bruises to show for what must have been a terrifying ride.

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A closer view of the Cooper on the roof.

 

 

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A rear view of the Cooper, showing the relatively minor damage that the car suffered in what was a very spectacular accident.

The photos show what an amazing accident this was, and how lucky Braid was not to be killed. The Cooper could have so easily struck the pole located next to the Battalion Headquarters, or worse still, actually crashed into the side of the building. What is particularly intriguing is the relatively small amount of damage suffered by the Cooper – a dent on the front nose, a buckled wheel and a dislodged engine fairing. As well as the lack of damage, the way that the Cooper is sitting on top of the roof is unusual – it almost looks like the car has been gently placed on its wheels. I can only assume that the car had just enough speed to reach the roof after becoming airborne, and that the corrugated iron acted like a brake, immediately bringing the car to a stop.

Braid continued racing in Formula 3 until the end of 1952, when he retired. He died in the Barnes rail crash in London on the 2nd of December 1955.

Racing continued at Blandford, but their were several motorcycle facilities and one further car driver – Joe Fry, who lost control of his car when practising for a hillclimb on the 29th of July 1950.

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Joe Fry – the 2nd and last car racing fatality at Blandford.

 

This the final car event at Blandford, although motorcycle racing continued until the early 1960’s. The track still exists, although it is now impossible to drive a full lap, due to the installation of several steel fences across some of the corners.

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Cuckoo Corner as it appears now – far away from the sound of roaring engines and racing cars.

 

 

 

 

 

The last Le Mans start at Le Mans

The Le Mans 24 hour race for high performance sports cars is one of the most famous motor races in the world. The Le Mans Grand Prix d’Endurance, to give it is full name, was first run in 1923 on a circuit around the roads near the French village of Le Mans. The race lasted 24 hours and the format became a favourite with motor racing enthusiasts. Apart from the duration of the race, which required more than one driver for each car, swapping over at regular pit stops, the Le Mans race was famous for its start.

The cars were lined up in front of the pits on the main straight, while the drivers were lined up on the other side of the main straight. At the starting signal, which was a dropped flag, the drivers ran across the road, jumped into their cars and raced off to start the 24 hours. It was a spectacular if dangerous way to began the most competitive 24 hour race in the world.

As cars became faster with every tear, safety became an increasingly important consideration. It became obvious that many drivers were trying to save a few seconds at the start by driving off without fastening their harnesses. The organisers of the race decreed that 1969 would be the last year of the Le Mans start. In 1970 all drivers would be securely fastened in their cars before the starting flag was dropped.

So, on the 14th of June 1969, 45 drivers made the final dash across the track to start the race, whose starting time had been brought forward to 2 pm instead of the usual 4 pm, because of voting in the final round of the French presidential election the following day.

Of the 45 drivers, Belgian Jacky Ickx decided to show his opposition to the Le Mans start by slowly walking across to his car and slowly fastening his belts, which meant that he was in 45th and last place after the start, a seen in this footage of the start:

Ickx’s protest to the danger of the start was demonstrated immediately when the Porsche 917 of John Woolfe and Herbert Linge crashed on the first lap. Woolfe had not fastened his belts properly in order to get a good start, and it is believed that this action had a major role in his death.

The two factory Porsche 917s of Rolf Stommelen/Kurt Ahrens Jnr and Vic Elford/Richard Attwood led for much of the race, but by early on Monday morning both cars had retired. The battle for victory was now between the Porsche 908 of Hans Hermann and Gerard Larrousse, and the Ford GT40 of Jacky Ickx/Jackie Oliver, which had made up all of the ground lost due to Ickx’s safety-first start to the race.

Both cars shared the lead in the final stages, with Ickx managing to pass the Porsche on the Mulsanne Straight on the last lap before the 24 hours expired, and holding on to win by a margin of approximately 120 metres (393 feet), the closest finish in the history of the race (excluding the staged finishes where team cars cross the line side-by-side). Both leading cars covered 372 laps in the 24 hours, with the 3rd placed Ford GT40 of David Hobbs and Mike Hailwood covering 368 laps. Only 14 of the original 45 starters were still running at the end of the 24 hours.

Ickx’s victory was the first of six wins for him in the race (1969, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1981 and 1982), and the last of four consecutive victories in the 24 hours race by the Ford GT40, which is still considered one of the greatest sports cars of all time.

The other victor on the day was Georges Pompidou, who was elected as French President over an ageing Charles de Gaulle.

 

 

The NRL is terrible

I well thought out article. In light of the Ray Rice incident, you wonder if there is a relationship between violence on the field and violence off it?

Mike or The Don

That a Melburnian doesn’t like the NRL is not overly surprising.

Ugh. Gross.

After all, I grew up being force-fed a steady diet of AFL, and being told that Rugby League is a rubbish sport. To be honest, I still believe Rugby League is a rubbish sport.

But I will take it a step further: The NRL head office, clubs, players, and fans are all awful too. Yes, based on recent evidence, even the fans are awful.

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Lobethal – the Australian Nurburgring

One of my interests has been motor racing history. For the last dozen or so years, I have been researching the history of the Windsor RSL Speedway, which ran between 1949 and 1968 just a couple of blocks away from where I live.

I also have an interest in road racing history, and especially the pre World War 2 era. I enjoy reading about the cars, drivers, races and circuits. One of the great circuits used not only in Australia, but in the whole world during this era was the road circuit which ran on public roads in Lobethal, east of the South Australian capital of Adelaide.

I was recently sent a link to a fantastic 2008 documentary, which incorporates footage of the 2008 Revival meeting, plus contemporary footage of the meetings held between 1937 and 1939. It is almost impossible to make any meaningful comparison between racing of this era and current racing. Qualifying for the 2014 Australian Grand Prix is currently underway as I type this post. I wonder how Sebastien Vettel would go driving around the Lobethal circuit?

Anyway, sit back, enjoy and be amazed at the bravery of the drivers who took on the Australian version of the Nurburgring.