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  • Writer's pictureHelen Avaient

Sydney II National Memorial

High on a hill overlooking the Geraldton, Western Australia harbor stands a National Memorial dedicated to the sailors and families of the 645 men who lost their lives when the Sydney II sunk on 19 November 1941, 120 kms off the coast of Shark Bay, Western Australia.

The Sydney II was a light class cruiser and had seen successful action in the Mediterranean. The crew were young men, the average age of the sailors was just 26.

The Sydney II encountered a ship flying Dutch colours and disguised as the Dutch merchant Staat Malakka. It then revealed herself to be the Kormoran, a heavily armed German raider. The Sydney II was hit with 65 anti-tank shells, salvos of over 400 armour piercing shells, and then torpedoes. The Sydney II fought back fiercely, firing torpedoes and guns at the Kormoran which also sank that day. Of 380 men on the German ship, 318 men were rescued.

For 67 years the families did not know what had happened to their loved ones. On 16 March 2008 the location and wreckage of the ship was located and is now a war grave.

The memorial is a beautiful and peaceful reminder of those who gave their lives for Australia. They fought to keep Australia a land of peach and freedom. Designed by sculptors Joan Walsh-Smith and Charlie Smith, it took 3 years to build, it was opened for the public in 2004. The memorial is amass with nautical symbolism and I am grateful to have been introduced to it by enthusiastic volunteer tour guide Peter.

The path to the entry is the only straight line in the memorial. As you enter there are living floral tributes. Rosemary is planted for remembrance and Lantana because the green and gold colours of the plant symbolize Australia.

Four flags fly high here. The Australian, the Western Australian, the Navy and the Geraldton flags. The upright propellers signify that it is a dead ship, the sight you see of the propeller as a ship descends to the bottom of the ocean.

The black granite of the wall plaques came from Norsemen and open up on either side, like the open arms of an embrace. There is no rank in death so the names are in alphabetic order by last name, their occupation and home state. Captain Joseph Burnett is amongst his men.

Around the beautiful Dome of Souls are descending circles. These symbolise the circle of life and as they descend towards the dome, they symbolise waves. The dome of souls was beautiful. It is held up by seven pillars which represent both the seven states of Australia and the seven seas to which men sail. The memorial alter was placed here on 19 November to coincide with the sinking of the Sydney II.

During the Memorial Site Dedication Ceremony on 19 November 1998 as the last post sounded at sunset, a flock of silver gulls flew in formation around the spot of the hill where people stood. Traditionally the seagull represents the soul of a lost sailor. This inspired the designing artists to use the birds to depict the sailors. It was as if they gave their blessing for the project.

Above the altar are the eternal flames, represented by port and starboard here. The flames were lit from the eternal flame at Kings Park in Perth, which was in turn lit from the eternal flame at the National Memorial.

Looking up you see the 645 stainless steel gulls flying upwards, each attached to another in two places. These represent the 645 lives lost. The waves are the top of the ocean which the birds are flying towards.

Walking towards the Stele, a 70 foot high bow representation, red roses have been planted here to remind us of the letting of blood during war times.

The numbers on the side of the bow are depth markers, similar to those on the Sydney II. It has not been painted as this symbolizes a dead ship. The flag on the bow is lit up at night, as a flag is not to be flown once it gets dark.

Next we came to the Waiting Woman statue who looks out to the exact spot in the ocean where the ship was found. This is a coincidence, as the ship was found in 2008, after the statue was placed here. This woman represents the sweethearts, the mothers, sisters, daughters and grandmothers of the sailors. Around her neck is an anchor chain. These were given by sailors to their loved ones. The inspiration for the statue came from a photo of the sculptor Joan Smith’s mother, taken by Joan’s uncle who was a POW. She anxiously looks out to see and almost seems alive.

Three months after the sinking, a deceased sailor was found floating in a beaten lifeboat in the waters off Christmas Island, and was buried on the island. Years later he was identified as belonging to the Sydney II. His body was exhumed and buried in an unmarked grave at Geraldton. Families of the deceased sailors were asked if they wanted their DNA tested, to determine which of the 645 sailors this was. No one came forward. The families did not want their loved one to be identified separately.

The Well of Remembrance also symbolizes the men with seagulls. This time 644 are carved in the black granite. One seagull stands in the middle of the well, looking at the location and the bottom of the well is embedded with the longitude and latitude of the resting place of the ship. In the base of the well, the brown stone has been laid in the shape of the land around Sharks Bay.

The memorial is accessible for people with mobility issues, and public toilets are located in the car park adjacent to the memorial.

This is a beautiful tribute to the young brave sailors, full of symbolism that touches your heart with gratitude for their service and sadness at the loss for them, their families and our country. Lest we forget!

Happy Travels!

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