Theatre 180 takes a poignant look at the ill-fated Sydney II

HMAS Sydney II Rehearsals
HMAS Sydney II Rehearsals

When well-known Perth actor, director and writer Jenny Davis, started researching the history of the ill-fated HMAS Sydney II it took her on an 18-month journey of discovery.

Sydney was regarded as the glamour ship of the Australian fleet which made its demise at the hands of the disguised German Raider HSK Kormoran in 1941 with the loss of 645 men all the more shocking.

Theatre 180 is about to stage Sydney II: Lost and Found at Perth and country cinemas following the sell out success of AB Facey’s A Fortunate Life.

Sydney II: Lost and Found written by Davis and directed by Stuart Halusz features actors Myles Pollard, Morgan Dukes and Tom O’Sullivan with music composed by Ron Siemiginowski.

A starting point for Davis’ research was a talk by Ted Graham, chairman of the Finding Sydney Foundation, about the race to find the wreck. A film at the end showed a poignant image of a boot with a hole in it. Standing next to Ted Graham was Ellen Rowe, the youngest child of WA Able Seaman Allan Rowe who served on Sydney
and joined the ship in Fremantle a week before it sank on 19 November 1941.

“For 66 years Allan’s wife Jessie and Ellen hoped that one day the wreck would be located. In 2008, due to the efforts of the volunteers of the Finding Sydney Foundation, this dream became true,” Davis said.

Sydney II was the glamour ship of the fleet, with its long-range firepower, the darling of the nation with tickertape parades to greet it with parades of handsome young men in their ice-cream coloured uniforms. It was especially poignant that Jessie was still alive when the wreck was finally found in 2008.”

The search first focused on finding the Kormoran which was located about 112 nautical miles off Steep Point, WA, lying in 2468m of water. It is believed searchers had enough money to finance the expedition for 21 days but took only 17 to find both wrecks, a stunning achievement. A remotely operated vehicle (ROV) with video filming capability was deployed to further examine the wrecks.

Controversy has often surrounded the battle, especially in the years before the two wrecks were located. How a warship like Sydney was defeated by a modified merchant vessel like Kormoran was the subject of speculation, with numerous books on the subject, as well as two official reports by government inquiries, published in 1999 and 2009 respectively.

According to German accounts — which were assessed as truthful and generally accurate by Australian interrogators during the war, as well as most subsequent analyses — Sydney approached so close to Kormoran that the Australian cruiser lost the advantages of heavier armour.

Kormoran was in disguise as a Dutch supply ship when it took on the Sydney. Though the entire crew of 645 men aboard the Sydney were lost, 318 of the 399 crew aboard Kormoran survived. Some of these men were placed in prisoner of war camps until the war ended.

“It took six days before the navy went looking for the Sydney and looked nowhere near where the Sydney was,” Davis said. “Everyone around the nation was grieving and many families were upset at the lack of communication. In the end they were looking in the wrong place. Of course, there was worldwide attention when the wrecks were found in 2008.”

In February 1942 a Carley Float (a rubber ducky) washed up on Christmas Island with a body in it, the locals guessed it was from the Sydney and gave the victim a military funeral.

“I wanted to tell the story of love and loss, fear and courage and the resolution of a mystery over many years for those who never gave up hope,” Davis said.

She held her first workshop for the play about a year ago, then reworked and redeveloped the script. During her research she discovered that Tom Fisher, of Osborne Park, who died in 2016, had left interesting stories of his experiences as a crew member of Sydney
. He had been transferred to another ship in October 1941, a month before it was sunk. 

She learnt that the mother of former WA premier Geoff Gallop attended a dance for Sydney
crewmen in Geraldton and many local people still remembering the dances. A local boy, Joe Glance, had an autograph book signed by Sydney crewman Arthur Andrews: “Here today, gone tomorrow” which became prophetic words.

She contacted sculptors Joan Walsh-Smith and Charles Smith who worked on the imposing memorial to HMAS Sydney II at Mount Scott in Geraldton.

“The waiting woman looking out to sea was placed there before the wreck was found and she is looking directly at the location,” Davis said.

Sydney II: Lost and Found plays at Ace Cinemas Rockingham 18–22 August, Orana Cinemas Albany 26 August-1 September, Orana Cinemas Busselton 3–5 and 8–10 September, Orana Cinemas Kalgoorlie 15–19 September, Ace Cinemas Midland 29–31 October and 2–3 November, Grand Cinemas Warwick 6–7 and 9–10 November and Orana Cinemas Geraldton 13–14 and 17–21 November.