Avenging the Nurses: Government’s response to the sinking of 2/3 Australian Hospital Ship Centaur

Guest blogger, Madonna Grehan, John Oxley Library Fellow for 2015.

The Centaur Fund Series highlights Queenslanders’ special acknowledgement of the nursing profession, in the years after World War II.

Saturday 14 May 2016 marks 73 years since the torpedoing and sinking of the 2/3 Australian Hospital Ship Centaur, by enemy fire. On that day in 1943, Centaur was on the way to Papua New Guinea, making its second voyage to retrieve injured soldiers and to resupply the field with ambulance officers. Centaur’s conversion to a hospital ship had been completed only seven weeks earlier in March 1943. It had modern, portable X-ray equipment and operating theatres, and could accommodate 250 patients in double-decker cots.[1]

Centaur embarked Sydney on 12 May with the ship’s crew of Merchant Seamen, and personnel of the Army Medical Corps aboard. Among them were eight doctors, twelve Nursing Service nurses, a pharmacist, a Red Cross Representative, and 193 members of the 2/12 Field Ambulance. On the evening of the 13 May, there had been a birthday party for the senior nurse, Matron [Sarah] Anne Jewell. Jewell was a veteran, having served on several hospital ships since 1939.

On 14 May, at 4.10am, a torpedo struck Centaur without warning. The ship caught fire and sank in three minutes. Of the 332 people aboard, only 64 survived, many with severe injuries.[2] Lt Col. Leslie Macdonald Outridge, a Queenslander, was the only Medical Officer to survive. Sister Ellen Savage was the only nurse to survive.

Site of the Greenslopes Repatriation Hospital, Brisbane, ca. 1953 Unidentified ; H. B. Green & Co. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland | ca. 1953 picqld-citrix06--2009-01-19-09-39

Site of the Greenslopes Repatriation Hospital, Brisbane, ca.1953
Unidentified ; H. B. Green & Co.
John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland | ca. 1953

Survivors were admitted to the 112 Australian General Hospital at Greenslopes, opened in 1942. While there, most were interviewed by Mervyn Weston, a war correspondent for the Herald newspaper. In this film Ellen Savage recounts what happened when Centaur was hit – http://www.centaurnursesfund.org.au/the-centaur-story/movietone-news-1943/

SSister Ellen Savage, Australian Army Nursing Serve (AANS), being interviewed at Greenslopes Army Hospital, 1943. Image from Australian War Memorial

Suvivor Sister Ellen Savage, Australian Army Nursing Serve (AANS), being interviewed at Greenslopes Army Hospital, 1943. Image from Australian War Memorial

In the days following, Prime Minister John Curtin vowed that Australia would avenge the deaths of the Medical Corps and the ship’s crew. On Empire Day, 23 May 1943, Curtin made an impassioned plea for Australians to lift support for the war effort. He urged an end to industrial hold-ups in mines, workshops, factories and on wharves.[4] Mr Percy Spender MP, United Australia Party member for Warringah, dismissed Curtin’s efforts as limp, claiming that the Prime Minister’s continuing message to Australian men, to either ‘Work or Fight’, was falling on deaf ears.[5]

But by 25 May 1943, Curtin and his War Cabinet had devised a powerful missive. Newspapers reported that colour posters were being created, under the authorisation of Mr Ian B Hutcheson, Controller of Government Advertising. Hutcheson, formerly Advertising Director of Lever Bros. Ltd. in Australia, was appointed as War Publicity Director in 1941.[6] The posters were to depict the bombing of the Centaur.

Taken from Sydney Morning Herald, 10 February 1941, p.12

Taken from Sydney Morning Herald, 10 February 1941, p.12

Much research went into depicting the reality of the sinking in the posters. Bob (Arthur) Whitmore, a commercial artist of Sydney transformed Centaur survivors’ reports into these two graphic posters. Sister Savage told that Centaur went down by its bow. Her account, accepted by Naval Intelligence, contradicted an earlier one that the ship had capsized and meant that the name Centaur was clearly visible on the ship’s stern, so the posters retained their propaganda value.[7]

Survivors also reported that the lighting went out immediately the ship was struck. ‘Diesel engines, which drove the ship, do not smoke’ so the posters depict Centaur’s funnel without smoke.[8] They show a fierce fire and people jumping from the ship. One of Whitmore’s posters shows a solitary life boat near the sinking vessel. In the other poster, a woman and a man cling to debris in the oily sea.

'Work, save, fight and so avenge the nurses!'. From Australian War Memorial Collection, ID ARTV09088

‘Work, save, fight and so avenge the nurses!’. From Australian War Memorial Collection, ID ARTV09088

'Save for the Brave'. Taken from Imperial War Museum collection. ID Art. IWM PST 16681

‘Save for the Brave’. Taken from Imperial War Museum collection. ID Art. IWM PST 16681

Mr Curtin MP’s message to Australian men to “work or fight” had been expanded. One slogan reads: ‘WORK SAVE FIGHT and So AVENGE THE NURSES’. The other reads ‘SAVE for the Brave “Let us Avenge the Nurses”’ John Curtin.

The posters were sent to ‘factories, workshops, wharves, coalmines, and business establishments’,[12] and other places of work. The eleven Australian Army Nursing Service nurses, clearly, were front and centre in this propaganda campaign. That may explain why their deaths are remembered much more so than those of the Merchant Seamen, the Field Army Officers, the Medical Officers, the Red Cross Representative, the Pharmacist and other personnel who were killed on the same day. Lest We Forget.

1. Courier Mail, 12 March 1943, p.4
2. https://www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/centaur/
3. http://www.ww2places.qld.gov.au/places/?id=726
4. Warwick Daily News, 24 May 1943, p.1
5. Portland Guardian, 24 May 1943, p.3
6. Sunday Times, 6 February 1941, p.2
7. Newcastle Morning Herald and Miner’s Advocate, 21 June 1943, p.3
8. Newcastle Morning Herald and Miner’s Advocate, 21 June 1943, p.3
9. Telegraph, 25 May 1943, p2

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Centaur Day, 14 May, and Red Roses for Remembrance
  1. Madonna thank you so much for the research you’re doing and for this blog (first of many by the sounds). It was fantastic to see the interview with Ellen Savage. Best wishes with the rest of your work on this. Regards Elizabeth

    • Madonna Grehan

      Thank you Elizabeth. There is some great material in the collection and lots of interesting elements to the history which is some ways mirrors that of the Nurses Memorial Centre in Melbourne which began its campaign earlier than QLD’s.

  2. Janet Scarfe

    Thank you Madonna for this comprehensive piece. I don’t want to underplay the tragedy of lives lost, but I find the use of the nurses’ deaths as propaganda very discomforting. Were there other instances in which army nurses featured in propaganda, recruitment drives etc?
    Thank you again – this is not just a story of a sinking (there were lots of those inc hospital ships); rather it is a way into women in war, the portrayal of women in the media in the 1940s, the sentimetality surrounding nurses, etc.
    Look forward to more …

    • Madonna Grehan

      Hello Janet, the Advertising Directorate under the Treasury Dept is an interesting development historically in government responses to the war. I am not aware of recruitment posters involving nurses because there were enough who joined up, so much so that their departures created acute and then chronic shortages all over the nation. Nursing was declared a protected industry and placed under the . Manpower Provisions. Going by National Archives listings, there were lots of posters made, but perhaps not all saw the light of day.

  3. Mary Abbot

    Thank – you Madonna for this wonderful piece of research. One of the photos in your video clip is my mother Jean Cronin Abbot who was a registered nurse at Greenslopes hospital. I have some other photos which I am happy to share. Best wishes with your ongoing work. As a member and supporter of the Centaur Memorial Fund for Nurses I look forward to further reading.. Mary Abbot.
    Mary Abbot

    • Madonna Grehan

      Hello Mary
      thank you for contacting me at slq. There are some lovely photographs of Jean (Nurse City Theatres) in the Centaur Memorial Fund collection. So your mother is featured in my lecture tonight (13 May 2016) to the Centaur Memorial Fund for Nurses Dinner.
      Stand by for another post on Red Roses for Remembrance on Centaur Day.

  4. Odette Best

    Such wonderful work Madonna. A great way to reflect on the services of these women on International Nurses Day!

  5. Marilyn Gendek

    Well done Madonna on your research. I have always found it ironic that the Centuar emabrked on 12 May.
    But of course as you point out there was signficant loss of many lives when the Centaur was destroyed.
    Best wishes, Marilyn

  6. Mary Abbot

    Dear Madonna I would like to send you some photos and would also appreciate a phone conversation with you before I send the information. M. 0407582559.
    Best Wishes, Mary

    • Madonna Grehan

      Hello Mary

      Thank you for reminding me about the images. I will be in touch as soon as I can. You might like to send me an email directly.
      madonna grehan

  7. Deborah Prior

    Thank you Madonna, your research has given authenticity to all that has been recorded about the tragedy of AHS Centaur. The interview with Ellen Savage is priceless and thanks to you now accessible to all ow and in the future .

  8. Sagarika

    Hi Madonna,
    Very well done. Congratulations for future researches. Those paper roses are so meaningful.


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