RSL gifted historic warship replica

Gundagai RSL Sub-Branch secretary Keith Wood with Noel Eccleston and Peter Hilton. Noel donated the model of HMAS Sydney to the Sub-Branch.

The Gundagai RSL Sub-Branch has taken possession of a special donation for the RSL memorabilia collection after the presentation of a replica model of the battleship, HMAS Sydney II.

Sub-Branch secretary Keith Wood, Lt Commander RAN (retired), accepted the donation on behalf of the branch last week from Noel Eccleston who built the model of the Sydney by hand, using navy supplied scale specifications.

Noel drove from his home on the south coast with his nephew Bruce to present the stunning replica. 

He made the donation as a gift in memory of his two cousins from Gundagai, Kevin and Leo Eccleston. 

The scaled down size is 1.7 of the original 167 metre long vessel. 

The donation coincides with the 80th anniversary this year of the loss of HMAS Sydney, Australia’s greatest naval tragedy, on November 19.

The original battleship, classed as a Light Cruiser, was launched in England in 1934, and it was bought by the Australian government and commissioned in 1935. 

Gundagai war historian Lena Elphick said the ship was one of three Leander-class light cruisers, designed for long-range patrolling of Australian shores.

“The Australian coastline extends over 34,000 kilometres and guarding the coast had become imperative due to the impending threat of war. Germany had begun amassing military armaments, and Italian resentment of allied intervention in the Abyssinian crisis, as well as Japan’s invasion of China, all foretold the inevitable conclusion – war,” Lena said.

HMAS Sydney took part in operations in the Mediterranean Sea with the British, shelling the Italian controlled Libyan port Bardia. Bardia would later become the turning point of WWII, when the Australian 6th Australian Division attacked and overcame the Italian defences in January 1941.

Gundagai-born men took part in that campaign. 

“Sydney received a nickname Stormy Petrel for successful actions in the Mediterranean, including the sinking of the Italian destroyer Bortolomeo Colleoni. The crew of the Italian battleship was rescued before the ship sank,” Lena said. 

“Sydney received the battle honour Spada 1940 for her actions. However, the Australian government decided to bring HMAS Sydney back to Australia, as the threat of coastal incursions was growing daily. 

“Sydney arrived back in Australia in February 1941. She received a hero’s welcome when she sailed into Sydney Cove. She was taken over by Captain Joseph Burnett and her duties involved escorting troop carriers and patrolling, in order to protect the Western Australian coast from German merchant raiders.” 

Carrying 645 crew on board, HMAS Sydney sailed to Perth, escorting the troopship Queen Mary to Fremantle. Queen Mary was carrying members of the fateful 8th Division to Singapore. 

“On November 19, 1941, Sydney was near Canarvon, heading towards Fremantle. She came across a German auxiliary cruiser, Kormoran, that was disguised as a Dutch ship, Straat Malakka, supposedly carrying cargo,” Lena said. 

“The two exchanged messages but Sydney was blind-sided by the subterfuge enabling the Kormoran to take prime position for the first strike. The sea-battle was marred by several strategical and accidental errors which caused the Sydney to sustain fatal damage to her bow. 

“In an attempt to limp away from the battle, Sydney lost buoyancy and sank almost vertically into the Indian ocean. The crippled Kormoran also sank, but 318 of her 399 crew survived the sinking. 

“Captain Detmers claimed that they hadn’t come across any survivors from the Sydney. The loss of Sydney was a terrible blow to Australian morale. Two weeks later, Japan bombed the Pearl Harbour and Australia was drawn into a war in the Pacific, which in turn created another wartime tragedy, namely the fall of Singapore and the abandonment of the stranded 8th Division into the hands of the Japanese invaders.” 

As Australia awoke to the news of the loss of HMAS Sydney and all her crew, two local families were informed that their sons had been lost at sea. 

Keith Bowes, only child of Maud Lilian (nee Paton) and Thomas Bowes, was on board the Sydney. Along with Keith was Tumblong boy Allan Murdoch McKay. Allan’s widowed mother Mary received the terrible news about her son at the same time as Maud and Thomas. 

“Thomas Dockeray Bowes was a soldier settler farmer at Tumblong, having served during WWI. Keith Andrew Joseph Bowes had been born in Wagga Wagga in 1922. He had attended Wagga Wagga High School before enlisting in the navy. Keith gained the rank of Stoker on board the Sydney. He had signed up to serve in the Australian Navy for a period of 12 years,” Lena said.

“The shock of the sinking of Sydney and the threat of Japanese invasion of Australia prompted heartbroken Thomas to enlist again on January 16, 1942. He enlisted less than a month after receiving the terrible news about his son.”

Due to his age, 54-year-old Thomas was too old to be taken on into active service. He was appointed a prisoner of war guard, with duties based at 16 Garrison Battalion. Thomas was stationed at Hay POW camp, which interned mostly Italian prisoners and detainees. 

“Having served at Gallipoli, Thomas had experienced war first-hand. He served as POW camp guard for a year, until he received an exemption to go back to his farm where Maud had remained alone,” Lena said. 

“Allan McKay, born in Trangie, had moved to Tumblong with his mother Mary. He had gained the rank of Leading Stores Assistant on the Sydney. His father had died in 1925 at Warren and Mary had relocated to the Riverina. 

“Allan enlisted on May 31, 1939, before WWII had begun. His mate Keith followed him on August 1, 1939. A month later Australia was at war with Germany and Italy.” 

On Friday November 19, the Gundagai RSL Sub-Branch will commemorate the tragic loss of HMAS Sydney and her crew, and Gundagai will remember the lives of Keith Bowes and Allan McKay. 

The commemoration will be marked by the unveiling of the replica HMAS Sydney model.

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