History of the Centaur
Built at Scotland’s Greenock Shipyard in 1924, the 3,222 ton Centaur served as a cargo ship on the run between Singapore and Fremantle before World War II.
Her shallow draft and simple design made her ideal for conversion to a hospital ship following the commencement of hostilities in Papua New Guinea. She was commissioned as Australian Hospital Ship AHS Centaur (AHS47) on 12 March 1943.
In May 1943 the AHS Centaur steamed from Sydney with 332 personnel aboard, including medical staff, field ambulance personnel and her crew of merchant seamen.
Sydney was a city in fear. Long-range Japanese submarines had attacked the harbour using midget submarines and launched aircraft to conduct surveillance on the anchorage. One submarine, I-177 had surfaced off shore and shelled Sydney with her deck gun before submerging and heading north toward Brisbane.
The Japanese sub pack had hunted down a number of merchant ships along the east coast, and I-177 was waiting east of Moreton Island as Centaur steamed north during the night of 13 May 1943.
In accordance with the Hague Conventions, Centaur was clearly identifiable as a hospital ship being painted white and marked with large red crosses. She was fully lit and her voyage had been well publicised through neutral diplomatic channels, yet the precautions served only to make her an easier target when, at 4.10am on 14 May 1943, the Japanese submarine torpedoed the hospital ship.
The ship exploded, probably as a result of a hit on the fuel bunkers. The death toll was the highest of any merchant vessel sunk by a submarine in the Pacific theatre of war. Of the 332 persons on board, only 64 survived.
Centaur at port: The Australian Hospital Ship Centaur as it looked before its fateful last mission of mercy
How the search began
Ever since it was sunk off Moreton Island, Queensland by a Japanese torpedo in May 1943, with the loss of 268 lives, there had been hopes of finding the last resting place of the AHS Centaur.
There had been several ‘false finds’ over the years but none of these was confirmed by authorities.
The Centaur Association had long campaigned for a full scale search to confirm the exact site of the Centaur. In March 2008, there was a resurgence of interest following the finding of the HMAS Sydney 11 off the coast of Western Australia.
The HMAS Sydney 11 was sunk by the German raider Kormoran in November 1941 resulting in the loss of 645 officers and men from the Australian ship.
Following approaches from Ian Hudson and others from the Centaur Association, on the 14th May 2008, the 65th anniversary of the sinking of the Centaur, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh wrote to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd seeking support to enable a search for the AHS Centaur.
The Australian and Queensland governments jointly committed $4 million to the search and officers from the Department of Defence and the Department of Premier and Cabinet provided oversight and technical assistance to the project.
With both State and Federal governments committing funds, the search began to find a team of experts and the right equipment to solve the mystery and locate its final resting place.
For a fascinating insight into how the search team was put together, listen to the Podcast interview with Anthony Crack, head of the Queensland Government team overseeing the search.