It starts as you peer at the silhouettes of 645 seagulls – one for every life lost on November 19, 1941 – that form the dome over the five pillars at the heart of the monument.
Retired wheat farmers Bill and Barbara Henville were waiting when we drove up in Isabel. Bill stared at our Global Warrior and offered what we have found to be our standard greeting: “That thing looks like it could go anywhere.”
Volunteers wait daily at 10.30 to take tourists on a tour of the stunning memorial and explain the significance of the symbols. It’s moving stuff. Tourists without the time to spare skipping by, ignoring the free guided opportunity, never know what they miss as they take a cursory look at the five segments and glance at the information about Australia’s greatest naval disaster.
Bill and Barbara were in good spirits when we called. Their volunteer guide association had won a community award the night before. Guides take turns at waiting for interested tourists. Like Mary Heritage in Maryborough, sometimes no one turns up, sometimes they have 30 or more accompany them.
“We love it,” said Barbara, stowing a little brush and shovel in her car. She always brings it so she can sweep up cigarette butts and any other bits of rubbish discarded by irreverent travellers. After you hear the stories, you would not want to leave a fingerprint on the gleaming structure.
Four flag poles and four ship propellers are at the entrance. The propeller screws are set bottom-up, depicting a ship going down. An old bollard retrieved from the wharf has significance. HMAS Sydney, pride of the Australian fleet with an outstanding battle record, tied up to it on her last visit to Geraldton.
Visiting sailors were feted by the town before the well-armed Leander class light cruiser sailed away to her doom. A few weeks later, on a casual cruise back to Freemantle after completing an escort duty, she came across the HSK Kormoran, a German raider disguised as the Dutch ship Strata Malacca and flying a Dutch flag. She was planning to lay mines and attack troop ships and cargo vessels.
At 5.30pm, south-west of Geraldton, the Sydney challenged for the Strata Malacca’s secret call sign. The Kormoran was silent. Six seconds later her gun ports were opened and she was destroying the Sydney’s bridge. Both ships were doomed in a battle lasting an hour. Accounts came from German survivors, who last saw the torpedoed Sydney at 11pm sailing into the distance. She disappeared in a destiny with death.
The burning Kormoran was scuttled by her sailors. Of her 397 sailors, 315 survived. Some were lost in battle; others drowned when two lifeboats tipped over. Seventy made it ashore at Quobba; others were picked up by Aquitania, Centaur and smaller ships. The survivors were repatriated to Germany in 1947 but of the Sydney there was no trace – except for a mystery corpse that floated ashore on Christmas Island. Believed to be that of a Sydney sailor, it was exhumed, examined and eventually reburied in Geraldton.
Solemn ceremonies on November 19 have been held around Australia for the lost Sydney. At the 1998 remembrance on the hill in Geraldton, about 30 seagulls appeared and hovered above as the bugler played The Last Post.
Seagulls are believed by some to represent the returning souls of sailors lost at sea. They are not numerous in Geraldton. Among the people at the commemoration were architects Charles Smith and Joan Walsh-Smith. Inspired by the appearance of the seagulls they designed the five-part memorial. Under the umbrella of the town’s Rotary club, four elements , rich in poignant symbolism, were built and dedicated in 2001.
Most haunting of the segments is the statue of a woman wearing a wedding ring, trapped in the fashion of the time and gazing in anguish out to sea, hoping forever for the return of her missing sailor.
The fifth element was never to be built until the grave of the Sydney was discovered. On March 12, 2008, the wreck of the Kormoran was found. Using data from German survivors, the HMAS Sydney was found on the bottom of the sea five days later.
Uncannily, the tormented face of the statue on the Geraldton hill was found to be staring directly in the direction of the grave of her husband.
The fifth element was built with almost aching symbolism. Waters flowing in the pool of remembrance, “Closing the Circle”, represent the sea gushing into the boiler room of the doomed ship. A circle of 644 seagulls is engraved around the pool and a map of the sea and coast is etched on the bottom. The final seagull, 2m high, flies on its side in the direction of the HMAS Sydney grave with the tip of its wing in the water pointing at the map co-ordinates where the wreck was found.
Many more symbols are explained by daily Bills and Barbaras in an absorbing hour. Gardens are planted in rosemary for remembrance and in blood-red roses named Courage. The stele represents the prow of the HMAS Sydney. The designs and remembrance wall of 645 names and memories has more to digest until you reach the line from Hamlet under the last inscription: “The rest is silence.”