Remembering the only sailor to escape HMAS Sydney (II)

01 March 2024
  • History & commemoration

Only one man escaped the ship as it sank, and his identity remained unknown until 2021.

By the Royal Australian Naval Association Queensland 

A recent ceremony honoured him, and the 644 other crew who died on board. 

“Water bears no battle scars,” Vice Admiral Michael Noonan said at the ceremony unveiling a memorial to the sailors who died on HMAS Sydney (II) in November 1941. 

The Christmas of 1941 was a nightmare for the families of the 645 sailors who were on HMAS Sydney (II), hoping and praying that their boys might have somehow survived the warship’s tragic final battle.  

They held onto this hope for years, even after the body of the only man to escape was found, ironically washed up on Christmas Island. In 2021 it was revealed that the body was that of Queensland country boy Able Seaman Thomas Welsby Clark. 

Portrait of Ordinary Seaman (OS) Thomas Welsby Clark - Image courtesy of Australian War Memorial

Portrait of Thomas Welsby Clark (image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial)

Thomas was born in New Farm, Brisbane in 1920 to a well-to-do family. His father was a successful grazier and businessman in western Queensland and Thomas was educated at Slade Anglican school in Warwick.  

Young Thomas spent many happy times on his father’s properties and was an accomplished horseman. After school he studied to be an accountant and worked for a practice in Mary Street in Brisbane.  

When World War II broke out, he joined up as a Naval Reservist, then moved to full-time service as an Able Seaman on HMAS Sydney (II). The official photograph of Thomas is striking, showing a strong jaw, a determined expression, sharp eyes, and confidence beyond his years. 

HMAS Sydney (II) met her fate in a battle with the German raider HSK Kormoran in the Indian Ocean off Western Australia. Somehow Thomas escaped in a Carley float (life raft) but died of head injuries, and in 1942 his body was washed up on Christmas Island and later buried in an unmarked grave. 

The Navy never stopped looking for the wreck of HMAS Sydney (II). Eventually she was located in 2006 and the pieces of the puzzle started to come together. Thomas’ grave on Christmas Island was exhumed and his remains investigated further prior to his burial with full military honours in Geraldton, Western Australia.  

Memorial service for HMAS Sydney at South Bank in Brisbane

Madeline Byth, aged 94 (front row, centre), at the memorial ceremony for HMAS Sydney (II). Madeline’s brother was on the ship and she is one of few people with living memory of the crew.

Earlier research showed clues to his identity. He was tall, fair-haired, blue-eyed and had a fresh complexion. His teeth had gold fillings – a sign that he was from a wealthy and caring family. Thomas’s leg bones showed a life of horse riding, so a country upbringing was assumed, and his identity narrowed down. Finally, after 15 years, DNA revealed his name and a handful of living family members from all over Australia. 

Thomas' nephew Colin Clark travelled from Queensland to Western Australia when Thomas’ body was rededicated to the war graves at Geraldton Cemetery. 

On 30 November 2023, the sailors of the Royal Australian Navy who served and perished on HMAS Sydney (II) were remembered in a ceremony at Jack Tar Memorial in South Bank, Brisbane.  

The Royal Australian Naval Association Queensland commemorates a different section or conflict on the last Thursday of each month from February to November.  


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