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Video clip synopsis – A tiny, war-ravaged liferaft from the HMAS Sydney is our only physical link to Australia’s worst-ever naval disaster.
Year of production - 2004
Duration - 5min 0sec
Tags - Australian History, World War 2, censorship, commemoration, heritage, symbols and symbolism, war memorials, see all tags

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HMAS Sydney's Carley Float

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About the Video Clip

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HMAS Sydney’s Carley Float is an episode of the series National Treasures produced in 2004.

HMAS Sydney’s Carley Float
One of the most poignant objects in the Australian War Memorial is the battered survivor of our worst-ever naval disaster. What happened to this liferaft and why is it so special? Warren Brown talks to curator John White about this tiny, war-ravaged float from HMAS Sydney whose entire crew of 645 was lost when the ship sank after a mysterious battle off the West Australian coast in 1941.

National Treasures
Take a road-trip of discovery with the irrepressible Warren Brown – political cartoonist, columnist and history “tragic” – as he reveals a fascinating mix of national treasures drawn from public and private collections across Australia. On its own, each treasure is a priceless snapshot of an historic moment. Together, they illustrate the vitality and uniqueness of the Australian experience.

National Treasures is a Film Australia National Interest Program. Produced with the assistance of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Curriculum Focus

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Objective:
Students will develop knowledge, understanding and skills to critically and historically interpret art informed by their understanding of practice, the conceptual framework and
the frames.

Outcomes:
A student
5.7 applies their understanding of aspects of practice to critical and historical interpretations of art

5.8 uses their understanding of the function of and relationship between artist – artwork – world – audience in critical and historical interpretations of art

5.9 demonstrates how the frames provide different interpretations of art

5.10 demonstrates how art criticism and art history construct meanings.

This material is an extract. Teachers and students should consult the Board of Studies website for more information.

Background Information

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On 19 November 1941 the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney was travelling in the Indian Ocean from Sumatra to Fremantle.

When it was west of Shark Bay, it saw and challenged a ship. The ship claimed it was a neutral merchant vessel, but was in fact a disguised German warship, Kormoran.

The Sydney came close to investigate, and was surprised when the Kormoran opened fire. Both ships were sunk, but while there were survivors from the Kormoran, all 645 crew members of the Sydney died — making it Australia’s worst ever naval disaster.

One body believed to be that of a crew member was washed up on Christmas Island (and knowledge of the location of his grave later lost). The only physical trace of the Sydney ever recovered was one of her Carley Floats, a form of life raft.

The government kept the disastrous incident quiet for as long as it could, but rumours soon spread, and it had to break the terrible news.

The rumours led to many wild stories at the time, and have been partly responsible for many conspiracy theories since — such as that a Japanese submarine had sunk the Sydney two months before Japan entered the war.

Several books have been written about the mystery, and a Commonwealth parliamentary inquiry reported on it in 1999.

The discovery of the Sydney wreck was announced on 17 March 2008 following the discovery of Kormoran’s wreckage one day earlier.

Classroom Activities

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  1. Understanding the video clip
    1. What was the HMAS Sydney?
    2. When happened to it?
    3. Why was that such a tragedy?
    4. Why might the Carley Float have survived the engagement?
    5. Why might it have been the only relic from the ship ever found?
  2. Exploring issues raised in the video clip
    1. One common form of art is a memorial. In Australia, the most common form of memorial is the war memorial. What is the purpose of war memorials?
    2. What is the main message of this memorial?
  3. How can memorials use symbolism? Go to the HMAS Sydney Memorial site. Critically analyse this memorial, considering these symbolic elements — the:
    1. location
    2. dome
    3. pillars
    4. podium
    5. stele
    6. flame
    7. use of seagulls as a design element
    8. statue of a human
    9. information on the wall
    10. propeller design
    11. compass design.
  4. Do you think it is a good piece of art? Explain your reasons.
  5. Select another public memorial, and analyse its elements in a similar way to that above, through the subjective, cultural and structural frames.

Further Resources

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For more National Treasures and video clips go to Investigating National Treasures