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HMAS Sydney's Carley Float

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, censorship, commemoration, heritage, symbols and symbolism, war memorials, World War 2, see all tags


HMAS Sydney's Carley Float

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About the Video Clip


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.

Background Information


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

  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. The original rumours about the sinking of the Sydney developed because of a strict censorship in wartime. Do you think such censorship is justified? Develop arguments for and against.
    2. The Sydney is Australia’s greatest ever loss of life in a sea action. Is it remembered today? Design and carry out a survey to see how much people know about it. Should they know more? Does knowledge depend on the age of the person being surveyed? Explain your views.
    3. There were many significant events, people and issues that affected civilians in Australia during World War II. Brainstorm as a class to list significant issues. This list may need to be supplemented by some basic research. Create a list of the main ones. Which do you think would be the one or ones that had most impact on people at the time? Survey people who were at least 10 at the start of the war. Collate the class results, and compare the results to your hypotheses. Suggest reasons to explain the results.

Further Resources


For more National Treasures information and video clips go to the Investigating National Treasures website