Today we mark the 70th Anniversary of the sinking of HMAS Perth, with the loss of 357 lives during the Battle of the Sunda Strait in 1942.
Not only am I privileged to be the Minister for Defence, as the Member for Perth, I hold the seat which bears HMAS Perth’s name.
The story of HMAS Perth reflects the commitment, dedication and sacrifice of the men and women who serve in the cause of defending Australia and our national interest.
A light cruiser, HMAS Perth was first commissioned in the British Royal Navy as HMS Amphion in June 1936.
Australia subsequently purchased Amphion as part of a program to strengthen Australia’s naval forces. She was commissioned as HMAS Perth in Portsmouth, England, in June 1939.
She reached Australia in March 1940 after early war service in the Caribbean and the Pacific. She then served in the Mediterranean, where she was involved in the evacuations of Crete and Greece in April and May 1941, in the course of which she was badly damaged by bombing, with 13 people on board killed. She returned to Australia in August 1941.
On 17 February 1942, Perth, under the command of Captain ‘Hec’ Waller, sailed from Fremantle for the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, which was under direct threat from the advancing Japanese.
The Battle of the Sunda Strait commenced 11 days later, on 28 February.
At 11.06pm, a Japanese destroyer was sighted at about five miles range and was immediately engaged by Perth and the USS Houston: the two allied cruisers had met the Japanese invasion force assigned to western Java.
During the engagement a large number of enemy destroyers attacked the two Allied ships from all directions. The intensity of the battle was such that, by about midnight, ammunition was running low and Captain Waller decided to attempt to force a passage to safety. Shortly afterwards Perth was struck by four torpedoes. At 25 minutes past midnight on 1 March, HMAS Perth sank.
Captain Waller, having ordered all those with him to leave, was last seen on the compass platform. It is believed he was killed when it received a direct hit shortly afterwards.
USS Houston, still fighting but ablaze, was also hit by torpedoes and sank.
357 personnel, including three civilians, were lost during or shortly after the sinking of Perth.
The survivors of the battle became prisoners of war and put to work as slave labour by Japan on the infamous Siam-Burma railway. While four crew members were recovered from captivity in 1944, 106 died in captivity.
At the end of hostilities, 214 of Perth’s men were repatriated to Australia to be reunited with their loved ones.
Perth’s loss was deeply felt throughout Perth, Western Australia and Australia.
The memory of the sacrifice of Perth and her crew remains strong today, especially in Western Australia.
HMAS Perth not only shared its name with our city, but a special bond had been formed between the ship and the city. During World War II, HMAS Perth visited Fremantle on six occasions from 1940 to 1942, and it was from Fremantle that HMAS Perth left Australia for the last time on 17 February.
Today we remember the sacrifice and heroism of her crew – values that are still upheld by the men and women of the Australian Defence Force.
It is fitting that, in 2012, the independent Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal is inquiring into unresolved recognition, including award of the Victoria Cross, for past acts of naval and military gallantry and valour, including for Captain Waller of the HMAS Perth.
Mr Smith’s Office: Ellen Shields (02) 6277 7800 or 0400 347 473
Department: (02) 6127 1999