Why Sydney is seeing red over the Harbour Bridge

Should lockdown restrictions permit and you find yourself near Sydney Harbour Bridge on Friday, you may wonder what is signified by the unfamiliar red flag.

It is the Australian Red Ensign, commemorating Merchant Navy Day, an opportunity to remember the service and sacrifice of thousands of merchant mariners during wartime. The date marks the sinking of the liner SS Athenia by a German U-boat in the first hours of World War II off the west of Ireland with the loss of 117 civilians and crew.

An Australian Red Ensign will fly on the Sydney Harbour Bridge on Friday.Credit:Ryan Stuart

Merchant Navy ships, crewed by merchant seamen, carried valuable cargoes during wartime and were at just as much risk as Royal Australian Navy warships.

Merchant ships, which included hospital ships, were attacked not only in distant waters but also within sight of the Australian coastline. The Centaur hospital ship was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine on May 14, 1943, 80 kilometres north-east of Brisbane. Some 268 lives were lost, including 11 out of 12 nurses, and only 64 people on board survived.

Don Kennedy, 94, from Manly, who is a member of Forestville RSL sub-branch and president of the Merchant Navy RSL sub-branch, said plans to mark the day had been thwarted by COVID-19.

Don Kennedy on Anzac Day, 2021.

He said the number of merchant seamen was declining. “We used to have about 350 in NSW –I think there are 11 now and they are all older than me.”

He went to sea as a 16-year-old deck boy in 1944 on a Norwegian tanker, the MT Seirstad, which was in Sydney. He was the only Australian on board and the crew thought he was English. “They didn’t like Poms,” he said.

“We were never torpedoed, thank goodness. On a tanker, if it was torpedoed, and you were loaded [with fuel] you had virtually nil chance of getting off. The oil would spread and anyone who got into the water was usually consumed by the flames.”

Having served in the Persian Gulf, Atlantic and South Africa, he was aged 18 in New Guinea on the US Army Transport ship San Pedro when the end of the war was announced. He received the Order of Australia for veteran services.

The sinking of HS Centaur, depicted on this poster, took place off the Queensland coast on May 14, 1943. The ship sank in just three minutes, killing 268 people.Credit:Australian War Memorial

The Australian War Memorial states that figures published by the Seaman’s Union of Australia in 1972 indicated that 386 members of the union lost their lives during the Second World War, 8.5 per cent of a total membership of 4500.

September 3 is also Australian National Flag Day, which celebrates the first time the flag was flown, over the dome of the Exhibition Building in Melbourne in 1901.

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