After 99 of them, is there anything new to say about Anzac Day?
The big picture history may be settled but because war, like life, is full of irony and coincidence, there will always be individual tales to be told.
I grew up with the story of HMAS Sydney. The glamour ship of the Australian fleet was sunk in November 1941, a few weeks before Pearl Harbour catapulted the Americans into World War II. For a small, unprepared nation, Sydney’s demise was a foretaste of a conflict soon to sweep to the very edge of the continent, before being defeated at great cost: blood and treasure, as usual.
No-one considered Sydney unsinkable, but it was unthinkable that all 645 men aboard the ship could be lost: gone without a survivor, and for months without a trace, until a life raft and unidentified body turned up on Christmas Island. This single disaster alone accounted for a third of the RAN’s casualties during the entire war.
Not many communities were left untouched. The crew came from all over Australia, including McLaren Flat which was home to Wesley Bowden Knapman, or WBK for short. He was one of Sydney’s artificer officers, the people who maintain the ship’s steam engines. As it would later turn out, WBK was my grandfather.
WBK was the only son of a comfortable family. The Knapmans ran a brewery in Port Adelaide, so it’s a fair bet the money effectively made itself. WBK however had other plans besides beer. He loved steam engines, and better still adored mucking around with them, by all accounts whether they needed it or not. So against his mother’s wishes WBK did an apprenticeship as a boilermaker. It was his escape from a family business he detested, and when WW2 broke out, his pass into the navy.
I expect WBK’s final moments were similar to the countless other casualties of war: terrifying and confusing, as shells from the German ship smashed into Sydney.
But his place on the ship wasn’t simply the result of a boyish fascination with stuff. I’ve known for a while that illness played a part in WBK’s fate, but only in the past few days have I learned that irony and coincidence too had a role.
WBK’s first post was to a minesweeper named the Olive Cam. It was a Br’er Rabbit moment for an inveterate tinkerer: WBK at last in his steam engine briar patch. On a more sober assessment, it was far less grand than it sounds. The Olive Cam had recently come up in the world, saved from trawling for Tommies after being requisitioned by the RAN. The excitement however wasn’t to last long. A bout of appendicitis soon put WBK off the minesweeper and into hospital.
The Olive Cam had sailed by the time my grandfather was better, so on October the 31st, 1941 he was transferred to HMAS Sydney. For three brief weeks, right up until the ocean rushed through Sydney’s ruined guts, the appendicitis must have seemed worth it: a lucky, if uncomfortable break.
My grandmother was a war widow for days without knowing it. Wartime secrecy meant Sydney was long gone by the time she was told her husband was aboard. She’d thought he was still recuperating.
I’ve never known much about the Olive Cam, but with the approach of Anzac Day I decided a bit of Googling wouldn’t hurt.
Unsurprisingly that ship too is gone, though unlike Sydney, Olive Cam isn’t really remembered today. At the war’s end, the trawler turned minesweeper returned to trawling, only to sink during a vicious storm in the early ’50s.
But in November 1941, with dark rumours of Sydney’s loss sweeping the country and the navy desperately trying to contact their glamour girl, a few lesser ships were quietly dispatched to search for her and her crew.
Among them was a footnote to history, the Olive Cam.
Simon Royal presents 7.30 SA on ABC TV.
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