This Carley float, currently displayed in the Second World War Galleries, is a poignant reminder of the tragic sinking of the light cruiser HMAS Sydney (II). Recovered from the sea by HMAS Heros, this battle-damaged life raft is one of the few surviving relics collected from Sydney, sunk with all 645 hands off the Western Australian coast on 19 November 1941 after an engagement with the German surface raider HSK Kormoran. Sydney’s wreck was lost and, despite many searches, was not located until 2008. The circumstances of the Sydney–Kormoran action continued to attract public attention for over half a century.
Sydney was a successful warship, the most famous in the RAN, while Kormoran was carefully disguised as a merchant vessel to hide its identity as a destroyer. It was this disguise that enticed Sydney into close range, where it was overwhelmed with gunfire and torpedoes. Although fatally hit, Sydney was nevertheless able to ensure Kormoran’s destruction before disappearing, ablaze, over the horizon. With the only accounts of the action coming from Kormoran’s survivors, many rumours, accusations, and conspiracy theories were circulated in the following decades.
This life raft, known as a Carley float, is assumed to be the only one from Sydney still in existence, and it has been on display in the Memorial’s galleries almost continuously since it was added to the collection in June 1942. Owing to the mystery surrounding Sydney’s fate, the holes that riddle the float were rumoured to have been caused by machine-gun fire, implying that survivors had been deliberately killed. However, this was eventually disproved during forensic examination in 1992. Memorial curators concluded that the float had been damaged by shell splinters, not bullets, which corroborated with the account of the sinking given by the crew of the Komoran.