Friday 5 March 2010 by Dianne Rutherford. 5 comments
Personal Stories, Collection, Heraldry, Technology, Second World War, Hospital Ship Centaur

Model of the Hospital Ship Centaur, currently on display in the Second World War gallery.

The Memorial holds a small, but important, collection associated with the sinking of the Hospital Ship Centaur, whose wreck site was discovered in December 2009.

Many of the survivors had little or no clothing after the ship sank. One, NX33029 Driver George McGrath, was in his underwear, which he lost when he leapt overboard and was left wearing only this watch when he made his way to a life raft. He later managed to cover himself with a Red Cross pennant he found among the debris. 

RELAWM31898 Watch worn by George McGrath when he survived the sinking of the Hospital Ship Centaur

The hands are missing from the watch, but you can still make out the rust stains where the hands were located - they stopped at 4.10 [am] - when the ship sank. McGrath was a member of the Australian Army Service Corps, who was attached to the 2/12th Field Ambulance. He was one of only three men to survive from the AASC.

Wooden handle from one of the flares from the Hospital Ship Centaur, collected by NX97247 Private Frederick Chidgey

This flare handle was collected by NX97247 Private Fred Chidgey. He was woken by the explosions from the torpedo and after grabbing his life jacket, made for the deck with a cabin mate. The deck was already knee deep in water. The rafts closest to Chidgey were on fire and he could not easily get to the others, so he jumped overboard. He swam as far as he could from the ship, and managed to get on a raft holding other survivors. 

Pair of scissors from Hospital Ship Centaur medical kit Pair of scissors from Hospital Ship Centaur medical kit RELAWM31924

Items from a medical kit used by the only surviving Doctor, QX6475 Lieutenant Colonel Leslie MacDonald Outridge are also held in the collection. Outridge was also woken by the explosions. His life jacket, and the walls of his cabin caught fire. He tried to get to the deck, but was forced back by the flames. He made a second attempt to get through to the deck, which by now was covered in water. Water rushed down the companion way and filled the compartment where Outridge was located. He hit his head on the beams, but managed to find a pocket of air and made his way up to the deck. He got caught in some ropes, but managed to escape. Outridge boarded a loose raft and luckily a medical kit surfaced alongside him. He was assisted in tending the wounded by NFX76584 Sister Ellen Savage, the only Nurse to survive the sinking.

Interestingly, Outridge did not save any of the items from the medical kit. Instead he collected a small piece of the life raft he survived on (below) as a souvenir.

Life raft float from Hospital Ship Centaur Life raft float from Hospital Ship Centaur REL

Some of the medical equipment he used was instead collected by the Centaur's Chief Butcher, Francis Thomas 'Frank' Reid.

Scalpel and tweezers from Hospital Ship Centaur medical kit Scalpel and tweezers from Hospital Ship Centaur medical kit RELAWM31972

Reid was awake when the Centaur was torpedoed, as he had to get ready for work in the Butcher's Shop. Luckily his cabin was near the deck, and after the explosion he went up with his cabin mates. Reid had been unable to locate his life jacket before he went on deck, so while the other men tried to release a life raft, he returned to his cabin to look again. He located his jacket on the floor, while crawling on his hands and knees in the dark (sometimes the cabin was illuminated by the flames from the explosion) before returning to the deck. The men could not release the raft, so Reid jumped overboard with the Second Butcher, Frank Davidson. They managed to make their way to the main group of survivors, which eventually included McGrath, Chidgey, and Outridge. Reid's cabin mates also survived the sinking.

Of the 332 people on board, only 64 survived.

Comments

I am so pleased that Centaur has been found. it is an extremely important part of our history.

I am the grandson of Fred Chidgey and it was lovely to read about him here. I never got to meet him as he passed away from a heart attack in 1983 and I was born in 1986. I would give anything to be able to meet him though. Very proud.

Hi Luke, thanks for your response. We are very lucky to have items associated with the Centaur and it is great being able to tell these stories. We've just recently taken in another Centaur item which I will be blogging about soon. Regards Dianne

Hi Luke, I forgot to mention that the flare handle is currently on display in our galleries. If you (or a member of your family) ever visit Canberra, feel free to contact us (email MHT@awm.gov.au) and we will let you know if it is still on display, or make arrangements for you to view it (during office hours) if it isn't. Regards Dianne

[...] Memorial has a very small collection of items associated with some of the survivors. This is the first donation to be associated with one of the rescuers and we are thrilled to add [...]