Wrist watch from sinking of Hospital Ship Centaur : Driver G W McGrath, 2/12 Field Ambulance

Place Approximate locations: At sea
Accession Number RELAWM31898
Collection type Heraldry
Object type Heraldry
Physical description Glass, Leather, White metal
Maker Unknown
Place made Switzerland
Date made c 1940-1943
Conflict Second World War, 1939-1945

Rectangular watch case made from silver coloured metal, which has worn off in some areas. The rectangular watch face has yellowed. The number 12 is at the top of the watch face, with the numbers 1 to 5 along the proper left long side of the face. These numbers are almost illegible due to rust damage. There is a rectangular subdial to count seconds where the number 6 would normally be. The number 60 is at the top of the subdial, and the number 30 is at the bottom. The hand is missing from the subdial. The numbers 7 to 11 are along the proper right long side of the face. The hour and minute hands from the watch face are missing however there are rust marks indicating where they stopped - at 4.10 am. Beneath the subdial is 'SWISS MADE'.

On the proper right hand side of the case is a hole where the winder was located. The watch case is attached to the leather wrist band by a thin piece of leather attached to the band at one end by an eyelet. The leather threads through the uppermost lug on the watch case, behind the back of the case and through the lower lug, securing the case to the strap. A leather watch cover is secured to the wrist band with the same eyelet. This cover is secured at the other end by a press stud. The cover has wear from a round watch face and also from the rectangular watch face currently attached. The wrist band is 16 mm wide, until it reached the middle, where it increases to 40 mm to provide protection to the hand from the back of the watch. The thicker part of the strap is impressed 'PATENTED 5/1/40 NO. 112154'. The strap has a white metal buckle and six holes to secure it around the wrist.

History / Summary

Watch worn by NX33029 Driver George Wilfred McGrath during and directly after the sinking of the Hospital Ship Centaur in May 1943. McGrath was born at Braidwood, NSW on 28 October 1917. He enlisted on 13 July 1940 and was assigned to the Australian Army Service Corps (AASC). Some AASC men were attached to Field Ambulances to undertake motor transport duties similar occupations and McGrath was attached to the 2/12th Field Ambulance (Fld Amb). On 12 May 1943 the Centaur sailed unescorted from Sydney, carrying her crew, normal medical staff, and the 2/12th Fld Amb, together with their stores and equipment.

McGrath almost did not depart Australia onboard the Centaur. He was visiting his father at the family property near Braidwood while on leave when an Alert for Movement was received by the unit. The Orderly Room Clerk, SX15374 Driver Richard Cavanagh sent an urgent telegram to the McGraths requesting George McGrath’s immediate return. This telegram did not reach McGrath’s father until after the Centaur had been sunk. Severe flooding in the area had caused delays and his father only received the telegram on the same day as a telegram advising him that his son was in hospital as a result of the sinking of the Centaur.

When the telegram was sent, McGrath had already left the family property and was visiting his sister at West Ryde, Sydney on the way back to his unit. Meanwhile Cavanagh happened to meet Monica Mullins, McGrath’s fiancée. She told Cavanagh where McGrath was, and McGrath was ordered to return to his unit. Cavanagh also sailed with the Centaur and died during the sinking.

The ship was sunk without warning by a torpedo fired from the Japanese submarine I-177 on 14 May 1943 at around 4am, about 80 kilometres east north-east of Brisbane. Of the 332 people on board, only 64 survived, one of them being George McGrath. He was one of about 13 survivors (numbers vary in different accounts) from the 2/12th Field Ambulance.

As he had no pyjamas, McGrath went to bed like most others on the ship, in his underwear. When the ship was torpedoed, he made his way through the ward on the port (left) side where had he slept with several of his mates, through the narrow companion way leading to the stern. During the boat drills earlier in the voyage, McGrath's position was on the port side of the stern, so presumably he was attempting to make his way there. Once on the deck, McGrath and another man tried to release a float on the stern, which was rising steeply out of the water. However they could not release it and jumped into the water, McGrath losing his underwear in the process.

After some time in the water, he managed to find a float with other survivors. This float eventually carried 22 survivors. They later found an upturned life raft which was believed to contain rations, however they could not right it as there were sharks in the area that had become aggressive. They did manage to attach a hatchway cover to the float with rope, and to lessen the stress on the float, four of the fittest men, including McGrath, sat back to back on the hatchway cover. McGrath was naked, except for this wristwatch, although he managed to cover himself to some degree with a Red Cross pennant he found. His sight was affected by the sea water and oil and he found that he often had to keep his eyes shut for relief.

That night a submarine surfaced nearby. One of the men on the float, thinking it was a friendly submarine, lit a flare. This was quickly knocked into the water and extinguished as it was feared the submarine was a Japanese boat, possibly the one that sunk the Centaur and there were fears the survivors would be machine gunned. On the afternoon of 15 May the survivors were spotted by a RAAF Avro Anson bomber that was a look out for the American destroyer USS Mugford, who was escorting the British steamer Sussex, clear of Australian waters.

The survivors returned to Australia to recover and for the unit to reform. During this time McGrath married his fiancée Monica Marie Frances Mullins. Monica Mullins was born on 14 May 1917 at Kings Lynn, England. Mullins enlisted in the Australian Women's Army Service on 22 October 1942 and was assigned the service number NF440681. She was a bombardier in charge of a searchlight battery at Port Kembla, NSW. They married on 28 September 1943 in Ashfield, Sydney. She was discharged on 28 October 1944.

After a three day honeymoon McGrath rejoined the reformed 2/12th Fld Amb which was reinforced by the 4th Light Field Ambulance. After a period of training he served with the unit at Moratai, Tarakan, Labuan and at Miri at Sarawak. The unit then travelled to Kuching on the Hospital Ship Wanganalla, where they evacuated prisoners of war. McGrath then returned to Australia and was discharged on 18 December 1945. After the war McGrath and his wife lived at Braidwood, and later Canberra, ACT. George McGrath, the last Centaur survivor of the 2/12th Field Ambulance, died in 2006.