“He died so young, but also with great pride”
She stands there, her gaze fixed forever on the horizon. Determination and hope mark her face as she holds her hat against the breeze that blows from the Indian Ocean. Her skirt is teased by the wind but her heart only seeks news. The wait will be long.
Loved ones and friends became aware that the proud cruiser HMAS Sydney (II) was deemed lost in late November 1941 when Prime Minister John Curtin announced the “loss of a fine ship and her gallant complement”. Although the ship was considered lost, some loved ones didn’t give up hope and waited for husbands, brothers, fathers or sons to come home.
One of the mothers waiting would have been Janet McCallum, whose young son was aboard the lost vessel. A little known element of the Sydney story is that among the 645 men lost that day were four civilians, men who worked in the ship’s canteen.
One of those was eighteen year old Duncan McCallum. Duncan left the United Kingdom for Australia, as a sixteen year old, in August 1939. He was on his way to join his sister and mother and was on board RMS Otranto at sea when war was declared.
When he arrived in Australia, he told his mother that he wanted to join the Royal Australian Navy but as his three older brothers were all in the British army, his mother refused to sign his enlistment papers.
Duncan was not to be denied, however and instead sought employment with the Royal Australian Navy Canteen Service, at the time staffed by civilians. For civilian employment he didn’t need his mother’s permission and was eventually attached to HMAS Sydney as a canteen assistant in early 1940.
His first notice to his family was by way of a letter he sent from HMAS Sydney whilst serving in the Mediterranean. Duncan reaffirmed his attention to join the Navy as a sailor as soon as he turned eighteen. It was clear that he loved serving aboard ‘Sydney’ and being part of Australia’s war effort.
In January 1941, HMAS Sydney was recalled to Australia and arrived to a tumultuous welcome. After a refit, Sydney returned to duty, now with Captain Joseph Burnett in command, and began conducting convoy escorts for troop and supply vessels.
Duncan McCallum was still aboard the Sydney when she departed on her final voyage in early November and the fateful engagement with German raider HSK Kormoran late in the afternoon of the 19th off the coast of Western Australia.
Duncan’s sister wrote “Duncan was just your average lad and I’m afraid that he did not make any notable mark to the world because he did not live long enough to do so.”
That may have been true but Duncan McCallum was a brave young man who nevertheless gave his life in the service of his adopted country. He had just turned eighteen. Duncan’s name is recorded in the Commemorative Roll at the AWM.