Two of many lost, and a generational link
On the Walcha and District War Memorial a marble slab bears the names of those locals who died serving during the Second World War. Two are sailors who perished during valiant actions against enemy warships. In both actions the Australian ships were lost and remain Australia’s greatest naval disasters.
First lost was Ordinary Seaman Walter James Bath. Born in June 1923, the son of Henry and Olive Bath, of Walcha, Walter was named after his uncle, Walter James Bath, of the 33rd Australian Infantry Battalion, who was killed in action in Belgium in June 1917.
Walter enlisted in Sydney in May 1940. After training at HMAS Cerberus, he was posted to the light cruiser HMAS Sydney (II), joining the ship three days after her triumphant return to Sydney following service in the Mediterranean. After a refit Sydney was employed mainly on convoy escort.
In early November 1941 Sydney sailed with the troopship Zealandia on the run to the Sunda Strait, in the Netherlands East Indies. There Sydney passed responsibility for the convoy to other escorts and began the return to Fremantle. On the afternoon of 19 November, off Geraldton, WA the ship encountered what appeared to be a Dutch merchant ship. However, it proved to be the German merchant raider HSK Kormoran and in the ensuing engagement both ships were lost. Although many of the German crew of the Kormoran were able to abandon ship and take to lifeboats, HMAS Sydney (II) was last seen steaming slowly towards the horizon, heavily on fire and listing. The ship and all 645 men aboard her were lost. Walter Bath was 18 years-old.
The other SWW sailor listed is Able Seaman Raymond Harold Firminger. Ray Firminger was born at Coburg, Victoria, in April 1917, the son of Harold and Cecily Firminger. Just two weeks after his 18th birthday in 1935 Ray enlisted in the RAN and served in various ships, including the cruisers HMA Ships Canberra and Adelaide. In April 1939 he married Betty Elliott before travelling to the United Kingdom as commissioning crew of the new HMAS Perth.
Perth arrived in Australia in March 1940 via the Panama Canal. In late 1940, she was sent to the Mediterranean, serving there from January to July 1941. After valiant service Perth returned to Australia in July.
In February 1942 Perth sailed for Java. She was lucky to survive the Battle of the Java Sea however her luck ran out the following night. In company with the USS Houston, Perth encountered a large Japanese invasion fleet. Although heavily outnumbered, both ships engaged the Japanese ships. With Perth mortally damaged Captain Hector Waller gave the command to abandon ship. First Perth, then Houston sank, taking many of their crew with them, 24-years-old Able Seaman Raymond Firminger among them.
The Memorial panel above the Second World War commemorates those lost during the Great War. There too is the name of Bath WJ, the uncle of the young man lost with HMAS Sydney, a tragic link between generations.