Farewelling an Australian Hero
I attended a funeral in my former electorate of Maroubra today for a 98 year old neighbour and Australian war hero. Charles William Lawrance was born in 1913 and fought on the HMAS Perth in the eastern Mediterranean in World War Two. His quiet, orderly life raising a daughter and two sons, with whom I grew up, gave no clue to the hardship of his early years or to the days of incessant warfare that nearly sunk the Perth during the campaign in Crete and Greece. Charlie (Jock) was transferred to the HMAS Vendetta; HMAS Perth steamed out of the Mediterranean and back to Australia before being sent to Java following the fall of Singapore, where it was sunk and its crew killed or captured.
I chatted today with a couple of other crewmen from the Perth and with the grandson of its last Captain, Heck Waller who went down with his ship, another Australian hero.
The story of the Perth was told in a remarkable book by the journalist Mike Carlton, Cruiser: The Life and Loss of HMAS Perth and Her Crew. It is reviewed in the book section of this blog.
Charlie had grown up in England. Orphaned at eight years old, he worked for the railway as a signaller until he was fired at age 20 – when he became entitled to a man’s wage. He emigrated to Tasmania, working on his uncle’s farm for no pay until he joined the navy on 4 June 1934, marrying his wife Mavis the year after. Mike Carlton’s book describes how Charlie just survived the bombing of the Perth in the eastern Mediterranean:
Jock Lawrance had just left his action station in a damage control party and was returning to his regular job tending the ship’s boilers. To get there, he had to open an air-pressure lock: one heavy door and then a second. For a joke, a mate tripped him up as he was turning the handle to got through the first door and he fell sprawling to the deck. That prank saved him. If he’d made it through that door, he would have been taken by the bomb to its journey’s end in A-boiler room, where finally it exploded.
Carlton goes on to describe the attack:
Bombs and cannon shells smashed around her, at times so close that the men on deck, hunkered down behind what feeble shelter they could find, were drenched by the towering splashes rising to port and starboard. One stick of bombs whistled low over the ship between her two funnels, and one by one her wireless aerials and signal halliards were shot away from the masts, coming down in a tangle of snaking wires, rope and shattred glass insualtors. On the after bridge, Sheedy and the Commander saw a cannon shell slam into the mast just three metres above their heads. The funnels and the crane between them were peppered by bullets and shrapnel.
Helped by a war service loan, Charlie moved to Oxley St, Matraville in 1958, one door down from where the Carr family had settled in 1956. I grew up with his sons Chris and Alan. Alan, who had become a boy scout, introduced me to bushwalking in the Royal National Park. This introduction to exploring the bush was to feed my interest in the national park estate and nature conservation and predisposed me to take up the agenda when I entered politics.
Charles Lawrance and my father Ted often enjoyed a drink. Today in the Eastern Suburbs Crematorium I thought of this generation of heroes passing from our midst. I chatted with a 93 veteran of the Perth and was impressed again by their positive view of life and the way they absorbed into their beings the drama of World War Two and their remarkable survival.