Inside the Collection

Navy ships in Sydney Harbour, 1940s

Photograph, Sydney Harbour
2007/77/8 Photograph, Sydney Harbour, paper, photograph by James Hancock, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, owned by Joyce White, Perth, Western Australia, 1939-1945. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

In recent years the sight of Sydney Harbour filled with navy ships is not a very common sight, particularly war ships.
On Friday 4th October, 2013 the harbour will again be filled with war ships, this time from 20 nations to mark the centenary of the arrival of Australia’s first fleet of seven warships in 1913.

This aerial photograph was taken by James Hancock who served in the Air force during World War Two (1939-1945). He was injured during active duty after parachuting from a plane and had difficulty walking and dancing. The photograph taken during the war shows a different Sydney, where the impact of World War Two is evident.

“The Australian mainland was attacked for the first time during World War Two. Towns in the north-west of the country were bombed by Japanese aircraft and Sydney and Newcastle were attacked by Japanese midget submarines. Japan entered the war in December 1941 after bombing the United States’ Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. They soon occupied much of south-east Asia and parts of the Pacific. Singapore, a British stronghold, fell to the Japanese in February 1942 and Darwin was bombed 5 days later. After these two events and the impending threat to Australian soil all Royal Australian Navy ships returned to defend Australia from the Mediterranean.

After the fall of Singapore Cockatoo Island, in Sydney Harbour, became the main shipbuilding and dockyard facility for the Pacific. On the 31 May 1942 Japanese midget submarines attacked Sydney Harbour. The presence of Australian and American ships moored on Sydney Harbour would have been a common sight at this time.”1

International Fleet Review which will involve over 40 naval ships from 20 countries and up to 16 tall ships, has been organised to celebrate the centenary of the Royal Australian Navy. Various events are scheduled from 3 to 11 October, with the high point being Saturday 5 October.

1 Cox, Peter, Australian History and Society Curator, Statement of Significance, 2007/77/8


23 responses to “Navy ships in Sydney Harbour, 1940s

  • Hi guys, trying to track down a U.S Navy Chief Commissary Steward that was in Sydney around 1945-46. I wanted to find out what U.S ships were in Sydney at that time. Apparently there was only one Chief Commissary Steward per ship so a list of vessels would greatly narrow down our search. Any assistance would be greatly appreciated. Kind regards Ben Collett

  • Following the death of her parents due to old age my Wife discovered her biological father had been an American Naval Captain.
    As she was born in January 1941 can you tell me the name of any visiting US ships that were in Sydney Harbour between March and April 1940 please and if possible the name of their captain.

  • My father worked on a “tramp steamer” in Sydney Harbour just before the Armistice in Japan (1945). He was a plumber and supervising a team repairing it. He said it was called the York, was British and had a landing strip where planes could land but not take off. It sailed to Tokyo for the Armistice forthwith. Do you have any further information on such a vessel?

  • I think the ship to which you refer may be the H.M.S. Duke of York a 35,000 ton Royal Navy battleship. The warship’s big claim to fame was sinking the German battlecruiser, Scharnhorst, in 1943. The Duke of York entered Sydney Harbour on American Independence Day, 4 July 1945, and was the flagship of the British Pacific Fleet, under Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, which comprised over 400 ships and some 200,000 men. Apparently, the ship even flew the “stars and stripes” to celebrate the occasion. After work on the vessel was completed the warship sailed for Japan.
    There is more information in Wikipedia

  • I am trying to find the ss west cactus from pacific fighting ww2 came in to garden island 1944 had been torpedeo by japense hole in as big as driving semis through was here for repairs 12 months went back to pacific was destoryed by Kamaze plane trying to trace my mums dead fiancee James C Lindsey was in the engine room for the united states navy was a sailor I have photos of him and ship cannaot find any trace

  • My father told us that he sailed into Sydney Harbour on the Dominion Monarch from Calcutta around the same time the Japanese subs were there. Cant find any record of this trip and sadly can’t ask him any more.

    Great website. We must preserve our history.

  • My mother in law (died recently at the age of 88 and a half) somehow travelled from Perth to Sydney 1942 approx.
    She had an american boyfriend who she suggested she dumped due to discovering his inland roots.
    Suggested she went from the west hinted at being a stowaway a planned and organised wink wink stowaway but…
    She married in Sydney and returned home to perth.
    Where do I start???

  • I have recently found through Ancestry that my father was in the US navy based in Sydney about Chrisrmas 1942. As my name is Derrill and I believe that is a mans name in America, that could be his name. If any one can help me I would be most appreciative

  • Hi, not sure if anyone even uses this site anymore but thought I would give it a go. My paternal grandfather was in the USA navy when they docked in Sydney sometime between 1939-1945 and I am after information on the ships that were docked here and how to get information on ships logs and crew listings. The American sites are very difficult to get into and most just come up with a 404 error so hoping someone has some advice. Thanks.

    • Hi Sally,
      Yes, the site is definitely still active. I believe our Curator Anni has been in touch directly to assist you with your question.
      Sarah Reeves, MAAS

        • Hi Pat,
          Thanks for getting in touch. If you have a question about the Museum’s collection or accessing information on any of our objects, you can contact us via the following email: and your query will be forwarded to one of our curators.
          Kind regards,
          Sarah Reeves, Powerhouse

  • I have a photograph of HMS Victorious leaving Sydney September 1945, I am trying to identify the ship astern of her with the Pennant Number 45 in plain view but the identifying letter is obscured by the flight deck of the Victorious, any chance of her ID, I can send the photograph if you give me an email

    • Thank you for your message. Due to the high volume of object-related enquiries and requests the Museum receives, unfortunately we do not have the resources to assist with personal research and enquiries around privately held objects. It’s possible you would find something on Trove to help you with your research, or other online resources. We wish you well with your research.
      Sarah Reeves, MAAS

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