Three Brothers

November 2014 saw the 73rd anniversary of the sinking of HMAS Sydney, a light cruiser of the Royal Australian Navy. Following a successful tour of duty in the Mediterranean, Sydney was escorting troopships through the Indian Ocean to South-East Asia when she was engaged in battle by a German raider called HSK Kormoran. On paper it was a lop-sided encounter but, disguised as a merchant ship until the last moment, the Kormoran managed to surprise the bigger vessel and Sydney was sunk without a trace and with no survivors. Just one body from Sydney washed ashore, three months after the battle, at Christmas Island (north-west of Australia). The unknown remains were buried in an unmarked grave on the island.

One of the 645 men lost with HMAS Sydney was Donald Erskine Johnston, a 21-year-old, and he has a direct connection with the crew of B for Baker. Indeed, it was the Sydney connection that led me directly to contacting Don Webster, a nephew of the lads, in 2010. Following the Mediterranean action, Don Johnston was at home in Kingaroy on leave for a couple of weeks in February 1941. While there, this photo was taken:

Ian, Don and Dale Johnston - Kingaroy, February 1941. Photo courtesy Dale Higgins
Ian, Don and Dale Johnston – Kingaroy, February 1941. Photo courtesy Dale Higgins

Don is in the centre, flanked by his two brothers. On the left is Ian. And on the right is Ian’s twin – Dale Johnston, who of course would eventually become the wireless operator on B for Baker. This would be the last time that all three of the brothers were in the same place at the same time. Only Ian would survive the war.

The wrecks of HMAS Sydney and HSK Kormoran were discovered about 100 miles off the coast of Western Australia in 2008. But about a year ago an article was published in The Age, about how the Navy had exhumed the unidentified body on Christmas Island, and was trying to work out who the man had been. Forensic analysis, the article said, had established that the man was of European ancestry with red hair, blue eyes and pale skin. He was quite tall, between 168 and 188cm, and limestone traces found in his teeth suggested he came from northern NSW or Queensland and probably grew up reasonably close to the coast. Using this information, the article continued, researchers had narrowed the field, as it were, from 645 to about 50.

Red hair, you say?


From Northern NSW or Queensland?

I’d seen that combination of features somewhere before – in Dale Johnston’s service record (NAA:A9301, 425413).

Dale was 5’10 in the old money, or about 178cm – smack in the middle of the range of our mystery sailor. He had red hair and blue eyes. The family moved to Kingaroy – in southern Queensland – when Don was nine years old. Could it be…? I sent Don Webster an email the day after the article was published and he duly contacted Navy.

Nine months later, Don had provided a DNA sample which had been tested and, in the middle of November, the results were in.


The sailor buried on Christmas Island is not Don Johnston.

While that result is a little disappointing for Don’s family, it is of course not an entirely wasted effort. Don Johnston can now be crossed off the list of 50 potential identities for the unknown sailor. At this stage in the investigation, ruling someone out is almost as valuable as a positive identification.

One more down, only 49 to go.

(c) 2015 Adam Purcell