HMAS Sydney

The World at War

It was a time of war. World War II had broken out in 1939, making Australia and much of the Pacific, vulnerable to both Japanese and German attack. Australia had naval ships cautiously guarding its coastline against attack from its enemies. On November the 19th, 1941 the HMAS Sydney II was on its way back to port in Fremantle , when at approximately 5.30pm in the evening, the cruiser sighted a merchant vessel off the coast of Western Australia, some 150 miles south-west of Carnarvon.

Fatal Mistake

The Captain of the Sydney, Joseph Burnett, sent a signal asking for the vessel to identify itself. In response the vessel signaled back to the Sydney that it was the Dutch freighter, Straat Malakka. Captain Burnett then requested that the vessel identify itself by making her secret sign call. Unable to keep up the bluff, the vessel is rumoured to have hoisted the German Ensign, revealing its true identity. Under Camouflage, the ship was in fact the German Raider HSK Kormoran.

The Kormoran was on its way to lay a minefield in the waters off the coast of Perth. Unfortunately for the Sydney, it had moved into a vulnerable position whilst making communication with the Kormoran and was immediately fired upon. The Sydney was struck by a torpedo within seconds, destroying her forward turrets. By 6.30pm the battle was well and truly on. The Sydney retaliated by opening fire on the Raider. The Kormoran was hit in the engine room, starting a fire which spread quickly. The Sydney, having received about fifty hits from the Kormoran’s six 15cm guns, 3.7cm anti-tank weapons , 20mm cannon and machinegun fire, was ablaze but continued to fight on gallantly. When Captain Burnett realised that the Sydney was in serious trouble, he retreated (though some say drifted). By many accounts from locals, who had seen the fire on the horizon, they recalled it “glowed for hours” before the light just simply faded away. The HMAS Sydney and all 645 souls on board disappeared without trace, leaving behind one of Australia’s greatest maritime mysteries.

Fate of the Kormoran

So what happened to the Kormoran ? With both ships seriously disabled, The Kormoran, under command of German Captain, Commander Theodor Detmers, ordered his crew to abandon ship. Fearing that the Sydney had sent distress signals to other ships in the area, he also ordered the Kormoran to be scuttled (blown up). The crew placed explosive charges around the ship, which was carrying over 300 sea mines, and as they rowed away from the vessel, the explosives were detonated and the ship sunk. Seventy eight men from the German crew of 397, perished in the battle. The survivors were either picked up by other ships or rowed ashore in lifeboats. Many were found along the coastline. All the survivors would spend the rest of the war in POW camps throughout Australia. Not even Commander Theodor Detmers could shed light on the fate on the Sydney, despite being interrogated on numerous occasions and his dairies being decoded. His story never changed nor did that of the surviving members of his crew.

Australia's Greatest Naval Loss

The loss would be Australia's greatest in naval history. Only a few small items were ever discovered from the ship. One bullet ridden life raft (Carley Float) with a decomposed body of a sailor washed ashore in February 1942 near Christmas Island, three months after the incident. The body was later buried on the island in an unmarked grave. Another life raft was also found and can be viewed at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Rumour, Speculation and Conspiracy Theories

Rumours, speculation and conspiracy theories have long murkied the truth surrounding the disappearance of the HMAS Sydney. This was compounded by the fact that during multiple searches for the vessel over the years, no trace of the ship were ever found.

Some believe that it was blown up by the Germans and the survivors murdered (as many didn't believe the accounts made by the German survivors). Some believe that the Sydney was sunk by a Japanese submarine and the crew subsequently murdered. Others even claim the HMAS Sydney was not destroyed at all, but captured and the crew murdered.

Glenys McDonald a woman who has researched the Sydney for years suggests a cover-up. Stories of unanswered distress signals, debris and unidentified bodies washing up on the beach have all been hushed up by authorities suggesting there was more to it more than what they were telling the public. Some believe the cover up by authorities was due to the fear that such a tragedy would destroy the Nations moral.

In October 2006, the body of the unknown sailor was exhumed from Christmas Island for forensic examination. The body was officially identified as one of the crew of the Sydney (though no name has ever been released). The forensic team at the Sydney University were given the task of examining the remains and discovered a metal object lodged in the skull of the sailor. They identified the object as a bullet from a low muzzle-velocity weapon, such as a hand gun, leading to more speculation. However, in December, the object was confirmed to be a piece of shrapnel from a German shell and not a bullet as first thought. This has again raised more doubts about the version of events believed to have happened on that fateful night. It seems unlikely that a mortally wounded man could have made it into a float while the Sydney was still moving.

The focus at one stage moved to Hans Linke (the Kormoran’s wireless operator), who made claims in 1996 to The Australian newspaper, that both ships were virtually stationary when the Kormoran fired an underwater torpedo at the Sydney, making her virtually disabled instantly. Under this scenario it would make sense that the ship was abandoned and the men took to the Carley floats. It would have been in one of the floats that the unknown sailor received the fatal shrapnel wound. This scenario does little to resolve to whereabouts of the HMAS Sydney.

The Search Is Over

Unfortunately it took several days for authorities to realize the Sydney was missing, due in part to the order for complete wireless silence. Concerns were only raised three days after the vessel was due to arrive at Fremantle port. When wireless stations began transmitting orders for the Sydney to break silence and report in, they were met with a deathly silence. A large scale air and sea search began on the 24th of November, 1941, when reports of a raft full of German survivors was discovered by a British tanker. The search was called off on the 29th.

In the years that immediately followed the disappearance no major searches for the cruiser were ever carried out and the families were left to ponder the fate of their loved ones. However between 1974 an 1997 a renewed interested in finding both the Kormoran and the Sydney led to multiple searches, which included the survey ship HMAS Moresby and later the trials ship HMAS Protector and a  RAAF aircraft carrying magnetometers . Unfortunatley the search areas were restricted to the continental shelf where civilians had claimed to have sighted the wreckage. All searches failed to turn up anything of significance.

Enter American shipwreck hunter David Mearns who learned of the battle in 1996. He and a group of researchers painstakingly went through archive files and diaries to try and determine the location of where both ships had sunk. In the end they concluded that the Germans had actually given accurate accounts of where the Kormoran should be lying. With the help of State and Federal government grants (around $5million), the HMAS Sydney Search company and private and corporate donations, Mearns and his team organised a 45 day search using the state-of-the-art deep tow sonar equipment.

On the 12th of March, 2008, the search ship GeoSounder located the Kormoran. Two pieces of the raider’s hull were found lying in 2,560 m of water, approximately 112 nautical miles off Steep Point, Shark Bay. The discovery was kept a secret until the 17th of March when the Mearns and his team found the Sydney. The Sydney's hull was found relatively in tact and lies in deep water, approximately 4kms from the wreck of the Kormoran.

The mystery had finally been solved and for surviving family members, they at last could finally find closure. Both wrecks were immediately placed under the protection of the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976, which penalises anyone disturbing a protected shipwreck.

Facts About the Two Vessels

The HMAS Sydney II was a 7,300 ton light cruiser. She had seen service in the Mediterranean during 1940 where she victoriously sank the Italian battle cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni.

The KMS Kormoran (also known as Schiff 41) was built in Germany in 1938 and was the largest to enter service. The Kormoran was fitted with new radar, a diesel-electric engine which was capable of propelling the ship at 18 knots. The Kormorans first success was in 1941 when it sank the Greek Antonis in the Denmark Strait. Before that fateful evening in November the Kormoran had sunk 11 ships.

Memorials

There are two notable memorials for the HMAS Sydney II in Western Australia. The first is HMAS Sydney Memorial in Geraldton, high on a hill over looking the Indian Ocean. The memorial was designed around a circular theme "symbolic of eternity and the circle of life" and features sculptures, a stele and a dome. The second is in Carnarvon where, the HMAS Sydney Memorial Drive has built in its honour. The drive is lined by 645 palm trees representing each Australian soul lost that night. At the base of each tree is a memorial plaque with the name of each serviceman.

False Hopes

In late April early May, 2007 a young Geraldton student, Tom Goddard discovered a Luger pistol and ammunition (4 cartridges) whilst snorkeling at Red Bluff (120kms from Carnarvon). The WA Maritime Museum was notified of the find and they believe the items may have belonged to a German sailor from the HSK Kormoran who discarded the weapon before being found by search parties.

In early August, 2007, an amateur researcher and historian, Phil Shepherd discovered what is believed to be the wreck of HMAS Sydney. Going on a hunch, Phil, interviewed the son of a fisherman who had found a bolt with a piece of white timber attached approximately 12 years prior. The son took Phil Shepherd, Graham Shepherd and master diver Ian Stiles to the location at the northern end of Dirk Hartog Island just off Cape Inscription, Shark Bay . Using just a grappling hook and camera the three came across a shovel and then what appeared to be a railing. On further study of the underwater footage they are 99.5 % convinced they have discovered the resting place of one of Australia's greatest maritime mysteries. The wreck is lying in 150m of water. Update - Following the discovery of wreckage (August 2007) believed to be that of HMAS Sydney, the Australian Navy sent experts to the area to confirm its identity. Initial findings of Navy is that the wreckage is not from the HMAS Sydney.

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