Battle between HMAS Sydney and German auxiliary cruiser Cormorants
|Battle between HMAS Sydney and German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran|
|Part of World War II|
HMAS Sydney (top) and Kormoran in 1940.
|Joseph Burnett†||Theodor Detmers|
|One light cruiser, HMAS Sydney.||One auxiliary cruiser, Kormoran.|
|Casualties and losses|
|Sydney sunk with the loss of all 645 hands.||Kormoran damaged and scuttled, with the loss of more than 70 crew members.|
On 19 November 1941, during World War II, the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney and the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran fought each other in the Indian Ocean, off Western Australia. The two ships destroyed one another and Sydney was lost with all 645 hands. Most of the crew from Kormoran were rescued and became prisoners of war.
The battle and sinkings remain controversial for a number of reasons, including the fact that the only eyewitness accounts for the battle were from the German side, and even these did not observe Sydney's final fate, the ship having escaped at the end of the battle, with the equally stricken Kormoran' unable to pursue. The loss of Sydney also deeply shocked Australia, as it had been considered one of the prime ships of the nation's still young navy. Allegations of possible war crimes were made against the Germans, though none of these claims were substantiated.
Following many years of speculation and searches, on 16 March 2008, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that Kormoran had been found, and on 17 March, he announced that HMAS Sydney had also been found. The two wrecks lie 200 kilometres (110 nmi) off Steep Point at depth of approximately 2,500 metres (8,200 ft), at about 12 nautical miles (22 km) from each other.
 Ships involved
HMAS Sydney was launched on 22 September 1934, at Swan Hunter and Wigham Richardson Ltd, Wallsend on Tyne, England. She was a 6,830-ton, modified Leander class light cruiser, commissioned by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in 1935. Her armament included eight 6-inch (152 mm) guns, in pairs, and four 4-inch (102 mm) guns, mounted singly. Externally, Sydney's most notable modification from the original Leander design was the re-trunking of the single, large funnel into two, much narrower and taller stacks, and she was uniquely distinguishable from her closer (RAN) sisters by a spar projecting forward from the bridge and by her single open-mount 4-inch guns (as opposed to shielded twin mounts), amidships. She also carried a Supermarine Walrus seaplane, crewed by members of No. 9 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force.
In 1940, Sydney was credited with sinking a modern Italian cruiser during the Battle of Cape Spada, and two Italian destroyers in other engagements. After her return from the Mediterranean, command of Sydney passed from the celebrated Captain John Collins to the relatively inexperienced Captain Joseph Burnett.
Kormoran, a freighter which had been converted into a covert, long-range merchant raider, was under the command of Fregattenkapitän (Commander) Theodor Detmers. The German vessel was posing as the Dutch freighter Straat Malakka. Although Kormoran lacked the armour protection and speed of a proper warship, she had substantial concealed armament, including six 150-millimetre (5.9 in) guns and torpedo tubes. She had been in service for just over a year and had sunk ten merchant ships in the South Atlantic, Indian Ocean and the South Pacific.
 Course of battle
In November 1941, HMAS Sydney undertook a mission to escort the troopship Zealandia to Sunda Strait. As Sydney was returning to Fremantle, at about 4 pm on 19 November, at a point off the coast between Carnarvon and Geraldton, she sighted what appeared to be a merchant ship at Coordinates: , about 20 kilometres (11 nmi) away and challenged it. The other ship was the merchant raider Kormoran, painted black and disguised as the Dutch freighter Straat Malakka. According to accounts by crew members of Kormoran, Sydney chased and overhauled the raider, which due to engine problems, could only make 14 knots (26 km/h). All this time, the ships were exchanging signals while Sydney was attempting to verify her identity.
Detmers maintained the charade as long as possible, to take full advantage of surprise and knowing that he had a better chance in a battle at close range, where the effects of Sydney's better guns, fire control and armour protection would be diminished. A series of deliberately muddled and badly displayed flag signals were sent by the German raider, as, over a period of 90 minutes, the range between the two ships steadily reduced. Burnett eventually demanded a secret letter code from Kormoran, by which time Sydney had approached to within about 1,000 metres (1,100 yd) of Kormoran. Sydney was on a parallel course, and by now so close that Detmers later recalled he could "see the cruiser's pantry men in their white coats lining the rails to have a look at the supposed Dutchman". Seeing no other choice Detmers hoisted the German ensign and opened fire, and his crew went into action at 5:30 pm.
According to the crew of Kormoran, the Australian warship did not appear to be fully prepared for the battle—her main guns were trained on Kormoran, but her secondary guns were unmanned. They reported that Sydney was hit 50 times by the raider's 150-millimetre (5.9 in) heavy guns—a simultaneous salvo from the Kormoran's 37-millimetre guns and 20-millimetre anti-aircraft weapons scored direct hits on its bridge and open decks. Sydney's gunnery direction tower was also hit in this burst, impeding the ability of her turret crews to fire accurately. The Supermarine Seagull seaplane on board Sydney was hit, and its fuel caused a fire amidships.
However, the turrets on Sydney opened fire almost immediately, with a "bracket salvo" that fell on either side of Kormoran. Sydney then suffered hits from two salvoes on her bridge and midships section. It appears that the forward turrets ("A" and "B") were put out of action leaving only the after turrets ("X" and "Y") operational. The crew of Kormoran reported that Sydney's "X" turret opened fast and accurate fire, hitting Kormoran in the funnel and engine room, which caught fire. "Y" turret is said to have fired only two or three salvoes, all of which went over. Sydney was also hit in the bow by at least one torpedo.
Sydney then headed directly at Kormoran, and completed a 180-degree turn in order to use her starboard torpedoes. During the turn, "B" turret exploded; the top was blown off and fell overboard. At 17:45, four torpedoes were fired, but were near misses behind Kormoran. At the same time, the engines on Kormoran broke down.
Critically, Sydney was now exposed to further intense fire, this time along her starboard side. The volume of hits that Sydney had now sustained along both sides of her superstructure and the resulting fires would have seen the almost complete destruction of her lifeboats and rafts.
The Australian ship fired a last torpedo at 18:00 as she left the scene southwards, still under fire from Kormoran's rear guns, until 18:25, when Kormoran was abandoned. The Germans reported seeing Sydney on fire at the horizon until 10 pm that night, and saw flames emerging from time to time two hours later. Some time after the Australian ship disappeared from view, the Germans heard several loud explosions, and believed these to be fire reaching magazines on Sydney. None of the 645 RAN and RAAF personnel on Sydney were seen again (with the possible exception of an unidentified body later washed up on Christmas Island).
Kormoran had suffered damage that ensured its abandonment. The engine room was destroyed, there were already 20 dead and fire was approaching the mine storage area. Detmers gave the order to abandon ship at 18:25. Explosive charges were placed and the surviving crew took to the boats, with Detmers the last to leave. A further 40 men, mostly wounded, lost their lives when a lifeboat capsized in the rough seas. Shortly after midnight the charges went off, followed 25 minutes later by the mines. The entire stern and midships section was engulfed in a gigantic sheet of flame that shot 300 metres (980 ft) into the night sky as Kormoran went down by the stern.
Detmers, about 320 of his crew and three Chinese prisoners of war (POWs),[clarify] were rescued from their lifeboats and liferafts by five merchant ships: Aquitania, Trocas, Koolinda, Centaur and Yandra. A further two lifeboats came ashore near 17 Mile Well and Red Bluff north of Carnarvon. Nearly all of the Germans spent the rest of the war in POW Camps around Tatura, Victoria, from which they were not released until January 1947.
In Australia, many found it difficult to believe that a converted merchant ship could sink a modern light cruiser. Many also found it difficult to believe that a senior officer like Burnett took his ship within 1,000 metres (1,100 yd) of an unidentified and possibly dangerous vessel during wartime, without preparing for action and with such disastrous results. It was also seen as strange that the bulk of the crew of Kormoran survived, while there were no known survivors from Sydney, which made it the largest vessel of any nationality to be sunk with all hands during World War II.
The dearth of evidence and the fact that the only survivors were from the Kormoran allowed the battle between Sydney and Kormoran to become the subject of some controversy, speculation and conspiracy theories over the years leading to the discovery of their wrecks.
Michael Montgomery, son of Sydney's navigation officer, put forward a controversial theory in Who Sank the Sydney? He claimed firstly that Kormoran had been assisted by a Japanese submarine, two weeks before Japan officially entered the war. Secondly, that to cover this up survivors from Sydney were machine-gunned while in the water.
However, there is no evidence that the crew of the Kormoran committed war crimes, or that Japanese naval personnel were involved in the sinking of Sydney. It would not have made sense for Japan to risk prematurely starting a war with the Western Allies for the sake of a single Australian light cruiser while it was preparing for a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and on Dutch and British colonies in Asia.[original research?]
The emotive nature of these issues in Australia has resulted in discussion and debate regarding them sometimes becoming heated. In 1999, an Australian Parliament Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade stated that: "[t]he statement of differing views [on the fate of HMAS Sydney] has become a dialogue of the deaf rather than a fruitful exchange within the norms of historical discourse."
Searches for the wrecks of the two ships have been ongoing for a long time, both as historical research projects, and with increasing capability to detect submersed wrecks, as actual expeditions into the supposed sinking area. In the 2000s, the Australian government also invested substantial funds into the search.
The Finding Sydney Foundation eventually announced that the wreckage of the Kormoran had been found on 15 March 2008, at , during a partly private and partly government-funded search for the Sydney launched at the beginning of March.
On 17 March 2008, the wreckage of HMAS Sydney was reportedly found at , approximately 100 nautical miles (190 km) west of Steep Point and 12 nautical miles (22 km) south-east of the Kormoran wreckage. However, Chief executive of the Finding Sydney Foundation, Bob Trotter, told ABC Radio "Things have yet to be confirmed", and "I'm not in a position at the moment to give an absolute that Sydney itself has been found."
At approximately 8:30 am on that same day, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd confirmed that the wreckage was that of the Sydney, at a depth of 2,470 metres (8,100 ft). Vice Admiral Russ Shalders said: "For 66 years, this nation has wondered where the Sydney was and what occurred to her, we've uncovered the first part of that mystery...the next part of the mystery, of course, is what happened."
 References & Notes
- ^ HSK Kormoran Discovered in the Search for the HMAS Sydney II. Retrieved on 2008-03-17.
- ^ "HSK Kormoran discovered", The Finding Sydney Foundation, 2008-03-16. Retrieved on 2008-03-16.
- ^ Eric Grove (2002). German Capital Ships and Raiders in World War II. Routledge. ISBN 0714652083. Retrieved on 2008-03-18.
- ^ a b c d e Kormoran Action Report, pg2. Sea Power (Royal Australian Navy Archive) (1941). Retrieved on 2008-04-02.
- ^ a b c David Stevens (2005). The Royal Australian Navy in World War II. Allen&Unwin. ISBN 1741141842. Retrieved on 2008-03-18.
- ^ "HMAS Sydney II and the Kormoran; The action between HMAS Sydney and the auxiliary cruiser Kormoran, 19 November 1941", Australian War Memorial. Retrieved on 2008-03-17.
- ^ Kormoran Action Report, pg3. Sea Power (Royal Australian Navy Archive) (1941). Retrieved on 2008-04-03.
- ^ Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade: Reports: Inquiry into the loss of HMAS Sydney, Chapter 6
- ^ a b Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade: Reports: Inquiry into the loss of HMAS Sydney
- ^ Richard Summerrell. "The Sinking of HMAS Sydney; A Guide to Commonwealth Government Records", The National Archives of Australia. Retrieved on 2008-03-17.
- ^ Michael Montgomery (1983). Who Sank the Sydney?. Leo Cooper, Secker & Warburg. ISBN 0436284472. Retrieved on 2008-03-24.
- ^ Thomas R. Frame (1983). HMAS Sydney. Loss and Controversy. Sydney: Hodder & Stoughton, 177. Retrieved on 2008-03-24.
- ^ Sponsors. HMAS Sydney Search Pty Ltd (2008). Retrieved on 2008-04-02.
- ^ "Kormoran's ocean grave found", Sydney Morning Herald, 2008-03-17. Retrieved on 2008-03-17.
- ^ "HMAS Sydney 'found'", Sydney Morning Herald, 2008-03-17. Retrieved on 2008-03-17.
- ^ "Rudd confirms HMAS Sydney find", ABC news, 2008-03-17. Retrieved on 2008-03-17.
- ^ "HMAS Sydney (II) Discovered", Finding Sydney, 2008-03-17. Retrieved on 2008-03-17.
- ^ Government of Australia (2008-03-17). "Announcement on the Finding of the HMAS Sydney and German Vessel, Kormoran". Press release. Retrieved on 2007-03-18.
- ^ "Wreck of warship HMAS Sydney found", The Courier Mail, 2008-03-17. Retrieved on 2008-03-17.
 Further reading
- Anon., "Sydney Still Controversial," Naval History magazine (Annapolis, Md., October 2005)
- Detmers, Theodor (1959). The Raider Kormoran. Kimber Books.
- Gibbs, Martin (2001). The Corpse in the Carley Float – An archaeological survey of the Christmas Island Cemetery and the possible site of an HMAS Sydney sailor. The Bulletin of the Australian Institute for Maritime Archaeology.
- McDonald, Glenys (2005). Seeking the Sydney: A Quest for Truth. University of Western Australia Press. ISBN 1920694544.
- Montgomery, Michael (1983). Who Sank the Sydney?. Lee Cooper, Secker and Wallburg. ISBN 0436284472.
- Olsen, Wesley (2002). Bitter Victory;the death of HMAS Sydney. University of Western Australia Press. ISBN 1-876268-91-3.
 External links
|History of the RAN • Raiding ships • Axis naval activity in Australian waters • Sydney • Kormoran • |
The battle • The search • Unidentified body on Christmas Island