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INTO THE ABYSS, the German HSK Kormoran and the Australian HMAS Sydney

by Dr James Hunter

By mere chance, the two ships encountered one another on the afternoon of 19 November. The naval engagement that followed lasted less than an hour, resulted in the loss of both ships, and spawned one of Australia’s greatest naval mysteries.
As Sydney steamed south, a disguised commerce raider of Nazi Germany’s navy, the Kreigsmarine, was cruising north along the coast of Western Australia. The vessel, HSK Kormoran, had been engaged in disrupting Allied merchant shipping in the Indian Ocean for seven months, and was on its way to lay mines in Shark Bay. Once this mission was completed, the raider would continue north to the East Indies (modern-day Indonesia) before heading west to the Bay of Bengal.

On 11 November (Armistice Day) 1941, the Modified Leander Class light cruiser HMAS Sydney (II) pulled away from Victoria Quay in Fremantle, Western Australia and proceeded to leave harbour. The Second World War was in its third year and Sydney, which had recently returned to Australia after serving with distinction in the Mediterranean Theatre, was tasked with escorting the troopship Zealandia to Indonesia’s Sunda Strait. Following an uneventful six-day passage, Sydney rendezvoused with the light cruiser HMS Durban, to which it transferred responsibility for Zealandia and the final leg of the troopship’s voyage to Singapore. As Sydney reversed course and began the return journey to Fremantle, those aboard Zealandia and Durban could not have known that they would be among the last people to see the warship then regarded as the ‘pride of the Royal Australian Navy’ for another sixty-six years.

What Happened?

The story of just how Sydney met her tragic end has always been contested because of one critical factor - no crew-member lived to tell the tale. The only accounts we have are from the German survivors of the ship that sank her, the HSK Kormoran.

What was the raider Kormoran doing in such a remote area of the globe so far from the main theatres of war in November 1941? According to her captain, Theodor Detmers, she was there to destroy or capture Allied merchant ships. By waging war on merchant ships in distant waters, the Germans aimed to disrupt sea lines of communications and force the Allies to withdraw valuable warships from battle zones in order to counter the threat.

The fateful encounter began at around 5pm on the 19th November when Kormoran was approximately 120 nautical miles south-west of Carnarvon, Western Australia. Steering a course north-north-east, Kormoran first sighted Sydney around 13-16 nautical miles away off her port bow. Possibly due to the height of Sydney's mast and funnel and smoke in the air, Kormoran's lookout initially identified her as several vessels with an escort. Thinking himself outclassed, Detmers decided to turn away and increase speed.

The fact that Kormoran's lookout described seeing two clouds of smoke could indicate that Sydney had already sighted Kormoran and was increasing speed and putting extra boilers on line in order to give chase. Whatever the case, the mutual sighting was probably within 30 seconds to a minute or two of each other.

As Sydney bore down on Kormoran, she signaled the unknown ship to identify herself. According to German accounts, the raider was disguised as a Dutch merchant ship by the name of Straat Malakka and hoisted the signal letters for this in reply to Sydney's challenge. Detmers played for time by hoisting the signal so it was not clearly visible. Further messages from Sydney for Kormoran to identify herself and her destination were answered with garbled replies by flag hoist.

By 6.00 pm Sydney had closed on Kormoran to around 1,000 metres, and the defining moment came when Sydney's Captain Joseph Burnett ordered Straat Malakka to signal her secret call sign. Not knowing the call sign, Detmers could no longer disguise the true identity of his ship and was forced to surrender or fight. Detmers chose to fight.

Kormoran opened fire, and her second salvo scored hits on Sydney's bridge and gun director tower. At the same time Sydney fired a broadside but the aim was high and the shells passed over the German vessel. Kormoran's third salvo knocked out Sydney's forward turrets.

Now operating independently, Sydney's two after turrets continued to fire, scoring hits on Kormoran's funnel and engine room. Uncontrollable fires broke out on the German vessel and she began to lose speed.

Sydney was also aflame as one of two torpedoes from Kormoran struck her bow with devastating effect. Mortally wounded, the warship turned sharply towards Kormoran, leading the Germans to believe she was intent on ramming them. She did not however, but passed close astern.

With her guns now destroyed, Sydney was unable to reply as the Kormoran continued to pour fire on her. In a final act of defiance the crippled Sydney launched a spread of four torpedoes that passed harmlessly behind Kormoran. Sydney continued to limp away to the south-east.

By 7.30 pm, with her main engines disabled and a fire still out of control, the crew of the Kormoran prepared to abandon ship and scuttle the raider. Sydney could now be seen about four miles away, burning fiercely, and glowing in the gathering darkness.

No lifeboats were seen being deployed from Sydney, and although the Germans did not actually see her sink, none of Sydney's 645 crew survived, and only a few small pieces of wreckage were ever found.

On 6th February, 1942, a little under three months after Sydney sank, a battle damaged life raft, known as a Carley float, was found off the coast of Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean, 2,500 km from the scene of the battle.

The float, which was identified as Australian, contained the body of a white male clad in a white boiler suit. Marine growth on the underside of the float suggested it had been in the water for some months. A funeral was held and the body was buried in the Island's cemetery with full military honours.

Although it was officially dismissed at the time, the Carley float has now been acknowledged as originating from the Sydney. Documents identifying the location of the grave were lost during the Japanese occupation of the island, but in 2006, following a review of photographic evidence of the grave site taken in 1950, the Navy returned to Christmas Island for a second time and successfully located and exhumed the body for the purpose of identification and forensic examination.

The identification effort is ongoing, with over 500 of Sydney's crew so far excluded as potential matches for the remains. Plans are underway to rebury them in November 2008.

The Australian War Memorial holds the only other substantial trace of the Sydney - another battle damaged Carley float, which was recovered at sea by HMAS Heros nine days after the sinking.

In March 1943, a lifebelt from Sydney was also found near Comboyuro Point, Moreton Island, Queensland. Though it may have been carried on the currents from the battle scene, it is more likely it was lost before the encounter with Kormoran.

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