This has been all over the news here today, though I suspect interest is somewhat less outside Australia: the wreck of HMAS Sydney has been found. On 19 November 1941, Sydney was returning to Fremantle, Western Australia, after escorting a troopship north to Sunda Strait. It encountered the German commerce raider Kormoran somewhere out in the Indian Ocean, and a battle ensued. When the engagement broke off, both ships were mortally wounded. (Kormoran's wreck was itself found only a few days ago.) About 320 out of Kormoran's crew of nearly 400 were eventually rescued, but there were no survivors at all from Sydney. Its 645 dead represent the Royal Australian Navy's greatest wartime loss.
The press reports seem to follow the same line — a 66-year old mystery solved. The location of the Sydney's wreck was unknown because no radio signal was ever received from her during or after the battle, and the Kormoran's lifeboats had drifted a long way before rescue. But that's actually only part of the mystery. The real mystery — or at least the one which is the real reason for the long-standing interest in finding the wreck, and for the accompanying conspiracy theories — is how did a modern warship like Sydney come to be sunk by Kormoran, a converted merchantman?
This does seem strange, on the face of it. Sydney was a modern Leander-class light cruiser, commissioned in 1935. It was much faster than Kormoran (32 knots to 19), more heavily armoured, and more powerfully armed. Kormoran was on its first (and only) cruise: in nearly a year's sail from Germany it had encountered nothing more fearsome than defenceless merchantmen. Sydney, by contrast, had previously had a successful career in the Mediterranean. In particular, in the Battle of Cape Spada in July 1940 she led a British destroyer squadron (correction: flotilla) into action against a pair of Italian light cruisers, which fled before her. Sydney's accurate gunnery disabled the Bartolomeo Colleoni, which was then despatched by torpedoes from the destroyers. It doesn't seem credible that the proud victor of Cape Spada could be sunk by a lowly commerce raider.
Except, that is, if you look a bit more closely:
- Sydney's armament was not hugely superior to Kormoran's. The Australian ship had 8 x 6-inch guns for its primary armament, compared to the German's 6 x 5.9-inch guns. It also had 8 torpedo tubes, to Kormoran's 6.
- Kormoran's modus operandi was to pretend to be a regular, unarmed merchant vessel, which would allow it to get within striking distance of Allied merchants, or (hopefully) to pass by Allied warships. Normally, its weapons were concealed, only unveiled at the point of combat, so its disguise was very convincing.
- Given 1. and 2., there's a plausible narrative of Sydney's last battle. Testimony from the Kormoran's survivors indicates that the Sydney was suspicious enough to intercept the Kormoran when it was sighted on the horizon, but then was trusting enough to approach it without being ready for action — its guns were not even aimed at Kormoran, which opened fire first at a range of about 1000m. Sydney's two forward turrets were soon out of action, and only one of its rear turrets seems to have fired accurately. Sydney was hit by about fifty 5.9-inch shells, as well as by at least one torpedo. It eventually managed to escape southwards, aflame. It probably met its end when its magazine exploded. (Update: or not. See below.) Kormoran's engine room had been hit, and fire was approaching the several hundred mines stored on board. So it was abandoned and scuttled.
Obviously, given the lack of any testimony from the Sydney's crew, we can't know for sure what happened on board her that day. (Though, of course, investigation of the wrecks may help here.) But, still, I really don't know what is so hard to believe about the above narrative. Yes, judging from the accounts of the German survivors it's possible that Sydney's captain, Captain Joseph Burnett, made a serious mistake in not approaching the Kormoran with much more caution. What is the point of investigating a suspicious ship if precautions are not taken in the event that the suspicions were well-founded? (But equally, he may have been following standard procedure: see this, 4.76-4.90) This is a very serious charge to level at a commanding officer, particularly since he didn't live to defend his actions. It must have been, and may still be, awful for his family to have to bear this burden. But so what? Mistakes are committed in warfare all the time. Even by Australians.
This is where the conspiracy theories come in. As a culture, we don't have a great talent for them, and they're not particularly inventive. I can only think of a handful: that the CIA engineered the dismissal of Gough Whitlam in 1975; that a Chinese submarine abducted Harold Holt in 1967; that Phar Lap was poisoned by American gangsters in 1932. The Sydney conspiracy theory is that Kormoran didn't sink Sydney, a Japanese submarine did. (See here, 5.39-5.51.) Problem 1: Sydney was sunk over two weeks before Japan attacked the US and the British and Dutch empires. Why would it risk alerting its prospective enemies for the sake of a lowly light cruiser? Problem 2: no evidence has ever been found of a Japanese submarine being anywhere within 6000 km of the battle site on the date in question. (See here, 5.52-5.61.) The same goes for a putative German or Italian submarine.)
Of course, any conspiracy theory worth its salt can explain away any and all objections. The Kormoran was taking on board Japanese officers to take back to Germany for liaison purposes. It's precisely because Japan was not yet at war that Sydney had to be sunk. A painting was seen in a navy office during the occupation of Japan showed a submarine sinking an Australian cruiser (but had disappeared by the next day).
Yeah, yeah — whatever. There's no actual verifiable evidence, no solid foundations for any of these beliefs. So why do people believe them? What's wrong with going as far as the evidence will take you, but no further? That, I do not know.
Image source: Bruce Constable and Navy Photos.
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