Out of the depths

HMAS Sydney

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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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20 thoughts on “Out of the depths

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  2. CK

    Nice post, Brett, and covers all the issues.

    FMPOV the Sydney was a nice looking ship (although I have no doubt many crew would have died from asbestos poisoning in any case), but Japanese subs?

    No. Sydney made a mistake. Germans got in first. And there you are.

    I guess it remains to be seen why nobody got off the boat.

    If the bridge was blown, as suggested by the Kommorant survivors, well no Captain, few officers, no orders, and crew making stuff up as they go along.

    Ship then goes bang.

    Not hard to picture.

  3. CK

    I should also point out that there's a lovely abandoned weatherboard naval station on Rottnest Island (can't find any pics, unfortunately - I've been there and it's still full of swirling papers and rats. Why this place has not been heritage listed is beyond me).

    I believe that this was the one that didn't receive the expected signal from the Sydney after she was sunk. If that makes sense...

  4. Ric Pelvin

    Good post, covering the issues well. But reading Gill's account, there is no evidence that SYDNEY blew up. The last seen of her were flickerings of fire in the night. No explosion was reported. Reports indicate that the hull is essentially intact. There was, however, a serious explosion which took the top off B turret during the action, but the shi

    Minor irritating technical point: during WW II the Royal Navy operated their fleet destroyers in flotillas, not squadrons. Each flotilla usually had two divisions. At Cape Spada SYDNEY was operating in a support of a division of destroyers and this terminology is reflected in Collins' report of the action.

  5. Post author


    That's what I don't get. It's pretty easy to see what happened, why all the speculation based on no evidence -- or at least, no reliable evidence -- whatsoever? There's an interesting thread at the Key Publishing forum which suggests that the rumours began very soon after the loss of the Sydney, and that they had their origins in the RAN's embarrassment -- at best, because very little information was given out, though there are hints that there was some sort of semi-official backing given to the submarine story. I don't know whether any of that is true, I'm sure Tom Frame or somebody must have looked at the wartime rumours.

    On the signals sent or not sent, a reader sent me this interesting link via email: http://www.dsd.gov.au/sigint/hmas_sydney.html

    (And yes, she was pleasing to the eye, wasn't she?)


    Thanks for your comment and your corrections! (That's what happens when I stray outside my usual sphere of incompetence ...)

  6. deni

    I have been lucky enough to have spoken to a man that was an army medic and also a guard of the German survivors from the 'Kormoran'. He dealt directly with the German Captain of the Kormoran and many of the sailors. He basically said they were a pack of bastards and totally uncooperative. How acurate is their testimony going to be? The general view of the blokes who were there at the time is that there was Japanese involvment in the sinking of the Sydney. Heres more conspiracy for you...Mr Rudd doesnt visit Japan on his world Jaunt, tensions on the high seas from whaleing??? Aus gov launches a new 'Sydney' inquiry. Do we find out that one of our major trading partners sank an Australian ship before Pearl Harbour?? "who knows"

  7. Post author

    With respect, I'm not sure why the later impressions of POW camp guards should be given any weight at all. They weren't there when the Sydney met its fate. (The unpleasant attitude of the Kormoran's crew is most puzzling: I'm sure they were treated with unfailing kindness, even despite having killed 645 of the guards' compatriots.) The parliamentary committee which looked at the Sydney mystery a decade ago went into the question of the German survivors' testimony: see here, 6.51-6.73. They note that none of them have significantly altered their stories in the decades since the war, and that they were thoroughly interrogated at the time. In fact, the interrogators didn't trust them either and used hidden microphones and German-speaking guards to try and catch them out. But didn't.

  8. Stuartie

    With referenece the lack of co-operation. The German captain, Detmers, appears to have told the truth about the site of the battle. I'm no apologist for the Geramn side during the war, but he doesn't seen to have been a rampant Nazi: From Taylor 'I was a prisoner of the Kormoran:

    "Having spent over a month on board the raider, it had become clear to the crew of the Mareeba that Detmers ‘had a soft spot’ for Australians in particular, and other ‘Anglo-Saxons’ in general, as they received more privileges than the other nationalities among the Kormoran’s prisoners.

    But this favouritism reached new and unexpected heights one evening in August, when two German officers, one of whom was apparently the raider’s navigator, entered the Australian’s quarters and presented them with four bottles of rum!"

    but then who can tell?

  9. deni

    all interesting replies. I am just passing on what the the old fella told me about his own experiences with the crew and captain and what his contemporaries thought. He actually said that he felt the German prisoners had more freedom than the Australian guards. The same man i am talking about was also in New Guinea and some of the horror stories that i have heard from him often don't appear in official records too. My instinct tells me that there is more to the whole story of the Sydney than we have yet discovered...but thats just instinct i guess. Thanks for filling me in on the official details though and will keep track of events on this forum.

  10. Post author

    No worries, deni. Stuartie's right, according to this report, to find the wrecks the searchers used an apparently secret account of the battle written by Detmers while a POW (though it also claims his first name was 'Theodora'!). Also, the damage to the Sydney appears to corroborate the accounts of the Germans, as far as it goes.

  11. Post author

    There was an excellent documentary on the ABC tonight, Finding Sydney. Lots of fascinating footage of both the wrecks -- some pictures are up at the Finding Sydney Foundation website. The conspiracy angle was mentioned but not overemphasised (to my relief), and there were also some moving stories from the families of the Sydney's crew. Most moving of all was that of a woman who married a sailor from Sydney just before he left on its final cruise. He left at 2am on their wedding night, and she never saw him again.

    The investigation of the wreck seems to give no support to the conspiracy theories. A majority of the lifeboats were found with the wreck, so the crew presumably weren't machine-gunned by the Germans (or the Japanese). It appears that Kormoran's torpedo hit the Sydney's bow, which literally fell off as the Sydney drifted (or possibly steamed) away. It therefore sunk very suddenly, which probably explains why there were no survivors.

    And they showed Detmers' dictionary, the source of the secret account I mentioned in the previous comment (certain words were marked with pencil dots, which apparently adds up to a coherent account of the battle). I would have liked to learn more about this -- apparently it was one of the wreckhunters who discovered this, so it's unclear if any historians have been near it. Anyway, it wasn't the sole clue for the searchers, as they were modifying the search area right up to the day they sailed based on information about currents and so on.

  12. Joe Hutchinson

    Unhappily I'm not allowed to see the video "Finding Sydney" as I live in the US (copyright restrictions). Anyone have ideas? I would like to see a photo composite of the whole of RANS Sydney (or artists rendering) as has been done for other sunken vessals.

    I'm a loooonnnggg time naval history buff and the great sea raiders (any nation and era) are on my short list. The Pacific below ~20 north in general seems a hot spot going back to the era of the Spanish Empire (and who can say what went on before then). After looking up SMS Emden and SMS Seeadler (WW1), the battle between RANS Sydney and KMS Cormoran wasn't hard to find.

    Not discussed here yet: there are some who feel that Cormoran lured Sydney "beyond common war curtousy" as one local to me put it. Meaning Capt. Detmers' didn't run up the war flag moments before firing. I would generally say no to this as German surface officers of any recent era have about the best rep possible for following the conventions of the sea in this regard. One can only realistically say that the Cormoran's disguise must have been impressive and perhaps only exceeded by Count von Luckner's Seeadler. My sincere regards to all who still have a tender spot about the outcome.

    I also have played a minitures wargame over this scenario a while ago (1st Gulf War) we called the Q-ship scenario. We supposed the Straits of Hormuz as a location. An American frigate (I think it was the USS TAYLOR, FFG 50, 1990's weapons) escorting a line of loaded tankers going east and a Chinese built and Arab crewed ship on the return west as the adversary, mounting 2 torps and 4 x 6" guns a side plus big RPG's and 4 x 20 mm AA (all single mounts). It was in a line of other empty ships as cover and, as the seas are narrow and Iran close, the lines a sea mile apart. We gave the escort a helicoptor in the air and the Arabs first draw with a dozen RPG zodiacs as a diversion from the coast of Iran. One of the Taylor's tankers was allowed a pair of 50 cals as she was used in the Malacca Straits run or something (Ausy Captain?) The results weren't pretty. 3 tankers holed, 2 tankers beached and burning. The escort gets beatup at 60% damage level (one torp hit and 25 x 6" rounds and a nasty spray of 20 mm). All the terrorists are krispy kritters and their ship a smoking hole in the ocean eventually. (The F-14 air cover was dice rolled as 20 minutes response but not needed). The key was the concentration on the Taylor's control and detection centers. Sound familiar?

  13. Post author

    I presume the documentary will be out on (region 4) DVD at some point, but I can't see any evidence of that yet. It will be worth getting if you're at all interested, as it sounds like you are! I can't remember if there was any sort of composite image similar to what you're looking for -- I don't think so, probably just some computer graphics of how the ships sank and settled on the bottom. Maybe one will be done after they've explored the wrecks more thoroughly.

    Yes, that scenario does sound familiar, and again it's why conspiracy theories seem unnecessary. Surprise and the sudden blinding of Sydney seems sufficient to explain the result, especially given their relatively equal armaments.

    Just a pedantic point: the correct prefix for a RAN ship's name is HMAS, 'His Majesty's Australian Ship' (or 'Her', as it is presently). Thus HMAS Sydney.

  14. Joe Hutchinson

    No, you're quite right: HMAS. I'd seen it for years off and on. Apologies. I've just gone over the wreck data and pics of both ships. It looks like the 4" dual purpose did get into action (but for how long?). "A" turret had the deck folded up over it's barrels and "B" was taken out in the 1st minute. The after turrets appear to have had power failure or damage as they seemed to be on the wrong broadside for final reply. Makes me want to see if all the watertight bulkhead doors are closed. Power failure would've made that a problem if that detail was forgotten. Ship would've filled inexorably scooping up headwater then. Also appears that Sidney's trying to push a half severed bow though the water for a few minutes before it falls off. If the Captain saw this, it's possible to consider using full astern. Would've put his "X" and "Y" in the battle just as needed. However, if the bridge and personnel is gone, kinda moot. Perhaps this is the perfect "no win" scenario. Even a battleship could loose if more than one torpedo hits.

  15. Post author

    Nice to see you again, Joe. That's a pretty grim picture; after the initial broadside, it doesn't seem like Sydney had much of a chance. I suppose it's a testament to its crew that it manage to do enough damage to Kormoran to set it on fire and force it to scuttle.

  16. John

    By far the most puzzling part of this event was the fact that there were no survivors. All of the explanations I have read such as bow falling off, sinking quickly, explosions etc do not even go close to being significant enough to explain the death of ALL 645 crew. HMS Hood was completely engulfed in a massive explosion in freezing waters, was blown in half, sank in two minutes and there still 3 survivors. The Sydney by comparison had no significant explosion and was afloat for hours in relatively warm waters. There is only one conclusion... there were survivors, probably hundreds and they sat in the water for a number of days without rescue. Why they weren't rescued remains unclear. Was the Australian naval command in disbelief and refusing to send out search parties? God knows... but there I am certain there were survivors and their final hours must have been pretty horrific. Read up on the fate of the USS Indianapolis's crew for an idea of what it might have been like.

  17. Post author

    You may be right, and they may have survived for days, but I disagree that yours is the only conclusion. We just don't know. The survival of shipwreck victims is so contingent, there are so many factors which can sway the odds one way or the other. Even just naively: Hood had 1418 crew, Sydney 645. If Sydney had been in Hood's place, it would have had 1 survivor (rounding down), which is pretty much 0 anyway. And yes, Hood had plenty of factors against it, but it also had some going for it: its position was known, the fact that it had engaged in combat with a powerful enemy ship was known, there were other British ships in the area. Sydney was running alone and under radio silence, was not expected to encounter an enemy, and, most importantly, would not be overdue for some days. The Navy began a full-scale search for Sydney as soon as it became aware of the battle, i.e. the same day it received news of Kormoran survivors being found. Unfortunately that was already 5 days after the battle.

  18. James Eagles

    Am ex-navy, been researching the Sydney story since 1976. What the government states as true and what really happened is two completely different things. Mearns is a liar and a fraud. There are at least four different ships that can be identified among his images, most of which a simply repeats of each other. For instance, he took 78 images of a basalt rock outcrop on the seabed and sighted the forward 20mm guns off the Kormoran wreck but didn't photograph them. What rot! The design of the Sydney wreck is different so is the camouflage, the funnel, the stern, props etc and so on. Commissioneer Cole was paid 600 thousand dollars to five his finding, which was what the navy [who ran the whole inquiry] wanted.
    Talk about a whitewash, it was like the Wheatboard Inquiry all over again where even the lawyers scoffed and ridiculed Cole's handing of the inquiry.
    I have over 800 pages of evidence the ships are NOT the Syydney and Kormoran.

  19. Post author

    So they found two completely different early 20th century warship (or warships) that just happened to sink in the same area as the Sydney-Kormoran engagement? That seems... unlikely (as in, I don't believe it).

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