HMAS Sydney sunk with all hands

The loss of the light cruiser HMAS Sydney has given rise to much speculation over the years.

There were no survivors from HMAS Sydney's 645 officers and men. An official portrait of the ship's company, date unknown.

The Germans used nine ‘Hilfskreuzers’ (auxiliary cruisers) – disguised merchant raiders during the war. These were merchant ships equipped with modern naval guns, torpedoes and sometimes even aircraft – all of which were concealed. Their strategy was to use their disguise to approach close to to Allied merchant shipping and sink them. Sometimes the crews were permitted to abandon ship – with orders to not to use the radio to report their position, under threat of the overwhelming firepower of the raiders.

This was a very successful strategy, sinking many more ships than the Kriegsmarine’s conventional surface ships when they sought to attack merchant shipping. The largest of these raiders was the Kormoran which had ranged far and wide sinking merchant ships. It was a chance encounter with the Kormoran that led to the loss of HMAS Sydney and the single worst loss of life in the history of the Royal Australian Navy.

The first official account appeared just after the war. This mainly relied on the German survivors account of the action:

Just before 4 pm on Wednesday, 19th November 1941, the German raider Kormoran was offthe Western Australian coast, approximately 150 miles south-west of Carnarvon. There was a gentle SSE wind and slight sea, a medium sw swell. The day was very clear, and visibility extreme. Nightfall was some three hours distant. Kormoran, with a complement of 393 oflicers and men, was steering NNE at eleven knots.

At 3.55 pm the look-out reported a sighting fine on the port bow. It was at first thought to be a sail, but was soon identified as a warship. At 4pm Detmers – Kormoran’s captain – sent his crew to action stations, altered course WSW into the sun, and ordered full speed – about fifteen knots, which the temporary breakdown of one engine limited to fourteen knots for about half an hour.

The Warship, now identified as a ‘Perth’-class cruiser, steering southwards and some ten miles distant, altered towards and overhauled on a slightly converging course on Kormorarfs starboard quarter. She made the letters NNJ continuously on her searchlight. To this Kormoran made no reply. When about seven miles distant, Sydney signalled to Kormoran by searchlight to hoist her signal letters.

The Kormoran continued to deceive by attempting to pass herself off as a Dutch merchant ship. She was successful in doing so for some time because the two ships came within close range. It was only at the last moment that the Kormoran disclosed herself to be a German ship, dropped the disguise covering her guns and opened fire (within a matter of 6 seconds – according to some interpretations of German accounts).

How the Kormoran managed to overcome a modern warship and why there should be absolutely no survivors has caused speculation and controversy ever since. Her six six-inch guns faced Sydneys eight six-inch guns. Accounts from German survivors suggested that their more accurate gunfire had virtually neutralised the Sydney by putting the rear batteries out of action and destroying the bridge and the director tower. Yet the Sydney fought back and caused sufficient damage to sink the Kormoran.

The range was so short that Kormoran used her anti-aircraft machine guns and starboard 3.7-inch guns effectively against Sydney’s bridge, torpedo tubes, and anti-aircraft batteries.

For a few seconds after initial salvo Sydney did not reply. It would seem that her ‘A’ and ‘B’ (forward) turrets were put out ofaction (according to Skeries [German survivor] by Kormorans third and fourth salvos; but after the raider’s fifth or sixth salvo the cruiser’s ‘X’ turret (foremost of the two after turrets) opened fast and accurate fire, hitting Kormoran in the funnel and engine-room.

‘Y’ turret fired only two or three salvos, all of which went over. At about this time one ofthe raider’s two torpedoes struck Sydney under ‘A’ and ‘B’ turrets. The other passed close ahead ofthe stricken ship, which was being repeatedly hit by shells.

Lt-Cdr Gill: Royal Australian Navy, 1942-1945

There was much dissatisfaction with Gill’s conclusions, thought to be too accepting of the German version of events. A whole string of books have put forward alternative theories.

The 1999 Official Australian Government Enquiry came to the conclusion that the German account was most plausible. This was conclusion is thought to be consistent with with the damage found on the sunken Sydney, after the wreck had been eventually found and surveyed in 2008. [date now corrected – see comments below]

The German 'Hilfskreuzer' - merchant raider - Kormoran was also sunk during her encounter with with HMAS Sydney. Out of her crew of 399 men 81 died, the remainder became prisoners of war in Australia.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

paul titcombe June 21, 2013 at 1:14 am

A terrible tragedy;but at least she took the enemy with her at the end. As to the paucity of survivors;as one of the German survivors rightly put it;they were off Sharks Bay;which didn’t get its name 4 nothing! Those Aussies who may have manage to jump overboard wouldn’t have lasted long in those waters;and the German sailor said that the sharks were all around them. May both ships rest in peace;and may there be no repetition!

terry spackman May 11, 2013 at 11:41 am

I think the explanation of a Kormorant crew member explains it all. “The Sydney got too close”

jACK H BARTLETT February 28, 2012 at 4:11 am

I have been very interested in the sinking of the Sydney for the past 70 years and have read many explanations of the circumstances surrounding the events of this terrible mystery..

I have read all the publications of this incident and not one of them is anywhere near what I believe, truly happened .

Here is my story..

1. Rehearsing a pretence of scuttling by the German crew.

2. Practicing manourvers to deceive Sydney into the idle position for the Kormoran to fire their underwater torpedoes on their starboard bow..
( They would have been steaming at a slow speed by this time)
3. Prior to this meeting the British Naval Board had issued a general signal to all naval ships not to destroy any disguised enemy supply ships because the Merchant Navy was finding it difficult to provide ships for war requirements.
Nowhere by the way, in all the books that have been written about the sinking of the Sydney has there been any mention of this signal.
This I beleive is one of the main resons why Burnett got close to the Kormoran.
He was deceived by what he thought was the attempted scuttling of the Kormoran and his desire was to capture the Kormoran , intact. At this moment I beleive that he had ordered a boarding party to proceed quickly to the Kormoran to stop
this happening.
4. At this time everything was exactly as Detmers had hoped.. he gave the order to launch his underwater torpedoes , wait for sixty seconds then order that the Dutch flag be hurled down and replaced with the German flag and immediately opened fire with all his guns..
5. This was the end of any hope for the Sydney.What worries me is what happened to the crew..I venture to say that any survivors from the Sydney were murdered by the sailors from the German ship to hide the fact that Detmers and his crew did commit a crime of piracy and should have been executed after the war.
6. About thirty years ago in company with an ex navy friend, i interviewed an ex Kormoran sailor ( Hermann Ortman the youngest seaman on board the Kormoran , at 18, at his home in Melbourne, and I asked him how did it happen and he replied that the Sydney got too close. I WONDER WHY. !!! )

Keith McLennan November 19, 2011 at 11:18 am

“after the wreck had been eventually found and surveyed in the 1990s”

Actually, the wreck of HMAS Sydney was not found until very recently – March 16, 2008. The prior discovery of the wreck of the Kormoran on March 12 pointed the way. See “The Hunt for HMAS Sydney”, The full story is in David L. Mearns, The Search for the Sydney: How Australia’s Greatest Maritime Mystery Was Solved (HarperCollins, Sydney 2009). According to this volume, the picture of the crew was taken in July 1940.

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