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.
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]