Hey, what a great place the Geraldton museum is. We were
made welcome, formed an instant rapport and were invited to attend some
lectures that evening on the loss of the HMAS Sydney. We accepted
and had a really interesting time.
To be blunt, unless you had a relative on the Sydney you may
well feel like I did; 645 Australians lost in one battle was a terrible
tragedy. However, seen in the perspective of a major world war, it was
only one of hundreds of such tragedies. Ships were lost all over the world
and many thousands of sailors died. Why, then, this ongoing obsession
with H.M.A.S. Sydney II sixty seven years on?
True, there was the mystery of how it came about and why no one from the
Australian ship survived. But again, many ships mysteriously disappeared
with all hands during that war. It all took place so long ago - why not
let it rest? To try and find the answer to those questions was
my main reason for attending the lectures.
I think I got part of the answer but I don't know if I'm capable
of putting it into words. It's very complicated. To a large extent it
is a culture thing - all about being Australian. Australia is a small
country, population-wise, and Australians are fiercely proud of their
country. They are also an extremely competitive people. Consider . . .
• The Germans had given Australia a blood(y) nose by sinking the
pride of their fleet which many had believed invincible.
• Worse, they had done it with what was regarded as a very inferior
ship - an armed freighter.
• They'd sunk Sydney right on Australia's doorstep.
• Most of the enemy sailors survived to become Australia's 'guests'
for the duration of the war.
• Every member of Sydney's crew perished.
• The fact that the Germans were flying a Dutch flag would not sit
well with 'fair go' Australians.
• Rumours abounded about a Japanese submarine assisting the Germans.
(The Japs were not in the war at the time.)
• A bullet-riddled life raft suggested that the Australian sailors
might have been machine gunned in the water.
The Royal Australian Navy believes it has a duty to the lost men, to their
relatives, and to all Australians to find the truth. Many others very
passionately share that view.
The Story Of What Is Believed To Have Happened.
HMAS Sydney II, a very modern light cruiser, was on patrol off
the west coast of Australia when smoke was spotted on the horizon. Sydney
altered course to intercept the unknown ship which, in turn, altered course
away from Sydney. There followed a pursuit during which Sydney
slowly closed the gap until the quarry was seen to be a freighter flying
the Dutch flag. Sydney signalled for the freighter to stop but
she continued steaming, responding with confusing and incorrect signals.
For some unknown reason Sydney closed to within 1.5 km and presented
her flank to the freighter which struck the Dutch flag, raised the German
battle ensign and opened fire. A battle ensued ending with the loss of
both ships. Most of the Germans survived.
As not one man from the Sydney survived it has to be remembered
that the only witnesses were the German sailors.
Following the loss of every single man on board the Sydney there
were all sorts of wild theories published:
Was a Japanese submarine involved?
Was the Sydney's crew machine gunned in the water?
Did the Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) falsify the
time of the battle.
Were radio signals received in Geraldton from the Sydney?
Was she sighted much later in an Asian port?
As the years went by without any answers the saga of the loss of the Sydney
took on a life of its own. No less than twenty five books have been written
on the subject. To some it became vital to find the wreck and with it
Most Vital Questions
The Sydney had spotted the Kormoran some hours earlier
and had been closing on her while trying to establish communications.
The Germans, flying a Dutch flag, responded with unintelligible and confusing
signals. The most intriguing question of all is, "Why did a very
experienced naval captain place his vessel in such a vulnerable position
within range of the enemy's guns?". Sydney's guns had a
range of over 22 km. so why did Captain Burnett close to within 1.5 km.,
presenting his ship, broadside on and moving slowly, to a possible enemy?
Why was the Sydney's Albatross aircraft not launched? From the
air the Kormoran's guns and a deck full of mines would have been
The Battle As Told By The Germans
Kormoran was slowed by a faulty engine. Realising that there
was no escape, the German captain ordered his crew to strike the Dutch
flag and raise the German battle ensign. The highly trained German crew
claimed they could do this and fire the first salvo in six seconds. The
German gunners found their range very quickly and began pounding the Sydney
which, according to German witnesses, wasn't even closed up for battle.
It was at this early stage that the bridge and gunnery control section
on the Sydney were destroyed, leaving the ship without a captain.
The Sydney, though already badly damaged, soon began to return
fire and it was on for one and all. The Germans fired two torpedoes, one
of which struck Sydney in her bow section and from that moment
the ship was doomed. She was already aflame from stem to stern.
Sydney's remaining guns scored a hit near the Kormoran's
engine room disabling the engines and starting a fire. The fire began
burning rapidly towards the deck on which were stored 320 mines which
Captain Detmers had planned to lay in the shipping lanes used by Allied
Severely crippled, the Sydney turned away, still under German
fire. On Kormoran Captain Detmers ordered explosive charges to
be laid to scuttle the ship and the crew to take to the life boats. Detmers
was in the last boat to leave and was lucky to survive the explosion when
the charges and the 320 mines exploded sending Kormoran straight
to the bottom.
Sydney was limping back towards Geraldton, her crew still at
their stations when the ship went down. It probably sank very quickly
because the crew did not have a chance to launch the life boats. This
part of the story is supposition as the Germans could no longer see the
ship, just a glow in the distance.
One man did escape, however, and his body was washed up on Christmas Island
three months later, where his remains were buried.
It is unfortunate but people were not prepared to believe the German testimony,
even to disregarding Captain Detmers' co-ordinates for the wreck of his
ship. Recent discoveries support almost everything the Germans said.
Finding The Wrecks
As the years rolled by all sorts of misleading statements continued to
be put forward regarding the location of the battle and 'sightings' of
the wrecks. Some were purely malicious, some were from loonies and others
from well-meaning people believing they could help. Each served to keep
the saga alive but further muddied the water.
Only recently did the technology become available to locate sunken ships
deep below the surface. The big question was, where should the search
begin? So many theories, so many locations.
As we know now, the co-ordinates of the Kormoran's remains had
been known all along. Only a man called David Mearns, it seems, was prepared
to believe the German captain. Fortunately it was to David Mearns, a wreck-finder
of some renown, that the organisations dedicated to finding the Sydney
Equipping the ship S.V. Geosounder with a deep-tow sonar unit
and a Remote Operated Vehicle equipped with cameras, he started his search
scan around the German captain's co-ordinates. Before too many hours had
passed he located the Kormoran and her condition verified the
witnesses' statements - the mines had exploded and blow the ship to pieces.
Next, following the course that the Sydney had reportedly taken,
David Mearns came across a 'debris site' which he rightly guessed was
the where the battle had taken place. Continuing on, before too many more
hours had passed, he found the bow section of the Sydney and
further on still, the remainder of the ship. She lay in 2,468 metres of
water. The bow had broken away as the ship sank.
A Remote Operated Vehicle equipped with cameras was lowered to the wrecks
and sixty hours of high quality video plus 1,435 still photographs were
obtained. It became clear that the German reports we almost entirely correct.
Sydney's bridge and gunnery control section had been destroyed,
killing Captain Burnett and leaving the gunners to operate independently.
An examination of the wreck revealed the extreme accuracy of the German
gunfire. Sydney, too, had fired two torpedoes, both of which
missed. One of Sydney's 21" quadruple torpedo tubes was
photographed on the ocean floor with two of the four torpedoes still in
From the evidence of the surviving German crew, supported by what SV Geosounder
discovered, there is no doubt of the heroism of Sydney's crew.
Despite their ship being crippled and ablaze, under withering fire from
the enemy and their captain dead, they stayed at their posts.
The One That Got Away
The grave of the unknown sailor who was washed up on Christmas Island
was recently located, though not without difficulty, and the body exhumed.
Forensic, dental and DNA matching has now eliminated every crew member
except one. That sailor's relatives have proved difficult to trace and
the search is continuing in the U.K. His remains are to be reburied with
full military honours in Geraldton's War Grave Cemetery today, 19th November
2008, - the 67th anniversary of the battle.
The 67th Anniversary
Geraldton has built a beautiful new memorial to the Sydney's
crew on Mount Scott which overlooks the city and the Indian Ocean (see
pictures on the previous page). Two naval vessels have arrived in port
for the occasion, one being the latest HMAS Sydney - Sydney IV I
believe. There will be much ceremony and doubtless many tears as the unknown
sailor is again laid to rest, for this is still a surprisingly emotional
The pictures from the ocean floor are amazing and I found myself being
drawn in by the excitement of the final chapter in this sixty seven year
old story of mystery, intrigue and false trails. For many there has always
been hope and a belief that the mystery would one day be solved. Their
faith has been justified.
A Commission of Inquiry, led by Terrence Cole QC, is already underway
to put this story 'to bed', once and for all. The Cole Inquiry is meticulously
examining every scrap of 'evidence' that has ever been produced, genuine
and otherwise. They have already been to Germany to examine documents
and speak to all remaining members of the Kormoran's crew. Once
the inquiry is over and its findings published, maybe HMAS Sydney
II and her crew can finally rest in peace.