On 19 November 1941, HMAS Sydney, a light cruiser of the Royal Australian Navy with an impressive record of war service, was lost following a battle with the German raider HSK Kormoran, heavily disguised as the Dutch freighter Straat Malakaa in the Indian Ocean off the Western Australian coast.
Sydney was apparently lured into range of its guns and torpedoes; both ships were critically damaged and sank after the action. The loss of the Sydney with its full war complement of 645 remains Australia’s worst naval disaster.
The Kormoran was also sunk, but 318 of its crew of 399 were rescued. The fate of the Sydney remains one of Australia’s greatest wartime mysteries; even the location of the wrecks was not established until 2008.
In January 1941, Sydney returned from a nine-month deployment in the Mediterranean during which she had performed valiantly, sinking an Italian cruiser against superior odds. After undergoing a refit, HMAS Sydney sailed for the west coast of Australia. During 1941, the cruiser then carried out escort and patrol duties in the SE Asian and Pacific areas.
In November, on one such patrol, she escorted the troopship Zealandia to the Sunda Strait where she handed her over to HMS Durban. On 17 November, HMAS Sydney sailed south for Fremantle.
Two days later, on 19 November, and according to the Kormoran accounts, Sydney sighted the Kormoran, disguised as a Dutch merchant ship, approximately 240 kilometres south-west of Carnarvon, Western Australia, and both ships altered course.
The Kormoran increased engine speed on a reverse course while the Sydney headed towards the raider.
When the Kormoran was asked to identify itself it instead hoisted the signal identifying the ship as the Straat Malakka but, unable to read the flags, Sydney sent another signal requesting that they hoist the signal letters more clearly. The commanding officer of Kormoran was unable to respond to the Sydney’s request for the Straat Malakka’s secret signal.
Shots fired at point-blank
As the distance between the two ships narrowed the Captain apparently struck the Dutch flag, hoisted the German colours and, already at action stations, fired at the Australian cruiser at almost point-blank range. The Sydney’s bridge and director tower were hit within seconds. The two vessels then engaged each other fiercely with guns and torpedoes.
Both ships broke off combat after around an hour and concentrated on saving themselves to no avail. Sydney drifted off, probably under only partial control, towards the south. Her people would have been engaged in frantic damage control, but she was never seen again. The Kormoran survivors took to their boats.
Most of the crew had evacuated Kormoran by 9.00 pm. At midnight, the last of the crew cast off after igniting scuttling charges and the Kormoran sank half an hour later.
German seamen rescued
The first attempts to locate the cruiser were not organised until 24 November when Sydney was four days overdue. That same evening a British tanker crew reported they had rescued 25 German seamen from a raft.
During subsequent land and sea searches off Carnarvon 315 more of the Kormoran’s officers and men were rescued. A badly damaged RAN Carley float (life raft), now in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra; a body washed up in another Carley float on Christmas Island, and two lifebelts are all that have definitely been recovered from the Sydney.
The final hours of the Sydney and the fate of the 645 men on board remain controversial. The Kormoran survivors have consistently maintained that the ship drifted off into the distance and that the final flickerings of the burning Sydney disappeared about midnight.
On 12 March 2008, 67 years after both ships were lost, searchers on board the SV Geosounder located Kormoran lying more than two and a half kilometres beneath the surface of the Indian Ocean. Four days later and just over 21 kilometers away HMAS Sydney was located lying on the flat sandy ocean floor at a depth of 2,468 metres.
The debris fields and location of the wrecks indicated that the battle and Sydney’s last moments had unfolded much as Kormoran’s survivors had said.