Battle between HMAS Sydney and German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran

Battle between HMAS Sydney and German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle between HMAS "Sydney" and German auxiliary cruiser "Kormoran"
partof=World War II

HMAS "Sydney" in 1940.
date=19 November 1941
place=coord|26|9|50|S|111|4|25|E|type:landmark_region:AU|display=inline,title, Convert|100|nmi|km off Steep Point, Western Australia, Indian Ocean.
result= Both ships lost, German victory in terms of the respective losses and psychological impact.
combatant1=flagicon|Australia Australia
combatant2=flagicon|Nazi Germany Nazi Germany
commander2=flagicon|Nazi Germany|naval Theodor Detmers
strength1=One light cruiser, HMAS "Sydney".
strength2=One auxiliary cruiser, "Kormoran".
casualties1="Sydney" sunk with the loss of all 645 hands.
casualties2="Kormoran" damaged and scuttled, with the loss of more than 70 crew members.

On 19 November 1941, during World War II, the Australian light cruiser HMAS "Sydney" and the German auxiliary cruiser "Kormoran" fought each other in the Indian Ocean, off Western Australia. The two ships severely damaged one another, and "Sydney" was lost with all of her 645 crew members, the largest ship from any Allied country to be lost with all hands during the war. [] [The Japanese aircraft carrier Chiyoda was lost with all hands, and the Japanese cruiser Chokai and Japanese battleship Fuso may have been too.] Most of the crew from "Kormoran" were rescued and became prisoners of war.

The battle and sinkings remain controversial. "Sydney's" loss caused shock and disbelief in Australia, as she was one of the most celebrated ships of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and had been sunk by a converted freighter. [ [ Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (JCFADT), Report No. 87, "Report on the Loss of HMAS Sydney"] (Chapter 1)] The only eyewitness accounts of the battle were from the crew of "Kormoran", and as the two ships were separated after the battle, the exact reason why "Sydney" sank remains unknown.

In March 2008, the wrecks of "Kormoran" and "Sydney" were located after a long search. Both lie approximately Convert|200|km|nmi from Steep Point, at a depth of about Convert|2500|m|ft, and about Convert|12|nmi|km from each other. [cite web |url= |title=HSK Kormoran Discovered in the Search for the HMAS Sydney II| accessdate=2008-03-17] cite news |title=HSK Kormoran discovered |url= |publisher=The Finding Sydney Foundation |date=2008-03-16 |accessdate=2008-03-16]

The ships

HMAS "Sydney" was launched on 22 September 1934, at Swan Hunter and Wigham Richardson Ltd, Wallsend, England. She was a 6,830-ton, modified "Leander" class light cruiser, commissioned by the RAN in 1935. Her armament included eight 6-inch (152 mm) guns, in pairs, and four 4-inch (102 mm) guns, mounted singly. Externally, Sydney's most notable modification from the original Leander design was the re-trunking of the single, large funnel into two, much narrower and taller stacks, and she was uniquely distinguishable from her RAN sisters by a spar projecting forward from the bridge and by her single open-mount 4-inch guns (as opposed to shielded twin mounts), amidships.Fact|date=April 2008 She also carried a Supermarine Walrus seaplane (which had replaced a Supermarine Seagull), [cite book|author=sc|L|ondon, Peter |title=British Flying Boats |publisher=Sutton |pages=275 |url= |isbn=0750926953 |date=2003 |accessdate=2008-04-06] crewed by members of No. 9 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force.

In 1940, "Sydney" was credited with sinking a modern Italian cruiser during the Battle of Cape Spada, and two Italian destroyers in other engagements. After her return from the Mediterranean, command of "Sydney" passed from the celebrated Captain John Collins to the relatively inexperienced Captain Joseph Burnett.

"Kormoran" was a freighter which the "Kriegsmarine" (German Navy) had converted into a covert, long-range merchant raider, under the command of "Fregattenkapitän" (Commander) Theodor Detmers. The German vessel was posing as the Dutch freighter "Straat Malakka". Although "Kormoran" lacked the armour protection and speed of a proper warship, she had substantial concealed armament, including six Convert|150|mm|in|adj=on guns and torpedo tubes. She had been in service for just over a year and had sunk ten merchant ships in the South Atlantic, Indian Ocean, and the South Pacific.


On 16 October, after successful actions against merchant ships in the northern Indian Ocean, "Kormoran" rendezvoused with the "Kriegsmarine" supply ship "Kulmerland" — to re-fuel and re-supply, as well as depositing prisoners and five crew members requiring medical attention — at a pre-designated point off Cape Leeuwin, the south west tip of Australia. [ John Asmussen, 2008, "Hilfskreuzer (Auxiliary Cruiser) Kormoran" (] Access date: April 9, 2008.] The two ships travelled north west together until 25 October. Detmers then intended to lay mines off Fremantle. However, after "Kormoran" headed back towards Australia, it received a radio warning from the "Seekriegsleitung" ("sea war command"; SKL) of a convoy approaching, escorted by the British heavy cruiser HMS "Cornwall" (which in May had sunk another German raider, "Pinguin"). Detmers took evasive action, changing course northward, before approaching the coast again near Shark Bay.

On 5 November, at Albany, Western Australia, "Sydney" began escorting the troopship "Zealandia",Plowman 2007, secondary sources, pp130-131] which was bound for Singapore. "Sydney" and "Zealandia" arrived at Fremantle on 9 November. They were delayed by industrial action on board "Zealandia", and did not leave Fremantle until 11 November. They reached Sunda Strait, on 17 November, and "Sydney" handed over the escort of "Zealandia" to HMS "Durban", before heading back towards Fremantle. "Sydney" was scheduled to arrive in the afternoon or evening of 20 November.

According to accounts by crew members of "Kormoran", she was off Dirk Hartog Island, and heading north when she was first sighted by "Sydney", at about 4 pm on 19 November. The two ships were about Convert|20|km|nmi apart. "Kormoran" ignored signals from "Sydney" and turned to port, heading for the open sea; the Australian ship followed. Detmers ordered the sending of radio signals, to the effect that the Dutch freighter "Straat Malakka" was being followed by an unknown warship. "Kormoran" had engine problems and could only make Convert|14|kn|km/h. The two ships began exchanging visual signals.cite book|author=sc|S|tevens, David |url= |title=The Royal Australian Navy in World War II |isbn=1741141842 |publisher=Allen & Unwin |date=2005 |accessdate=2008-03-23] A series of deliberately muddled and badly displayed flag signals were sent by "Kormoran", over a period of 90 minutes, as "Sydney" gained on the raider.

Detmers maintained the charade as long as possible, to take full advantage of surprise. He knew that he had a better chance in a battle at close range, where the effects of "Sydney"’s better weapons, gunnery control system, and armour protection would be diminished. Burnett eventually demanded a secret letter code from "Kormoran", by which time "Sydney" had approached to within about Convert|1000|m|yd of "Kormoran". [ [ Captain Detmers' book revisited] The Australian Association of Maritime History.] According to Detmers, "Sydney" was still to the rear, albeit on a parallel course and was not at action stations; he could "see the cruiser's pantry men in their white coats lining the rails, to have a look at the supposed Dutchman".

The battle

Detmers decided that he had no choice other than fighting; he ordered that the Dutch flag be struck and the German naval ensign hoisted. His crew went into action at or near coord|26|9|50|S|111|4|25|E|type:landmark_region:AU, at 17:30 hours.cite web |url=|title=Kormoran Action Report, pg2 |publisher=Sea Power (Royal Australian Navy Archive) |date=1941 |accessdate=2008-09-15] According to the crew of "Kormoran", the Australian warship was not fully prepared for battle – her 6-inch guns were trained on "Kormoran", but her secondary artillery was unmanned.

The first salvo from the German Convert|150|mm|in|adj=on heavy guns fell short, but simultaneous salvoes from the "Kormoran"’s 37 mm guns and 20 mm guns scored direct hits on "Sydney"’s bridge, gunnery direction tower and other parts of the superstructure. The 150 mm guns scored hits with their second salvo. The accuracy of the German gunners, in the opening minutes of the battle, likely killed many of the officers on "Sydney" and/or destroyed her gunnery control system, impeding the ability of turret crews to fire accurately. The seaplane on board "Sydney" was also hit and its fuel caused a major fire amidships.

Some of the turrets on "Sydney" then opened fire. According to the Germans, the first shots from "Sydney" appeared to be a "bracket salvo": a standard targeting technique, in which shells fell on either side of the target. "Sydney" then suffered hits that put the forward turrets ("A" and "B") out of action, leaving only the after turrets ("X" and "Y") operational. The crew of "Kormoran" reported that "X" turret opened fast and accurate fire, hitting "Kormoran" in the funnel and engine room, killing nearly all of the engineering staff and starting a major fire. "Y" turret is said to have fired only two or three salvoes, all of which went over. "Sydney" was also hit in the bow by at least one torpedo. [cite article |url= |title=HMAS Sydney II and the Kormoran; The action between HMAS Sydney and the auxiliary cruiser Kormoran, 19 November 1941 |publisher=Australian War Memorial |accessdate=2008-03-17]

"Sydney" then headed directly at "Kormoran", causing the Germans to think she was about to ram them. However, "Sydney" completed a 180 degree turn, apparently in order to use her starboard torpedoes. At 17:45, four torpedoes were fired, but were near misses behind "Kormoran". At around this time, the engines on "Kormoran" broke down.cite web |url=|title=Kormoran Action Report, pg3 |publisher=Sea Power (Royal Australian Navy Archive) |date=1941 |accessdate=2008-09-15]

Critically, "Sydney" was now exposed to further intense fire, this time along her starboard side. The volume of hits that she had now sustained along both sides of her superstructure and the resulting fires may have destroyed some of her lifeboats and rafts. [ JCFADT, Chapter 6] ] Only five of the warship's nine lifeboats lie with her wreck. [ [ Brendan Nicholson, "Sydney lifeboat mystery solved" "The Age", April 8, 2008] . Access date: 23 April 2008. ] "Sydney" was reportedly hit 50 times by the 150 mm guns on "Kormoran".

The Australian ship fired a last torpedo at 18:00 as she left the scene southwards. The German gunners continued firing at "Sydney" until 18:25, when Detmers gave the order to abandon ship. The order was given due to fires raging out of control on the German vessel, after reaching an oil store. [ Eyewitness accounts (in German)] (from "Der Spiegel")] By this time, battle damage had also destroyed the gunnery control system on "Kormoran".

Both ships sink

The Germans reported seeing "Sydney" on fire at the horizon until 10 pm that night, and saw flames emerging from time to time two hours later. Some time after the Australian ship disappeared from view, the Germans heard several loud explosions, and believed — perhaps erroneously — that these were the results of fire reaching magazines on "Sydney". However, examination of the wreck of "Sydney" has suggested that the root cause of her her sinking was the torpedo strike, which precipitated the breaking away of her bow, in rough seas. None of the 645 RAN and RAAF personnel on "Sydney" were seen again (with the possible exception of an unidentified body later found off Christmas Island).

Damage received during the battle had caused an uncontrollable fire in engine room of "Kormoran", that rendered the ship's fire fighting equipment unserviceable. There were 20 dead and fire was approaching the mine storage area. Detmers chose to scuttle the ship, and explosive charges were placed and the surviving crew took to the lifeboats, with Detmers the last to leave. The process of abandoning ship took several hours, as scuttling charges were set and additional boats had to be laboriously hand-winched from the holds to provide enough capacity for the whole crew. A further 40 Germans, mostly wounded, lost their lives when a boat capsized in the choppy water. Shortly after midnight the charges went off, followed 25 minutes later by the mines. The entire stern and midships section was engulfed in a gigantic sheet of flame that shot Convert|300|m|ft into the night sky as "Kormoran" went down by the stern.


Detmers, about 320 "Kriegsmarine" personnel and three Chinese civilian laundry workers, [The legal status of these men is not clear. China was neutral at the time and the men had been on a ship captured by "Kormoran". The Germans claimed the men had freely agreed to employment on "Kormoran"; this would have made them liable to internment in Australia with the Germans. However, the Australian authorities treated them as former POWs held by "Kormoran".] were rescued from their lifeboats and liferafts by the merchant ships "Aquitania", "Trocas", "Koolinda", "Centaur" and the anti-submarine vessel HMAS "Yandra". A further two lifeboats came ashore near 17 Mile Well and Red Bluff, north of Carnarvon. [ JCFADT, Chapter 2] ]

Nearly all of the Germans spent the rest of the war in POW Camps around Tatura, Victoria, from which they were not released until January 1947. [cite article |url= |title=The Sinking of HMAS Sydney; A Guide to Commonwealth Government Records |author=Richard Summerrell |publisher=The National Archives of Australia |accessdate=2008-03-17]


The Australian Advisory War Council, headed by Prime Minister John Curtin, in its minutes for 18 March 1942 (which were made public in 1987), quoted an RAN Court of Enquiry into the loss of "Sydney"::The 'Sydney' had worked into a position approximately 1500 yards [1,400 m] from the raider. The raider opened fire and launched two torpedoes, one of which hit the 'Sydney'. The raider had given a wrong name [that] was not on the daily list. The Captain of the 'Sydney' was 24 hours late in arriving at his rendezvous and had taken a risk in getting so close to the raider. In doing so he had not followed his orders.

:Furthermore the Gunnery Officer of 'Sydney' was not ready. He should have been able to fire first and get in two salvoes before the raider attacked.Cited by Advisory War Council, March 18, 1942 (Accession number A5954/69, p. 491; p. 125 of the digital version). Available through National Archives of Australia [ "Fact sheet 111 – The sinking of HMAS Sydney, November 1941"] (2007). Access date: April 9, 2008. ] A Court of Enquiry is normal procedure after the loss of any RAN ship, although all other details and records of this enquiry have been lost. The reference to "24 hours late" appears to mean the delay at Fremantle, before "Sydney" and "Zealandia" left for Sunda Strait. The suggestion that the Gunnery Officer on "Sydney" was "not ready" appears to refer to the period of time between "Kormoran" changing flags and the first salvo from the Australian gunners.

In Australia, many people found it difficult to believe that a converted merchant ship could sink a modern light cruiser. Many also found it difficult to believe that a senior officer like Burnett took his ship so close to an unidentified and possibly dangerous vessel during wartime, without preparing for action and with such disastrous results. It was also seen as strange that the bulk of the crew of "Kormoran" survived, while there were no known survivors from "Sydney", which made it the largest vessel of any Allied nationality to be sunk with all hands during World War II.

The dearth of evidence and the fact that the only survivors were from the "Kormoran" allowed the battle between "Sydney" and "Kormoran" to become the subject of some controversy, speculation and conspiracy theories over the years leading to the discovery of their wrecks. Anti-German feeling during the war also fostered disbelief in the German account of the battle.

Michael Montgomery, the son of "Sydney"’s navigator, put forward a controversial theory in "Who Sank the Sydney?" (1981). He claimed firstly that "Kormoran" had been assisted by a submarine from the Imperial Japanese Navy, two weeks before Japan officially entered the war. Secondly, Montgomery suggested, to conceal the Japanese involvement, survivors from "Sydney" were machine-gunned while in the water. [cite book |title=Who Sank the Sydney? |author=Michael Montgomery |date=1983 |accessdate=2008-03-24 |isbn=0436284472 |publisher=Leo Cooper, Secker & Warburg |url=]

However, there is no evidence that the crew of the "Kormoran" committed war crimes, or that Japanese personnel were involved in the sinking of "Sydney". [cite book |title=HMAS Sydney. Loss and Controversy |publisher=Hodder & Stoughton |location=Sydney |pages=177 |date=1983 |author=Thomas R. Frame |accessdate=2008-03-24 |url=] Any such action, 18 days prior to Japan's planned entry into the war, would have risked the element of surprise that Japanese forces achieved on 7 December, when they launched a series of attacks against several different countries.

Contrary to what some might assume, "Kormoran" was not very much weaker than "Sydney" in terms of armament. [The primary armament on "Sydney" was 8 x 152 mm guns, on "Kormoran" it was 6 x 150 mm guns, although they were over 30 years old and only 4 of them could form a broadside.] "Kormoran" was not comparable to a normal warship in terms of armour, speed and fire control, but this might not have counted for very much in an unconventional action at short range where it had the element of surprise. [ [ "The Last Fight of HMAS Sydney" Jason Freeman 2008] ] Even before the war, there was concern about some features of "Sydney"’s design making her vulnerable to attack. [See "HMAS Sydney (1934) article.]

Some sources suggest that Burnett believed he was dealing with "Kulmerland" or another unarmed German supply ship and intended sending a boarding party to prevent the Germans from scuttling her. "Kulmerland" was very similar in appearance to "Kormoran", and the Allies knew she had been operating in Australasian waters, disguised as a (then-neutral) Japanese vessel, while the location of "Kormoran" was unknown. The only photograph of "Kormoran" supplied to "Sydney" was poor and gave a false impression of her appearance.

The emotive nature of these issues in Australia has resulted in discussion and debate regarding them sometimes becoming heated. In 1999, an Australian Parliament Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade stated that: " [t] he statement of differing views [on the fate of HMAS "Sydney"] has become a dialogue of the deaf rather than a fruitful exchange within the norms of historical discourse."


Searches for the wrecks of the two ships have been ongoing for a long time, both as historical research projects, and with increasing capability to detect submersed wrecks, as actual expeditions into the supposed sinking area. In the 2000s, the Australian government also invested substantial funds into the search.

The Finding Sydney Foundation eventually announced that the wreckage of the "Kormoran" had been found on 15 March 2008, at coord|26|05|49.4|S|111|04|27.5|E|region:AU_type:landmark, during a partly private [cite web |url= |publisher=HMAS Sydney Search Pty Ltd |date=2008 |accessdate=2008-04-02 |title=Sponsors] and partly government-funded search for the "Sydney" launched at the beginning of March. [cite news |url= |title=Kormoran's ocean grave found|publisher=Sydney Morning Herald |date=2008-03-17 |accessdate=2008-03-17]

On 17 March 2008, the wreckage of HMAS "Sydney" was found at coord|26|14|37|S|111|13|03|E|type:wreck_region:AU|name=HMAS Sydney, approximately Convert|100|nmi|km west of Steep Point and Convert|12|nmi|km south-east of the "Kormoran" wreckage. [cite news |url= |title=HMAS Sydney (II) Discovered |publisher=Finding Sydney |date=2008-03-17 |accessdate=2008-03-17]

At approximately 8:30 am on that same day, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd confirmed [cite press release |url= |title=Announcement on the Finding of the HMAS "Sydney" and German Vessel, "Kormoran" |date=2008-03-17 |accessdate=2007-03-18 |publisher=Government of Australia] that the wreckage was that of the "Sydney", at a depth of Convert|2470|m|ft. Vice Admiral Russ Shalders said: "For 66 years, this nation has wondered where the "Sydney" was and what occurred to her, we've uncovered the first part of that mystery...the next part of the mystery, of course, is what happened." [cite news |url=,23739,23387679-952,00.html |title=Wreck of warship HMAS Sydney found |publisher=The Courier Mail |date=2008-03-17 |accessdate=2008-03-17]


Further reading

* Anon., "Sydney" Still Controversial," "Naval History" magazine (Annapolis, Md., October 2005)

External links

* [ Maritimequest HMAS Sydney photo gallery]
* [ Finding Sydney Foundation]
* [ HMAS Sydney II Memorial Geraldton]

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