HMAS Sydney: Australia's Greatest Naval Tragedy

Sydney's crew
Sydney's crew

By MarEx 2016-11-23 23:02:33

The Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Sydney sank 75 years ago on November 19 and was the subject of intrigue for decades to follow.

HMAS Sydney was one of three modified Leander-class light cruisers operated by the Royal Australian Navy. On November 19, 1941, Sydney was involved in a mutually destructive engagement with the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran, and was lost with all 645 onboard. 318 of the Kormoran’s complement of 390 survived.

Sydney was off the coast of Western Australia, near Carnarvon, and heading south towards Fremantle when she spotted a merchant ship. Sydney made to intercept and signaled the vessel. The merchant ship hoisted her callsign, but as she was ahead and just port of Sydney, the flags were obscured by the funnel. The Sydney requested that the merchant ship make her signal letters clear, which the signals officer did by lengthening the halyard and swinging the flags clear. The callsign was that of the Dutch ship Straat Malakka, but she was not on Sydney's list of ships meant to be in the area.
A short while later, a distress signal was transmitted by Straat Malakka, indicating that she was being pursued by a merchant raider. Following this, Sydney pulled alongside the merchant ship from astern approximately 1,300 meters (4,300 feet) away. Sydney's main guns and port torpedo launcher were trained on the ship, and Sydney sent a signal ordering her to show the secret callsign.

Straat Malakka did not reply, because she was the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran in disguise. Instead, she began decamouflaging and opened fire. Sydney also fired, although accounts are divided as to which ship fired first. Sydney’s first salvo either missed or passed through Kormoran's upper superstructure with minimal damage, but four of the raider's six 15-centimeter (5.9 inch) guns were able to destroy the Sydney’s bridge and gun director tower, damage the forward turrets and set the aircraft on fire.

Sydney's defeat is commonly attributed to the proximity of the two ships during the engagement and Kormoran's advantages of surprise and rapid, accurate fire. However, the cruiser's loss with all hands compared to the survival of most of the Germans has resulted in controversy.

The disbelief that a modified merchant ship could defeat a cruiser combined with the lack of Australian survivors led some to believe that the Germans fired on Sydney before raising their battle ensign or after using a flag of surrender or signals of distress to lure the cruiser in. 

There were also rumors that a Japanese submarine was partially or completely responsible for sinking Sydney, that the involvement of the Japanese was covered up to lure the United States into the war and that Australian survivors were killed in the water to eliminate witnesses.

Other claims included a belief that Sydney was not at action stations and thus not prepared for Kormoran's attack, distress calls from the cruiser were heard by Australian shore facilities but ignored and that survivors were captured then executed by the Japanese. 

These claims have been proven false by historians and researchers. However, some have speculated on why Sydney was so close to an unknown vessel, with various levels of blame assigned to Captain Burnett for the demise of his ship.

Sydney's destruction was a major blow to Australian morale and military capability; her ship's company made up 35 percent of the Royal Australian Navy's wartime casualties.

The wrecks of both ships were lost until 2008 when renewed efforts to find the Sydney came to fruition, confirming her fate and bringing closure to the mystery.