HMAS Sydney II in her 'war paint'
The first ship to bear the name HMAS Sydney was a Town class light cruiser in World War One. It became the first R.A.N. ship to engage the enemy and destroyed the German light cruiser Emden off the Cocos Islands on the 9th of November 1914.
The second ship to bear this name in the Royal Australian Navy was a Perth class light cruiser. She already had battle honours from engaging and sinking the Italian light cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni and badly damaging a second light cruiser in the same action.
On November 11th 1941 the Sydney left Fremantle on a routine escort mission. She was due back in port on November 20th. When nothing was heard from the cruiser by November 23rd a search was organised and when German sailors were rescued in the Shark Bay area it was discovered that the Sydney had been involved in a fight with the German raiding ship Kormoran.
A comparison of the two ships:
A simple comparison of the two ships main armament and the maximum speeds clearly shows that the Sydney was far superior to the Kormoran. The Kormoran could not out-run Sydney and the Sydney could easily have sat out of range of the Kormoran's guns and attacked with her own main armament.
Sydney could bring all her 8 main guns to bear at the same time whereas Kormoran could only engage with a maximum of 4 guns from her main armament of 6.
The question that will probably never be answered is, why did Captain Joseph Burnett take his ship to less than 2000 yards of the Kormoran when the identity of the freighter was in doubt and she had already acted suspiciously?
Whatever the reason was, it put his ship in grave danger and the crew paid for it with their lives.
We will probably never know why a heavily armed light cruiser was so badly damaged by a converted freighter that none of the crew managed to survive. The following is a likely scenario based on what is known at present.
The HMAS Sydney memorial in Carnarvon
What really happened ?
HMAS Sydney having successfully escorted her charge to a point near Christmas Island, handed over to a British ship and turned back for Fremantle. Late in the afternoon of November 19th 1941 the Sydney spotted an unidentified freighter and immediately gave chase. The freighter changed course away from the safety of the W.A. coast and increased speed - something that would have alerted Captain Burnett to possible danger - and Sydney sent signals requesting that the freighter identify itself and telling it to stop.
Eventually Sydney received a reply that the freighter was the Dutch ship, Straat Malacca, but no proper identification code was given. For whatever reason Captain Burnett now decided to close on the freighter instead of launching his seaplane to investigate further.
When pressed to give their secret identity code the German ship dropped its camouflage and immediately began firing at Sydney at a range estimated of around 1600 yards.
Reports from German crew members are that Sydney's bridge was hit with the first or second salvo and after a short time the front gun turrets on Sydney were out of action. The seaplane was destroyed and much of Sydney's superstructure was hit. She quickly became engulfed in fire. The lack of radio contact (1) from the Sydney after she was engaged, supports the reports that the superstructure and forward mast (with radio ariels) had been badly damaged. Sydney was also hit by a torpedo from Kormoran at about this time.
Sydney now turned to port (left) and crossed the stern of the Kormoran and we believe that this is probably what would eventually lead to all the crew losing their lives.
Whether the turn was deliberate, or whether it was caused by damage we can never know, but it now brought Sydney's starboard side into the sights of the German guns. It seems likely that the lifeboats on Sydney's port side had already been destroyed by the initial salvos and now the boats on the starboard side were exposed.
As she passed astern, Sydney fired 4 torpedos at Kormoran and soon afterward the rear turrets engaged the raider. Kormoran was fatally damaged and the engagement broke off after about 55 minutes with Sydney sailing away at about 7 knots to the south east and burning fiercely. Kormoran was soon abandoned and it was around 11 pm that a glow on the horizon from the fires on Sydney was last seen.
Assuming that all Sydney's lifeboats had been destroyed in the fight, there was nowhere for the crew to go. There were some floats and life preservers on board but these would not keep anyone alive for more than about 4 days. The search did not begin until 5 days after the engagement and the searchers were not even in the right area to begin with.
One of the most perplexing things about the loss of the Sydney was the lack of floating wreckage or a large oil slick. This may be explained by the extensive fires that engulfed the ship for over 4 hours. No large explosion was reported by the German crew so it is unlikely that the ship broke apart. (2) With the upper decks burned out there would be little to escape the hull if she sank relatively intact. A few items were eventually found washed up but not many could be conclusively linked back to HMAS Sydney.
It is still unknown where the Sydney or the Kormoran finally came to rest (3) but when the sites are located some of the mystery surrounding this incident may finally be solved.
The Sydney seems to have been needlessly put in harm's way with the resulting tragic loss of whole ship's crew. Over the years all sorts of excuses have been given for Captain Burnett's actions but the fact remains that he could easily have stayed out of range of the German guns and identified the ship as a raider from a safe distance. The question then has to be raised, was Captain Burnett negligent or is it possible then that he was lured in too close when the German skipper raised a white flag or signalled his intention to surrender and then opened fire when Sydney was too close to miss?
If this was what happened would the loss of all Sydney's crew then be due to them being machine gunned while in the water in order to leave no witnesses to what would have been a war crime? While it does seem possible (even probable) that the 'surrender' theory is a good explanation for Burnett bringing his ship in so close, the loss of the Sydney's entire company was more likely due to the scenario discussed earlier with the loss of all lifeboats and the subsequent sinking of the ship. We will never know if any of the crew took to the water while HMAS Sydney was still close to the Kormoran but it does seem rather unlikely as she was still apparently under power as she left the scene of the battle. Even though she was on fire at this time, the crew would be more concerned with trying to get the fires under control.
When later questioned about the issue of raising the German flag before commencing firing, those men who shared a lifeboat with the German captain were all most adamant that the flag was raised before firing commenced. This seems to indicate, at the very least, some pre-planning of a story to tell once they were taken prisoner as it became evident from interviewing the men in this life boat that not all of them would have been in a position to know if the German flag had been raised or not.
Some members of the German crew reported seeing the Sydney's port cutter being readied and lowered as she closed with the Kormoran. This gives further weight to the theory that the Kormoran had indicated that it was surrendering and that Burnett was preparing to board her.
The only members of the Sydney's crew not to be killed were two stokers who were absent without leave before the ship sailed. Luckily for them they were in lock-up when the ship left Fremantle.
On February 6th 1942 a raft containing the body of a dead seaman washed up on the shore of Christmas Island. It has been said that this body came from the Sydney but as no investigation could be carried out at the time this has not been proven. In October 2006 the remains were exhumed and a metal object was found inside the skull. This has been variously reported as a 9mm bullet or a piece of shrapnel.
We believe that some DNA testing was done on the remains to try and identify who the sailor was but the tests were not extensive enough and to date no conclusion has been reached.
It can be dangerous for those who write history to make conclusions about events that happened so long ago but from all the available information we have seen to date we feel that it is most likely that HMAS Sydney was lured in under a flag of surrender and was then torpedoed and fired on without warning. We consider that the sinking of HMAS Sydney was a war crime and that given the available facts the Royal Australian Navy should have reached this conclusion a long time ago.
There are some questions about the sinking of HMAS Sydney that will never be answered, but we hope that the location of the site where she finally came to rest will give some closure to the remaining family members of the men who gave their lives in the service of their country.
The remains of the HMAS Sydney II were found by the Finding Sydney Foundation on 16th March 2008 at 26 14 37 S 111 13 03 E, approximately 207km (128 miles) from Steep Point on the west coast of Western Australia at a depth of around 2,468 metres.
The remains of the HSK Kormoran were found by the same group on 12th March 2008 at 26 05 49.4 S 111 04 27.5 E, approximately 207km (128 miles) from the Steep Point, at a depth of approximately 2,560 metres.
The mystery partly answered.
Once the Sydney was located it quickly became apparent that she had gone to the bottom with several of her lifeboats mostly undamaged and still attached to their stations. (So much for our theory on that one!) The most surprising find was the bow section of the Sydney located near to but detached from the main part of the ship.
It appears from this that the Sydney had been under way and heading for the coast when the bow section, already weakened by the strike from a torpedo broke off in a heavy swell. At this point the Sydney and her crew had no chance of survival. The ship would have flooded in minutes with no chance to launch the life boats.
While this finally answers the question of why none of the crew survived it does not answer the question of why Sydney came so close to the German ship. Was Sydney's captain negligent? Did the Germans open fire under a flag of surrender? These are questions that can never be answered.
The names of a few of the 645 men lost aboard HMAS Sydney
A personal perspective
Leslie Michael Blom Jr. (Les) is the son of HMAS Sydney crew member Leslie Michael Blom Sr., a stoker aboard the ship when she was engaged in the battle with the Kormoran.
Les was born soon after the sinking of the Sydney and so he never had the opportunity to meet his father.
He remembers talking to his mother about his father and was told that when his mum expressed her concern about her husband's safety, Les Sr. had always said 'Don't worry, if anything ever happens to the ship I'll get home somehow, even if I have to swim.'
From the material he has gathered about the Sydney, Les Jr. believes that the body of the sailor who washed up on Christmas Island was dressed in the overalls of someone from a ship's engine room. Les has always wondered if this might just have been his father who was attempting to fulfil his promise to his wife and trying to make it home any way he could.
With the advent of DNA testing, we believe that some tests were carried out on the remains from Christmas Island but Les was never asked to submit a DNA sample. As the tests done to date have never been able to show who the sailor was, we feel it would be appropriate for more testing to be done if the DNA samples available are still viable.
Les' mother waited the rest of her life for her husband to return, she never re-married and in the years soon after the sinking, if she saw a sailor in uniform who from behind reminded her of her husband, she would go up and tap him on the shoulder in the hope that it was her husband back from the war. She died at the age of 73, still waiting for her husband to come home.
Latest information on the mystery sailor.
The unidentified sailor's DNA has been sequenced and current attempts to identify him centre around 50 of the ship's crew. The sailor had unique dental work and from the investigations to date he was believed to be tall, 168-187cm, to have size 11 feet, to be right handed and aged between 22 and 31. He was of European ancestry, had red hair, blue eyes and pale skin. His dental work included 9 gold fillings and two missing teeth. He is thought to have come from NSW or Queensland and top have eaten a diet high in seafood as a child. If any more information becomes available we will add it here.
Les' mother worked for the Lord Mayor of Fremantle (Sir Lionel Sampson) and with the other wives and girlfriends of the sailors on board the Sydney, she would walk the short distance down to a spot near the docks at Fremantle and look out to sea, waiting for the ship to come back into port. This was the inspiration behind the bronze statue that was erected at the Geraldton HMAS Sydney memorial, but the statue would have been much better placed in Fremantle where the wives would wait for their loved ones to come home.
Joe and Ivy Mallard operated Carrarang Station during the Second World War and Ivy made a statement in 1992 about events that took place one evening while she and her husband were relaxing on the verandah. Ivy wrote:
'Joe and I were sitting on the verandah late afternoon about dinnertime when we heard strange loud noises which were coming from the north west, away over the coast and across Dirk Hartog Island. There was a lot of heavy boom booming going on, maybe for ten or fifteen minutes with flashes and flares plainly visible. There was an enormous amount of grey smoke and some was black. Suddenly there was a huge explosion and burst of heavy black smoke going up in all directions, similar to atom bombs, with flashes and bangs. It quietened down suddenly. We were both terrified as we watched it all and Joe said there must be a battle going on out there...'