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.