[Oil on cardboard 36 x 31.5 cm, AWM ART 30019]
Nobody who was on Mount Scott that morning will forget the seagulls.
On 19 November 1998, during the strains of the Last Post at the dedication of the HMAS Sydney memorial site in Geraldton, a large flock of silver seagulls flew in formation above the crowd. The memorial’s sculptor, Joan Walsh Smith, was so struck by the flight of the birds that she decided to incorporate 645 seagulls into the ‘dome of souls’ she was designing; a gull for each of the men who lost their lives in HMAS Sydney.
[NAA A1608 file S51/1/6]
One-third of the RAN’s officers and men lost during the war were lost on 19 November 1941 when the Sydney sank with all hands. The German raider Kormoran, heavily disguised as the Dutch freighter Straat Malakaa, apparently lured the technologically superior warship Sydney into range of its guns and torpedoes. Both ships were critically damaged and sank after the action. The loss of the Sydney and of all 645 men – 635 RAN, six RAAF and four civilian canteen staff – on board has generated not only enormous grief but a lot of controversy in the years since. The sudden loss of the Australian cruiser with all her crew; the fruitless searches for both shipwrecks and our dependency on the German survivors for eyewitness accounts of the battle have made it very difficult for many families to accept their loss. As well, allegations of a ‘cover-up’ by the Australian Government and the RAN, alleged breaches of the Geneva Convention by the German crew, and a number of unsubstantiated rumours have continued to fuel public speculation about the demise of the Sydney.
[NAA A1608 S51/1/6]
In January 1941, Sydney returned from a nine-month deployment in the Mediterranean. In June 1940, she had taken part in the bombardment of Bardia in Libya and in July she had joined the Malta-bound convoys as part of the Mediterranean Battle Fleet. On 19 July, Sydney fired 956 shells in an action that sank the Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni in the waters just north of Cape Spada, Crete. Sydney continued in action against the Italian convoys and participated in bombardments of the Libyan coast before leaving Alexandria in January 1941 for Australia. Arriving in Sydney, the ship’s commanding officer, Captain John Collins, RAN, and his crew were greeted by enthusiastic crowds and given a civic reception: their success at Cape Spada had made them ‘the toast of the country’.
After undergoing a refit in Sydney, HMAS Sydney sailed for the west coast of Australia with a new commanding officer, Captain Joseph Burnett, RAN.
During 1941, the cruiser carried out escort and patrol duties in the Indian Ocean and around Australian waters. 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.
[Image courtesy of Neil’s
nephew, John Clapton]
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, Commander Theodor Detmers, was unable to respond to the Sydney’s request for the Straat Malakka’s secret signal. As the distance between the two ships narrowed he apparently struck the Dutch flag, hoisted the German colours and, already at action stations, fired at the ill-prepared Australian cruiser at almost point-blank range. The Sydney’s bridge and director tower were hit within seconds and for 30 minutes the two ships fired guns and torpedoes at each other.
By 6.00 pm, the crippled Sydney sat low in the water with its forward area ablaze as it staggered away from the enemy. At 6.25 pm, despite their own difficulties, the Germans fired one last shot at the departing Australians who by now were about 10 kilometres away. Detmers then concentrated on abandoning his own ship, sending most of the crew off 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.
The first serious 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 crew of 393 officers and men were rescued. A badly damaged RAN Carley float (life raft), now in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, 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 remains 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 12 nautical miles away the Geosounder’s crew located HMAS Sydney 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.