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Australia's War 1939 - 1945
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HMAS Sydney
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Camouflage, HMAS Sydney, Frank Norton, 1941.
[Oil on cardboard 36 x 31.5 cm, AWM ART 30019]
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'HMAS Sydney comes home from the Mediterranean'
[AWM F01465]

Crew members aboard HMAS Sydney peer through the hole in the forward funnel, damaged during the action against the Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni off Cape Spada, Crete, in July 1940.
[AWM 002435]

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'Sydney welcomes Sydney, February 1941'
[AWM F01465]

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German survivors from the auxiliary cruiser Kormoran being towed to port in lifeboats P2 and P4 from the British merchant ship Centaur.
[AWM 305987]

HMAS Sydney
The HMAS Sydney Memorial on Mount Scott,
Geraldton, Western Australia.
[DVA]

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.

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‘… further search has been
abandoned’. A secret cable
dated 30 November 1941
for transmission to the
Governor-General and
Prime Minister John Curtin
from the Secretary,
Department of the Navy.
[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.

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'extreme anxiety and
persistent rumours'
[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.

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The dome of the HMAS Sydney Memorial
incorporates 645 seagulls, a gull for
each life lost.
[DVA]

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.

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Petty Officer Neil Knight
(front centre) with
members of the crew of
HMAS Sydney, Greece,
circa 1940. Petty Officer
Knight was lost with
the Sydney.
[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.

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A Carley float (life raft), the sole relic of HMAS
Sydney’s last engagement, now in the
Australian War Memorial. The float was
recovered from the sea 320 kilometres north of
Carnarvon on 27 November 1941. It was
damaged by machine-gun and shellfire and
contained two empty lifebelts.
[AWM 135152]

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.

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'There's action on the Sydney'
[AWM PR01413]

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.

 

 

Australia at war 3 September 1939
Libya and the Siege of Tobruk 1941
Greece and Crete April-May 1941
Syria and Lebanon June 1941
Malaya December 1941 to Moresby May 1942
Australia under attack 1940-1945
Coral Sea, Kokoda, Milne Bay May-September 1942
El Alamein October-November 1942
The Home Front 1939-1945
The Coastwatchers 1941-1945
Australian prisoners of war 1940-1945
Little-known operations 1939-1945
Papua 1942-1943
The Japanese retreat March 1943-January 1944
War at sea 1939-1945
Air war Europe 1939-1945
Bougainville, Borneo, New Britain, New Guinea 1944-1945
8 May 1945/15 August 1945
Australia at war 3 September 1939
Libya and the Siege of Tobruk 1941
Greece and Crete April-May 1941
Syria and Lebanon June 1941
Malaya December 1941 to Moresby May 1942
Australia under attack 1940-1945
Coral Sea, Kokoda, Milne Bay May-September 1942
El Alamein October-November 1942
The Home Front 1939-1945
The Coastwatchers 1941-1945
Australian prisoners of war 1940-1945
Little-known operations 1939-1945
Papua 1942-1943
The Japanese retreat March 1943-January 1944
War at sea 1939-1945
Air war Europe 1939-1945
Bougainville, Borneo, New Britain, New Guinea 1944-1945
8 May 1945/15 August 1945
Camouflage, HMAS Sydney, Frank Norton, 1941.
[Oil on cardboard 36 x 31.5 cm, AWM ART 30019]
Crew members aboard HMAS Sydney peer through the hole in the forward funnel, damaged during the action against the Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni off Cape Spada, Crete, in July 1940.
[AWM 002435]