Sydney vs. Kormoran
The wrecks of the HMAS Sydney and HK Kormoran were just found off the west coast of Australia. They were lost on November 18th 1941. To be more accurate, they sank each other in battle on that day during World War Two. It’s an interesting story in a macabre sort of way, and a mystery and a lesson to boot. War story, mystery, lessons…Doug’s Darkworld fodder for sure!
First, the Sydney. This ship was the pride of Australia’s navy in World War Two. It was a light cruiser, a large heavily armed and armoured warship. While not a battleship, it was still a major warship. And a heroic one at that, the Sydney sank several Italian warships during the previous summer, including the light cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni. Then it was called home to defend Australian waters, and while on patrol it discovered a suspicious ship in the late afternoon and investigated it. And the Australians were right to be suspicious, the ship they were investigating was a German commerce raider, a small heavily armed freighter disguised as a merchant ship. The Kormoran would slink around the world’s oceans and catch Allied merchant ships by surprise and sink or capture them. During nearly a year at sea the Kormoran had sunk ten Allied merchant ships and captured one.
Still, the Kormoran was an unarmoured freighter. Any fight between the two should have been no contest. The Sydney was a warship, heavily armoured, and had accurate long range guns. The Kormoran was well armed for fighting against merchant ships, but simply put, it wasn’t really a warship. Once the Sydney figured out that the Kormoran was a German merchant raider, she could have stood of at some distance and blown the Kormoran out of the water. And despite trickery, the Kormoran didn’t know the proper codes to identify itself, so the Sydney should have been able to figure it out fairly quickly.
However, for some unknown reason, while the Kormoran’s captain was stalling wildly on the radio, the Sydney approached to within less than 1500 metres of the Kormoran. The Germans couldn’t believe their luck, 1500 metres is point blank range in modern naval warfare, and the Kormoran was heavily armed for fighting at that distance. In fact by some accounts the Sydney didn’t even have its guns trained on the Kormoran as it approached! Without warning the Kormoran opened fire with everything it had, in moments the Sydney had been raked with cannon fire, destroying its bridge, most of its weapons, and starting several large fires. The Sydney turned and fled, though it got off a few shots that did mortal damage to the Kormoran and it started to burn and sink as well.
The Germans continued to fire at the burning Sydney as it fled, and watched several explosions in the distance during the night as they sat in their life rafts. Over the next few days they either made it to Australia or were picked up at sea, in either case they were taken as prisoners of war. As for the Sydney, it was 48 hours before the Australian navy even realized something had happened to it. A huge search was organized, and nothing but a few pieces of flotsam were found. The Sydney, and it’s entire crew of 645 men, was gone.
The loss of the Sydney with its entire crew was the worst loss in Australian maritime history, and it was the largest ship lost with its entire crew during the war. Australians couldn’t understand how a warship like the Sydney could have been sunk by an unarmoured freighter. Ever since that day it’s been a mystery, and a source of wild speculation. Why did the Sydney approach so close to the Kormoran? How could it have been lost with its entire crew? Some speculated that a Japanese submarine torpedoed the Sydney. Some speculated that the Kormoran had machine gunned the Sydney’s crew while they were abandoning ship or while they were in their lifeboats. I mean, there had to be some explanation, didn’t there?
Obviously there was an investigation. Numerous ones over the years. The Kormoran’s crew had been captured, separated, and interrogated at length. They all told pretty much the same story, and while some still maintain the Germans must have been lying, most people agree that they simply didn’t have the time to make up and memorize an elaborate lie down to the smallest detail. Every investigation into the sinking concluded that the Germans were indeed telling the truth. And the Japanese submarine idea was never credible, Japan wasn’t at war yet, why would they take such a risk? Sadly it is entirely possible that at point blank range the Kormoran could have destroyed the Sydney just as the German’s claimed.
Why did the Sydney get so close is the true enduring mystery. Captain Joseph Barnett was new to the Sydney and it was the first ship he had commanded, and it’s a safe bet that overconfidence and poor judgement played a part. It was late in the day, maybe Barnett wanted to be sure of his target and was getting close for a good visual inspection. (In fact that’s why the Kormoran opened fire when it did, any closer and the crew of the Sydney would see all the naval mines stored on the Kormoran’s deck and the ruse would be over.) It’s also possible that Barnett didn’t want to waste ammunition when he opened fire, another captain had been censured recently for using up almost his entire supply of ammo sinking a German commerce raider from a safe distance.
We’ll never know what was going on in his mind. However, with the finding of the wrecks at least some questions will be answered. Experts will be able to assess what did sink the Sydney, and the wreckage will be carefully compared to the German account of the battle. And why the Sydney sank with all hands instead of abandoning ship might also be revealed.
An interesting and new story to me, though it’s always been a big story in Australia. Other than the mystery of it all, there is one major point it illustrates. The side with the biggest and best weapons doesn’t always win the fight. If one was betting on a fight between the Kormoran and the Sydney, I doubt there would have been anyone betting on the Kormoran. In war, upset victories do happen, there are no guarantees.
Something Americans should think about the next time our leaders propose a war that we “can’t lose.”
August 13 2009 update, the report is in, the mystery has been solved: WWII Mystery Ends. It’s pretty much what most expected, the bridge crew was almost certainly killed in the first salvo, the Sydney stood little chance after that. God rest their souls.
(The above images are all public domain under Australian and German copyright law as far as I can determine. Click on the image of the crew to see the full size version of the picture. 645 men killed in the middle of nowhere by other men who had sailed halfway around the world in an armed merchant ship, war sure seems absurd sometimes, doesn’t it? God rest their souls, and the 60 men of the Kormoran who died that day as well. Oh, and the German survivors don’t think there is any mystery. They think the Australian captain was criminally stupid.)