- Sullivan, John
- WWII operations, WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Sydney I, HMAS Sydney II
- September 1991 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
SYDNEY had been registering hits on the enemy for some time, mostly on COLLEONI, which was the nearer of the two targets. Eventually COLLEONI was stopped, and her crew began to abandon her. She had not suffered a great deal of damage on the upper deck, but SYDNEY’s shells had penetrated the thin hull and caused havoc internally. Leaving two of the destroyers to sink her with torpedoes, SYDNEY chased after BANDE NERE and scored more hits, but the Italian had the legs of SYDNEY, even with her freshly cleaned bottom, and she succeeded in getting away. Collins abandoned the chase at 1037, with great reluctance, after having been ordered to return to Alexandria. In any case, he was nearly out of 6″ ammunition. As a result of this action, coupled with an earlier Fleet action at Calabria, the Italian surface forces remained in harbour for a long time to come.
Now we come to the final scene. We return to the Indian Ocean, but considerably closer to Australia than the action between SYDNEY (1) and EMDEN. The German merchant raider KORMORAN was originally the Hamburg-Amerika Line’s STEIERMARK of 8,736 tons, and she had been requisitioned as she completed her builder’s trials. She was fitted with 6 x 5.9″ guns, of which four constituted a broadside, as well as anti-aircraft and close-range weapons, and six torpedo tubes. She carried two seaplanes, but as she had no catapult these had to be launched overside by crane. This was difficult to do in anything other than a flat calm, and consequently they were seldom used. She also carried approximately 360 mines. She was commissioned into the German Navy in October 1940, under the command of Korvettenkapitan Theodor Detmers. She sailed on 3rd December, 1940, disguised as the Russian VYACHESLA MOLOTOV and commenced operations in the Atlantic, where she sank or captured eight ships. On 1st May, 1941, she passed into the Indian Ocean, where she apparently adopted the disguise of the Dutch STRAAT MALAKKA and later a Japanese ship. Detmers picked off three more victims in the Indian Ocean. The last of these was a small unarmed Greek steamer which was sunk on 25th September. Several times KORMORAN intended to lay some of her mines, but in the event she never laid any at all.
SYDNEY, now commanded by Captain Joseph Burnett, left Fremantle on 11th November, 1941, escorting the troopship ZEALANDIA on her way to Singapore. She handed ZEALANDIA over to HMS DURBAN in Sunda Strait, when she signalled her expected return to Fremantle as 20th November. That was the last that was seen or heard of SYDNEY, except by KORMORAN. The only information available came from survivors of KORMORAN. On 19th November the two ships made contact and in the ensuing battle SYDNEY sank KORMORAN, but in so doing she received very heavy damage herself. Did she blow up as a result of the raging fires aboard? Many of the statements from KORMORAN survivors are contradictory, or to say the least, hard to believe.
This article is not the place to discuss the various controversial issues which are associated with SYDNEY’s loss. If the answers are ever to be known, it will have to be soon. There can’t be too many of KORMORAN’s survivors who are still alive, and they alone can tell what really happened. Why were there no survivors from SYDNEY? When HOOD blew up there were only three survivors rescued, but there were probably many others who escaped the explosion only to perish in the icy Arctic waters. There were many more survivors from BARHAM when she blew up in the much warmer Mediterranean, and it could be expected that this would be the case in the Indian Ocean.
It is suggested that a study of Michael Montgomery’s book, “Who Sank the SYDNEY?“, might be worthwhile. This book is certainly controversial, but it does not – cannot – give answers to the many problems involved in the sinking of SYDNEY.
Barbara Winters’ “HMAS SYDNEY – Fact, Fantasy and Fraud” is also well worth studying.
Hopefully this article has brought back many memories to our older readers, and whetted the appetites of the younger ones for a better understanding of naval history.