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- RAN operations, WWII operations, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Sydney II
- June 2008 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
In the actual situation described above, the cruiser asked for our secret call sign and by this initiated her own tragedy. We would have wished that she let us get off. None of us wanted to die. But, since we could not give the secret call sign, because we did not know it, we had no choice but to fight.
Our great advantage was that we were conscious of the Sydney as an enemy. Therefore we were from the beginning fully prepared for battle. In addition we could do something, which is now very rare in warship encounters. The usual great range of modern warfare only allows shooting at a ship as a whole, not any particular parts of a ship. The extremely close range gave us a chance, to choose special aims for each of the four guns: the front turrets, the bridge, the aircraft because of its explosives and fire-causing petrol, the rear turrets. Sydney‘s turrets were directed against us. We could look into the guns as if they were rifles. The torpedo tubes and the heavy anti-aircraft guns were not manned. On the other hand our two torpedo tubes were ready as well as the 3.7 cm and 2 cm anti-aircraft weapons.
When Sydney, as I have already mentioned, asked for our secret call sign, Captain Detmers informed the Kormoran crew of this fact and that now the fight was unavoidable. At the order ‘Decamouflage’ the guns were made free for action. At the same time the Dutch colours were lowered and simultaneously the German ensign was hoisted. It takes a very short time. Only after the report by the signalman: ‘Ensign is fluttering’, the order ‘Fire’ followed. All targets were hit besides the rear turrets. Most probably Captain Burnett and some of the senior officers had been already killed. The aircraft exploded according to plan and started a fire amidships. A torpedo struck the cruiser forward. Her bow dived down deeply but rose again. Otherwise Kormoran would have survived. There followed one salvo after the other. Our anti-aircraft guns swept the deck, particularly the torpedo tubes and the anti-aircraft guns in order to prevent the fires being extinguished.
What was the reaction of the cruiser? She immediately responded fire, but the first salvo, the only one with all turrets, was too high. Obviously the central fire control had been destroyed by our first salvo, because not till after our eighth salvo, Sydney‘s rear turrets began to fire again. Amongst the scored hits one was deadly for us. I will explain it later.
Another remarkable action of the Sydney was that soon after the battle began, she turned directly towards the Kormoran, most probably in order to ram her. This was a promising measure to sink her adversary with the help of the severely damaged ship herself. She missed her aim, but the distance was frightfully short. It seemed we could reach her by our outstretched hands. So she went over to the other side. During this manoeuvre, the limitation of our guns became particularly obvious. For a certain time only one of the two rear guns was able to fire at the cruiser. At first the gun on the port side, thereafter the gun on the starboard side. Our guns had become much too hot. They had to be cooled by water. I was stationed at this place to assist the second gunnery officer by observing our hits. Now the turrets of the Sydney showed to the wrong side. She could not move them any longer. But she made use of her starboard torpedo tubes. Again we had much good luck. The torpedoes missed us within a hair’s breadth. The cruiser withdrew slowly towards the coast. We could not follow her as our ship was disabled since the deadly hit which I have already mentioned.
The shell had gone through the oil tank above the water line into the engine room, where it exploded. The oil got into the engine room and started a fire. There was no chance to extinguish the fire, even if the electric fire-fighting equipment had not been destroyed too. You perhaps wonder about this fuel tank being above the water line. Of course for safety reasons it is better to have the tanks below the water line, but the fuel pumps would have to be working constantly for many months – in our case almost a year. Now they only had to work a short time per day, because the fuel could flow down to the diesels by gravity.