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- December 1979 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Professor Ahl, a retired German Lieutenant Commander was the pilot of the aircraft of the German raider Kormoran, which sank HMAS Sydney and was sunk by the Australian cruiser.
ON WEDNESDAY 19TH NOVEMBER 1941 we intended to lay mines at the approaches to Shark Bay off Carnarvon in Western Australia. It was intended to use the hours of darkness for the minelaying action, half of it to draw near the coast and the other for getting away. To be so close to an enemy coast was unusual for us because of the control of the coasts by the navy and air force, particularly the latter.
The weather was sunny, visibility very good, wind force 3 to 4, calm sea with a medium swell from the south-west. Our course was 20 degrees, that is about northnorth- east.
The captain intended to carry on until 2000 hours and then head east towards the Bay. It was 1500 hours when the crow’s nest announced a ship ahead. It was at first thought to be the ex-German square rigged ship Pamir, which had been in Australia at the beginning of the war and was supposed to be under the Australian flag. Later on we saw another sailing ship and then smoke trails were reported, maybe from escort vessels of a convoy.
Captain Detmers changed course to 260 degrees, the opposite direction, and ordered both engines full speed ahead. The reason for this immediate reaction was that the captain had orders to avoid under any circumstances any encounter with enemy warships, because this would mean surely the loss of the auxiliary cruiser. As it would take a considerable time to replace the ship, there would be neither direct nor indirect losses of enemy tonnage for a considerable time. Indirect losses of tonnage result from ships being forced into convoys, the speed of which is that of the slowest vessel. Ships without a convoy had to take the much farther way along the coasts under the cover of the control of aircraft. Here, as I mentioned, they are normally secure from raiders.
The turning away did not make the Kormoran suspicious. On the contrary there existed a strict order by the Admiralty for all allied merchantmen to do so when seeing a masthead or smoke trail, in order not to be recognised by an enemy warship, in the area far away from Germany most probably an auxiliary cruiser.
Before the alarm, Kormoran was at moderate speed to save oil. Additionally one of the motors had been defective, but meanwhile was OK again. When it was started a smoke cloud escaped from the funnel. We also had to note with apprehension that this time we had the misfortune to meet a man-of-war. I think at this moment all of us scarcely saw a chance to survive.
As an auxiliary cruiser is no merchantman but a man-of-war, it was impossible just to surrender. We had now to make the best of it, that is to sell ourselves as dearly as possible. For this we had fully to utilize our legal camouflage as a merchantman according to international sea-convention, in order to decoy the cruiser as close to us as possible and to get her into the most favourable position for our weapons. Why this is particularly essential for the raider, I’ll explain later.
Sydney approached quickly. She went to full speed. She prepared her plane for starting but abandoned this intention, when she saw that we couldn’t escape. The cruiser asked by searchlight for our ship’s name, where we came from and where we were bound for. According to the above mentioned plan, we didn’t answer. When the distance had become short enough, she began to ask by signal flags. Not to react now would have been more than suspicious. So we answered: ‘Straat Malakka from Fremantle to Batavia’. But not without delaying the reply by many intentional mistakes. By this time Sydney had come into the most favourable position, parallel to us at about the same speed, at the incredible short distance of half a sea-mile, that is about 900 metres. It seemed to us as if we could reach the cruiser by throwing a stone. Now also was the time to make optimum use of all our weapons.
As main armament we had six 6-inch guns, the same calibre as the Sydney. But we could only fire four guns at the same time because of the camouflage arrangements for the guns and because of the superstructure. For the same reasons this could be reduced to only one gun depending on the angle of fire. The cruiser had four double turrets and she could fire at least two turrets at any angle of fire.
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.