67 years was how long it took to unravel one of two mysteries surrounding the tragedy of HMAS Sydney, but the other will probably never be solved. A modified Leander class light cruiser, she was laid down as HMS Phaeton, ordered by the (British) Royal Navy. However, before construction had been completed the Australian government bought her to replace their HMAS Brisbane. Renamed, she was launched 22 September 1934 and after trials were completed finally commissioned into the Royal Australian Navy on 24 September 1935, her company being largely taken from the by then decommissioned Brisbane.
The Sydney was at first engaged in operations in the Mediterranean at the time of the Abyssinian crisis. Then in July 1936, crisis resolved, she sailed for Australia. At the start of WW2 she carried out convoy escort duties in home waters and at one point joined other ships in the unsuccessful attempt to hunt down the German battleship Admiral Graf Spee. The Sydney then joined the British Mediterranean Fleet in May 1940 for eight months, providing support to the all-important Malta convoys as well as playing an active part in the war in that area, until in February 1941 she returned to Australia to resume convoy escort duties there.
Later that year, on 19 November, HMAS Sydney was heading for Fremantle for a refit when what seemed to be a Dutch merchantman was sighted. She interrogated it and the Dutchman eventually hoisted its call sign identifying as the Straat Malakka - but this ship was not known to be in the area at that time. The Sydney drew closer, trained its guns on the other ship and demanded the Straat Malakka’s second, secret call sign. The other did not reply but suddenly revealed itself as the German cruiser HSK Kormoran and began pounding the Sydney with its 6” guns. The ensuing fierce battle inflicted terrible damage on both ships and according to accounts by German survivors the Australian was last seen drifting towards the coast, smoke billowing from the fires blazing from end to end until it finally sank. The Kormoran, on which several fires also raged uncontrollably, was carrying over 300 mines in three of the aft cargo holds, as well as other armaments, and its crew abandoned ship and scuttled it. As it sank the mine deck exploded.
Three days after the HMAS Sydney had been due back in Fremantle, and with no signals having been received from her, orders were transmitted to break wireless silence and report. There was no response. Then German survivors of the encounter began to be picked up - out of a crew of 399, 318 survived - and a major search began.
But of the 645 Sydney men, none were ever seen again.
The bronze statue of a woman, her eyes forever searching the seas for her man, erected at the Geraldton Memorial (see later).
The reason none of them had managed to escape has never been determined, and remains a mystery. German survivors interrogated by Naval Intelligence Officers before being transferred to POW camps in Victoria reported that men were seen moving on deck after the battle had stopped and the blaze from its fires could still be seen for about 6 hours until the ship finally sank. Arguments still rage over Australia’s greatest naval conundrum of all time with claims, counter claims and allegations of cover-ups as to what really happened. The report of the HMAS Sydney II Commission of Inquiry held by the Australian Department of Defence and released on 12 August 2009, found no evidence to support any of the various theories.
But this is no place to air the verbal battle.
The further mystery lasting over 60 years was the actual whereabouts of the remains of either ship. After many failed sea and air attempts by various groups to locate the wrecks, the Finding Sydney Foundation eventually received a grant from the Federal Government and the final search began when the SV Geosounder set off from Geraldton on 8 March 2008. It was using sophisticated sonar equipment to cover an area of about 1800 square nautical miles and led by David Mearns, the American who had previously found the wrecks of HMS Hood and the Bismarck that sank her.
Then, on 12 March, it was announced that the wreck of the Kormoran had been found - it had a distinctively shaped bow and was positively identified from plans and drawings. The four large and several smaller segments of the hull were widely scattered, evidence of the catastrophic explosion as the mines had gone up. The search for the Sydney could now be narrowed to about 300 square nautical miles. Importantly, the trail of debris on the sea-bed leading from what had been established as the battle zone, and lying along the direction in which the ship was said to have been drifting, was likely to be from the Sydney.
Suddenly, on 17 March, newspaper headlines blazed with the news that HMAS Sydney had been located the previous day. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation gave a poignant quote from on board the SV Geosounder and it surely echoed the feelings of people throughout Australia. It was from Gladys McDonald, a Director of the Finding Sydney Foundation, in a phone conversation she had with Chairman and Fellow Director, Ted Graham, shortly after the discovery: “I spoke to Ted, and this 6 foot 7 inch giant of a man was overcome. We unashamedly cried together and he asked me if I was certain. I am.”
Both ships were found about 2500 metres down, 10-12 nautical miles apart and about 130 nautical miles west of Shark Bay on the west coast of Western Australia. Theodor Detmers, the Kormoran’s Commander, wrote two accounts of the battle while a POW. One of these, encoded, was confiscated after he tried to escape and the other he managed to conceal and take back to Germany after the war. These and other accounts were translated by a former officer in the Royal Navy, Captain Peter Hore, a naval historian, and it was his work which helped to locate the position of the sunken Kormoran.
An avenue of 645 trees, each bearing the name of a crew member, was planted at Carnarvon, a town on that part of the coast off which the battle had taken place, a plaque was erected at the Fremantle War Memorial, and at Mount Scott in Geraldton was erected the memorial in my photos here.
The site was consecrated at a Remembrance ceremony in 1998 and during the service a large flock of seagulls was seen flying over. It is an old superstition that seagulls are the souls of sailors lost at sea (I believe the same is said of the albatross) and this inspired Joan Walsh Smith, the memorial’s designer, to construct the steel dome of 645 seagull images welded together.
The 7 steel pillars supporting the dome represent the 7 Aussie states and the arc of a granite wall on which are engraved the men’s names partly surrounds it. To stand beneath that dome in 2007 looking first up through the delicate seagull shapes outlined against the brilliant sky, then far out to sea where the tragedy had occurred, affected me deeply although I did not then know the full history. And, of course, the ships had not then been discovered.
The wrecks will not be disturbed, but left as a mass war grave in the place where they lay undiscovered for nearly 67 years.
My information is drawn from online archives of the Australian Government’s Dept. of Defence, the National Archives of Australia, The Daily Telegraph [Australian], the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Sydney Morning Herald and – for the ship’s early history - Wikipedia.