Battle with the HSK Kormoran

Article | Updated 12 months ago

Sydney's Disappearance

Departing Victoria Quay, Fremantle on Armistice Day, 11 November 1941, HMAS Sydney (II) was tasked with escorting the troop ship Zealandia for some of its journey to Singapore. With industrial action causing a 13-day delay, the Sydney was relieved by the HMS Durban at Sunda Strait on 17 November, then proceeded back to Fremantle.

Due on 20 November, she was reported overdue the following day. As the Zealandia was delayed by 13 days, it was assumed the Sydney was also delayed. Another possibility was that she had been diverted but refrained from giving notice due to the required radio silence.

When she had not returned by 23 November, the concerned Naval board signalled her. There was no reply.

Original Search and Rescue

At 5:00pm on November 24, British Tanker Trocas reported via wireless telegraphy that they had rescued 25 German seamen from a raft west-north-west of Carnarvon, Western Australia. This was the first evidence of the possibility of battle involving the overdue Sydney. A ship with armed guards on board was immediately dispatched, while the Trocas continued its search and the RAAF commenced air searches for the Sydney.

Unbeknownst to authorities, the troop transport vessel Aquitania had also discovered and rescued 26 Germans the previous day. Keeping to the required radio silence Aquitania did not report the discovery until 27 November, signalling the station at Wilsons Promontory, Victoria.

Air searchers sighted lifeboats early on the morning of 25 November, further north-west of Carnarvon. Sightings that day revealed up to five boats in the area, while Quobba Station stockman Ahmat Doo alerted the station owner Keith Baston, who in turn alerted the authorities to the two boats of Germans coming ashore.

German lifeboat ashore

German lifeboat ashore
Image copyright WA Museum

A total of 318 men were rescued. Through interrogation, these men were found to be from the German Raider HSK Kormoran, and revealed the fate of HMAS Sydney (II).

On 26 November, family members began to receive telegrams about the missing Sydney. An account from John Harrison, son of Sydney crewmember Leslie Alexander Harrison, remembers the dull rainy night when his Mum received the telegram stating that his Dad was missing as a result of enemy action.

An Account of the Battle with the HSK Kormoran

According the information drawn from the German Fregattenkapitän Theodor Anton Detmers through interrogation, Sydney’s final action and subsequent loss came from a battle with what appeared to be a merchant vessel sighted at 1700 hrs (local time) on 19 November 1941 – 120 nautical miles west of Shark Bay, Western Australia.

The ship was in fact the German Raider Kormoran, disguised as the Dutch merchant Straat Malakka. Sydney challenged the vessel continuously using her signal lamp, while closing the distance between the two ships. At the time, merchant vessels were known to be slow to respond to signalling, and the Germans exploited this knowledge. At 1800 hrs, to further the deception, Kormoran broadcast a QQQQ ‘suspicious ship’ message, feigning a cry for help in the name of Straat Malakka. Sydney closed in with her main armament and torpedo tubes bearing, her aircraft on the catapult with its engine running.  By 1815 hrs Sydney had shut down its aircraft and drawn almost abeam of Kormoran to starboard, less than a mile distant. Both ships were steering west-south-west at about 14 knots.

Signalling with flags and flashing light, she asked ‘Where bound’. The Kormoran replied, ‘Batavia’. The crucial moment came when Sydney hoisted a two flag signal bearing the letters ‘IK’, the two centre letters of Straat Malakka’s four-letter secret identification signal. The Germans could not interpret, so signalling in plain language the Sydney asked ‘Show your secret sign’.

With concealment of his vessel's true identity no longer possible, and with the advantage of surprise, Detmers ordered the Dutch colours to be struck, hoisted the German naval ensign and opened fire with all armament at approximately 1830 hrs.

…Detmers ordered the Dutch colours to be struck, hoisted the German naval ensign and opened fire with all armament at approximately 1830 hrs

It is likely the Kormoran’s first fire destroyed Sydney’s bridge, putting her central gun control out of action. Sydney’s own guns opened fire almost simultaneously, passing over Kormoran without inflicting damage.

According to the German survivors, all of the Kormoran’s armament was brought to bear on Sydney, concentrating on her bridge, torpedo tubes and anti-aircraft batteries. With a second round of fire, Sydney hit the Kormoran’s funnel and engine room whilst further artillery went over the ship. The Kormoran fired two torpedoes, one striking under Sydney’s turrets and the other passing close ahead of the ship.

Sketch showing depiction of Kormoran survivors' movements

Sketch from interrogation of Kormoran's survivors depicting their movements
Image copyright WA Museum

In a last attempt at battle, Sydney turned sharply towards the Kormoran as if attempting to ram. As she did so, the top of one turret was blown off and overboard. She then passed under Kormoran’s stem, heading southward and losing way.

The Kormoran was on fire, and smoke was affecting visibility. As Sydney headed southwards, the distance between the two ships increased. Kormoran continued to fire.

Around 1845 hrs, Sydney fired what it was thought to be four torpedoes, missing the Kormoran as its captain turned to port and cleared them. Simultaneously, the Kormoran’s engines began to fail then broke down completely.

Sydney, crippled and on fire, steamed slowly to the south returning sporadic fire, still receiving steady hits from the Kormoran. At 1900 hrs, the Kormoran fired a single torpedo, missing Sydney’s stern.

Although this fierce action had lasted only half an hour, both ships had been dealt mortal blows.

Kormoran fired her last shot around 1925 hrs from 11,000 yards.

With the gathering gloom the Sydney disappeared from view and was last seen by the Germans about ten miles away. Until approximately 2300 hrs, all that was seen was a distant glare then occasional flickering until midnight, when all trace of the Sydney disappeared.

Kormoran Survivors

The Kormoran’s captain ordered the abandonment between 2000 hrs and 2100 hrs. Fire delayed the launch of lifeboats, and at midnight the last boat cast off. However one large rubber boat sank and 40 men drowned. Of an original complement of 380 officers and men, some 318 remained alive.

At 0030 hrs, the mines carried by the Kormoran exploded and she sank rapidly.

German survivors of the Kormoran aboard a lifeboat

Lifeboat containing German survivors
Image copyright WA Museum

Sydney's Loss

Of Sydney’s total complement of 42 officers and 603 ratings, none survived.

The only debris recovered at the time was an Australian naval-type Carley life-float, eight days after the action, and an Australian naval pattern life belt.

Newspaper clipping depicting a Carley Life float from the HMAS Sydney (II)

Carley Life float from HMAS Sydney (II)
Image copyright WA Museum

In February 1942, a Carley float containing the corpse of a sailor dressed in a boiler suit drifted to Christmas Island and was taken ashore. The ‘Unknown Sailor’ was buried with full military honours, and though a 1949 investigation concluded he was not from HMAS Sydney (II), after rediscovering and exhuming his grave, modern forensics proved this conclusion wrong.