Conspiracies Surrounding HMAS Sydney (II)

Article | Updated 1 years ago

Theories and Early Search

Theory and speculation was expected in HMAS Sydney (II) case. With its status and the beliefs of the day, most Australians could not accept the German account of its loss. With speculation rife, accusations were soon made at both the Kormoran survivors and Government officials.

The initial theory came from the highest level: just five days after the event, senior Naval officer Rear Admiral Crace wrote in is personal diary that the Naval Board thought a Vichy French submarine might have been involved. Of the widespread theories, one popular rumor was that two ships were involved in the sinking.

…this delay in making official announcements made matters worse.

The Advisory War Council, including the Prime Minister, Chiefs of Staff and senior politicians debated whether to admit the men were missing, and this delay in making official announcements made matters worse. The whereabouts of the Sydney was also questioned. While the Navy Board thought that it survived and may have been heading back to the nearest dry dock, some thought the Sydney may have tried to make the coast. Others thought it had sunk near the battle position provided by the German Captain's account, somewhere near c. 26°34’S., 111°E., c. 120 nautical miles south west of Shark Bay (the Detmers’ Position).

The Australian press, believing they were being kept in the dark, called for the whole story.

Some were concerned that Sydney survivors had been picked up by enemy ships, a theory furthered by a 1942 Radio Tokyo propaganda broadcast claiming that the crew were prisoners in Tokyo. The concern around this rumour was so great that in October 1945 the former Sydney captain Commodore John Collins was asked to find any substance to the rumour, of which he found none.

In the same month, and despite staff urgings, the director of Naval Intelligence refused to publish an account by local Navy staff on the basis that the Australian press and public would still not accept the absolute confirmation of the loss of all the crew.

There was continuing disquiet in Parliament, but the matter ended there as far as the authorities were concerned.

Controversies and Conspiracies

The fate of HMAS Sydney (II) was an ongoing mystery, spawning theories, hoaxes and controversies over the years but particularly in the 1970s when the wartime archives were opened in 1975.

German-speaking Jonathon Robotham, a prisoner of war in World War I, was a guard to the Kormoran survivors. He became obsessive about perceived inconsistencies in the existing accounts. He began a quest to find a film and camera buried where the two lifeboats from HSK Kormoran landed at Quobba Station.

His beliefs were shared by a number of researchers and former servicemen who claimed they had seen records of signals from HMAS Sydney (II). They formed the Perth-based Sydney Research Group, and became the font of conspiracy theories alongside Robotham.

One hoax during World War II involved a message in a bottle, but the most sophisticated was ‘discovered’ by ex-Army serviceman WP Evans, who found an HMAS Sydney (II) kitbag on the beach near Kalbarri.

It contained a wooden box containing wartime memorabilia [but] was an elaborate fraud with the bag being washed in fluorescing soap powder not invented until the 1960s…

In it was a wooden box containing wartime memorabilia, including a letter of proceedings, which read that the Kormoran had flown a false flag, a Japanese submarine had been sighted and that the Kormoran opened fire before surrendering. Finally, it said that a Kormoran torpedo struck the Sydney whilst the Sydney was in the process of sending an anti-scuttling party across.

The Australian War Memorial established expert teams to examine the box, and ultimately it was proved that it was an elaborate fraud with the bag being washed in fluorescing soap powder not invented until the 1960s. Assisting with the assessment, the Western Australian Museum used knowledge from its work with the historic Zuytdorp wreck, which lies along the same stretch of shore, advising that it is impossible for the organic materials to survive the ravages of white ants in that environment.

Opening of the Wartime Archives in 1975

Upon opening the wartime archives in 1975, materials became accessible for further theories to be created. Michael Montgomery, son to HMAS Sydney (II) Navigator Commander CAC Montgomery RN, came to Australia to examine them with the view to explain the loss of his father. His provocative book Who Sank the Sydney (1981) furthered existing theory by raising awareness and concerns. Amongst theories on how the battle was fought, Montgomery claimed that other ships had been involved, that bodies were found and that records of such were tampered with.

In April 1984, Barbara Winter, an Australian born German-speaking scholar, published HMAS Sydney: Fact, Fantasy and Fraud. She had also accessed the newly opened archives and very successfully challenged much of what appears in Montgomery and other theorists believed.

Rather than quashing speculation, as she may have hoped, her challenge served to draw many otherwise passive observers into an increasingly acrimonious debate.

Theories abounded and by the mid-1990s no one knew what to believe. Those calling for objectivity, including the Western Australian Museum, were labelled as part of a whole government cover-up.

With the growth of the Internet and self-publishing, further theories have been expressed, often quite startling and sometimes involving concerned relatives. Others claimed to have located the ships, all using ‘their’ latest technology which they hoped to promote and even sell.