Finding HMAS Sydney (II)

Article | Updated 9 months ago

Finding Sydney

Both David Mearns and the Finding Sydney Foundation (FSF) methodology converged on the need to find HSK Kormoran and then establish the approximate location of HMAS Sydney (II) relative to this site. This reflected the conclusions of the Museum’s 1991 HMAS Sydney (II) seminar.

In the final lead-up to the search, Mearns again collaborated with Hore in England and with Olsen in Australia. They reexamined the primary sources, and found no reason to doubt Detmers’ claim that the battle had taken place near 26°34’S., 111°E., the position provided by Detmers during interrogation by the RAN in 1941.

Research revealed that Detmers had taken extraordinary measures to maintain his report of the battle, which was essential in reporting the German victory and needing to account for the loss of his ship. Imprisoned after his rescue, Commander Detmers had the ship’s doctor memorise his action report, and he in turn recited it by heart when returned to Germany in 1943 as part of a prisoner exchange program. Detmers had also hidden the message as barely discernible dots under letters appearing in a German–English dictionary given to him as a prisoner. Mearns learned of this dictionary through HMAS Sydney researcher Barbara Winter (Poniewierski). She had tabled pages copied from the dictionary at the Museum’s 1991 seminar, again attesting to Detmer’s veracity. Mearns and Hore then found the original dictionary in the possession of Detmer’s nephew. As a primary source verifying the Detmers’ position it was the sort of ‘primary source’ that searchers dream of viewing.

[it was] the sort of thing all wreck searchers dream of viewing.

Using scientific analysis of wind, surface current conditions and other variables performed by specialists from CSIRO and Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Mearns, on behalf of the FSF was able to determine that it certainly was possible that Kormoran’s life rafts had launched from Detmers’ position, but felt it was more probable they had abandoned ship around 30’ further north, the position advocated by Kirsner and Hughes and by Olson and his 2001 team.

In August 2005, the Finding Sydney Foundation gained initial financial support from the Federal Government for a joint search for HMAS Sydney (II) with the intention of utilising David Mearns to lead the search party. This was quickly followed by financial support from the Western Australian and New South Wales Governments and private donations and, when the Federal amount was increased in September 2007, the FSF had raised a total of approximately $5.3 million.

Conducting the Search

Following the extensive research from all parties, Mearns was contracted by the FSF to lead a team to examine the search area using side scanning sonar. Contractors were brought in by the FSF to provide equipment and expertise. The FSF called worldwide tenders for the vessel and side scan sonar system, with the vessel tender being awarded to DOF Subsea whose vessel Geosounder carried a 3000m rated ROV, and the side scan sonar tender to Williamson and Co from Seattle.

Crew of Williamson & Associates launching the side scan sonar

The Williamson & Associates crew launch the side scan sonar
Image copyright WA Museum

Originally, Mearns advised an area of 69km x 108km be searched between 29 February and 20 March 2008. Following north-south lines around 110km in length, and travelling at 2–3 knots sonar would be able to search the entire area.

Despite weather setbacks (Cyclone Ophelia), FSF team and specialist partners aboard the Geosounder found the wreck of Kormoran at 5:30pm on 12 March 2008. On searching another promising area of seabed, thought to be debris from the battle, they found it was large rocks. Further searches found the Sydney at 11:03am on 16 March 2008.

Technology used in the Search

Geosounder, a vessel owned by Western Australian based DOF Subsea Australia Pty Ltd, used technology including precision navigation, Dynamic Positioning Systems, expert navigators, and ROV.

Seattle-based Williamson & Associates Inc provided two deep-water ‘sonar towfish’ units (SM 30 and AMS 60), and expert staff under the leadership of Art Wright.

The low resolution SM 30 found the Kormoran wreck site, then the high resolution AMS 60 unit enabled a search of the possible battle site.

Again the SM 30 searched the proposed Sydney site, before finding the wreck. Subsequent AMS 60 high-resolution investigations allowed for a better view of the wreck.

The Remote Operated Vehicle Search

Once the Geosounder returned to Geraldton, the operators and support crew of the DOF SubSea Remote Operated Vehicle and Dr Michael McCarthy from the Western Australian Museum, replaced most of the Williamson crew.

As soon as the wrecks were found, they were declared restricted zones with non-disturbance parameters in respect for the wreck. This agreement limited the ROV to the outside of the wreck, to no closer than two metres. The recovery of any object was forbidden.

Underwater image of HMAS Sydney (II) showing Captain's sea cabin.

HMAS Sydney (II): Forward screen of superstructure. Captain's sea cabin
Image copyright WA Museum

Mechanical and electrical problems and another cyclone (Pancho) delayed the ROV search until 29 March 2008, after which there was the long traverse from Geraldton port to the sites. Yet again there were problems with the ROV, but the skill of the Geosounder’s captain and specialist seabed navigator aided by the ship’s dynamic position keeping systems, enabled the team to photograph and video Sydney. Then after the fault was fixed, they were able to trace paths along and across each ship, photographing and recording still and video from every possible angle.

Using detailed builder’s plans, the team proceeded to target and identify features on HMAS Sydney (II), and plans obtained from Germany aided in the identification of the HSK Kormoran’s remains.

they were found with their lower hulls almost totally exposed, allowing the ships to be examined for torpedo damage

From previous experience, the team had expected each ship to lie part buried in sediment. Unexpectedly, they were found with their lower hulls almost totally exposed, allowing the ships to be examined for torpedo damage – a most unexpected boon to the inspection team.

In November 2009 the FSF and Mearns (as photographer) donated all still and video imagery of both wrecks to the Australian War Memorial, including Copyright.  This significant donation enabled the collection and copyright to always remain in Australian control.