Whose History

Quiz | Updated 4 years ago

As Sydney and Kormoran came together on the evening of 19 November 1941 each ship had their stories to tell. After the short and violent battle both ships were gone.

Over 300 German sailors survived and told their stories to the world. We will never know the stories from the Sydney.

Timeline of Battle

Based on the report by the captain of Kormoran, Theodore Detmers

Indian Ocean off Shark Bay, Western Australia: 19 November 1941


Kormoran travelling north-east towards the Australian coast. Lookout sights a vessel on the port bow. Detmers decides to turn away to the west and increase to full speed.


Sydney travelling south-east alters course to the south-west to give chase. Begins flashing the letters NNJ in Morse code asking Kormoran to identify itself.


Kormoran hoists the signal flags to signify they are the Dutch cargo ship Straat Malakka.


Exchange of signals continues. Sydney asking more questions such as port of destination and what cargo is being carried; Kormoran deliberately slow to respond knowing their only chance in a fight is surprise at a close range. They want Sydney to come even closer. Kormoran hides their main rangefinder so Sydney won’t see the sophisticated navigational instrument - not seen on a cargo ship.
Sydney takes up position astern on the starboard quarter presenting a narrow silhouette.


Detmers orders Q signal (emergency call) be transmitted saying he is under attack.


Sydney draws to a position on the starboard beam.


Sydney moves to a position on the starboard beam just over 1000 metres away. Sydney makes the signal ‘hoist your secret call sign’.


Unable to reply, Kormoran removes Dutch flag, hoists their battle flag and opens fire.

HMAS Sydney (II)

Captain BurnettHMAS Sydney (II)Captain Burnett 
Was 41 years old and had been in the Navy since he was 13. He joined the Sydney, his first command, in May 1941. He was a very experienced officer having served in World War I and the Spanish Civil War. He was a gunnery specialist.

When Sydney first sighted Kormoran Captain Burnett of the Sydney knew…

…there were reports of a raider in the area and he had recently discovered a floating object, which could have been a raider’s practice target.

…his superiors on shore were keen to capture enemy ships for the secret information they had on board.

…one of his colleagues had been criticised for attacking a mystery ship from long range and wasting valuable ammunition.

…he was surrounded by experienced officers who had fought in the Mediterranean campaign on board Sydney.

…he had information on board such as the VIA (vessels in the area report) and ship identification books that could help him identify the mystery ship.

As Sydney approached Kormoran Captain Burnett may have been…

…asking his officers to study ship recognition books and the VIA to see if the mystery vessel was who they said they were.

…trying to determine if the vessel was a raider supply ship, a cargo ship or a German raider.

…considering if he should launch his aircraft to fly over the vessel and report back.

…confident he had a speed advantage and gunnery advantage over the mystery vessel.

…keen not to break radio silence in case a raider was close by and would pick up his signal.

…considering capturing the mystery vessel if he thought it was a raider supply ship, and then go after the raider which may be close by.


HSK Kormoran

Captain Detmers HSK KormoranCaptain Detmers
Was 39 years old, the youngest of the German raider captains. The Kormoran had been at sea nearly a year and had sunk or captured 11 ships. His crew was well trained and battle hardened. His orders were simple: to sink or capture enemy cargo ships and to avoid a fight with an enemy warship.

As Sydney approached Kormoran Captain Detmers…

… was hoping his disguise would work and Sydney would leave them alone. He didn’t want to fight an enemy warship.

…knew the cruiser was faster, stronger and had guns that could operate at a greater range.

…knew he had sufficient firepower to sink and capture merchant ships but not a warship unless he could surprise them at close range.

…knew the Kormoran couldn’t out run the cruiser.

…knew the flag hoist for the Dutch merchant man Straat Malakka and would pretend to be that ship.

…knew the cruiser was keen to find out who they were and would continue to ask questions by signalling.

…knew he should only answer with signal flags in the style of a merchantman but could pretend to be inexperienced and fumble his flag hoists to buy time.

…could see the cruiser had an aircraft that could be launched to fly over, examine his ship closely and possibly see through his disguise.

…knew he would not be able to fight effectively with his large guns until the cruiser came within 8000 metres of his ship.

…knew all his smaller weapons and torpedoes would be in range if the cruiser came within 3000 metres.

…knew his aft facing underwater torpedo tubes could be used if the cruiser took up a position close behind but he would have to slow right down to use them.

…believed that if it came to a fight he had a good chance if he could get the first shots in at close range.

…knew he would have to lower the Dutch flag and hoist his battle flag before firing at the cruiser.

…knew he didn’t want his ship captured.

This information is based on the reports from Captain Detmers and the Kormoran crew after the battle. We can only guess what was happening on the bridge of Sydney as they approached Kormoran.

Using the information provided:

  1. Write a narrative account from the first contact to the beginning of the engagement between Sydney and Kormoran. Choose a viewpoint from one of the ships or weave the two stories together.
  2. Put yourself on the bridge of Sydney and/or Kormoran. Create a dramatic piece highlighting the growing tension as the two ships come together. Present your work as a play, a short film or a piece for radio.
  3. You are an Australian Naval interrogator and the prisoner Captain Detmers has just been brought before you. Conduct your own investigation into the beginning of the engagement between the two ships. Use Captain Detmers’ account as your background (see above).
    Present your work as a play, a short film or a piece for radio.
  4. Read the timeline carefully and draw a diagram showing the tracks of the ships and the events leading up to the battle from the first sighting to the first gunfire.
  5. Advanced research: Over the years many opinions have been expressed to try and explain why Sydney moved from a position of strength behind Kormoran to a position of weakness abeam of Kormoran. Look at the Sydney section of the Bibliography and read the differing opinions and conclusions expressed in some of the books and papers. Summarise your findings.


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