The loss of HMAS Sydney (II) is Australia’s greatest naval tragedy. Its disappearance in 1941 without a trace left a legacy of uncertainty for decades. In March 2008, renewed efforts to find the Sydney came to fruition, confirming her fate and bringing closure to the mystery.
Celebrated for her successful battles in the Mediterranean, where she famously sank the Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni, HMAS Sydney (II) and her crew of predominantly young men received a hero’s welcome on her return to Australia in February 1941. She was then tasked with escorting troopships to South East Asia, following an Indian Ocean route along the west coast of Western Australia.
It was on the return of one of these voyages that she encountered the German Raider HSK Kormoran, on 19 November 1941. The Kormoran was disguised as a Dutch merchant vessel that was seemingly incompetent at returning the Sydney's signals, unaware, the Sydney approached the unknown vessel. Once within range where her superior armament could not advantageously defend her, the Komoran used the advantage of surprise and brought all its armament to bear on the Sydney.
While neither ship survived, the Sydney was lost with all hands - a complement of 645 young men. 318 of the Kormoran’s complement of 390 survived.
For 66 years, controversy raged. The Kormoran survivors were the only witnesses, and were generally dismissed as unreliable. Endeavouring to not discourage the Australian public during war time, the media was censored and families received standardised bereavement letters. In the subsequent decades, many people postulated theories, remarkable finds were discovered then found to be hoaxes, and the depth of the sea at suspected wreck sites kept researchers from investigating further.
A renewed effort to find the Sydney and Kormoran, supported by modern technology, came to fruition on 16 March 2008, whena small group of Australian volunteers, the Finding Sydney Foundation, discovered the Sydney shortly after locating the Kormoran wreck, around 100 nautical miles off the coast of Western Australia.
Soon after the ships were found, an inquiry was launched into the Sydney’s disappearance. The Commissioner the Honourable TRH Cole, AO, RFD, QC, found that it was an error of judgement that brought the Sydney to a distance where she was overpowered and sank. The enquiry helps bring closure to the families who never knew for sure how their loved ones had died.