History of HMAS Sydney (II)

Article | Updated 12 months ago

HMAS Sydney (II), a Modified Leander Class Light Cruiser began life as the British Royal Navy’s HMS Phaeton on the 8 July 1933. Purchased by the Australian Government before her 22 September 1934 launch, she was renamed in honour of the Sydney (I), which had successfully destroyed a German Light Cruiser SMS Emden in 1914. Prior to her Australian arrival, she was active in the Mediterranean during the Abyssinian Crisis.

HMAS Sydney (II) docked in Sydney Harbour

HMAS Sydney (II) in wartime camouflage in front of the Sydney Harbour Bridge
Image copyright WA Museum

Docked in Fremantle on the day the war was declared, she assumed duties supporting convoys across the Indian Ocean before returning to the Mediterranean where she joined the 7th Cruiser Squadron of the Mediterranean Fleet.

Alongside the British cruisers and destroyers, and French battleships, she fought significant battles including the bombardment of Bardia, finishing off the Italian destroyer Espero and beating off air attacks during convoys.

Participating in the first full-scale action with the Italian Fleet, the Sydney alongside three British battleships, an aircraft carrier, four other cruisers and 17 destroyers fought at sunset against the Italian Fleet’s 36 ships…

Participating in the first full-scale action with the Italian Fleet, the Battle of Calabria, the Sydney alongside three British battleships, an aircraft carrier, four other cruisers and 17 destroyers fought at sunset against the Italian Fleet’s 2 battleships, 10 cruisers and 24 destroyers. Although outnumbered, successful attacks drew the engagement to a close within hours, with the Sydney coming through unscathed despite repeated air attacks.

She returned to the fleet base in Alexandria, Egypt on 13 July 1940.

Battle of Cape Spada

HMAS Sydney (II) set sail from Alexandria on 18 July 1940 with the HMS Havock en route to support the convoy of destroyers Hyperion, Ilex, Hero and Hasty. Their mission: hunt for enemy submarines off Crete, and destroy enemy shipping in the Gulf of Athens.

Passing Crete at sunset, and through the Kaso Strait at midnight, they awoke to a light misty and calm morning just south of Cape Spada. At 7:33am, reports came through that two enemy cruisers were 10 miles south, heading north towards them.

…two enemy cruisers were 10 miles south, heading north towards them…

Sydney’s Captain Collins took the initiative and altered course, heading south at maximum speed. By 8:20am the smoke of enemy ships was on the horizon, and shortly after the Italian 6" gun cruisers Bartolomeo Colleoni and Giovanni delle Bande Nere were spotted 23,000 yards away.

The Sydney opened fire, her 6" guns focused on the leading cruiser Giovanni delle Bande Nere, hitting her within minutes. She was unscathed by the returning fire. On seeing the destroyers Hyperion, Ilex, Hero and Hasty arriving, the enemy ships attempted escape.

With a faster speed, the enemy ships drew away but the Sydney pursued at her maximum speed of 32.5 knots. Despite the distance, she continued firing on the Giovanni delle Bande Nere until heavy smoke was seen, before focusing attention on the closer Bartolomeo Colleoni.

HMAS Sydney (II) crew celebrating battle victory

The crew of HMAS Sydney (II) posing through the damaged forward funnel
Image copyright WA Museum

Although hit in the funnel, the Sydney was not deterred. With the distance rapidly closing, the Bartolomeo Colleoni was finally put out of action, its bows blown away while the Havock stood by to rescue survivors. After an hour and a half of battle, the Bartolomeo Colleoni was torpedoed and it sank.

Subjected to repeated air attacks on the voyage, the Havock sustained a direct hit…

The Giovanni delle Bande Nere continued to flee at full speed, closely followed by the Sydney, Hero and Hasty. Low on ammunition, the Sydney reluctantly abandoned the chase. She and the Havock were ordered to return to Alexandria. Subjected to repeated air attacks on the voyage, the Havock sustained a direct hit. However the Sydney and British destroyers made it back to Alexandria at 11:00am on 20 July, and were met with rousing cheers from their fellow fleets.

The courage and success of the Sydney continued throughout operations in the Mediterranean. At one point the Sydney disguised herself as an Italian Condottiere Class Cruiser to approach an enemy harbour.

Arrival Home

HMAS Sydney (II) crew participating in a military parade

A celebratory march through Perth, Western Australia
Image copyright WA Museum

News of Sydney’s successful Mediterranean operations had reached Australia, and she received a hero’s welcome on arrival home in Fremantle on 5 February 1941. When Sydney arrived in Sydney, her name-sake city gave the crew a civic reception. School children were given a public holiday so they could watch the valiant crew parade through the city.

Returning to Western Australia after her refit, she engaged in patrol and convoy escort duties under the command of Captain J. Burnett, visiting Singapore, Noumea, Auckland and Suva during the first half of 1941.