The Cole Inquiry

Article | Updated 6 years ago

Photographed by David Mearns, Copyright of Finding Sydney Foundation Ltd
HMAS Sydney (II): Forward screen of superstructure. Captain's sea cabin

The Cole Inquiry, and Findings

Soon after the wrecks of HMAS Sydney (II) and HSK Kormoran were found, the Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, AC, AFC and the Hon. Julia Gillard, announced the formation of a Commonwealth Defence Force Commission of Inquiry (COI). Presided over by the Honorable Terence RH Cole, AO, RFD, QC, this would inquire into and report on the circumstances associated with the loss of the HMAS Sydney (II) and the consequent loss of life.

With much greater powers than earlier seminars and inquiries, the COI aimed to ‘provide an independent, impartial, reasoned and fact-based account’; with evidence presented under oath so that witnesses could be subpoenaed and cross-examined.

Over 36 days, the Commission examined 77 witnesses with the public able to follow events and evidence on the Commission’s website. In July 2009, the Commissioner produced a detailed three-volume report together with transcripts of evidence, the ship’s plans, visualisatons of the battle and the damage to the ships, with thirteen other appendices, glossary and bibliography. All materials were supplied on CD to stakeholders, and via the web to the public.

In summary, it was found that:

  • The interrogators independently formed the view that the German survivors were telling the truth.
  • Empirical evidence verified Detmers’ position as the battle location, citing the wrecks as being about 12 nautical miles apart.
  • Damage to the vessels confirmed the closeness of the battle, including the German account that the Sydney was struck by a torpedo.
  • The German account of Sydney’s bridge and control tower suffering blows probably resulted in the deaths of many officers and disrupted her firing. Underwater imagery supports this claim.
  • It was established that there was fire damage to the entire bridge, correlating the German account that fire made her visible for some hours after the battle.
  • The German account that shell damage and fire made it unlikely that the Sydney’s boats would be usable by survivors was confirmed by observable damage to the boats.
  • It was confirmed that the Sydney’s captain knew there was a possibility of a raider being off the Western Australian coast, and there was a remote possibility that the vessel sighted was a raider.
  • Captain Burnett assessed the sighted vessel as appearing ‘innocent’ and had approached the vessel to the point where it lost all advantage and was in extreme danger.

Findings Directly from the Report

“Apart from the account of Sydney firing torpedoes from her starboard mounts, all the damage observable in photographs of the wrecks confirms the accuracy of the German account of the engagement and its aftermath …There is no reason to doubt the general accuracy of the German account in relation to the approach and the signals.”

“It can be assessed with confidence that by the time battle ceased there were many casualties on board, probably in the order of 70 per cent of her complement …It is, however, probable that there were still some alive on Sydney as she slowly sailed away from Kormoran. They had available to them no lifesaving measures that would allow them to leave the ship, the observed damage pointing to a high degree of probability that all boats and Carley floats that had not been blown overboard during the battle were unserviceable because of shell and fire damage. Those who were alive when the battle ceased died when Sydney sank. The unknown sailor in the Carley float recovered off Christmas Island in February 1942 had suffered a serious shrapnel wound to the head, which caused his death immediately or shortly thereafter.”

“The sinking of a ship is violent. The force of water passing the sinking Sydney would have torn off the masts and rigging and dislodged loose items on the deck. Heavier items, such as funnels, the top of the bridge and the director control tower, would have soon followed. Boats that were still secure in their cradles would have been torn off and could have been further damaged by striking the ship or other wreckage. Very close to the surface the force of water entering the damaged bow would have twisted and torn the bow from the ship, and in the process parts of the side shell plating, decks and bulkheads would have twisted and broken away. The differing shapes of the various pieces of wreckage would mean they sank at a speed different from the speed at which the main hull sank. Thus fittings and equipment were scattered throughout the debris field. The prospect of any crew members, particularly if they were injured, surviving that violent event was negligible.”

“…Putting aside hindsight, as one must, it is more difficult to understand the initial decision to assess Kormoran as appearing innocent when she did not appear on Sydney’s plot. The very purpose of maintaining the plot was so ships would know what they might expect to encounter. The sole empirical fact available to Captain Burnett when making his initial decision was that the ship was not expected to be there. The terrible consequence of his erroneous decision was that Sydney did not go to action stations and approached to a position of great danger, where all her tactical advantages were negated and the advantage of surprise was given to Kormoran. It resulted in the loss of Sydney.”

"Frauds, Theories and Speculations:

On the German account, Sydney had acted in a manner not expected of an Australian warship under the command of a competent and experienced officer. This led to many people being unwilling to accept the German account of the engagement—particularly since there was no survivor from Sydney who could verify or refute the German account.

As early as December 1941 there started to emerge a number of theories and speculations about the following:

  • deceits engaged in by Kormoran, some allegedly contrary to international law
  • a conspiracy among the German survivors to tell a fabricated and inaccurate account of the engagement in order to avoid charges of having committed war crimes
  • third-party involvement in the action between the two ships
  • various ‘cover-ups’ by the Australian and British Governments and Naval authorities, with the aim of concealing knowledge of the true circumstances of the loss of Sydney and her crew.

These theories and speculations arose for two main reasons. The first was the absence of evidence about the engagement from an Australian perspective. The second was an unwillingness to accept that Captain Burnett would have acted in the manner described by the German survivors, resulting in Sydney being placed in a position of disadvantage and danger immediately before the battle began. People were loath to accept that Captain Burnett would have been deceived by Kormoran’s actions, as described in the German account. They thus sought exculpatory factors for his conduct.

Each of the frauds, theories and speculations mentioned was investigated. None has any substance whatsoever.”