It was a major disaster culminating in a mystery that lasted 66-and-a-half years, and pre-dated the Japanese attack on the Naval Base at Pearl Harbour, home of the United States Pacific fleet, by 19 days. Barely three weeks prior to Australia becoming embroiled in a fight against the forces of the Rising Sun, a series of battles that would bring war to our very doorstep and threaten our security worse than at any other time in our history, a naval battle took place off Shark Bay in Western Australia.
Our young country suffered its most grievous naval loss on November 19, 1941 when the cruiser HMAS Sydney was sunk in a fight to the death with a German raider, the HSK Kormoran. Tragically, all 645 of Sydney’s complement were lost. The Kormoran also sank, losing 80 of her 397 men.
Two great mysteries ensued — how could a heavily armed warship be lost with all hands to a relatively lightly armed converted freighter, and where had the two ships sunk? Theories abounded, some possible and many conspiratorial. The German crew, rescued over the following weeks, provided information about the battle including coordinates as to its whereabouts. But could they be believed or did they have reason to gloss over what had happened, and where?
HMAS Sydney had returned to Australian waters after a distinguished start to her war following action in the Mediterranean. In July 1940 off the coast of Crete, two Italian cruisers chased four British destroyers northward, being drawn into the clutches of a pair of British cruisers, HMS Havoc and HMAS Sydney. Steaming at full speed, Sydney fired her starboard guns and the Italians, realising they had now lost the advantage of pace and firepower they held over the smaller ships, turned away, making smoke. Sydney fired on and damaged the Bartolomeo Colleoni, slowing it and leaving it to the other ships to finish off while she chased the second Italian. With the lead it now held and its speed, it was able to escape to safety.
Back home in Australia, HMAS Sydney received a hero’s welcome before a return to work. As protector against possible losses to German raiders, she was assigned to escort duty and was on her way back to Fremantle from Java after one such run when she intercepted a freighter, allegedly the Dutch ship Straat Malacca. She turned south-west towards the other ship and it turned away, also to the south-west. The two were now less than a mile apart, with Sydney no longer afforded the advantage of greater firepower. The Dutch flag on the smaller vessel came down, to be replaced by the German. Kormoran then opened fire.
Her opening salvoes at point blank range almost certainly took out Sydney’s front gun turrets and killed all on her bridge. Even with a consequent loss of gun control, Sydney was able to fire a rear turret, fatally wounding her opponent, but a torpedo from Kormoran badly damaged Sydney’s bow and sealed her fate.
There are a number of books available that tell the story of the successful search but the one I refer to here is The Search For The Sydney by David L. Mearns, published in 2009 and still readily available. In it we learn of the box search established by Mearns based on information provided by the crew of Kormoran. (The Germans all along had told the truth about the action.) Using their coordinates, combined with a reverse drift analysis of two lifeboats, Mearns believed he could narrow down the search area with some hope of success. This proved to be the case, with Kormoran’s resting place discovered on March 12, 2008.
There was great excitement because the team knew, with the German’s location pinned down, it increased the likelihood Sydney would be found. Using German accounts of Sydney’s last known sighting, her heading and her reducing speed, a search box measuring 20 nautical miles by 18 was established as her most likely resting place. And thus it was. The combatants lay on the ocean floor within little more than 11 nautical miles of each other.
There was a great deal more than that to the search and eventual discovery, but at last, after nearly seven decades, the watery grave of 645 brave Australians was found. Surviving relatives no longer had need to wonder.
An outstanding monument has been erected in Geraldton, A Dome of Souls, 645 seagulls flying free for all time. Especially poignant — it never fails to catch at my heart — is the nearby statue of The Waiting Woman.
Lest we forget…