by Greg Bathgate
The circumstances of the loss of HMAS Sydney II in November 1941 have, until now, largely been determined by officialdom. A Parliamentary Inquiry Report by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade in 1999 was noncommittal in explaining the actions of the Sydney‘s Captain, Joseph Burnett, in approaching the German raider, HSK Kormoran, whereas the Cole Commission of Inquiry conducted in 2008-9 held Burnett completely responsible for the loss of the cruiser.
Commissioner Cole alleged that Captain Burnett chased the unknown vessel for an hour and a half at a speed of 14 knots (approx 20 nautical miles) after the vessel had turned away upon encountering the cruiser, that Burnett carelessly assessed the disguised raider as appearing innocent at all times, and that Burnett did not go to action stations and approached the vessel to within point-blank range to finally ascertain her identity. However, new evidence based on Kormoran‘s actual navigation has found the raider sailed a much shorter distance (approx. eight nautical miles) from the turning point to the battle site, and as a consequence, Burnett had earlier ordered the suspected enemy vessel to stop.
That Kormoran was ordered to stop clearly demonstrates that many of the findings made by Commissioner Cole are now unsustainable and that far from being careless, Burnett had indeed followed the prescribed challenge procedures. The navigation also confirms that both vessels were stationary or moving very slowly at the moment the action began, exposing Kormoran‘s Captain Detmers, use of the underwater torpedo tube in delivering the initial catastrophic blow to the Sydney.