The great mystery of the HMAS Sydney

A Great Mystery It was a major disaster culminating in a mystery that lasted 66½ years, and pre-dated the Japanese

A Great Mystery

It was a major disaster culminating in a mystery that lasted 66½ years, and pre-dated the Japanese attack on the Naval Base at Pearl Harbour, home of the US Pacific fleet, by nineteen 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 19 November 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 co-ordinates as to its whereabouts. But could they be believed or did they have reason to gloss over what had happened, and where?

A Hero Felled

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.

On return to Australia, Sydney received a hero’s welcome before a return to work. As protection against possible losses to German raiders, she was assigned to escort duty and was on return 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 ships were now less than a mile apart, with Sydney no longer afforded the advantage of greater firepower. The Dutch flag came down, to be replaced by the German; Kormoran 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, she was able to fire a rear turret, fatally wounding her opponent. A torpedo from Kormoran badly damaged Sydney’s bow and sealed her fate.

A Mighty Search

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 by Harper Collins in 2009 and available through Dymocks. 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 co-ordinates, combined with a reverse drift analysis of two lifeboats, he 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 12 March 2008.

There was great excitement because the team knew that, now they had pinned down the German’s location, 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 eleven nautical miles of each other.

There was a great deal more to it than that but at last, after nearly seven decades, the watery grave of 645 brave Australians had been found. Surviving relatives no longer need 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 statue of The Waiting Woman.

Lest we forget…

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  1. shazza  

    I saw this monument last year. It was very moving and at the same time spectacular. A highlight of my trip. Thankyou Geraldton

  2. James Eagles (ex-RAN)  

    Pity the wrecks aren’t even identified correctly. If you look at the last image taken of Sydney departing Melbourne with her new camouflage in September 1941, and compare it to the inverted bow image taken by Mearns you will see it does not match, however, Mearns’ image does match perfectly the bow camouflage of HMS Neptune also sunk in 1941. The badges on the ship’s boats on the seabed do not exist in naval heraldry and are different to the badges used by Mearns in his book you have cited. The Cole inquiry gave the location of the torpedo strike on Sydney’s bow, immediately at the waterline and at the location inside of the aviation spirit tanks holding several hundred gallons of aviation petrol, yet another image shows that aviation spirit tank lying on the bottom undamaged. Mearns claims he took several hundred images of the wrecks, but many were mere repetitions of each other and 78 were taken of the basalt rock on the seabed. The whole thing is a rotten fraud which has cost the government and the navy millions of wasted dollars of taxpayers money.

    • [email protected]  

      Jim’s assertions are just that. He is wrong on all counts and he can go to the GPS position and look for himself – Sydney and Kormoran wrecks are where the Finding Sydney Foundation found them in 2008. Another expedition by a joint team of the WA Museum and Curtin University returned to the wrecks in April/May 2015 and obtained a huge amount of very high defintion imagery of both of the wrecks. It is intended to be developed into a 3D immersive experince of the wrecks and, meanwhile, some will be featured in a book to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Sydney’s loss in November this year. Hundreds of eyes have been out on the water and seen the wrecks for themselves as well as recording still and video images. Jim hasn’t but persists in claiming that they aren’t there.

  3. [email protected]  

    I was a Director of the Finding Sydney Foundation (FSF) which found the wrecks of Kormoran & Sydney II in March 2008. The FSF was a group of five Australians, volunteers who conducted research (which put the wreck of Kormoran just 2.7 nautical miles from where it was found), engaged governments, raised the money and arranged the ship-borne search. David Mearns was a paid consultant to the FSF and its appointed director of the ship borne search phase. All of the FSF research was given to David in his role as a member of the FSF Search Definition Committee.
    I agree that David Mearns book is a good read but it is mostly about his own involvement in the search for Sydney and as such gives the greatest emphasis on the effect of his own research on the success of the search. The role of the FSF’s work in the success is given little explanation which is a pity. But, the full story is available in the book “The Search for HMAS Sydney: An Australian Story” published by UNSW Press in 2014. The book incudes contributions by the FSF Directors, PM John Howard, Minister for Veterans Affairs Bruce Billson, Air Marshall Angus Houston (Chief of Defence Force in 2008) and many other involved with the FSF success. It reveals that David’s story is but one piece of the jigsaw that lead to the wreck of Sydney.
    Might I add that the photo shown above is of the fourth HMAS Sydney built some 40 years after the loss of Sydney II in 1941.

    • James Eagles (ex-RAN)  

      There is only the badges on the boats that identify the Sydney, and they don’t exist in naval heraldry and as for the supposed Kormoran wreck, Mearns claimed the letters and figures O8KO on the hull identified the ship as the Kormoran, a claim that even Commissioner Cole wouldn’t accept as the ship hull preceded the naming of the Kormoran by many months. So if neither wreck is correctly identified how can Mearns or anyone else claim they found the wrecks when they cannot be verified. They claimed nothing would be touched on the wrecks, fair enough, but there was much wreckage supposedly surrounding the wrecks on the seafloor that could have been salvaged and identified but that did not happen either. Neither were any ex-crew of the Sydney involved in the actual search. Those that did participate obviously didn’t know Sydney from a barn door otherwise they wouldn’t still be claiming they found the ships. Incidentally, one of Bismarck’s props are included in Mearns’ faked imagery as is the sonar image. That sonar image is not of the Sydney with the bow missing but the Bismarck with the stern missing and the hull shape is easily identified as a battlecruiser rather than the slim lines of a cruiser. The people who participated in the search and continue with this charade are at the very least dishonest and at worst simply criminals. They are the same people who had two plaques sent to Germany claiming the Kormoran sank the Sydney, to the Laboe maritime memorial in Germany the only place where the Nazi flag still hangs. When relatives complained the FSF claimed the RSL had agreed to sending them but they lied about that too. The RSL knew nothing about them being sent. The government has spent millions trying to prop up the claims of the FSF and Mearns when their position is untenable and they have wasted tens of millions in taxpayers cash in ‘positive reinforcement” trying to promote their faked claims.

  4. David Mearns  

    I am David Mearns, leader of the expedition that found the KORMORAN & SYDNEY, and AHS CENTAUR two years later for the QLD & Australian Gov’t. I have found many shipwrecks around the world and my track record speaks for itself. I don’t need to hide my identity like the FSF Director, although I know who that is and it disappoints me to see that what he says to me in private is very different to the above. I am taking this rare step of replying because together the two comments, one from James Eagles – a crackpot conspiracy theorist whose claims are so outrageously ridiculous that he merits his own chapter in the Cole Commission of Inquiry – and the other from the FSF Director are bound to confuse people reading their comments leaving them uncertain what to believe or not.

    For anyone who may believe Eagles’ defamatory claims about me, or for anyone with the inclination to probe what he says more carefully, I refer you to Chapter 29 (pages 243-251) in the Cole Commission Report. The final sentence in the report says it all about James Eagles “His writings on SYDNEY are groundless, and have no substance, and should be disregarded.” And that is being polite.

    As for the FSF Director, his intent is to make a distinction between me and the FSF on the basis that they were volunteers and that I was a paid consultant. In doing this he avoids the fact that I worked side by side with the FSF, also as an unpaid volunteer for nearly 6 years. In that time I paid for my own research, travels to Germany, Australia, Chile and dedicated 2-man years to this project with no compensation at all until the final search was funded and then I was contracted (at reduced rates) for the period of the search only. During that time I turned down the offer from FSF to become a Director several times. My reason was that I wished to remain independent. I also recall that this Director did receive some form of salary for acting at the General Manager of the FSF for a period of time, so does that lessen his contribution to the success of the project. In my eyes it does not, but clearly in his eyes it does.

    This Director, indeed all the FSF Directors, also know for a fact that the search was conducted on the basis of my research (probability analysis, search box determination, search strategy & planning, etc.) alone. I considered no other research other than my own and I had full operational control of the search without any input whatsoever from any FSF Director, including the one who was on board the search vessel as an observer. I am a professional shipwreck hunter with many runs on the board, which is exactly why the Navy and the Gov’t only agreed to support the search if I was in charge. In the end my direct actions led to the wreck of KORMORAN being found in 64 hours, the wreck of SYDNEY being found 68 hours later, and as result the FSF had something like a half million in savings from the budget to spend on good causes connected with the legacy of SYDNEY and her men.

    The FSF Director also praises his own book as the ‘full story’, which it is patently not. How could it be when not one of the many contributors to this book were actually involved in the at-sea search for the wrecks. The one FSF Director who gave 6 weeks of her life to be at sea did NOT contribute to this book. A second FSF Director who was hugely important in behind the scenes political lobbying did NOT contribute to this book. And a third FSF Director who had to step in and save the project from a near self-inflicted disaster also did NOT contribute to this book. Instead two former FSF Directors who resigned years before the search actually took place, co-edited the book and wrote lengthy chapters of their own.

    It is true that my book, mentioned by John Reid in his article, was my own story from my perspective alone. I did however, acknowledge everyone’s contributions and was entirely complimentary to all the FSF Directors. When it came time for the FSF to write their own version of the story, an effort I supported, they instead decided to do a hatchet job on my work and my character. I don’t know what caused the split between the two FSF Directors who co-edited their book and the three Directors who were not involved. But the general consensus from many who know the facts is that major portions of the book are an attempt at the rewriting of history of how the wrecks were actually located.

    For the clearest factual real-time account of the search, devoid of spin, point scoring and the rewriting of history, check out the search diary written from the search ship on a daily basis. It was posted every day by the FSF on to their own website (

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