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Wreck of H.M.A.S. Sydney Found Off Western Australia

HMAS Sydney
From The National Archives of Australia - On 19 November 1941, following a battle with the German raider HSK Kormoran, in the Indian Ocean off the Western Australian coast, the light cruiser HMAS Sydney disappeared, almost without trace. The loss of the Sydney with its full war complement of 645 remains to this day Australia's worst naval disaster and one of its greatest wartime mysteries. The only confirmed relics found were a lifebelt and a Carley life float damaged by shellfire. Of the Kormoran's crew of 397, 317 were rescued.

For twelve days the government maintained the strictest secrecy, issuing 11 censorship notices preventing the publication of details. When the Prime Minister made the first of two public announcements on 1 December 1941 he did little more than confirm the widely circulating rumours that the Sydney had been sunk. For the public the shock of the loss was accompanied by bewilderment that such a disaster could occur. A suspicion that information was being concealed was strengthened by the delay in making the official announcement despite widespread public rumour, by the lack of any real explanation when the announcement did come, and by the secrecy which surrounded the official investigation of the disaster.

Little information was officially released until 1957, when the official history of the RAN in World War II was published (G Hermon Gill, The Royal Australian Navy 1939–42. Volumes 1 and 2. Official History of Australia in the War of 1939–45, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1957). Despite the history's assertion that the story of the Sydney's last action 'was pieced together through exhaustive interrogation of Kormoran's survivors' and that 'no room was left for doubt as to its accuracy', its failure to answer important questions confirmed for some the suspicion of an official cover-up.

The controversy over the loss of the Sydney continued to trouble many Australians and in 1997 the Minister for Defence asked the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade to inquire into the circumstances surrounding the loss of the vessel. The Committee, which was assisted by a historical adviser, received in excess 400 submissions, and took evidence at hearings held in most Australian capital cities. In its report, which was tabled in Parliament in June 2000, the Committee placed on the public record for the first time the findings of a major inquiry into the Sydney disaster.

A copy of the report is available at aph.gov.au/house/committee - it makes for fascinating reading. Amongst its conclusions are -

* although some believe that Sydney may not have been at her optimum state of battle readiness, the Committee felt that it was not demonstrated that Sydney was any more unprepared for battle than other ships of her class. The Committee found no documentary evidence to support the claim that Sydney was in need of major repair on 19 November 1941.
  • the Committee does not believe there is sufficient evidence to prove that the Kormoran was being tracked by HF/DF as suggested. HF/DF was still in the developmental stage, its accuracy open to question, and it would be unthinkable that an experienced raider captain would be sending daily messages allowing such tracking to take place. Evidence from Mr Lander does not rule out his involvement in the development of a HF/DF facility, but there is insufficient evidence to show that it was Kormoran that was being tracked (and as a consequence, that authorities, and possibly Sydney, knew with some accuracy the location and movements of Kormoran).
  • while Captain Burnett was aware that there had been raider activity in the Indian Ocean, he may not have been alerted to the presence of one particular raider. However, he should have been extremely cautious in approaching any unknown vessel.
  • it was common practice for warships to come close to unknown ships, to identify them, and to prevent scuttling. It was Captain Burnett's and his crew's misfortune that a practice that had worked on other occasions should end so disastrously on this occasion.
  • a strong case can be made that the Kormoran's underwater torpedo capacity played a major role in the defeat of Sydney.
  • the account of the engagement as given by the Germans is feasible, given that very few of the Kormoran survivors would have been in a position to be privy to all of the command decisions taken and to all aspects of the engagement.

How the Sydney was Sunk
At about 4pm on November 19, somewhere west of Shark Bay, Western Australia, Sydney sighted a merchant ship about 20 kilometres away and challenged it. The other ship identified itself as the Dutch ship Straat Malakka. It was, in fact, the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran. According to survivors from Kormoran, Sydney closed to within 1,000 metres, and was surprised and overwhelmed when the crew of Kormoran opened fire with concealed artillery and torpedoes.
Kormoran was also badly damaged in the ensuing battle and had to be abandoned. Survivors from Kormoran reported that Sydney was last seen, heavily on fire and down by the bow. The ship and its 645 crew members were never seen again.

The 66-year search for the wreck of HMAS Sydney is almost certainly over.

A group of West Australians using just a grappling hook and an underwater camera last weekend found what they are sure is the Sydney. Their video film shows scenes of tangled wreckage over a vast expanse of deck, much longer than any other vessel known to have sunk in the area.

The search team believe a series of details clearly visible on their video - decking bolts, extensive radio aerials, steam tubes and signs of massive damage - all point to the Sydney. The wreck is off Cape Inscription on the northern end of Dirk Hartog Island in about 150 metres of water.

More here in The Sydney Morning Herald - a fascinating story.

BTW The Federal Government intended to announce this week a $2.9 million grant to a Perth-based group, HMAS Sydney Search Pty Ltd, to help find the missing wreck. If this wreck really is the Sydney, some of that money may go to this new group.

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Reader Comments (2)

Anyone with half a brain would know, that what could be seen even in the furry shots produced by these amateurs, wasn't the Sydney. The first thing you'd look for is those massive turrets and guns .. and the massive size of the hull.
Furthermore, the fact that the wreck these clowns found is fished over 2-3 times a week, and would be well known to most fishing crews in the area seems to have escaped them. They claim Billson treated them like criminals .. which may or may not be true .. however, they deserve to be be treated with scorn, after showing themselves to be complete imbeciles, after not even doing the slightest amount of homework to confirm even the faintest details of whether the wreck was the Sydney. On top of that, the journos who slammed headlines of "FOUND!!" across the front pages of the newspapers, also deserve to be treated with scorn, for their lack of journalistic ability, and lack of even basic research that would have sunk these clowns faster than their wreck.
August 18, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRon N
Ron, you're spot on with your comments. Mainstream journos are lazy fuckers and just pull stuff off the wire. And if the original story is a beat-up or plain wrong it just gets repeated. That's why we're seeing across the world "Wreck of HMAS Sydney Found!"
August 18, 2007 | Registered CommenterMalcolm Lambe

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