By Judy Ann Newton-Harzer
The HMAS Sydney forever rewrote the history of Australia’s naval losses. And like so many ships lost in battle, the legend lives on until the sea shall give up her dead. But unlike many lost ships, the history of the Sydney might be rewritten as new clues may lead to her final resting place. So little is certain about the final hours and last throes of the Sydney that locating her remains could lay to rest the 65-year-old mystery of what really happened to the HMAS Sydney.
Returning from convoy duty in Java, the Australian cruiser Sydney departed Sumatra on 17 November and was scheduled to dock in Fremantle, Western Australia 20 November. The Sydney never arrived. About 4pm on 19 November the Sydney sighted a merchant ship. The Sydney’s Captain, Joseph Burnett, closed the 20 kilometre gap between the two ships and demanded identification. Eventually the merchant vessel hoisted the flag signal letters identifying her as the Dutch registered ship Straat Malakka followed by a distress signal calling for help.
Suspiciously, the Sydney moved within 1,000 metres of the Straat Malakka and again asked the ship for identification. Signalling with flags and flashing lights requesting a destination. Then the Sydney raised a two flag signal, the letters ‘. The Straat Malakka had no reply to the message, even though the letters were the two middle letters of the Malakka’s four-letter secret identification signal. When the Sydney demanded the ship to display its secret call letters, the Dutch colours were struck and a German Naval Ensign was hoisted as the masked artillery guns opened fire and the first torpedo honed in on the Sydney’s hull.
The Sydney had been lured within striking distance by the German Hilfskreuzer (Auxiliary Cruiser) HSK Kormoran. Now sailing too close to the Kormoran for the Sydney’s guns to be effective, the futile attempts to return fire landed well over the deck. The Sydney was at the mercy of the Kormoran’s six 5.9 inch guns.
Little more than a sitting duck, the German Captain, Commander Theodor Detmers, ordered salvo upon salvo to rain down on the Sydney’s bridge, torpedo tubes and anti-aircraft batteries.
With the two forward turrets out of action already, the Sydney opened fire with the rear turrets striking the Kormoran’s funnel and engine room as a second German torpedo found home beneath the Sydney’s forward deck. The Sydney’s stern was sinking low in the water as the captain manoeuvred the cruiser into position to ram the Kormoran. A blast blew away the Sydney’s forward turret but continued on a dead reckoning with the Kormoran. Now cruising down by the bow, the Sydney passed harmlessly under the Kormoran’s stern. The Kormoran’s engine room was fully engulfed in flames and both vessels were shrouded in thick smoke and the Kormoran’s engines failed. Both ships continued to fire sporadically as the Sydney slowly steamed south.
The battle had lasted only 30 minutes but left both ships in heaving death throes. The last shot was fired at 1825 and by midnight, all evidence of the Sydney had disappeared, along with her 42 officers and 603 sailors. All other signs of the ship and crew had been consumed by the sea.
The 380 surviving officers and sailors of the Kormoran set off in lifeboats while a small crew remained on board to scuttle the burning hulk. Around 0035h the mines within the raider’s holds exploded and the ship sank stern first, upsetting a large rubber boat with the scuttle crew aboard and drowning all 60 men.
23 November: British liner Aquitania picked up 26 German seamen but due to radio silence could not report the encounter.
24 November: Tanker Trocas rescued 25 German seamen from a life raft confirming the fate of the overdue Sydney.
A total of 317 German seamen were rescued over five days, including the Kormoran’s Captain, Commander Detmers.
Two life boats commanded by the Kormoran’s Lieutenant Commander and Chief Petty officer landed north of Carnarvon, WA.
25 November: A lifeboat captained by chief communications officer Reinhold Von Malapert landed near Red Bluff with 57 survivors. All were taken into custody. (In total, 78 of the Kormoran’s crew were lost; the survivors would serve out the war in an Australian POW camp.)
26 November: The HMAS Wyrallah recovered an inflated RAN lifebelt from the Sydney.
28 November: A shrapnel-damaged life float with an empty lifebelt was located. Other than an oil slick, there were no other signs of the HMAS Sydney until February 1942 when a Carley life float with a body on board was recovered near Christmas Island.
1 December 1941: The Prime Minister confirmed the rumour that the Sydney had been sunk. Suspecting government cover-ups in the case, there has been little information that explained the total loss of the crew. Theories proliferate that the Sydney sank too quickly for the crew to abandon ship while another suggests that the survivors were machine-gunned by the crew of the Kormoran. Another hypothesis purports that a Japanese submarine was credited for sinking the Sydney while sharks were responsible for the demise of the survivors.
The accounts of the sea battle that resulted in the single greatest loss of life in Australian naval history were garnered through interrogations of the German POWs. Details would remain sketchy until January 1945 when Captain Detmers attempted escape from the Dhurringile POW camp. Upon his recapture, a diary was recovered that offered a 12-paged encoded account of the battle by placing faint dots under scattered letters in a German-English dictionary. It would be the only tangible record of the battle and the best lead to the position of the sunken ships.
In January 1947, the surviving POWS from the Kormoran were repatriated to Germany but the mystery of the HMAS Sydney’s location has haunted seamen and wreck hunters alike for 65 years.
Classified files were released in mid-1970 and interest in the Sydney was renewed. In 1981 the son of one of the lost crewmen launched a search using the navy’s main survey ship but found nothing other than seismic anomalies. A second expedition in 1985 failed to recover data. In 1995 and expedition aboard The Knorr, the US Navy survey vessel responsible for discovering the Titanic attempted to locate the Sydney and failed. Over the ensuing years, a veritable flotilla of surface vessels equipped with magnetometers have searched in vain.
Several foundations have been established in honour of the HMAS Sydney with the devoted purpose of locating the wreckage. During the summers of 2002-2003 a search by Finding Sydney Foundation again proved futile.
And there, if not for fate, would lie the end of the story. A 92-year-old former Nazi sailor may be the last living link to solving the mystery. Reinhold Von Malapert, the seaman who navigated the lifeboat safely to shore near Red Bluff, has been located living in Santiago, Chile. Believed to be one of the last-known survivors of the Kormoran, his recollections of the position of the battle have corroborated information taken during interrogation of the navigator and wireless operator in 1941. Von Malapert points to the battle site being in an area 240km southwest of Shark Bay in Western Australia. Citing that the Kormoran did not move far from the battle scene, it is assumed that finding the Kormoran would be a link to finding the Sydney.
Leading the search for the lost wreck is the non-profit HMAS Sydney Search Foundation, spearheaded by American shipwreck hunter, David Mearns, and former Royal Navy officer and linguist, Peter Hore. The team went to Germany and located Commander Detmer’s encoded diary. Hore was able to decode the text to provided further clues as to where the ship may have sunk. The key will be to locate the Kormoran as a starting point.
The Australian government and the state governments of Western Australia and New South Wales have guaranteed $2.4 million towards funding the search and an additional $2 million is expected from Queensland and Victoria. While discrepancies remain within accounts of the battle position, the data provided by Van Malapert in 2006 has narrowed the search location for both the Sydney and the Kormoran to about 1,500 sq nautical miles (5156 sq km). In comparison, the search area for the Titanic was less than 146 nautical miles (500 sq km).
Even the depth of the wreck is in dispute. Theories vary that the Sydney is between 2,200 and 4.000 metres deep. While previous expeditions have failed, it is the state-of-the-art search sonar that will provide the critical edge at these depths. It is with this sonar technology that Mearns was able to locate the Royal Navy flagship HMS Hood in July 2001. Speaking optimistically, he is 80 to 90% confident that the Kormoran will be found within the prime search area about 290 km south-west of Carnarvon. Once the Kormoran is located, the search will turn SSE where it was last sighted nearly 65 years ago.
Finding the Sydney won’t answer all the questions of what happened. However, for the relatives of those lost aboard her, any information will be of comfort and provide a focus for the final resting place. Even if the wreck is located there would be no efforts to raise the ship or recover bodies or artefacts -this would be a mission of ‘discovery only’. The Sydney is an official war grave and will remain untouched. According to Bob Trotter of the HMAS Sydney Search, ‘It would be strictly a policy of look, don’t touch. The main aim is to commemorate the crew and bring comfort to their families. For more information about the Search Appeal visit