Today in 1941, the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney and the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran faced each other in ship-to-ship combat off the coast of Western Australia. While inconsequential in a strategic sense, the battle remains a source of controversy in Australia and among naval historians even today, 67 years later.
Kormoran was a merchant raider, a class of ship used early in the Second World War by both the Allied and Axis powers. At first glance, merchant raiders appeared to be unarmed cargo ships. However, the vessels used various tricks to hide offensive armaments, often cannons, mines and torpedoes. They were unarmored and were not intended to do battle with naval ships of the line, but they were very effective in sinking unarmed merchantmen. The Kormoran, 515 feel long and weighing nearly 9000 tons, packed a punch with 6 5.9in guns, 2 37mm anti-tank guns, 5 20mm anti-aircraft guns, 6 torpedo tubes and 390 mines stored in her holds. She could also carry two seaplanes and a light torpedo boat. She was originally built as a merchant ship in 1938 for the Hamburg-America line, but when the war began the following September, she was converted into an HSK, the German abbreviation for “commerce disruption cruiser”. By the time of her confrontation with the Sydney, Kormoran had been operating in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans for 11 months and had sunk or captured eight Allied ships.
HMAS Sydney was a light cruiser launched in 1934 in England. She carried 8 6in guns, 4 4in guns, 12 mounted machine guns and eight torpedo tubes. She also carried a seaplane for reconnaissance and anti-submarine operations. She saw intense action in the Mediterranean during 1940, meaning that by the time of the battle with Kormoran in November, 1941, most of the crew was experienced and battle-tested. One of the newer members of the crew was the Captain, Joseph Burnett, who assumed command of the ship upon her return to Australia from the Mediterranean in early 1941. At the end of February of that year, Sydney began her new mission of carrying out patrol and escort duties in the Indian Ocean and surrounding areas.
Sydney was returning to Fremantle from an escort mission when she spotted Kormoran 11 nautical miles away near Dirk Hartog Island in Western Australia. It was 4PM on November 19th. Sydney signaled Kormoran asking for identification, but the German ship turned to port and headed west for the open ocean. She was disguised to look like a Dutch freighter, even flying a Dutch flag. As the Sydney turned in pursuit, the German captain, Commander Theodore Detmers, ordered radio signals to be sent to the effect that a Dutch ship was being followed by an Australian warship as a further ploy to confuse the Australians. Kormoran was slower than Sydney and it soon became apparent that the warship was closing the distance, albeit slowly. Over the next 90 minutes, the crew of Kormoran tried to send poorly worded phrases via flag signal. Sydney replied, asking for more information as the distance between the two ships lessened.
Commander Detmers did not want a fight with the Australians, but he knew that if he had to fight, he stood a better chance at close range, where Sydney's advantage in fire control and more accurate weapons would be minimized. At last, the two vessels closed to within 1,000 meters and Captain Burnett aboard Sydney asked the Kormoran to display a secret letter code which would lend proof to the Germans' assertion that they were actually a Dutch merchant ship. Since the commander of the Kormoran did not know the code, he knew that a battle was now a certainty. He ordered the Dutch flag lowered and the German naval ensign raised. It was 5:30PM, November 19th, 1941.
The Kormoran fired first with both her 5.9 inch guns and her smaller 20MM and 37MM mounts. The larger shells fell short, but the smaller rounds hit Sydney’s bridge and her gunnery direction tower. The 150mm guns soon fired a second round, which resulted in a square hit on the Australian ship. The fact that the Sydney had not yet fired a shot was later explained by some of the German crewmen on the Kormoran, who said that as the two ships approached one another before the battle, it appeared that the sailors aboard Sydney were not at their battle stations; that is, the ship was not at general quarters. The Germans saw Australian crewmen leaning against the ship’s railing and noted that while the Sydney’s main guns were pointed at them, their secondary weapons were not.
Despite being caught apparently by surprise, the gunners on Sydney soon opened fire on the Kormoran with a bracketing shot, but the German ship responded by knocking out Sydney’s two front turrets. She still had two rear turrets that were undamaged, though, and one of those hit Kormoran in the funnel and engine room, igniting a raging fire. Her engines soon quit, but not before she fired a torpedo, hitting Sydney in the bow.
HMAS Sydney, on fire amidships and flooding from the bow, turned on Kormoran as if to ram her but kept turning, exposing her starboard side long enough to fire four torpedoes, all of which missed. Although losing momentum, Kormoran could still fire some of her main guns and the gunners wasted no time in hitting the starboard side of the Sydney. After the battle, the Germans claimed to have hit the Australian warship more than 50 times with their big guns.
Sydney turned to leave the scene of the battle, firing one more torpedo on her way out of range. Kormoran kept firing on the cruiser until 6:25PM, two hours and twenty-five minutes after the ships first spotted each other. Even though she could still fire some of her guns, the German ship had fires raging belowdecks and her gunnery controls were destroyed. At 6:30PM, Commander Detmers gave the order to abandon ship. Scuttling charges were placed and the crew manned the ship's life rafts. The battle had killed 20 Germans, with another 40, mostly wounded, killed when their raft capsized in the rough seas. Kormoran exploded 25 minutes later and went down by the stern.
None of the men and officers of HMAS Sydney, 645 in all, were ever seen again. The German survivors, who later came ashore in Australia or were picked up by passing ships, reported seeing Sydney burning on the horizon until 10pm that night. She eventually drifted over the horizon, after which the Germans heard several loud explosions. It was their belief that these were caused by the detonation of the Sydney's ammunition magazines.
The loss of HMAS Sydney sent shock waves through all of Australia. The Royal Australian Navy held a court of inquiry into the sinking in March, 1942. The court concluded that Captain Burnett disregarded standing operational orders when he sailed to within 1,000 meters of Kormoran and the ship's gunnery officer did not have Sydney's main guns ready to fire. It also concluded that a torpedo from Kormoran was the cause of the sinking.
Australians familiar with naval warfare found it incredible that a modern light cruiser could fall victim to a vessel that was, in the final analysis, an unarmored cargo ship. The fact that most of the German crew survived while all the Australians died was also a source of controversy in the months and years after the battle. Many Australians doubted the German accounts of the battle; some believed a Japanese submarine must have also had a hand in the destruction of HMAS Sydney. Some also believed that the crew of the Kormoran killed the Australian survivors in the water.
In March, 2008, both ships were found twelve nautical miles apart in over 2,400 meters of water. Soon thereafter, the Australian government launched a Commission of Inquiry which is, as of this writing, still underway. While physical evidence recovered from the two ships may shed light on what actually happened on that day nearly 70 years ago, it is possible that many of the questions about the battle between HMAS Sydney and the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran will forever go unanswered.