On November 19, 1941, the light cruiser HMAS Sydney of the Royal Australian Navy was returning to the port of Fremantle after escorting the troopship Zealandia to Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra. The Sydney spotted what appeared to be a merchant vessel about 150km off Shark Bay on the coast of Western Australia. As it happened, the vessel in question was the quite heavily armed German merchant raider HSK Kormoran, painted black and disguised as the Dutch vessel Straat Malakka. The Kormoran had been responsible for sinking ten merchant ships in the previous year in the South Atlantic and Indian oceans, but it was not initially identified by the Sydney.
Whilst attempting to identify the unknown vessel, which was sending out deliberately unclear and ambiguous flag signals, the Sydney chased and overhauled the Kormoran, approaching to a distance of approximately 1000 metres from the Kormoran. At this point, the Kormoran opened fire. Sydney was hit approximately 50 times, causing severe casualties on her bridge and open decks, damage to her gun turrets, and apparently damage to both sides of her superstructure that caused complete destruction of her lifeboats and rafts, and setting the ship on fire. Sydney retaliated, and caused severe damage to the funnel and engine room of the Kormoran. Sydney then left the scene, heading south. Kormoran was so badly damaged that the ship had to be abandoned. Sydney was last seen listing and on fire, and flames were seen and explosions heard from the crew who had abandoned the Kormoran as the evening progressed.
The bulk of the crew of the Kormoran (over 300 people) were either rescued by Australian ships, or managed to sail their lifeboats to the Australian mainland. They were imprisoned in Prisoner of War camps, where they remained until 1947. The crew of the Sydney were not so lucky, however. Neither the ship or anyone on it were ever seen again. Apparently the destruction of the lifeboats and rafts meant that when the ship sank it went down with its entire crew of 645 people.
For people in Australia who lived through the Second World War, the loss of the Sydney is a moment that is always remembered and recalled. Losing one of the largest vessels in the Australian Navy did terrible things to Australian morale, and the mystery of where the ship went down and exactly how it was lost is something that has led to controversy, disagreement, and even the odd conspiracy theory involving the Japanese. The Sydney went down two weeks before Pearl Harbor. The fact that the only knowledge of the battle and how the Sydney was lost came from the enemy has heightened this sense.
The next six months were very bleak ones for Australia in the war. Eight ships (including the Zealandia) were sunk and there was much loss of life and property when a massive Japanese air raid attacked the Australian city of Darwin on 19 February 1942. More bombs were dropped in this raid than had been dropped on Pearl Harbor two months ealier. This was the first of over 100 air raids on Northern Australia in 1942 and 1943. The 8th Division, which the Zealandia had transported to various parts of tropical Asia as the Japanese threat loomed (but which had been trained for desert warfare against Nazi Germany) suffered a series of terrible defeats, and was essentially destroyed as a fighting unit by the middle of 1942. The Japanese Navy made serious incursions into the water off the east coast of Australia, culminating in the midget submarine raid on Sydney Harbour and shelling of Sydney and Newcastle by Japanese submarines in May and June of 1942. At the time if was feared by many that a Japanese invasion of Australia was imminent.
Of course, this did not happen, but it was a terrible moment in Australia’s history, and one that largely took Australia by surprise. In my mind that six month period from the sinking of the Sydney is when Australia ceased to be British. That Australia was in a different part of the world, and had different interests and different priorities and potentially different allies from Britain was something that could no longer be denied by anyone. While for most practical purposes Australia had been an independent country for decades by this time, a law was passed (The Statute of Westminster Adoption Act of 1942) that made this unambiguously clear. Those symbols of nationhood that Australia had not adopted for itself prior to this time were adopted soon after the war. Australia’s foreign policy ever since this moment, including Australia’s very close alliance with the United States and Australia’s decision to keep relatively small but extremely modern and well trained armed forces are really a consequence of what happened in this six month period of the Second World War. The loss of the Sydney was in a way an atypical part of this terrible six months. It was sunk by a German vessel, and the war was ultimately with Japan. However, the loss of the Sydney was a landmark event in Australian minds.
Which is why the mystery of what had happened to Sydney has been a long-standing and long-running one in the Australian psyche. It was one of two mysteries from the Second World War, the other being what happened to the third midget submarine that entered Sydney Harbour on May 31, 1942. That submarine was eventually found just north of Sydney, but not until November 2006.
And people kept looking for the Sydney, despite the fact that it was lost a long way to sea, and at that the sea off Australia’s very inhospitable north-western coast. $3.9 million of government money was directed towards a search for the wreck of the vessel that commenced at the beginning of this month, headed by American shipwreck hunter David Mearns. On the 16th of March it was announced that the wreck of the Kormoran had been found on 12 March. On the 17th March, it was announced that Sydney had been found at 26°05”²49.4”³S 111°04”²27.5”³E, and the wreck was still largely intact. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that both wrecks would officially be designated as war graves, and thus protected under Australian law. Presumably it will be possible to examine the wreck of the Sydney further and learn a little more about how she was damaged and sank. Still, though, the question of what happened in her final few hours will always remain supposition.