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Is This How It Happened?
The Loss of HMAS Sydney

by Glen Porter


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Is this how it happened?

Late in the afternoon on the 19th of November 1941, while returning from escort duty to Sunda Strait the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney met and fought with the German Raider Kormoran. The resultant battle, at close range, caused the loss of both ships and the entire crew of Sydney. The action happened about two hundred miles west off Shark Bay, half way up the Western Australian coast, on roughly a strait line from Sunda Strait to Fremantle.

Many conspiracy theories concerning this action have been raised over the last sixty years, mainly involving a possible Japanese submarine or the Kormoran committing an act of piracy. The fact that Japan had not yet entered the war, that cooperation between Germany and Japan was very limited at this stage and that there is no evidence what so ever of the involvement of a submarine of any nationality, makes this unlikely.

Kormoran could not have expected to win this fight let alone get the result they got, that is, have the Sydney lost with all hands. I doubt therefore, that they would have taken the risk of doing anything illegal.
So why did a modern and experienced warship succumb to a converted freighter with First World War vintage guns.

Over the last twenty-five years, there have been four books written about the loss of H.M.A.S. Sydney. The first by Michael Montgomery, in 1981,"Who Sank The Sydney?" tells the story of the action and then lists all the theories surrounding it but doesn’t come to any conclusions. The second, by Barbara Winter, "H.M.A.S. Sydney, Fact, Fantasy and Fraud", in 1984, also tells of the action but puts paid to a lot of suppositions put forward by Michael Montgomery. The third book by Dr Tom Frame, "H.M.A.S. Sydney, Loss & Controversy", published in 1993, dose not add anything new to the mystery, nor dose he come to any conclusions except to criticize Montgomery for being too pro Sydney, and Winter for being too pro Kormoran. The fourth and last, and in my opinion, the best, by Wesley Olson, 2000, "Bitter Victory, The Death Of H.M.A.S. Sydney", not only tells the story, but also comes up with a theory which I find very credible indeed.

After reading the first two books I realized there were four main questions that needed to be answered that neither author seemed to have been able to answer.

  1. What caused the Sydney to approach so close to the kormoran if she was still unidentified?

  2. Several members of Kormoran's crew mentioned seeing what they called pantry men, leaning against the Sydney's rails watching her approach to the Kormoran. No one on a warship has time to lean on the rails and watch during action stations. Did this happen?

  3. Why did it take the Sydney so long to open fire when she could have done so as soon as Kormoran began to identify her self?

  4. Why, when she did open fire, did she miss?

The answer to the first question is fairly simple and it's mentioned in both books. What’s more it is the cause of the whole disaster, if it is correct. Every allied warship carries a book containing information on enemy warships supplied by naval intelligence. This book contained a photo of the Kormoran, or as they knew her,” Raider G". Only one, mind you, and of the Kormoran when she was the Steiermark, before her conversion to a raider. This photo showed the Steiermark riding high out of the water, with four sets of Sampson posts instead of the two she had after the conversion but most damning of all, with a stern that looked like a half counter half cruiser instead of the full cruiser stern that she actually had. This photo could have caused the crew of Sydney to miss identify her. However, one ship they did know a fair bit about was the Kulmerland, a very similar looking ship and most important of all, a full cruiser stern and unarmed. They also knew that she was working out of Japan and supplying u-boats and raiders. They could have then, because of the faulty photo, misidentified her as the Kulmerland, an unarmed German supply ship.

The second question took a bit more digging to answer. The four 4" anti aircraft guns, about two thirds along the hull of the Sydney, had no gun shields, and the gun crews wore white leather aprons, gloves and balaclavas. As the Sydney approached the Kormoran the two after turrets would have been trained around to port as far as they would go. If these guns had to fire at this extreme angle the 4" gun crews would have been at risk of injury so they would have been stood down. The logical place for them to go would be the tube space on the deck below. Could these have been what the German crew had taken to be pantry men [cooks and stewards]?

The last two questions [3 and 4] can be answered together as they are connected. If the Kormoran had been misidentified as the Kulmerland, this would change the emphasis for the crew of Sydney. Instead of guarding against being attacked by a possible raider, they would have been looking to stop an enemy supply ship from attempting to scuttle. An accepted means of doing this was to scare the pants off them by giving them a near miss with a full salvo. Consequently, the gunnery officer would have been informed of the situation and warned to aim off and be prepared to give them a full salvo near miss. So when the Kormoran began to strike her colours, Sydney’s crew would not have been surprised, as they would have already assumed she was a German. However, when she decamouflaged her guns and opened fire, Sydney’s crew would have been caught with their pants well and truly down. Imagine the confusion in Sydney’s gun director, when, with all guns loaded and ready to go but aimed off, they were informed that the ship they were facing was a raider and had just opened fire on them. They could not open fire in response until the aim had been corrected and this would take time. It’s possible they opened fire too soon, with all the panic, and not only was their response delayed but they missed.

Having all four questions answered by Wesley Olson, let me now put them into the context of the story to show how they affected things.

Shortly after they spotted this strange ship slightly east of south, Sydney’s crew noticed her making a large course change and this caused them to turn towards her to investigate. Looking at Kormoran from about nine miles away, they could not see her stern clearly enough to decide if it matched the photo they had of raider G. Turning to starboard and keeping about nine miles distance, they moved around to Kormoran’s starboard beam. At this point they were able to ascertain that her stern did not match that in the photo but the whole ship matched a photo of the Kulmerland, an unarmed German supply ship. The thing to do at this point, was to get in close to the Kormoran as quickly as possible and get a boarding party on board her before she could attempt to scuttle with the hope of not only capturing the ship but also any documents that may still be there. With this in mind Sydney moved in quickly turning broad side to the Kormoran at about 1,200 yards distance on her starboard side. Because of the severe angle of approach and the possibility that the aft six-inch turrets may have to fire on the port side the four-inch gun crews would be stood down. Some would be used to lower a boat for the boarding party, the rest would be sent to the port tube space below.

On board Kormoran at this time, the captain would have decided that there was no way out of the situation other than to fight and the order to strike the colours and decamouflage would have been given. The first sign of this for the Sydney’s crew would have been the lowering of the Dutch flag from Kormoran’s masthead. This would not have alarmed them as they already suspected her of being German, however, her next actions would have. The lowering and raising of covers revealing a multitude of guns was a sure sign of her being a raider. The captain of Sydney would have immediately ordered his main armament to open fire. It took about twenty seconds for Kormoran to open fire after the order was given and Sydney’s first salvo came at about the same time. The rest is history, both ships were lost, of the four hundred crew on the Kormoran, eighty were lost and three hundred and twenty were saved. Of the Sydney’s six hundred and forty five, none survived.

A bitter victory indeed and all because of a bad photograph.


Bitter Victory, The Death Of H.M.A.S. Sydney by Wesley Olson.
Nedlands, W.A. University of Western Australia, 2000.


Further Reading:

Who Sank The Sydney? By Michael Montgomery.
H.M.A.S. Sydney Fact, Fantasy and Fraud. By Barbara Winter.
H.M.A.S. Sydney, Loss & Controversy. By Tom Frame.

Text Copyright © 2004 by Glen Porter
Page Created 25 September, 2004
Last updated 25 September, 2004

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