Indian Ocean finds open wartime battle wounds

18th March 2008, Comments 2 comments

The findings from forensic examinations will be both comforting and troubling for relatives of those whose lives went under with their ship.

Sydney -- By rights, Australia's splendid new battlecruiser HMAS Sydney should have blown Germany's refurbished merchant ship HSK Kormoran right out of the water when the pair were at guns drawn in the Indian Ocean at sunset on November 19, 1941.

Instead, the inexplicable happened: the Kormoran sank the Sydney.

The pride of the navy went down 240 kilometers off Australia's west coast with the loss of all 645 aboard. The Kormoran also sank -- but not before 317 of the 397 crew had taken to lifeboats and ensured their own survival and the preservation of eyewitness accounts of Australia's worst maritime disaster.

At the weekend the wrecks of the Sydney and the Kormoran were found close together under 2,500 meters of water.

They will stay there as war graves, but cameras sent down to scour the debris will very likely come up with evidence to corroborate what the Kormoran survivors have maintained all along: incompetence sank the Sydney.

The findings from forensic examinations will be both comforting and troubling for relatives of those whose lives went under with their ship.

"HMAS Sydney has been with us all of our lives," said naval architect Allen Blackburne, whose uncle, Allen King, was lost. "I was named after him, I've grown up with him, I have all his memorabilia."

Blackburne is likely to learn that Captain Joseph Burnett was outsmarted by Captain Theodor Anton Detmers. By coming up close to the German ship and presenting its flanks for an easy hit, Burnett evened a contest that he then lost in catastrophic fashion.

One estimate is that the Kormoran landed 50 shells on the Sydney before it took its first hit. The Kormoran was sunk not by the Sydney, but by explosives laid by its own crew.

A 1999 parliamentary inquiry determined that the Sydney may "not have been at an optimum state of battle readiness." According to Kormoran survivors, this was an egregious understatement.

"Eventually, Australians will have to comprehend that the guilty party for Sydney's sinking is Captain Burnett," 89-year-old Ludwig Ernst, the president of the Kormoran Survivors Association, told a Perth newspaper last year. "I observed Sydney's incompetent command structure from the moment Sydney appeared over the horizon and turned to pursue us."

Another survivor, Lieutenant Commander Heinz Messerschmidt, testified that Detmers ran up the German flag before firing. "The Sydney was not ready for battle," Messerschmidt said. "It was half an hour of continual fire. It's no surprise no one survived."

Internationally renowned shipwreck hunter David Mearns, who found the two hulks less than 10 kilometres apart at the weekend, said the wreckage of the Kormoran corroborated the accounts of the German survivors.

"The vessel suffered a catastrophic explosion after its cache of some 320 mines storied in the aft cargo holds four, five and six detonated," he said.

There are those who defend Burnett, including academic and author Tim Frame. He reckons the Sydney drew close to the Kormoran to try and take it in a non-lethal manner because it might have had prisoners-of-war on board. (It did, three Chinese, who took to the lifeboats and were saved.)

"Firing on the unidentified ship from a safe distance might have let to hundreds of sailors being lost," Frame said.

Ean McDonald, a signalman onboard the Sydney until 1939, said he found it incomprehensible that the navy did not receive signals from the Sydney during the half-hour engagement. He hints at a cover up.

"There's always been that side of the mystery," he said.

Along with many others, McDonald is hoping that cameras scrabbling around in the deep will fill in the blanks that have both mystified and upset Australians for close to 70 years.

DPA with Expatica

2 Comments To This Article

  • John posted:

    on 18th March 2008, 12:31:02 - Reply

    Come on - get it right HMAS Sydney was no Battlecruiser. It was a cruiser and a light cruiser at that. The main armament was 6" guns. Kormoran had 5.9". Sydney was not at action stations and should have been.
  • Jim mesko posted:

    on 18th March 2008, 03:03:19 - Reply

    This is a very interesting article but could do with a bit more research. Speciaficaly, the Sydney was not a battlecruiser but rather a modified Leader class light cruiser. There is a very big difference between the two types of ships.
    She was commissioned in 1935 and had taken an active part in the sea war against the Italian fleet, sinking an Italian light cruiser. While the German ship was not as heavily armed as the Sydney, if was able to draw the cruiser in close and get off the first shot this could prove fatal to the Australian ship, which it obviously did.