HMAS SYDNEY – Australia’s Greatest Naval Tragedy

Book review by Kevin Rickard

Frame,T. HMAS Sydney, Australia’s greatest naval tragedy. Hachette Australia: Sydney. 2008. pp. 412 rrp.$34.99.

In the afternoon of 19 November 1941, two large ships sighted one another for the first time off the coast Western Australia. Within an hour, after a ferocious battle, both ships would be mortally wounded; by morning, both had sunk. One of the ships was the RAN Leander-class light cruiser HMAS Sydney, lost with all hands, 645 men. The other was the German auxiliary cruiser, Kormoran; Crippled by Sydney’s gunfire, she was scuttled. Of Kormoran’s 399 crew, 318 survived.

The Australian Prime Minister, Mr. John Curtin, officially announced the loss of HMAS Sydney some nine days after the event on the afternoon of 30 November 1941. It was a major blow to Australian morale and military capability. Her crew represented 30 per cent of the RAN’s war time’s casualties.

Perhaps the most striking and humbling aspect of Bishop Tom Frame’s book, HMAS Sydney, is the list of names of the officers and men lost in the action. To read through this list of names, from CAPT Joseph Burnett to Salvatore Zammitt, the Canteen Manager, brings home the terrible tragedy of the event. VADM Russ Shalders writes “if you only read one book on this tragic event in Australian naval history and want all the facts and theories presented in a balanced way, Tom Frame’s book is for you”.


The Right Rev. Assoc. Professor Tom Frame is an Australian Anglican Bishop, historian, academic, author and social commentator. He is a graduate of the RAN College at HMAS Creswell.

Frame sets the stage superbly for the battle by detailing the history of the two ships before their ill-fated meeting. Sydney had covered herself with glory during operations in the Mediterranean under the command of CAPT John Collins RAN. She served as a key element of the seventh cruiser squadron of ADML Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean fleet. In the battle of Cape Spada CAPT Collins displayed great initiative and tenacity in pursuing the Italian light cruisers Giovanni delle Bande Nere and Bartolomeo Colleoni. Sydney‘s action sank the latter and severely damaged the former. During this time Sydney also provided convoy escorts, attacked Italian land bases, provided anti submarine protection, and carried military equipment for the allied base in Crete. She successfully took part in the battle of Calabria and operated as an integral part of the British fleet. In January 1941 she was ordered home, and arrived in Sydney Cove to a justly-deserved heroes’ welcome and a Freedom-of-Entry March into the city of Sydney in February 1941.

Sydney spent the early months of 1941 on escort and patrol duties in the Indian Ocean. On 15 May 1941 CAPT Collins RAN handed over command to Captain Joseph Burnett, RAN.

Collins, and Burnett were both graduates of the first entry to the Naval College in 1913. Burnett, who had come from Navy Office to take command of Sydney, was regarded as an active and industrious thinker, an accomplished sportsman and athlete. He possessed an attractive personality, an engaging demeanor, was easily liked, and was generous and compassionate.

The characteristics of Joseph Burnett, the gentleman, were in stark contrast to those of his final opponent, Korvetten Kapitan Theodor Detmers. This man by all reports appears to have been a ruthless, scheming, opportunistic Nazi pirate of the high seas.

The Kormoran was a Kriegsmarine merchant raider. Originally the passenger vessel Steiermark, she was the largest merchant raider operated by Germany during World War 11, mounting six 150mm (5.9 inch) guns, plus two 37 mm guns and five 20 mm cannon. She was also equipped with six torpedo tubes, two twin tubes on the upper deck and a single underwater tube on each side.Before encountering  Sydney, she had enjoyed considerable success in both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. She had attacked eight vessels in the Atlantic and three in the Indian Ocean while being at sea for almost a year. Her crew was tough, confident and battle-hardened. In late 1941 her intention was to mine shipping routes off the coast of Western Australia especially near Cape Leeuwin and Fremantle. However, wireless signals alerted her to the presence of HMAS Canberra so she decided to sail north and mine Shark Bay.

Detmers was the youngest man to command a German merchant raider. By the time he engaged Sydney he had sunk some 80,000 tonnes of shipping and had been awarded the Iron Cross First Class. Utterly ambitious, Detmers was determined to achieve the 100,000 tonne target and receive the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. He was a ferocious and formidable opponent for the less battle-hardened CAPT Joseph Burnett of the Sydney.

In an attempt to analyse ‘what happened’ in the action between Sydney and Kormoran, Frame tries to piece together evidence based on the interrogation of the German survivors, including Detmers.

According to Detmers the cruiser seemed completely unaware of Kormoran‘s true identity, partly because of deliberate and confusing signal traffic between the two ships. At 1730, with the cruiser “somewhat more than a mile away” Kormoran revealed her identity. Striking the Dutch flag and hoisting the German ensign took six seconds. The raider then slowly turned to 260 degrees to improve her torpedo shot. Kormoran‘s first and second (gun) salvoes fell short but salvoes three, four and five struck the cruiser’s bridge and the director. Kormoran‘s anti-aircraft and starboard 37 mm guns then directed accurate fire into the cruiser’s bridge, her torpedo tube space and Walrus aircraft. It was not until Kormoran‘s fifth salvo that the cruiser returned fire from X turret. Turrets A and B did not fire, and two or three salvoes from Y turret passed over the raider. Kormoran was hit on her funnel and in the engine rooms. Kormoran fired her first pattern of torpedoes at the cruiser after the eighth or ninth salvo. At least one of the torpedoes struck under the cruiser’s forecastle and the bow was almost submerged by the blast. The cruiser then crossed the wake of the raider which was fired upon by the cruiser’s after turrets and a pattern of four torpedoes that passed astern of the raider.

Around 1745 the cruiser was burning fiercely abaft the bridge. She was proceeding south at slow speed and would sink soon after. Detmers ordered “cease fire” at 1825; Kormoran‘s engine room was badly damaged and scuttling action began. The fierce action had lasted less than an hour. The mortal damage to Sydney probably occurred within the first three to four minutes of the engagement. The command team of the Sydney were almost certainly killed by Kormoran’s third to fifth salvoes.

There is speculation within the text as to why Sydney came so close to Kormoran. Perhaps this was a tactic approved by the captain of Sydney in consultation with the command team. Maybe firing on Kormoran was delayed because she could have been transporting allied prisoners of war.

In the latter half of the book Frame carefully analyses and dissects a number of books, controversies and events which occurred in the years following the sinking of Sydney. In the “Post Mortem” chapter an Admiralty instruction on tactics advised “that commanding officers underestimate the offensive power of raiders!” In the chapter “Genesis of Controversy” VADM Sir John Collins wrote “that Sydney was lost because she failed to observe prudent tactics” and “a vessel’s description agreeing with her name is no guarantee that she is not a raider”. Frame also deals rather critically with writings by Jones, Montgomery and Gill. The possible role of a Japanese submarine in the sinking of Sydney is also dismissed on very logical grounds.

Attention is given to the finding of the carley float and its consequent forensic analysis by the Australian War Memorial. There was no absolute proof the float came from Sydney. The body in the carley float (originally buried on Christmas Island) could not be precisely identified but the Commonwealth agrees that the man probably came from from Sydney. The remains were interred in the nearest Commonwealth war cemetery near Geraldton.

A Joint Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (JSCFADT) was convened in August 1997 with broad terms of reference. A recommendation was that no one group ‘owned Sydney. The committee said Australia should “move beyond animosity and antagonism” in relation to the Sydney mystery.

The last chapter of the book deals with the finding of the wreck of Sydney by American David Mearns and the search ship SV Geosounder. He used a deep-water towed side-scan sonar for location purposes and later a remotely operated vehicle to photograph and view the wreck. His activities were part funded by the Finding Sydney Foundation and part supported by Commonwealth and some State governments.

The finding of the wreck of Kormoran was announced by the Foundation on 12 March 2008. Just five days later the wreck of Sydney was found in 2468 metres of water. The wreck is now observed as a war grave.

Soon afterwards, the government announced that Terence Cole QC would head a commission of enquiry into the loss of Sydney and report to the Chief of the Defence Force. ACML Houston admitted the enquiry would take some time since twenty three kilometres of documents had to be examined. The enquiry made little sense to Frame. He thought it was pointless. and elected not to make a submission to the enquiry. Instead, he suggested that the wreck should be examined by experts so as to draw some conclusions about the conduct of the engagement.

AB Bill Pitt, crew member of Sydney writing to his mother in Melbourne in 1941, said “I do not think I will be home for my birthday. I am beginning to feel old at 21”. Six weeks later Bill Pitt and every other man on board Sydney was dead.

Frame’s book is a scholarly and comprehensive work on HMAS Sydney from beginning to end. Frame, an objective and thorough historian, writes about a matter which is precious to the RAN and is a subject of emotional feeling in the Australian community. This book is compulsive reading and stands as a fitting memorial to all those 645 officers and men who gave their lives for this Australia.

hmas sydney book cover



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