Expedition to HSK Kormoran & HMAS Sydney and its Battle

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An expedition was done to survey the historic World War II shipwrecks of HMAS Sydney (II) and the German raider HSK Kormoran. The wrecks lie in 2,500 metres of water, 20km apart, about 200km west of Steep Point (Shark Bay).

This survey expedition, made on 3 May 2015, was to uncover the secrets of the HMAS Sydney (II) and has produced a mass of images and footage that document the wreck sites of the HSK Kormoran and HMS Sydney and reveal more about the last moments of the ship.

This new photographic evidence appears to confirm why the HMS Sydney was so quickly disabled, leading to catastrophic damage and the devastating loss of everyone on board.

This new evidence provides support for the theory that within the first 30 seconds of the battle Sydney‘s bridge was destroyed, her command structure lost, and her ability to effectively fight back severely disabled.

High resolution images taken by Curtin University on board DOF Subsea's vessel Skandi Protector clearly shows, for the first time, a 15cm shell hole through the bridge at the compass platform.

High resolution images taken by Curtin University on board DOF Subsea’s vessel Skandi Protector clearly shows, for the first time, a 15cm shell hole through the bridge at the compass platform. (Credits: Western Australian Museum)

The Battle of HSK Kormoran & HMAS Sydney

A brief account on the HMS Sydney’s battle with the HSK Kormoran is sketched through information of German Fregattenkapitän Theodor Anton Detmers his interrogations.

On 19 November 1941, around 1700 hours, 120 miles west of Shark Bay (Western Australia) HMS Sydney spotted a merchant vessel. The vessel was in fact the German Raider HSK Kormoran which was disguised as the Dutch merchant Straat Malakka. Sydney challenged the vessel, while closing the distance between the two ships and flashing the signal NNJ (“You should make your signal letters”). When replying to Sydney‘s signal, the raider’s flag hoist was deliberately fumbled and then hoisted in a position where the flags would be obscured by the funnel and difficult to read. The Sydney repeatedly demanded that the signal be hoisted clear, and, when the Kormoran eventually complied, the letters PKQI could be discerned. This was the callsign of the Dutch freighter Straat Malakka.

Hilfskreuzer Kormoran in 1940. (Credits: Bundesarchiv)

Hilfskreuzer Kormoran in 1940. (Credits: Bundesarchiv)

At 1800 hrs, to further the deception, Kormoran broadcast a QQQQ ‘suspicious ship sighted’ message, feigning a cry for help in the name of Straat Malakka.

Sydney next signalled: “Where bound?”, to which the Kormoran replied: “Batavia”. Captain Burnett must have been still suspicious as the Australian cruiser’s next signal was “IK”. To the Germans this signal made no sense as, according to the code book, it meant “You should prepare for a cyclone, hurricane or typhoon”.

Fregattenkapitän Theodor Detmers

Fregattenkapitän Theodor Detmers

The letters were in fact the middle letters of the secret callsign of the real Straat Malakka (IIKP) and the correct response was to send the outer letters. This, of course, the Kormoran could not do. The HMS Sydney‘s fate was sealed when she flashed to the Kormoran: “Show your secret sign.” Fregattenkapitän  Theodor A. Detmers now had no choice but to fight.

Detmers ordered the Dutch colours to be struck, hoisted the German naval ensign and opened fire with all armament at approximately 1830 hrs. It is likely the Kormoran’s first fire destroyed Sydney’s bridge, putting her central gun control out of action. Sydney’s own guns opened fire almost simultaneously, passing over Kormoran without inflicting damage.

With a second round of fire, Sydney hit the Kormoran’s funnel, engine room and electrical installations, starting uncontrollable fires. whilst further artillery went over the ship. The Kormoran fired two torpedoes, one striking under Sydney’s turrets and the other passing close ahead of the ship. The cruiser’s forward turrets were knocked out by the raider’s third and fourth salvoes, then the fifth caught the Sydney‘s aircraft on the catapult, wrecking it and spreading burning fuel over the ship amidships.

HMAS Syndey (II) in 1935. (Credits: Wikipedia)

HMAS Syndey (II) in 1935. (Credits: Wikipedia)

In a last attempt at battle, Sydney turned sharply towards the Kormoran as if attempting to ram. Sydney, crippled and on fire, steamed slowly to the south returning sporadic fire, still receiving steady hits from the Kormoran. At 1900 hrs, the Kormoran fired a single torpedo, missing Sydney’s stern. The HSK Kormoran fired her last shot around 1925 hrs from 11,000 yards whilst at that time her own engine room was wrecked and uncontrollably ablaze.

Captain John Burnett

Captain John Burnett

As a raider she was finished and, mindful of her full cargo of mines, Detmers ordered her abandoned. As the crew left the Kormoran scuttling charges were set. They were fired at midnight when the last of the crew had departed. At 12.30 the mines exploded and the Kormoran sank. Of her crew of 393 officers and men, 78 lost their lives, either in the action or the sea afterwards. Two captured Chinese were also killed. Survivors were saved by British merchant ship Centaur.

The Sydney was last seen about ten miles away, well ablaze and limping off into the gathering evening. Her glare could be distinguished until 10.00 and then only occasional flickerings which had ceased by midnight. Of her complement of 645, none survived.

Until on 17 March 2008 the Australian Government announced that the wreckage of both HMAS Sydney and the German raider Kormoran had been found, approximately 112 nautical miles off Steep Point, Western Australia. Kormoran is lying at a depth of 2,560 metres; Sydney, approximately 12 nautical miles away, is at 2,470 metres.

"Group portrait of German Officer prisoners of war (POWs) interned in No. 13 POW Group at Dhurringile near Murchison. They are survivors of the German Auxiliary Cruiser Kormoran which was sunk in November 1941 in an engagement with HMAS Sydney. This resulted in the Sydney being sunk with the loss of the entire crew. Back row, left to right: Oberleutnant zur See Joachim Greter; Oberleutnant zur See Edmond Schafer; Oberleutnant Freiherr Reinhold von Malapert; Oberleutnant Fritz Skeries; Oberleutnant Joachim von Gosseln; Oberleutnant Wilhelm Brinkmann. Front row: Kapitanleutnant Henry Meyer; Kapitanleutnant Kurt Foerster; Fregattenkapitan Theodor Detmers (Commanding Officer); Oberleutnant Heinz Messerschmidt."

Group portrait of German Officer prisoners of war (POWs) interned in No. 13 POW Group at Dhurringile near Murchison. They are survivors of the German Auxiliary Cruiser Kormoran which was sunk in November 1941 in an engagement with HMAS Sydney. This resulted in the Sydney being sunk with the loss of the entire crew. Back row, left to right: Oberleutnant zur See Joachim Greter; Oberleutnant zur See Edmond Schafer; Oberleutnant Freiherr Reinhold von Malapert; Oberleutnant Fritz Skeries; Oberleutnant Joachim von Gosseln; Oberleutnant Wilhelm Brinkmann. Front row: Kapitanleutnant Henry Meyer; Kapitanleutnant Kurt Foerster; Fregattenkapitan Theodor Detmers (Commanding Officer); Oberleutnant Heinz Messerschmidt.

Interesting documents: find here a list of German survivors from the HSK Kormoran and speculations why the HMAS Sydney came so close (and answers).

Sources: Australian War Memorial, Western Australian Museum & Australian Department of Defence

The Expedition

Western Australian Museum CEO Alec Coles said it was a remarkable early discovery for the expedition, and provided support for the theory that within the first 30 seconds of the battle Sydney‘s bridge was destroyed, her command structure lost, and her ability to effectively fight back severely disabled.

“This also supports the German captain Theodor Detmers’ account of the battle which states the first salvo to hit Sydney was a direct hit to the bridge,” Mr Coles said.

“It would appear we now have photographic evidence to support that, thanks to Curtin University’s technology.”

When the wrecks were found in 2008 the shell hole was not obvious, presenting as a shadow in the photographs taken at the time. The new imaging technology developed by Curtin University is throwing new light on the historic site.

Listed is a summary of findings by Mr. Alex Cole:

  • The interrogators independently formed the view that the German survivors were telling the truth.
  • Empirical evidence verified Detmers’ position as the battle location, citing the wrecks as being about 12 nautical miles apart.
  • Damage to the vessels confirmed the closeness of the battle, including the German account that theSydney was struck by a torpedo.
  • The German account of Sydney’s bridge and control tower suffering blows probably resulted in the deaths of many officers and disrupted her firing. Underwater imagery supports this claim.
  • It was established that there was fire damage to the entire bridge, correlating the German account that fire made her visible for some hours after the battle.
  • The German account that shell damage and fire made it unlikely that the Sydney’s boats would be usable by survivors was confirmed by observable damage to the boats.
  • It was confirmed that the Sydney’s captain knew there was a possibility of a raider being off the Western Australian coast, and there was a remote possibility that the vessel sighted was a raider.
  • Captain Burnett assessed the sighted vessel as appearing ‘innocent’ and had approached the vessel to the point where it lost all advantage and was in extreme danger.

A gun named 'Linda' (pictured) marked with a skull and cross bone. (Credits: Western Australian Museum)

A gun named ‘Linda’ (pictured) marked with a skull and cross bone. (Credits: Western Australian Museum)

Sydney Carley float (Credits: Western Australian Museum)

Sydney Carley float (Credits: Western Australian Museum)

Sydney torn-off bow (Credits: Western Australian Museum)

Sydney torn-off bow (Credits: Western Australian Museum)

The wreck of the HMAS Sydney, with its badge still on the bow. (Credits: Australian War Memorial)

The wreck of the HMAS Sydney, with its badge still on the bow. (Credits: Australian War Memorial)

A list of ships sunk by the Kormoran, painted on to the side of the Kormoran. (Credits: Australian Western Museum)

A list of ships sunk by the Kormoran, painted on to the side of the Kormoran. (Credits: Western Australian Museum)

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