A mutually destructive Naval engagement

Into the Abyss

Following a refit in early 1941, Sydney commenced convoy escort and patrol duties in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It accompanied the troopship Queen Mary from Port Jackson to Jervis Bay, and escorted transports and other supply vessels to Singapore, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. In September 1941, the cruiser resumed escort and patrol duties off the coast of Western Australia. It was during this deployment that Sydney accompanied Zealandia to Sunda Strait on what would prove to be its final voyage.

While en route to Fremantle on 19 November, what appeared to be a merchant vessel moving northbound approximately 210 kilometres west of Shark Bay was sighted.

While en route to Fremantle on 19 November, Sydney sighted what appeared to be a merchant vessel moving northbound approximately 210 kilometres west of Shark Bay. The cruiser made a series of identity challenges via signal flags and lights, and received slow or confusing responses. A distress signal was then transmitted from a vessel claiming to be Straat Malakka. In an effort to positively identify the ship, Sydney closed to less than a mile (approximately 1500 metres) away and demanded the vessel reveal its secret identification signal.

The mystery ship was Kormoran. With Sydney sailing on a parallel course and well within range of its guns, Kormoran used the advantage of surprise. The raider’s crew quickly hauled up the Kriegsmarine ensign and fired three successive salvoes into Sydney’s bridge and midships section, effectively destroying its command and control capabilities within moments.

The cruiser’s forward-mounted A and B Turrets were also disabled almost immediately, but its aft X Turret returned quick and accurate fire that struck Kormoran’s funnel and engine room. At almost the same time, one of the raider’s torpedoes struck Sydney beneath and slightly ahead of its forward-most turret. The Australian warship  settled by the bow then turned towards Kormoran and passed astern.

While turning, Sydney’s A turret was blown apart. Sydney then moved away and began to lose speed. Both vessels continued to exchange sporadic fire as the distance increased between them, with Kormoran scoring steady hits on Sydney until it moved out of range.

As night fell, the Australian vessel continued to limp south-southeast towards the coast of Western Australia...never to be seen again, and of its crew of 42 officers and 603 ratings, none survived.

As night fell, the Australian vessel continued to limp south-southeast towards the coast of Western Australia, and was last seen by Kormoran’s crew at a distance of 10 miles (16 kilometres). From that point, a faint glow was visible on the horizon until midnight, when it finally disappeared. Sydney was never seen again, and of its crew of 42 officers and 603 ratings, none survived.

Kormoran was also mortally damaged during the battle on 19 November. Most of the raider’s complement were alive at the conclusion of the engagement, but 40 drowned when a large rubber boat unexpectedly sank as the ship was abandoned.

Detmers commenced scuttling action after midnight, then left in the last lifeboat. At 1:35 AM on 20 November Kormoran’s cargo of mines detonated, blowing apart the aft portion of the hull and sending what remained of the vessel rapidly to the seabed.

Enlarge

Life jacket used by Oberleutenant zur See (Lieutenant Commander) Heinz Messerschmidt following Kormoran’s loss. ANMM Collection 00037633.
Life jacket used by Oberleutenant zur See (Lieutenant Commander) Heinz Messerschmidt following Kormoran’s loss.

ANMM Collection 00037633.

In subsequent days, most of Kormoran’s 318 survivors were located and rescued by Allied merchant and military vessels operating in the area. Others made it to the coast of Western Australia, but were quickly captured and incarcerated. Air and sea searches for Sydney failed to find any trace of the vessel, save for a single naval-pattern Carley float and one navy life belt.

Enlarge

Canvas pennant featuring Kormoran that was hand-embroidered by a German prisoner of war in 1941. ANMM Collection 00044580.
Canvas pennant featuring Kormoran that was hand-embroidered by a German prisoner of war in 1941.

ANMM Collection 00044580.

In February 1942, another Carley float containing human remains was recovered at Christmas Island. An investigation by the Royal Australian Navy in 1949 concluded that neither the body nor the float originated from Sydney. However, the body was exhumed and subjected to archaeological and forensic investigation in October 2006. These analyses refuted the results of the 1949 investigation and concluded the remains were likely those of a Sydney crewman. Attempts to identify the body through DNA matching have so far proved inconclusive, but are ongoing.

References

  • Cover image: Kormoran survivors emerge from an unidentified vessel after being rescued at sea. ANMM Collection 00047845.