HMAS Sydney was a modified Leander-class light cruiser of the Royal Australian Navy. The ship had great success in the first years of World War II, but controversy and mystery surrounds the loss of Sydney and its crew in November 1941. Its sinking with all hands represents the greatest ever loss of life in an Australian warship; Sydney was also the largest vessel of any country to be lost with no survivors during the war.
And now it seems the vessel may just have been found, some distance north of Cape Inscription on Dirk Hartog Island. To me, this seems to be very close inshore for a naval wreck as a result of a major sea battle.1 Still, given the description of the battle itself, it’s likely the action took place a few hundred kilometres north-west and Sydney was trying to reach shore before succumbing to her wounds.
It’s a remarkable story, somewhat akin to the stalking and engagement of the German pocket battleship Graf Spee in 1939, although that battle encompassed some very intelligent and seemingly superior tactical minds. Clearly, it seems the loss of the HMAS Sydney comes down to the relatively inexperienced command of her Captain, Joseph Burnett. Even though it seems both vessels were evenly matched for firepower, the element of surprise is undoubtedly what undid Burnett. Sydney’s six inch guns, if they’d been prepared and trained which apparently they weren’t, could have seen a quick end to the Kormoran, but having closed within a kilometre and believing he was challenging a merchantman, Burnett was obviously caught with his pants around his ankles.
Had Burnett opted for caution instead of closing before engaging, it’s likely Kormoran would have been despatched without too much drama, but once well within range of her weaponary, Sydney didn’t really stand a chance. Still, she obviously gave as good as she received. It’s a shame she didn’t have the opportunity to hang around to see her foe die before she did.
It’s strange, don’t you think, reader, that all hands were lost from Sydney? Only one corpse ever recovered and that from a hell of a long way from the battle site. If the accounts from the Kormoran survivors is to be believed, it’s most probable that Sydney’s magazines tore her apart before she managed to make landfall. The destruction would have been terrible and in that region of the Western Australia coast, free foating bodies wouldn’t last too long.
I hope that Messrs Stiles, Shepherd and Shepherd are right in their claim, and families of those lost can finally put a place to their loved one’s place of departure. As a war grave, it behooves the government to protect the anonymity of the site as well. Those who died aboard the Sydney did so in the service of their country. They deserve due respect.
1it seems my initial thoughts may well prove to be correct.