House of Representatives Committees

Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade

Completed Inquiry: The Loss of HMAS Sydney

Chapter 1

Conclusions and Recommendations

Since the loss of HMAS Sydney in November 1941, with all 645 crew, the debate on the exact nature of the engagement and its aftermath has intensified rather than abated. In conducting this inquiry, the Committee made a conscious decision not to duplicate the work of historians, choosing instead to limit its comments and conclusions to those matters on which it took direct evidence. In examining the evidence the Committee attempted to determine what a reasonable person would believe and looked at the balance of probabilities. The Committee is aware that the report may not put an end to the wilder speculation that surrounds this matter.

It is unfortunate that the inquiry is only now being held, when so many who may have been able to shed light on the events of November 1941 are either dead or infirm. It is regrettable that a full inquiry does not appear to have been held immediately after the loss of Sydney, or in the post-war years when much information might have been obtainable. Partly because the issues were not addressed in a timely manner, speculation and theorising have filled the void, with the debate likely to continue after this report is released. However the Committee agrees with Dr Tom Frame that, at least on some matters, there are some things that will remain unknown and unknowable.

Chapter 2

Much of the controversy that has arisen over the fate of HMAS Sydney derives from perceived inadequacies in the treatment of the encounter by G Hermon Gill in his history of the RAN in World War II. Gill's account of the Sydney-Kormoran encounter, including some background material, runs to only 14 pages, in a volume of 686 pages covering the first two years of the war. It is, therefore, extremely succinct. Michael Montgomery's book, published in 1981, was at pains to discredit Gill's description of the encounter, and claims Japanese involvement in the loss of Sydney, and a cover-up by Navy.

The work by Barbara Winter, published in 1984, focused more on the Kormoran and more than either Gill or Montgomery, used a wide range of sources including German archival records and captured German records in American archives. Attacked by some as an apologist for the Germans, Winter's book gave little comfort to those convinced of a German conspiracy or an Australian Government and naval cover-up. The most recent work, by Dr Tom Frame, examines the works of Gill, Montgomery and Winter, before posing a considered reconstruction of the event that suggests that perhaps under cover of surrender, Captain Detmers unleashed a devastating attack on Sydney.

Chapter 3

Suspicions that documentary evidence had either been destroyed, misplaced or concealed led to the Committee examining the issue of archival material as part of the inquiry. The volume of material held by Australian Archives relating to Sydney, and as listed in the excellent Guide produced by the Archives, is a staggering 21.6 shelf kilometres of documents. The suggestion that all records held should be examined on the remote possibility that they might contain something related to Sydney does not commend itself to the Committee, as such an unfocused search would be extravagant in terms of time and cost. However, the Committee believes that a decision should be taken to make all material relating to the Second World War open to public access on a blanket basis, thereby placing the onus on individuals to undertaken the archival research that underpins historical inquiry.

The Committee recommends that:

1. the Australian Government review the operations of the Archives Act 1983 in regard to World War II material, with a view to providing full public access to all material. (para 3.12)

The possibility of the existence of relevant material in foreign archives was also examined by the Committee. There are no obvious German sources remaining to be checked, and unless a reasoned basis for further searches in the German archives could be developed, it is unlikely that anything would be gained by additional work in this area. The Committee confirmed that Dutch signals intelligence from the Netherlands East Indies (NEI), was destroyed before the Japanese capture of the NEI; and there is no material in the central Dutch archives in the Hague relating to activities involving the Sydney.

While the great bulk of British records concerning the Second World War were released in 1972, it is possible that a report was prepared for the Admiralty on the loss of Sydney and may be in records there (this is discussed in more detail in Chapter 6). The 75 year closure imposed on some Churchill-Roosevelt correspondence relating to late 1941 was lifted in August 1998 and the material (with only two exceptions) is now open to public access in the Public Record Office.

Japanese naval records were largely destroyed at the end of the Second World War, but what records that now exist offer no evidence to support allegations of Japanese involvement in the sinking.

Chapter 4

Theories about the battle and its aftermath have flourished, and quite contradictory theories have developed to explain the loss of Sydney. While not examining the engagement in detail, the Committee examined a number of claims, concluding that:

Chapter 5

The issue of whether signals were sent from Sydney, and where those signals may have been picked up has been a major area of dispute, and in particular whether those signals were received by Harman Naval Station. As a corollary to this, there is also debate as to why no action might have been taken if those signals were received.

Mr Robert Mason, a Naval writer posted to Harman, was adamant that a message had been received from Sydney. However, in the light of evidence from four people intimately involved in monitoring signals at Harman in November 1941, doubt must exist regarding the accuracy of Mr Mason's recollections about the timing and indeed nature of the signal.

On balance, the Committee believes it is likely that Sydney attempted to signal once the engagement was underway, but there is no evidence that the signals were received by naval or other authorities. The Committee can find no evidence that signals were received and were ignored deliberately by the RAN or by the Admiralty.

Theories about the involvement of a third party have proliferated since the loss of Sydney, with the most common accusation being that a Japanese submarine was involved in the sinking. The Committee was not convinced that a case has been made to show that the Japanese were responsible for sinking Sydney. Of all the submissions expressing support for the theory, none provided any hard evidence to prove Japanese involvement. The complete lack of any documentary evidence, and the inability of those advocating this theory to identify the Japanese vessel involved has meant they have been unable to prove Japanese involvement. The possibility of a third party being involved in the sinking appears to have had its genesis in the shock of the loss and the inability of people to accept that Sydney could have been defeated in such a manner. It is unfortunate that the claims of third party involvement still continue to circulate in the absence of any substantive evidence.

Similarly, theories about what role the LS-3 (light speed boat) played in the engagement and its aftermath are only speculative. The Committee does, however, reject the claims that the LS-3 was used to shadow survivors in the water and kill them. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that this occurred, and the continued claims of such behaviour, as with so many unfounded claims about the whole Sydney-Kormoran engagement, are both malicious and distressing to family members of those lost on Sydney.

Chapter 6

By the time an official announcement that Sydney had been lost was made on 30 November 1941, rumours had already begun to spread about how the ship might have been lost. The circumstances surrounding the event were immediately sensationalised, giving rise to a proliferation of theories about who was responsible for the sinking. In retrospect it is easy to say that the handling of the release of information to the public was unnecessarily secretive. However, there is a danger in underestimating the uncertainties of 1941, a time when Australia was at war and faced a difficult future. Actions taken then should not be judged from a perspective of the 1990s, when the public expects far higher standards of transparency and openness from government. It is unfortunate that information on the loss of Sydney was handled as it was, with many of the lingering doubts about the event in large part able to be sourced back to decisions taken in the aftermath of the loss.

GPCAPT Bourne has claimed that he made an earlier search on 23 November, 24 hours before the official search began, supposedly in response to a message from Aquitania following her recovery of a life raft containing Germans. The official position has always been that Aquitania did not break radio silence. Given the passage of so much time, the fallibility of memory and the lack of documentary evidence, the purpose of GPCAPT Bourne's flight on 23 November may never be clear. In evaluating this proposition, the Committee was troubled by the apparent lack of an appropriate response by authorities if Aquitania has indeed broken radio silence to report her discovery. One aircraft on a limited search would seem a disproportionately small response, if indeed Aquitania had advised of her find. No plausible explanation has been put forward as to why the RAN in those circumstances failed to act.

Doubt has also been cast on the veracity of the German accounts. In the Committee's view, however, it was significant that, despite years of questioning and cross-examination, the Kormoran's survivors have maintained that they told the truth in interrogations. While the Committee accepts that relatively few of those on board Kormoran would have known exactly what happened on 19 November 1941, the endurance of the German accounts over time lends weight to the survivors' recollection of events.

Claims that survivors from Sydney were killed in the water (by either Germans or Japanese) have proved unfounded. The Committee points to the Australian War Memorial investigation of the carley float recovered during the search for Sydney. That examination ruled out the possibility of the float having been damaged by machine gun fire. Similarly, the Committee can find no justification for calls for a criminal investigation into the deaths of the Sydney crew. The deaths occurred as a result of a wartime engagement, and no evidence was presented to the Committee to suggest that any agencies or individuals acted in a 'criminal' manner.

Doubt exists as to whether a formal inquiry was held into the loss of Sydney. Such an inquiry would have been common practice following the loss of a ship, and it was also practice for such reports to be lodged with the Admiralty. While the British Ministry of Defence has confirmed that no such report is held by them, it may be possible that a report, if one was made, may be on files held by the British Public Record Office.

The Committee recommends that:

2. a search be undertaken by the Australian Government at the Public Record Office in London for any records of a court or board of inquiry report into the loss of HMAS Sydney. (para 6.120)

Chapter 7

For many who made submissions to the inquiry, the body on Christmas Island was a central concern. If the body was indeed that of one of HMAS Sydney's crew, there was a strong feeling that it should no longer lie in an unmarked grave in a remote part of the Indian Ocean. The Committee examined whether it was possible to establish whether or not the body came from Sydney, by examining the possible origins of the carley float in which it was found, oceanographic factors and the physical characteristics of the float. The Committee believes that while it is not possible to prove conclusively that the carley float originated elsewhere than the Sydney, it is also not possible to discount that the carley float was from Sydney. On the balance of probability, the Committee believes that it did originate from that vessel.

An examination of two carley floats held by the Western Australian Maritime Museum was preliminary only, and the Committee believes that more information might be forthcoming if the two carley floats were subjected to the same type of examination as the carley float in the Australian War Memorial.

The Committee recommends that:

3. the two carley floats in the collection of the Western Australian Maritime Museum be subject to scientific examination by the Western Australian Maritime Museum in conjunction with the Australian War Memorial. (para 7.49)

Although there was an indication that an inquest was held into the death of the unknown sailor, no records have ever been located. It may well be that records may have found their way to the Public Record Office, among the records of the British Phosphate Corporation.

The Committee recommends that:

4. the Australian Government continue inquiries to determine if, within the records of the Public Record Office London, there are any records relating to a coronial inquiry undertaken on Christmas Island on the unknown sailor. (para 7.55)

There are no records giving the exact location of the burial place of the unknown sailor in the Old European Cemetery, and over the years there has been a degree of confusion about the exact location of the site. It is unfortunate that the Old European Cemetery has deteriorated over the years, complicating the search for the burial site. The Committee hopes that sufficient resources will be provided to the Christmas Island Shire Council to allow for restoration work to be undertaken on it and other cemeteries on the Island as required.

The Committee recommends that:

5. the Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government arrange for an assessment of the condition of the cemeteries on Christmas Island, and provide sufficient additional funding to the Christmas Island Shire Council to allow restoration and maintenance work to be undertaken. (para 7.75)

The Committee finds the calls from the families for action in resolving the identity of the Christmas Island body, and the arguments of experts such as Professor Hilton and Dr Hughes to be most persuasive. The Committee is of the view that it will only be by proceeding with an attempt to locate and identify the body, regardless of the outcome, that Australian authorities can then truly say they have done everything possible to pursue this aspect of the Sydney controversy. While there is only a remote chance that the body will be definitively identified, the views of the families and their desire for action on this matter weighed heavily with the Committee. As a first step, the Committee believes that a small team should be sent to Christmas Island to try and more accurately determine the location of the grave.

The Committee recommends that:

6. (a) the Department of Transport and Regional Services and the Department of Defence attempt to locate the grave of the unknown sailor on Christmas Island, by sending a small team (including an archaeologist) to the Island; and
(b) should the grave site be accurately located, the Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government issue an order for the exhumation of the remains for the purpose of identification.
(para 7.90)

A number of techniques might be employed in determining the possible location of the grave site. The Committee is concerned that the grave site be accurately located with as minimal disruption to the other graves as possible.

The Committee recommends that:

7. (a) the Christmas Island Shire Council be fully informed and consulted about any proposed exhumation; and
(b) attempts be made to contact the relatives of those also buried in the Christmas Island Old European Cemetery before any exhumation order is made.
(para 7.92)

The Committee received somewhat conflicting evidence during the course of the inquiry on the nature and availability of medical records for those who were lost on Sydney, and their usefulness in assisting identification of any remains. While the records may not be as complete as those kept by the ADF today, the Committee believes they may be of some assistance in attempting to identify any remains found on Christmas Island. The Committee can see no valid reason why access to those records should be denied to family members after so many years. To attempt to restrict access to such documentation is to invite suspicions of a cover-up or indeed indifference to the whole matter.

The Committee recommends that:

8. the Department of Defence provide the families of those lost on HMAS Sydney with a copy of their relative's medical records, such as exist, if requested to do so by the families, at no cost to the families. (para 7.111)

The Committee recommends that:

9. (a) should the remains on Christmas Island be positively identified, the Australian Government ensure that the next of kin be involved in the decision-making process regarding the reinterment of the remains and any commemorative activities;
(b) if the remains are returned to mainland Australia for burial, a memorial cairn be erected on Christmas Island marking the original burial site; and
(c) if the remains are not positively identified, they be reinterred in an appropriately marked grave site on Christmas Island.
(para 7.130)

Chapter 8

The Committee was of the opinion that an attempt should be made to locate the sites of the Sydney and Kormoran wrecks. The Committee is not convinced that the wrecks will explain much about the actual engagement beyond its location (either proving or disproving at least that part of the German survivors' accounts). However, and more importantly, the Committee considers that the discovery of the final resting place of so many Australians who served on Sydney would bring at least some comfort to the families who have had to live with the frustration of not knowing the site of the wreck for over half a century. The actual wreck sites would also provide a focus for future commemorative activities that might be held.

Before any search is held, the search area must be more closely defined. Given that the actual site of the engagement is still in dispute among researchers, it was perhaps not very surprising to find an even more vigorous debate in progress on the possible locations for the wrecks, and a wide range of positions were put to the Committee. A great deal more work is needed before an actual search can be mounted. The Committee would like to see a phased approach to the search undertaken, beginning with a seminar or workshop, sponsored by Navy, to examine the various theories about possible wreck sites. This seminar/workshop would follow on from the work conducted at the 1991 Forum and the many hours of work since by interested researchers.

The Committee recommends that:

10. the Royal Australian Navy sponsor a seminar on the likely search areas for Sydney and Kormoran, involving as many of the individual researchers and groups as possible. (para 8.59)

The Committee recommends that:

11. after the search area is more accurately defined, some preliminary surveys be undertaken to try and confirm the accuracy of the wreck locations, prior to a full in-water search. An initial search for HSK Kormoran at or near 26 32-34'S, 111 E, if supported by the seminar, would seem a logical starting point. (para 8.61)

A number of techniques, such as deepwater side scan sonar, may be of assistance in the search. The cost of any search, however, will be substantial and the Committee considered a range of options for funding. The Committee believes that a co-ordinated approach would be the most effective, rather than a 'free for all' that might result from a large reward being offered. The Committee notes that a successful search will require a multi-disciplinary approach, a high degree of co-ordination, and clever management if the result is to be achieved. Therefore, it concluded that the HMAS Sydney Foundation Trust is the most appropriate body to co-ordinate the search activities at present.

Further, the Committee believes that the Commonwealth Government should be involved in the search, giving not only moral support but also tangible assistance. While the Trust should be the prime co-ordinator of the search, RAN resources should also be made available to assist the Trust in the search as required.

The Committee recommends that:

12. the HMAS Sydney Foundation Trust and the Australian Government negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding governing the search for, and subsequent protection of, the wrecks of HMAS Sydney and HSK Kormoran. (para 8.94)

The Committee recommends that:

13. (a) the Australian Government provide an initial grant to the HMAS Sydney Foundation Trust of $100,000 to cover activities associated with defining the search area, with a report on its expenditure to be provided to the Australian Government; and
(b) the Australian Government match public donations, on a dollar for dollar basis, up to a total of $2 million.
(para 8.96)

The Committee's primary concern, should the wrecks be located, is that they be adequately protected as the final resting place of so many Australian servicemen, and to this end a proper management plan should be developed.

The Committee recommends that:

14. (a) should the wrecks of HMAS Sydney and HSK Kormoran be located in Australian waters, they be declared wrecks of historical significance, under the terms of the Historic Shipwrecks Act; and
(b) the Minister for the Environment and Heritage make a declaration creating a protected zone around the site of the wrecks.
(para 8.104)

While the Committee does not endorse keeping the wreck locations secret, it is concerned that they be protected from exploitation and interference. The Committee believes there is merit in seeking community involvement in the protection of the sites and in reporting of unauthorised activity.

The Committee recommends that:

15. in addition to consultations with the HMAS Sydney Foundation Trust on a management plan for the wreck sites, the Western Australian Maritime Museum also consult with the Royal Australian Navy, community groups and other stakeholders. (para 8.110)

The search for Sydney and Kormoran is not guaranteed of success. If it does succeed, it may provide those interested in the fate of the ships some further insights into the events of 19 November 1941. If the search is unsuccessful, it does not mean that people will no longer wonder about the final resting place of the ship. However, an attempt to find Sydney will be a sign that Australia cares about the 645 men who gave their lives in defence of their country, as well as their families and friends.

Chapter 9

Various views were expressed to the Committee about how and where Sydney should be commemorated, as was the view that Sydney is already adequately remembered. The Committee concluded that it would be appropriate for a major memorial to be erected in Fremantle, the port from which Sydney sailed. The Committee believes that the memorial should be jointly funded by the Commonwealth and Western Australian Governments, and that it be dedicated on 19 November 2001.

The Committee recommends that:

16 the Commonwealth and Western Australian Governments jointly fund the construction of a memorial to HMAS Sydney, to be erected in Fremantle, with the memorial to be dedicated on 19 November 2001. (para 9.15)

In addition to a physical memorial, the Committee would like to see a 'living' memorial created, and therefore supports the establishment by the RAN of a research grant scheme in the name of HMAS Sydney.

The Committee recommends that:

17. the Royal Australian Navy create a research grant scheme in the name of HMAS Sydney II and her crew, to the value of $50,000 per annum, to support research into aspects of Australian naval history. (para 9.18)

Commemorative services were held immediately after the loss of Sydney, and the Committee believes it would be appropriate for the 60th anniversary of the engagement to be marked, with as much involvement of family members as possible.

The Committee recommends that:

18. the Department of Defence co-ordinate a service of commemoration for HMAS Sydney II in the year 2001, at the site of the wreck if determined, but also at the new memorial in Fremantle, and in Sydney. (para 9.27)

The Committee is well aware that the level of interest in Sydney and her fate is so extensive that, regardless of the outcome of this inquiry, individuals and groups will continue to research the topic and expound on their various theories. This is to be welcomed, if it is undertaken with an openness to the information available and a willingness to listen and to take into consideration opposing views. The Committee would encourage the Western Australian Maritime Museum to continue to play the constructive role that it has in the past in fostering scholars in Sydney-related research.

The Committee strongly believes there is a need for all involved in the Sydney debate to move beyond animosity and antagonism and find common ground. No one group 'owns' Sydney, or has a monopoly on truth. The Committee hopes that in future researchers will rise above the personal acrimony and suspicion that has marred so much of the debate thus far. An exchange of differing views is a positive process, and can only lead to a better understanding of the events of November 1941. HMAS Sydney deserves no less.

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