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House of Representatives Committees

Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade

The loss of HMAS Sydney

Chapter 4

The Engagement

The Debate Surrounding the Loss of Sydney

4.1    In the 57 years since Sydney was lost, theories about the battle and its aftermath have flourished, assisted by the lack of a complete documentary record of the incident. The absence2 of definitive records, and in particular any report of a Board of Inquiry, has frustrated researchers and in some cases led to suspicions of a cover-up. Quite contradictory theories about the loss of Sydney have developed. While they are open to challenge and criticism, the various theories raise questions about the accuracy of the official history, published in 1957.

4.2    The Terms of Reference for the inquiry asked that the Committee 'investigate and report on the circumstances of the sinking of HMAS Sydney off the West Australian coast ...'. The Committee, while hopeful of addressing some of the major issues related to the loss of Sydney, did not aim to examine in minute detail the technical dimensions of the engagement. The evidence about what might have occurred is often contradictory, and as LCDR Ean McDonald, RAN (Retd) observed: The whole point about this, as we must all appreciate, is that we are all guessing.3

4.3    The same claims and counter claims covered in works by Montgomery, Winter and Frame continue to be raised and merit some comment. The Committee was conscious that, in commenting on the engagement and its aftermath, it too could be accused of speculation, and it accepts that this may well be the case. However, the Committee has attempted in this, and the following chapters, to present the various arguments made in evidence to it, and where possible make some reasonable judgement.

4.4    Among the most frequent suggestions about the lead up to the battle and the engagement itself are that:

  1. the encounter between the two ships was not in fact a chance one (Captain Burnett knew a raider was present in the area and had been directed to pursue the Kormoran);
  2. Kormoran employed a ruse de guerre to lull Sydney in close, acting in contravention of international conventions;
  3. Kormoran was not solely responsible for sinking Sydney, but in fact acted in concert with another party;
  4. the Germans (or other co-conspirators, depending on the particular version) fired upon Sydney survivors in the water, to ensure that no one was left alive to dispute their version of the battle;4
  5. the battle between the two ships did not take place where Captain Detmers and the official history claim.

These matters are discussed in this and subsequent Chapters.

4.5    What also remains in people's minds after 57 years of debate and speculation is how Sydney, the superior ship, was lost with her full complement of 645 men, and with virtually no trace, while over 300 of the Kormoran crew survived the sinking. The issue of no survivors is discussed in Chapter 6.

Gill's Account

4.6    In the official history, Gill acknowledged that several questions remained unanswered, namely:

4.7    Notwithstanding the questions that remained, as noted earlier, it was Gill's emphatic (and, some would argue, premature) conclusion that 'the story of [Sydney's] last action was pieced together through exhaustive interrogation of Kormoran's survivors. No room was left for doubt as to its accuracy'.6 Despite this assertion, many of the submissions to the inquiry focussed on one or more aspects of Gill's account, raising concerns about its accuracy and completeness.

4.8    In Gill's history, HMAS Sydney, under the captaincy of Captain Joseph Burnett RAN, left Fremantle on 11 November 1941, escorting troopship Zealandia to the Sunda Strait. Sydney's expected arrival time back in Fremantle was pm on 19 November or am the following day, an estimated time of arrival that was subsequently amended by Sydney to Thursday 20 November 1941 as she departed from Fremantle.7 After handing escort duty to HMS Durban at noon on 17 November,8 Sydney commenced the return journey to Fremantle. 9

4.9    When Sydney did not arrive on 20 November, the District Naval Officer, Western Australia reported accordingly to the Naval Board on the morning of 21 November. According to Gill, this was not an immediate cause for concern as it was known that Zealandia had arrived late in Singapore and it was assumed that Sydney would therefore also be delayed. However, 'when [Sydney] had not returned by the 23 November, she was instructed by the Naval Board to report by signal'.10 She did not respond. By 24 November, all high power wireless stations in Australia were instructed to call her continuously.11 However, there was no response to these calls, nor did an air search that day produce any sign of the ship.

4.10    Late on the afternoon of 24 November the British tanker Trocas reported that it had picked up a raft carrying 25 Germans, and from their accounts came the first indication that all was not well with Sydney. By 30 November (following an extensive search), six boats and two rafts carrying a total of 315 Kormoran survivors12 had been found, and the German account of the battle started to be pieced together.

4.11    According to Gill, at approximately 4pm (GMT+7 hours; 1600G) on 19 November 1941 the German ship Kormoran, approximately 150 miles south-west of Carnarvon, reported 'a sighting fine on the port bow'13 which was soon identified as a warship. Captain Detmers ordered the crew to action stations, and altered the course of his ship to head straight into the sun. Sydney, approximately 10 miles distant at this stage, 'altered towards and overhauled on a slightly converging course on Kormoran's starboard quarter', continuously signalling NNJ to Kormoran.14 Kormoran, whose speed was impeded by the breakdown of an engine, did not reply, hoping to avoid action by masquerading as the Dutch merchant ship Straat Malakka.

4.12    Captain Detmers showed Dutch colours and hoisted the flag signal PKQI for Straat Malakka, in a location which was difficult to read. Sydney requested a clear hoist of Kormoran's signal letters, and at 5pm the Kormoran sent out a radio (QQQ) signal, as Straat Malakka, that a suspicious ship was in the vicinity. This message was picked up, although faint and in 'mutilated form',15 by the tug Uco and by Geraldton wireless station, which read the time and part of a position of Kormoran. Following reception of the signal, Geraldton broadcast a request to all ships asking for further information, to which it received no reply. No significance was initially placed on the reception of that message.16

4.13    Soon after 5.15pm, Sydney had drawn almost abeam of Kormoran to starboard, less than a mile from the other ship, and was at action stations with all guns and torpedo tubes bearing.17 Sydney requested that Kormoran indicate her destination, to which the ship responded 'Batavia'. At that point:

4.14    According to Gill, the German Captain, realising he could not avoid a fight, struck the Dutch colours and hoisted the German ones, gave the order to fire and struck his first blow shortly after 5.30pm.19 At the same time as opening fire, Captain Detmers ordered that two torpedoes be fired. Kormoran's first two salvos missed the mark, but subsequent direct hits were scored on Sydney's bridge and director tower. The ensuing action was, by all accounts, fast and furious. Sydney, although severely disabled, managed to fire a sufficient number of salvos and torpedoes to damage Kormoran so severely that Captain Detmers ordered abandon ship, and Kormoran was scuttled just after midnight. Sydney was last seen by the Kormoran survivors:

Gill believed it was probable that Sydney sank during the night of 19-20 November 1941.21

4.15    While Gill believed that the 'story of how Sydney was lost would appear to be straightforward', he also remarked that: 'What induced Captain Burnett to place her in the position where her loss in such a way was possible, must remain conjecture'.22

4.16    Gill was convinced of Captain Burnett's culpability, noting his relative inexperience in command and lack of the kind of wartime sea experience which may have helped him in such a situation. As Gill stated, Captain Burnett 'lacked that experience which, gained in a recognised war zone, sharpens suspicion and counsels caution on all chance meetings'.23 Gill also sought explanations for Captain Burnett's actions in part by recording the criticisms made of Captain Farncomb in March of that year in his encounter with the Coburg and the Ketty Brvig. Captain Farncomb was criticised for standing off and shelling the ships, with a significant expenditure of ammunition.24 Gill also speculated that:

4.17    Thus, despite possible extenuating circumstances, the ultimate responsibility for the loss, at least in Gill's opinion, lay with the captain. However the questions that Gill himself raised about the engagement remained unanswered.26 As noted in Chapter 2, subsequent works on the Sydney-Kormoran engagement by Montgomery, Winter and Frame to varying degrees challenged or supported Gill's account.

Reconsidering the Engagement

4.18    In its deliberations, the Committee felt it was necessary to focus on several key aspects of the engagement itself:

  1. the role of the two captains;
  2. the battle readiness of Sydney;
  3. whether or not Captain Burnett was aware that there was a raider off the coast of Western Australia prior to the encounter with Kormoran;
  4. whether or not Sydney was at action stations as it approached Kormoran;
  5. why Captain Burnett may have brought Sydney close enough to Kormoran to be sunk by her (and whether or not Captain Detmers employed a ruse de guerre to entice Sydney in close);
  6. whether or not Kormoran fired a submerged torpedo;
  7. whether or not signals were sent from Sydney;
  8. the possibility of the involvement of a third party, in particular a Japanese submarine.

The remainder of this chapter and Chapter 5 examine each of these in turn.

The Two Captains

4.19    There can be no doubt that the captains of the Sydney and Kormoran played a vital role in the fate of their two ships. Consequently, attempts to ascertain the reasons for Sydney's loss are invariably coupled with analyses of the personalities of the these two men: Captain Joseph Burnett and Captain Theodor Detmers.

4.20    Although the captains were from vastly different backgrounds and on very different missions, both bore responsibility for the safety and well-being of all the men in their charge. Evidence received by the Committee has revealed a diversity of opinion about the personalities of both men.

Captain Joseph Burnett

4.21    The capability and suitability of Captain Burnett as Sydney's captain has been widely debated by historians and researchers. Those who criticise Captain Burnett usually do so on the grounds that he lacked experience in command, and that it was because of this that he brought his ship in too close to Kormoran. Conversely, others portray Captain Burnett as a 'by-the-book', cautious captain who would not expose his ship and crew unnecessarily to danger.

4.22    Captain Joseph Burnett had taken over command of the Sydney from Captain John Collins on 15 May 1941.

4.23    The proposition that Sydney was lost through the human error of one man has proved extremely difficult for many to accept. That Captain Burnett was appointed to the position of Captain is sufficient evidence for some that he was up to the task. For those people, 'it is incomprehensible that an experienced commanding officer of full captain's rank would not have observed all [mandatory and rigorously observed procedures of challenge, identification and recognition for both warships and merchant vessels]'.28

4.24    The Department of Defence stated that Captain Burnett was 'an experienced executive officer ... [and] ... a very well-reported staff officer'.29 Sydney was Captain Burnett's first command experience, although he had had 'considerable sea experience and operational experience'.30 The Committee also heard that:

4.25    LCDR J J Ravenscroft, RANR (Retd), who served under Captain Burnett from May to October 1941, commented:

4.26    In other evidence to the inquiry, Captain Burnett was described as 'a man of caution, careful, not radical, not prepared to put his ship and crew at risk at any time'.33 Other sources stated that '[Captain Burnett] was always a safety-first man and not one to take risks',34 that Captain Burnett was 'very cool, calm and collected'35 and that he was 'an extremely competent officer'.36 If this testimony is to be believed, Captain Burnett was certainly not the type of person one would expect to approach an unidentified ship without taking all the proper precautions.

4.27    Countering these more positive comments, the Committee received evidence that '[t]he only conclusion you can come up with [about the loss of Sydney] is that, one way or another, the captain made a mistake. The question is whether he made a foolish mistake or whether he was deceived into it'.37

4.28    Barbara Winter made the point that there is a difference between incompetence and simply making a mistake, which is what she believes happened in the case of Captain Burnett.38 Winter pointed out that Captain Burnett was 'relatively inexperienced in command, ... none [of his experience was] in what was considered a "hot" operational area ... [and] on 19 November 1941 Captain Burnett made a mistake'.39

4.29    Mr Alaistair Templeton, who served on Sydney under Captain Burnett, was more critical of his former captain:

4.30    Mr F C Sheldon-Collins who also served on HMAS Sydney under Captain Burnett, was also critical:

4.31    According to Michael Montgomery, 'the common verdict on [Captain Burnett] (also a verdict fostered by Detmers, for reasons of his own) to date has been that "if Collins had still been in command, the Sydney would never have been lost" '.42 Montgomery's final conclusion on Captain Burnett is that 'all [the evidence he found] would seem to bear out the opinions, previously quoted, of him as being a most capable and rigorously efficient officer with a thorough grasp of all aspects of naval procedure'.43

4.32    Given that Captain Burnett had been appointed captain of Sydney, and in light of his exemplary track record, albeit in an administrative capacity, the fact that he brought Sydney in close enough to Kormoran to be sunk by the German ship raises serious questions about his reasons for such an action. While there has been much speculation about his actions on the night Sydney was lost, there seems to be a general consensus that Captain Burnett was a man who went by the book. If this was indeed the case, the reasons for the loss of Sydney may go far beyond being the result of a poor decision by the captain. As Barbara Winter suggested:

Captain Theodor Detmers

4.33    Captain Detmers' main interest in life was the sea, having joined the German navy in 1921 at the age of 19.45 In 1934 he was appointed to command a torpedo gunboat (G11) and in 1938 the destroyer Hermann Schoemann.46 In July 1940 Captain Detmers was appointed to command Auxiliary Cruiser 41, Steiermark, later named Kormoran. Under Captain Detmers' command, Kormoran had captured one ship and sunk 10 others during the 11 months at sea prior to sinking Sydney.47

4.34    Captain Detmers was described in glowing terms in some evidence given to the Committee. Mr Richard Lamb told the Committee that Captain Detmers was 'a brilliant and aggressive skipper and a brilliant seaman ... [and] a brilliant tactician'.48 He was 'held in high regard in his profession ... [and was an] ... honourable man, protective of his men, as are all excellent captains'.49 In short, Captain Detmers was a razor-sharp fighting seaman,50 and '... what Detmers did, Detmers did right'.51

4.35    Captain Detmers certainly had the tactical advantage in the lead up to the confrontation with Sydney. As Winter pointed out, 'if that was a raider, the captain had a cool nerve to let a cruiser get so close without cracking'.52 As another submission pointed out, '[Captain Detmers'] greatest advantage was that [he was] conscious of the Sydney as an enemy vessel. Therefore [he was] from the beginning fully prepared for battle'.53 Of all the criticisms directed at Captain Detmers, none suggested that he was ill-prepared or ill-equipped for the position he occupied.

4.36    Oft-repeated suggestions that the Kormoran's captain was a Nazi seem to have been disproved by evidence given to the inquiry, that:

4.37    According to Mr Bill Loane, 'during my research on Captain Detmers and the action between Sydney and Kormoran, I took an overview and I read every book about every Raider captain in both wars, everything that has been written about their activities. I do not believe Captain Detmers was a Nazi, although I believe that certainly there were Nazis on board'.55 He added that:

4.38    Notwithstanding these assessments, there is no doubt that Captain Detmers used a method of 'constant and practised deception'.57 It is suggested that he 'hoped to be awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross',58 a rare award given to captains who were able to sink in excess of 100,000 tonnes of Allied shipping.59

4.39    It was also argued by some that Captain Detmers cared less about his men than some reports would have us believe. It was asserted by one witness to the inquiry that:

While this view has been put, the Committee notes the high esteem in which Captain Detmers was held by his surviving crew.

The Battle Readiness of Sydney

4.40    One issue that was raised in a number of submissions was whether or not Sydney was battleworthy at the time of her loss. This is probably due to the fact that in theory Sydney was a far superior ship to Kormoran, and as such should not have been sunk by the German ship, so long as she maintained a position in which superior armament would prevail. Kormoran's armament consisted of '6 x 5.9-inch, 2 x 37mm AA, 5 x 20mm AA guns, 6 x 21-inch torpedo tubes (2 submerged), 2 aircraft, 360 mines'.61 Sydney had an armament which 'consisted of eight 6-inch guns, four 4-inch anti-aircraft guns, four 3-pounder saluting guns, three 4-barrel 0.5-inch machine guns and eight 21-inch torpedo tubes'.62

4.41    Many of the concerns raised about Sydney's battle readiness mention the state of the 'A' turret when she departed Fremantle for the final time. Serving on Sydney up until her penultimate voyage, Mr E V Ryding observed:

4.42    In another submission, Mr B K Thomson QC noted that:

4.43    Michael Montgomery also raised concerns about the state of 'A' turret on Sydney, when he stated that:

4.44    Despite the fact that Montgomery described Sydney as '... seaworthy, but not battleworthy',66 he then went on to acknowledge that '[highlighting deficiencies with 'A' turret] was not to imply that this was a contributing factor to the outcome of the action itself, because under ordinary circumstances she should have had no difficulty in disposing of the Kormoran with her remaining three turrets'.67

4.45    Mr Templeton, who served on Sydney under Captain Burnett, gave evidence to the inquiry which suggested Sydney was not ready for battle. He noted that 'to anyone possessing sound knowledge of cruisers and their internal management, it should have been quite apparent in 1941/2 (sic) that Sydney was NOT, inter alia, fully operational and properly prepared for her action against Kormoran and had paid the price'.68 However Mr Templeton rejected the claim that A turret was not fully operational:

4.46    Mr Ryding also told the Committee that 'there is a report from the log in the month prior to Sydney's loss where the captain reports that A turret had been repaired'.70 The Committee did not sight a copy of this report.

4.47    In other evidence received by the inquiry, mention was made of longer-standing concerns about the vulnerability of Sydney. Mr John Ross told the Committee that:

4.48    Those recommendations had not been acted on 13 months later when Captain Burnett, as Assistant Chief of Naval Staff, noted and initialled a file showing that Admiralty had yet to act on the advice. It did not act for three years.72

4.49    The Committee was told by Mr Rex Turner that he had concerns about the vulnerability of the valve handles on Sydney. He gave evidence that:

4.50    The concerns about Sydney were not just specific to that ship, but applied to the type:

4.51    Although some believe that Sydney may not have been at her optimum state of battle readiness, the Committee felt that it was not demonstrated that Sydney was any more unprepared for battle than other ships of her class. The Committee found no documentary evidence to support the claim that Sydney was in need of major repair on 19 November 1941.

Reports of Raiders in the Area

4.52    The issue of whether or not Captain Burnett was aware of the presence of a raider75 in the Indian Ocean is crucial to understanding why he might have approached Kormoran too closely. However, establishing whether or not Captain Burnett was aware of a raider's presence is difficult, given the conflicting evidence received by the Committee.

4.53    Many researchers are convinced that Captain Burnett knew of the existence of a raider off the West Australian coast. In the final September 1941 Weekly Intelligence Report, it was noted that 'it is probable that a raider is in this area and will soon resume operations'.76

4.54    Mr Templeton also believed Captain Burnett knew there was a raider in the vicinity of the Western Australian coastline. He gave evidence that '[Captain Burnett] had told us during the previous voyage that there was a raider "in the area" meaning perhaps anywhere in the Indian Ocean and that postulated that any ship acting strangely could be an enemy and should be treated as such until proved otherwise'.77 This evidence was corroborated by Mr C G Davis, who stated that 'evidence prooves (sic) [Captain Burnett] was convinced that it was highly probable a raider could be close by and it is on record that he said "there is a raider in the area, and we are going to get it" '.78 The 'evidence' spoken of in this submission seems to be the word of someone present when Captain Burnett made the statement, but was never put on record.

4.55    The End Secrecy on Sydney Group was also convinced that the presence of a raider was well known: Of course, if on 19 November 1941 Captain Burnett was aware he was confronting a raider already tracked to that Indian Ocean position by HF/DF; that Kormoran/Steiermark's and Straat Malakka's photographs had been circulated to him as evidence proclaims Detmers' and his crew's stories about Sydney's 19 November behaviour are shown to be total fabrication, with deep criminality the probable reason ... After all, the Germans were not aware they had been HF/DF tracked as Steiermark, Raider 'G', Ship 41 during November 1941 or any other time.79

4.56    There were other submissions which suggested that Captain Burnett was not aware of a raider in the area. For example, one submission stated that 'the Sydney, chancing on the Kormoran while returning from escort duties, and without any intelligence of enemy raider activity in the Indian Ocean, would have been at the mercy of the Kormoran's active deception until the trap had been sprung'.80

4.57    The Department of Defence gave evidence that 'there was an Intelligence Report to say that there were no raiders in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean'.81 Defence also suggested that Captain Burnett did not know that Kormoran was a raider, 'otherwise he would not have approached so close'.82

4.58    In his guide to the Australian Archives holdings, Mr Richard Summerrell challenged the presumption of the Department of Defence that Captain Burnett believed there were no raiders in the area. He cited a summary of Combined Operational Intelligence Centre summary based on Admiralty intelligence of 28 October 1941 in which '... Admiralty state that there is now no evidence of a raider being in the Indian Ocean'.83 However, Mr Summerell went on to say that:

4.59    Others have also suggested that the C-in-C China (Singapore) was directing HMAS Sydney's movements, was aware a raider was in the area and directed Sydney to the area to intercept it.85 However, this theory fails to explain, if Captain Burnett was acting under these orders, why he was not apparently on full alert.

HF/DF Tracking

4.60    The question of whether or not Captain Burnett and Australian authorities knew of the presence of a raider must be examined in light of claims of HF/DF86 tracking at the time. Mr Reg Lander, employed as a radio technician by AWA during the war,87 claimed that the raider 41 (Kormoran) was being tracked from Holsworthy NSW, the QANTAS flying boat base in Rose Bay, NSW and the RAAF Base at Pearce, WA.88

4.61    In a statutory declaration supplied to the Committee, Mr Lander stated he was told by a superior that 'there was a German raider on the west coast operating outside Fremantle and moving up and down the coast, or so they thought, transmitting on a certain frequency each night making a rendezvous with Danzig radio'. Mr Lander went on to state that the HF/DF was still experimental. The signals were also monitored by the RAAF at Pearce, to provide a cross bearing. Mr Lander indicated that a ship was monitored over an 8 to 10 day period as it moved up the coast, and that 'I didn't know then that it was Kormoran'.89

4.62    Mr Lander's evidence has formed the basis of much of the later assertions that Admiralty, and Captain Burnett, knew a raider was in the vicinity. In a submission to the inquiry, Mr John McArthur claimed that Captain Burnett would have been aware of the existence of a raider off the Western Australian coast, and would consequently have been ready should he encounter it.90 Mrs Glenys McDonald supported this view, stating 'I now believe that the Sydney knew that a German raider was in the area and she was updated on it from Direction Finding bases in operation around Australia and controlled at this point from Singapore'.91

4.63    The veracity of Mr Lander's claims that Kormoran was being tracked by various stations around Australia depends on a combination of external factors:

4.64    The difficulties inherent in HF/DF detection in the early part of the war were described in a paper by the Far East Combined Bureau in August 1940. While acknowledging the practical value of such a system, the paper indicated that:

4.65    The paper went on to indicate the varying factors that could result in tracking errors:

4.66    In response to claims that HF/DF tracking specifically of Kormoran may have taken place in November 1941, one submission stated that 'Reg Lander's group of wireless operators may not have been tracking Kormoran, rather monitoring a raider-search operation'.94 They may well have been performing the duties he describes, without ever having known exactly where Kormoran was.

4.67    Mr John Doohan, co-convenor of the End Secrecy on Sydney Group, told the Committee that Kormoran must have been sending out signals every day:

4.68    However, evidence was received by the Committee that 'Detmars (sic) was very parsimonious in his use of radio',96 throwing doubt on the claim that a daily process of tracking was possible.

4.69    Winter unequivocally states that '[a]ccusations of covering up evidence of tracking Kormoran ... are nonsense. The auxiliary cruisers sent very few signals, usually from isolated areas and with long intervals in between. Once it became necessary to send a signal, the ship sending it moved, their survival depended on their location remaining a mystery'.97

4.70    Winter also rejects claims that authorities had broken the codes used by raiders and were thus aware of Kormoran's intended movements:

4.71    Winter's statements about code breaking are supported by the Department of Defence, which gave evidence that:

4.72    The Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) echoed this sentiment when it gave evidence to the Committee about code breaking activities during the war. The Acting Director of DSD stated that:

4.73    Given that much of the evidence of a raider off the coast of Western Australia comes from the testimony of Mr Lander, it is pertinent to note the observations of Barbara Winter who states that 'Reg Lander ... admitted in 1991 that they did not know the origin of the signals, but his evidence has since been contaminated ...'.101

4.74    The Department of Defence, in commenting on Mr Lander's claims, noted:

4.75    The Committee does not believe there is sufficient evidence to prove that the Kormoran was being tracked by HF/DF as suggested. The Committee notes that HF/DF was still in the developmental stage; that its accuracy was open to question; and that it would be unthinkable that an experienced raider captain would be sending daily messages allowing such tracking to take place. There is nothing to suggest that the statement by Mr Lander about his work during this period was wrong in so far as his involvement in the development of a HF/DF facility, but there is insufficient evidence to show that it was Kormoran that was being tracked (and as a consequence, that authorities, and possibly Sydney, knew with some accuracy the location and movements of the Kormoran).

Was Sydney at Action Stations?

4.76    There has been considerable speculation as to whether or not Sydney was at action stations when she approached Kormoran. Stories of Kormoran crew seeing men in white on the deck of Sydney as she approached were repeated in many submissions to the inquiry. Establishing whether or not Sydney was at action stations at it approached Kormoran is important because:

  1. If Sydney was not at action stations when it approached Kormoran, what had convinced Captain Burnett he could safely approach and drop his guard?
  2. If Sydney was at action stations, why were men in white lining the rails on the upper deck of the ship, and why did Captain Burnett bring her in so close?

4.77    There have been a range of suggestions as to who the 'men in white' lining the rails might have been. While Captain Detmers assumed they were 'pantrymen in their white coats lining the rails to have a look at the supposed Dutchman', there has also been the suggestion that they were in fact 'damage-control people, dressed in fire-fighting gear'.103

4.78    In the official history, Gill had no doubt that Sydney was at action stations as it approached Kormoran. He presented this as a clear indication that Captain Burnett had approached Kormoran with suspicion. Gill wrote that:

4.79    There is an important link between whether or not Sydney was at action stations, and Captain Burnett's reasons for bringing the ship in close to the Kormoran. As CMDR T A Dadswell stated:

4.80    According to Montgomery, 'to suggest ... that [the Sydney] was at action stations and at the same time had men standing at the rail is also to suggest that he was acting contrary both to all naval procedure and to every known precedent of his own conduct'.106 Given that these two stories (i.e. that Sydney was at action stations and at cruising stations) have been widely quoted, Montgomery concludes that in fact both are true, although they did not happen simultaneously. That is, Montgomery believes that Sydney was initially at action stations, and later went back to cruising stations,107 when the captain had been convinced that by doing so, the crew was not in danger. The question is, what could Captain Detmers have done to persuade Captain Burnett that it was safe to go back to cruising stations? This leads to some consideration of what action Kormoran might have taken to allay the concerns of Sydney as she approached.

Did Sydney Come Too Close?

4.81    Several theories, either singly or in combination, were put to the Committee, to attempt to address whether or not (and if so, why) Captain Burnett brought Sydney in so close to the German ship:

  1. Captain Burnett was inexperienced, and it was this inexperience that led him to make the fatal mistake of bringing Sydney in too close to the unidentified vessel;
  2. Captain Burnett was following orders (on 4 November 1941, 'Admiralty [issued] instructions to its commanding officers to capture enemy merchant ships',108 and Captain Burnett may have acted on this instruction from the Admiralty and tried to capture Kormoran, sending in an anti-scuttling party to board her);
  3. Kormoran was flying a Norwegian109 or Dutch flag;
  4. Kormoran feigned a medical emergency or signalled under a white flag, lulling Sydney in close, before firing upon the Australian ship;
  5. Sydney mistook Kormoran for the supply ship Kulmerland;110
  6. Detmers knew and could supply the secret call sign of the Straat Malakka, convincing Captain Burnett that Kormoran was not an enemy ship;
  7. Sydney did not come in too close to Kormoran; in fact a Japanese submarine fired the fatal torpedo, after which time Kormoran inflicted damage on Sydney's superstructure.111

4.82    When considering the likelihood of Kormoran employing a ruse de guerre, it must be borne in mind that this ship was on a mission of deception in Australian waters. 'Kormoran was a raider, and as such all means of guile and deception was (sic) used, including mis- and dis-information, to conceal its identity and presence...'.112

4.83    When Captain Burnett is criticised for coming too close to an unidentified ship, as he frequently is, it is interesting to examine his possible reasons for doing so. According to one submission to the inquiry, '[coming in close to an unidentified ship] was not as unusual as has been claimed; even Collins had done it'.113 As the Department of Defence pointed out:

4.84    Alternatively, the Committee was made aware of a perception that Captain Burnett should never have put the Sydney into a position where her loss was possible. As one submission pointed out, 'Every ship which [Captain Burnett] challenged should have been considered an enemy until proved otherwise'.115 It is unclear why, if Captain Burnett was a 'book man' who followed established procedures meticulously, he saw fit to bring Sydney in close enough to Kormoran to endanger the lives of his crew.

Following Standard Procedures?

4.85    Evidence given to the Committee highlighted the dilemmas faced by cruiser captains. The HMAS Sydney Foundation Trust pointed out that:

4.86    Rear Admiral D Holthouse RAN (Retd), appearing with the HMAS Sydney Foundation Trust, expressed an opinion that 'A lot has been said about the background to [the loss of Sydney] the strictures that were imposed ... on command in the use of ammunition and the conservation of ammunition in circumstances where there was no certainty about the nature of the possible target'.117 Admiralty orders clearly influenced the actions of captains. As one submission put it:

4.87    Put another way, it was suggested:

4.88    Others contradicted this sentiment, and stated that:

4.89    As noted earlier (see para 4.16), in attempting to highlight Captain Burnett's error, Gill cited two examples (Ketty Brvig and Atlantis) where opening fire on a suspicious ship proved to be the correct course of action. However, he also pointed out that in the former case the decision was questioned within Navy Office (where Captain Burnett had been working). In a communication from Admiral Leatham (Commander in Chief, East Indies) after the incident and despite the favourable result, it was implied that there had been an unnecessary expenditure of ammunition. Captain Burnett would undoubtedly have been aware of this advice and have acted in the knowledge that his every move would later be scrutinised.

4.90    To say that Captain Burnett did not follow orders is simplistic. He had, only a few weeks prior to his encounter with Kormoran, received instruction from the replacement Assistant Chief of Naval Staff, Captain Getting, that 'if any suspicion exists, the ship should be boarded'.121 Captain Burnett had many things to consider when faced with an unidentified ship. In addition to the recent instances where Allied commanders had been criticised for wasting ammunition,122 Captain Burnett also had to consider the possibility that there may have been Allied prisoners aboard the ship, and he did not want to be responsible for their deaths. There may also have been an opportunity to send an anti-scuttling party, which could have retrieved valuable documents for the Allies. As Mr David Kennedy pointed out:

Was Kormoran sailing under a Dutch or Norwegian Flag?

4.91    Claims that Kormoran was flying a Norwegian flag have been in existence since 1942 and were mentioned in some contemporary newspaper accounts. Winter rebutted this suggestion in her 1983 book,124 and in a submission to the Committee indicated that the origins of the story of Kormoran flying a Norwegian flag may rest with the fact that raider Pinguin, sunk some time earlier, had been disguised as Norwegian.125 Frame also covers the matter in some detail,126 however, the story has persisted. Mr Juergen Heinrich, the nephew of one of the Kormoran crew, told the Committee that he believed the Kormoran was sailing under the Norwegian flag. He indicated:

4.92    Mr Heinrich was convinced that the British had been reading the German codes and knew of the presence of a raider in the Indian Ocean and believed the raider to be flying the Dutch flag. He argued that the authorities were also aware of the Kulmerland being in the area to resupply Kormoran, that Kulmerland was flying the Norwegian flag, and was believed to be unarmed. Mr Heinrich continued:

4.93    While Mr Heinrich's theory is possible, there is no documentary evidence to support Allied knowledge of the flags being flown by either Kormoran or Kulmerland.

4.94    Regardless of what disguise Kormoran was sailing under, the suggestion has been made that Kormoran opened fire without first showing the German flag. There is certainly evidence to suggest that the Kormoran had in place a system to raise the German flag very quickly.129 While it is debatable whether this was done or not in this instance, in effect it had no outcome on the final result of the battle. Sydney was already compromised by being within firing range of Kormoran's guns, and Kormoran had the element of surprise.

Was Kormoran mistaken for Kulmerland?

4.95    Related to the issue of the flag, is the suggestion that Captain Burnett may have approached so close because he may have confused Kormoran for the supply ship Kulmerland (see para 4.92). Mr David Kennedy suggests that 'Sydney was advised, or became satisfied, that she had stopped the unarmed supply ship Kulmerland...'.130

4.96    Another witness to the inquiry described the Kormoran as 'a merchant vessel of a similar look to the Kulmerland'.131 In evidence to the Committee, Mr Bill Loane also supported the suggestion that Captain Burnett may have moved in close to Kormoran thinking it was Kulmerland.132

4.97    Mrs Glenys McDonald also considered the possibility that Captain Burnett believed he had come across Kulmerland. She suggested that Captain Burnett:

Did Kormoran Surrender?

4.98    Several submissions suggested that Kormoran may have feigned surrender, thus explaining why Sydney came so close. Mr E V Ryding believes this was the case because '... when Sydney hove into view, there would have been a quick discussion on the bridge of the Kormoran having sighted a warship. Now, they would know that with a warship which they would readily identify as a cruiser they could not outrun it, they could not outshoot it. The only one option was to surrender'.134 According to Mr Ryding, as soon as the German ship surrendered, 'Sydney should have broken radio silence to report all that was taking place'.135

4.99    There is no record or suggestion that Sydney transmitted a message reporting that the German ship had surrendered. Nevertheless, Mr Ryding is convinced that the reason Sydney came so close to the Kormoran was that the Kormoran had raised a white flag.136 Mr Ryding sees 'absolutely no other reason [for Sydney] to get any closer [than eight nautical miles] to a ship other that to board it, and she would only be boarding a surrendered ship'.137

4.100    LCDR McDonald RAN (Retd) is also of the view that a simulated surrender by Kormoran may have been the ruse used by Captain Detmers to bring Sydney within firing range. While not giving details, LCDR McDonald mentioned 'evidence given to [him] from more than one source that Kormoran flew a white flag before opening fire'.138 As LCDR McDonald told the Committee:

4.101    In his appearance before the Committee, Mr James Eagles suggested that Captain Detmers would not even have needed to fly a white flag, as the smoke which was coming from Kormoran's damaged engine (see para 4.11) would automatically be seen as a sign of distress.140

4.102    The seriousness of sailing under a white flag has been misinterpreted, according to one submission, which stated that 'Either Captain Burnett at some point, made a wrong decision, or he was enticed into a position to lose his ship by some illegal action, and it should be pointed out that to sail under a false flag was not illegal'.141 However to open fire under a white flag contravened established rules of engagement.

4.103    The Gascoyne Historical Society expressed a view that Kormoran did not open fire under a white flag. According to Mr Hayden James, 'The testimony has been given not only by the captain and the flight officer but even by ordinary sailors, some of whom are here in Australia; they did come back ... They have said that there was no white flag raised ...'.142

Did Captain Detmers Know Straat Malakka's Secret Call Sign?

4.104    The suggestion has been made that Captain Detmers may have known the Straat Malakka's secret call sign, thus removing the possibility that he was forced to open fire when he could not respond to Captain Burnett's request that he show it.143 Mr Patrick Burnett told the Committee that '... it does seem possible that Captain Detmers may in fact have been in possession of Straat Malakka's secret call sign and may have given it in reply to the challenge, and that that may have been a factor in the events leading up to the action'.144 He did not offer any documentary evidence to support his suggestion.

4.105    This contradicts the official history, which clearly states that Detmers was unable to supply the secret call sign and for this reason he was forced to declare himself.145

Why Was the Sea Plane Not Deployed?

4.106    HMAS Sydney was equipped with a spotter aircraft, a Walrus. Many theories have been put forward about Captain Burnett's decision not to send up the Walrus prior to the battle. Gill, in his official history, raised this issue,146 but provided no answer as to why Captain Burnett did not deploy the aircraft. One submission expressed the view that: The surmise that Captain Burnett did not use his aircraft because of weather is unbelievable. The wind, according to Detmers, confirmed by Von Malapert, was only 10 to 15 knots, gentle to moderate, hardly enough to break wave crests. No deterrent to a seaplane.147

4.107    If it was not because of the weather, then what might have caused Captain Burnett not to send up the plane, when he could have gained a tactical advantage by doing so? Another submission suggested that the complicated fuelling and defuelling procedures associated with launching the Walrus may have left insufficient time to prepare the plane.148

4.108    The importance of not sending up the Walrus may in fact have been exaggerated, as one submission suggests that 'It should be noted the launching or retrieval of the Walrus is really irrelevant, as Sydney was not looking for a ship, she had found one'.149 While Captain Burnett's reasons for not sending up the plane will never be known, it is perhaps useful to bear in mind Mr Davis' observations, given that any impact the plane might have had on the engagement is pure speculation.

Did Kormoran Fire an Underwater Torpedo?

4.109    The armaments of the Kormoran included six 21-inch torpedo tubes, two of which were submerged.150

4.110    In the official history, Gill does not mention the use of an underwater torpedo as such, describing only that Detmers gave 'the order to open fire with guns and torpedoes'. Gill goes on to indicate that with the opening fire, Kormoran fired two torpedoes, one of which struck Sydney under A and B turrets. Kormoran later fired another torpedo but it missed its target.151

4.111    The Committee was told that, in order to fire her underwater torpedo, Kormoran would have to have been stationary or nearly stopped.152 Under interrogation, Captain Detmers had initially admitted that Sydney had ordered Kormoran to stop, but later changed his story. Frame noted that 'The Admiralty thought it was possible that Kormoran opened fire with an underwater torpedo before declaring herself'.153

4.112    CMDR R J Hardstaff, RAN (Retd), claimed Sydney lowered a boat intending to board Kormoran, at which time Captain Detmers had two choices:

4.113    Mr David Kennedy was informed by Mr Hans Linke, a former radio operator on Kormoran, that at the start of the action Kormoran 'fired an underwater torpedo and it hit Sydney on the bridge. It was under the waterline level with the bridge ...'.155 Mrs Glenys McDonald told the Committee that 'in [her] interview with Herman Ortman, he admits now that ... [Kormoran] did fire the underwater torpedo'.156

4.114    The Committee believes a strong case can be made that the Kormoran's underwater torpedo capability played a major role in the defeat of Sydney.


4.115    What then can be said about the engagement? In sifting through the claims and counter-claims placed before it, the Committee reached the following conclusions:

1.    Honor, Submission, p. 3857.
2.    In some cases these records are thought to exist but cannot be located; in others they are believed to have been destroyed. The matter of official records is discussed in Chapter 3.
3.    McDonald, E, Transcript, p. 228.
4.    This matter is discussed in detail in Chapter 6.
5.    Gill, op. cit., p. 457.
6.    ibid., p. 453.
7.    ibid., p. 451; Summerrell, op cit., p. 32.
8.    Gill, op. cit., p. 452.
9.    ibid., p. 451. These timings have been disputed, with claims that Sydney broke off escort duty early and never completed the handover (see for example Collins, Transcript, p. 352). Others however have confirmed that the handover did take place as recorded (see for example the oral histories recorded in Page, Submission, p. 4172).
10.    ibid., p. 451.
11.    ibid.
12.    There is some confusion about the exact number of survivors recovered during the search, and estimates range from 315 to 317, plus several Chinese who were also on board. See Chapter 6, footnote to Table 6.1 for further details.
13.    ibid., p. 453. As Winter states, 'several times zones are quoted in reports, the principal ones being: Z=Greenwich Mean Time; G=Z+7 (Kormoran); H=Z+8 (Sydney, Fremantle); K=Z+10 (Melbourne)' (p. 126).
14.    ibid., p. 453.
15.    ibid., p. 453.
16.    ibid., pp. 453-454.
17.    ibid., p. 454.
18.    ibid. To Captain Detmers, this signal meant 'prepare for a hurricane, cyclone or typhoon', Winter, op . cit., p. 135.
19.    Gill, op. cit., p. 454.
20.    ibid., p. 456.
21.    ibid., p. 458.
22.    ibid., p. 456.
23.    ibid., p. 457.
24.    ibid.
25.    ibid., p. 458.
26.    See Chapter 2, para 2.5.
27.    Gill, op. cit., pp. 450-451.
28.    Anderson, Submission, p. 125.
29.    Department of Defence, Transcript, p. 24.
30.    ibid., p. 25.
31.    McDonald, E, Submission, p. 523.
32.    Ravenscroft, Submission, p. 2583.
33.    McArthur, Submission, p. 2244.
34.    Rev. Norman Symes, cited in Montgomery, op. cit., p. 55.
35.    Fisher, Transcript, p. 306.
36.    Ross, Transcript, p. 307.
37.    Creagh, Transcript, p. 121.
38.    Poniewierski, Submission, p. 1358.
39.    ibid.
40.    Templeton, Submission, pp. 2027, 2031.
41.    Sheldon-Collins, Submission, p. 619.
42.    Montgomery, op. cit., pp. 54-55.
43.    ibid., p. 57.
44.    Poniewierski, Submission, p. 3320. Emphasis in original.
45.    Winter, op. cit., p. 251.
46.    Detmers, T, The Raider Kormoran, (London: William Kimber, 1959), pp. 7-8.
47.    Department of Defence, Transcript, p. 36.
48.    Lamb, Transcript, p. 309.
49.    Sheedy, Submission, p. 6.
50.    Loane, Transcript, pp. 218 and 221.
51.    Poniewierski, Transcript, p. 542.
52.    Winter, op. cit., p. 134.
53.    Professor Ahl in Gascoyne Historical Society, Submission, p. 1229. See also Loane, Transcript, p. 219, 'Detmers also had the element of surprise'.
54.    Poniewierski, Submission, p. 338.
55.    Loane, Transcript, p. 217.
56.    ibid., pp. 218-219.
57.    Burnett, R, Submission, p. 15.
58.    Frame, op. cit., p. 63.
59.    ibid., p. 64 and also Doubay, Submission, p. 3501.
60.    Ryding, Transcript, p. 144.
61.    Frame, op. cit., p. 277.
62.    ibid., p. 16.
63.    Ryding, Submission, p. 627.
64.    Thomson, Submission, p. 353.
65.    Montgomery, op. cit., pp. 194-195. This incident is also referred to in Craill, Transcript, p . 346.
66.    ibid., p. 193.
67.    ibid., p. 195.
68.    Templeton, Submission, p. 1997.
69.    ibid., pp. 2465-2466.
70.    Ryding, Transcript, p. 154.
71.    Ross, Transcript, pp. 307-308.
72.    Ross, Submission, p. 2946.
73.    Turner, Transcript, pp. 489-490.
74.    Winter, op. cit., p. 9.
75.    In evidence to the Committee, Mr David Kennedy made the point that the definition of a raider was somewhat unclear in the lead up to Sydney's loss. He stated that 'Raiders were referred to then as the actual auxiliary cruisers and their supply ships. If it was thought that a supply ship was the target, then the raider might still be around, or vice versa' (Kennedy, Transcript, p. 456). Winter also noted that '... it always sounded more dramatic [for the Admiralty] to call supply ships "raiders" ' (Winter, op. cit., p. 205).
76.    Frame, op. cit., p. 124.
77.    Templeton, Submission, pp. 2001-2002.
78.    Davis, Submission, p. 493.
79.    End Secrecy on Sydney Group, Submission, p. 3010. Emphasis in original.
80.    Jones, Submission, p. 1309.
81.    Department of Defence, Transcript, p. 33.
82.    ibid., p. 34.
83.    Summerrell, op. cit., p. 92.
84.    ibid.
85.    McDonald, E, Submission, p. 539.
86.    High Frequency Direction Finding.
87.    McDonald, E, Submission, p. 538.
88.    Department of Defence, Submission, p. 1847.
89.    Lander, in End Secrecy on Sydney Group, Submission, pp. 2160-2161.
90.    McArthur, Submission, p. 2239.
91.    McDonald, G, Submission, pp. 175-6.
92.    Exhibit No. 46, p. 3.
93.    ibid.
94.    Kennedy, Submission, p. 3074.
95.    Doohan, Transcript, p. 249.
96.    Farquhar-Smith, Submission, p. 3177.
97.    Poniewierski, Submission, p. 331.
98.    ibid., p. 337. Emphasis in original.
99.    Department of Defence, Submission, p. 1848.
100.    Defence Signals Directorate, Transcript, p. 48.
101.    Poniewierski, Submission, p. 314.
102.    Department of Defence, Submission, p. 1847.
103.    Eagles, Submission, p. 400.
104.    Gill, op. cit., p. 457.
105.    Dadswell, Submission, p. 204. Emphasis in original.
106.    Montgomery, op. cit., p. 119.
107.    ibid., p. 120.
108.    Olson, Transcript, p. 213.
108.    See for example Baldwin, Submission, p. 150 and Heinrich, Transcript, p. 291.
110.    Loane, Transcript, p. 219.
111.    This is discussed in detail in Chapter 5.
112.    Creagh, Submission, p. 1010.
113.    Winter, Submission, p. 296.
114.    Department of Defence, Transcript, p. 38.
115.    Wilson, Submission, p. 3327.
116.    HMAS Sydney Foundation Trust, Transcript, p. 182.
117.    ibid., p. 185.
118.    Poniewierski, Submission, p. 3320.
119.    Winter, op. cit., p. 205.
120.    Minutes of Advisory War Council Meeting, 18 March 1942, reproduced in Summerrell, op . cit., p . 25.
121.    Barbara Winter, op. cit., p. 134. Italics in original.
122.    See Gill, op. cit., pp. 457-458.
123.    Kennedy, Transcript, p. 463.
124.    Winter, op. cit., pp. 226-227.
125.    Poniewierski, Submission, p. 3580.
126.    Frame, op. cit., pp. 97-99.
127.    Heinrich, Transcript, p. 291.
128.    ibid., p. 292.
129.    Winter, op. cit., p. 135.
130.    Kennedy, Submission, p. 957.
131.    Heinrich, Transcript, p. 292.
132.    Loane, Transcript, p. 221.
133.    McDonald, G, Transcript, p. 295.
134.    ibid., p. 145.
135.    ibid., p. 146.
136.    ibid.
137.    ibid., p. 147.
138.    McDonald, E, Submission, p. 540.
139.    ibid.
140.    Eagles, Transcript, p. 570.
141.    Poniewierski, Submission, p. 3594.
142.    Gascoyne Historical Society, Transcript, pp. 265-266.
143.    Burnett, P, Transcript, p. 486.
144.    ibid.
145.    Gill, op cit., p. 454. RADM Oxenbould, RAN, of the Department of Defence also gave evidence that 'I think it is feasible as it is explained. Sydney came up close aboard, within about 1,500 yards of the Kormoran and on the Kormoran's starboard beam, while it was going through this interrogation process. The process reached a point where the Kormoran knew that it could not provide the next answer' (Department of Defence, Transcript, p. 33).
146.    Gill, op. cit., p. 457.
147.    McDonald, E, Submission, p. 526. There is some doubt as to the weather on that day. 'The Naval Intelligence reconstruction of the 19 November 1941 suggests that "the weather at the time was rough, as it had been for two or three days", while [a] prisoner's letter written from Murchison ... speaks of "waves as high as a house" ' (Montgomery, op. cit., p. 116). Montgomery argues that the reason why Captain Burnett did not launch the plane was because, in these conditions, it would have been too difficult to recover from the ocean. (ibid., p. 117). Barbara Winter states in her book that Detmers would have considered the IK signal as 'Ridiculous! In that area at that time of year, and with the weather so fine? It had to be a mistake' (Winter, op. cit., p. 135). One of the Germans aboard Kormoran, Heinfreid Ahl, stated that 'The weather was sunny, visibility very good, wind 3 to 4, calm sea, medium swell from south-west' (Gascoyne Historical Society, Submission, p. 1227).
148.    Bain, Submission, pp. 3741-3748.
149.    Davis, Submission, p. 495.
150.    Frame, op. cit., p. 277.
151.    Gill, op. cit., pp. 454-456.
152.    McDonald, G, Transcript, p. 295.
153.    Frame, op. cit., p. 103.
154.    Hardstaff, Submission, p. 48. Emphasis in original.
155.    Linke quoted in Kennedy, Submission, p. 966.
156.    McDonald, G, Transcript, p. 296.


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