House of Representatives Committees

Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade

Report on the Loss of HMAS Sydney

Chapter 6

The Aftermath

6.1    This Chapter examines what the official history said about the searches that took place in the days following the battle, discusses possible reasons for the complete lack of Sydney survivors, and examines the veracity of accounts of the battle which emerged from the interrogations of Kormoran survivors. Discrepancies between the evidence presented by the official history, and testimony that a search was sent out earlier than the official history suggests, are also examined in this Chapter.

6.2    The public was not officially made aware that Sydney had been lost until 11 days after the encounter. When the Australian Government decided to inform the public:

6.3    By the time an official announcement that Sydney had been lost was made on 30November 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 sinking Sydney. Rumours about Sydney survivors being murdered in the water after the battle circulated throughout the general public.

6.4    Of concern to many was the manner in which information was released to the bereaved families and to the Australian people. The fact that the only accounts of the encounter were pieced together from the information provided by Kormoran survivors left many with a perception in the years that followed that the whole story was not known.

Discovery of Kormoran Survivors

6.5    Sydney's fate had been sealed several days before the first Kormoran survivors were picked up by Allied ships. According to Winter's account:

6.6    The Aquitania picked up these Kormoran survivors at 2435'S, 11057'E,4 200 kilometres off the coast of Western Australia. The official history, and indeed subsequent accounts, has Aquitania maintaining radio silence and not reporting the discovery until her arrival off Wilson's Promontory on 27 November (see paragraph 6.24).5

6.7    Soon after, on 24 November, the British Tanker MV Trocas picked up 25 Germans in another life raft, and sent a coded signal to this effect to Navy Office.6 Later, another lifeboat landed, with 46 men, at Quobba Station, north of Cape Cuvier.7 This boat was one of two which were found along the coast north of Carnarvon, the other with 57 men.

The Search for Sydney Begins

6.8    According to Gill's account, the search for Sydney began on 24 November 1941.8 The search was coordinated by Captain Farquhar-Smith, District Naval Officer, Western Australia,9 who had 'operational control over Sydney when she was working out of Perth or Fremantle ... He was the one who initialled the search action so he obviously had some operational control responsibility of the ship. He initiated search action once [Sydney] was missing and he also reported back to the Chief of Naval Staff and to the navy office'.10

6.9    Once Navy Office had received word from Trocas, indicating that she had rescued survivors from a ship (which, according to Gill was the first the authorities knew about Sydney's fate), a full scale search was mounted, which included 'every available aircraft in Western Australia'.11 HMAS Wyrallah, Olive Cam, Heros, Bonthorpe and Alfie Cam were sent out the same day.12 Hermoin, Pan Europe, Saidja, Herstein, Sunetta and Centaur, all ships of the merchant navy, were 'instructed to pass through positions between 24 degrees 06 minutes south, 111 degrees 40 minutes east'.13 An indication of the activity can be seen from the chronology of events assembled by CMDR R J Hardstaff RAN (Retd).14

6.10    According to Mr Summerrell:

6.11    During the six days of searching for survivors or a sign of Sydney, it became evident that the Kormoran had fared much better in the confrontation than had the Australian ship. As an increasing number of survivors from the German ship were rescued by Allied ships or landed on the Western Australian coast, and as the picture of Sydney's fate became clearer, hope of finding survivors faded.

6.12    The search for Sydney survivors formally ended at 10.48pm on 29 November 1941 following instructions from the Central War Room.16 On Sunday 30 November, the Secretary of the Department of the Navy sent the following message to the Governor-General and the Prime Minister:

6.13    The only traces of Sydney acknowledged in Gill's account were a carley float picked up by Heros and several lifebelts.18 Of the 645 men on board Sydney, not a single survivor was found.

6.14    Table 6.1 provides details of the people and items recovered after the engagement. Table 6.2 provides details about some of the searches undertaken.

Table 6.1: People and Debris Recovered after the Engagement, November 1941

Table 6.2 Air Searches and Their Outcomes19

Date Search Area Search Vehicle(s) Objects Located
24 November 1941 Fan search from Rottnest Island to 480 kilometres, between 260 and 340 6 Hudsons None
25 November 1941, a.m. 2410'S, 10853'E - 23S, 111E 2956'S, 11230'E - 2850'S, 11448'E 7 Hudsons None
26 November 1941, a.m. 2303'S, 11028'E - 2303'S, 11349'E 2510'S, 11028'E - 2510'S, 11349'E 4 Hudsons Found boats picked up by Koolinda and Centaur
26 November 1941, p.m. 2440'S, 109E - 2440'S, 11335'E 2720'S, 109E - 2720'S, 114E 4 Hudsons
26 November 1941, p.m. 2604'S, 11057'E - 2604'S, 11310'E 2737'S, 11057'E - 2727'S, 11357'E 8 Ansons
27 November 1941, a.m. 2412'S, 10740'E - 2412'S, 10915'E 27S, 10740'E - 27S, 10915'E 2 Catalinas
27 November 1941, a.m. Parallel track search, South East Datum Point - 2543'S, 11256'E 5 Hudsons
27 November 1941, a.m. Parallel track search, South East Datum Point - 27S, 11336'E 7 Ansons Boat found picked up by Yandra
27 November 1941, p.m. Square Search 2008'S, 11107'E - 2008'S, 11243'E 2414'S, 11027'E - 2414'S, 11156'E 4 Hudsons
28 November 1941, a.m. Square Search 22S, 109E - 22S, 111E 24S, 109E - 24S, 111E 2 Catalinas

6.15    Of the wreckage, the RAN carley float believed to be from Sydney is now in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. An official investigation of it was conducted in 1993 by the AWM.20 The location of the two lifebelts is not known.

6.16    Sydney researcher Mrs Glenys McDonald suggested that several other items which may have been from Sydney (and which were not included in the official history) came ashore at Port Gregory. Among these items were:

6.17    Mrs McDonald also gave evidence that :

6.18    Mrs McDonald learnt of the retrieval of these additional pieces of 'wreckage' from Sydney when she collected oral evidence from residents of the Port Gregory area. It was also suggested to her, and later substantiated, that a grey lifeboat had come ashore near Baleine station, but admits that she has 'got no other information other than that the Forrester family obviously believed that a boat came in and that it was taken away'.23

An Earlier Search?

6.19    The veracity of Gill's account of the search for Sydney has been challenged by a number of people. It has been suggested that the official search for Sydney was started not on 24 November, but one day earlier than Gill states. This view also challenges the position taken by the Department of Defence and Australian Archives, that the search for Sydney commenced on 24 November, five days after the engagement.

6.20    The challenge to the official history is largely based on the evidence of one man, Group Captain C A V Bourne, MBE, AE, (Retd) that he participated in an aerial search for Sydney on 23November. GPCAPT Bourne argues that the search was sent out directly in response to a radio message received from the Aquitania, soon after it had picked up Kormoran survivors in the early hours of 23 November. GPCAPT Bourne told the Committee that:

6.21    GPCAPT Bourne claimed that entries in the Unit History Sheet for November 1941 of the No. 4 Service Flying Training School showing the Fairey Battle on towing duties are 'false and an attempt at deliberately covering up the real purpose of this flight on this day'.26 GPCAPT Bourne's reference to the Fairey Battle target tug was picked up by Mr David Vincent, who contacted the pilot of the aircraft, Mr David Daly. According to Mr Vincent:

Mr Vincent also challenged assertions by GPCAPT Bourne that RAAF Pearce had their own Fairey Battles, noting that there 'were only two Fairey Battles in Western Australia at this time ... Both aircraft were on the strength of No. 4 Service Flying Training School ...'.28

6.22    In evidence to the Committee, Mrs McDonald explained the significance of GPCAPT Bourne's claims:

6.23    Mr Bernard Eneberg also told the Committee of his concerns about Aquitania's role in the aftermath of the tragedy. He pointed out that:

However, the Committee notes it could equally be argued that, given her speed, Aquitania could outrun most enemy shipping she was likely to encounter and was therefore in no need of an escort from Sydney.

6.24    After being detained in Singapore dry dock for eight days31 Aquitania proceeded south through Sunda Strait. She came across the German survivors early in the morning of 23November, and stopped to pick them up. Aquitania then proceeded south and according to the official history did not break radio silence until approaching Wilson's Promontory on 27November. Mr Eneberg suggested that Captain Gibbons of the Aquitania may have been under orders from Admiralty to stop and pick up any survivors.32 Mr Eneberg stressed that:

6.25    That a search was sent out shortly after Aquitania picked up survivors, is, GPCAPT Bourne argues, clearly a sign that the Aquitania broke radio silence. He argues that as the search in which he participated was sent out a full day before the official history records, this is proof a conspiracy was taking place in which the Australian Government was aware that there may have been Sydney survivors who were not rescued. In his submission, he asks:

6.26    GPCAPT Bourne is not alone in his claim that a search was sent out for Sydney one day earlier than the official history claimed. For example, in the Westhoven Report (prepared by Third Officer Westhoven, WRANS)35 cited in the Australian Archives' Guide to HMAS Sydney papers, the initial search was dated 23 November. GPCAPT Bourne took issue with the correction made to this entry by Archives which stated:

6.27    The Department of Defence in its first submission initially indicated that a search was sent out on 23 November, but this was corrected in a supplementary submission, in which Defence stated:

6.28    In the source document cited in this submission, it is not clear when the decision to mount a search took place. The document includes the following entry:

6.29    However, in this document, it is not stated that this was the initial search or that another search had not been carried out prior to this one, one day earlier, and no date is given for when the decision was made to send out this particular search. Therefore, it cannot be assumed from this search report that the 24 November search for Sydney was the initial search.

6.30    Evidence given to the Committee by Australian Archives is quite clear that there is no documentary evidence that the Aquitania broke radio silence, and that her Captain had very sound reasons for not doing so. According to a report cited by Richard Summerrell:

6.31    Gill also argued that Aquitania did not at any time break radio silence, stating that '[n]ot until Aquitania passed Wilson's Promontory at 1.20pm on the 27th and was able to pass a visual signal, did the Naval Board learn that she had met the raft and had [Kormoran] prisoners on board'. 40

6.32    The Bourne proposition is also contrary to the view expressed in secret and confidential Navy correspondence files, that 'it was not until 27 November that the Aquitania signalled the Wilson's Promontory Signal Station [that it had picked up survivors]'.41 Mr Ian Farquhar-Smith, the son of the then District Naval Officer, echoed these sentiments and is also adamant that Aquitania did not break radio silence immediately after picking up Kormoran survivors.42 The claims made by GPCAPT Bourne regarding a search being sent out for Sydney on 23 November are not supported in any official records and GPCAPT Bourne's own log books were lost during the war.

6.33    While not doubting the sincerity of the views held by GPCAPT Bourne, a number of aspects of his account, particularly in relation to the movements of Aquitania, troubled the Committee. The first issue is whether there was sufficient time for Aquitania to have sighted the raft, picked up the crew, conducted an interrogation and notified authorities, leading to GPCAPT Bourne being tasked at 0745 hrs.43 There is some confusion about the time the raft was sighted, and the time the Germans were actually picked up. GPCAPT Bourne has stated 'HTM Aquitania picked up 26 Germans ... at 0600H ...'.44 However, in an earlier paper, he asserted 'At 5.50 a.m. (WST) ... Aquitania ... stopped for 45 mins ... [to pick up the Germans and] and at 7 a.m. (WST) the Aquitania resumed cruising ...'.45 Captain Gibbons of the Aquitania stated that he picked the survivors up at 2230 GMT (6.30 a.m. WST).46 Winter stated that the sighting was just before 6.00am and that it 'was nearly 2 hours before Aquitania had them safely on board ...'.47 The delay between sighting and boarding of the Germans was also suggested by Mr Eneberg, who indicated it could have taken 1 hours for Aquitania to slow, turn back and pick up the raft.48

6.34    Associated with the time discrepancies, is the issue of what was learned from the initial discussions with the Germans. GPCAPT Bourne claims that the Germans gave a fictitious battle site 130 nm south west of Fremantle and that 'Aquitania broke radio silence between 6-7 a.m. WST...' to advise authorities of this. However, in a report to DNI, dated 31December 1941, detailing the questioning of the Aquitania prisoners when they arrived in Sydney, the Germans gave a location of 130 miles due west of Perth as the site of the battle.49 GPCAPT Bourne's flight, he claims, was from the western end of Rottnest Island down the normal shipping lane 'as far south as Lat 3430'S to abeam Point D'Entrecastreaux, then to step aside 40 nm to the west and return ... on a parallel track'.50 He acknowledges that it would have been more logical to conduct a square search from a datum point 130 nm south east of Fremantle. He explains this difference as an Air Commodore directing the search 'without consulting his ... more experienced maritime Operations Officers'.51

6.35    Captain Gibbons' account of events on the morning of 23 November stated that the prisoners were turned over to the Staff Captain for interrogation and 'it was not until nearly noon (local time) that [he] read the results of the interrogation of the prisoners and realised that there had been an action ...'.52 An examination of files relating to Aquitania and her prisoners provides no further details beyond those already noted above.

6.36    What troubled the Committee the most, however, was the apparent lack of an appropriate response by authorities had Aquitania indeed broken radio silence to report her discovery. One aircraft on a limited search, as proposed by GPCAPT Bourne, would seem a disproportionately small response if indeed Aquitania had advised of her find, particularly as the following day five aircraft were ordered out to search for the overdue Sydney. No plausible explanation has been put forward as to why the RAN in those circumstances failed to act.

6.37    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. The Committee does note that rumours were circulating in Fremantle about Sydney being overdue, and it may well have been a flight authorised by the RAAF as a low-key attempt to see if Sydney could be located.

6.38    Ultimately, even if GPCAPT Bourne is correct and a search was sent out under government direction on 23 November 1941, and not 24 hours later, the outcome of the search might have been no different. As Gill suggested:

Release of Information about the Loss

6.39    As has been stated previously in this report, there has been considerable criticism of the handling of the immediate aftermath of the loss of Sydney by the RAN and the Australian Government, particularly in relation to the enforcement of censorship restrictions on the release of information, following the loss of Sydney.


6.40    Despite it being war time, the controversy surrounding the loss of HMAS Sydney was ignited, in part, by the manner in which the Australian Government dealt with the release of information after the event. This suspicion has, over time, been compounded by the absence of particular pieces of information, for example the log books of ships which may have come across the wreckage of Sydney. Many feel they may contain significant (and hitherto undisclosed) information about how Sydney was lost.

6.41    Attempts to contain news of the disaster were unsuccessful, and 'Despite the government's concern that nothing be disclosed, by the afternoon of 25 November The Herald in Melbourne had heard that an Australian warship had been sunk. Earlier that day, G Hermon Gill advised the Chief of Naval Staff that "to issue a censorship instruction at this stage would be to start a flood of rumour throughout Press channels" '.55 The issuing of a censorship instruction at 2.30pm on 25 November proved to be a mistake, fuelling more rumours than it dispelled.56

6.42    As Winter suggested:

6.43    A negative reaction to the lack of 'official' information was explicable in part because:

6.44    Many rumours later emerged which may have had their origin in the initial handling of censorship restrictions on Sydney. Following the loss of Sydney:

6.45    In his official history, Gill attempted to dispel some of the rumours about the botched handling of information about Sydney's loss in the days following the disaster. By way of explanation, Gill blamed the Naval Board for failing to properly brief the Chief Publicity Censor. According to Gill, Naval Intelligence followed up any information which may have shed light on the fate of Sydney, but to no avail.60 The instruction, for 'No reference press or radio to HMAS Sydney'61 drew attention to the ship and gave rise to a perception that there was something to hide in regard to Sydney's condition. In retrospect, giving no instruction at all would perhaps have been a wiser approach to minimising discussion about Sydney.

6.46    By late November the news that a German raider had sunk Sydney was being broadcast in Germany, and in Britain and in the United States the information had also been released. Advice of the censorship restrictions had been sent to the British government. Problems, however, arose due to the fact that:

6.47    Three radio stations in Australia (3AR, 3KZ and 2UW) were suspended for broadcasting information about Sydney while the media blackout was on.63

Justification from the Government

6.48    According to Summerrell:

6.49    The government also tried to justify not releasing information on the grounds of 'maintain[ing] public morale by not allowing publication of the fact that there were so many German survivors yet none from the Sydney'.65

6.50    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 situation. 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 the 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.

The Interrogations

6.51    The interrogations of Kormoran survivors began almost immediately after they were picked up. The following account appears in the Australian Archives Guide:

6.52    Attempts to ascertain details about the Sydney/Kormoran encounter did not stop with the initial interrogations. A sustained effort was made for many years to elicit the truth from the German survivors. It is interesting to note the observations of Winter, that:

6.53    Winter's claims are also supported by Frame, who wrote that 'While the broad details of the German accounts seem to have been accepted by the Naval Board in early 1942, [the RAN] obviously felt that the entire story might not have been told. Listening devices were placed in the POW quarters while attempts were made to infiltrate the camp with Australian agents. Neither method obtained any useful information'.68

6.54    The evidence obtained through the interrogation process has been assessed quite differently. For example:

But ...

Criticisms of the Interrogation Process

6.55    Several problems were encountered in the interrogation process, which may have led to inaccuracies in the way the action between Sydney and Kormoran came to be understood. According to the Australian Archives Guide:

6.56    Frame also criticised the manner in which the interrogations were carried out. He wrote:

6.57    Frame also compared the methods of interrogation in Sydney and Western Australia, and concluded that '... the circumstances for conducting interrogations in Sydney were very different from those prevailing in Western Australia, where the prisoners had been reunited and discussion between them was taking place'.73

Veracity of the German Accounts Given in Interrogations

6.58    Over the past 57 years, many criticisms have been directed at the German accounts of the battle, and many questions have been raised about their accuracy. These criticisms have not always been logical, however. On one hand, there are those who use the consistencies in the German accounts as evidence that complicated conspiring took place between Germans before they were rescued or arrived on land. On the other hand, there are those who use the inconsistencies in the German accounts to defend their belief that the German were lying. They take the position that if the Germans were telling the truth, their stories would be identical in every way.

6.59    From the initial interrogations, it appeared that the government was largely satisfied that it had obtained a clear picture of what had happened to Sydney. It was felt that:

6.60    In his second and final public announcement on 3 December 1941, the Prime Minister noted that:

6.61    Notwithstanding the official endorsement of the German76 accounts, and contrary to Gill's claim that 'no room for doubt was left as to its accuracy',77 doubt still remained for many about the veracity of the German version. It was not the 'Germanness' of the accounts that called into question their integrity. Rather, it was the nature of the way in which the information was obtained that gave rise to doubts about its accuracy. In his book Who Sank the Sydney? Michael Montgomery pointed out that 'it should be borne in mind that most officers, on whatever side, held in captivity considered that they had an absolute duty to do all they could to deceive the enemy'.78

6.62    Others also shared Montgomery's scepticism about the content of the Germans' accounts. Given that it was war time, it would have been unrealistic to expect the German survivors to offer any more information than they had to. Montgomery's suggestion that a systematic method of deception was practised in interrogations was echoed in several other submissions. For example, it was noted in one submission that 'the Germans gave false information at the time during the interviews. This was 'par for the course' as it still is today. Captured Allied soldiers and officers during World War II were notorious for leading German interrogators 'up the garden path' with misinformation.79

6.63    Although the German accounts have largely stood the test of time, a degree of scepticism about their veracity still exists. One of Captain Burnett's sons, CDRE Rory Burnett RAN (Retd), suggested in a submission to the inquiry that:

6.64    In his submission to the inquiry, Captain Burnett's other son, CMDR Patrick Burnett, RAN (Retd), echoed his brother's sentiments, stating that 'we cannot be certain that there are not some errors or omissions in the German version which, if identified, might show the events leading up to and during the action in a different light'.81

6.65    In his book Frame was more specific about the inconsistencies in Captain Detmers' account of the battle. According to Frame:

6.66    Rather than focusing on the possibility that new information might come to light, some concentrated on criticising the Germans for misleading their captors. For example, MrE V Ryding expressed a sentiment that:

6.67    It is important to bear in mind the fact that few of the men on board Kormoran would have been in a position to see the engagement, or been privy to the motivation and tactics behind it. On this basis it is possible to challenge the German accounts, if only because at some point some of them were probably relaying information which had been passed on to them, rather than recounting their own personal recollections of the incident.

6.68    LCDR Ean McDonald RAN (Retd) also expressed concern about the correctness of German accounts of the battle. He believed the Germans had received instructions that 'this is the story you will all tell You will learn it well and you will stick to it forever'.84 However, the Committee believes that while fabricating a story under such circumstances, in the aftermath of a fierce battle and in the process of abandoning ship, would have been very difficult, it is highly improbable that the German crew would hold to the story for 57 years with so very little deviation.85

6.69    Allegations of inconsistencies in the German accounts were refuted in some submissions to the inquiry. For example, one submission suggested that 'It must be considered that the battle was both fierce and intense in its ferocity leaving no time for any individual to consider an outcome or what statements should be rehearsed in the event of a defeat and subsequent capture. The allegations that the crew of HSK Kormoran conspired to cover up alleged atrocities at the conclusion of the battle are imaginative in the extreme'.86

6.70    Of all those who commented on the veracity of German accounts of the action between Sydney and Kormoran, one submission noted the following:

6.71    In the absence of any Australian eyewitness accounts of the battle, it is extremely difficult to establish to what extent the Germans' accounts clearly and accurately reflected the events of 19 November 1941. While it was likely that during war time, the Germans would have attempted to deceive the Australian interrogators (as their Australian counterparts would have done), without any Australian accounts it is almost impossible to know if the Germans were lying and if so, to what degree. A great deal of research had been done into what the Germans told the Australian authorities during the aftermath of the battle. The fact that Captain Detmers and some of his men attempted to escape from POW camps has also been suggested as 'proof' that he lied.88 However, the Committee was not convinced that there was necessarily a link between the two, and believes that Captain Detmers' escape attempt cannot be used to discredit the information obtained through the interrogation process.


6.72    Significant, in the Committee's view, was the fact that, despite years of questioning and cross-examination, the Kormoran survivors have maintained that they told the truth in interrogations. The relationship between Kormoran survivors and Australians who question the official accounts has become strained as a result of the lack of acceptance of the German accounts among many Sydney researchers. Winter believes that:

6.73    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' recollections of events.

No Survivors

6.74    One of the most tragic dimensions of Sydney's loss was the fact that there was not a single Australian survivor, and yet over 300 Germans survived the loss of the Kormoran. The fact that history was recorded on the basis of the information contained in the German accounts of the battle was unacceptable to the families of Sydney's crew and those Australians who had known and fought with men lost on Sydney. For those people, the loss of Sydney's entire complement was inconceivable, and the official history provided no satisfactory explanations for the loss.

6.75    Gill was convinced that there was nothing sinister in the total lack of survivors from Sydney. Accordingly, in the official history, Gill wrote that :

6.76    Gill explained the complete lack of survivors by the sheer number of hits Sydney received, and saw no connection between delays in transferring messages intercepted from the Kormoran and the rescue of Kormoran survivors by Aquitania, and the total lack of Sydney survivors.91

6.77    The speculation surrounding the lack of Sydney survivors is fuelled by a widespread perception that there have been no other cases of ships sinking with a total loss of life. There have in fact been quite a significant number of ships that have sunk with heavy or total loss of life. Those ships and their casualties are listed in Tables 6.3 and 6.4.

6.78    In each of the cases where survivors were picked up, it is clear that this was possible because 'there were other ships in the immediate vicinity able to pick them up shortly after their sinking'.92 This was not the case with Sydney and Kormoran, who were each unaccompanied at the time of their encounter. This alone, however, does not explain the difference in survival rates from the two vessels.

Table 6.3 Naval Vessels Sunk With All Hands93

Name Type Nationality Crew Loss Location Cause
Good Hope Armoured cruiser British 800 Coronel, 1914 Shelled, Fire. Magazine explosion
Monmouth Armoured cruiser British 800 Coronel, 1914 Shelled, Fire. Magazine explosion
Scharnhorst Armoured cruiser German 750 Falklands, 1914 Shelled to destruction
Defence Armoured cruiser British 900 Jutland, 1916 Shelled, Fire. Magazine explosion
Black Prince Armoured Cruiser British 900 Jutland, 1916 Shelled, Fire. Magazine explosion
Pommern Battleship (Pre-dreadnought) German 844 Jutland, 1916 Torpedoed
Jarvis Destroyer American 247 Savo Island, 1942 Aircraft bombing
Friedrich Eckoldt Destroyer German 295 Barents Sea, 1942 Shelled to destruction

Table 6.4 Major Warships Sunk With Heavy Loss of Life94

Ship Type Crew Survivors Location Cause
Invincible (British) Battlecruiser 1000 6 Jutland, 1916 Shelled, Magazine explosion
Indefatigable (British) Battlecruiser 1000 2 Jutland, 1916 Shelled, Magazine explosion
Queen Mary (British) Battlecruiser 1000 10 Jutland, 1916 Shelled, Magazine explosion
Hood (British) Battlecruiser 1419 3 N Atlantic, 1941 Shelled, Magazine explosion
Bismarck (German) Battleship 2200 110 N Atlantic, 1941 Shelled and torpedoed
Scharnhorst (German) Battleship 1968 36 N Cape, 1943 Shelled and torpedoed

6.79    The Department of Defence suggests that the reason for there being no survivors from Sydney was that most hands would have been closed up at battle stations and would have been inside the ship. Those who were on the upper decks 'manning some of the lighter armament would be likely to be concussed or killed by the severity of the explosion'.95 After the initial explosion, a large number of the command team would in all likelihood have been killed or incapacitated.

6.80    Some submissions contained information which tended to support the view expressed in the official history. As Mr Alaistair Templeton wrote:

6.81    The Department of Defence pointed out that 'there would have been [some men outside on the decks with the light armament], but they would have been relatively few. Of the 645 men on board, there would only have been in the tens, twenties or thirties manning some of the light armament'.97 This would have meant that the vast majority of Sydney's crew would have been below decks during the encounter, and may not have had the opportunity to abandon ship before it sank.

6.82    The view that very few men on board Sydney would have been in a position to abandon ship was challenged by Mr Ryding in a submission to the inquiry. He stated in evidence given to the Committee that:

6.83    The Committee received many submissions suggesting possible alternative explanations for the lack of Sydney survivors. Some of these suggestions contradicted each other, and were quite unique. For example, one person suggested that:

6.84    Unpalatable as it may be, it is important to remember that the area in which Sydney is thought to have sunk, approximate as it may be, was in shark-infested waters. It is not necessary to examine the implications of that geography in detail, except to take note of the observations of Kormoran survivor Mr Adolf Marmann, that:

Did Sydney Explode?

6.85    During the inquiry, the Committee received a number of submissions which addressed the issue of whether or not Sydney blew up. The Committee examined this evidence in the context of the complete lack of Sydney survivors, in the knowledge that if it could be demonstrated that Sydney exploded, this might explain why there were no survivors.

6.86    The submissions supporting the theory that Sydney exploded differed from the official history, which stated that Sydney was 'last seen about ten miles off, heading approximately S.S.E. Thereafter, until about 10 p.m., a distant glare in the darkness betokened her presence. Then occasional flickerings. Before midnight they, too, had gone'.101

6.87    In evidence to the inquiry, questions were raised about the accuracy of this account. For example, one submission cited evidence that Admiral Crabb (sic) had noted:

6.88    Other submissions described Sydney's final minutes, writing that:

6.89    One submission to the inquiry by Mr L J Luxton recounted the testimony of a projectionist in 3 A.O.D. Camp Cinema at Wallangarra Camp, QLD, during the war. While at the camp, Mr Luxton had met and talked with a German projectionist, who said that Kormoran and Sydney 'were only in action for about 20 minutes, when the Sydney blew up from one end to the other (from stem to stern). I asked him were there any survivors, he told me there were two'.104 The submission did not include any documentary evidence to support this claim, and Mr Luxton did not remember the name of the gentleman who gave him this information. Again, it is difficult to assess the veracity of such claims when there is no evidence, for example from interrogations, that German survivors actually witnessed Sydney exploding.

Did Sydney Roll?

6.90    Another suggestion about the possible explanation for the lack of Sydney survivors was given by Mr Barnie O'Sullivan, who wrote that:

6.91    In other evidence given to the Committee, other reasons for the lack of survivors were given. It was suggested that:

Theories About Murdered Sydney Survivors

6.92    One of the recurring accusations relating to the aftermath of the battle between Sydney and Kormoran is that there were survivors of the engagement from both ships, but that the Sydney survivors were 'massacred' in the water after the battle. This accusation is commonly raised in conjunction with the theory that a Japanese (or other)107 submarine was responsible for, or involved in, sinking Sydney.108 There is no direct evidence to support the theory that survivors were massacred in the water, except the fact that there were no survivors.

6.93    When Montgomery suggested that the Japanese were somehow responsible for sinking Sydney, he stated that '[the fact that] the Japanese either assisted in, or were wholly responsible for, the disposal of Sydney survivors in the water has an altogether greater probability'.109 To illustrate his claim, Montgomery cited an order issued to commanders of the First Submarine Force, 'Do not stop with the sinking of enemy ships and cargoes; at the same time that you carry out the complete destruction of the crews of enemy ships, if possible seize part of the crew and endeavour to secure information about the enemy'.110 He presents this order as possible evidence that the Japanese were responsible for killing Sydney survivors.

6.94    Montgomery suggested that the carley float picked up by Heros constitutes evidence that Sydney survivors were machine gunned in the water. He stated that:

6.95    Montgomery also included a photograph of the carley float in the Australian War Memorial in his book, which appears with the caption 'note the numerous machine gun bullet punctures'. In fact, an investigation carried out by the Australian War Memorial in 1993 conclusively found that the holes in the carley float were not from machine gun fire, but were the result of shrapnel damage. Those who seek to prove that Sydney survivors were machine gunned in the water, and who cite this float as evidence of a slaughter, fail to acknowledge the findings of the AWM examination. Montgomery has repeated the claims of 'small arms' damage to the carley float, despite being well aware of the AWM investigation and its findings. He has sought to imply that the AWM investigation was not independent or was flawed. In a submission to the inquiry, he stated that:

6.96    Montgomery's book led to a proliferation of theories supporting his claim of Japanese responsibility for sinking Sydney. The book Betrayal at Pearl Harbour also contains the claim that 'the only one of the Sydney's life rafts to be found was riddled with bullets, plainly suggesting that her survivors were machine-gunned in the water to ensure that there were no witnesses to the incident'.116 No evidence is provided in the book to support these claims, except for Montgomery's book, whose claims have been the subject of sustained debate and widespread criticism since it was published in 1981.

6.97    Theories about who might have murdered Sydney survivors are not limited to Japanese involvement. While Mr Ryding supported the view that Sydney survivors were killed in the water and stated that '... the cover up is that it was the Japanese who machine-gunned the HMAS Sydney survivors, not the Germans',117 this opinion is contradicted by other views. For example, LCDR McDonald suggested that the Germans, not the Japanese, were responsible for machine gunning Sydney survivors in the water after the battle.118

Refutations of the Murdered Survivors Theories

6.98    There were also many submissions to the inquiry which did not support Montgomery's theory about Japanese involvement in murdering Sydney survivors. According to one Kormoran survivor, Mr Philipp Berhard, in a letter written in 1981, 'The allegation that the crew of the Kormoran killed survivors of the Sydney is not true and must be rejected as an outrageous insinuation'.119 Mr Berhard, who was in the underwater torpedo room during the battle between Sydney and Kormoran, states in his letter that:

6.99    For those who defend the official history, and refute claims that a Japanese submarine was responsible for sinking Sydney, theories about those same Japanese submariners brutally murdering Sydney survivors warrant no attention whatsoever. Given the dependence of those theories on the claim that the Heros float was riddled with machine gun bullet holes, the findings of the 1993 Australian War Memorial investigation effectively removes the foundation of their argument (see paras 7.37 to 7.39).

6.100    Bearing in mind the findings of the Australian War Memorial investigation, Mrs Glenys McDonald asked that those who do not support the theory that Sydney survivors were machine gunned in the water give a measure of understanding to those who do. She wrote that:

6.101    Notwithstanding the fact that these misconceptions are founded on honest misunderstandings, the Committee was convinced that the evidence given in the AWM investigation was sufficient to remove any possibility that the float had been damaged by machine gun fire.

6.102    The Department of Defence submission lent support to the argument that Sydney survivors were not machine-gunned in the water. It was its contention that :

Claims of criminality

6.103    Mr John Doohan, in a submission on behalf of the End Secrecy on Sydney Group, recounted his attempts to have a criminal investigation conducted by the Attorney-General into the deaths of the Sydney crew, and in particular 17 personnel for whose families Mr Doohan was acting. Mr Doohan indicated he believed the deaths occurred 'in circumstances which prima facie indicate gross criminality of agency/ies still to be positively identified'.123 The office of the Attorney-General indicated that as the Committee's inquiry was underway, 'Any investigation that the Committee may wish to make is a matter for the Committee'.124 Mr Doohan called for a 'clear statement by Committee (sic) that it will specifically investigate the 17 identified deaths in conjunction with the overall 645'.125

6.104    The Chairman of the Committee responded to Mr Doohan in February 1998 indicating that the Committee did not propose to treat the deaths of those 17 named persons any differently from the rest of the ship's complement. The Chairman also noted that, depending on the conclusions and recommendations of the Committee, it will be a matter for the Attorney-General to consider any future requests for such an investigation.

6.105    On the evidence before it, the Committee can see no justification for a criminal investigation into the deaths of the Sydney crew, as called for by Mr Doohan. The deaths occurred as a result of a wartime engagement, and while there were no Australian survivors to provide an account of the battle, there was no evidence presented to the Committee to suggest that any agencies or individuals acted in a 'criminal' manner.

6.106    The Committee also notes that Captain Detmers' record in both the Atlantic in early 1941 and later in the Indian Ocean does not support accusations of criminal behaviour. While Kormoran accounted for 12 ships and there was some loss of life during attempts to stop those vessels or prevent them from signaling, Captain Detmers took crew from the ships on board after each encounter.126 Frame notes in his book that 'His [Detmers] treatment of prisoners appeared to be humane and considerate'.127

6.107    Several submissions also referred to the deaths of at least 75 Kormoran crew, and suspicions held that the injured from that ship were all placed on one lifeboat which subsequently capsized, to avoid them being interrogated, thus telling a different story from that agreed by the Germans.128 The Committee has also found no evidence to support these suspicions.

Was an Inquiry Held?

6.108    In the aftermath of the tragedy, and before the official history was released in 1957, several reports were written about the loss of Sydney. The Dechaineux Report (completed on 16 January 1942),129 the Eldridge Report (submitted to the Director of Naval Intelligence on 28 January 1942)130 and finally the nine page Westhoven Report (1945), all endeavoured to shed light on the fate of Sydney. However, no report of a formal inquiry has been located, and doubt exists as to whether such an inquiry was in fact held.

6.109    In his guide to Commonwealth records, Richard Summerrell states that:

6.110    While no concrete evidence of a court of inquiry has ever been found, Richard Summerrell pointed out that 'there is, however, one puzzling reference to a "Court of Enquiry" in the records of the Advisory War Council. This occurred at a meeting of the Council on 18March 1942'. The minutes of this meeting note that:

6.111    The minutes of the Advisory War Council Meeting of 18 March 1942 go on to describe the conclusions of the aforementioned Court of Enquiry, which were that:

6.112    It would appear from these minutes that the conclusion of the War Advisory Council was that the blame rested with Captain Burnett, first for taking a risk in bringing the Sydney in too close to the raider, and secondly, for not following orders. The minutes reflect the 'official' belief that a lack of preparedness (rather than any clandestine outside intervention) is what led to the loss of Sydney.

6.113    There is some doubt as to what investigations were being referred to by the Chief of Naval Staff when he said a court of inquiry had been held. One view held that 'The only other identified source that may be the basis of the Chief of Naval Staff's reference to a 'full inquiry' [into the loss of Sydney] is an investigation apparently carried out by Commander Emile Dechaineux, an officer of the Directorate of Naval Intelligence who was seconded to assist with the interrogations in Western Australia'.134 It was suggested to the Committee that pages were missing from the Dechaineux Report.135 However, in his last submission to the inquiry, Mr Wes Olson stated that '[although] I thought that there were pages missing from this document ... after careful scrutiny, I have found that the document, including the 'Interim Report', is complete. Dechaineux ... appears to have had the confusing habit of not numbering the first page [of his reports]'.136 The final report has never been found.

6.114    In his guide to Commonwealth records, Mr Summerrell cites what he calls 'the nearest to what might be called a systematic examination of the evidence' a report by Mr F B Eldridge, a senior master on the teaching staff at the Royal Australian Naval College.137 Mr Eldridge examined existing material, and his report was approved by the Chief of Naval Staff on 6 February 1942.138

6.115    This report was criticised in one submission to this inquiry, in which it was claimed that 'The Eldridge Report, compiled almost single-handedly from the Western Australian interrogation "evidence", embodied all the German fabrications and "red herrings". It was, nevertheless, unquestioningly "accepted" by Military Intelligence Systems and Governments of Australia, Britain and Canada. The Eldridge Report ... is the first officially "accepted history" of [the] loss of Sydney and her 645 crew'.139 However, as Mr Olson indicated:

6.116    Regarding the likelihood of a court of inquiry, Mr Eneberg observed:

6.117    On the available evidence, it is not possible to prove that a court of inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the loss of Sydney actually took place. Anecdotal evidence suggests that one may have been conducted, however, no documentary evidence exists to support this claim. As Mr Olson pointed out:

6.118    However, if an inquiry was indeed held, Mr Olson noted:

6.119    Inquiries were also held into the loss of Perth and Canberra. Given that it seems to have been common practice to conduct formal inquiries when HM ships were lost, it seems highly likely that this practice would have been implemented following the loss of Sydney. As noted earlier (para 3.16) the British Ministry of Defence has confirmed that no report of such an inquiry is held by the Ministry. However, the possibility remains that the report may be on files held by the British Public Record Office.

6.120    The Committee recommends that:

1.    Creagh, Transcript, p. 112.
2.    Gill, op. cit., p. 459.
3.    Winter, op. cit., p. 145.
4.    ibid.
5.    There have also been suggestions that Aquitania stopped at Gage Road, Fremantle, but was ordered to proceed with her journey to the eastern states. This has also been disputed equally vehemently (see for example, Eneberg, Submission, p. 4115).
6.    Winter, op. cit., p. 147.
7.    ibid., p. 151.
8.    There is some confusion as to the estimated time of arrival of Sydney in Fremantle. Some sources put the time at pm on 19 November, while others state that it was am on 20 November. According to Poniewierski, 'Sydney had been due in Fremantle on the afternoon of 20 November' (Poniewierski, Submission, p. 295). In any case, 'Sydney would not have signalled her ETA Fremantle, her ETA Fremantle would have known before she sailed ...' (Ryding, Submission, p. 627). Regardless of the exact time Sydney was due, criticism has nevertheless been directed at the RAN for delaying the search. How delayed it was is a matter of contention.
9.    Summerrell, op. cit., p. 168.
10.    Department of Defence, Transcript, pp. 38-39.
11.    Winter, op. cit., p. 149.
12.    ibid., p. 148.
13.    Summerrell, op. cit., p. 18.
14.    Hardstaff, Submission, pp. 50ff.
15.    Summerrell, op. cit., p. 46.
16.    ibid., p. 47.
17.    ibid.
18.    This carley float is accepted by Department of Defence as being from Sydney (Department of Defence, Transcript, pp. 12-13).
19.    Winter, op. cit., pp. 161-162.
20.    See Chapter 7 for more detailed information on this investigation.
21.    McDonald, G, Transcript, p. 191.
22.    ibid.
23.    ibid., p. 199.
24.    ibid., p. 239.
25.    ibid., p. 242.
26.    Bourne, Submission, p. 1040.
27.    Vincent, Submission, p. 4318.
28.    ibid.
29.    McDonald, G, Transcript, p. 295.
30.    Eneberg, Transcript, p. 415.
31.    ibid.
32.    ibid., pp. 415-416.
33.    ibid., p. 416.
34.    Bourne, Submission, p. 1218.
35.    Summerrell, op. cit., p. 15.
36.    ibid., p. 18. See also Bourne, Submission, p. 1086 and pp. 2588-2589.
37.    Department of Defence, Submission, p. 2469.
38.    Bourne, Submission, p. 1914.
39.    Summerrell, op. cit., p. 56.
40 .    Gill, op. cit., p. 452.
41.    Secret and Confidential Correspondence Files 1923-1950, MP1185/8, referred to in Summerrell, op. cit., p. 56.
42.    Farquhar-Smith, Submission, p. 3877.
43.    Bourne, Submission, p. 1092.
44.    Bourne, Submission, p. 1783.
45.    Exhibit No. 3, HMAS Sydney/HMT Aquitania (2nd Edition), p. 3.
46.    Report to Secretary, Naval Board, 2 Dec 1941, reproduced in Exhibit No. 3.
47.    Winter, op. cit., p. 145.
48.    Eneberg, Submission, p. 4570.
49.    Reproduced as Appendix in Bourne, Submission, p. 1808.
50.    Exhibit No. 3, op. cit., p. 10.
51.    Bourne, Submission, p. 4287.
52.    Report to the Secretary of the Naval Board, 2 December 1941, reproduced in Bell, Submission, pp . 3901-3903.
53.    Gill, op. cit., p. 459.
54.    Summerrell, op. cit., p. 13.
55.    ibid., p. 77.
56.    ibid.
57.    Winter, op. cit., pp. 181-182.
58.    Summerrell, op. cit., p. 13.
59.    Gascoyne Historical Society, Submission, p. 1253.
60.    Gill, op. cit., p. 460.
61.    ibid., p. 459.
62.    War Cabinet Meeting Minute of 4 December 1941, reproduced in Summerrell, op. cit., p. 71.
63.    Summerrell, op. cit., p. 80.
64.    ibid., p. 77.
65.    ibid., p. 68. For further discussion of possible reasons for the lack of survivors, see paragraphs 6.74-6.84.
66.    ibid., p. 87.
67.    Poniewierski, Submission, p. 2290. Emphasis in original.
68.    Frame, op. cit., p. 107.
69.    Department of Defence, Transcript, pp. 36-37.
70.    Doohan, Transcript, p. 279.
71.    Summerrell, op. cit., p. 88.
72.    Frame, op. cit., p. 80.
73.    ibid., p. 81.
74.    Summerrell, op. cit., p. 20.
75.    ibid., p. 22.
76.    It is correct to say that the post-battle accounts were overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, German. It is commonly stated that the only account of the battle came from Kormoran survivors, and this is also true. However, there were four Chinese on board the German ship when it sank the Sydney [they had been taken captive from the Eurylochus 10 months earlier see Summerrell, op. cit., p. 87], and three of those prisoners survived the sinking. According to Winter, 'interrogation of only one of these [Chinese] is retained in the files relating to Sydney ... At least one of them was interviewed, about April 1942 ...' (Poniewierski, Submission, p. 307).
77.    Gill, op. cit., p. 453.
78.    Montgomery, op. cit., p. 90.
79.    Loane, Submission, p. 200.
80.    Burnett, R, Submission, p. 16.
81.    Burnett, P, Submission, p. 121.
82.    Frame, op. cit., pp. 87-88.
83.    Ryding, Transcript, p. 149.
84.    McDonald, E, Submission, p. 530.
85.    Frame notes that key events 'could have been observed by as few as four or five individuals in Kormoran...' (Frame, op. cit., p. 105).
86.    McDonough, Submission, p. 859.
87.    Mackenzie, Submission, p. 1336.
88.    End Secrecy on Sydney Group, Submission, p. 3010.
89.    Poniewierski, Submission, p. 306.
90.    Gill, op. cit., p. 459.
91.    ibid.
92.    Exhibit No. 23.
93.    Exhibit No. 23.
94.    ibid.
95.    Department of Defence, Transcript, p. 31.
96.    Templeton, Submission, p. 1996.
97.    Department of Defence, Transcript, p. 40.
98.    Ryding, Transcript, pp. 148-149.
99.    Montagu, Submission, pp. 114 and 116.
100.    Marmann, Submission, p. 3797.
101.    Gill, op. cit., p. 456.
102.    Davis, Submission, p. 499.
103.    O'Sullivan, Submission, p. 601. Emphasis in original.
104.    Luxton, Submission, pp. 1125-1126.
105.    O'Sullivan, Submission, p. 3765.
106.    Arnold, Submission, p. 2710. Another theory was that there were in fact Sydney survivors. According to one submission, 'During the war, rumours were rife that there were survivors from the Sydney in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. With the end of the war, however, these rumours were found to be false ...' (Pless, Submission, pp. 230-231).
107.    See for example Heazlewoods Solicitors, Submission, pp. 1346 and 1349.
108.    For a discussion of the possible involvement of a Japanese submarine in the sinking of Sydney, refer to Chapter 5.
109.    Montgomery, op. cit., p. 181.
110.    ibid.
111.    ibid., pp. 142-143.
112.    ibid., photograph no. 22.
113.    See Exhibit 30: The Scientific Investigation of a Carley Float, Australian War Memorial, 1993.
114.    See Chapter 7 for more details of this examination.
115.    Montgomery, Submission, p. 638.
116.    Rusbridger, J and Nave, E, Betrayal at Pearl Harbour, Summit Books, New York, 1991, p. 134
117.    Ryding, Transcript, p. 151.
118.    McDonald, E, Transcript, p. 234, and Submission, p. 552.
119.    Exhibit No. 24, p. 2 of translation.
120.    ibid.
121.    McDonald, G, Submission, p. 2310.
122.    Department of Defence, Submission, p. 1851. Of the four Chinese on Kormoran in November, three survived the engagement. There have been claims of the fourth being murdered on land, but this has not been proved.
123.    End Secrecy on Sydney Group, Submission, p. 2064.
124.    Quoted in ibid., p. 2109.
125.    ibid., p. 2064.
126.    Winter, op. cit., pp. 37-101; Frame, op cit., pp. 45-79
127.    Frame, op. cit., p. 56
128.    See for example, Ryding, Transcript, p. 144; McDonald, E, Submission, p. 529.
129.    Frame, referred to in Summerrell, op. cit., p. 28.
130.    ibid., p. 24.
131.    ibid.
132.    ibid., p. 23.
133.    ibid., p. 25.
134.    ibid., p. 24.
135.    Olson, Submission, p. 4198.
136.    ibid.
137.    Summerrell, op. cit., p. 24.
138.    ibid.
139.    End Secrecy on Sydney Group, Submission, pp. 3001-3002.
140.    Olson, Transcript, p. 212.
141.    Eneberg, Transcript, p. 413.
142.    Olson, Submission, p. 4198.
143.    Olson, Transcript, p. 205.

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