Web Page 28.
This is a copy of the article published in the Weekend Australian on Saturday 22 July 2006 with end notes added.  The end notes provide links to documents and web pages that show the origins of the statements in the article.  This article has been added to my web site with permission from the Australian newspaper.

Wrong turn in the hunt for an old wreck

An official search for the remains of the Sydney is focused on a doubtful spot, argues Warren Whittaker
22 July 06

IT is hard to share Prime Minister John Howard's confidence that the Government's $1.3million grant towards the search for the wreck of HMAS Sydney II 1 will solve what a US naval historian has described as "the most curious incident of the seas".

On November 19, 1941, the Sydney and its crew of 645 men were lost after an encounter off the coast of Western Australia with the German commerce raider HSK Kormoran, which also sank. The Sydney was the largest warship in World War II to be lost with all hands. After more than six decades and a Senate committee inquiry, the wreck's location is still hotly disputed.
There are compelling reasons for concluding that the Government has been misled and that search funds - including contributions from WA and NSW - will be wasted because it has stipulated that these funds may be spent only on a search near the site of the battle as identified by the German survivors. 2

Informed opinion about the locations of the two wrecks tends to fall into two fiercely rival camps: northerners and southerners. Northerners accept without question that the Sydney lies about 180 nautical miles southwest of Carnarvon, a location first pinpointed by German survivors from the Kormoran.

Southerners, drawing on impressive recent research, favour a more objectively based battle site 200 nautical miles to the southeast, close to the Abrolhos Islands. 3  Southerners say the Germans have a motive in drawing searchers away from the evidence of what actually took place. 4

The exploration team backed by Howard, HMAS Sydney Search Pty Ltd, 5 has appointed American wreck-hunter David Mearns to lead the search. 6 Mearns has interviewed Kormoran survivors in Germany and Chile at his own expense.

They supported the statement by Kormoran captain Theodore Detmers that the battle took place southwest of Carnarvon.

Mearns has said publicly that he believes the German version, which aligns him with the wreck location's hegemonic interests: the Royal Australian Navy, the federal Government and the RAN-backed HSS.

The search is wedded to the northern site because in 1941 the navy accepted the German story. In 1997, then defence minister Ian McLachlan told the Senate committee inquiry: "The only first-hand accounts available are those provided by the crew of the Kormoran. Everything else is pure speculation." 7

The southerners do not have the financial resources to carry out their own search. HSS claims the southern sites have already been searched, but in each case the search equipment could not reach the ocean floor or was in the wrong area. 8

Until recently, the navy refused to resource a search for Sydney because civilian experts disagree on a location. It is an unconvincing excuse. If the air force lost a C-130 Hercules with 100 men on board, would it refuse to search until interested civilians agreed on where to search?

After eight years of studying both northern and southern claims, I firmly believe a search that clings unquestioningly to the German location is doomed to failure.

Why? In the space here I consider only two kinds of evidence, human and natural.

The human evidence includes crucial accounts by witnesses living along the WA coast. Glenys McDonald and Ted King have collected and collated interviews with many residents in the Geraldton, Port Gregory and Kalbarri areas who give consistent accounts of a battle at sea on the evening in question. 9 Their accounts have the compelling ring of authenticity. No battle taking place at the claimed northern location could have been seen or heard on land.

While HSS's consultant psychologist Kim Kirsner argues that the memories of the ageing witnesses are faulty, he insists the memories of the Kormoran crew must be right. 10  Curiously, Kirsner is listed on the HSS website as its only consultant, despite a plethora of interested expert former navy navigators and hydrographers being readily available.

Northerners refuse to question the accuracy of German accounts. Yet a WA researcher, Malcolm Barker, recently unearthed police records that show a search made at the navy's instigation of a stretch of beach north of Port Gregory - a southern location - on November 28, 1941, demonstrating the RAN doubted the battle location the Germans had given two days previously.

The natural evidence includes the hotly disputed direction and distance travelled by lifeboats from the Kormoran and flotsam recovered from both ships.

Analysis using the best available meteorological data indicates that for the drift objects to be found where they were, they must have begun their journey near the Abrolhos Islands. 11

Two of Kormoran's lifeboats landed north of Carnarvon. It is hard to accept they were carried 150 nautical miles to the north-northeast from the alleged northern battle site, against wind and currents that would normally have carried them northwards far out into the Indian Ocean, to an uncertain fate. 12

Kirsner and fellow WA University psychologist John Dunn, committed northerners, try to use their theory of temporal triangulation to justify the boats' drift, 13  but their argument shoots itself in the foot, twice.

First, it places the German lifeboat picked up by the British tanker Trocas at 24 06' south and 111 40' east 14 instead of the amended official position of 24 06' south and 110 40' east: a serious, consequential error of 55.5 nautical miles.

Then, to make temporal triangulation work in their favour, they select just two German lifeboats from a list of drifting objects. Although they concede that these lifeboats must drift at the same speed for temporal triangulation to be valid, they overlook the awkward fact that one of the boats had a jury-rigged sail and was moving about 0.6 knots faster than the other. This speed differential changes the diameter of the temporal triangulation circle by about 300 per cent, making their calculations useless.

But with correct data, temporal triangulation produces results that are compatible with the southerners' site west of the Abrolhos. 15

In 2004, the director of the RAN Sea Power Centre appointed a panel to analyse the navigational evidence. This expert panel concluded that the battle probably occurred 60 nautical miles south-southeast of the hallowed, set-in-concrete northern position. 16 Yet the director still refused to rule out the northern origins.

A recent independent analysis by a serving navy senior navigation instructor placed the battle farther south and due west of the Abrolhos Islands. 17 Even more recently, another independent authority, the American designer of the search-and-rescue computer programs used by the US Coast Guard, took the meteorological data recorded at the time to calculate the likely distance and direction of travel of one of Kormoran's drifting lifeboats. He concluded that the battle happened near the Abrolhos Islands, 16  far from the Government's search location. 18

In spite of these impressive findings - not least from its own experts - the navy remains superglued to the German location, apparently content to condemn the proposed search to failure before it even puts to sea. Southerners are not asking the navy, HSS and Mearns to abandon their faith, but to make a genuine commitment to explore properly and transparently also the Abrolhos possibility.

Warren Whittaker is a retired lieutenant-colonel, navigator and long-time HMAS Sydney researcher.


  1.    See:  http://www.pm.gov.au/news/media_releases/media_Release1502.html

  2.    In a message from Senator The Hon Ian Campbell, Minister for the Environment and Heritage to Mrs Jill Hall, MP dated 6 December 2005. The Senator explained that the government has made it a condition of the grant that the search is to be carried out in the vicinity of 26ºS, 111ºE.  This search will not solve the most curious incident of the seas because the wrecks will not be found there! 
 3.     An analysis of navigational data shows that the battle took place west of the Abrolhos Islands.  Further it is shown that it was impossible for lifeboats, liferafts and drift objects to have originated anywhere near the location claimed by Captain Detmers (26º 34’S, 111ºE).  See:  http://www.users.bigpond.net.au/Sydney_search/Analysis%20of%20Navigation%20Data/Analysis_of_navigation_Data.html 

  4.    It is probable that Captain Detmers used an illegal act to trap HMAS Sydney. See:

  5.    It is a condition that HMAS SYDNEY Search Pty Ltd (HSSPL) matches the Government Grant dollar for dollar. 
See:  http://www.findingsydney.com/default.asp

  6.    David Mearns is a world renowned wreck hunter.  He is convinced that the German survivors told the truth about the location of the battle.  See: http://www.bluewater.uk.com/#

 7.     Ever since November 1941, the Australian Government has accepted that the German Survivors told the truth about the location of the battle.  For full details, see:  Submissions to the Inquiry into the Circumstances of the Sinking of HMAS SYDNEY by the Minister for Defence on 8 Dec 1997.  Volume 8, Page 1840.

  8.    The WA Maritime Museum arranged for an in-water search for the wrecks but they got a false negative. 
See: http://www.users.bigpond.net.au/Sydney_search/WAMM_In-water_search.html 

  9.    For details of the research carried out by Glenys McDonald and Ted King, see: Royal Australian Navy – Sea Power Centre.  HMAS SYDNEY II – Proceedings of the Wreck Location Seminar. 16 November 2001.   “Oral History Workshop” by Glenys McDonald.  Also Glenys’ book: Seeking The Sydney ISBN: 1920694544.   

10.    Professors Kim Kirsner & John Dunn, University of Western Australia, have posted a copy of their paper “The Search for HSK KORMORAN and HMAS SYDNEY II: A Cognitive Perspective” on the World Wide Web.
See: http://www.psy.uwa.edu.au/sydney/papers/review8e.doc

It is probable that the German survivors gave a false location for the battle.  See http://www.users.bigpond.net.au/Sydney_search/The%20German%20Story/The_German_Story_.html
  11.    Records of the winds and currents in place at the time are to be found in WA Maritime Museum Report No 71.  This data was used to hindcast the origin of the drift objects  See:

 12.     von Malapert kept a diary during the voyage of Meyer’s lifeboat. A proper interpretation of the entries shows that the voyage began west of the Abrolhos Islands.   In the winds and currents prevailing at the time, it was impossible for Meyer’s lifeboat to have come from the vicinity of 26ºS, 111ºE.  See http://www.users.bigpond.net.au/Sydney_search/Meyer%27s_Lifeboat_Voyage.html

13.    Professors Kirsner and Dunn published a paper in which they claim to prove by Temporal Triangulation that the battle took place near 26ºS 111ºE   See:  http://www.psy.uwa.edu.au/sydney/papers/triangulation2.doc

14.    The paper on Temporal Triangulation has been analysed by Giles Whittaker.  He has shown that the authors used the wrong location for the liferaft found by Trocas and assumed that the liferafts were travelling at the same speed which was not true.
See:  lLocating HMAS Sydney and HSK Kormoran by Temporal Triangulation and Drift Analysis. Part 1  http://www.users.bigpond.net.au/Sydney_search/Drift%20Analysis/Drift%20Analysis.htm

 15.    Correctly interpreted, it can be shown that the lifeboat, liferafts and drift objects all came from a point west of the Abrolhos islands.  See: Locating HMAS Sydney and HSK Kormoran by Temporal Triangulation and Drift Analysis.  Part 2.

16.    At my request, the Director, Sea Power Centre set up an in house workshop to analyse the navigational evidence. The workshop report has been posted on the WWW at: http://www.navy.gov.au/spc/history/archives/kormoran/lbworkshop.html   The Director did not accept the workshop’s conclusions.
  17.    LCDR David McDonald, RAN reviewed my submissions to the HMAS SYDNEY Seminar, 16 November 2001. See Submissions to the November 2001 HMAS SYDNEY II Seminar compiled by Dr M. McCarthy.  Department of Marine Archaeology, WA Maritime Museum No 164.

  18.    Mr Richard Samms, author of software used by the US Coast Guard for search and rescue carried out an independent analysis of the voyage of Goesseln’s lifeboat. 
See:  http://www.users.bigpond.net.au/Sydney_search/CASP%20Analysis/CASP.html