The 65-year-old mystery surrounding HMAS Sydney could soon be solved after the discovery of the wreck of a German ship believed responsible for sinking the Australian warship.
The German merchant raider Kormoran was found about 241km off Shark Bay in WA. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, along with Australian Defence Force heads, announced the discovery at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra today.
“We are now one step closer as a nation towards hopefully finding the Sydney,” Mr Rudd said.
“Of course, that does not mean that the search has yet found the Sydney itself but it does place us one significant step closer.”
Australia’s greatest maritime mystery claimed the lives of every one of the Sydney’s 645 crew.
Sailing from Sumatra back to Fremantle in November 1941, the warship encountered what purported to be the Dutch freighter Straat Malakka off the West Australian coast.
But the freighter was really the disguised German mercantile raider Kormoran.
After an ensuing fight, the Sydney went down with all hands and represents the greatest ever loss of life in an Australian warship.
The organisation set up to search for HMAS Sydney, Finding Sydney Foundation, discovered the Kormoran yesterday about 2560 metres below the water surface.
The team also found a significant amount of debris in an area about 2740 metres below the surface.
“We have also located what we believe to be the battlefield site and there is an amount of wreckage there but that has yet to be identified,” foundation chairman Ted Graham told reporters.
Mr Graham said he hoped the find would lead searchers to the Australian ship but said nothing was certain.
“There can never be a guarantee. We’re working in water depths of several thousand metres,” he said.
The team has narrowed the search to an area of 300 nautical miles and will this week use a remote-operated vehicle to search the Kormoran wreckage and the battlefield site for more clues.
The Chief of the Navy, Vice Admiral Russ Shalders, said his arm of the service was “jubilant”.
“What has now been found will allow us to proceed towards finishing something that has been a mystery - Australia’s major maritime mystery.”
But he warned it would not be an easy road ahead.
“It will be a long, hard and difficult and highly technical search from this point onwards and so we should not hope that this will be resolved quickly,” he said.
“The Navy looks forward to the day that we can find the Sydney and perhaps more importantly find out why the battle turned out the way it did.”
HMAS Sydney was the largest vessel of any country to be lost with no survivors during the Second World War.
The 317 survivors from the 397 crew aboard the Kormoran were picked up over ensuing days, giving the only eyewitness accounts of what occurred.
Federal Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson today said the Kormoran was an important part of Australia’s history and should be protected as part of Australia’s maritime heritage.
“This is a win for people who care about Australia’s history, it’s a win for those people who want to understand the sacrifices, the people who made us who we are,” Dr Nelson told reporters in Perth.
Australian embassy staff in Berlin today were alerting the German government to the find.
The wreckage will remain the property of Germany.
Kormoran find welcomed by Sydney man’s family