The HMAS Sydney / HSK Kormoran engagement

an analysis of events leading up the 60th anniversary celebrations in November 2001

Dr Michael McCarthy, Curator of Maritime Archaeology,
Maritime Archaeology Department, WA Maritime Museum.
June 2002

A picture of HMAS Sydney.

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The HMAS Sydney/HSK Kormoran engagement on 19 November 1941 resulted in the loss of 79 or 80 German seamen and the entire Sydney crew of 645 men and boys, coming from virtually every major town and city in Australia. It was a major blow to the Country as a whole in WWII and was an unexplained loss that many families had been unable to come to terms with, some expressing concerns decades after the event.

A number of books about the incident were published during or soon after the war, notably by former LCDR John Ross of Western Australia, a former officer of HMAS Sydney and by T.A. Detmers, the Commander of the Kormoran. The official naval historian also dealt with the matter, albeit briefly. In 1971, Vice-Admiral Collins, the former Captain of the HMAS Sydney, also produced a brief account of the ship and its exploits.

These various offerings served to deal with the matter until the expiration of the 30 year secrecy period on WW II documents.

In 1976, under the terms of the newly-promulgated Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act, the Director of the Western Australian Museum, and ultimately the Department of Maritime Archaeology of the WA Maritime Museum, became responsible on behalf of the Federal Government for all the historic wrecks off the coast of Western Australia. At the time it was believed that HMAS Sydney and its adversary HSK Kormoran were covered under that Act.

The release of wartime documents then saw two books on the incident, the first by Michael Montgomery, son of the English (RN) navigator on board HMAS Sydney. In his work entitled, 'Who Sank the Sydney'? Montgomery forcefully expressed his inability to accept the 'official' version of the battle that led to the loss of his father. He claimed atrocities by the Germans, an involvement by the Japanese, and a cover up by the RAN—leaving many of those who had previously accepted the 'official' account in a quandary. The other book from that period written by Barbara Winter, an Australian born, German speaking, scholar, was entitled 'HMAS Sydney, Fact, Fraud and Fantasy'. It too used newly released wartime documents. Apart from addressing some of the more sensational of Montgomery's claims, it was a strenuous defence of the German sailors and the 'official' position.

The two books, their polemic stances and often vitriolic language, resulted in considerable press and served not to end the pain and the speculation, but to open up old wounds, especially for those who had lost relatives. As a result, debate raged throughout the 1980's, about the merits of each author and about the loss of the two ships. The Perth-based Sydney Research Group (SRG) became a prominent proponent of the 'Montgomery position', for example.

Staff of the Department of Maritime Archaeology of the WA Maritime Museum established bridges with all major parties concerned with a view to keeping abreast of the debate, to give informed and objective opinion and to be in a position to properly manage the wrecks if they were to be found.

The waters in which the engagement was believed to have taken place were considered too deep for actual search and analysis however.

The possibility that HMAS Sydney was attempting to make the coast before it disappeared was considered a reasonable assumption and oil exploration records of the Shark Bay area were searched at the request of Michael Montgomery, leading to the finding of a very promising magnetic anomaly. A combined WA Maritime Museum/RAN team operating from HMAS Moresby analysed the anomaly in October 1981, resulting in the location of a geological formation lying c. 200 metres below the seabed off Kalbarri. A report was compiled and lodged in the public archives (See reading list below).

The location of SS Titanic and the German battleship Bismarck in very deep water just a few years later, posed the obvious question, 'could Sydney be also located' and if so what was the search area? In November 1991, the Maritime Museum organised and convened a Forum on the loss of the Sydney with the intention of answering that question and for the purposes of bringing together the proponents in the HMAS Sydney saga. By then a large number of people had become involved. The Forum was opened by the Naval Officer Commanding Western Australia and many papers were presented. These and the discussions that followed were recorded and collated with copies made for housing in the major archives and institutions involved (See reading list).

With respect to bringing the various proponents together for the purposes of examining the various stances and remaining abreast of issues, the exercise was a success. The notion that Sydney or even Kormoran could be found was, on the other hand, dealt a severe blow when a group of oceanographers bought together by the Maritime Museum and co-ordinated by, then Associate Professor, Kim Kirsner of the University of WA, proved unable to reduce the search area down to anything like the proportions of the two successful deep-water searches. The area was c. 7200 square kilometres, for example. In comparison the area for the successful Bismarck and Titanic was around 500 square kilometres.

The Maritime Archaeology Department thenestablished links with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, finders of the Titanic and Bismarck and with Perth-based remote sensing firms such as Fugro Survey and Aerodata with respect to examining the feasibility of a search of the area defined at the HMAS Sydney Forum, or at least the conducting of a number of exploratory runs through the region. Links were also established with Western Australian oil-field diving companies with (very) deep-water divers and Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs) with a view to facilitate a non-disturbance inspection of the remains of Sydney and/or Kormoran, should either or both be found either by accident or design.

Though a large-scale search for Sydney did not occur, partly as a result of the findings of the 1991 Forum, the WA Maritime Museum continued work in the water both independently and with the assistance of the RAN examining snags, magnetic anomalies, unusual echo sounder traces or other indications of a wreck. Some were most promising, such as a 200 metre long by 10 metre high and 20 metre wide formation off Dirk Hartog Island which was investigated by both the RAN and the WA Maritime Museum in recent years.This proved to be a geological feature. In February 1996, at the request of the WA Maritime Museum and other interest groups, World Geosciences completed an analysis of two promising magnetic anomalies off Port Gregory that had appeared in its oil search data. These also proved to be geological. This work was ongoing as part of the WA Maritime Museum's perceived brief under the terms of the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976. since that time many other groups have become involved, most operating independently of the Museum, the RAN and each other.

Telling the story

Interest also centred on the strength of the Montgomery claims and Winter's rebuttal of them. The question who should account for the loss of the Sydney (given the controversy) was aired at the 1991 Forum and it became clear for the first time, that the RAN did not see itself as the either the responsible, or capable, body with respect to combing archives and compiling information re the loss of its men to the satisfaction of the bereaved. That position was enunciated by the representatives of the navy, notably Dr Tom Frame, then a serving officer in the RAN. He was encouraged by the Seminar participants to pursue his interests in the sag and to produce a book on the subject.

The WA Maritime Museum has since remained abreast of the issues and, given the demands on its time and the nature of its brief re education, it has strongly encouraged scholars and other institutions in pursuing Sydney-related research. A considerable amount of material has been published or compiled as a result. One such work was the analysis of the HMAS Sydney carley float in the Australian War Memorial, others have been analyses by private researchers, such as Wes Olson. These represented a considerable addition to the body of knowledge at the time.

In November 1993, after he left the Navy, Dr Frame's long-awaited book on the loss of HMAS Sydney was published. Entitled 'HMAS Sydney-Loss and Controversy', it was not the result of an exhaustive search of the archives, as the delegates of the Sydney Forum had hoped, however. Though it proved most useful, the book left many questions unanswered. Though the second edition accepted that the Christmas Island Carley float may have come from HMAS Sydney, the first contrasted with the conclusions of Winter on that point, adding further to the confusion, for example.

The late John Ross then produced another book. Entitled 'Lucky Ross', it contained a comprehensive section on life onboard various RAN ships, including HMAS Sydney. Though the career of this important RAN ship is dealt with at some length and a brief analysis of the events surrounding its loss also appears, the book was not aimed at attending to the issues in depth. Nevertheless it was an important work, serving to place HMAS Sydney into a contemporary naval context.

The Sydney Trust was formed in 1995 with the intention of raising public consciousness re the Sydney and possibly locating its remains. The Trust announced its intention to begin a search for HMAS Sydney with a view to ending the speculation that surrounded the loss of the ship.

In essence the problem, even after the publication of many books and numerous other articles, was that an objective and comprehensive examination (or compilation) of all existing material relevant to the HMAS Sydney/HSK Kormoran had not been facilitated until recently (See note on the National Archives guide following).

At the end of the war R.B.M. Long, the Director of Naval Intelligence responded to a request from navy staff in Western Australia to publish an account which had been prepared from their files in the hope that it 'should result in completely setting at rest any rumours or speculation concerning possible survivors from the Sydney'. His reply contained the following comment.


2. ... There has now been accumulated a mass of confirmatory information which leaves no doubt that there are no survivors from HMAS Sydney.

3. There are a number of reasons, however, why the full analysis should not be published, the principle that such an analysis would still not be accepted by some people as being absolute confirmation of the loss of all the "SYDNEY's" complement.

It is intended not to publish anything further concerning this action, and its results, unless the Board is forced by Ministerial pressure to write a Ministerial Statement.


Neither Winter, nor Frame, dealt with these letters at all satisfactorily in their works, and though the documents referred to in the letters may not survive today, there was still a need to search the archives and repositories further in case material survives un-accessioned or incorrectly filed.

Further important new evidence relating to HMAS Sydney was regularly found throughout the 1990s, prompting re-analysis and reassessment by those involved. Much of it was conflictory. Graham McKenzie-Smith's account of the coast watchers in Western Australia indicates that part of a Japanese lifebelt and a box marked HMAS Sydney were found near Jurien Bay in June 1942 for example. According to another researcher Jim Davies, Jurien Bay was used by our allies, the Japanese, in WWI and, as a result, it is expected that it would have been utilised by our enemies, the Japanese, in WWII. To find Japanese materials there is not unexpected and there was no evidence that the two items were connected. Further, in Barbara Winter's later offering 'The Intrigue Master', the story of CMDR Long, wartime Director of Naval Intelligence, there appeared evidence of signals from the Sydney as it entered battle. This claim is based on the 1981 reminiscences of Mr Robert Mason, writer to the CO at the Canberra radio station HMAS Harman in 1941. Mason's material, which indicates that the loss of the ship was known to some officials days before the search took place, became public knowledge in December 1996, soon after he was interviewed by the Maritime Museum. Clearly all this evidence required close scrutiny.

Further, information gleaned by researchers Ms Glenys MacDonald of Geraldton and Mr Ted King of Kalbarri indicated that there was a possibility that Sydney could have been attempting to make the port of Geraldton when it sank. This cross-referenced with earlier reports to the Maritime Museum from Mrs Adeline Cox, now residing in Adelaide, who saw what she thought was a battle from her home in Geraldton on the night Sydney was lost. To further confuse the matter, Mrs Ivy Mallard, then of Carrarang Station in Shark Bay, has reported seeing evidence of a battle in that vicinity.

Adding to these developments, were accounts of an oil slick rising within a few miles of the reported battle position days after the battle surfacing in a re-analysis of the archives by researcher Mr Wes Olson and by one of the aircrew involved in the search, Group Captain, C.A.V. Bourne, RAAF (retd.). Another researcher, Mr Darren Cooper, found an analysis of the potential stability of HMAS Sydney following war-damage. This was located in the Canberra archives. Then in 2000 Mr Olson published an acclaimed technical analysis of the Sydney and its engagement with Kormoran entitled 'Bitter Victory: The death of HMAS Sydney'. This work proved essential reading in that while the mystery was not solved, Olson re-examined the evidence, with telling effect, proved that the Christmas Island Carley float came from HMAS Sydney, and equally-importantly examined cases where ships and men were lost in similar circumstances.

A search for the lost ships

The reformation of the HMAS Sydney Trust as the HMAS Sydney Foundation Trust, after the tragic death of its founder, the late Wayne Sydney Borne, served to raise public perception further and, in providing a vehicle for public and political expressions of interest required to enable a specific-purpose search for the Sydney to take place. Bipartisan expressions of support at the highest political levels have been received by Mr Ed Punchard Chair of the HMAS Sydney Foundation Trust, taking the search for the Sydney into a new phase.

These developments had the WA Maritime Museum's every support, for they represented a real opportunity for the wreck of HMAS Sydney and (as a necessary preliminary) the HSK Kormoran to be found in a specific-purpose search. This phase is separate to the ongoing examination of promising snags, magnetic anomalies, oil-slicks and echo sounder traces, that has characterised the efforts of the Western Australian Maritime Museum and RAN to date. In anticipation of the possible location of the wreck(s), the Museum has sought to put in place a Memorandum Of Understanding with the HMAS Sydney Foundation Trust in order to allow the Foundation Trust a clear path by which to pursue its stated goal, that of finding HMAS Sydney. The Memorandum is also designed to ensure that the wrecks of both ships, if found, are dealt with on behalf of the Australian and German nations in accordance with the terms of the 1976 Historic Shipwreck's Act and in the spirit of existing agreements and understandings held by the various stakeholders and ther Museum, both informal and in writing. To name the most evident, these stakeholders were the Australian and German navies, the HSK Kormoran Survivor's Association, former crew of HMAS Sydney, RSL, relatives of those lost, the National Governments of both countries and their functionaries, including the Australian War Memorial and other Museums, scholars and interested parties.

In the meantime research has been on-going e.g., Messrs Neil Brown and Tim O'Leary (of the University of Melbourne), whose analysis entitled 'A network approach to the definition of a search area for the HMAS Sydney and HSK Kormoran' served to narrow the search area for, Kormoran to a manageable size.

This was but one example of the work being conducted, however. Given that other groups in Australia and overseas (e.g. the Whittaker/Knight team and, the Page/Bye/MacDonald team to name but two) had also indicated their interest in pin pointing the wreck(s) and given that there are numerous other groups conducting and presenting research into the matter, the Maritime Museum was required to steadfastly maintain its independence from all groups while at the same time to provide every assistance to them all. This was primarily to ensure that it could provide entirely objective advice to Government, if requested and such that it can manage the wrecks on behalf of the two nations involved in accordance with its perceived brief under the Historic Shipwrecks Act.

The question of funding sources for the in-water phases of the Sydney project was an interesting issue in itself. Should they be raised by public subscription, or should they be found by the Government in whose service the men and boys were lost? On a philosophical level it was essential for Government to shoulder the burden of responsibility and to make an open and truly objective attempt to locate the site and to satisfactorily explain the circumstances by which those in its service are lost in battle. To fail to do so strikes at the very heart of the notion of service to one's country and to the possibility of making the ultimate sacrifice in times of dire need. In 1997 as major step in that process, Mr Richard Summerrell, Assistant Director, of Australian Archives, Canberra completed an updated analysis of the material held at the Australian Archives and the Australian War Memorial that had been first presented to the public at the 1991 HMAS Sydney Forum. A frank and extensive analysis, entitled 'The Sinking of HMAS Sydney: a guide to Commonwealth records' this was a most important development indeed and it is now in its 3rd edition. The work also contains a 7 page appendix entitled 'Further Reading'.

Further to this process, in 1998/9 the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia convened an Inquiry into the loss of HMAS Sydney under the auspices of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. Many submissions were received and numerous public hearings were held throughout the country and a comprehensive record was promulgated. The findings of the Inquiry entitled 'Report on the Loss of HMAS Sydney' were published in March 1999 and are readily available in print and electronic media. Government had clearly undertaken the task of explanation, albeit belatedly, following the release of the archives in the mid to late 1970s. There are many good reasons for this delay, but the lack of concerted action until the convening of the Parliamentary Inquiry resulted in a form of rumour, innuendo and sometimes malicious supposition that is only now abating 60 years after the event. many of the questions have been answered, but the mystery still remains as fertile ground for those still unwilling to accept that Government has performed its duty in respect of the ship and the lost crew.

In November 2001 in a series of services and 60th anniversary commemorations, a wonderful memorial to the lost men was dedicated at Mt Scott overlooking Geraldton, an avenue of 645 trees, each carrying the names of one of the HMAS Sydney crew was launched at Carnarvon and a plaque commemorating those waiting for the sailors return was unveiled at the War Memorial on Monument hill at Fremante. In November 2001, the RAN conducted a seminar at the Werstern Australian Maritime Museum that was aimed at bringing together the researchers and oceanographers who might be able to assist it in locating its lost ship.

The 2001 Seminar

Go to the Sydney reading list

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©Western Australian Museum 2004