Last updated: January 24, 2012

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Withering bombardment doomed HMAS Sydney

FIRES and blocked escape routes caused by an enemy bombardment probably trapped 70 per cent of HMAS Sydney's crew as the doomed warship sank.

A computer reconstruction shown yesterday to a military inquiry into Sydney's sinking with the loss of all 645 hands revealed the German raider Kormoran peppered the light cruiser with a sustained close-range barrage of gunfire as a torpedo streaked towards the Australian warship.

Both ships sank as a result of the battle on November 19, 1941, but all bar 81 of the Kormoran's 393 crew survived.

The computer reconstruction was put together by the Defence Science and Technology Organisation by combining observations from the wreck site and evidence from Kormoran survivors.

It is supported by photographs of the wreckage showing the effects of the sustained bombardment, estimated to have involved at least four tonnes of munitions.

It shows the Sydney's port side being sprayed with shells of different calibres as a torpedo slams into its side.

The Australian warship turns and is peppered by gunfire on the starboard side before it lists sharply, billowing black smoke.

"HMAS Sydney was severely damaged," Commodore Jack Rush told the inquiry in Sydney.

"She had a large number of casualties, several major fires and many small fires burned out of control, smoke filled the lower decks and obscured the upper deck, her bow was flooding, and much of the ship was without electrical power."

Commodore Rush said the ship probably rolled to an angle from which she could not recover, and would have sunk rapidly.

He estimated that at least 70 per cent of the ship's crew would have been trapped by fires and the blocking of escape passages by gunfire.

Any survivors who made it into the water would most likely have been affected by injuries -- shock, burns and possibly the effects of smoke or toxic fumes.

All boats and floats would have been rendered useless for lifesaving, and the limited support and buoyancy of life belts meant survivors most likely drowned.

"The battle between HMAS Sydney and HSK Kormoran was unique as a sea battle in that HMAS Sydney was not only hit by a torpedo but also pounded by accurate and sustained gunfire from close range for an extended period of time," Commodore Rush told the inquiry.

The discovery of wreckage of the two ships off Shark Bay, Western Australia, last March sparked theories that included a suggestion the Kormoran was working with a Japanese submarine that fired the torpedo.

The discovery ended years of mystery about the resting place of the Sydney and came after searchers found the Kormoran in 2560m of water, 112 nautical miles off Shark Bay.

The Sydney was located 12 nautical miles from the German raider under 2470m of water.

Additional reporting: AAP

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