By Commodore Ivan Ingham AM RAN
The following commemorative speech was delivered by Commodore Ingham at the HMAS Sydney (II) memorial in Geraldton, Western Australia on Friday 19 November 2021. The eightieth anniversary of the loss of HMAS Sydney.
After the mighty tempest of the day, fire raged into the night, until there was darkness – and nothing but the waves and the wind.
Two ships had met, together they fought and then both were lost below the surface of the sea.
Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentleman, on behalf of Vice Admiral Michael Noonan – Chief of Navy, I am extremely privileged to join you gathered here today – and to the others connected by live stream – together we mark and honour this very special 80th Anniversary service commemorating the loss of Australia’s Flagship, the Light Cruiser HMAS SYDNEY II.
From a personal perspective, having spent over eight years – serving in four different warships all based here in WA – I feel strongly connected to this place and the region. Many times I’ve passed up and down the coast here – marvelling at its great wonder & beauty – as well as braving some of the worst weather and the extreme forces of nature – for which this part of the Indian Ocean is well-known.
Those journeys took me and my shipmates through the same waters and in close proximity to where Sydney and the German Auxiliary Raider – the Komoran – clashed on that fateful night – 80 years ago today.
Together, as we remember Sydney’s tragic loss – the greatest single loss of life suffered by the Royal Australian Navy – we honour the entire Ships Company – all of them lost – 645 lives – a Ships Company that included 6x Royal Australian Air Force personnel, 9x Royal Navy members from the UK and 4x civilian canteen staff. It is also fitting that we should acknowledge the 81 German lives lost that same night.
The sudden and unexplained loss of Australia’s famous Flagship rocked our Navy and shook the Nation.
The circumstances of the loss – with so many unknowns and unknowables – would prevail for nearly 70 years. This was an unthinkable and catastrophic tragedy of a scale unimaginable – it was to cause decades of pain and anguish for grieving families across Australia.
Why had no signals been received?
What had happened?
And, ultimately, where was Sydney’s final resting place?
The discovery of the wreck site, located and confirmed in 2008 provided many clues and answers.
We now know why no messages were sent – we know why and how she was lost – and importantly, we now know exactly where Sydney lies.
Many books and articles have been written about what occurred on that fateful night. Reconstructions from historical accounts, survivor’s records and the extensive research from the findings of the official inquiry – published in 2009 – have been widely reviewed and discussed.
It was late on the afternoon of the 19th when HMAS Sydney went to investigate and verify a vessel falsely identifying itself as the ‘Dutch merchantman – the Straat Malakka’.
After being challenged at close quarters – and when it became evident that the German’s true identity was about to be discovered, the Raider struck her Dutch colours and hoisted the German Naval Ensign. Having seized upon the element of surprise at close range, the Kormoran then opened fire on Sydney. The time was now approximately 5.30pm.
According to her German survivors, the Kormoran concentrated her fire upon Sydney’s Bridge, her Guns, the Torpedo Tubes and the Cruiser’s Anti-Aircraft Batteries.
When Sydney returned fire, she was then also hit by a torpedo.
With her bow low in the water, Sydney appeared to turn sharply towards Kormoran. As though attempting a ramming manoeuvre – Sydney passed closely astern the German Raider.
Exchanging mortal blows, these two ships continued to engage each other for another 30 minutes whilst both limped slowly clear.
In that exchange, the German’s claimed to have fired approximately 450 rounds from their main guns – and many hundreds more from Kormoran’s anti-aircraft batteries.
In the gathering gloom, the German’s lost sight of Sydney as she moved slowly South West towards the horizon. By 10pm she had faded into a distant speck. Sailors from Kormoran continued to observe occasional flickerings until about midnight when all trace of Sydney was finally lost.
Detailed imagery from the wreck site reveals the full extent of Sydney’s damage.
We can see that many scores of salvos penetrated and detonated inside our lightly-armoured Cruiser.
The torpedo that struck Sydney between her forward Gun turrets – knocked out 4 six-inch guns – and halved Sydney’s lethal firepower.
In spite of the terrible damage inflicted, the imagery shows that the gunners in Sydney’s After Turret had managed to manually operate their gun and return fire at Kormoran – in local control.
In doing this, these valiant young sailors, firing at close range over their open sights, had turned a looming tactical defeat and a devastating loss for Navy – into a bitter operational victory for Australia.
Those Sydney gunners had literally ‘stook to their guns’ – with their ship ablaze – they ensured that Kormoran was also similarly stricken.
Meanwhile, other members of the Ships Company were caught up in another fight.
The stokers were fighting an unwinnable battle to keep their ship moving and afloat – but they did so – impossibly and heroically – for over four very long hours.
There would have been chaos and fear throughout the ship.
The dead, the injured, trapped compartments, blasts, shock, searing flame, burning heat, choking smoke and the constant rush of freezing flooding seawater – many of the Sailors would have been terribly injured – some blinded, most deafened, some both – few of them, if any, would have had a clear picture of what exactly had happened or what was actually occurring
– for those that were still alive – were in a sinking ship without light and power. But believe me – every one of those Sailors would have been doing everything they could to save each other, save themselves and ultimately, save their ship.
Analysis of the wreck shows that the torpedo hit had dealt Sydney the final blow. Fatally damaged forward – a few hours later – the weakened bow finally separated from Sydney’s hull.
Carrying both the living and the dead, Sydney plunged into the deep.
We can only begin to wonder at the courage and heroism of those in Sydney who endured such onslaught and devastation.
But what is absolutely clear now – is that HMAS Sydney II went down fighting to the end !
It is sad then – that Sydney’s crew would never know that their actions that night would end the Kormoran’s path of destruction across two oceans.
This mattered greatly in 1941.
Meanwhile, Australia and our Allies were shocked by news of Sydney’s disappearance. It defied belief and explanation.
Sydney was the pride of our Navy – the epitome of a glorious fighting warship.
In late 1940 Sydney returned victorious from the Mediterranean Campaign. Playing key parts in the Battles of Calabria and Cape Spada, Sydney became famous globally after engaging and defeating the Italian fast Cruiser Bartolomeo Colleone on the 19th of July off Crete.
What is less well-known is that in chasing down and sinking the enemy cruiser Colleone – Sydney rescued three British destroyers – and saved their Royal Navy crews from an almost-certain death.
Last week Mr Barry Thompson – the Nephew of HMAS Sydney II Shipmate Cyril James Nugent – contacted me.
Barry told me that his Uncle Cyril – who served in Sydney in the Mediterranean Campaign – had compiled a fascinatingly personal account of the ships combat and its wartime exploits through diary entries and photographs.
Cyril left his Diary and Photograph Album with his mother and father prior to his SYDNEY’s voyage.
Very generously, the Thompson family are now in the process of gifting these precious artefacts to the WA Museum.
Having had the great privilege to review digital copies of these documents, I would now like to share the following with you –
Firstly, I will read to you a short excerpt from an email sent by Cyril’s Nephew Mr Barry Thompson – and I quote “Cyril James Nugent wrote a personal diary and took photographs of significant events that show the self-confidence, conviction, integrity, leadership, compassion, objectivity, strength in adversity, fear and mateship held by the Officers & Crew of HMAS Sydney II – but also, their respect for the enemy.
I will now read the entry Cyril made on the 19th July 1940 –
We have just received word from one of our Destroyers that they are being attacked by 2 Italian Cruisers and we are racing to their aid. We are at Action Stations – and again our guns are looming death and defiance to the enemy.
One Cruiser is on fire – the effective or extreme range of our guns is 20,000 yards – but we sank the Italian Cruiser at 21,000 yards.
That’s Aussie Gunnery for you!
We are still chasing the other Italian Cruiser – but she gets away so we return to the scene of our battle. A Destroyer is picking up the crew of the Italian Cruiser – her name is the “BARTOLOMEO COLLEONI” – 500 survivors are picked up – More bombing raids and the destroyer picking up the Italians is hit – but she makes port OK!”
This is the image of HMAS Sydney II we should keep in our minds. We can picture this fine ship in 1940 steaming into battle – ensigns flying, the first to fire her guns and engage the enemy.
HMAS Sydney has one of proudest legacies in the Royal Australian Navy. Each successive ship cherishes and adds to the memories of their predecessor.
Today, the Commanding Officer of HMAS SYDNEY V, Commander Andrew Hough sends the following message –
I quote “In this very special 80th Anniversary year for HMAS SYDNEY, it is with mixed emotions that I pass this message to all those present.
I have great pride in the being the current custodian of the SYDNEY Legacy as the current CO of HMAS Sydney – so I regret that I and my Ships Company are unable to be present in person at these memorial events closest to where the fallen lie.
We will be marking the occasion with services in Sydney and Canberra. My best wishes to those that attend and for all those with linkages to the Sydney name – whether through direct service or through the service of their ancestors.
I thank Commander McCracken and his Sailors from HMAS STALWART for laying our wreath.
As we pause coast to coast and remember the service and sacrifice of HMAS SYDNEY II, please be assured that we who are currently serving in SYDNEY V will continue the legacy of the Sydney name ensuring that we are THOROUGH and READY in everything we do in DDG-42.
As the light begins to fade on this peaceful memorial – we salute HMAS Sydney II for her great service and we mourn her terrible loss – we remember and honour her people – the 645 lives – including the previous Unknown Sailor – Able Seaman Thomas Welsby Clark. We honour and thank their countless families – and the many thousands connected to these 645 souls.
These acknowledgements are made on behalf of all of us gathered here today – and on behalf of many others from the wider HMAS SYDNEY family & community – especially those who serve in HMAS SYDNEY V today – and those who have served in her predecessors – and all of those who feel so connected.
Lest we forget.