- A.N. Other
- Ship histories and stories, WWII operations, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Sydney II
- September 2015 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By MIDN H. F. Roberts, RAN
In joining the RAN MIDN Hannah Roberts follows her grandfather’s footsteps. She grew up on a eucalypt plantation in Maryborough, Queensland and received her education at an Anglican school before spending a year studying in Italy. Hannah joined the RAN in February 2015 being offered a place on the New Entry Officer Course No 52. She has a keen interest in mathematics and music, playing piano and trombone; she is fluent in Italian and enjoys skiing. She will next join ADFA and hopes to specialise in Marine Engineering and later serve in submarines.
HMAS Sydney II was lost with all hands on 19 November 1941 after a short encounter with German auxiliary cruiser HSK Kormoran. Sydneyhad been tasked with investigating unidentified vessels off the Western Australian coast in protection of Australia’s trading routes when she encountered Kormoran—an armed raider disguised as a merchant cargo vessel. Whilst Kormoran was eventually scuttled, over 300 of her crew and her captain survived and were rescued and later interrogated in Australia.
Understanding exactly what went wrong in the battle is problematic, as there were no Australian survivors to challenge the German prisoners’ accounts. What is indisputable, however, is that Sydney was placed in a position of great danger by her Commanding Officer, Captain Joseph Burnett, before the battle had begun. What remains to be determined, through analysis of Sydney’s tactics during the encounter, is the degree of culpability that should be apportioned to Captain Burnett and the effect of the loss on Royal Australian Navy (RAN) policy.
It is important, however, not to view the action purely through the narrow lens of hindsight. Burnett was a highly regarded captain surrounded by experienced and competent bridge officers. Command at sea is highly complex and challenging, and it is important to give weight to all contributing factors before assigning blame for the disaster.
The Raider Threat
During the course of World War II, German raiders were used to great effect in targeting merchant cargo vessels. In fact, by 1941 they had inflicted considerable damage on Allied shipping, having sunk or captured at least 145 ships amounting to 877,312 tons of cargo. Whilst the purpose of raiders was to sink as much enemy tonnage as possible, their presence in established shipping lanes was also designed to force the Allies to convoy and abandon short, convenient routes. The danger would also frighten off neutral shipping, thereby increasing demands on enemy forces. Raiders were known to operate frequently off Australia and New Zealand laying mines off Newcastle, Sydney and Hobart. One such ship, HSK Kormoran, was one of Germany’s most heavily armed raiders, carrying anti-aircraft guns, six torpedo tubes, and ground and moored mines (Frame 2008).
On 19 November 1941, just off the Western Australian coast, the Leander-class cruiser HMAS Sydney had been returning to Fremantle when she sighted an unidentified ship steaming on a north-easterly course. This ship was the disguised German commerce raider, HSK Kormoran, under the command of Captain Theodor Detmers, which had been patrolling shipping lanes in search of Allied merchant vessels (Australian War Memorial 2009). The ships sighted each other at around 1700, at a distance of about 20 miles. Kormoran immediately recognised Sydney as a warship and turned away into the sun in an effort to avoid identification, increasing her speed to 14 knots. Sydney, closing at 25 knots on Kormoran’s starboard side, began the standard merchant ship recognition procedure, signalling ‘NNJ’, meaning ‘hoist your signal letters’. Kormoranignored these signals until Sydneyhad closed to seven miles, a distance which was within Kormoran’s gunnery range. Reluctant to draw Sydneycloser, Kormoraneventually identified herself as the Dutch ship Straat Malakka by signalling ‘PKQI’. However, these signals were deliberately fumbled by Kormoran’s crew, and Sydney continued closing to five miles. Eventually, those on the bridge of Sydneyhad likely checked their identification books and realised that the ship was not in fact the Straat Malakka, but by this point they were steaming 1000 meters—essentially point blank range—abeam of the Kormoran (Cole 2009).
After failing to return the secret call sign signalled by Sydney, Kormoran, now completely trapped, hoisted the German ensign and opened fire. The first salvos destroyed the bridge and gunnery control tower, causing fires and likely resulting in the death of Captain Burnett. A torpedo struck the forward A turret while Sydney’sport side was hit by at least forty-one 15cm shells. Although Sydney struck back almost simultaneously, disabling Kormoran’sengine room and causing uncontrollable fires, she had lost the element of surprise and, unable to steer, passed astern of the Kormoran, ablaze and taking on water. As Sydney steamed slowly away, the disabled Kormoranwas scuttled by her crew and exploded shortly after midnight. By this time, Sydney had disappeared (Cole 2009).
The encounter was the RAN’s worst ever loss at sea, with no Australian survivors out of 625 on board. After the discovery of the wrecks of both ships on 12 March 2008, the Cole Commission of Inquiry (2009) was able to use forensic analysis to establish what went wrong for Sydney. Firstly, it is likely that around 70 per cent of her crew were either killed or wounded in the opening salvo. Those below decks, who were treating casualties or attempting damage control were probably suffering severe injuries, burns, and smoke and toxic gas inhalation, and were unable to reach the upper decks due to internal shell and fragment damage. Furthermore, the ship was rolling severely, and the lifeboats had all been destroyed during the battle. Finally, the fact that the ship sank suddenly gave those remaining on board negligible chance of survival. While the Commission of Inquiry was able to confirm the sequence of events during the engagement, the tactics employed by Burnett and his officers are less clear.
The loss of Sydney has remained controversial for over 60 years, due largely to the fact that in the account provided by German survivors, Sydney and her captain did not behave in a way expected of an Australian warship. It is clear that closing on an unidentified ship, not at action stations, placed the crew in a position of great vulnerability. However, Burnett was, essentially, following procedure outlined in ‘Tactical Note 9’; this was RAN procedure for challenging merchant ships, wherein a ship must alter course until the physical features of the suspect vessel can be determined. At this point, the captain must decide if, in regards to the vessel’s appearance and known shipping movements in the area, the vessel seems innocent or suspicious. If the vessel was assessed as being innocent, the ship would approach to within signalling distance and was not required to go to action stations. If, on the other hand, the vessel was assessed as being suspicious, the ship should go to action stations, stand off 7-8 miles and demand identification under threat of fire (Cole 2009). It may be assumed that Burnett had erroneously assessed the raider as ‘appearing innocent’ from the outset of the engagement.
Whilst his initial assessment had been incorrect, Burnett continued to direct his crew in such a seemingly naïve manner that further endangered the lives of all on board. In fact, by the time Burnett had realised that the raider was not the Straat Malakka, Sydney had already closed parallel with Kormoran, sacrificing all advantages of surprise, speed and firepower. Sydney was lost because Kormoran was allowed to strike first from point blank range. As a result, the bridge was destroyed in the first salvo, depriving the crew of their captain and command team (Frame 2008). It is impressive that Sydney’s battle-hardened crew continued to fight and ultimately disable Kormorandespite the extensive damage sustained at the outset and lack of leadership throughout. Considering these circumstances, any attempt to explain Burnett’s actions must address why he classed the Kormoranas innocent despite the mounting evidence to the contrary that was before him.
The central question in determining the degree of responsibility held by Burnett relates to his knowledge of German raiders, and if he could have reasonably been expected to have been suspicious of the Kormoran. Firstly, Burnett received regular intelligence reports on raider activity in the Indian Ocean, and had himself contributed to the development of Australia’s strategic response to the raider threat. In a minute paper entitled ‘Policy Against Raiders’, he gave direction on the identification of potential raiders, their capacity to disguise themselves, camouflage armaments and carry torpedos (Hore 2001). From this evidence, it can be concluded that Burnett would have had the possible presence of a raider in mind and was aware of the danger they presented.
Burnett had every reason to suspect a raider and the evidence available does not suggest that his initial assessment of Kormoran was logical. While it may be conceded that visual identification was made difficult for Sydney by the fact that the sun was low on the horizon at the time of the battle, what is more inexplicable is that Burnett did not reassess his initial decision in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. Kormoran’s behaviour was suspicious from the first sighting; Captain Detmers turned immediately into the sun, increased his speed and ignored Sydney’s signals for over an hour. This was not rational behaviour from a merchant vessel that should have been expecting to encounter RAN ships so close to a major port. In fact, in continuing his chase, Burnett disregarded the only empirical evidence available to him; at the time, the RAN maintained ‘Vessels in Area Indicated’ (VAI) plots, which were constantly updating expected vessels in a given area and their identifying features (Frame 2008). Whilst they occasionally contained some inaccuracies, at the time of the engagement no ships were expected in the shipping lane, which should have aroused suspicion.
Captain Burnett’s previous experiences with raider warfare may have affected his judgement during the battle. Firstly, approximately five months before this engagement, Burnett had encountered a similar situation with an unidentified merchant ship, had gone to action stations but eventually found the suspect vessel to be a friendly ship, where the problem had been a miscommunication in which the merchant captain had not understood Sydney’s challenge procedure. Furthermore, in the minute ‘Policy Against Raiders’, Burnett himself had written that raiders were unexpected so close to port and within a shipping lane, and he was also aware that there were only seven raiders operating worldwide at the time (Hore 2001). It is just possible that, after following ‘Tactical Note 9’ procedure, he had simply been tempted to close to satisfactory visual range after such a long period of frustration during the chase. In conclusion, Captain Burnett’s initial assessment and subsequent actions were, at best, careless and overly confident. It is extraordinary that not one officer on Sydney’s bridge realised that they were being drawn dangerously close to a potential enemy.
Effect on the Royal Australian Navy
The scale of the Sydney disaster prompted a revision to Allied raider warfare policy and an acknowledgement that the standing procedures for dealing with raiders needed urgent revision. While Captain Burnett made several grave errors in judgement, the fact remains that he was following a vague protocol that made communication between Navy and merchant ships very difficult. ‘Tactical Note 9’ required Sydneyto make an initial assessment based on visual identification. However, while Naval ships signalled by lamps that were able to be read at a distance, merchant vessels signalled by flag, so the ship was obliged to venture much closer than was safe. This problem was compounded by the fact that many merchant captains were not familiar with the recognition procedure, and so a failure to respond correctly was not necessarily indicative of an enemy vessel. Consequently, a captain was left with the choice of either closing to within a dangerous distance simply to confirm the identity of an unknown vessel, or potentially firing upon a friendly ship (Cole 2009).
Prior to Sydney, this danger had not been fully appreciated by Naval authorities. However, the Sydney disaster forced the Naval Board to re-examine the threat of German auxiliary cruisers and re-define their strategy. After investigation of the incident, the Admiralty released a signal for captains not to underestimate the offensive power of raiders. Furthermore, within six weeks of Sydney’s loss, there had been an acknowledgement of the apparent deficiencies to ‘Tactical Note 9’. The communication issue between ships was overcome by mandating the use of signal lamps in all merchant vessels, allowing warships to stand off whilst conducting the recognition procedure. Any ship that could not reply correctly was ordered to heave-to under threat of fire (Hore 2001). If this system had been in place earlier, Sydneymight not have been lost.
After consideration of the circumstances surrounding the engagement, it is clear that Captain Burnett did not adequately assess the risks involved in engaging the Kormoran. He made an error in judgement in a situation where the lines of communication had already broken down, making his ship vulnerable and ultimately costing the lives of his entire crew. Burnett’s reluctance to reassess the situation as mounting evidence suggested Sydneywas being drawn into danger is inexplicable, especially considering his knowledge and previous experience of the raider threat. Sydney conceded all advantages of speed, gunnery and surprise by allowing Kormoran to strike first, which resulted in the loss of Sydney’s command team at the very beginning of the battle. Therefore, whether Burnett was simply deceived by the Kormoran’s disguises or recklessly underestimated her power, with the benefit of hindsight it is clear that a poor tactical decision was made. However, the fact that no other ship was lost in the same way as HMAS Sydney indicates that the RAN learned valuable lessons from the tragedy. Despite the massive loss of life sustained, Captain Burnett and HMAS Sydneyultimately fulfilled their duty in removing the threat of HSK Kormoran from Australia’s trade routes.
Australian Broadcasting Commission, The Hunt for HMAS Sydney, viewed 20 March 2015, http://www.abc.net.au/tv/hmassydney/images/content/battle_map.gif
Australian War Memorial , Sydney-Kormoran action; The action between HMAS Sydney and the auxiliary cruiser Kormoran, 19 November 1941,viewed 26 March 2015, https://www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/hmas_sydney/action/
Cole, T., The loss of HMAS SYDNEY II Vol. 1-3, Canberra: Commonwealth Defence Force Commission of Inquiry, 2009.
Frame, T., HMAS Sydney; Australia’s greatest Naval Tragedy, Sydney: Hachette, 2008.
Hore, Captain P., HMAS Sydney (II)- The Cruiser and the Controversy in the archives of the United Kingdom, Canberra: RAN Sea Power Centre, 2001.