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- December 1979 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Kormoran continued to fire without interruption for two reasons. Firstly there came flashes from the Sydney, which could be discharges from their anti-aircraft guns. Later on, since there were no hits, neither on our ship nor in the water, we recognized that this assumption was incorrect. The flashes were caused by our unceasing hits. Secondly on the one side, every possible help is given to the shipwrecked, but the ship herself, on the other hand, has to be sunk. Only then there is no chance of repair. Exeter for instance reached harbour after the encounter with the Graf Spee and could be repaired. May I in this connection remember the strict order by Winston Churchill: ‘The Bismarck must by all means be sunk‘ – although she was not able to defend herself at the end.
On the burning Kormoran the situation was most disagreeable. How long would it take until the fire reached the explosives and the 400 mines and torpedoes which we could not get rid of. When it became unavoidable to give up the ship, the port torpedo tubes were fired towards the Sydney although meanwhile she was out of range. As Kormoran’s casualties were in view of the circumstances low, it seemed almost impossible to provide enough lifeboats for all survivors, but this vitally important task was solved.
The condition for abandoning a warship depends on her rate of sinking. It is essential that the wreck should not be captured, but in our case it was most likely that the Kormoran would blow up because of her explosives. Captain Detmers and his adjutant undertook the dangerous task of fixing the scuttling charges. Then after the ensign was taken down, the two officers were the last to leave the ship. Kormoran exploded shortly after midnight.
What happened to the Sydney? The distance between her and Kormoran became greater and greater. The ship was burning from bow to stern. Finally she disappeared from sight. A glare of fire was the last sign of her. As you see, we did not observe her sinking. On the contrary we hoped that, since she obviously could not save our shipwrecked crew, moreover she probably was not aware of the necessity, she would call help by wireless for herself and us. Perhaps the wireless had been destroyed already by our first salvo.
When, after being taken prisoner, we knew that Sydney did not reach the coast, we remembered a bright flash. It could have been lightning of a thunderstorm, but most probably it came from the exploding Sydney.
Why were there no survivors of the cruiser? Kormoran’s bombardment certainly caused heavy casualties. By the long-lasting fire, further men and all lifesaving gear may have been destroyed. The final detonation stretched a point.
Who is to blame for the tragedy of the Sydney? Kormoran only caused her sinking. The auxiliary cruiser is not to take responsibility of guilt. It was the war that was guilty. Therefore we have to do everything we can to avoid it.
Finally a word about the actions of Captain Burnett and his ship. We do not know Burnett’s motives. I think he did not suspect that the ship he was pursuing was an auxiliary cruiser. Maybe he thought it was a ship with a very valuable cargo, for instance a blockade runner or a supply ship, and he intended to capture it without wasting one shell. By this he could also have captured secret information, for instance a code, as we did in the course of our operations. This would have been a very great success. And was not Sydney successful indeed? She prevented Kormoran from laying mines on the Australian coast and by this most probably saved ships and men from perishing; furthermore she stopped the raider from threatening any longer Allied merchant ships with all the above mentioned consequences.
There could have been still another reason for coming close to Kormoran: Captain Burnett knew that Canberra’s captain had been criticised by Admiral Leatham for fighting a suspicious ship at too great a distance and by this wasting ammunition. We finally must not forget that the crew of the Sydney fought most bravely in spite of her very severe handicap by our surprising opening fire. They, according to the best British naval tradition, did everything to destroy us and they reached their aim. We had to give up our ship and sink her.