Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Sydney vs. Kormoran

with 14 comments


The wrecks of the HMAS Sydney and HK Kormoran were just found off the west coast of Australia. They were lost on November 18th 1941. To be more accurate, they sank each other in battle on that day during World War Two. It’s an interesting story in a macabre sort of way, and a mystery and a lesson to boot. War story, mystery, lessons…Doug’s Darkworld fodder for sure!

First, the Sydney. This ship was the pride of Australia’s navy in World War Two. It was a light cruiser, a large heavily armed and armoured warship. While not a battleship, it was still a major warship. And a heroic one at that, the Sydney sank several Italian warships during the previous summer, including the light cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni. Then it was called home to defend Australian waters, and while on patrol it discovered a suspicious ship in the late afternoon and investigated it. And the Australians were right to be suspicious, the ship they were investigating was a German commerce raider, a small heavily armed freighter disguised as a merchant ship. The Kormoran would slink around the world’s oceans and catch Allied merchant ships by surprise and sink or capture them. During nearly a year at sea the Kormoran had sunk ten Allied merchant ships and captured one.


Still, the Kormoran was an unarmoured freighter. Any fight between the two should have been no contest. The Sydney was a warship, heavily armoured, and had accurate long range guns. The Kormoran was well armed for fighting against merchant ships, but simply put, it wasn’t really a warship. Once the Sydney figured out that the Kormoran was a German merchant raider, she could have stood of at some distance and blown the Kormoran out of the water. And despite trickery, the Kormoran didn’t know the proper codes to identify itself, so the Sydney should have been able to figure it out fairly quickly.

However, for some unknown reason, while the Kormoran’s captain was stalling wildly on the radio, the Sydney approached to within less than 1500 metres of the Kormoran. The Germans couldn’t believe their luck, 1500 metres is point blank range in modern naval warfare, and the Kormoran was heavily armed for fighting at that distance. In fact by some accounts the Sydney didn’t even have its guns trained on the Kormoran as it approached! Without warning the Kormoran opened fire with everything it had, in moments the Sydney had been raked with cannon fire, destroying its bridge, most of its weapons, and starting several large fires. The Sydney turned and fled, though it got off a few shots that did mortal damage to the Kormoran and it started to burn and sink as well.

The Germans continued to fire at the burning Sydney as it fled, and watched several explosions in the distance during the night as they sat in their life rafts. Over the next few days they either made it to Australia or were picked up at sea, in either case they were taken as prisoners of war. As for the Sydney, it was 48 hours before the Australian navy even realized something had happened to it. A huge search was organized, and nothing but a few pieces of flotsam were found. The Sydney, and it’s entire crew of 645 men, was gone.


The loss of the Sydney with its entire crew was the worst loss in Australian maritime history, and it was the largest ship lost with its entire crew during the war. Australians couldn’t understand how a warship like the Sydney could have been sunk by an unarmoured freighter. Ever since that day it’s been a mystery, and a source of wild speculation. Why did the Sydney approach so close to the Kormoran? How could it have been lost with its entire crew? Some speculated that a Japanese submarine torpedoed the Sydney. Some speculated that the Kormoran had machine gunned the Sydney’s crew while they were abandoning ship or while they were in their lifeboats. I mean, there had to be some explanation, didn’t there?

Obviously there was an investigation. Numerous ones over the years. The Kormoran’s crew had been captured, separated, and interrogated at length. They all told pretty much the same story, and while some still maintain the Germans must have been lying, most people agree that they simply didn’t have the time to make up and memorize an elaborate lie down to the smallest detail. Every investigation into the sinking concluded that the Germans were indeed telling the truth. And the Japanese submarine idea was never credible, Japan wasn’t at war yet, why would they take such a risk? Sadly it is entirely possible that at point blank range the Kormoran could have destroyed the Sydney just as the German’s claimed.

Why did the Sydney get so close is the true enduring mystery.  Captain Joseph Barnett was new to the Sydney and it was the first ship he had commanded, and it’s a safe bet that overconfidence and poor judgement played a part. It was late in the day, maybe Barnett wanted to be sure of his target and was getting close for a good visual inspection. (In fact that’s why the Kormoran opened fire when it did, any closer and the crew of the Sydney would see all the naval mines stored on the Kormoran’s deck and the ruse would be over.) It’s also possible that Barnett didn’t want to waste ammunition when he opened fire, another captain had been censured recently for using up almost his entire supply of ammo sinking a German commerce raider from a safe distance.

We’ll never know what was going on in his mind. However, with the finding of the wrecks at least some questions will be answered. Experts will be able to assess what did sink the Sydney, and the wreckage will be carefully compared to the German account of the battle. And why the Sydney sank with all hands instead of abandoning ship might also be revealed.

An interesting and new story to me, though it’s always been a big story in Australia. Other than the mystery of it all, there is one major point it illustrates. The side with the biggest and best weapons doesn’t always win the fight. If one was betting on a fight between the Kormoran and the Sydney, I doubt there would have been anyone betting on the Kormoran. In war, upset victories do happen, there are no guarantees.

Something Americans should think about the next time our leaders propose a war that we “can’t lose.”

August 13 2009 update, the report is in, the mystery has been solved: WWII Mystery Ends. It’s pretty much what most expected, the bridge crew was almost certainly killed in the first salvo, the Sydney stood little chance after that. God rest their souls.

(The above images are all public domain under Australian and German copyright law as far as I can determine. Click on the image of the crew to see the full size version of the picture. 645 men killed in the middle of nowhere by other men who had sailed halfway around the world in an armed merchant ship, war sure seems absurd sometimes, doesn’t it? God rest their souls, and the 60 men of the Kormoran who died that day as well. Oh, and the German survivors don’t think there is any mystery. They think the Australian captain was criminally stupid.)


Written by unitedcats

March 20, 2008 at 8:46 am

Posted in History, War

14 Responses

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  1. I saw a report that raised the question that the German ship had torpedo tubes under it’s water line. A very intriguing story.As always it seems. Good post and classy disclosure statement /round up.


    March 20, 2008 at 9:11 am

  2. Great post as allways. Thank you Doug for bringing these intresting storys to us everyday.


    March 21, 2008 at 2:52 pm

  3. I’ll be sharing this fascinating story with my students when break is over. Thanks for that wonderful and sad tale. The picture of the crew sends chills down my spine.

    Tim D

    March 22, 2008 at 9:33 am

  4. Doug, It has been a pleasure to peruse your webpage. The story of the Australian man-of-war and its demise, illustrates the difference between a war fought on paper, and a war fought in person. Mark

    Mark A. Wetzel

    April 5, 2008 at 11:15 am

  5. Good work Doug! But the Kormoran did not open fire “without warning”. Captain Detmers complied with the law and hoisted his German battle ensign as his hidden guns were uncovered. In a fight against a superior warship in Australian waters he would not have dared otherwise, even if he were not the chivalrous gentleman his former prisoners all claimed he was. This happend at a point when Kormoran’s disguise could no longer be maintained: The Sydney had FINALLY asked (by aldis lamp, never radio) for the suspicious freighter to hoist the secret flag code of the ship (the Dutch S.S. Straat Malaka) it pretended to be. The Germans could not know what this code was, so the jig was up. Read Capt. Detmer’s book about Kormoran’s cruise. There’s no mystery. Tragedy, but no mystery.

    Don Clark. Halifax, NS

    April 23, 2008 at 4:41 pm

  6. Regarding the Kormoran’s torpedo tubes “under the water line”. So? The Australian press and “intothefray” seem to think this is significant. It’s not.

    Don Clark. Halifax, NS

    April 23, 2008 at 4:49 pm

  7. I stand corrected in both the “without warning” and “mystery” aspects. With the codicil that in the interest of telling a story succinctly and clearly and within the limited time I have to write a post such as this, I do sometimes nuance things wrong or give an impression I didn’t mean to give. This story will be a chapter in the book I am writing, and I will clarify both these issues in same. As far as the torpedo tubes go, yes, I deliberately didn’t mention them because I agree, they did not seem to be crucial to the story and they were ommitted for the sake of brevity. They will be covered in the book and as always, many thanks for the thoughtful and helpful comments. —Doug


    April 24, 2008 at 12:29 pm

  8. @ Don Clark…My feeling was that the torpedoes could explain the ability to sink the Sydney that’s all.


    April 24, 2008 at 12:47 pm

  9. It will be interesting to see what they discover when they examine the wreck, assuming it is in good enough shape to draw conclusions from. My theory is that the bridge being raked with 20mm cannon fire is what did the trick: With the bridge crew dead or incapacitated there was no way to coordinate damage control activities or order “abandon ship,” so that the remaining crew continued to bravely try to fight the fires and save the ship, not realizing it was hopeless. Eventually one or more magazines exploded and that was that.


    April 24, 2008 at 1:33 pm

  10. The secret to any mystery is that it is usually wrapped up in another. As part of an alliance of nations, clues to Australia’s history are wrapped up in the histories of those other nations. America’s history in the Pacific Theatre includes the lion’s share of those clues. That is why these histories are classified and concealed for generations. If we learned the truths, as painful as they are, we would no longer be subject to the manipulations of those who conceal. In the case of the Sydney, I had the fortune to read Michael Montgomery’s book Who Sank the Sydney. The rendezvous with the Japanese submarine seems the most plausible. I find it very difficult to believe that Kormoran could overpower Sydney in a surface action. Any naval vessel approaching a suspect vessel would have been by regulation at action stations. To think Kormoran could shoot it out with her is an insult to Australia’s stellar naval heritage. In his book he mentions Japanese ration cans being found in one of the German lifeboats. That can’t be explained away. The carley float was found riddled with machine gun bullets from close range. The position of the wrecks prove the Germans lied about Sydney drifting off on fire. Even though I’m a Canadian, I’ll be damned if I’d take the word of a murderous Nazi and impugn the reputation of a fine Australian captain. On the other side of the world a German ship would have to rendezvous with a friendly nation’s navy. Only Japan would have the resources for such a meeting in hostile waters. Now we need to look to America’s declassified material printed in Day of Deceit. Pearl Harbour was planned to happen by the intelligence services. A memo from The Secretary of War even ordered American forces to not fire on the approaching Japanese. So how does that affect the Sydney? If it was revealed a Japanese sub torpedoed her, hostilities would have started Nov. 19th 1941 not Dec. 7th. Further required reading is The Great Pacific War by a British WWI intelligence officer named Hector C. Bywater. He outlined the whole Pacific War in the 1920’s. He was Jane’s expert in naval affairs and a syndicated correspondent. These matters were debated in the Baltimore press with Undersecretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1929. Japan’s Naval Attache at their Washington Embassy bought the book and had it translated into Japanese for use as a text at the Imperial War College. He was Isoruku Yamamoto. Both Bywater and his colleague died worlds apart on the same day. One in an air raid in Britain and the other fell to his death from the Tokyo police headquarters. Wars are generally orchestrated as the greatest frauds perpetrated on mankind. That is the great secret the governments keep from their people. The Pearl Harbour operation was a brutal trick. Many are enraged, but the author served in the Great Pacific War. He accepted it as necessary. I agree with him. A terrible menace was sweeping the world. Its only hope was America. With its isolationist policy, the fascists would have saved them for last. Then it might have been too late. To turn public opinion around instantly the unprovoked attack is the most successful ploy. We are emotional creatures. No power on earth could have stopped the sleeping giant aroused. What happened to Syndey was concealed for the greater good. The time has passed. 645 fine sailors walked into an unexpected ambush. I believe they were murdered by fascist thugs. They did their duty. Now it’s our turn. “All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.””All great truths begin as blasphemies.” George Bernard Shaw.

    George French

    September 1, 2008 at 9:00 am

    • I generally agree. If you look at the gallery of photographs of the Sydney on the sea floor at you will see two lifeboats close together on the sea floor, 2.5 kilometers down. It defies logic to suggest that these boats had not been launched and roped together before they were sunk. There was obviously a concealement massacre. If the boats were just debris from the sinking ship, they would be resting miles apart.


      November 27, 2011 at 6:39 am

  11. […] Tube Crash Deconstructed , The Sun Became Dark, its Darkness Lasted for Eighteen Months, and Sydney vs. Kormoran. A number of Doug’s Darkworld posts are available in a more organized fashion on the Doug’s […]

  12. […] TRUE. Shocking at the time, shocking still. I’ve written about this disaster. […]

  13. […] TRUE. Shocking at the time, shocking still. I’ve written about this disaster. […]

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