In Memoriam

The Dying Moments of HMAS Sydney

The identity of the HMAS Sydney crew member now revealed, whose body was recovered in World War II and buried at Christmas Island, focuses attention once again on the final fight of this gallant warship. The loss of her 645 ship’s company members – more than this nation lost in the Vietnam War – was a terrible blow to the country. But how did such ships fight, and where does the only recovered Sydney man, Able Seaman Thomas Welsby Clark, aged 21, fit into the puzzle?

Ships of the time fought mostly with guns, depth charges, and torpedoes. The first ranged in size from the monsters battleships carried, that hurled shells the weight of a small car and the size of a motorbike, to close-quarter weapons such as machineguns and quick-firing larger calibre guns.

The big guns fired shells designed to punch through the hull and superstructure of enemy vessels, bursting inside the ship, destroying its equipment and, of course, its people. Depth charges – barrels packed with explosives, in simple terms, were dropped or thrown over the side to attack submarines. ASDIC – sound location systems, what the US navy called sonar – was used to locate the enemy. Able Seaman Clark, who joined the Navy in August 1940, had qualified in submarine detection, and likely served in action on the ASDIC repeaters, near the forward ‘A’ gun turret.

Torpedoes – often thought the province of submarines – exploded either on contact or via a proximity fuse. The warheads were large: often over 100kg in size. The explosion caused was massive: if a torpedo caught a ship the size of Sydney amidships it could be enough the break it in two.

In basic terms that was what Sydney and her opponent – the German surface raider Kormoran – were armed with. The cruiser had additional advantages however. She carried an aircraft. In WWII such machines could be used for sighting the enemy; reporting its type and location, perhaps attacking with bombs or torpedoes, and reporting via radio on how accurate and effective was its mother ship’s gunnery.

Sydney’s further advantage, however, was enormous: she outranged the enemy, so her guns could strike st s further distance than its adversary. Carefully manoeuvred therefore, Sydney could keep outside the circle Kormoran could fire into, and remain unharmed. The Australian vessel was furthermore a dedicated warship, rather than a converted merchantman like the Kormoran. The Australian warship was specifically configured to be a machine of seaborne destruction, her armour protection and weaponry designed in a complementary fashion to see her fight and win. Simply put, she should have won this battle with ease.

It seems the German survivors’ accounts are accurate. Sydney closed to investigate her possible target, which was disguised as the Dutch vessel Straat Malakka – a legitimate ruse under the rules of war to which both Germany and the British Empire subscribed. Sydney came so close that individual ship’s company members could be distinguished, whereas if she had been suspicious and ready to fight she would have remained outside the range of the Kormoran’s guns, many kilometres distant in other words. The ships were soon sailing almost alongside each other.

Captain of the Kormoran (above) Detmers wrote later that his disguise was only of limited use. He determined to fight with the advantage of surprise he had obtained.  The Dutch flag was struck; German colours hoisted; the screens disguising the superstructure were dropped; and a well-prepared initial salvo fired – to devastating effect – hitting Sydney very effectively around the bridge and forward guns. Both ships began to fire their main gunnery at each other, along with myriads of smaller weapons such as machineguns, which due to the close range could now be used.

According to Kormoran’s gunnery officer, Lieutenant Fritz Skeries, over the course of the next 55 minutes, Kormoran fired 450 rounds from her main armament of 5.9-inch guns, and several hundred from her anti-aircraft batteries. Both ships fired torpedoes: the German claiming a hit, while the Australian’s missed. Skeries commented in the final stages of battle the Sydney was being constantly hit by the raider’s gunfire. Soon the cruiser, crippled, limped off to the south-east, on fire, with a flickering glow showing her presence until around midnight, some eight hours after the action had begun.

Where was Clark, the sole sailor recovered from the Sydney during all this? Each man had his action station. It is likely, seeing as he ended up in a Carley float carried on that deck, that his was somewhere near the weather deck. The ASDIC’s use was negated in surface combat, both from the ship’s engine noise and the guns firing. He would likely have had additional duties, perhaps as a messenger, or assisting with the guns ot torpedoes, or as a damage-control rating. But he was in a vulnerable area: the rapid and massive fire from the Kormoran would have inflicted considerable gunshot wounds and death on anyone caught by it. There was little to protect the upper-deck sailors except the superstructure and the very equipment they were operating. Clark may have been hit early – we will never know.

Inside the Sydney – “down below” – the ship’s company were “fighting their ship” that is, working its machinery so that it manoeuvred and fired its armament according to the orders of the commanders. As the officers fell their authority delegated to the next in line of seniority – not that this was formally done, but every man would have known his station and how to do his task and, indeed, that of others around him. As the ship took hits their task widened to include damage control. Warships are divided  into watertight compartments, closed up during action, but these would have been penetrated by enemy strikes. If the sea came in it had to be stopped. If fires started they had to be contained and extinguished. If flooding happened it had to be coped with – all of these tasks were what the Sydney men likely met most capably. After all, they were some of most skilled sailors in the fleet, many of whom ­­– Clark was only joining the RAN around then – had fought and sunk the Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni the previous year in the Mediterranean.

The battle ended and Kormoran’s people took to their boats, but not without significant loss of life from their sinking ship, and not before setting explosives to detonate once they were clear. Over the next days they were captured at sea or on the WA coast. Their stories were tallied, but suspicion was immediate. The Australian ship should have won the battle, yet she was lost with all hands. Over the decades that followed, stories circulated and grew. Had the Kormoran committed war crimes by firing under false flags, then despatching any surviving witnesses? Others were foolish and fanciful: Were Japanese forces involved, weeks before their strike on Pearl Harbor?

Clark, the Carley float sailor, ended up recovered near Christmas Island, but his body indicated he was long dead. As the Sydney began to inevitably sink, her ship’s company would have kept fighting to the end, trying to save their vessel. Looking at the wreck, it seems likely a sudden collapse of the bow sections took her on a quick plunge to the seabed, thousands of metres below. Those below decks were trapped, and we can only hope their ending was quick. But those on the weather deck would have been washed into the sea, there to cling to any lifesaving equipment that came to the surface with them. The Carley float that was recovered with our sailor was battle-scarred, and so inevitably would have been everything else – the final fight was at close quarters, and the gunfire exchanged would have been massive, penetrating everything. It was pure chance the Carley float stayed on the surface so long as it did.

In the end the identification of this survivor tells us little more. Able Seaman Clark, newly joined, was a qualified anti-submarine sailor, but he likely had an additional action station billet for a surface action. Whatever his duties, he would have been a hard-pressed young man as he, like his comrades fought to both “fight the ship” and save it at the same time. His last hours were spent serving his country well.

Sydney fought capably, and the result was the sinking of both vessels. The chance survival – and then eventual death – of just one sailor, probably of a handful, only confirms that the ship’s company of the cruiser fought in the finest traditions of their service: to their utmost and to their end. Vale HMAS Sydney.

Dr Tom Lewis served in the Royal Australian Navy as an intelligence analyst, and saw active service in Baghdad, in the Iraq war. He was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for services to naval history. He is the author of 18 books, one of the latest being Teddy Sheean VC, an examination of the last fight of HMAS Armidale and her best-known sailor, who was awarded the Navy’s first Victoria Cross in 2020

15 comments
  • Geoff Sherrington

    om Lewis,
    Your article infers that “Sydney” was lost because initially, it drew too close to the enemy.
    Was this an error? If so was it an error by the Captain, or normal procedure, or am I misreading?
    Were methods of engagement altered after this action?
    I do not like asking this, but was there an Inquiry that found blame?
    Geoff S

  • Tom Lewis

    Yes, an error in my opinion Geoff. Sydney was just not being aggressive enough.

    If it had been Waller, or Collins, or Howden in command, for example, I reckon they’d have:
    a) had the aircraft flying and inspecting
    b) fired a shot across the bow to make the target (Kormoran) heave to, to allow better inspection, and
    c) approached from behind the German’s stern

    At the slightest hint of treachery they’d have engaged. For example, any movement of Kormoran to expose her side – to allow for a broadside – would have seen fire directed at the target.

    Burnett in the end has to take the blame. He might not have been on the bridge, but it was his standing orders as to how to approach which were in force.

    Sad, but not aggressive enough. Although in the end his ship’s company fought well.

  • Tom Lewis

    Geoff – further to my last, check out https://defence.gov.au/sydneyii/ for the most recent inquiry. These paragraphs are significant:

    It is difficult to accept that, as the chase into the sun proceeded for about an
    hour, with consequential difficulty in reading flags and discerning features,
    there was not on SYDNEY’s bridge an appreciation that she was being drawn
    ever closer to the unidentified ship without being able to identify her. If the ship
    was a disguised raider, SYDNEY was placing herself in great danger.

    Putting aside hindsight, as one must, it is more difficult to understand the initial
    decision to assess KORMORAN as appearing innocent when she did not appear
    on SYDNEY’s plot. The very purpose of maintaining the plot was so ships
    would know what they might expect to encounter. The sole empirical fact
    available to CAPT Burnett when making his initial decision was that the ship
    was not expected to be there. The terrible consequence of his erroneous decision
    was that SYDNEY did not go to action stations and approached to a position of
    great danger, where all her tactical advantages were negated and the advantage
    of surprise was given to KORMORAN. It resulted in the loss of SYDNEY.

  • Lonsdale

    Tom, have you written anything on HMAS Perth? My uncle was a wireless operater and I would like to know more about its end.

  • Peter Marriott

    Good piece Dr.Lewis, thank you. We all knew about the events leading to the disappearance of the Sydney, and one of the boys from my little boarding school in Charters Towers went down with her, though not actually as one of the fighting crew. I read in the school magazine that he’d joined the ship as a teacher to try and keep up the mens education on the voyage, I think in maths. The Kormoran Captain fought the perfect strategic battle, knowing he was way outgunned, while the Sydney Captain seemed to make every mistake he could possibly have made. The only surviving witness accounts were the surviving German crew, and I seem to remember reading that their Captain himself said he was amazed the Sydney approached him so casually, and so close with little sign of full action stations and that his very first salvo hit them beautifully and knocked out one the two main turrets and the bridge. Obviously many of the senior officers would have been killed in this first salvo, and with half their main guns knocked out the company did a terrific job to get back into the battle the way they did. I seem to remember the Germans said they saw a flash and thought they heard an explosion over the horizon, so the crew did not abandon ship, and must have kept fighting to the end to save it. I was in the British Merchant Navy as an engineer for a few years in the 60’s ,and with all the chiefs I was under having served in the war, and had to abandon ship a number of times, sometimes at the last minute via the tunnel escape ladder, I couldn’t help but reflect sometimes on watch, on our chances if a torpedo came through the side……which no doubt happened to the crew in the Sydney’s engine room….but they still stuck to their duty to the end.

  • Tom Lewis

    Hi Lonsdale – yes, it’s in my book The Submarine Six…Hec Waller was her last captain, and died fighting. He should have been awarded the VC.

    Hello Peter – respects to your Charters Towers comrade. Even if he was a “schoolie” as they were known, he would have had an action station – probably damage control.

  • Jan Smith

    Mr Lewis does not mention the book Atlantis is Missing by Australian Barbara Winter, b Perth 1931, so probably dead. She spoke fluent German, had PhD and wrote several books about how the Australian governments got things wrong in WW2. Not surprisingly you have to look very hard to find it

  • STD

    Experience makes men wiser and cunning. Burnett wouldn’t have intentionally put others in harms way- it was the deceit of Detmers that precipitated the end result- he wasn’t playing by the Marquis of Queensbury rules.
    Which flag lured the Sydney to close quarters?
    Detmers named the ship Kormoran after a Russian merchant ship Cormoran ,that was a merchant vessel captured by the Germans in WW1 and converted into a raider.

  • Ceres

    Thank you Tom Lewis. Perhaps the final chapter in the terrible tragedy of the loss of Sydney. I endorse what you put say about John Collins, the previous Captain of the Sydney before Burnett.
    He was my Great Uncle and my mother his niece, always said, he would never have gotten so close to what turned out to be the Kormoran.
    By the way, a wonderful humble man whom I never heard speak of this disaster. .

  • Tom Lewis

    I wrote about Collins in The Submarine Six, Ceres…he was an extremely effective officer. I served at RANC at HMAS Creswell for five years, and was the OIC of the Historical Collection. We had his Number 1 uniform there in a display case, and also some books bound by Collins – his hobby in retirement.

  • Ceres

    Thank you for that, Dr Lewis I look forward to reading Submarine Six.
    The only reference I can remember to the Sydney tragedy was when I visited Sir John in Rose Bay and he showed me the silver replica of the “Sydney” presented when he retired. Wish I’d asked him a bit more in those distant days

  • mjbohan1955

    Dear Tom
    thank you for all your work on this and how it helps to honour the memory of those gallant sailors who did their duty despite the cost. I have read all the books written about the loss of Sydney. as a non-naval person i continue to be surprised that there were zero survivors on Sydney, not one, but quite a few from the raider. do you have a comment on that? Detmers and his crew were incarcerated for the duration of WWII near Murchison in Victoria. My understanding is that Detmers for the remainder of his life would never agree to be interviewed by journalists. After WWII he became an Admiral in the Post WWII West German Navy? His crew also bristled or were highly offended about accusations that they had machine-gunned Australian Sailors who were in the water. I think i am right i saying that several of the Kormoran’s crew returned to Australia some time after their repatriation to Germany and married Australian girls and lived in the Goulburn valley for the rest of their lives. This may have been covered in a book “Stalag Australia”
    i hope that your efforts for Waller and Rankin to receive greater honours are successful. I Waller’s case i believe that the Commanding Officer of the US Navy Ship in that same action received America’s highest bravery honour

  • mjbohan1955

    Dear Tom
    thank you for all your work on this and how it helps to honour the memory of those gallant sailors who did their duty despite the cost. I have read all the books written about the loss of Sydney. as a non-naval person i continue to be surprised that there were zero survivors on Sydney, not one, but quite a few from the raider. do you have a comment on that? Detmers and his crew were incarcerated for the duration of WWII near Murchison in Victoria. My understanding is that Detmers for the remainder of his life would never agree to be interviewed by journalists. After WWII he became an Admiral in the Post WWII West German Navy? His crew also bristled or were highly offended about accusations that they had machine-gunned Australian Sailors who were in the water. I think i am right i saying that several of the Kormoran’s crew returned to Australia some time after their repatriation to Germany and married Australian girls and lived in the Goulburn valley for the rest of their lives. This may have been covered in a book “Stalag Australia”
    i hope that your efforts for Waller and Rankin to receive greater recognition are successful. I Waller’s case i believe that the Commanding Officer of the US Navy Ship in that same action received America’s highest bravery award

  • pbridge

    Lonsdale. The book “All Men Back – All One Big Mistake” by W.A. (Bill) Bee, is the autobiography of a sailor on the Perth, detailing it’s sinking and his captivity under the Japanese.
    “Lucky Ross,” the autobiography of RAN Officer, W.H. (John) Ross describes life on the Sydney in some detail. He left the Sydney only to be sunk on the Canberra.
    Autobiographies of the men involved in these actions are far more informative than rewrites of half a century later. Both books and many others relating to the above subject are available at http://www.hesperianpress.com Peter Bridge

  • terenc5

    The loss of ship and crew is solely the responsibility of Captain Joseph Burnett. He had form in taking Sydney too close while inspecting unknown ships as was noted by a bridge officer on a previous voyage.

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