HMAS
Sydney
(II)

HMAS Sydey (II)
Class
Modified Leander Class
Type
Light Cruiser
Pennant
D48
Builder
Swan, Hunter and Wigham Richardson Ltd, Wallsend on Tyne, England
Laid Down
8 July 1933
Launched
22 September 1934
Commissioned
24 September 1935
Decommissioned
19 November 1941
Fate
Lost in action on 19 November 1941
Dimensions & Displacement
Displacement 6,830 tons
Length 562 feet 3 inches
Beam 56 feet 8 inches
Performance
Speed 32.5 knots
Complement
Crew 645
Propulsion
Horsepower 72,000
Armament
Guns
  • 8 x 6-inch guns
  • 4 x 4-inch guns
  • 12 x 0.5-inch machine guns, in three quad mounts
  • 12 x .303 Lewis guns
Torpedoes 8 x 21 inch torpedo tubes ( in 2 quadruple mounts)
Awards
Inherited Battle Honours
Battle Honours

After being laid down in 1933 for the Royal Navy as HMS Phaeton, Sydney was purchased (before launching) by the Australian Government in 1934 and renamed in memory of the earlier Sydney (I) that destroyed the German cruiser Emden in 1914.

The ship commissioned at Portsmouth on 24 September 1935, under the command of Captain John U.P. FitzGerald, RN, and spent the early part of her career on the Mediterranean Station taking an active role in the Abyssinian crisis.

Captain John Augustine Collins
Captain John Augustine Collins

Arriving in Australia on 2 August 1936 Sydney remained in home waters until the outbreak of war and was in Fremantle on the day war was declared. On 16 November CAPT J.A. Collins RAN, assumed command from Captain John W.A. Waller RN, who had succeeded Captain FitzGerald in 1937.

Sydney remained on local patrol duties until April 1940 when she sailed from Fremantle as part of the escort for a large Middle East bound convoy. Parting company in the mid-Indian Ocean, the cruiserr arrived in Colombo on 8 May 1940.

On 19 May 1940 she proceeded to the Mediterranean and arrived in Alexandria on 26 May where she joined the 7th Cruiser Squadron of the Mediterranean Fleet. Here Sydney experienced her first action when she took part in the bombardment of Bardia on 21 June 1940 in company with the British cruisers Orion and Neptune , the destroyers HMS Dainty , Decoy , Hasty, HMAS Stuart and the French battleship Lorraine .

A week later Sydney , in company with other ships of the 7th Cruiser Squadron, encountered three Italian destroyers. The action that followed was fought at dusk in fast failing light and two of the destroyers succeeded in evading the Allied cruisers. Sydney's role in this action consisted chiefly of finishing off the remaining destroyer Espero and rescuing 47 Italian survivors.

On 1 July 1940 Sydney returned to Alexandria , where she remained until 7 July when she proceeded as part of the covering force for Malta convoys before joining the Mediterranean Battle Fleet. Following a period of severe air attacks, four of them directed at Sydney , that were successfully beaten off she then took part in the first full-scale action with the Italian Fleet; the Battle of Calabria on 9 July.

The Battle of Calabria

The major British forces engaged in this action were as follows:

Battleships

  • HMS Royal Sovereign
  • HMS Warspite
  • HMS Malaya

Aircraft Carrier

  • HMS Eagle

Cruisers

  • HMS Liverpool
  • HMS Neptune
  • HMS Orion
  • HMAS Sydney

Plus attendant destroyers.

Aircraft from HMS Eagle first reported the Italian fleet to the north of the British Forces. The Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham (Warspite), promptly altered course to the northward. At 1445, HMS Neptune reported sighting four Italian cruisers, and at 1500 the entire enemy fleet came into view, consisting of 2 battleships, 10 cruisers and 24 destroyers. Meanwhile the vanguard of the British Fleet, consisting of the four cruisers, Liverpool , Neptune , Orion and Sydney under Vice-Admiral J.C. Tovey (7th Cruiser Squadron), altered course to avoid becoming heavily engaged without the support of Warspite's heavy armament.

With the sun behind them, the Italian cruisers opened fire at 1515. The British cruisers, though outnumbered, engaged the enemy until 1545, when Warspite opened fire. The battleship's fire forced the enemy to turn away under cover of smoke, after which there was a lull in the battle. At this stage, the British cruisers were advancing north-west towards the enemy, with Warspite astern. Malaya and Royal Sovereign , that had been some distance away, were fast approaching the scene of action and the British destroyers were concentrating for attack.

At about 1550, Warspite succeeded in straddling the Italian battleship Glulio Cesare and a 15" shell hit forward near her foremost funnel. Soon after 1600, Warspite , which had been firing at extreme range, attempted to close the enemy. Malaya also opened fire, but her heavy salvoes all fell short. Meanwhile, the Allied cruisers had renewed the action and attempted to close the enemy who was rapidly drawing away to the north. By 1611, only one enemy ship remained within range, at something over 20,000 yards and at 1619, Sydney turned her attention to enemy destroyers laying smoke. Shortly afterwards, the British destroyers moved in to attack. By 1640 the engagement was over, however air attacks on the Allied fleet followed. Sydney again came through unscathed, despite a stick of bombs straddling the ship.

Sydney remained at sea with the Mediterranean Fleet until 13 July 1940 when she returned to Alexandria .

The Battle of Cape Spada

On 18 July 1940, Sydney in company with the destroyer HMS Havock, sailed from Alexandria . Her orders were to support the destroyers Hyperion , Ilex , Hero and Hasty engaged in a hunt for enemy submarines off Crete, and destroy enemy shipping in the Gulf of Athens. The two ships arrived off Crete at sunset and passed through Kaso Strait shortly before midnight.

Map showing track of HMAS Sydney during Cape Spada action
Map showing track of HMAS Sydney during Cape Spada action

Early on the morning of 19 July Sydney and Havock reached a point some 40 miles north of Cape Spada. The day had dawned calm and cloudless, with some light mist. At 0733, Sydney received a report from the destroyer group indicating the presence of two enemy cruisers some 10 miles to the south west of their position, heading north.

On his own initiative, CAPT Collins altered course and proceeding at maximum speed, Sydney and Havock headed towards the enemy, and at 0820 sighted smoke on the horizon. A few minutes later two Italian 6-inch gun cruisers, the Bartolomeo Colleoni and the Giovanni Delle Bande Nere , were sighted on the starboard beam, at a range of some 23,000 yards, course East-North-East.

At 0829, Sydney opened fire with her 6-inch guns on the leading cruiser Giovanni Delle Bande Nere. At 0832, both cruisers replied to Sydney's fire. None of the enemy shells scored a hit, though some salvoes succeeded in straddling. Within six minutes of opening fire, hits appeared to have been registered on Giovanni Delle Bande Nere on whom Sydney continued to concentrate her fire. At 0838, Hyperion, Hasty, Hero and Ilex were sighted to the south east, at a distance of some six miles. At this time, the enemy attempted to escape to the south west and by 0846, Sydney, with the destroyers in line abreast and in fairly close order, was chasing the enemy at full speed, the destroyers having also opened fire.

By 0848, Giovanni Delle Bande Nere was obscured by smoke, and Sydney therefore shifted her fire to Bartolomeo Colleoni at a range of 18,000 yards. At 0851, the two enemy cruisers suddenly altered course to port and at 0853, appeared to be turning to starboard, eventually coming back to their original south-westerly course, having left a large smoke screen behind them. The Italian cruisers were faster than Sydney, and were slowly drawing away at approximately 30 knots. At 0902, Sydney again opened fire on Giovanni Delle Bande Nere at 21,000 yards and kept firing until 0908, when heavy smoke again forced a shift of target to the rearward cruiser.

Damage to Sydney's forward funnel
Damage to Sydney's forward funnel

By 0919, Sydney's fire on Bartolomeo Colleoni appeared to be taking effect and the range had closed to 17,500 yards. Meanwhile, both cruisers continued to reply with fairly accurate fire and at 0921, Sydney was hit in the foremost funnel. Only one minor casualty resulted. The range was now closing rapidly and at 0923, Bartolomeo Colleoni was finally put out of action, some 5 miles off Cape Spada . The surviving cruiser rounded Agria Grabus Island to the north, and retired at full speed to the south-west, hotly pursued by Sydney who was almost directly astern.

At 0933, CAPT Collins ordered the destroyers to finish off Bartolomeo Colleoni with torpedoes, Sydney ceasing fire at 0938, when the range was 7,500 yards. The destroyers Hyperion and Ilex then fired torpedoes at Bartolomeo Colleoni and the destroyer Havock stood by to rescue survivors. Bartolomeo Colleoni finally sank at 0959. Meanwhile, Sydney , in company with Hero and Hasty, continued the pursuit of Giovanni Delle Bande Nere who had continued to the south at full speed. The fleeing cruiser kept up a desultory inaccurate fire, but Sydney did not reply until 0958 at a range of 20,000 yards. The chase continued until 1011 when the fast opening range and hazy conditions made overhauling unlikely.

At 1037, with only 10 rounds of 6-inch shell available to her forward turrets Sydney reluctantly abandoned the chase and was ordered to return to Alexandria to replenish fuel and ammunition. Before reaching Alexandria , Sydney and the destroyers were subject to repeated air attacks with Havock sustaining a direct hit. At 11 a.m. on 20 July the triumphant Sydney in company with the British destroyers reached Alexandria safely where they were met with rousing cheers from units of the Mediterranean fleet.

During August Sydney took part (as a covering force) at the second bombardment of Bardia. In September, she spent her longest period in harbour since entering the Mediterranean, when she docked in Alexandria on the 8th, and remained in port until 24 September 1940. In October she was again operating with the Mediterranean Fleet taking part in a sweep of the Adriatic and in protecting convoys to Greece .

On 11 November the British Mediterranean Fleet successfully launched an attack by carrier aircraft on the Italian fleet which was concentrated in the port of Taranto. In support of this operation Sydney, was engaged in operations in the Straits of Otranto, when an Italian convoy was successfully attacked during the hours of darkness of the night of 12/13 November. December 1940 saw Sydney again covering convoys to Greece and Malta and participate in further operations in the Adriatic and Straits of Otranto, as part of the Mediterranean Fleet. On 23 December 1940 she put into Malta for a refit, sailing again on 8 January 1941.

Return to Australian Waters

In January 1941, Sydney sailed from Alexandria for Australia reaching Fremantle on 5 February where she received a hero's welcome. Her arrival in her name-sake city on 10 February saw her crew feted with a civic reception and school children given a public holiday so they could see her and her valiant crew as they paraded through Sydney. A refit at Garden Island in Sydney followed after which she took up patrol and convoy escort duties off the Australian coast under the command of CAPT J. Burnett RAN. In April 1941, she paid a brief visit to Singapore , and later in the year visited Noumea , Auckland and Suva in her role as convoy escort before returning to Western Australian waters.

Sydney's crew march through Martin Place
Sydney's crew march through Martin Place
Captain Joseph Burnett
Captain Joseph Burnett
 

Loss of HMAS Sydney

Sydney sailed from Fremantle on Armistice Day, 11 November, 1941 to escort the troopship Zealandia to Sunda Strait where she was to be relieved by the British cruiser HMS Durban for the last leg of the voyage to Singapore. The voyage was without incident and at noon on the 17 November, Zealandia was turned over to Durban and Sydney then proceeded back to Fremantle where she was expected to arrive on the afternoon of 20 November 1941. She did not arrive as expected and the District Naval Officer, Western Australia , reported accordingly to the Naval Board at 11 a.m. the following day that Sydney was overdue. This did not immediately concern the Naval Board as they had been advised that Zealandia had arrived later than anticipated and it was assumed that Sydney too had been delayed. There was also the possibility that she might have diverted for another purpose and had not broken radio (wirless telegraphy) silence. When however, she had not returned by 23 November, she was instructed by the Naval Board to report by signal. There was no reply.

Kapitan zur See Theodor Anton Detmers
Kapitan zur See Theodor Anton Detmers

The reconstruction of events leading up to Sydney's disappearance relies primarily on information gathered from interrogations of German survivors from the raider HSK Kormoran which Sydney engaged on the afternoon of 19 November 1941. The following is an account of Sydney's final action and subsequent loss based on surviving records, extensive research and the findings of a Chief of Defence Force inquiry concerning the loss of Sydney released in July 2009.

Returning from her convoy duties to Java, Sydney was proceeding south along the north west coast of Western Australia when she sighted what appeared to be a merchant vessel at about 1600 on 19 November 1941, some 130 miles west of Shark Bay.

The ship was in fact the German raider Kormoran, (Fregatten Kapitan Theodor Detmers) disguised as the Dutch merchantman Straat Malakka. Sydney challenged the vessel continuously using her searchlight whilst at the same time closing the range between the two ships. Merchant vessels were known to be less efficient at visual signalling and the Germans exploited this knowledge through their actions on their flag deck and by their slow response to Sydney's visual challenges. At 1700, to further the deception, Kormoran broadcast a 'suspicious ship' message, feigning a cry for help in the name of Straat Malakka.

Auxiliary Cruiser War Badge
Auxiliary Cruiser War Badge

Sydney's efforts to establish the true identity of the vessel resulted in her closing the range to a point where she no longer had the advantage of her superior armament. At approximately 1715 Sydney had drawn almost abeam of Kormoran to starboard, less than a mile distant. Both ships were steering West-South-West at about 15 knots. Still wary, the Australian cruiser kept her main armament trained on the mysterious ship and her amphibious aircraft was on the catapult with its engine running. She then signalled, both by flags and flashing light; 'Where bound?' Kormoran replied 'Batavia'. The crucial moment then came when Sydney hoisted a two flag signal consisting of the letters 'IK' which the raider could not interpret. They were in fact the two centre letters of the Straat Malakka's four letter secret identification signal (IIKP). With no reply forthcoming Sydney signalled in plain language 'Show your secret sign'.

Finally, when concealment of his vessel's true identity was no longer possible, and with the advantage of surprise, Detmers ordered the Dutch colours to be struck, hoisted the German naval ensign and opened fire at approximately 1730 with all armament at a range 'somewhat more than a mile'.

Sydney's midships section with aircraft on catapault
Sydney's midships section with aircraft on catapault

It is likely that the raider's first salvo destroyed Sydney's bridge, with the result that her primary control was immediately put out of action. Sydney's own guns opened fire almost simultaneously with a full salvo that passed over Kormoran without inflicting damage. Kormoran again scored hits on Sydney with two salvos again hitting her bridge and midships section. According to the Germans all of Kormoran's armament was brought to bear on Sydney, concentrating on her bridge, torpedo tubes and anti aircraft batteries.

For a few seconds after her initial salvo Sydney did not reply. It appears that her forward "A" and "B" turrets were put out of action leaving only her after turrets "X" and "Y" to respond. It was reported by the Germans that Sydney's "X" turret opened fast and accurate fire, hitting Kormoran in the funnel and engine room. "Y" turret is said to have fired only two or three salvos, all of which went over. At about this time one of the raider's two torpedoes struck Sydney under "A" and "B" turrets. The other passed close ahead of the stricken ship, which was subjected to enfilading fire.

With her bow low in the water, Sydney then turned sharply towards Kormoran as though attempting to ram. As she did so, the top of "B" turret was blown off and flew overboard, the cruiser then passed under Kormoran's stern, heading to the southward and losing way. Kormoran , maintaining her course and speed, was now on fire in the engine room where hits by Sydney's "X" turret had caused severe damage. Smoke from the fire hid Sydney from Kormoran's bridge but the raider continued to engage with her after guns as the range opened to approximately 4,400 yards.

Sydney-Kormoran Action
Sydney-Kormoran Action

At about 1745 Sydney was seen to fire a torpedo when Detmers was turning his ship to port to bring his broadside to bear, however, as he did so Kormoran's engines began to fail. The torpedo track was sighted and it was subsequently avoided. Simultaneously the raider's engines broke down completely.

Sydney, crippled and on fire from the bridge to the after funnel, steamed slowly to the south returning only sporadic fire from her secondary armament. Although by now the range had opened to 6,600 yards Sydney continued to receive steady hits from Kormoran's port broadside. At 1800, at a range of 7,700 yards, Kormoran then fired one torpedo that missed Sydney's stern. Although this fierce action had lasted only half an hour both ships had been dealt mortal blows.

Kormoran fired her last shot at 1825 at a range of about 11,000 yards. The Germans claim to have fired approximately 450 rounds from her main armament and hundreds from her anti-aircraft batteries. With the gathering gloom the form of Sydney disappeared from view and was last seen by the Germans about ten miles off, heading approximately South-South-East. Thereafter, until about 2200, all that was seen was a distant glare then occasional flickerings until midnight at which time all trace of Sydney disappeared.

The Carley Float
The Carley Float

Of Sydney's total complement of 42 officers and 603 ratings, none survived. This number included six members of the Royal Australian Air Force and four civilian canteen staff. The only material evidence recovered from Sydney was an Australian naval type Carley life-float recovered eight days after the action by HMAS Heros and an Australian naval pattern life-belt recovered by HMAS Wyrallah. The Carley float is now preserved in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra .

Kormoran Survivors

The order to abandon Kormoran was given by Detmers between 2000-2100 and all accessible life saving equipment in the fire free portion of the ship was put overboard. At this period some 380 officers and men remained alive. Almost all the officers and enough ratings to man the guns, waited on board while the final scuttling arrangements were made. Remaining life saving equipment consisted of two steel boats located forward in No. 2 hold, however damage to the ship delayed the launching of these.

At midnight, with smoke increasing heavily on the mining deck, the scuttling charge was fired, and the last boat cast off. Half an hour later at 0035 the mines carried by Kormoran exploded and she sank rapidly stern first. During the final abandonment a large rubber boat sank without warning, throwing some 60 men into the sea who drowned.

At 1700 (Western Australian time) on 24 November 1941 the British tanker Trocas bound Palembang for Fremantle reported by W/T (wireless telegraphy) the rescue of 25 German seamen from a raft sighted some 115 miles West-North-West of Carnarvon. This was the first positive evidence of a possible naval engagement involving the overdue Sydney. Naval authorities immediately despatched four RAN auxiliary craft with armed guards on board to rendezvous with Trocas. At the time of receipt of the signal from Trocas air searches seeking Sydney were already in progress.

Unbeknown to the naval authorities the transport Aquitania, had also sighted a raft and rescued 26 Germans the previous day (23 November). Maintaining W/T silence her command passed on no information of this until 27 November, when she informed the signal station at Wilsons Promontory of her discovery.

The air searches produced their first results early on the morning of 25 November. At 0700 a life-boat was sighted North-North-West of Carnarvon. Further sightings during the day revealed up to five boats in the area at that time.

Eventually two boats, those commanded by Lieutenant Commander Henry Meyer and Chief Petty Officer Paul Kohn came ashore unaided some 50 and 70 miles north of Carnarvon respectively. Organised land parties were despatched and apprehended these groups during the afternoon of their landing. The Steamer Koolinda picked up a third boat, Centaur one (containing Detmers) and HMAS Yandra one. Based on records made at the time the total number of Kormoran survivors rescued was as follows:

Trocas 1 rubber raft 25 men landed Fremantle
Aquitania 1 rubber raft 26 men landed Sydney
Centaur 1 life boat 60 men landed Carnarvon
Koolinda 1 life boat 31 men landed Carnarvon
Yandra 1 life boat 72 men landed Carnarvon
  1 life boat 57 men landed north of Carnarvon
  1 life boat 46 men landed north of Carnarvon

Total of 317 men including two Chinese

Kormoran Statistics

HSK Kormoran
HSK Kormoran
Type Auxiliary Raider G. Ship 41 Kormoran (formerly the Hamburg - Amerika Line ship Steirmark )
Displacement 8,736 tons
Length 515 feet
Beam 66 feet
Builder Kiel Shipyards
Speed 18 knots
Armament 6 x 15cm (5.9 inch) guns. Range 18, 100 yards
5 x 2cm anti-aircraft guns
2 x 3.7cm anti-aircraft guns
6 x 21 inch torpedo tubes (2 below the waterline)
Capable of carrying approximately 360 mines
Aircraft 2 x Arado 196 float planes stowed in No: 5 hold.
Complement 400

 

Sydney Remembered

Memorials to HMAS Sydney in Geraldton W.A and Sydney Harbour NSW.
Memorials to HMAS Sydney in Geraldton W.A and Sydney Harbour NSW.

The loss of HMAS Sydney in November 1941 with all hands came as a tremendous blow to the Royal Australian Navy and the entire Australian community during a particularly dark period of World War II. Her achievements and proud fighting record are perpetuated in the warships named Sydney that have followed her and on memorials and cenotaphs throughout Australia.

In March 2008 the wrecks of both Sydney and Kormoran were located by shipwreck investigator Mr David Mearns who directed a search on behalf of the Finding Sydney Foundation, a volunteer group, which, following many years of campaigning had garnered the support of the Australian Government enabling a search to go ahead.

Memorial window, Garden Island Chapel.
Memorial window, Garden Island Chapel.

The Finding Sydney Foundation's discovery of the wrecks revealed much about the battle and lent support to the generally accepted version of events as recorded in The Royal Australian Navy 1939-1942 by G. Hermon Gill, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1957. Photographic evidence and video footage was subsequently analysed by experts during the course of the official Australian Defence Force inquiry into the loss of Sydney led by Commissioner The Honourable Terence RH Cole, AO, RFD, QC. Loss of HMAS Sydney II Inquirywww.defence.gov.au/sydneyii/.

The Finding Sydney Foundation is providing a unique experience accessible globally for those wanting to learn more about the human loss of HMAS Sydney II and honour the memory of the individual sailors through shared stories and images. The FSF is very grateful to the Naval Association of Australia for accepting the task of carrying the ‘Sydney’ banner into the future.

The website located at Sydney Memorial (external link) features an Honour Roll with individual pages of information for each of the 645 sailors lost. Families are invited to submit stories, images and other related content to feature on each sailor’s pages.

The website also houses HMAS Sydney II historical information and an extensive set of archival photographs courtesy of the Royal Australian Navy and the Australian War Memorial. Video footage can also be viewed. It includes previous commemorations; the search for the wreck; scenes of the ship and crew in Egypt (Jul 1940) after the successful engagement with the Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni; the triumphant ceremonial welcome home march in Sydney (Feb 1941) and scenes aboard the ship taken during the months before her loss.

More Information

Additional information on the Sydney - Kormoran engagement can be found at the following links: