Home' Defence Magazine : Issue 7 2009 Contents military truism states that when
choosing between a conspiracy
and a mistake to explain
defeat, the latter is inevitably
correct because the former
And so, according to HMAS Sydney II
Commission of Inquiry (COI) President, the
Honourable Terence Cole, an error of judgement
was the reason Sydney sank because her captain,
Joseph Burnett, made the mistake of not treating
the HSK Kormoran as suspicious.
The battlefield tipped decisively in Kormoran’s
favour once Sydney came within 1500m – negating
her tactical strengths and allowing the German
raider to gain first strike advantage and cause the
deaths of all 645 crew members.
No Japanese submarines working in tandem
with the German Navy were necessary to sink
Sydney. Neither was a fake surrender or mines or
any of the other 25 conspiracy theories to blame.
The Commission concluded that although there
were “...frauds, conspiracies or speculations,
none of which has any substance whatsoever”.
Sydney was plainly out-gunned by one of the
most successful German raiders of WWII.
Examining hours of video imagery, large
quantities of historical documents, photographs
and other publications, the Defence and Science
Technology Organisation (DSTO) in conjunction
with the Royal Australian Institution of Naval
Architects, helped explain how the less-well-
equipped Kormoran sank the battle-hardened
veteran that was Sydney.
According to the Commission’s report, within
about five minutes, the heavy gun and small arms
barrage had killed or disabled about 70 per cent of
Sydney’s crew, including most of her officers.
During the battle, no less than 87, 15cm shells
struck Sydney and at least 200,000 pieces of shrapnel
penetrated her plating. The bridge, gunnery control
tower and at least two gun turrets were destroyed.
A torpedo struck her bow causing extensive
flooding. Her decks were strafed by a variety of light
armaments and machine guns resulting in fire and the
destruction of the ship's plane and life-rafts (damage
to the port side is shown above).
So why did CAPT Burnett allow Sydney
to come so close to Kormoran? In attempting
to answer this question, the COI undertook
new research into a number of issues directly
relevant to the loss of Sydney. This included what
information was available CAPT Burnett on the day
that Sydney confronted Kormoran.
Twice daily, all Australian warships including
Sydney, were sent a Shipping Intelligence
Message, or SIM, from the Navy. This formed the
basis of the Vessels in Area Indicated Chart (VAI)
that told a captain about what shipping he could
expect to encounter. The SIMs sent to Sydney
on both 18 and 19 November 1941 stated that
she should not expect to encounter any friendly
shipping on those dates.
In order to test the accuracy of these SIMs
and the subsequent VAI chart, the Commission
reconstructed the original source of information
used to create the SIMs.
This meant analysing 8,742 Merchant
Shipping Index Cards from every allied ship
operating in Australian territorial waters during
WWII. From this, the report found that Sydney had
been correctly informed that she should not expect
to come across any friendly ships.
Notwithstanding the circumstances
of Sydney’s tragic demise, in the view of
Commissioner Cole, CAPT Burnett was performing
his duty as Commanding Officer in seeking to
identify an unknown ship and no findings of
negligence were made by the COI – the report
nevertheless describes his decision to treat the
unknown ship as innocent rather than suspicious
as an “error of judgment”.
This error in judgment was to disregard
known movements of shipping and assess the
ship as innocent, when it was not on Sydney’s
plot and therefore not expected to be in the area.
With some justification CAPT Burnett may have
disregarded the VAI because sometimes it was
inaccurate and as a matter of fact, no German
raider had ever been spotted off the Australian
coast since the outbreak of the war.
However, existing Australian naval procedures
required ships not appearing on the VAI to be
treated as suspicious. Had CAPT Burnett followed
this protocol, he would have brought Sydney to
action stations, remained at least seven nautical
miles away (out of effective torpedo range), and
adopted a more aggressive signalling system.
CAPT Burnett had followed this procedure
on three previous occasions when he had ordered
Sydney to action stations upon sighting an
unidentified vessel. One of these occurred on 2
June 1941 and was only about 70 nautical miles
from the encounter with Kormoran.
By Lieutenant Alistair Tomlinson
HMAs Sydney II
laid to rest
Links Archive Issue 6 2009 Issue 8 2009 Navigation Previous Page Next Page