War: Sydney v Kormoran

Australians have an interest, not necessarily well-read, in episodes of their military history. In recent decades inchoate Aussie tribal urges have conjured up ‘remembrance’ travel to foreign cemeteries, former battlefields, prisoner of war camps, mountainous jungle trails and more. HMAS Sydney ‘mystery’ endured 68 years, and is now finally resolved.

On November 19, 1941 an Indian Ocean naval battle took place 112 nautical miles off Carnarvon. German raider HSK Kormoran caught Australia’s cruiser HMAS Sydney by surprise and attacked. Sydney sank quickly with loss of all 645 crew on board: our greatest single maritime loss of life in WWII. Kormoran also sank with 80 lives lost, but 318 Germans survived and were rescued. 


Testimony of German survivors interrogated about the battle scene were discounted as enemy lies. With no surviving Australian witnesses and Sydney wreckage ‘lost’, theories abounded about irregular German tactics, Japanese submarines, Aussie prisoners taken away or secretly buried. Families of lost seamen and others kept the mystery alive over the decades.


Finally this year an official enquiry by former judge Terence Cole concluded that Australian captain Burnett made serious errors of judgement in approaching Kormoran and conceding a deadly advantage. German gunners were well-trained and effective. Sydney’s wreck was discovered last year 12 miles from Kormoran’s. Cole also found that German accounts had indeed been credible, as different surviving groups all told the same story. The enemy had been telling the truth, a dastardly trick!

In Carnarvon a long avenue of 645 palm trees commemorates lost Australian lives, and memorials stand guard on WA’s coast; the wreck is inaccessible.

palm tree memorial road

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