This blog has been written as an extension of a “On this Day” Instagram post from Friday 19 November 2021.
Today marks 80 years since a World War Two Battle off the western Australian coast that saw the deaths of 77 Germans and the loss of an entire Australian warship crew numbering 645.
The battle took place between HMAS Sydney and the German ship Kormoran on the evening of 19 November 1941 and remains the largest loss of life in the history of the Royal Australian Navy.
I knew little about this tragedy and given the magnitude of the event this makes me really sad that this battle and these men have not been better remembered. As I began to dig through countless articles and conspiracy theories around the incident, I started to understand why this may have been the case, but I hope going forward, as history begins to be better understood and revealed that this significant WWII loss will be more than a footnote in history.
Without going into an in-depth study of war or naval history I’ll try to give a quick outline of what happened on this fateful day.
From what I’ve read, just prior to the engagement, the German ship was sailing under false Dutch merchant colours. This lulled the Australian crew into a false sense of security and by the time the Germans shows their true colours it was too late for the Australian crew.
Put simply like that it sounds as if the Germans were not playing fair but there is more to the story and a wider wartime picture to understand. I am not a war or naval historian, so I won’t even attempt to break it down further, I am awaiting the arrival of a few books on this topic so I may update this blog in the future but there are a lot of people who have more knowledge on this topic than me out there, so I’d recommend checking them out.
The Battle took just 30 minutes and while both vessels were destroyed the damage suffered to HMAS Sydney was so great that there were no survivors. At the end of the engagement the Kormoran remained in place and the abandoned ship order was given. By midnight all surviving 318 crew had boarded lifeboats and shortly after they watched their ship sink.
In comparison the HMAS Sydney began to drift away out of control from the site of the battle almost immediately as fire engulphed the entire ship. Modern surveys of the wreckage and substantiated accounts from the German and Chinese survivors (there were some Chinese nationals on the German vessel) have determined that around 70% of the Australian crew would have died during the battle with any survivors going down with the ship or succumbing to any injuries and the elements as they waited in the water for rescue.
It was only after the wreckage was located that the events of the battle were able to understood. The German vessel was not a purpose-built warship, like the HMAS Sydney so there had been many questions over the years as to how a converted merchant vessel was able to defeat an experienced warship.
Yes, it seems that the Kormoran had lulled the Sydney into a vulnerable position but it was war so many questions remained as to why the captain would have allowed this to happen. With no Australian survivors there has been no one to tell the Australian story or defend the actions of the HMAS Sydney crew.
We know that most of the German crew were able to escape their ship so why wasn’t this the case for the HMAS Sydney? As I already mentioned the ship was destroyed very fast thanks to German artillery and after the wreckage was found the evidence suggests that there was not enough time for the Australian crew to evacuate. One of the conspiracy theories was that the Australian crew was gunned down by the Germans however analysis of the wreckage and the accounts from the German survivors do not support this theory.
HMAS Sydney went down quickly but burning wreckage remained on the surface of the water according to the German accounts. This does mean that there may have been survivors initially but the toxic fumes in the air, injuries and being in the water for so long would have caused death.
The tragedy took a number of days to be discovered as HMAS Sydney had been observing radio silence and a search was not enacted until four days later. At this time on 23 November the first German survivors were found in lifeboats. The last survivors from the Kormoran were located on 28 November, nine days after the battle; yes, these men had survived for nine days in a lifeboat. All of the surviving crew were transferred to Australian POW Camp’s. Interestingly four years later some of the Kormoran officers escaped from where they were being detained through a tunnel they had dug. In what sounds like a scene out of Hogan’s Heroes the men were all recaptured over the subsequent days.
The Australian public were not told of the loss of HMAS Sydney until 30 November. On 27 November HMAS Parramatta had been lost when it was sunk by a German U-Boat, so this was a terrible time for the Navy and public morale. The loss of HMAS Parramatta was revealed the following day. This is another of the reasons why the story of the HMAS Sydney may have been overlooked in the history books.
The site of the battle and the wrecks final resting places was not known until 2008 when they were located by shipwreck hunter David Mearns with the support of the West Australian and New South Wales Governments. Many individuals also made cash donations to the task at hand. In 2011 the two wrecks were added to the Australian National Heritage List.
This year, 2021, in commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the battle it was announced that the body of a HMAS Sydney sailor, the only Australian corpse to ever be located after the battle had been identified. On 6 February 1942, just over two months after the battle, the body had been found washed up on Christmas Island. Days later the island was evacuated under the threat of a Japanese invasion, so the body was buried in an un-marked grave, but it was always thought that he had come from the HMAS Sydney.
In 2006 his body was located, and analysis has been taking place. Yesterday, it was announced that thanks to DNA testing the body had been identified as Able Seaman Thomas Welsby Clark. He was just 21 years of age when the ship sank, and he had been posted to HMAS Sydney for four months at the time of the battle.
This is a sad but nice bookend to this quick overview of the incident. The fact that 645 Australian’s were lost in one battle that lasted thirty minutes is a tragedy. All war is and there are so many other stories from war that can only distress us today. I’m glad I’ve learnt about this battle and that I’ve been able to pay tribute to these souls and I know feel compelled to learn more about them and their stories. I hope this inspires you to do so as well.
Below are some places to start further reading but if you want a detailed account that breaks down the main sources I recommend starting with the National Archives of Australia guide (click here)
"The Sinking of HMAS Sydney: A Guide to Commonwealth Government Records", National Archives of Australia, 1999 (revised 2010).
Kerry Neale, "Lost with all Hands: HMAS Sydney II, 19 November 1941", (Australian War Memorial, 19 November 2016).
Richard Wood, "Australia's Biggest Maritime Mystery Solved after 'unknown sailor' named", Nine News, 19 November 2021 <https://www.9news.com.au/national/unknown-sailor-named-solving-hmas-sydney-mystery-eighty-years-on-australia-news/21ce9796-b455-4a9b-98c1-fc48bf5a2ce0>
"HMAS Sydney (II)", Royal Australian Navy, <https://www.navy.gov.au/hmas-sydney-ii>
"HMAS Sydney (II) Part Two", Royal Australian Navy, <https://www.navy.gov.au/hmas-sydney-ii-part-2>
"Legal Protection", Western Australian Museum (2019) <https://museum.wa.gov.au/explore/hmas-sydney-ii-introduction/history-hmas-sydney-ii/legal-protection>
"Conspiracies Surrounding HMAS Sydney (II)", Western Australian Museum, 2017 <https://museum.wa.gov.au/explore/sydney/history-hmas-sydney-ii/conspiracies-surrounding-hmas-sydney-ii>