A Brief History
On November 19, 1941, HMAS Sydney and HSK Kormoran sank each other off the coast of Western Australia, with the loss of 645 Australians and about 77 German seamen. The battle was Australia’s all time largest loss of life in its entire naval history and the largest Allied warship lost with all hands in World War II. For conspiracy theorists, what really happened has remained a controversy for over sixty years!
When we think of World War II’s naval battles, we tend to envision German submarines in the Atlantic or the epic battles pitting Japanese and American aircraft carriers against each other in the Pacific. Yes, we might also imagine some of the fierce confrontations between the German battleship Bismarck and its British rivals. Yet, how many are aware that German vessels also made it as far away from the European theater of the war as Western Australia?
Such a journey occurred in Autumn 1941 when the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran battled the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney for a half-hour long engagement off Dirk Hartog Island, Western Australia.
Kormoran had departed German waters late in 1940, under the command of Fregattenkapitän (Commander) Theodor Detmers for the Atlantic, where she sank seven merchant ships and captured an eighth. By April 1941, the raider sailed to the Indian Ocean in late April 1941, where she intercepted only three merchantmen. Kormoran encountered Sydney in November 1941 . When the battle raged, each ship fired multiple salvos as well as torpedoes on its opponent’s vessel. After a fierce fight, the ships separated from each other, being a good 10,000 meters or 30,000 feet apart when they would both sink. 645, including the commanding officer, were lost with Sydney. Kormoran lost 82 killed. 317 survivors of Kormoran were subsequently captured. Among those captured included Detmers, who unsuccessfully tried to escape Australian captivity with other members of his crew. Despite being in captivity for the remainder of the war, he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross in December 1941 and even promoted in 1943.
One could argue that given these numbers and the fact that Detmers was regarded as something of a hero in Germany that Germany technically won a numeric victory of sorts. Moreover, Australia did suffer something of a psychological defeat as the loss of so many men did hurt their morale, but again, the combat was mutually destructive in that both ships were lost and both crews were either killed or killed and captured. As such, with both ships lost and all hands removed from further participation in the war, we could also argue that neither side truly “won”.
Despite the battle having occurred in 1941, the two wrecks were only located in 2008, over sixty years after one the deadliest naval encounters in Australian and even all of Allied history during mankind’s deadliest war.
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In addition to the more standard, straightforward accounts of the engagement, conspiracy theorists have alleged that Australia attempted to cover up the loss of the Sydney among a host of other as of yet unproven claims about Germany violating the laws of war, some Australians actually surviving the ship’s sinking only to be subsequently killed, and even the Empire of Japan being involved prior to their official involvement in World War II against Australia. For more on these theories, please see…
Hore, Captain Peter. Sydney, Cipher, and Search: Solving the Last Great Naval Mystery of the Second World War. Naval Institute Press, 2009.
Montgomery, Michael. Who Sank the Sydney. Hippocrene Books, 1983.