Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Finding HMAS Sydney & thoughts on real history

In November 1941, HMAS Sydney, the Cruiser which was the pride of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), was overdue in port.

She never arrived.

German survivors started to appear in lifeboats on the Western Australian coast and other German lifeboats were picked up by merchant ships, and they told of a battle with an Australian Cruiser where their ship, the armed raider HSK Kormoran had been scuttled afterwards, the Australian Cruiser disappearing in flames over the horizon.

Every member of Sydney's 645 crew were lost at sea. Initially the Australian government imposed a news blackout, and only in 1947, two years after the war's end, six years after the event, were some relatives told that their men were not 'missing' but 'believed killed'.

How could an armed merchantman sink a powerful naval ship, without any survivors? What really happened? To this day, the only eyewitness accounts of the battle come from the crew of the Kormoran.

Without facts, speculation and rumour filled the gaps - there was a cover up; the Germans had broken the rules of war; machine-gunned Sydney survivors; a Japanese submarine was involved (this was only days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and on Kota Baru, in Malaysia). The end of the war didn't lessen the interest in 'what really happened' but there were scant facts. A Carly Float, riddled with holes was found with the body of a seaman aboard; probably from the Sydney, but the Japanese attacks were more urgent that an investigation. Today, the float is on show in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Multiple books were published on the matter; one claiming the Germans did everything wrong, another taking their view as gospel; a third balancing the evidence, but unable to draw a conclusion. The RAN official history threw doubt on the competence of the captain.

(Even here it is not possible to outline all the details; see the links at the bottom for further details - but it is worth noting that the Kormoran was pretending to be a Dutch merchantman.)

After a couple of false alarms, one as recent at 2007, finally it was announced that both HSK Kormoran and HMAS Sydney had been found, by the Sydney Search foundation. It was an amazing achievement, given the scarcity of the data, a huge ocean, and the Sydney wreck lying at two and a half kilometres (1.2 miles) depth. An announcement was made by the Australian Prime Minister, and people started to talk about how the finding the wreck would 'bring closure' to Sydney's crew's families; and that all the questions would be answered.

But real history is not like that. Accounts of traumatic events vary, even without the nature of war being involved, causing omission, bias and lies or propoganda to be included. A secret record by Kormoran's Captain, Detmers (fascinatingly, and just like in the best spy stories, it was made by pencil dots below letters in a German dictionary, while Detmers was a prisoner of war in Australia) is a very likely an honest account, but even in that case, there must be cautions over what he might record as against what he actually did.

The Finding Sydney Foundation released photographs and video of the wrecks, attached to a blog, and endorsed and supported by all the appropriate bodies. They were able to show numerous items of evidence, including, tellingly, the Sydney's lifeboats on the sea floor, in the wreck's debris field.

The Sydney's crest, handpainted on the lifeboat's bows is still bright.

More tellingly still is that Sydney was found because David Mearns, the shipwreck hunter, chose to find HSK Kormoran first, and then find Sydney from there. Essentially, the wrecks confirm everything that can about Detmers' account of the battle, and lay numerous questions, such as the existence of the Japanese submarine (Kormoran's torpedo tubes were found) or the machine-gunning of the lifeboats to rest.

An ABC TV documentary, The Hunt for HMAS Sydney was quickly put together and aired last night. It covered the story well enough, but lacked analysis, and it ducked one, fundamental question, we will come to at the end.

It is clear that Syndey was overwhelmed by Kormoran's close, accurate fire. Early salvos by Kormoran destroyed the bridge (compass platform) killed the senior officers and crippled the ship's 'brain'. Raging fires and shell splinters would have killed or maimed the majority of the upper deck crew, and multiple hits in the hull killed many below. Sydney's bow was fatally weakened, and probably unexpectedly detached; perhaps with the ship still under way. The ship would has suddenly sunk; anyone (probably injured) left on the surface would be unlikely to survive more than hours.

Many questions have not been answered. Some never will be. The first question is simply why do so many authoritative sources state the facts of the engagement without being clear that the basis of them are from a partisan eyewitness account? Just because Detmers' account has been confirmed, as far as is possible, does not excuse this.

On the Finding Sydney expedition was an official RAN Historian Observer; Lieutenant John Perryman, RANR. As he acutely pointed out in the TV film; "Nobody knows what was going through Captain Burnett's mind as he approached Kormoran."

The over-riding question is why did Captain Joseph Burnett allow Sydney to get so close to Kormoran that his advantages of firepower, armour, speed and manoeuvrability were all negated? Subsidiary questions follow. Why did Sydney not overwhelm Kormoran as soon as the German Ensign was flown? If what happened matches the German accounts (which everything else does) then the Germans were able to reveal their hidden guns, train them on Sydney, and fire effective salvoes all before Sydney's guns (already trained on Kormoran) fired or made any hits. After fire was opened, Detmers was able to aim and launch two torpedoes at Sydney - probably the ship's fatal blow.

Why did Captain Burnett not use his Supermarine Walrus spotter aircraft, and thus avoid closing with Kormoran at all? One of the odd aspects of the German accounts was they state the Walrus' engine was running while it was on its catapult but it was not launched before being hit by gunfire and wrecked. Why have the engine running so late, when the Walrus was no longer of use? (Had it been airborne, it might have made the Australian coast and enabled an early enough and precise enough rescue to save some of the men.)

It seems that over an hour and a half, Detmers' managed to lull Sydney's captain into a false sense of security and tempted the Captain to get far too closer to the German ship. The only other explanation is that Detmers' revealed and fired his guns while still under the colours of Holland; a war crime, rather than a legitimate ruse du guerre. Even so, how can the Germans have wrecked Sydney, hit her bridge and effectively won a battle (although their ship had to be scuttled) when they were already, in theory, covered by the Sydney's guns.

While Detmers' account has been validated as far as is possible, and Burnett was a highly-regarded and successful Captain, questions remain about the actions of both men in this battle. This is sadly all to normal an issue for those in command of a ship, particularly at war. It was a Royal Navy Admiral, of the 1750s, John Byng, who was shot, and gave rise to Voltaire's expression 'pour encourager les autres.' It is easy to draw conclusions, and to criticise, but hard to avoid error or be always successful.

Finding the wrecks was a great achievement, and like everything so far, the evidence continues to support the accuracy of the German accounts. Yet there is no neat solution, no (as the media love today) 'smoking gun'. The ABC programme avoided the question, and just laid out other facts and the story of the discovery, and this failed in delivering the full story.

Unlike the ABC, the AWM published an excellent essay, by Peter Stanley that highlights the issues and tackles the problems with loss, memory and the realities of history.

This is real history, where some questions are unlikely to ever be answered, and people die because of a moment's carelessness or accident, and it's not neat, with a nice wrapped up 'end'.


HMAS Sydney's crew, with the previous Captain, John Collins.
A high resolution version of the photograph can be found here.

Some key accounts, aditional to the above links:
RAN Sea Power Centre, Loss of HMAS Sydney.
Australian Government War At Sea Website.

The AWM Pages on the HMAS Sydney - Kormoran action.
And the voluminous papers that survive. Despite the welter of data (given in shelf kilometres in some accounts) some persist in believing in a government cover up.
Australian Archives Guide to papers on HMAS Sydney.

(Photos are from the cited websites, apart from the Carley Float and model Walrus, taken by James.)

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