The HMAS Sydney story

There has been great excitement in the press recently over the discovery of the wreckage of the WWII Australian cruiser "Sydney". See here, for example. The wreck has been touted as perhaps solving the "mystery" of how the ship was sunk. But it is not much of a mystery. Below is a excerpt from the summary of what the German survivors of the battle that sank the Sydney said at the time

On November 19, as the Kormoran approached the area off Shark’s Bay from the south-west in warm sunshine and perfect visibility, Detmers decided to maintain his course and wait until dark before turning eastwards towards the coast. At five minutes to four in the afternoon, as he was enjoying a cup of coffee in the wardroom, the alarm bells sounded, and a ship, thought to be a sailing ship, was reported approaching through the shimmering light on the horizon.

With the foretop lookout initially unable to identify what type of ship it was through the heat haze, but maintaining a running commentary on what he thought he could see, Detmers, called the crew to action stations, turned the Kormoran about through 260 degrees and called for full speed. Studying the approaching vessel through the sighting telescope of the gunnery control point on the signal deck, his worst fears were soon realised as the ominous shape of the approaching vessel became clearer. Detmers knew that with four hours to go until nightfall, he had nowhere to hide, and with what was becoming clearer by the second in the gunnery glasses capable of a top speed that was twice that of his own ship, he also knew that evasive action would be out of the question.

Bearing down on the Kormoran was a 6,830-ton Perth-class light cruiser, armed with eight six-inch guns, and a top speed of over 32 knots. Although the Kormoran was also armed with six-inch guns, they did not have the range of those on the cruiser which could easily bombard her from a range of 10,000 metres with all the advantages of modern fire-control and four twin turrets, without ever having to come within range of her guns.

Disregarding the fact that as a converted freighter with an unarmoured wafer-thin hull, she was unlikely to have any chance against an armoured regular warship of this type anyway, Detmers felt that unless he could somehow get within 6,000 or even 8,000 metres, where the advantages of the cruiser’s fire-control system would be far less significant, he knew that his position would be hopeless. Apart from anything else, one stray shell into the 420 high-explosive mines she was carrying and the Kormoran, like the Pinguin, would be blown to smithereens.

Knowing that his chances of survival were virtually nil, Detmers resolved to ensure that he would at least be in a good opening position should it come to a fight, and hoped that the enemy might make a mistake that he could exploit. Playing for time, during which the cruiser might just come closer, he knew he had to rely heavily on his disguise and pray for luck. Dropping the foretop lookout and lowering the crow’s nest so as not to arouse too much suspicion, Detmers had groups of seamen deployed among the ‘shipping crates’ around the decks in civilian clothing, altered course to present his stern to the oncoming cruiser, and slightly increased his speed.

When the signal N.N.J. was repeatedly flashed from the cruiser, neither Detmers, his Chief Signalman, Erich Ahlbach, nor anyone else on the Kormoran’s bridge had a clue what it meant, so it was ignored, but when it was followed by the demand ‘What ship?’, Detmers astonished his signalman, who was about to morse the response with either the ship’s searchlight or her top lamp, by instructing him to reply with ‘flag wagging’, merchant-navy fashion … slowly and awkwardly. In the meantime the cruiser was coming steadily closer.

It was abundantly clear to Detmers that as he had no alternatives and was going to have to fight this cruiser, he wanted her as close as possible to remove some, if not all, of her advantages. The more confusion his signalmen could create with their flags, and the longer they took to respond to the enemy’s signals, the less time he would have to ask awkward questions that Detmers could not answer.

With the cruiser now about 15,000 metres off the starboard quarter, approaching at a speed of about 20 knots and, by the amount of smoke she was making, clearly firing up her engines, Detmers replied to the ‘What ship’ demand, by instructing the signal-code pennant to be hoisted half-way, meaning, ‘I can see your signal, but I can’t make out what it is’, after which he allowed some more time to elapse before flagging that he now understood, followed, a little later, but very slowly, first with one flag missing, and then with several tangled flags, by the Straat Malakka’s recognition signal. This last ruse was one of Leutnant Ahlbach’s own ideas, as he skillfully assisted his commander in his playing for time, slowly lowering the entangled flags before hoisting them again so clumsily that the obviously highly-irritated officers on the bridge of the cruiser had to signal twice to get him to hoist his signal clear.

With the cruiser now 12,000 metres away, she acknowledged receipt of the ‘Dutchman’s’ identification signal, and flashed a further signal requesting his port of destination. Detmers, who couldn’t understand why the enemy ship was still maintaining radio silence and why he hadn’t yet been asked to heave to, could only assume that her captain did not consider the Kormoran as a suspicious ship, replied ‘Batavia’. By this time the cruiser was between 8,000 and 9,000 metres and closing. Viewing her through the less conspicuous and portable anti-aircraft rangefinder from the bridge, Detmers could see that her four twin 6-inch turrets as well as her port torpedo tubes, were all trained on him, but noted that none of her 4-inch anti-aircraft guns were manned.

Without any noticable reduction in speed, and showing the narrowest of profiles, the cruiser continued to close with the Kormoran, while flashing a further signal, this time requesting the nature of her cargo. In replying ‘Piece Goods’, the German signalmen worked so inefficiently and so slowly that it was virtually incomprehensible to the enemy. To add to the confusion, at about five o’clock, Detmers ordered that the Dutch flag be raised and instructed his Radio Officer, Reinhold von Malapert, to transmit a ‘QQQ Straat Malakka’ distress signal, which was picked up and acknowledged by the Perth station.

Conscious of the fact that his crew had been at action stations for over an hour, and that for all of that time they could see and hear nothing, Detmers spoke to them quietly over the intercom. Telling them that they were about to go into action against ‘a small cruiser’ that they should be well able to dispose of, he received an answering cheer that told him all he needed to know about their state of readiness.

Noticing that the cruiser’s seaplane was on it’s catapult being prepared for take off, Detmers realised that the Kormoran would not stand close scrutiny from the air, but on the other hand, it’s mother ship was now only 3,000 metres away, and turning slightly to starboard, thus presenting a little more of her silhouette. As 3,000 metres was the extreme effective range of the Kormoran’s anti-aircraft guns, ideally, he wanted the distance between the two ships to close even further so that when the time came for action he could bring all his guns to bear at their maximum effectiveness, and so, he left the initiative with the enemy captain.

Unable to believe the enemy’s total lack of caution in approaching what was an unidentified ship, the officers on the bridge of the Kormoran had for some time expected the cruiser to call their bluff by requesting their secret call sign letters, which of course they did not know. But at last, it came. Hoisting the letters ‘IK’, part of the Straat Malakka’s four-letter secret call sign, the cruiser came abeam of the Kormoran no more that 1,000 metres away, at a reduced speed, and so close that the Germans could see members of her crew leaning on the rails staring at this strange ‘Dutch’ freighter.

Reminding Ahlbach to keep it slow with the flags, Detmers watched as the cruiser repeated the demand for the secret letters, this time in clear, and wondered if he now needed to go through the whole time-wasting routine of demanding the cruiser’s name, as any self-respecting Dutch captain might be expected to do in such circumstances, and as he would certainly have done had she asked for his secret call sign earlier, but decided that he no longer needed to. He needed no more time.

The cruiser was now sailing directly abeam of the Kormoran at a greatly reduced speed and at a range of under 1,000 metres. At exactly 17.30, within the space of a record six seconds, Detmers crew dropped the Dutch flag and their camouflage and ran up the German battle flag. On hearing Ahlbach report ‘War flag flying!’ he gave Skeries the order to fire at will, with the starboard 37mm guns and three of the first 150mm salvo scoring hits on the cruiser’s bridge and forward gunnery fire-control position.

As the raider’s second 150mm salvo was fired, the cruiser opened up with a full eight-gun broadside, which passed harmlessly high over the Kormoran’s stern. The Kormoran then fired eight salvos in succession, at six second intervals, without any fire coming back, due to the damage done to the enemy’s fire-control centre by her first salvo. At this range it was virtually impossible for the German gunners to miss, with every 155mm shell scoring a direct hit. While the twin 37mm AA guns pumped shells into the cruiser’s bridge and the 20mm flak and machine guns hammered away at her upper decks, preventing her crew from manning their anti-aircraft weapons and torpedo batteries.

Leutnant Greter got two torpedos away, one of which struck the cruiser below the forward gun turret, putting both turrets, A and B, out of action and staggering the ship, causing her to slow still further, leaving just the two after turrets, X and Y, firing independently, scoring three direct hits. The first went through the Kormoran’s funnel, and exploded on the disengaged side of the ship, killing two men in the radio shack, the second exploded in the auxiliary boiler-room and oil bunker amidships, starting a fire and putting her fire-fighting system out of action and most significantly, the third destroyed the sensitive transformers of the main engines.

With the engine room soon fiercely ablaze from ruptured oil pipelines, and the personnel desperately trying to control the fire, by 1745 hours the Kormoran’s engines were inaccessible. But her gunners kept up their merciless barrage, doing a tremendous amount of damage and slowly reducing the cruiser to a blazing wreck. The roof was blown off turret B, the Walrus seaplane was blown off it’s catapult into the sea, and flames were shooting up everywhere. The German anti-aircraft and heavy machine-gun fire was so intense that no one could move on the cruiser’s decks and not one torpedo was fired at the raider.

Turning slowly towards her, the crippled and burning ship appeared to be trying to ram her tormentor, but with so little speed and already down by the stern, she passed harmlessly behind her, with all her turrets pointing to leeward and out of action, and exposing her hitherto undamaged starboard side to the ferocity of the Kormoran’s anti-aircraft guns.

Enjoying a brief respite as she passed astern of the raider, during which Detmers maintained his course to present the smallest possible target in case of a torpedo attack, and the German gunners took the opportunity to cool their overheated gun barrels with water, the shattered cruiser was subjected to another onslaught as she appeared in the sights of Skeries’ port side 155mm guns. Intending to turn to follow the crippled enemy ship to finish her off, Detmers found that his ship was slowing, as the engine-room telegraph reported that both diesels were losing power and that contact with the engine-room had been lost.

Fortunately for him and for the Kormoran, the ship still had some way on her, as someone on the cruiser managed to fire a spread of four torpedoes, all of which passed harmlessly astern, just as the ship shuddered as her engines finally failed.

Having given instructions that the Chief was to use his discretion as to whether or not to abandon the control room, the messenger returned to report that the engine room was out of action and that there was no reply from anyone. It began to look as if Chief Engineer Scheer and all of his control room and engine room crew had lost their lives in the flames.

Meanwhile the gunners kept up their devastating fire, scoring direct hit after direct hit, reducing the shattered and hapless cruiser to a mass of flames. At 1825 hours, with the daylight rapidly fading and the burning warship drifting over 10,000 metres away, the German guns, having fired 450 shells, registering over fifty 150mm hits, fell silent, as Detmers ordered a cease fire.

For the next two and a half hours the crew of the Kormoran, which was almost as badly ablaze as her enemy, could see the glow of the fires ravaging what was left of the cruiser disappearing slowly into the gathering gloom, until suddenly, they saw one massive flame, as if from a gigantic explosion, and after that, nothing.

Posted by John Ray. For a daily critique of Leftist activities, see DISSECTING LEFTISM. For a daily survey of Australian politics, see AUSTRALIAN POLITICS Also, don't forget your summary of Obama news and commentary at OBAMA WATCH

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