The sinking of HMAS Sydney II
Thursday 7 November, 2019
In 2008, the wrecks of HMAS Sydney II and the German raider Kormoran were found off the coast of Western Australia. The two ships sank when, on 19 November 1941 they were involved in an unexpected and disastrous clash. Some, who have spent many years investigating the incident, say the Sydney may have been involved in a ruse set up by the Germans, and were ultimately lured into a trap that involved a Japanese submarine. Some even suggested there had been a cover up by the Australian Government – a conspiracy which still prevails today.
The true story of what happened that day is still being written but the sad fact remains: all Australian Navy personnel on board the Sydney that day, were lost – a total of 639 men, along with six men of the RAAF who were also deployed to HMAS Sydney for maintenance, supply and reconnaissance duties.
The Kormoran lost 80 of its crew that day, with the remaining 317 collected from the Indian Ocean by the Allies over the following 48 to 72 hours. These men provided accounts of the battle from the German point of view, offering relatives and military authorities some picture of what happened, but the story has always remained incomplete. The discovery of the wrecks allowed examination of new evidence and presented some hope for relatives that a more complete picture would subsequently be revealed. Work continues on this effort through the Finding Sydney Foundation, which delivered a report on its findings to the Australian Government in 2009. The Foundation continues to work to commemorate the crew of the Sydney II including creation of a virtual memorial in their honour.
The Australian War Memorial has the names of those who died listed on its Honour Roll. Among its collections are records, artefacts, photographs and works of art that help tell a more complete story of HMAS Sydney II as she made her way toward her final battle. She had been in service for more than seven years having been commissioned by the Royal Australian Navy in 1933 and launched by Mrs Ethel Bruce, wife of the Australian High Commissioner to Britain, Stanley Bruce (former Australian Prime Minister).
The items on display at the War Memorial include the Carley Float life raft, recovered approximately 300km off the coast of Carnarvon a week after the Sydney sank. The artefacts and memorabilia also tell the story of the six men who were serving with the Royal Australian Air Force, who are commemorated under the name of their own squadron, No. 9 Squadron RAAF.
HMAS Sydney had been originally named HMS Phaeton. She was purchased from the British Government in the early 1930s and renamed in memory of her namesake, made famous for sinking German light cruiser the Emden in World War 1.
After her remarkable contribution over 15 years, in 1928 the Sydney I was decommissioned and delivered to Cockatoo Island for ‘break-up’ the following year.
HMAS Sydney’s commissioning crew, Portsmouth, 1935. – Source www.navy.gov.au
Sydney II began her commission on 24 September, 1935. Her ship’s company had been drawn from HMAS Brisbane, which had been decommissioned earlier that day. She was one of three Modified Leander-class light cruisers acquired by the Royal Australian Navy during the 1930s. The other two were Perth and Hobart, both of which had operated with the Royal Navy for a short period prior to being purchased by Australia in 1938.
Many believed Australia should have been building her own cruising warships at this time, but there were several reasons given for the decision to purchase British built cruisers instead. First, Sydney was close to completion at a time of impending war. Second the two cruisers which had been built in Australia had taken seven years to complete. This meant there was not enough time to train a crew or acquire the shipbuilding skills required to fill Australia’s more urgent naval needs.
After helping to enforce sanctions imposed by the League of Nations during the Abyssinia Crisis between Italy and Ethiopia in the 1930s, HMAS Sydney II returned to Australia and began her pre-war service in 1938, assigned as a convoy escort and patrol ship in Australian waters.
In 1939, following her participation in the joint forces trade protection exercise involving eight warships off the south-east coast of Australia, Sydney II made her way to Darwin. From there she had planned to make a visit to the Netherlands East Indies. However, she was ordered to sail to Fremantle on a war footing in response to the events which prompted the start of World War II, arriving there on 22 August, 1939.
Captain John Collins took over command of Sydney II on 16 November that year. On 28 November she joined the Australian heavy cruisers Australia and Canberra in an unsuccessful four-day search for the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, known to be operating in the Indian Ocean.
On 21 June 1940, she was part of British Mediterranean Fleet which bombarded the Italian occupied town of Bardia, Libya along with the French Battleship Lorraine and the HMS Orion and HMS Neptune along with the destroyers HMS Dainty, Decoy, Hasty, and HMAS Stuart. However the bombardment is reported to have only caused minimal damage, with the town later taken on 5 January 1941 during Operation Compass, with significant involvement by Australia’s 6th Division.
That same day Germany had signed the Second Armistice at Compiegne with Vichy France and the French warships were ordered to return to France and disarm. But the British were reluctant to let them fall into German hands and Sydney II and the British warships were ordered to turn their guns on the French. Fortunately the British Admiral Cunningham and French Admiral Godfroy were able to negotiate to disarm the ships at Alexandria in Egypt.
From Alexandria Sydney escorted a Malta convoy on June 27. Late on June 28 the convoy engaged a force of three Italian destroyers successfully disabling the third: Espero, which Sydney II was detailed to recover and sink while the rest of the force continued through to Malta. However, as Sydney II drew closer to the Espero, the Italian destroyer fired two shells, both of which fell short. Sydney II returned fire and after four salvos, successfully struck the Espero with a shot which sank her 35 minutes later. Despite the high risk of a counter attack by submarines, Sydney II remained in the area for another two hours, rescuing 47 Italian survivors before being ordered to withdraw to Alexandria. She left a fully provisioned cutter in the water for use by other Italian survivors, prior to her departure.
Sydney II later earned a battle honour for her role in Calabria, which involved safe delivery of Malta Convoy MA 5 from Alexandria to Malta. On her way to Alexandria she fought off continuous air attacks and had expended her entire outfit of 4-inch anti-aircraft ammunition, surviving unscathed with no casualties and only a few of her signal halyards shot away.
Following her involvement in the Battle of Calabria she worked with the British destroyer HMS Havock patrolling the Gulf of Athens for Axis warships and shipping, as well as providing support for an Allied four-ship destroyer force that was conducting a heavy anti-submarine mine sweep north of Crete. Commander John Collins thought the two tasks incompatible and ordered both ships into a position that enabled them to undertake a more effective patrol for the destroyer force, while maintaining radio silence.
The destroyer force had been spotted by a pair of Italian light cruisers (Giovanni dalle Bande Nere and Bartolomeo Colleoni) both of which opened fire seven minutes later. Using the wireless signals to track the destroyers with the cruisers in pursuit, Sydney II and Havock were able to close a full half hour earlier than they would have had they followed their original instructions.
Sydney II opened fire on the Bande Nere, and within minutes the Bande Nere was successfully damaged and withdrew to the south – the six Allied destroyers in hot pursuit. But Bande Nere successfully hid behind a smoke screen and Sydney II turned her attention to the Bartolomeo Colleoni which was disabled. Collins ordered the destroyers to torpedo the ship and rescue survivors while Sydney II, with help from Hero and Hasty, went after Bande Nere which ultimately outran them. In what became known as the Battle of Cape Spada, Sydney II had sustained minimal damage; a shell knocked a hole in the forward funnel and wounded a sailor through splinter damage.
Sydney II returned to Alexandria, where the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Naval Forces in the Mediterranean, Admiral Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham boarded Sydney II from his barge and personally congratulated Captain Collins and his crew for their actions in the Battle of Cape Spada.
‘For this fine, brisk action which showed the high efficiency and magnificent fighting qualities of the Royal Australian Navy, Captain Collins was immediately awarded the Companion of the Bath, by His Majesty, a well-deserved honour’.
The credit for this successful and gallant action belongs mainly to Captain J.A. Collins, C.B., R.A.N., who by his quick appreciation of the situation, offensive spirit and resolute handling of HMAS Sydney II, achieved a victory over a superior force which has had important strategical effects. It is significant that, so far as is known, no Italian surface forces have returned into or near the Aegean since this action was fought.
As well as Collins being appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath, other officers and sailors from Sydney II received two Distinguished Service Orders, two Distinguished Service Crosses, five Distinguished Service Medals, and twelve Mentions in Despatches between them. Sydney II herself was awarded the battle honour “Spada 1940.”
The news of Sydney II’s victory made the headlines in every newspaper across Australia. The Melbourne Herald of 20 July 1940 reported in its evening edition that:
‘Once again the Australian Navy has shown the splendid fighting quality and efficiency of the last war. “Sydney” outfought and destroyed the famous “Emden” and now her younger sister writes another page of naval history that will thrill the civilized world’
Newspapers in London and New York enthusiastically acknowledged Sydney II’s victory over the two superior Italian cruisers, while the Sydney Morning Herald of 22 July 1940 announced that:
“Flags will be flown on all Government buildings throughout New South Wales today in honour of a great naval exploit.”
Sydney’s triumphant return to Alexandria following the Cape Spada action. Source: www.navy.gov.au
While in Alexandria, Sydney II underwent repairs and a refit, as well as a repaint from the standard grey of the naval fleets to the new naval camouflage pattern introduced to confuse the enemy. Over the following eight months she participated in various actions which formed part of the Allies’ Mediterranean naval campaign, for which she was later awarded the “Mediterranean 1940” battle honour.
Sydney II was instructed to return home on 8 January, 1941 by proceeding along the north coast of Africa and linking up with any Australia bound merchant ships she encountered. The recall was made to undertake a major refit and to give her crew personal leave; part of a plan to spread combat experience throughout the RAN by trading the cruiser with her sister ship, Perth. It also fulfilled the need to protect Australia against the German merchant raiders that had been operating in the area following attacks on Nauru.
‘Sydney II returned to her namesake, on 9 February, 1941, anchoring in Watson’s Bay. The following morning she weighed anchor and slowly made her way towards her assigned berth at Circular Quay. She sailed amidst an escort of scores of motor launches carrying excited relatives and friends.’ 
A huge crowd had assembled at Circular Quay to welcome home Captain Collins and the crew of the Sydney II including Australia’s Governor-General, Lord Gowrie, Minister for the Navy, Billy Hughes, and the First Naval Member Sir Ragnar Colvin.
On behalf of the citizens of Sydney the Premier of New South Wales, Mr Mair and the City of Sydney Lord Mayor, Alderman Crick, came on board Sydney II the following day to present a plaque to the ship and her crew commemorating her victory over the Bartolomeo Colleoni.
Following its unveiling the crew and Sydney II’s band marched through the streets of Sydney to a civic reception which had been arranged for them at the Town Hall. Thousands of people lined George Street including school children who had been given the day off school.
Sydney II’s return to Australia was both timely and symbolic as evidence of an encroaching enemy around the Australian coastline had been mounting. Bass Strait and the entrance to Port Phillip Bay had both been mined by raiders and ‘pressure had been brought to bear on the government to bring the RAN’s big ships home to deal with the mounting threat.’
On 28 February, 1941 Sydney II sailed toward Fremantle where she began a period of routine convoy escort duties off the coast of Western Australia.
In April she was deployed to undertake a high speed passage via Fremantle to Singapore to carry the First Naval Member to a high level Allied conference. Here her Captain “Colleoni John” as he had been nicknamed by his crew, handed over command to Captain Joseph Burnett, RAN. While in Singapore he had been appointed the Australian Naval Representative to the Commander-in-Chief China, Vice Admiral (Sir) Geoffrey Layton.
Later in his career, Collins reflected on his time with Sydney II:
“To me there has never been before, nor will there ever be again, a ship quite to compare with the cruiser Sydney of World War II”
After a number of deployments on the east coast, including several to New Zealand, Sydney II passed through the Sydney Heads, assigned to escort US 12B to Fremantle where she arrived three days later on 25 September. Leaving Fremantle to undertake the ‘milk run’ up to Sunda Strait she did a handover of US12B to HMS Glasgow who would finish the escort. By now she had become a familiar sight off the coast of Western Australia where there had also been a number of disturbing reports about the disappearance of several merchant ships. This suggested there was a raider in the region. In fact, the German Navy’s largest auxiliary cruiser, the Kormoran, disguised as a Dutch merchant ship MV Straat Malakka and her Captain, Kapitan zur See Theodor Anton Detmers were the culprits.
On November 19, after returning from an escort of the Zealandia to the handover point to HMS Durban in the Sunda Straits, Sydney II would encounter the Kormoran by surprise. It was an encounter that would prove to be her undoing and remains Australia’s worst naval disaster.
HMAS Sydney III, commissioned in 1948, inherited her Battle Honours as well as those of Sydney I before her. Sydney III would add her own Battle Honours for Korea (1951-52), Malaysia (1964) and Vietnam (1965-72) until her eventual decommissioning in 1973.
For more on Sydney III click here: http://www.navy.gov.au/hmas-sydney-iii
For more on Sydney II, including imagery visit: https://www.navy.gov.au/hmas-sydney-ii
http://www.navy.gov.au/hmas-sydney-ii-part-2 * Author John Perryman courtesy, David L Mearns, The Search for the Sydney, How Australia’s Greatest Maritime Mystery was Solved, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2009
http://guides.naa.gov.au/sinking-of-hmas-sydney/ – Richard Summerrell – The Sinking of HMAS Sydney: A Guide to Commonwealth Government Records.
Finding Sydney Foundation: http://www.sydneymemorial.com/About.htm