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The Life and Death of HMAS Sydney (II): Part 5


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Sydney’s failure to arrive in Fremantle on November 20th didn’t cause any concern as there could be many reasons why which did not require her to break radio silence, but by November 23rd, communication stations in Fremantle -- and later across Australia -- sent messages to Sydney to report in, with no luck. That morning the troopship RMS Aquitania rescued 26 Kormoran survivors in a life raft, but this was not reported until days later when she made visual contact with Wilson's Promontory, Victoria. Captain Detmers saw the Aquitania but did not want to make his presence known as he hoped to be picked up by a ship of a neutral country. The next morning, planes based out of RAAF Base Pearce, north of Perth, started searching for HMAS Sydney. 

RMS Aquitania


That afternoon, the British tanker Trocas rescued 25 Kormoran survivors in a life raft, and it was there that the authorities learned that Sydney had been in a battle with a raider and a full-scale search for Sydney and her crew began.

Trocas finds a life raft with German sailors in it, prompting a full scale search for Sydney.



Ships were then sent out to join the search and in the days following they found Kormoran survivors in lifeboats or liferafts near the battle area or in lifeboats that had rowed to shore at 17-Mile Well and Red Bluff, north of Carnarvon.

Kormoran survivors rescued by the MV Centaur (prior to her conversion to a Hospital ship).

Photograph looking down on two lifeboats crammed with people in naval uniforms. A third lifeboat of a different design can be seen behind the first two.


Kormoran survivors arriving in Australia




Planes searched along the coast and south of Indonesia in case Sydney was still afloat but unable to send wireless messages, with no luck. The search was terminated at sunset on November 29th. A total of 317 out of 399 of Kormoran’s crew were rescued, but except for one the remains of the 82 who were lost were never found. None of Sydney’s 645 man crew were found.

The only definite remains ever found of Sydney were a life raft (also known as a Carley float) that was recovered by the tugboat HMAS Heros with bullet holes that were determined by the Australia War Memorial in 1992 and 1993 to have originated from high explosive shells of German origin and certainly not from machine gun bullets, and a life jacket with the knotting found in a way that indicated it was attached to someone.

Heros recovers a life raft from Sydney on November 28th



Life raft on display at the Australia War Memorial.

The Long Journey Home - The Story of the Unknown Serviceman - Naval  Historical Society of Australia


Another life raft from Sydney was found on February 6th 1942 near Christmas Island, south of Java, 79 days after the sinking. Aboard it was a badly decomposed body of a Caucasian male in a blue boiler suit.



The body was buried a short time later just prior to the Japanese occupation and was exhumed in October 2006 where an autopsy was performed. The autopsy revealed that the individual had died when a piece of shrapnel from a German naval shell had been embedded into his head. When the life raft was found there was a shoe or a pair of shoes which didn’t match the shoe size of the Unknown Sailor so it’s quite likely that there was at least one other person on the raft at some point. The body may have fallen into the life raft or was placed there by his shipmates, it could also be that the piece of shrapnel was embedded into Sydney and as she sank, an explosion or burst of air pressure dislodged the shrapnel from Sydney and into the individual. The autopsy revealed that the individual was between 22-31 years of age, was between 5 ft 6” and 6 ft 2’’ lived in eastern Australia and may have grown up on the coast, DNA analysis found his family was from Asia or Eastern Europe. Attempts to extract DNA from the body started in 2009, but have been unable to match it with any known relatives. By 2014 the search had been narrowed to 50 of Sydney’s crew. On November 19th 2021, for the 80th anniversary, it was announced that the body was that of Able Seaman Thomas Welsby Clark, a 21 year old man from Brisbane who was an accountant and had enlisted on Sydney in August 1941.

Clark in 1940 while onboard HMAS St. Giles



 The disaster hit Australia hard and the entire nation was in a state of shock for weeks after as HMAS Sydney was the Pride of the Royal Australian Navy; she was the safe ship, the lucky ship, the Darling of the fleet, the ship that had never suffered a single fatality of its crew in combat was now lost with all of its crew. The loss of all 645 men represented 35% of all Australian sailors who died in World War 2. There was not a family or community in Australia that was not touched by the loss of all of Sydney’s crew. There were sailors mother’s who for many months following kept new, clean sheets on the beds of their sons waiting for them to come home 😭. HMAS Sydney remains Australia’s worst maritime disaster as well as the RAN’s worst single loss of life.

         Kormoran’s 317 survivors were taken prisoner of war and interrogated for what had happened. Even though most of them were instructed to give false accounts, many did not follow this instruction and they all told pretty much the same story about what happened and many of the same details were told. This indicated to the authorities that the German account was accurate. Captain Theodor Detmers also had a journal which gave a minute by minute account of what had occurred. Because there were no Sydney survivors, only one side of the story was told and therefore many questions remain unanswered. The Kormoran survivors were released from captivity in 1947

Kormoran survivors in captivity (Captain Detmers in the first row, second from the right).

File:Kormoran senior officers.jpg - Wikimedia Commons


The reason for most of Kormoran's crew surviving while none of Sydney's surviving is that Kormoran had easy access to life rafts and lifeboats, Sydney's crew likely had access to few life rafts and lifejackets which are not meant for long term survival. With only a few number of these it's unlikely that any of them, especially those with injuries and needed immediate medical attention, survived for 4 days. It’s likely that any Sydney survivors died long before the search began and if any bodies sank it would have taken 3-10 days for them to surface; some have proposed that the bodies of Sydney’s crew took even longer than 10 days to surface: after the search was terminated, and then the sharks got them. In the case of the USS Indianapolis, 900 out of the 1,200 went into the sea as she sank but when the crew and wreckage were accidentally spotted four days later and a rescue operation immediately began, just over 300 survived due to shark infested waters, lack of food and fresh water, saltwater poisoning, exposure to the elements during day and night, as well as injuries sustained.  


In August 1997, an inquiry into the loss of HMAS Sydney was conducted by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade began and published its report in March 1999. One of the recommendations was for the Navy to sponsor a seminar to find the wrecks of both ships, this was hampered by those who believed that the battle took place more south and was more closer to shore. In 2001, shipwreck hunter David Mearns, who had also found the wrecks of the HMS Hood and M/V Derbyshire (and would later find the wreck of the AHS Centaur in 2010), joined a volunteer ground, Finding Sydney Foundation, and in 2005 they gained a partial funding by the Australian Government and then from State Governments and by the general public, by August 2007 with another funding by the Australian Government, they raised enough money to find both ships. The team mobilized onboard the MV Geosounder in February 2008 at Geraldton and set off the following month. On March 12th 2008 they located the mangled wreck of the Kormoran near where the Germans said the battle took place. Using the data from the German account, the wreck of HMAS Sydney was located on March 17th, 21 kilometers away at a depth of 2,468 meters. ROVs were sent down to explore the wreck on April 3rd and the wreck confirmed much of the story told by the Germans.

Wreck images of Sydney: HMAS Sydney (II) - Part 4 | Royal Australian Navy


Captain Theodor Detmers was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross in December 1941 by the Kriegsmarine, while the crew of HMAS Sydney were posthumously honoured for sinking Kormoran and awarded a medal, “Kormoran 1941”. HSK Kormoran remains the only Raider in history to sink a warship of that size. As a result, the Admiralty changed instructions on capturing supply ships to only engage at a close distance if there was no risk of the ship being a raider or accompanied by a submarine. Following this change, no other warships in World War 2 met a similar fate. 80 years after the sinking, the mystery of HMAS Sydney continues; in particular, why did Sydney get so close to Kormoran and why didn’t anyone on the bridge challenge this decision? Why didn’t Captain Burnett radio port, asking if the Straat Malakka was supposed to be there considering the fact that it was unescorted and he was concerned about raiders in the area? The wreck of Sydney only tells us what happened, not why it happened. All we know for certain is the account by the Kormoran survivors, 727 men from both ships were lost, and only 3 pieces of wreckage and one body known to have come from Sydney were ever recovered. She is the largest allied vessel in World War 2 to be lost with all hands. Over the decades, many books have been written about her. This is one of these things that should never have happened, and didn’t have to happen. Overall we will probably never know for certain what happened on HMAS Sydney in her final hours.


This series is dedicated to the 645 men on Sydney who paid the ultimate sacrifice on November 19th 1941:

Photo taken of Sydney's crew following the Battle of Cape Spada on July 19th 1940.

File:HMAS Sydney 1934 crew.jpg


May their sacrifice, their ship, and their story never be forgotten.






Edited by Enceladus
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Wow, you have put a lot of hard work in to this historical report, and it really is presented very well Sir. Nice job Enceladus! I thoroughly enjoyed reading all five parts and learned another piece of WWII history. Thanks for sharing this Sir. I give it my highest rating! Ten Thumbs up!!!;)




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35 minutes ago, BladeMeister said:

Wow, you have put a lot of hard work in to this historical report, and it really is presented very well Sir. Nice job Enceladus! I thoroughly enjoyed reading all five parts and learned another piece of WWII history. Thanks for sharing this Sir. I give it my highest rating! Ten Thumbs up!!!;)




You're very welcome.


I'll always remember the time in Grade 11 Social Studies where the teacher told us that we would be doing an inquiry project and "anything between 1920 and 1946 is fair game". Following that statement I decided to do mine about HMAS Sydney and the main question was whether the Captain of HMAS Sydney was Blindsided or Incompetent? This is a question which will most likely never be sufficiently answered, but after the inquiry project and doing this series, I believe that both factors were at play here.

At the end the teacher did not like that I did this project because it had only 1 tie to Canada; I learned from students in the following semester that inquiry projects had to have ties to Canada. If that had been also stated then I would have done mine about Malta or Sicily. However, students told me the following year that the teacher in question no longer cared about ties to Canada and students could do whatever they wanted.


It's interesting that a story where an armed-freighter was able to take out a light cruiser and then the light cruiser sank with no survivors while most of the crew on the enemy ship survived and then the only people who could say what happened was the enemy is not well known elsewhere in the world. I mean, that particular year only myself and no fewer than 4 other students in the entire school had ever heard of HMAS Sydney.

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Very interesting story, thanks for sharing! Very odd how a warship got mauled by a raider. Raiders were armed to teeth as it turns out. And the opening shots from Kormoran that demolished the bridge pretty much crippled any chain of command. 

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