Fateful Encounter – Sydney and Kormoran
- September 1978
- Holmes, L. F.
- History - WW2, Ship histories and stories
- None noted.
- Originally published in the Naval Historical Review edition (all rights reserved)
IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL NOVEMBER DAY bathed in warm sunshine and visibility in that part of the Indian Ocean was in Captain Detmers’ own words ‘perfect.’
Approaching Shark Bay south of Carnarvon in West Australia, Detmer’s ship the Kormoran intended to disgorge many of the deadly mines she carried in her belly into the sea lanes off the coast.
At 3.55 p.m. the ship’s alarm bells began their raucous jangle and Kapitan Theodor Detmers of the German Navy quickly made his way to the bridge to identify the cause of the commotion, a small white spot on the horizon almost dead ahead.
Some seventeen months earlier Detmers had begun his association with Hilfskreuzer ’41′ as Kormoran was officially known, in Hamburg, after service in destroyers of Hitler’s navy.
A recently built merchant vessel of some 9,400 tons, launched at Kiel as the Steiermark for the Hamburg-Amerika Line, she was intended for service on the East Asia run, but the war intervened and the vessel was converted into an auxiliary cruiser, manned by officers and ratings of the German Navy.
Unable to match the might of the Royal Navy in both World Wars the Germans specialized in heavily armed merchant vessels, operating under many disguises, preying on unescorted shipping the length and breadth of the far-flung oceans.
They wrecked substantial havoc in their depredations, often staying on the high seas for more than a year, refuelling and rearming clandestinely from depot ships in lonely rendezvous situated far off the main shipping lanes.
Kormoran was armed with six 5.9 inch guns, five 2cm. anti-aircraft guns and two 3.7cm. cannon, all ingeniously hidden from sight and capable of being brought into action surprisingly fast.
In addition the Hamburg Yards fitted her with six torpedo-tubes, two Arado reconnaissance aircraft and a fast motor boat for mine-laying. The former cargo carrier was transformed into a raider with armament approaching that of a naval Cruiser, but all the more sinister because of her disguise.
On December 3rd 1940 Kormoran slipped out of Gotenhafen in the Baltic fully prepared for a long spell at sea, her roomy holds filled with the deadly impedimenta of war, and bound, via the Denmark Strait, for the pickings of the Atlantic.
By the 19th of December the raider, now disguised as a Russian freighter, had broken through into the Atlantic undetected, and was below Latitude 40 degrees west of the Azores.
At about this same time the Royal Australian Navy’s most famous ship, the light cruiser Sydney, was the subject of communications between the Admiralty and the Australian Naval Board.
Sydney had covered herself with glory in the Mediterranean conflict, her most notable action being the Battle of Cape Spada off northern Crete, where she engaged two Italian cruisers of similar armament on July 19th 1940.
In a running battle HMAS Sydney, commanded by Tasmanian born Captain John Collins, sank the world’s fastest cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni and damaged her sister ship before the latter escaped with superior speed.
Coming at a time when Allied reverses were manifold, Sydney’s victory was a great morale booster.
After almost eight months continual service in Mussolini’s mare nostrum, Sydney suffered one direct hit in some eighty-eight separate actions and earned the title of a ‘lucky ship’.
As she sailed out of Malta’s Grand Harbour on January 9th 1941, the British Mediterranean Fleet dipped their ensigns to the Australian, and her sister ship Perth, newly arrived from home to relieve her signalled ‘Good luck and safe voyage home’.
Three days before Sydney left Malta, Kormoran claimed her first victim, the small Greek freighter Antonis in the mid Atlantic.
Shortly before midnight on February 9th the Australian cruiser entered Port Jackson, and on the following day made her way up harbour to a berth at East Circular Quay, surrounded by scores of small craft. Passing Bradley’s head where the tripod mast of the First World War Sydney stands, an ensign dipped from this relic of the conqueror of the German cruiser Emden in 1914.
The city of Sydney welcomed their ship with great enthusiasm, the Premier and Lord Mayor presenting the ship with a plaque commemorating her victory and then the whole ship’s company marched up a crowded George St. to a civic reception at the Town Hall.
The glare of publicity faded as abruptly as it had begun, and Sydney went back to war, wrapped in a tight blanket of security that shrouded her activities to the end.
In late April, after rendezvousing with sister raider Atlantis and a depot ship, Kormoran fully replenished left the mid- Atlantic and stood south of the Cape of Good Hope, bound for the Indian Ocean and as her captain hoped, more lucrative hunting grounds.
Sydney was now operating out of Fremantle, escorting convoys to Colombo and Singapore, a rather tame life after the action-filled days in the Mediterranean.
The lengthening rays of the Rising Sun were assuming increasingly sinister proportions in the Pacific area and urgent diplomatic moves were in progress to integrate British, Dutch and American defences in the East.
The ABDA command as it was known was set up, and Sydney’s skipper John Collins was chosen to join the organization as Assistant Chief of Staff.
Captain J. Burnett RAN assumed command of Sydney on May 15th 1941, having spent the time since war began ashore as Assistant Chief of Naval Staff.
The cruiser’s first assignment under her new skipper was to escort the troopship Zealandia to Singapore with nearly one thousand men of the AIF’s 8th Division and RAAF personnel.
In late July Kormoran, now masquerading as a Japanese freighter in the Indian Ocean, decided upon her final disguise and became the Dutch vessel Straat Malakka, a ship of similar though not identical proportions.
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