- Zammitt, Alan
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Sydney IV, HMAS Sydney III, HMAS Sydney I, HMAS Sydney II
- July 1992 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
This class of Italian cruiser has reached speeds of over 40 knots. To achieve this they had 95,000 HP engines and very thin armour plating whereas SYDNEY had an armour belt of up to two to three inches in vital parts.
SYDNEY’S victory was just what the nation needed. In May and June 1940 France, Belgium, Holland and Norway had been captured. Italy had declared war on June 10, 1940 and the British Commonwealth was fighting overwhelming odds.
HMAS SYDNEY was given a tumultuous welcome both when she returned to her base at Alexandria and when she arrived back in Sydney in February 1941.
The Lord Mayor of Sydney presented a plaque to the ship and each member of her complement received a silver plated bronze medal with the name of the crew member engraved. Most of these medals would have gone down with the ship.
On November 19, 1941 HMAS SYDNEY was lost with her crew of 645. There were no survivors. It was the RAN’s greatest single loss of personnel. Far more Australians lost their lives in this action than in the many years of the Vietnam War.
SYDNEY’S last encounter was with the German Raider KORMORAN; disguised as a Dutch merchant ship it was intercepted by HMAS SYDNEY off West Australia some 150 miles from Carnarvon. SYDNEY was within a mile of KORMORAN when the Raider aided by the element of surprise opened fire with guns and torpedoes. The SYDNEY replied almost simultaneously with vital hits on KORMORAN. The battle raged at close range and both ships suffered devastating damage which sealed their doom. KORMORAN on fire in the engine room was scuttled. SYDNEY drifted away into the night on fire – about 10 pm there was flickering, then darkness. Nothing was seen of SYDNEY or her gallant ship’s company again.
Amongst those at the Service was Commander Pat Burnett, son of SYDNEY’S last Commanding Officer, Captain Joseph Burnett. Pat entered the RAN College as a Cadet-Midshipman in 1942. Rory Burnett, Captain Burnett’s other son became a Cadet Midshipman in 1943 and retired as a Commodore. Both sons, like their father, were outstanding Rugby players and sportsmen.
Commander Pat Burnett, who was Mentioned in Despatches during the Korean War and later specialised in Navigation, said: “the reason behind SYDNEY’S close approach to KORMORAN before the action started will never be known, but it seems in the light of events that my father in this instance was too confident of his ability to handle any eventuality that might arise.” Pat said the tragedy was very hard on his mother and he and his brother had to live with it. What Commander Burnett did not say was that some Captains and ships are lucky and with some their luck runs out.
During 1941 in the Indian Ocean two other Raiders fired first and hit cruisers. HMS CORNWALL was hit by PINGUIN and HMNZS LEANDER came within 3000 yards of the small 3,667 ton Italian armed Merchant ship RAMB 1 which scored the first hit. The Captains of the two Cruisers both had 3½ years seniority as the rank of Captain over Captain Burnett.
Others will point out that Captain Farncomb, RAN, Commanding Officer of HMAS CANBERRA and the Captain of HMS DEVONSHIRE stood off out of range of the German ships they intercepted and sank.
At the HMAS SYDNEY Memorial Services there are always a few relatives with lost loved ones like Mrs Irene Lang-Harrowell who lost her brother, Bill Lang. Mrs Joyce Fanolis came from Connecticut in the USA. She lost her brother Stoker Richard Mogler. Lady Collins, the widow of Sir John Collins always attends the Services. Alex Bandeen, an eighty year old Scot from Aberdeen, travelled 12,000 miles to be at the Memorial Service. His own ship the tanker BRITISH UNION had been sunk by KORMORAN early in 1941. The BRITISH UNION’S pet monkey, Tommy, was adopted by KORMORAN and survived the action only to be destroyed by the Quarantine Customs Department in Australia.