- A.N. Other and NHSA Webmaster
- WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Sydney II
- December 1998 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
This is a naval communicator’s comments after studying most if not all the available evidence, including the voluminous “Submissions” to the Inquiry and the Hansard Transcripts of the public sessions:
It is considered that communications, codes, callsigns and procedures, etc, provide a “key” to what probably happened during the encounter.
Many of the public submissions contribute little- to solving the critical issue of initial contact between the two ships, and some just add to the controversy. A few, having generally accepted the German version of events, are unfairly critical of Captain Burnett. Others continue to accuse successive Governments of a “cover-up”, and some of the many who concentrate on location of the wrecks, naively believe that close inspection of Sydney will solve the mystery – although some of their motives seem to be commercially inspired. Late submissions to the committee by many of the “main players” (authors & researchers) degenerated into an unedifying slanging match between themselves.
However, some people have put considerable effort into their research and have come up with logical and constructive points, but the general level of nautical knowledge is abysmal, particularly in the field of communications at the time (many assuming that there was instant contact with anyone and everyone – the “satellite/mobile phone syndrome. “)
Apart from other considerations dictating against the theory of a Japanese submarine being involved in the action, communications would have been quite inadequate and unacceptable for surface ship-submarine co-operation (eg, no common codes, no underwater link, and reliance on vulnerable HF radio which could so easily compromise the operation).
One reason that accusations of a “cover-up” continue is because of several reports of signals from Sydney, including calls for assistance, being heard in various locations on the night of the action. These are all of a dubious nature.
The consensus of reliable evidence indicates that there were no radio transmissions from either Sydney or Kormoran (apart from the latter’s false QQQ signal on local 500 kcs). The late Writer Mason’s claim of hearing that Sydney was in trouble is unbelievable. He had no access to Harman’s radio receiving rooms. Responsible operators who were there swear that nothing was received, and other ship-shore operators guarding the same frequencies in Darwin, Singapore, Ceylon, etc. heard nothing. It is a scurrilous smear on the Navy and the RAN Communication Branch to suggest that vital signals were suppressed for no apparent reason thereby delaying a search for Sydney for over 3 days. The best light one can put on Mason’s claim is that he was confused with talk of considerable communication activity in Harman a few days later when concerted efforts were made to contact Sydney, or later when the search was mounted. While the diehards may still not accept it, the clear indications are that Sydney made no signals. – No enemy contact report (required if Cape Burnett considered he was confronting a German raider or supply ship). – No check on the Straat Malakka (if he had any doubts about her identity or current whereabouts).
The conclusion is that Sydney was completely satisfied with the Straat Malakka and not just with her disguise (including her use of false international signal letters and the Dutch ensign).
She had somehow come through the most testing examination – Why else did Sydney fall out from “action stations”, leaving her secondary armament and torpedo tubes unmanned; cancel the Walrus aircraft flight, have off watch personnel relaxing on the upper deck, etc; and close to point-blank range?
The only logical explanation is that Captain Detmers had produced one of the “trump cards” of the war, which was to cost Australia dearly. In response to Sydney’s ultimate challenge it appears that Kormoran coolly answered with the required elements of Straat Malakka’s secret callsign!
Impossible some will say, and certainly unthinkable at the time. But revelations in more recent years about compromised codes, captured cyphers and Germany’s early successes in the fields of intelligence and cryptanalysis indicate that such a coup was quite within the realms of possibility, even probability.
No less an authority than Britain’s official naval historian, Captain S.W. Roskill RN conceded in later life that not only had the Germans been reading our merchant ship codes in 1941, but also had gained knowledge of some secret callsigns. They did not need them all – just one or two in each theatre of war so that raiders, etc. could then adopt the identity of a ship with a compromised secret callsign.