- Dayton, Leigh
- WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Sydney II
- December 1995 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Victims of the worst naval disaster in Australian history were not gunned down in their lifeboat by their German foes as was believed, claims a scientist who has analysed the surviving wreckage of the ill-fated HMAS Sydney.
The Sydney, a 6,839 tonne cruiser, disappeared off Carnarvon in Western Australia on November 19, 1941, after an encounter at close range with a heavily armed German raider, the Kormoran, which was disguised as a Dutch freighter. Both ships sank and have never been found.
Although most of the Kormoran’s crew survived, all 645 hands aboard the Sydney perished, leaving behind only a damaged and, apparently, bullet-riddled lifeboat.
Despite denials by survivors from the Kormoran, these suspicious holes led to a widely held belief that the Germans machine-gunned the helpless Australians.
But that interpretation is not possible, claims Professor Dudley Creagh, a physicist with the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.
“It’s highly unlikely that the lifeboat was even launched,” he said yesterday at the annual meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS) in Newcastle.
Professor Creagh said the evidence suggested that the lifeboat was still lashed to the rear deck of the Sydney when it was engaging the Kormoran. In his view, the lifeboat was struck by fragments flung from the Sydney’s own superstructure as it took hits from the Kormoran.
Professor Creagh based his conclusion on x-ray analysis of objects found on board the lifeboat. The work was conducted in collaboration with Mr John Ashton, Ms Kathy Challenor and Mr Bob Courtney of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
The X-ray procedure enabled the researchers to “see” internal structural features of the objects.
These features are as distinct to the object as fingerprints to people.
Professor Creagh has used this technique to authenticate Ming Dynasty porcelain and Asian bronzes and to pick out fraudulent Victoria Crosses.
He said the test results on the Sydney samples showed clearly that the objects ranged from that of cork and fabric to, most tellingly, pieces of steel and brass.
“The steel and brass was very similar to what you would expect the Sydney to be made of,” he said, adding that it was totally unlike the metal used in German armaments at the time.
So what happened in the last hours of Sydney’s life? “I think the Sydney sailed off on her own steam with all its superstructure blown apart and nobody alive,” concluded Professor Creagh.