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- March 2008 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
This Obituary was first published in the UK’s Daily Telegraph and appears here with that paper’s kind permission
Capitan-Leutnant Reinhold von Malapert, who has died aged 93, witnessed the last hours of the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney, which vanished off the coast of Western Australia in 1941; the fate of the ship has remained a source of fascination to the Australian public for more than six decades.
On November 19 that year von Malapert was signals officer of the heavily-armed German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran when, three hours before sunset, she was surprised by Sydney. According to von Malapert’s testimony, given only last year, Kormoran was disguised as a Dutch freighter, Straat Malakka, and she steamed away towards the setting sun at maximum speed with Sydney in pursuit.
Fregattenkapitan Theodor Detmers, the German captain, tried to behave like a ‘frightened, fat Dutchman’, fumbling his flag signals in response to Sydney’s light signals, and broadcasting a false radio report of being chased by an enemy raider.
After 90 minutes Sydney drew up on a parallel course and speed about 1,000 yards away, pointing her four twin 6-inch guns at Kormoran. Nevertheless von Malapert, who was watching from the door of Kormoran’s radio room, thought his captain’s bluff had worked until Sydney asked Kormoran for her secret call sign.
Detmers asked von Malapert: ‘Do we have this?’ When von Malapert answered ‘No’ he saw Detmers’ face harden and knew that his superior had decided to fight.
Within seconds the German had hauled down her Dutch flag, dropped the doors concealing her guns, and opened fire on the Australian ship. Von Malapert recalled that Kormoran’s shooting, especially at Sydney’s bridge, was murderous, and he admired the bravery of the Australians who ran across the deck to attempt to man Sydney’s unshielded 4-inch guns.
Von Malapert saw two torpedoes from Kormoran’s upperdeck tubes leap into the air before they hit the water; when he next looked at Sydney he saw that the roof of one of the main turrets was missing and that her catapult aircraft was ablaze. For the next half hour the two ships duelled to the death.
Von Malapert’s last impression of Sydney was of a ship in flames and shrouded in billowing smoke. She was about six miles away on a south-easterly course; the next time he looked she had disappeared, and he thought she must have sunk quickly.
None of her 654 crew survived, and the wreck has yet to be found. Kormoran was scuttled in the early hours of the next morning more than 100 miles from land.
Reinhold Kurt Adolf Max Karl von Malapert was born at Darmstadt on January 8 1914, the third son of a general in the Kaiser’s army: his eldest brother was a lieutenant-colonel who fought the Australian army in Italy in 1944, and the other a German air ace who was shot down over Russia in May 1942 (he escaped, and had almost made the German lines when he was shot by mistake by his own side).
Reinhold joined the Kriegsmarine in 1933, and his first ship was the cruiser Karlsruhe. Next he visited the Americas in the cruiser Dresden, and by the outbreak of war he was a communications specialist in the elderly battleship Schlesien during the invasion of Poland.
In 1940 he took part in the invasion of Norway, and returning from there as a passenger in a damaged U-boat he was machine-gunned by the RAF. After a period ashore he was appointed to Kormoran.
In the aftermath of the battle with Sydney, von Malapert helped to fight fires which threatened to reach Kormoran’s 400 mines. The first wave of lifeboats left the ship at about 9 pm, and von Malapert assisted in hauling two boats out of a hold; taking command of one of these, he left Kormoran at around midnight.
At first light a headcount revealed that there were 57 men packed into a 30-ft boat, which – apart from a compass and sea anchor – was poorly equipped. It had a large sail, but no mast or rudder, and only a few oars.
Von Malapert jury-rigged a mast from the yard of the sail and improvised a rudder from an oar. For the next five days he sailed with the oar under his left arm, taking the sheets in his right hand.