No one on earth knows what information HMAS Sydney II was carrying in regards to ships’ identities either by book, signal or personal knowledge.
What we do know is that Captain Detmers did! He told us so in his book. He possibly carried Talbot-Booth. He told us he had never seen Straat Malakka and this was of concern in the painting of Kormoran, but he had seen a silhouette, he also knew Straat Malakka had a distinct counter stern and he was still confident to use her identity when his ship had a cruiser stern. Captain Rogge of the German raider Atlantis used a Dutch ship’s identity too and she also had a counter stern. It is within reason that all German raiders had copies of Talbot-Booth on board and used them with great reward.
In regards to Straat Malakka, Talbot-Booth was quite wrong, as he described a ship with a counter stern as old fashioned, when in fact she was newer than Sydney and Kormoran, she was built in 1939.
The approach to an unidentified ship by RN and also RAN ‘fine on the quarter’ came from WW I by a British Admiral and should have stayed there!
The following response was made:
Dear Mr Davison,
Thank you for your letter of 15 April 2013 regarding ship recognition. The following is in response to the comments you have made.
According to Captain Peter Hore, RN in his book Sydney: Cipher and Search the Dutch had merchant ships from the late 1930s with both cruiser and counter sterns but those with counter sterns tended to have a greater amount of passenger accommodation, having profiles unsuitable to that of Kormoran. Therefore Straat Malakka and her sister ship Straat Soenda, albeit with counter sterns, presented more appropriate silhouettes. The only other comment of note referring to the KPM Line, to which these ships belonged, says ‘they were typical of a large number of beautiful ships trading in and around the Netherlands East Indies, built like yachts, their passenger accommodation is restful and luxurious.’
Other factors are addressed in The Loss of HMAS Sydney II – Evidence and Conclusions Vols. 1-3 by Commissioner The Honourable Terence R.H. Cole, AO, RFD, QC. In particular Vol. 1 Part 4 provides ample evidence of regular weekly intelligence reports giving information on the knowledge of German raiders with this information available to HMAS Sydney. Vol. 1 Part 5 contains some interesting observations which are quoted in full:
5.41 As noted, also carried in warships was Talbot-Booth, Merchant Ships, which was a register of merchant ships listed by country of origin, it showed silhouette of the ship and provided details of tonnage, dimensions, machinery, speed, fuel capacity, and so on.
5.66 To an experienced seaman looking from abeam, the stem, stern, superstructure and sampson posts would have appeared very different from those of Straat Malakka as shown in Talbot-Booth. But by the time Sydney was abeam Kormoran she (Sydney) had lost all tactical advantage and was in a compromised position.
We trust the above covers your queries.
Editor – Naval Historical Review