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- RAN operations, WWII operations, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Sydney II
- June 2008 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
On Wednesday 19th November 1941 we intended to lay mines at the approaches to Shark Bay off Carnarvon in Western Australia. It was intended to use the hours of darkness for the minelaying action, half of it to draw near the coast and the other for getting away. To be so close to an enemy coast was unusual for us because of the control of the coasts by the navy and air force, particularly the latter.
The weather was sunny, visibility very good, wind force 3 to 4, calm sea with a medium swell from the south-west. Our course was 20 degrees, that is about north-north-east.
The captain intended to carry on until 2000 hours and then head east towards the Bay. It was 1500 hours when the crow’s nest announced a ship ahead. It was at first thought to be the ex-German square rigged ship Pamir, which had been in Australia at the beginning of the war and was supposed to be under the Australian flag. Later on we saw another sailing ship and then smoke trails were reported, maybe from escort vessels of a convoy.
Captain Detmers changed course to 260 degrees, the opposite direction and ordered both engines full speed ahead. The reason for this immediate reaction was that the captain had orders to avoid under any circumstances any encounter with enemy warships, because this would mean surely the loss of the auxiliary cruiser. As it would take a considerable time to replace the ship, there would be neither direct nor indirect losses of enemy tonnage for a considerable time. Indirect losses of tonnage result from ships being forced into convoys, the speed of which is that of the slowest vessel. Ships without a convoy had to take the much farther way along the coasts under the cover of the control of aircraft. Here, as I mentioned, they are normally secure from raiders.
The turning away did not make the Kormoran suspicious. On the contrary there existed a strict order by the Admiralty for all allied merchantmen to do so when seeing a masthead or smoke trail, in order not to be recognised by an enemy warship, in the area far away from Germany most probably an auxiliary cruiser.
Before the alarm, Kormoran was at moderate speed to save oil. Additionally one of the motors had been defective, but meanwhile was O.K. again. When it was started a smoke cloud escaped from the funnel. We also had to note with apprehension, that this time we had the misfortune to meet a man-of-war. I think at this moment all of us scarcely saw a chance to survive.
As an auxiliary cruiser is no merchant man but a man-of-war, it was impossible just to surrender. We had now to make the best of it, that is to sell ourselves as dearly as possible. For this we had fully to utilize our legal camouflage as a merchantman according to international sea-convention, in order to decoy the cruiser as close to us as possible and to get her into the most favourable position for our weapons. Why this is particularly essential for the raider, I’ll explain later.
Sydney approached quickly. She went to full speed. She prepared her plane for starting but abandoned this intention, when she saw that we couldn’t escape. The cruiser asked by searchlight for our ship’s name, where we came from and where we were bound for. According to the above mentioned plan, we didn’t answer. When the distance had become short enough, she began to ask by signal flags. Not to react now would have been more than suspicious. So we answered: ‘Straat Malakka from Fremantle to Batavia’. But not without delaying the reply by many intentional mistakes. By this time Sydney had come into the most favourable position: parallel to us at about the same speed, at the incredible short distance of half a sea-mile, that is about 900 metres. It seemed to us, as if we could reach the cruiser by throwing a stone. Now also was the time to make optimum use of all our weapons.
As main armament we had six 6-inch guns, the same calibre as the Sydney. But we could only fire four guns at the same time because of the camouflage arrangements for the guns and because of the superstructure. For the same reasons this could be reduced to only one gun depending on the angle of fire. The cruiser had four double turrets and she could fire at least two turrets at any angle of fire.