Sydney – Cipher and Search
By Captain Peter Hore RN (formerly Head of Defence Studies for the Royal Navy and currently chairman of the research committee of the Society for Nautical Research).
Seafarer Books UK (2009) www.seafarerbooks.com
ISBN 978-1-906266-08, paperback, 314 pp, rrp $37.50 from reputable bookshops in Australia
Reviewed by Richard Francis
This latest book on the discovery in 2008 of the wrecks of HMAS Sydney and the German auxiliary cruiser HSK Kormoran is one of those gripping books which are so well written that it is impossible to put them down. The author has been involved in research on Sydney for nearly 10 years and while there was not much new to discover in the official records, his measured application in partnership with wreck hunter David Mearns ultimately delivered the goods. He takes us through his re-examination of the records and a deeper insight into the career of the German Captain Detmers, until piece by piece, the wreck hunters were able to consolidate into a small enough sea area to explore with ultra-modern technology, which would give them a reasonable chance of success when the Australian government raised its budget significantly. His parting words to me after the 2005 King-Hall Naval History Conference were: ‘We will find her (Sydney)!’ – prophetic and confident indeed!
His persistence in tracing the few surviving members of the German cruiser, even as remotely located as far as Santiago de Chile, has paid dividends – not before time – as the former radio officer, von Malapert, died a short time afterwards (aged 95). On re-examination of the English translation of Detmer’s book published in 1959 and his earlier intercepted log of events (intended for his masters in Berlin), Captain Hore discovered significant errors, which led to a better appreciation of the course of the battle. This has been endorsed more recently by the publication of the ADF sponsored Coles Commission of Inquiry into the loss of Sydney and her entire ship’s company. The compilation of underwater video and photographic evidence by the Find the Sydney Foundation has finally determined the cause of her sinking, after the savage battle with Kormoran. Few surface ship actions in WW II would have endured such a pounding during the roughly hour long engagement. British-designed cruisers were not easy to sink by gunfire (as the Graf Spee discovered very early on in the war) and torpedo hits outside the large machinery spaces were not likely to be any more successful. These were well protected by an armour belt sufficient to resist 6” shells at close range. However, the sheer volume of shells spread through the upper works and superstructure would have caused massive casualties and raging fires, which probably overcame the survivors` efforts to save their ship, as flooding increased relentlessly further aft along the waterline, and possibly reaching the vital machinery spaces themselves after several hours, causing an eventual loss of buoyancy. Sydney would have plunged by the bow, as evidenced by the discoveries in the debris field leading to her final resting place, upright on the sea floor over 2000m down.
The wreckage of both ships reveals a general endorsement of the hitherto uncorroborated German accounts (which had led to some disbelief in many quarters) and this was the test of the wreck hunters’ faith in their documentation. The lack of survivors from Sydney now appears more reasonable as the ship would have sunk quite suddenly and the lack of serviceable life rafts would have mitigated against anyone escaping from the ship. The inevitable delay in organising a search of a vast sea area would not have been prompt enough to find any survivors in the water in the conditions prevailing at the time.