After the sinking of HMAS Sydney and HSK Kormoran in 1941, a considerable number of Kriegsmarine survivors were rescued and became prisoners of war. This account details some of their experiences in POW camps in Australia.
On 24 November 1941, the British tanker Trocas, bound for Fremantle, reported she had rescued 27 German sailors from a rubber raft 115 miles WNW of Carnarvon. The following day a RAAF aircraft reported sighting two boats 70 miles NNW of Carnarvon, followed by a third boat. During the day, two more boats were observed. It was not until the 26th that the boat carrying Fregattenkapitan Detmers was spotted and the occupants were rescued by SS Centaur. Fearing the Germans might attempt to take over the ship, the Kormoran’s lifeboat was taken in tow until they reached the small Western Australian township of Carnarvon. HMAS Yandra brought in one and another was brought in by SS Koolinda. A fifth boat reached shore north of Carnarvon, followed by a sixth which had escaped detection from the air. The six boats landed 266 men of Kormoran’s complement. No further survivors were found at sea but on 27 November at 08.30 the troopship Aquitania reported she had on board 26 German sailors from a rubber raft found off the West Australian coast just a day before the British tanker Trocas reported her rescue.
Of the Kormoran’s complement of 393 officers and crew, 315 were rescued along with three of the four Chinese taken captive when the raider sank the SS Eurylochus ten months earlier. Twenty had been killed in the battle and the remainder had drowned due to rough seas and overcrowding in the first life raft. Except for the prisoners picked up by the Aquitania, which had continued her voyage to Sydney, and those rescued by the Trocas which proceeded directly to Fremantle, the prisoners were taken to Carnarvon where the preliminary interrogations took place.
All the prisoners were eventually transferred to Fremantle for treatment, recuperation and a thorough interrogation. Nineteen were taken to hospital, the remainder were distributed between the Fremantle Detention Barracks, Swanbourne Barracks and the internment camp at Harvey, 87 miles south of Perth. After their interrogation the prisoners were transferred to Melbourne, the officers on 13 December aboard the SS Duntroon and the ‘other ranks’ in two groups by train, one on 27 December and the other in early January. They were all sent to a POW camp at Murchison in north western country Victoria, where they spent their first Christmas and New Year behind barbed wire. The officers were transferred to the ‘officers only’ camp at a homestead property at Dhurringile, about 10 miles from the Murchison camp, which had been converted into a detention camp. Here there were already 60 officers from the Luftwaffe and the Army, mostly from Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Two prisoners who were too ill to travel at the time remained behind in the hospital in Fremantle. Unfortunately, one torpedo-man, Erich Meyer, died of lung cancer three weeks later and was buried with full military honours in the Lutheran section of the Karrakatta cemetery. His grave was kindly looked after by the mother of one of the sailors killed on the Sydney until his reinterment in the German cemetery in the Victorian country town of Tatura, a few miles north of Dhurringile.
News of the action and the presumed loss of HMAS Sydney were publicly announced in an official statement by the Prime Minister Mr. Curtin on 30 November 1941. The next of kin had already been informed by personal telegram three days earlier. Unfortunately, through a failure to observe correct censorship by Government and Naval authorities, information had leaked out on 25 November and gave rise to rumours which spread quickly throughout Australia, and caused deep distress to the next of kin of the Sydney’s crew. Because the only accounts of the encounter were, and still are, from the Kormoran’s survivors, it left many with the perception then and in the years that followed that the whole story was not being told.
Compared with the German and especially the Japanese POW camps, the German and Italian prisoners of war were on a holiday. The Australian Government took its Geneva Convention obligations seriously, so much so that both German and Italian ex-prisoners were unanimous in their praise of the generally humane treatment they received from the military authorities. In the Victorian camps, there was a cordial understanding between the officers and men who guarded the prisoners and the officers and men who were the prisoners but most trouble came from the Germans. No matter how well they were treated, there was the sheer frustration of being a POW in a strange country almost on the other side of the world with no news from the Fatherland or their loved ones. They were crowded together with differences of opinion on a great many issues, especially between Austrians and Germans, Nazi and non-Nazi. Trouble simmered. The bars of their cage could have been made with gold but those bars still prevented their freedom. Escape plans began to hatch. The Germans quickly realised that if they escaped they were not going to be lined up against a wall and shot. There were no secret police such as the Gestapo or Kempi Tai, but they also understood that because Australia was such a vast island nation, there was nowhere to go. Escape was almost impossible unless they were able to somehow get aboard a neutral ship. Escaping became a sort of therapy to relieve the tension of camp life although a few were actually trying to get home. It was a constant problem for the military and civilian authorities.
Australian ‘fair go’
Initially, the local population was apprehensive when the first escapes took place but over a period of time they became more relaxed when they realised the Germans were not going to murder them in their beds. Many recaptured POWs told of the locals giving them the Australian ‘fair go‘ or sporting chance, such as being given food and directions and told they have 8 hours before they must be reported or given work on farms. They escaped from working parties using clever ruses, dug tunnels and employed a great amount of ingenuity in their escape efforts but for the most part, none got very far or were at liberty for long. Their escape preparations did not need to be as well thought out or equipped as their counterparts in Europe or Asia, who could possibly be shot if caught. One way the Government sought to ease the tension in the camps was the formal agreement reached in 1943 between the belligerent countries to allow POWs to send airmail letters. Australia was the only country in the world to issue airmail postage for the exclusive use of POWs and internees.
On 5 August 1944, a total of 1,100 Japanese prisoners broke out from their prison camp near the small rural township of Cowra in New South Wales, stabbing or bludgeoning four unfortunate guards to death and wounding four others. The Japanese actively sought death. They wanted to be killed. Only death would wipe away the shame of being captured, the disgrace to their parents, to the Emperor and to Japan. The escape sent shock waves throughout the local communities and caused tremendous concern throughout country Victoria, and it was to temporarily stifle escape attempts for the Germans at Camp 13 at Murchison. The military authorities killed 183 Japanese while trying to prevent the escape.
When Fregattenkapitan Detmers arrived in Dhurringile, he was the most senior officer there. He became the Camp Leader responsible (in cooperation with the military authorities) for the day to day running of four compounds and the historical Dhurringile mansion where the higher ranking officers and their batmen lived. Detmers carried out his duties as camp leader efficiently and was respected by authorities and prisoners alike but in 1944 something was not right. His men had all been awarded the Iron Cross Second Class for their action against the Australian cruiser. He had also been awarded the Knights Cross in addition to his Iron Cross First Class. His crew were still in the area plotting escapes, playing chess, exercising or out on various work parties. Life in the camp was going along without too many problems but at some point he must have decided do something different. Perhaps a sense of adventure to rekindle his Hilfkreuzer days or simply a final fling!
On 11 January 1945 the most successful escape of the camp was carried out from the old Dhurringile mansion by 17 officers and 3 batmen. Detmers was one of the escapees. They had tunnelled from a large crockery room, down to a depth of 14 feet in the sandy soil then out under the compound yard, under the perimeter fence and a good distance beyond the wire, a total length of 120 yards. When they were all out, the prisoners scattered in all directions. Detmers had teamed up with Oberstleutnant Helmut Bertram and initially the pair made good progress considering Detmers was twice as old as the other escapees. When they were eventually recaptured about a week later by two local police, Detmers looked ill.
As punishment for his part in the escape, Detmers was sent for a month to the Old Melbourne Gaol, a bluestone relic built by convict labour back in 1842-45. When he arrived, the gaol was being used as a military detention centre. Detmers returned to his duties at the camp after his detention time was over but on 13 March he suffered a stroke during the night and was paralysed. He had been under a lot of strain running the camp, he smoked too much and the physical effort of the escape had taken its toll on his health. Detmers was transferred to a military hospital in Melbourne where he stayed for three months. He recovered from his illness but returned to Dhurringile partly paralysed and unable to resume his duties as camp leader. His fellow escapee, Oberstleutnant Bertram, took over the duties of camp leader until the war ended in 1945.
The war may have finished but for 2,500 Germans and Italians in the Victorian internment camps it would not be until 21 January 1947 that they boarded the RMS Orontes at Port Melbourne and were able to finally return home to Europe. Detmers was going with them but this time in the ship’s hospital. He may have looked out the porthole, noticed the ship moored at the pier opposite and wondered about the fickleness of fate. Perhaps some of his crew may have also noticed the real Straat Malakka berthed opposite.
Fregattenkapitan Theodore Detmers arrived in Cuxhaven, Germany on February 28, still with his crew. He remained slightly crippled from his stroke and retired from the Kriegsmarine on a pension. He lived in Hamburg, where he and his wife were often visited by former crew members until his death in 1976.
Both the Sydney and the Kormoran crews fought a fierce battle with bravery and tenacity, but the loss of the 645 Australian crew was not the worst in Australian maritime history. In 1942, the American submarine, Sturgeon sank the Japanese ship Montevideo Maru with a loss of 1,050 Australian POWs and internees.
The most puzzling question – why Captain Burnett brought his warship so close to the raider – is open to a whole range of explanations. He may have simply been a victim of a well-thought out ruse. Besides, he was in fact, successful (although at a terrible cost) in preventing the Kormoran from laying mines along the Australian coast, and with its demise, stopped the potential sinking of more ships, and the loss of more lives and essential cargoes. They did everything they could to destroy the enemy in the best naval tradition, and had succeeded.
The Sydney/Kormoran debate still continues to this day, causing deep divisions among various interested parties. Historians, researchers, authors and individuals all have their own ideas about what happened on that fatal evening. Even the actual site of the engagement seems to be in doubt among researchers.
Allied warships had a standard procedure that suspicious vessels must be approached from the starboard quarter. This was considered to be a safe position. The German Navy were aware of this tactic in the early stages of the war and equipped their later raiders such as the Kormoran with underwater torpedo tubes positioned at an angle of 125-135 degrees to cover this ‘safe spot’. Detmers had carried out successful trials using the angled torpedo tubes so he certainly had the capability to use them. Did he use his normal starboard torpedoes with his battle flag raised or did he use his underwater torpedoes whilst still under Dutch colours? This seems to be the main question many want settled first.
On page 202 of his book, Detmers wrote in part, ‘I felt sure I should have to face an enemy [Australian] court martial over the business.‘ It is a proven fact that Detmers did conduct his raider war with chivalry and respect for his enemies, therefore his concern about a court martial may have simply been related to his war conduct as a raider in general.
However it is absolutely essential that both Captain Burnett and Fregattenkapitan Detmers should not be judged too quickly over their respective actions until conclusive proof is established. The truth is becoming harder to find. As time moves on, the only remaining witnesses are becoming fewer and fewer, which increases the reality that the mystery may never be solved.
The Australian Government did attempt to put the debate into some sort of rational perspective and perhaps give some form of closure. In March 1999, the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia published a 192 page report by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade called: Report on the Loss of HMAS Sydney. The Committee received 201 submissions, debated extensively all the issues, tried to reach logical conclusions and sadly, at the end of the last chapter of the report, stated:
‘It is important that information and theories be shared and examined. The Committee strongly believes there is a need for all involved in the Sydney debate to move beyond animosity and antagonism and find common ground. No one ‘owns’ the Sydney, or has a monopoly on the truth. The Committee hopes that future researchers will rise above the personal acrimony and suspicion that has marred so much of this debate thus far. The ‘dialogue of the deaf’ that characterises so much of this debate is counter-productive. An exchange of differing views is a positive process, and can only lead to a better understanding of the events of November 1941. HMAS Sydney deserves no less.‘
The author is indebted to:
- The Naval Historical Society of Australia. Garden Island, New South Wales, Australia.
- The National Archives of Australia publication:
- The Sinking of HMAS Sydney; Prisoners of War, 1999
- Commonwealth of Australia for permission to use material from their publications.
- German Raiders of World War 2. Pan Books, Karl August Muggenthaler.1980.
- The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia [Joint Standing Committee].1999. Canberra.
- The Raider Kormoran. Captain T Detmers. William Kimber, London. 1959.
- Frank Macdonough. West Essendon. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.
- Tatura & District Historical Society Inc. Tatura, Victoria, Australia.
- Mac. Gregory. email@example.com
- Barbara Winters. Stalag Australia. Angus and Robertson. 1986.
- National Archives of Australia. Canberra, ACT, Australia.
(The author is a writer of naval and military history from his own research in Melbourne, who contributes to newspapers and magazines. Ed.)