- Nicholson, Ian
- Ship histories and stories, WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Sydney II
- September 2000 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Finally, early in 1944 the Admiralty reviewed the string of orders and signals relating to disguised raiders with the aim of amalgamating them into one consolidated Confidential Admiralty Fleet Order (CAFO). The deliberations of the Naval Staff on this can be followed in ADM. 1/12883 and are quite revealing. Points made in early drafts included:
- “A correct reply to a secret callsign challenge is not certain proof of innocence” (Indicates RN thinking on loss of Sydney as there were no other known comparable incidents).
- “It must be accepted that the enemy is aware of the challenge procedure”.
- “It is believed that the complete list of callsigns is so far not compromised (Jan ’44)”. A month later the first point above was retained in a final draft and others amended:
- Although it is believed that identification si nals in force (new system) have not so far been compromised it must be accepted that the enemy is aware of the procedure.”
These revelations on the Admiralty file confirm the Official RN Historian’s record of callsign compromises noted above. It is unfortunate that the Admiralty did not confide in ACNB concerning these conclusions at the time, or at least at the end of the war.
We have seen that the basic German survivors’ accounts of the Sydney/Kormoran action are flawed, inconsistent and contrived, giving no logical reason for the cruiser’s close approach. Even when survivors were pressed for an answer to this, they could offer no explanation, and there is no other evidence or logic to support the German case. Perhaps only Captain Detmers knew exactly what transpired and he was so very secretive about it. Why? Apart from security, a possible war crimes charge would be one reason, and Detmer’s desire to enhance his own professional reputation.
Captain Burnett, we know, was well versed in the procedures for identifying strange ships. He would have his ship closed up at action stations before making the challenge and remain so, at reasonably safe range until satisfied. From past experience it is clear that he would not accept faulty procedures from merchant ships, so would not have been deceived by a disguised raider unless she was able to make the correct secret reply to his challenge. There was then no need to launch the aircraft to examine the ship further, or signal ashore for confirmation. We know the sad outcome, almost certainly due to the compromise of a simple but secret callsign. In the mainly one-sided action which followed, the mortally damaged Sydney’s gallant crew acquitted themselves fully by ensuring that Kormoran would deceive no more, nor would she lay the horde of 300 deadly mines still carried aboard.
More than a few Australians, including some who should know better, accused the Navy and the Government of a `cover-up’ concerning the tragic loss of HMAS Sydney. The Parliamentary Inquiry did at least largely clear the air in this regard. However, a few diehards will never be convinced, particularly as the Inquiry, through lack of initiative and expertise, failed to query illogical accounts but dismissed some reasonable theories. It was unable or incapable of offering any possible explanation/s for the information and comfort of thousands of our grieving next-of-kin and descendants to balance the flawed German story.
The only `cover-up’ over the Sydney/Kormoran action was plainly on the German side where their basic account is patently fabricated and illogical. It is at complete odds with accepted British naval procedures known to have been practiced by the Sydney.
Also we have separate evidence that the Captain of the Kormoran employed underhand and illegal tactics for attacking unsuspecting enemy ships and was exceedingly secretive. He or his officers destroyed photographs and records of the engagement, acted suspiciously, and were evasive about the position of the battle (thereby reducing the chances of a successful search for any possible Sydney survivors). Finally there is Detmer’s damning denial of any knowledge of the British challenge and reply procedure. Not only was he aware of the latter drill but it seems, due to a German intelligence coup, he also held the precise key!
The balance of circumstantial evidence points to German subterfuge rather than the all too simplistic view that the Sydney made an error of judgement in merely being deceived by a disguised ship with a false flag. We shall probably never know the precise details. Many German records were lost in the war, primarily by allied bombing, but even before this, sensitive German documents, regarding compromises of codes, etc, became so closely guarded secrets on Hitler’s own direction that many a German in the postwar period was able to emphatically deny any knowledge of special intelligence matters.