- Nicholson, Ian
- WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Sydney II
- March 2000 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
“The first casualty in War is the Truth.'”
Some say that HMAS Sydney (II) and her crew should be left in peace and I agree. Location and examination of the wreck is unlikely to reveal any significant information about the encounter and it should be left undisturbed. However, further research and analysis of records continue to disclose details which assist in clarifying the puzzling circumstances surrounding this wartime disaster. These generally support or are consistent with our current views and cast new doubts about the German version. If this results in a more accurate and balanced picture of the battle rather than flawed and one sided German accounts, which cast a slur on the Sydney, then it is the least we can do for her gallant complement, their next-of-kin and descendants. No such thing as counselling and compensation for them.
Hitherto Kormoran’s Captain has generally been portrayed as a man of honour and integrity by his fellow countrymen and some apologists. Rather than being an `unbeliever’ we now learn from an early shipmate that Detmers was indeed a Nazi. (AAMH Newsletter, Sep 1999). Close study of his own book casts even further doubt on his credibility. First-hand accounts of events leading up to the final engagement vary with almost every telling – each revision seemingly designed to help cover up his subterfuges and enhance his own reputation. He was obsessed about the award of the Knight’s Cross, and his personal conduct showed a streak of Nazi arrogance, such as appearing in a drunken state to lecture his crew, when he was observed by allied POWs onboard. (Jones, WA -`Prisoner of the Kormoran’).
Undoubtedly an experienced, shrewd and devious campaigner, Detmers was a formidable opponent who would stop at nothing, particularly when he held the initiative.
Apart from many minor variations in detail of the encounter given by Kormoran survivors, the basic account did not ring true to experienced RAN officers. When asked, the Germans could offer no explanation why Sydney did not launch her aircraft and continued to approach to such close range. They appeared to be concealing some vital factor or else the crew were ignorant of it. Their timing and sequence of events was particularly suspect.
Often overlooked are the `independent’ observers of action – Kormoran’s two surviving Chinese laundrymen, captured when the British ship Eurylochus was sunk on 29 Jan 1941 and retained aboard for their services. It is not as though they were ignorant onlookers, but rather experienced seafarers in their own way. They had been through it all when their own ship was sunk and had since witnessed the raider intercept 7 other victims. The laundry was just one level below the upper deck, providing a reasonable vantage point, and the Chinese had no `action station’ duties. One may reasonably assume that they did not conscientiously continue with washing and ironing during Sydney’s approach and the battle, but probably maintained a more constant `watch’ than the pre-occupied German crew. They may not have understood all they saw but they were unbiased non-German speaking observers and unlikely to be influenced by any crew discussions later.
The laundrymen’s answers to questions are thus likely to be more reliable, and it is considered that at least two of their observations provide vital evidence, not only on the sequence and timing of events, but are even more revealing when their implications are interpreted by experienced persons. One of the Chinese points, also mentioned by some Germans, and therefore well corroborated, was that some of Sydney’s personnel were gathered at the ship’s side watching proceedings as she closed in, evidently off duty sailors.
A basic rule of war, which we can be sure that Sydney adhered to, is that a warship comes to full action stations and readiness before closing and challenging an unidentified ship. Therefore if some of the cruiser’s crew were seen to be “fallen out” it can only indicate that Kormoran had already answered the challenge – correctly! Capt Burnett must have been convinced that she was indeed the Straat Malakka. The lst Degree of Readiness would then have been relaxed, probably followed by an announcement about the `allied’ vessel’s name for the information of the ship’s company, with the idea, perhaps, of making a quick pass for all to see and give the “Dutchman” a friendly wave. Simultaneous indication that the stranger was satisfactorily identified is provided by reports that Sydney ceased launching her aircraft, and further confirmation is gained by the absence of any HF radio transmissions or signal from her to shore, checking on the Straat Malakka.