- Nicholson, Ian
- WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Sydney II
- March 2000 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Strangely, G. Hermon Gill, the Official Naval Historian, does not examine these factors in his reconstruction of the action, which follows the basic German line that Sydney kept `all armament bearing and manned.’ (This flaw in the German account would probably have been revealed by German photographs, so it is little wonder that their camera was hidden in a cave on landing, never to be found. Also, a movie-film of the action was `inadvertently’ left in the Kormoran! Capt. Detmers even said in his book that the presence of photographers onboard could constrain his actions.)
It must be stressed that although Gill was the `Official RAN Historian’ his work was not an `official’ history in that the author had complete freedom to comment and express his own opinions. He had access to all available war records and both his volumes were generally well received except for the account of Sydney’s inexplicable loss, where there was only a German version of events to follow. Gill was basically a journalist with a nautical background but lacked operational naval experience. Unfortunately he was out of his depth here and could not see the inconsistencies and flaws in the German accounts. Compounding this poor appreciation he said that `no room was left for doubt as to its accuracy’, adding that it was `straightforward’ yet ‘conjectural’! The damage was done by the general conclusion that Sydney was lost due to poor judgement on Captain Burnett’s part, whereas one could more fairly state that Gill blundered, probably through ignorance.
The writer was working in Navy Office, Melbourne, when the first impressive volume of the RAN War History was published in 1957. At staff level there was some disappointment that more light was not thrown on the cause of this major wartime disaster. Some of our senior officers, including Board Members, I have ascertained, took a more pointed view. They did not accept Gill’s conclusions on the matter, with the unfair criticism of Captain Burnett, but there was little that they could do about it.
Another of the Chinese laundrymen’s revelations was that one of Kormoran’s initial salvoes struck Sydney simultaneously with the torpedo hit. Such above and underwater explosions observed at the same time by a neutral witness seriously question the German accounts of the torpedo arriving significantly later. Even a lay person could hardly see something as simultaneous if there was an interval of some 30 to 50 seconds (depending on the precise range), between the gun and torpedo explosions, which would be the case if the weapons had been fired at the same time. Again, Gill ignored the point.
One must conclude that Kormoran fired the first torpedo from her starboard underwater tube at least 30 seconds before opening her gun ports and firing the first salvo. We don’t need reports of what flags were flown at the time to realise that she commenced action with a torpedo attack under a false flag – the Dutch ensign – before striking it and breaking out the German naval ensign at the masthead as she dropped her disguise and began the surface gun action. After all we know from Detmers’ own book that he practised such subterfuge torpedo firing on unsuspecting targets before setting out on cruise. (The `lost’ German photos or cinefilm may have also confirmed this illegal act. Chinese laundrymen, seen at close range among the German crew, added to Kormorans disguise as a merchant ship.)
Detmers is frequently either puzzled or proud that he was not charged by the Allies for any contravention of international law, or was it a guilty conscience? Although not in the horrendous category of some Nazi war crimes, it appears that Kormoran’s Captain possibly should have been tried for at least some of the following alleged offences, and there may well have been other ruthless acts:
- Use of unduly excessive fire on the British merchant ship Eurylochus.
- Assault on a prisoner of war in Kormoran – First Officer of Eurylochus.
- Firing at the Australian ship Mareeba under false (Japanese) colours.
- Engaging HMAS Sydney with torpedoes under false (Dutch) colours.
There could have been a lack of evidence by the end of the war due to the death of some witnesses and the difficulty in tracing others. However an Inquiry at that time, even if prosecutions did not follow, would have facilitated a closer and more detailed examination of all the German survivors than their inadequate wartime interrogation. This would probably have brought to light more evidence on the cruise of the Kormoran and her action with the Sydney than the recent Parliamentary Inquiry where there were no first hand accounts. At the very least Detmers would have been shown under his true colours, and the grief and pain suffered by the thousands of families, relatives and friends of Sydney’s ship’s company eased a little. After all, on the last charge above, the German Captain’s alleged action could well be shown to have at least contributed to the cause of the Sydney’s total loss with all 645 of her crew. We seem to be more concerned and spend much time and effort in investigating war crimes against other nationals than our own.
A recent search at the Public Record Office in London has turned up more relevant material on the communications, codes and callsign aspects of this encounter, throwing further doubt on the German version of events, and clarifying some of the mysterious circumstances surrounding the disaster. Details will be published in a subsequent edition of the Naval Historical Review.