Talks at the Memorial
HMAS Sydney - 60 years on
presented by Peter Stanley on Monday 19 November 2001 beside the Roll of Honour at the Memorial.
Sixty years ago today HMAS Sydney met the German raider, the Kormoran off the coast of Western Australia. Both ships were destroyed after a battle lasting less than an hour. As a result of that engagement 723 men lost their lives, 645 of them from Sydney: the ship's entire complement.
The loss of Sydney was not the most significant maritime loss in Australian history. That would occur in July the following year, when over a thousand prisoners of war and internees died when the Montevideo Maru was torpedoed by an American submarine. Nevertheless, the loss of Sydney is the most intriguing and shocking in Australian naval history. Unlike the sinking of the Montevideo Maru, it has never been forgotten.
As a result, in addition to the fourteen pages devoted to the event and its aftermath in George Hermon Gill's official history, no less than eight books - one published this year - and many articles have been devoted to explaining this mystifying event. They include Michael Montgomery's 1981 Who Sank the Sydney?, Barbara Winter's 1984 HMAS Sydney: Fact, Fantasy and Fraud, Tom Frame's 1993 HMAS Sydney: loss and controversy, Wes Olson's Bitter Victory: the Death of HMAS Sydney, published this year.
In 1997 a Parliamentary investigated Sydney's loss and claims that the truth has been in some way covered up. It concluded that the orthodox account was feasible and that documents had not been deliberately destroyed. It rejected various theories proposed relating to the event and recommended that the search for the wrecks of both Sydney and Kormoran should continue.
And so do the arguments. A conference this week in Perth will consider
technical evidence relating to the ships' possible positions. So much
has been written that a doctoral thesis has recently been completed
evaluating the competing interpretations and reaching conclusions which
will ensure that the controversy will not die. (I should explain that
the thesis is not yet examined and for reasons of academic probity I
can say no more of the interpretation its author offers.)
I've been interested in the loss of the Sydney for twenty years, though I don't pretend to be an expert. I've read the books and have listened to the arguments, and I have to confess to being perplexed about why the sinking of Sydney should remain a subject of perennial fascination. What draws people to pick over this particular event? Let me suggest four reasons.
First, that it was so complete. The entire ship was lost with all of its complement. The only item to be recovered was the Carley float on display in the galleries below us. Sydney is the only Australian unit ever to have been totally destroyed.
Second, it is regarded as both unexpected and unlikely. Australians think of war as happening in faraway places: this happened just a few hundred kilometres off Carnarvon. That is shocking. Even more, the Kormoran was a converted merchant ship: It seems impossible that it could destroy a modern warship like Sydney. (In fact, of course, though unarmoured, Kormoran was itself armed nearly as powerfully: this was no David and Goliath fight.)
Third, the complete loss of Sydney meant that the only surviving evidence of the battle is German. This has fostered a suspicion in many minds that there must be something fishy in the German explanation. The sudden and shocking loss has prompted strenuous searches for countervailing evidence from Allied sources, the absence of which only exacerbates fertile speculation.
Lastly, from the moment Sydney was found to be overdue in arriving at Fremantle rumours and stories have circulated. These have tended to cast doubt on the official explanation. They have encouraged a view that at its most extreme claims that the truth has long been known but has been concealed by official vested interests concealing incompetence if not skullduggery. Indeed, the more strenuous the denials the more suspicious are those believing that a long-standing conspiracy exists.
Historians feed on controversy and are sustained by divergent interpretation. You might think that as a professional historian I find this continued debate stimulating. On a technical, historiographical level, I do. The numerous works on the Sydney-Kormoran encounter and its aftermath constitute a rich case study in how we can use the evidence of the past to reconstruct and understand it. It reminds us that history is important emotionally and not merely intellectually, and that we go to great lengths to locate evidence, to establish facts, to argue interpretations and to justify theories.
Today, though, I don't feel the excitement of debate and the stimulation of opposing theories. Gathered as we are at the Roll of Honour, by the names of the 645 men of Sydney, I would like to propose that our focus this morning should not be to engage in further polemic.
Our focus ought to be instead on that fact of loss and its impact on Australia and its people. The impact of Sydney's loss began even before the Naval Board confirmed that the ship has been sunk. During the tense days after the ship had been reported as overdue the government and the navy between them managed, by botched censorship, to fuel rumours that the ship had been lost. Sydney's loved ones were apprehensive even before 27 November, when they received telegrams informing them that someone had been posted missing. Many have lived with a lurking feeling of uncertainty ever since.
Though in due course all those families received telegrams confirming that a man had been presumed dead, the uncertainty surrounding the action has left many dissatisfied by the official explanation. Paradoxically, the steady stream of books and articles has done little to allow them to come to terms with their loss. Claims of conspiracy and cover-up continue to unsettle children and grandchildren, rippling through the generations with a message that the Navy, governments, history and historians are not to be trusted. At its extreme this unease fosters a suspicion that 'they' know but will not say, that the plausible but unsubstantiated orthodox explanation conceals a more uncomfortable truth. The consequence is, for example, the ludicrous claims that a Japanese submarine was implicated in the battle, a claim that induced the Memorial to X-ray the Carley float to establish whether any Japanese bullets were in it. There were no Japanese bullets inside it.
In recognising this anniversary the editorial staff of the Memorial's magazine, Wartime, discussed what we should do. Should we encourage further speculation or should we help our readers to use the anniversary to come to a resolution of consensus about the event? We decided to consult three authorities on the episode.
The experts were Dr (now Bishop) Tom Frame, the only living professional historian who has published on this subject, Mr Wes Olsen, author of the most recent book, and Dr Mike McCarthy of the Western Australian Museum, who is in close contact with those interested in the case. We asked them to respond briefly to three questions: whether German evidence was reliable, why no Australians survived, and whether a search for a wreck was necessary. I won't detail their answers here (Wartime is available from the Memorial Shop). But I will allude to interesting differences in the three authorities' responses to the final question.
Both Wes Olson and Mike McCarthy regard the search for a wreck as desirable. Dr McCarthy thinks that while the wreck itself might yield little evidence he believes that the search is a sign if goodwill toward a constituency whose most concerned members remain sceptical of official bona fides. Wes Olson believes that locating the wreck will at least give bereaved families the consolation of knowing where loved ones lie. Tom Frame, weary perhaps of the continuing disputation over the case, disagrees. He argues that even if it can be found it could tell us little, and will not help families come to terms with their loss.
For my part, I accept that the fascination with Sydney will probably never end. New scraps of evidence, new interpretations and inflections based on re-readings of it, even new technological developments (which might locate the wreck), will fuel further theories and explanations. As the historian Peter Geyle said (during the Second World War and while interned by the Germans) history is an argument without end, in which successive generations reach new understandings based on their particular concerns and needs.
Indeed, the loss of the Sydney and the disputation it fostered emphasises why this Memorial is important to Australia and its people. The Memorial conceived by Charles Bean represents the point at which the need to remember meets the need to understand. Mourning demands explanation and understanding prompts remembrance. Here, today, we see how the two are inextricably intertwined.
Sadly, though, I do not think that this huge endeavour that the loss of Sydney has generated will produce what so many people so deeply desire. Bereaved families and former shipmates understandably seek closure, resolution of their doubts and fears; the consolation of knowing with certainty where and why a man died. Unfortunately but unavoidably, I do not believe that we are ever likely to see any definitive conclusion. Finding the wrecks, for example, while satisfying, will surely prompt a fresh outbreak of hypothesising. I do not believe that we will ever get a definitive explanation: Peter Geyle's aphorism is that the argument will never end. Those who seek certainty and the hitherto elusive definitive explanation will always remain unsatisfied.
For that reason, I am inclined to live with uncertainty, to accept that we will never know, but will always mourn. Today, standing by the names on the Roll of Honour we should I think turn from the largely speculation which has fostered so much divisive debate on this subject. Today at least I believe that we should move towards an acceptance that whatever we might debate those 645 Australians - and the 78 Germans who died close by them - deserve to be remembered.