Author: Rick Pelvin
No naval event in Australian history has been shrouded in more mystery than the sinking of HMAS Sydney during the Second World War, but the conspiracy theories have now been given a firm rebuff by the recent parliamentary inquiry. The following article, by Richard Pelvin, Curator of Official Records at the Australian War Memorial, summarises the report's findings. It was originally published (in a slightly different form) in Wartime No. 7 (Spring 1999), pp. 53-55.
For a number of years the sinking of the light cruiser HMAS Sydney in November 1941 has been a matter of controversy. The general view is that Sydney was sunk by the Kormoran, a German auxiliary cruiser disguised as a merchant vessel. There were no survivors from the ship, making this the greatest disaster in Australian naval history. But the lack of eye-witness accounts from Sydney's side - there were survivors from Kormoran - has allowed a number of other theories to be proposed, one of the most persistent being that a Japanese submarine might have been involved. The issue became so heated that in 1997 a parliamentary committee, the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, was asked to conduct an inquiry into the affair. The Committee published its report in March 1999.
The Committee considered submissions and supplementary submissions from 201 persons or organisations. These were published in 19 volumes, totaling 4,710 pages. In addition there are six volumes of transcripts of hearings, totaling 571 pages. The evidence presented represented all shades of opinion, from the conspiratorial to the orthodox. In its submission the Australian War Memorial explained that the Memorial had documented all official records relating to the loss of HMAS Sydney and that these are open to the public; that the Memorial held a small collection of relevant private records, also open to the public; and that the Memorial was not aware of any archival material relating to this event having been lost since coming into its collection. The Memorial also held a damaged Carley float, believed to be from Sydney; this had been investigated by conservators and curators, who had produced a report analysing the damage. The Memorial's submission also discussed the difficulties of finding the wreck of the Sydney and noted that, if found, it would have the status of a war grave.
The Committee's findings
From all the submissions and hearings, the Committee distilled a 192-page report, with nine chapters dealing with specific topics. The following is a summary:
The Committee was particularly interested in whether documents had been "destroyed, misplaced or concealed". It did not conclude that documents had been maliciously destroyed or concealed, but noted that archives management was not always a precise business, especially in earlier years. The National Archives of Australia has now produced an excellent guide, by Richard Summerrell, to the many shelf-metres of records relevant to the loss of Sydney. It would be an enormous task to examine all these records on the off-chance that they might contain something important, but there has been nothing to prevent private researchers from doing so.
Introduction and methodology
The Committee did not aim to duplicate all the work which historians have done on the subject. Rather it "attempted to determine what a reasonable person would believe and looked at the balance of probabilities". It realistically noted that some things will remain "unknown and unknowable".
The debate on the loss of Sydney
In Chapter 2 the Committee reviews the main published works on the loss of Sydney. Beginning with Hermon Gill's account in the official history and then Michael Montgomery's "sustained, if erratic" attempt to discredit him. Books by Barbara Winter and Tom Frame are also considered, followed by the evidence brought out at a number of conferences. (See references at end.) The report outlines the differences between the various accounts and notes the antagonism that has developed between the holders of differing views.
Turning to the action itself, the Committee concluded that Sydney was in reasonable condition for battle. There was no evidence that Kormoran was being tracked prior to the battle or that Captain Burnett of Sydney had been alerted to the presence of this ship. On the question of why Sydney came so close to Kormoran - a major part of the reason why Sydney was sunk - the Committee noted that it was common practice to close on unknown ships in order to capture them before their crews could scuttle them. Kormoran's underwater torpedo tubes were an important factor. In general, the Committee concluded that the account of the engagement given by the German survivors was feasible.
Signals, submarines and speedboats
There have been claims that signals from Sydney were received by HMAS Harman, the naval signals establishment in Canberra. The Committee felt these had been adequately refuted by the evidence of Harman personnel. On the theory that a Japanese submarine was involved, the Committee noted the total lack of evidence for such involvement. It is also worth bearing in mind that it was unlikely, a few weeks before Pearl Harbor, that the Japanese Navy would sink a relatively insignificant vessel belonging to a country with which it was not yet at war; the Japanese could not be sure that there would be no survivors. In addition, all Japanese submarine movements have been accounted for. The Committee also discounted another theory, that Kormoran used a small motor torpedo boat to kill survivors from Sydney in the water.
Aftermath of the action
The Committee accepted that delays in releasing official information about the loss of Sydney - caused mainly by wartime circumstances-had helped to stimulate speculation. The report also casts doubt on the claim that a signal from the liner Aquitania, to the effect that it had picked up survivors from Kormoran, prompted a search before the official starting date of 24 November.
The Committee noted that German accounts of the action have remained consistent over a long period. The report rejects claims that survivors from Sydney were murdered in the water, pointing especially to the Memorial's investigation of its Carley float, which had ruled out the possibility that it was damaged by machine-gun fire.
The unknown sailor washed up on Christmas Island
A sailor's corpse in a Carley float was washed up on Christmas Island in 1942. The Committee concluded that it was likely to have come from Sydney, but that it was impossible to be certain. It recommended searching in the Public Records Office, London, for records of an inquest into the death. It also suggested that funds be given for restoration and maintenance of cemeteries on Christmas Island and that an attempt be made to locate the grave of this sailor. If the search proved successful, then ideally, after proper consultation, the remains should be exhumed and identified.
Searching for the wrecks of Sydney and Kormoran
The Committee recommended that the HMAS Sydney Foundation Trust should coordinate a search for the wrecks. The government should provide moral and tangible support, including funding of up to $2 million and the services of the RAN, even if this conflicted with other RAN priorities. The search might not succeed, but the Committee felt that, even if unsuccessful, it was an affirmation that Australia cared about the men of Sydney, their families and their friends.
The Committee recommended various forms of commemoration. These included a new memorial in Fremantle, to be funded by Commonwealth and Western Australian governments; a naval history research grant scheme to be set up by the RAN in the name of Sydney and its crew; and services of commemoration in Fremantle, Sydney and the wreck site, if determined.
In Wartime No. 1 (November 1997), I wrote that "a wide ranging inquiry which carefully assesses all available evidence may be useful in publicising all aspects of the affair, thus enabling rational persons to come to their own conclusions." This is precisely what the Committee has achieved. The report is a well-considered document, which reflects the Committee's intention to assess the evidence against the criteria of reasonableness and balance of probability.
The conclusions drawn provide no comfort to the many proponents of conspiracy theories. All the theories that have appeared over the years were again rehearsed in submissions and evidence, as were the rebuttals. The Committee's constant refrain is that "no evidence" for the far-fetched scenarios that have been advanced; it also cautioned that many of the claims made were "both malicious and distressing to family members of those lost on Sydney."
When he launched the inquiry, the Minister for Defence expressed doubt that the findings of the Committee would contribute much in the way of new information. In this he was correct. The importance of the Committee was to demonstrate that Parliament was prepared to hold an open inquiry allowing all shades of opinion to have their say and have their arguments weighed. In this it has been successful.
Books referred to in the text
G. Hermon Gill, Royal Australian Navy, 1939-1942, Australia in the war of 1939–1945, Series 2 (Navy), Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1957, pp. 450-60
Michael Montgomery, Who sank the Sydney? Cassell, Sydney, 1981
Barbara Winter, HMAS Sydney: fact, fantasy and fraud, Boolarong Publications, Brisbane, 1984
Tom Frame, HMAS Sydney: loss and controversy, Hodder and Stoughton, Sydney, 1991
John Ashton, The scientific investigation of a Carley float, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1993