The action between HMAS Sydney and the auxiliary cruiser Kormoran, 19 November 1941
On the afternoon of 19 November 1941 the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran (Commander Theodor Detmers) was steaming on a northeasterly course off the coast of Western Australia, approximately 150 miles south west of Carnarvon. Just before 4.00 pm a warship was sighted and Commander Detmers turned the Kormoran west into the sun, increasing speed to 16.5 knots, the maximum available. A broken piston rod was soon to reduce this to 14 knots.
The approaching warship, the light cruiser HMAS Sydney, had sighted the Kormoran and increased speed to intercept her. She quickly began to overhaul the raider, approaching on a slightly converging course off the German's starboard quarter and flashing the signal NNJ ("You should make your signal letters") on her searchlight. It was not Kormoran's business to fight warships except as a last resort, as her best hope for survival was to convince the Sydney that she was an innocent merchantman. If fighting became unavoidable, however, the raider was best served by luring her opponent as close as possible before revealing her concealed armament. To this end, when replying to Sydney's signal, the raider's flag hoist was deliberately fumbled and then hoisted in a position where the flags would be obscured by the funnel and difficult to read. The Sydney repeatedly demanded that the signal be hoisted clear, and, when the Kormoran eventually complied, the letters PKQI could be discerned. This was the callsign of the Dutch freighter Straat Malakka.
While this was taking place the range was steadily closing. By 5.00 the Sydney was off the Kormoran's port quarter and drawing abeam to a position where the raider's armament could be used to maximum effect. Still hoping to pass as a Dutch ship Straat Malakka, the raider began to broadcast QQQQ ("suspicious ship sighted"). This message was received faintly, in garbled form, by the tug UCO and the wireless station at Geraldton, and, presumably, by the Sydney.
Sydney next signalled: "Where bound?", to which the Kormoran replied: "Batavia". Captain Burnett must have been still suspicious as the Australian cruiser's next signal was "IK". To the Germans this signal made no sense as, according to the code book, it meant "You should prepare for a cyclone, hurricane or typhoon". The letters were in fact the middle letters of the secret callsign of the real Straat Malakka (IIKP) and the correct response was to send the outer letters. This, of course, the Kormoran could not do.
It was 5.30 and the ships were steaming parallel on south easterly courses at 14 knots, the Australian cruiser abeam of the raider at a range of 1,500 metres, a perfect target. The Sydney's fate was sealed when she flashed to the Kormoran: "Show your secret sign." Detmers now had no choice but to fight. The Kormoran hoisted the German ensign, uncovered her armament and opened fire. Two ranging shots pitched short and over respectively then a full salvo hit, smashing into the Sydney's bridge structure and director tower. Simultaneously, the Kormoran fired two torpedoes. Her automatic 2-centimetre anti-aircraft guns and rapid firing 3.7-centimetre anti-tank guns played onto the cruiser's bridge and also amidships, where the two port four-inch guns of the secondary armament and the torpedo tubes were mounted.
The Sydney replied with a salvo from her six-inch guns that tore over the Kormoran. However, the cruiser's forward turrets were knocked out by the raider's third and fourth salvoes, then the fifth caught the Sydney's aircraft on the catapult, wrecking it and spreading burning fuel over the ship amidships. About this time the Sydney's after turrets came into action, firing in local control. Y turret fired two or three unsuccessful salvoes before falling silent but X turret opened a rapid and accurate fire which hit the Kormoran in the funnel, engine room and electrical installations, starting uncontrollable fires. Shortly after this, one of the raider's torpedoes hit the Sydney abreast her forward turrets. Within five minutes of the commencement of the action both ships were mortally wounded.
The Sydney, down by the bow, turned sharply to port onto a southerly course as if to ram the Kormoran or to bring her starboard torpedo tubes to bear. She passed close astern, under fire from the raider's after guns At 5.45 pm, as the range opened, the cruiser fired her four starboard torpedoes at the raider, all of which narrowly missed astern. About the same time the Kormoran's engines broke down.
As the Sydney struggled off to the south she was hit repeatedly by the Kormoran's port side guns and at 6.00 the raider fired a torpedo from her port underwater tube which missed. The Kormoran continued to fire at the Sydney until 6.25, by which time her own engine room was wrecked and uncontrollably ablaze. As a raider she was finished and, mindful of her full cargo of mines, Detmers ordered her abandoned. As the crew left the Kormoran scuttling charges were set. They were fired at midnight when the last of the crew had departed. At 12.30 the mines exploded and the Kormoran sank. Of her crew of 393 officers and men, 78 lost their lives, either in the action or the sea afterwards. Two captured Chinese were also killed.
The Sydney was last seen about ten miles away, well ablaze and limping off into the gathering evening. Her glare could be distinguished until 10.00 and then only occasional flickerings which had ceased by midnight. Of her complement of 645, none survived.
On 17 March 2008 the Australian Government announced that the wreckage of both HMAS Sydney and the German raider Kormoran had been found, approximately 112 nautical miles off Steep Point, Western Australia. Kormoran is lying at a depth of 2,560 metres; Sydney, approximately 12 nautical miles away, is at 2,470 metres.
G Hermon Gill, Royal Australian Navy 1939–1942, Australia in the war of 1939–1945, Series 2 (Navy), Vol. 1, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1957, pp. 450–60