Remembering 1941 - 2001 History Conference

Raiders and the Defence of Trade: The Royal Australian Navy in 1941

Alastair Cooper

The loss of the cruiser HMAS Sydney was not a tragedy; no more than the loss of any life in war is a tragedy. The loss of the Sydney did not occur in the nautical equivalent of a dark alley, with Sydney being mugged and left for dead; it was not a random act of violence. It did not occur in a vacuum or a maritime Colosseum, with naval gladiators fighting for glory.

The history of Australian naval operations in 1941, in common with many subjects, is often considered only as a series of discrete events. The engagement between HMAS Sydney and the German raider Kormoran is an obvious example. This failure to appreciate and consider the context in which events occurred is a major barrier to understanding, giving rise to what might charitably called a cacophony of misconception, mistake and misdirected passion. This paper will examine the context for the Sydney-Kormoran engagement. In doing so it will touch upon the majority of the RAN's operations in 1941 and also examine why a small number of modified German merchant vessels, the raiders, were so important for war at sea in World War 2.

The loss of HMAS Sydney occurred in the context of the defence of trade. The defence of trade, the maintenance of sea lines of communication, the achievement of working sea control: all of these phrases describe the ability to use the sea for the purposes which are favourable to a nation or an alliance. It was the single most important reason for all maritime operations in the Second World War, and in 1941 the defence of trade was a worldwide battle fought between Germany and the British led alliance. It was fought with every possible asset which both sides could bring to bear: U-boats, cruisers, converted merchantmen, mines, fishing boats, corvettes, aircraft based on land, carrier aircraft, intelligence organisations, anything and everything. It was the crux, the critical path for the whole of the war effort. For the British alliance, a maritime alliance, it was crucial for the continued conduct of the war; and for the German alliance it was the only vital part of their enemy against which they could strike a decisive blow.

The greatest intensity in the battle for control of the sea occurred in the North Atlantic, where the highest concentration of merchant shipping was located. As a natural consequence, it was also where the bulk of the Allied forces were deployed. In that sphere the German's relied upon U-boats, aircraft, mines and forays by their heavy surface units. Modified merchant vessels, which is what German raiders were, would not have survived for long in that environment: it was one which they transited through as quickly and inconspicuously as they could, and not where they conducted their operations.

While 'The Battle for the Atlantic' has become synonymous with the war at sea, it was not disconnected from the other maritime areas of operation. Threats Allied sea communications outside the North Atlantic had the potential to affect the course of the conflict; a fact of which the Germans were well aware. This was achieved in a number of ways. First by increasing the area in which the Allies had to defend shipping, scarce Allied resources were diverted away from the North Atlantic, in turn improving the chances for the German forces operating there. Secondly, many of the supplies which eventually passed through the North Atlantic, originated in Australia, Africa and India. Because of the distances involved (when measured in ton/miles) there was a very considerable amount of shipping capacity and supplies which were not as closely or heavily defended as their equivalents were in the North Atlantic. This represented a vulnerability which the German raiders were designed to exploit, directly through attacks on individual merchant ships and indirectly by dislocating Allied shipping, by mining and the threat posed by the raider's presence.

So while German raiders' operations have not received the attention that the U-boat operations have, they were a fundamental part of the German strategy to disrupt and destroy the Allied maritime communications. Almost every RAN unit which operated outside the Mediterranean during 1941 played some part in operations to find or protect against the raiders themselves, or sweep for the mines that they laid.

The highest priority was given to the protection of troopships. Although they were large and fast, and therefore unlikely to fall victim to a surface raider, the troopships were too valuable to be left without escort against even that slight risk. The somewhat confusingly designated US series of convoys transported Australian and New Zealand troops from Sydney to Singapore and the Middle East via Fremantle and for the Mediterranean bound vessels, Bombay and Suez. They were escorted by a series of Australian, New Zealand and British vessels - light and heavy cruisers, which were the only ships which had the necessary speed and endurance. One example was convoy US 9, consisting of the Queen Mary, Aquitania, Mauretania and Nieuw Amsterdam. It departed Sydney on February 4 (Mauretania joined enroute from Melbourne) escorted across the Great Australian Bight by HMAS Hobart to Fremantle. The convoy departed Fremantle on February 12 enroute Bombay, with HMAS Canberra providing the escort. The Queen Mary was detached in the vicinity of the Sunda Strait, from where she proceeded to Singapore escorted by HMS Durban. The remainder arrived in Bombay on February 20, the escort having been taken over near Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) by HMNZS Leander.

During 1941 there were seven such US series convoys, carrying 92,000 troops to Malaya and the Middle East. From this brief outline it is apparent that there was enormous effort put into coordinating the safe and efficient movement of this one series of convoys. There were others, including the ZK series convoys which transported troops to northern Australia and New Guinea, although the scale of these was not as great until the Japanese entry into the war (just over 4,000 troops during 1941).

Australian vessels were not only involved in escort operations simply in the Indian Ocean. Perhaps the most widely travelled vessel was HMAS Australia. She started 1941 in the Liverpool having completed a refit. She then proceeded south escorting a convoy to Durban in February. By May Australia's escort work saw her further east, near Singapore, from where she carried the RAN's Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Colvin, back to Sydney. She then returned to the South Atlantic, more escort and patrol duty taking her as far south as the Kerguelen Islands, before being recalled to the Australian Station in November to replace the lost HMAS Sydney. In December she became the Flagship of Rear Admiral Crace commanding the Australian Squadron.

Not all, in fact only a minority of vessels, were escorted in convoys in the Indian Ocean. The overwhelming bulk were independent sailings. Unescorted and spread over vast ocean spaces, these were the targets for the German raiders. The raiders used the same wide expanses to avoid detection by patrolling Allied vessels, attacking lone merchant vessels, laying small minefields in the vicinity of shipping choke points. The German aim was to force the Allied navies to attempt to protect the merchant vessels. Although convoying was the most efficient means to protect shipping, and also to attack raiders or submarines, it also reduced the overall efficiency of the merchant vessels themselves in their primary role as a means of transport. This was therefore not a good option, except for troop convoys. The only response was then to attempt to find the raiders. This was best accomplished by concentrating the patrolling cruisers near the most heavily trafficked shipping lanes, such as the Arabian Sea and the Cape of Good Hope. With a combination of luck and good judgement a cruiser might be close enough to a merchant vessel when it was attacked by a raider to, if not prevent the loss of the merchant vessel, at least narrow down the search area and maybe find the German raider.

There were some notable successes, such as HMAS Canberra's destruction of the German supply vessels Ketty Brovig and Coburg in February. Nonetheless, it was a large and laborious task in which boredom and false alarms heavily outweighed action, and the resources required were greatly out of proportion to the direct threat posed by an individual raider. Cruisers were not the only vessels so occupied. In 1940 the Pinguin laid mines off Sydney, in Bass Strait and in the approaches to Spencer Gulf. Besides the old cruiser Adelaide, the sloops Warrego and Swan, and the auxiliaries Orara and Durraween, were involved in searching for and sweeping the mines. Although only a small number of vessels were sunk by the mines, the disruption to shipping was large and the vessels could not easily be redeployed until the raider which had laid the mines had been found and destroyed.

HMAS Sydney spent the majority of 1941 engaged in convoy escort and patrols searching for raiders. On 11 November she departed Fremantle, escorting the troopship Zealandia, which she handed over to the Durban. As is well known Sydney was returning to Fremantle when she encountered the German raider Kormoran disguised as a Dutch merchant vessel, Straat Malakka, and following the ensuing engagement both ships were sunk.

This paper will not rehearse the various scenarios which are put forward attempting to describe the course of the engagement: Tom Frame's HMAS Sydney: Loss and Controversy gives the most detailed and plausible account so far produced, one which is unlikely to be bettered. (And as an aside, an account which should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in the subject.) Instead, this paper will look briefly at two less well examined points, which suggest that Sydney's actions as a ship should in fact be remembered with some pride by the RAN and Australia. In the first instance, despite being surprised and probably heavily damaged in the opening moments of the engagement, the ship's crew were well trained and managed to return fire. They did so effectively - the Kormoran was sunk too. What achievements there were in the damage control organisation onboard Sydney to keep the ship operational for this to occur will never be known, but it is a reasonable assumption that they were considerable.

Second, when examining the actions of the CO, Captain Burnett, I think it is worthwhile quoting Piers Mackesy, who wrote of the leaders in the American war of Independence:

The men who conduct a war are more intemperately and uncharitably criticised than those who run an administrative machine in peacetime. Statesmen and commanders are equally victims; for in war the results are swift, harsh and measurable, and censure readily precedes understanding… To understand the war, one must view it with sympathy for ministers in their difficulties, and not with the arrogant assumption that because they were defeated they were incompetent, and that all their actions proceeded from folly.

The reason why Burnett brought Sydney so close to Kormoran will probably never be known, and that Burnett would have been deceived or miscalculated is to state the obvious. But it should also be remembered that the whole of Sydney's command team was probably also deceived and may have participated in or acquiesced to any miscalculation. It was not the Charge of the Light Brigade. This puts the Sydney-Kormoran action into a category which, to slightly misuse Clausewitz, is subject to the friction of war. There are unknown and even unknowable matters which can critically influence events; this was equally true for Detmers and Burnett.

From Sydney's and Burnett's perspective it is worth emphasising that Sydney did sink the Kormoran, and in doing so she eliminated one part of a serious threat to Allied sea communications. Once the German raiders were sunk or had returned to Germany, the ships and aircraft which had been to patrol for them could be redeployed, some to the Atlantic, and for the RAN, to the Pacific. By the end of 1941 the threat from German raiders was as nought compared to that posed by the Imperial Japanese Navy - the subject for another paper.

So when we remember 1941 and the loss of HMAS Sydney, it is important to remember that she was engaged in operations which were vital to the Allied cause. Protection of trade in the Indian Ocean did not have the same intensity as the Mediterranean or the North Atlantic, however the intensity of operations should not be confused with how important the operation was to the prosecution of the war effort.

For those who, like this author, have only learnt of these events second and third hand, it is, more than ever, important to know the context for the "events" of 1941. Because with this understanding comes a greater appreciation of the Second World War, and more generally, war itself. It is not enough simply to understand the tactics and the strategy like a chess game. Or even to imperfectly appreciate the exhilaration and horror of a battle when joined. One must also think of the endless tedium, anticipation, stretched nerves and false alarms, the weariness from months of keeping watch day and night in all weathers, the mines laid and swept, the innumerable false ASW contacts investigated, the troops safely escorted and the supplies delivered. For the strength required to endure these are required at least in equal measure to the bravery required to endure a battle and its aftermath.

Bearing this context in mind, given the safe arrival of all troop convoys and the gradual elimination of the threat by surface raiders, it is apparent that the RAN performed well in 1941. Furthermore HMAS Sydney's loss can be seen as part of the price to be paid in such an important theatre of operations. The loss of all her crew is as much a tragedy as in any part of a war, but they died having achieved, having sunk the Kormoran.