The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) presented for Glen McKechnie an opportunity to see the world, but it was an opportunity unfulfilled. The South Australian was not yet 18 when he volunteered for the RAN in 1940 after leaving school. Able Seaman McKechnie shared his experiences by writing to his parents and brother, normally once a week, and often to his grandmother. His letters – usually beginning with “Dear Mum, Dad and David” – told of his training at Flinders Naval Depot and then, from February 1941, his time on board HMAS Sydney.

In a letter dated 28 October 1941, he described Bunbury, a small, pretty town south of Fremantle, Western Australia, and thanked his mum for the parcel she had sent. This was the last letter he sent his family. He was killed three weeks later. McKechnie was one of the 645 men who died when Sydney was lost with all hands after a bitter engagement with the German surface raider HSK Kormoran.

HMAS Sydney was the pride of the RAN. A modified Leander Class light cruiser built in Britain, it had been commissioned into the RAN in 1935. Sydney was a modern ship, well armed with eight 6-inch guns and other secondary armament; it was also fast. It had demonstrated its fighting prowess in the Mediterranean during 1940, when it finished off an Italian destroyer and sank the cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni (see Wartime 2). When Sydney returned home in February 1941 it received a hero’s welcome.

Following its return to Australia, Sydney’s work was routine as it carried out patrol and escort duties in the Pacific and Indian Oceans; it also received a new captain. In May, Captain Joseph Burnett succeeded the popular John Collins, who had commanded Sydney since early in the war. Sydney was Burnett’s first command.

Burnett was an intelligent and highly regarded officer who had entered the Naval College in 1913 as a 14-year-old boy and served in HMAS Australia during the Great War. He specialised in gunnery and served on exchange with the Royal Navy (RN). In 1939, he was appointed to a senior position in the Navy Office. Burnett excelled as a staff officer and was praised by Admiral Ragnar Colvin, Chief of the Naval Staff, for his “thoroughness”, “appetite for hard work”, and “powers of organisation”. Although his first-hand knowledge was limited, as naval historian Tom Frame has pointed out, Burnett certainly would have been “aware of the way” the war was being fought.

On 11 November 1941, Sydney and the troopship Zealandia left Fremantle for the Sunda Strait, where another warship would escort Zealandia to Singapore. After making the rendezvous at noon on 17 November, Sydney began the return voyage to Fremantle, where it was expected to arrive three days later.

By 19 November Sydney was off the coast of Western Australia, south-west of Carnarvon. It was a clear day with good visibility and a moderate swell. About 4 pm, Sydney spotted a vessel about 19 kilometres away that changed course and began steaming into the sun. Dusk was still three hours off. Sydney altered course to pursue the vessel while signalling for the unknown ship to identify itself.

Sydney went to action stations as it easily closed the distance between the two vessels. In a letter home McKechnie had described the excitement and apprehension of going to action stations as everyone got “set and ready”:
Men running up and down ladders, turrets training, their guns swiftly elevating, the ship accelerating. Hatches being closed, all the doors being shut, guns being cleared, and down in the bottom of the ship next to the magazine is me in the handling room.

When Sydney was about 11 kilometres distant, the vessel ahead identified itself as Straat Malakka, a Dutch ship. Sydney continued to close on the vessel while signalling for the ship to verify its identity.

Shortly after 5.15 pm Sydney had drawn almost abeam of the vessel. Fifteen minutes later, when Sydney was almost alongside at a range of less than 1.5 kilometres, it made what G. Hermon Gill, official historian for the RAN during the Second World War, described as the “fateful signal”, challenging: “Show your secret sign.” The vessel could no longer hide its true identity as a German raider.

Kormoran had been modified from the civilian merchant vessel Steiermark into an auxiliary cruiser. It was armed with six 15-centimetre (5.9-inch) guns. Two guns were built under the forecastle, one each on the port and starboard sides, and two under the quarterdeck. These guns were hidden from view behind counter-weighted iron hatch covers. Two other guns were concealed in hatches, the housing around which could be lowered. The raider was also armed with six torpedo tubes and several smaller guns, and carried more than 300 sea-mines. Its captain was the skilled and aggressive officer Fregattenkapitän Theodor Detmers.

Detmers had joined the German navy in 1921, aged 18, and spent much of his career with torpedo boats and destroyers. Although Burnett may have been aware of how the war was being fought, Detmers had experienced it. He had commanded a destroyer during the German invasion of Norway in 1940 and since January 1941 Kormoran had sunk ten Allied merchant ships and sent another to France as a prize.

Detmers knew he could not outrun the cruiser and, if Sydney did not lose interest, he would have to fight. This was something he wanted to avoid. His only real hope was to play for time and lure the cruiser in close. It worked perfectly: Sydney came into point-blank range.

Why did Burnett risk the safety of his own ship by taking it so close to an unknown ship? This has always been the key question and remains the subject of conjecture. If, as Gill thought, Burnett was suspicious of Straat Malakka’s bona fides, why did he not use Sydney’s aircraft or keep his distance and use Sydney’s superior speed and armament? Burnett may have been inexperienced as a captain, but he was a competent officer and he had seasoned senior officers. What conversations took place on Sydney’s bridge?

Burnett would have been aware of the criticisms that had been directed against HMAS Canberra’s captain from senior naval officers for expending too much ammunition and being “overly cautious” when Canberra had engaged two suspicious vessels in similar circumstances earlier that year. If Straat Malakka was a German raider, it could be a valuable source of intelligence; there might also be Allied prisoners on board. It was common practice to close on unknown ships to capture them before they could be scuttled. But in this instance, Burnett’s decision to approach so closely proved to be a fatal mistake.

Detmers was not prepared to lose his ship without a fight. At 5.30 pm, when Sydney challenged the vessel to show its secret signal, Detmers answered immediately by dropping Kormoran’s disguise, striking the Dutch colours and hoisting the German flag, and giving the order to open fire with guns and torpedoes.

Seconds later Kormoran fired two shots that straddled Sydney. As Kormoran fired its next salvos, Sydney returned fire with a full salvo. Kormoran’s shells slammed into Sydney’s bridge and gunnery director tower; Sydney’s shots were too high and exploded in the sea. As Sydney’s gunnery officers adjusted their aim, Kormoran continued to score hits against Sydney’s bridge and amidships.

Sydney’s three turrets, “A”, “B” and “Y”, were soon out of action, but “X” turret kept up fast and accurate fire that hit Kormoran’s funnel and engine room. Sydney, in turn, was hit by a torpedo between “A” and “B” turrets. Burning fiercely and down by the bows, Sydney turned away from the raider but continued to fight; at 5.45 pm it fired four torpedoes that only narrowly missed the raider.

Kormoran fired its last shot at 6.25 pm after having hit Sydney with hundreds of shells. But the raider had been crippled; its engines were wrecked and it was on fire. Detmers gave the order to abandon ship while arrangements were made to scuttle it. As the German sailors evacuated their stricken vessel, they watched Sydney disappear into the night and become only a distant glow.

By 10 pm all that could be seen of Sydney was an occasional flickering on the horizon. By midnight that too had died. Kormoran sank at 12.30 am on 20 November.

An air and sea search for Sydney did not begin until nearly five days later, on 24 November. The cruiser’s lateness in returning to Fremantle was not a cause for immediate concern, but when a British tanker reported by wireless that it had picked up a raft containing 25 Germans, the search began in earnest. By 30 November another five German lifeboats and two rafts had been recovered at sea and ashore near Carnarvon. From the nearly 400 men on board Kormoran, 317 were rescued. About 20 men were killed during the battle, while 60 drowned when a raft capsized.

Despite an exhaustive search the only trace of Sydney to be found was a badly damaged Carley float and two naval lifebelts. Sydney was lost with all hands: 635 officers and ratings from the RAN and RN, six air force personnel and four canteen staff.

Prime Minister John Curtin announced the news of Sydney’s loss at the end of November; unfortunately, rumours that the cruiser had been sunk circulated for several days before the next of kin were officially informed of their loss on 27 November. Acknowledging the uncertain and painful circumstances, Curtin concluded that Sydney’s “actual fate, in the absence of other evidence, must remain a mystery. All that we do know is that she fought gallantly and successfully achieved her aim – the destruction of the enemy.”

In February 1942, three months after the engagement, a Carley float bearing the remains of a man was spotted off the coast of Christmas Island. The float was towed ashore and the body buried “with full military honours”. The identity of this sailor has been the subject of extensive debate and investigation, but it is now believed that he was from Sydney.
Though the ship was lost, the mystery surrounding its disappearance ensured that it certainly has not been forgotten. Sydney has been the subject of more than 20 books and a parliamentary inquiry (see Wartime 7, 16). Because of the lack of satisfaction with the conventional explanation for the loss of the cruiser, and suspicions about the accounts provided by German survivors, there have been countless rumours, wild speculation and conspiracy theories swirling around the ship’s fate.

Then, after more than six decades and many unsuccessful searches, on 17 March 2008 the Australian government announced that the wreckage of both Sydney and Kormoran had been found by a team from the Finding Sydney Foundation and RAN 207 kilometres off the coast of Steep Point.

What will future research of the wrecks reveal? It seems as though the damage sustained by Sydney during the battle corroborates the description of the battle provided by the German witnesses. According to David Mearns, director of the search, and John Perryman, the RAN historian who worked with Mearns, the cruiser may have been trying to make a run for home when its bow, weakened from the torpedo strike and straining as the weather deteriorated and seas worsened, broke off and the ship sank rapidly. The discovery of five of its nine lifeboats among Sydney’s debris field suggests that few of her lifeboats were launched following the action. Why did the survivors not try to use them to get away?

Such questions may never be answered. Nevertheless, the discovery of the ships’ final resting places may at least offer some solace to the family and friends of those Australian and German sailors who died all those many years ago.

By Karl James