Tuesday, October 2, 2007

HMAS Sydney (II)

Originally named the HMS Phaeton, the HMAS Sydney was a 6,830-ton Modified Leander class light cruiser that was purchased by the Australian government. Built by Swan, Hunter and Wigham Richardson Ltd., at Wallsend-on-Tyne, England, the ship was commissioned at Portsmouth, England, on 24 September 1935. She was armed with eight 6-inch guns, four 4-inch guns and eight 21-inch torpedo tubes, had a crew of 645 officers and men, was approximately 562 feet long and had a beam of 56 feet. The Sydney was one of three Modified Leander class light cruisers (the others being HMAS Hobart and HMAS Perth) and was named after the previous HMAS Sydney which sank the German cruiser Emden in World War I.

After spending several months in the Mediterranean, the Sydney arrived in Australia on 2 August 1936 and remained in Australian waters until the start of World War II. She patrolled the Indian Ocean and escorted merchant convoys until May 1940, when she proceeded once again to the Mediterranean and arrived in Alexandria, Egypt, on 26 May. Once there she joined the 7th Cruiser Squadron of the British Mediterranean Fleet and took part in several naval actions. In June 1940 the Sydney, along with some other ships from the 7th Cruiser Squadron, ran into three Italian destroyers. Although two of the destroyers got away, the Sydney was responsible for sinking one of them, the Espero. On 7 July 1940, the Sydney was part of a large group of warships that was escorting a British convoy bound for the island of Malta. On 9 July 1940 the British escorting group of warships (which consisted of one aircraft carrier, three battleships, four cruisers and several destroyers) collided with an Italian battle group of two battleships, 10 cruisers and 24 destroyers. What followed was a running battle off Calabria, Italy. The British attacked the Italian fleet and seriously damaged one Italian battleship and one cruiser. The British didn’t sustain any major damage and the Italian fleet broke off contact and retreated back to port.

On 19 July 1940, Sydney, along with the destroyers Havock, Hyperion, Ilex, Hero and Hasty, were patrolling 40 miles north of Cape Spada, Crete, in search of enemy warships and merchant ships. The Sydney and the Havock spotted two Italian 6-inch gun cruisers, the Bartolomeo Colleoni and the Giovanni Delle Bande Nere at a range of approximately 23,000 yards. The Sydney and the Havock opened fire as soon as the enemy warships were in range. Soon the four other destroyers joined the battle as well. Both Italian cruisers were hit repeatedly by the Sydney, which received only minor damage. The Bartolomeo Colleoni was hit so many times that it lay dead in the water and it was finally finished off and sunk by torpedoes from Hyperion and Ilex. The Sydney, along with the Hero and Hasty, gave chase to the remaining Italian cruiser, the Giovanni Delle Bande Nere, which was heading back to Italy. The Sydney kept firing at the Italian cruiser but had to eventually break off the chase because it was almost out of fuel and ammunition. Although repeatedly attacked by enemy aircraft on their return trip to Alexandria (with the Havock sustaining a direct hit), the Sydney and the five British destroyers all made it back on 20 July 1940. After spending some time in Alexandria for repairs and maintenance, the Sydney continued searching for enemy warships in the Mediterranean and escorted British convoys to Greece and Malta until January 1941. She was then sent back to Australia and arrived in Fremantle on 5 February 1941.

The Sydney resumed her duties as convoy escort off the coast of Australia and patrolled those same waters for enemy warships as well. On 19 November 1941, while patrolling approximately 150 miles off the southwest coast of western Australia, the Sydney spotted what looked like an unarmed merchant ship. Captain Joseph Burnett, commanding officer of the Sydney, approached the merchant ship for a closer look. The “merchant ship” turned out to be the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran, with Commander Theodor Detmers at the helm. German auxiliary cruisers were camouflaged to look like innocent Allied merchant ships. They then approached real Allied merchant ships and attacked them after exposing guns that were hidden under false bulkheads and fake cargo on board the cruiser’s deck. During the early part of the war, German auxiliary cruisers were a scourge on Allied shipping and were actively pursued by Allied warships, especially by light cruisers, which had the range and speed to search wide areas of ocean for these wandering high-seas marauders.

As the Sydney approached the Kormoran, the auxiliary cruiser pretended to be the Dutch freighter Straat Malakka. While the Sydney was questioning the Kormoran using her signal light, the range between the two ships closed dramatically, until the Sydney was almost abeam of the merchant raider on its port quarter. Soon the ships were abeam of each other and only 1,640 yards apart. Captain Burnett must have still been suspicious of the fake Dutch merchant ship because he kept questioning the identity of the Kormoran until the German ship suddenly pulled down the Dutch flag and hoisted up the German Navy ensign. The Kormoran quickly uncovered her armament from behind her false bulkheads and opened fire on the Sydney. Since the two ships were so close to each other, the first few broadsides from the Kormoran caused devastating damage to the Sydney. The Australian cruiser, however, soon recovered from the shock of being hit and started shooting back at the German ship. After five minutes of pummeling each other with cannon fire, both ships were severely damaged. The Sydney was sinking into the water, down by the bow, but was still moving. She tried to move astern of the German raider and gradually pulled away, with both ships still hitting each other sporadically with shells. Seeing that the Kormoran’s engine room was destroyed and the ship was nearly finished, Commander Detmers had his men set scuttling charges and then gave the order to “abandon ship.” After the last of the surviving crew took to the lifeboats and pulled away from the Kormoran, the scuttling charges went off, sinking what was left of the German ship. Of the 393 officers and men on board the Kormoran, 78 lost their lives. Allied ships eventually rescued most of the German survivors at sea, but two of the lifeboats actually made landfall at Carnarvon on the western coast of Australia. Local residents quickly captured the Germans on board those lifeboats.

As for the Sydney, survivors from the Kormoran last saw her approximately 10 miles away, on fire but still afloat in the coming night. At around midnight, the flames in the distance flickered out and the Sydney, along with her crew of 645 men, were never heard from again. An Australian warship searching for survivors found a Carley Float life raft from the Sydney and another ship found a life jacket, but those were the only objects that remained from the light cruiser. Both items are now preserved as a memorial to the HMAS Sydney at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

It was one of the worst wartime disasters in the history of the Australian Navy and to this day the wreck has never been found. It was a mysterious end to a proud fighting ship but, unlike most ships, the memory of the HMAS Sydney is kept alive to this day in Australia. A new memorial to the HMAS Sydney and her crew was dedicated at Geraldton in western Australia on 18 November 2001. Although lost at sea, some ships never die.


Figure 1 (Top): Aerial starboard bow view of the cruiser HMAS Sydney (II) (ex HMS Phaeton) circa 1940. Note the spar projecting forward of the bridge and the single 4 inch AA guns amidships, which distinguished the Sydney from her two sisters. Her Seagull amphibian floatplane is embarked. Photo part of the Naval Historical Collection at the Australian War Memorial. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle, Top): Aerial port view of the cruiser HMAS Sydney (II). The Sydney has just passed under the Sydney Harbour Bridge circa 1938. Donor K. Otton from the Australian War Memorial. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3 (Middle, Bottom): Group portrait of some of the crew members aboard HMAS Sydney II possibly following their successful action against the Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni off Cape Spada, Crete, on 19 July 1940. The Sydney was ultimately sunk off Carnarvon, Australia, on 19 November 1941 following a fierce battle with the German raider Kormoran, which also sank. All 645 crew members aboard the HMAS Sydney were lost. Original print held in the Australian War Memorial Archive Store, Donor N. Scott. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4 (Bottom): The actual Carley Float life raft and the life jacket that were found after the loss of the HMAS Sydney, now on display at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, Australia. Photograph from the Sea Power Centre Australia web site. Click on photograph for larger image.