Tuesday, October 30, 2007

USS Erie (PG-50)

Designed as one of the last true gunboats for the US Navy, the 2,000-ton USS Erie (PG-50) was built by the New York Navy Yard and was commissioned on 1 July 1936. Her main function was to “show the flag” and protect American lives and property in South and Central America. To accomplish this mission the Erie had an all-gun armament of four 6-inch guns. She was rather large for a gunboat (almost 329 feet long and more than 41 feet wide) and had a crew of 243 officers and men.

Ironically, the Erie’s first mission sent her to Spain on 31 October 1936, where she was part of an American task force assigned to protect US citizens during the Spanish Civil War. After visiting numerous European ports, the Erie evacuated refugees from the northern coast of Spain. She then returned to the United States by the end of December 1936.

After briefly being used as a training ship for midshipmen at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, the Erie was sent to Balboa, Panama, on 3 February 1938. While there, she served as the flagship for the Special Service Squadron, which operated along the coasts of Central and South America. The primary function of the Special Service Squadron was to conduct exercises with various ships within the fleet and to protect the Panama Canal.

After America entered World War II on 7 December 1941, the Erie was based in Panama where she continued to patrol the coasts of Central America. On 10 June 1942, the Erie rescued 46 survivors from the torpedoed merchant ship SS Fort Good Hope and, six days later, rescued another 53 survivors from the SS Lebore.

By this time, the Erie was converted into a convoy escort and, although she only had a top speed of 20 knots (which made her unsuitable for fleet operations), she proved to be useful for escorting slow-moving convoys. She escorted convoys to the Yucatan Channel and to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. On 28 September 1942, after successfully escorting approximately 11 merchant convoys, the Erie left Coco Solo, Panama, to escort yet another convoy to Trinidad.

After completing this mission, the Erie was to act as Escort Commander for convoy TAG-20 sailing from Trinidad to Aruba and then on to Guantanamo Bay. On 10 November 1942, the convoy left Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and consisted of 13 merchant ships. Two days later, four tankers from Aruba joined the convoy and then another five tankers were added to the convoy after leaving Curacao. A total of seven warships were assisting the Erie as escorts (five American and two Dutch) by the time all the ships left Curacao for the final leg of the journey to Guantanamo Bay.

At approximately 3:30 PM on 12 November 1942, the German U-boat U-163, while operating independently, located the convoy and fired torpedoes at the merchant ships. Fortunately, all of them missed. But a few minutes later, the U-163 fired another three torpedoes at the convoy and one of them hit the Erie in her starboard quarter. A 45-foot hole was ripped below the waterline and the resulting explosion ruptured oil tanks and set off massive fires that ignited the charges for the Erie’s 6-inch guns. Seven men were killed and 17 others were injured. With the fires spreading out of control, the order was given to “abandon ship.” After the Erie was abandoned, the surviving crewmembers were picked up out of the water by the Dutch warship HMNS Van Kinsbergen.

Incredibly, the Erie remained afloat and continued to burn for four days. A salvage ship was sent to put out the fires and determine if the ship could be brought back to port for repairs. After the crew from the salvage ship boarded the Erie and put out the fires, the gunboat was towed to Willemstadt Harbor in Curacao for repairs. However, before the repairs could be completed, the burnt out hulk of the ship began to list to starboard and then suddenly capsized, sinking on 5 December 1942. Although there were still a number of gunboats sailing throughout the world, the loss of the Erie somehow symbolized the passing of an era. Newer antisubmarine destroyers and destroyer escorts were now in demand and the old “all gun” gunboats that were made so famous in places like China, Mexico, and South and Central America were no longer needed. The few that remained would soon disappear into the pages of naval history.


Figure 1 (Top): The USS Erie at sea in May 1940. From the U.S.S. Erie PG-50 Web Site. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle, Top): The USS Erie off Coco Solo, Panama, after completion of long-range battle practice, 7 April 1938. From the U.S.S. Erie PG-50 Web Site. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3 (Middle, Bottom): The USS Erie traversing the Panama Canal, circa 1939. From the U.S.S. Erie PG-50 Web Site. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4 (Bottom): Photograph of the damaged and burning USS Erie taken by a Dutch photographer. From the U.S.S. Erie PG-50 Web Site. Click on photograph for larger image.

NOTE: If you would like additional information on the USS Erie, please go to: http://usseriepg50.org/erie_main_001000.html
It is an excellent web site that has an enormous amount of data on and photographs of the USS Erie.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

USS Panay

Named after a Philippine island, the USS Panay (PR-5) was one of six American gunboats built by the Kiangnan Dockyard and Engineering Works in Shanghai, China. Commissioned on 10 September 1928, the Panay was part of the US Asiatic Fleet and was built specifically for patrolling China’s Yangtze River. American ships that were assigned to the Yangtze were part of the famous “Yangtze Patrol,” which existed for almost 90 years. The Panay was 191 feet long, had a beam of 29 feet, but only had a draft of 5 feet, 3 inches, making her ideal for steaming in some of the shallower waters of the Yangtze. She was armed with two 3-inch guns, eight .30-caliber machine guns and had a top speed of 15 knots. Panay also had a complement of five officers and 54 men.

As with most US gunboats, the Panay’s primary mission was to protect American lives and property during the turbulent 1920’s and 1930’s in China. During this time, China had been engaged in a massive civil war between Nationalist Chinese warlords and Communist Chinese. Then, in the 1930’s, Japan invaded China and the carnage in this troubled country reached extraordinary proportions. During all of this fighting, Western gunboats (from countries including Britain, the United States, France and Italy) had to protect their citizens and national interests from the devastation that was taking place around them. From 1928 to 1937, the Panay played an important role in protecting American lives, property and merchant ships from Chinese bandits and warlords that threatened the commerce on and along the Yangtze. The Panay was shot at on numerous occasions and she always fought back. Fortunately, the ship was not seriously damaged in any of these bloody skirmishes.

But in December 1937, the Panay’s luck ran out. The Japanese Army was sweeping through South China and was about to begin an assault on the city of Nanking. Most of the American Embassy staff had been evacuated in November, but a number of individuals remained behind to keep the embassy open until the last possible moment. The last group of 15 Americans left the Embassy and boarded the Panay on 11 December. The following day, 12 December, the Panay moved 15 miles upriver from Nanking so as to avoid the fighting that was consuming the city. She was also escorting three American oil tankers (the Mei Ping, the Mei Hsia and the Mei An) out of the area to protect them from Japanese artillery fire coming from shore.

Commander J.J. Hughes, the Panay’s skipper, was bringing the little convoy further upriver when, at 9:40 AM, Japanese soldiers on shore signaled the gunboat to stop. Commander Hughes hove to and a boatload of Japanese soldiers came towards the ship under the command of Lieutenant Sesyo Murakami. Murakami and his men boarded the ship and were immediately brought to Commander Hughes. The American officer informed Murakami that he was on board a neutral American warship transporting civilians and escorting three American merchant ships. Murakami was searching for Chinese soldiers and, after seeing that there weren’t any on board the ship, thanked Hughes and left. The American ships kept going up the river for five more miles and then anchored, hoping that they were well clear of the fighting that was going on in Nanking.

At 1:37 PM lookouts on board the Panay reported Japanese aircraft approaching the ship. A large number of Japanese naval fighters and bombers suddenly attacked the four ships. Unfortunately, these were aircraft from the Japanese Navy and, even though the Japanese Army had just boarded the American gunboat and released it, this information was not given to the Navy, which had orders to attack all ships next to Nanking. Even though it was a very clear day and the white American gunboat had two large US flags painted horizontally on her upper deck awnings (with another big American flag flying from its flagstaff), the Japanese planes came in for the kill. Bombs started falling all around the ships and two of them scored direct hits on the Panay. One of the bombs destroyed the gunboat’s forward 3-inch gun and the bridge while the other bomb caused severe damage to the midsection of the ship. Several near misses also sprang leaks in the ship’s hull and soon the small gunboat was beginning to sink. Crewmembers quickly manned the Panay’s eight .30-caliber machine guns, putting up some anti-aircraft fire that prevented the planes from scoring even more hits. Commander Hughes was injured with a broken thigh and 43 sailors and 5 civilian passengers were also wounded. Three crewmembers died in the attack. Fortunately, Lieutenant C.G. Grazier, the ship’s medical officer, was not injured and was able to keep many individuals alive until the entire incident was over.

Less than thirty minutes after the attack had begun, it was clear that the Panay could not be saved. Abandon ship was ordered and the Panay’s small motorboats and the captain’s gig transported the civilian passengers and crew to the nearby shore. Soon everyone was off the stricken gunboat. At 3:45 PM the Panay rolled over to starboard and sank bow first. She was the first American warship to be lost in action in the 83 years that the Yangtze Patrol had been in existence. The three oil tankers the Panay was escorting were also lost in the attack.

Unfortunately, communications in the area were almost nonexistent and it took a while for news of the attack to reach Asiatic Fleet Headquarters. Once it did, a small combined task force of two British gunboats (the HMS Ladybird and HMS Bee) and the US gunboat Oahu quickly headed for the area. After waiting for help for three days, the small Anglo-American “task force” finally made its way to the battle ravaged area and rescued all of the survivors.

American reaction to the attack was quick and sharp. Open conflict with Japan was avoided only after the Japanese apologized profusely for the attack and vowed to pay damages for the sinking of the gunboat and the oil tankers. The Japanese claimed that their Army troops had never informed the Navy that the Panay was in the area, even though the weather was good and the neutral American gunboat was clearly marked with American flags. On 22 April 1938, the Japanese government paid the United States $2,214,007.36 as compensation for the loss of the Panay, the three oil tankers, personal losses and personnel casualties. Japan didn’t want to fight the United States yet, so they believed this was a small price to pay to maintain America’s neutrality in the Pacific. Ironically, almost four years to the day after the attack on the Panay, the US Fleet was attacked at Pearl Harbor.

Despite the payment, the attack on the Panay swayed public opinion in the United States against Japan. It also encouraged Congress to start enlarging US armed forces, even though money was scarce because America was still in the midst of the Great Depression. America may not have been at war with Japan, but the Panay incident brought that war one step closer to each country.


Figure 1 (Top): USS Panay on patrol, date unknown. U.S. Navy photo from the July 1978 edition of All Hands magazine. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle, Top): Panay underway on 30 August 1928. National Archives photo. Click on photograph for lager image.

Figure 3 (Middle, Bottom): Panay’s Decks awash, following fatal bombing by Japanese aircraft. U.S. Navy photo from the July 1978 edition of All Hands magazine. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4 (Bottom): Panay sinking on 12 December 1937. Click on photograph for larger image.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

USS Monocacy

Named after a Civil War battle, the USS Monocacy was built at A. & W. Denmead & Sons in Baltimore, Maryland, and was commissioned in early 1866. She was a 1,370-ton Mohongo class sidewheel “double-ender” gunboat and was 265 feet long and had a beam of 35 feet. “Double-enders” were unique ships invented by the talented Union engineer Benjamin Isherwood during the Civil War. These ships were designed for coastal work, especially on rivers. They were side-wheelers and had rudders at both ends of the ship, thereby enabling them to go forwards or backwards without turning, making them ideal for work in narrow waterways where turning was not always possible. They were usually armed with several guns, carried a crew of approximately 160 men, had a shallow draft of nine feet, and could steam at a speed of 11 knots.

The Monocacy was immediately sent to join the US Asiatic Station and was part of a squadron of warships representing the US Government at the opening of the ports of Osaka and Hiogo, Japan, to American commerce on 1 January 1868. Japan was an isolationist nation at that time, so the opening of Japanese ports to US merchant ships was an important event. The Monocacy went on to do some survey work in the Inland Sea between Nagasaki and Osaka to locate appropriate sites for lighthouses, another critical development for merchant ships steaming in the area. From 1869 to 1870, the Monocacy spent most of her time protecting American trade interests by steaming off the coast of Japan, which was experiencing some political turmoil at that time.

After undergoing some repairs in Shanghai, China, the Monocacy began charting the Yangtze River for the US Navy in March 1871. In May she was sent as part of a five-ship expedition to survey the Salee River in Korea. While on this mission, Korean shore batteries fired on the Monocacy. The Monocacy (with Commander Edward P. McCrea in charge), as well as the other ships in the expedition, responded quickly to this attack. Approximately 576 sailors and 110 marines from the five American ships landed on shore and stormed the Korean forts along the Salee River on 10 June, with three Americans killed and ten wounded. The Korean forts were silenced and the American ships left in July after completing their surveying mission. The Monocacy then returned to China and resumed its duties on the Yangtze River.

Beginning in 1872 the Monocacy patrolled the coasts of Japan, Korea and China, protecting American lives and property in that volatile part of the world. In 1900 the infamous “Boxer Rebellion” gripped China (which was a national uprising that attempted to expel all foreigners from China). The USS Monocacy was part of the naval task force of Western warships that was quickly formed to help put down the rebellion and rescue Western citizens that were trapped in China because of the uprising. On 14 June 1900, the Monocacy captured seven small craft in a battle off Tongku, China, where a Chinese cannon shell also hit her. Most of the fighting ended after Allied land forces of the China Relief Expedition captured Peking on 14 August. Once the conflict was over, the Monocacy was ordered to remain at Taku for the destruction of the Chinese forts there. The destruction of the forts was part of the formal settlement signed between China and the Western Powers in September 1901. The Monocacy’s career ended on 22 June 1903, when she was struck from the Navy list and sold to Hashimoto and Son in Nagasaki, Japan. All of her amazing 37 years of service was spent in Asian waters and she was by far the longest-lived of the nearly four-dozen “double-enders” built for the US Navy during the Civil War era. For many years the Monocacy was one of the most enduring symbols of the US Navy’s “China Station” and she also proved to be one of the toughest.


Figure 1 (Top): USS Monocacy (1866-1903) dressed with flags in the Pei-Ho River, Tientsin, China, in 1902. Photo printed on a stereograph card, copyrighted in 1902 by C.H. Graves, Philadelphia, PA. Donation of Louis Smaus, 1985. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle, Top): USS Monocacy towing landing boats in the Han River, during the Korean expedition of May-June 1871. Collection of Rear Admiral Ammen C. Farenholt, USN(MC). U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3 (Middle, Bottom): Ship's officers and crew on deck of the USS Monocacy during the Korean expedition of May-June 1871. Standing to the left front, wearing a sun helmet, is Monocacy's Commanding Officer, Commander Edward P. McCrea. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4 (Bottom): Monocacy at the landing with a hole through her bow made by a Chinese shell during the burning of Tongku, China, June 1900. Photo printed on a stereograph card, copyrighted in 1901 by Underwood & Underwood. Courtesy of Commander Donald J. Robinson, USN(MSC), 1982. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

USS Kearsarge

Named after a mountain in New Hampshire, the 1,550-ton steam sloop of war USS Kearsarge was built at the Portsmouth Navy Yard, Portsmouth, NH, and was commissioned on 24 January 1862. She was 201 feet long, had a beam of 33 feet and carried a crew of 163 officers and men. The Kearsarge was armed with two 11-inch guns, four 32-pounder guns and one 30-pounder gun. On 5 February 1862, the Kearsarge was sent to Europe to search for Confederate merchant raiders. Confederate commerce raiders had taken a heavy toll on Northern merchant ships and one of the highest priorities of the US Navy at that time was to hunt them down and sink them.

The Kearsarge soon reached Spain and her primary mission became searching for the new Confederate commerce raider CSS Alabama, under the command of Captain Raphael Semmes. For the next two years the Kearsarge hunted for the Alabama in a cat-and-mouse chase that took them all over the Mediterranean, around the northern coast of Europe and to the Canary Islands. During this time, the Alabama captured and destroyed more than 60 Northern merchant ships with an estimated worth of more than $6,000,000.

On 11 June 1864 the Alabama arrived at Cherbourg, France, for some badly needed maintenance and repairs. After two years of hard sailing and fighting, the Alabama was almost worn out and Captain Semmes knew that if he were to continue harassing Northern shipping he would have to overhaul his ship. The USS Kearsarge was in the area and received word that her nemesis, the Alabama, was in Cherbourg. The Kearsarge’s commanding officer, Captain John A. Winslow, had taken command of the ship in April 1863 and had always kept his crew well trained and prepared for battle. Captain Winslow took his ship outside of Cherbourg and waited for the Alabama’s next move. Winslow was careful to keep the Kearsarge in international waters since French warships were nearby to guarantee that no fighting took place within their neutral territorial waters. But Captain Semmes knew that the game was up. He could either surrender his ship to US authorities in France or he could fight. Captain Semmes wasn’t the type of person who would surrender to anybody, so he decided to fight.

After four days of drilling and preparing his men and his ship for action, Captain Semmes took his ship out of Cherbourg Harbor on the morning of 19 June 1864. The Alabama was escorted by the French ironclad Couronne, which stayed in the area to make sure that the Confederate raider reached international waters before any shooting started. Captain Winslow on board the Kearsarge steamed further out to sea so as to lure his opponent away from the shore. This would prevent the Alabama from quickly returning to port in case of an emergency. The Alabama took the bait and headed for the Kearsarge.

What followed was one of those rarities in modern naval warfare, a duel between two warships. In theory, the two ships were about equal in strength, although the Kearsarge had a slight advantage in cannons and speed. But the biggest advantage the Kearsarge had over the Alabama was that Captain Winslow had ordered that layers of iron chains be draped in tiers over the sides of the Kearsarge, giving the Union warship a layer of armored protection against enemy shells. This precaution would have a huge impact on the course of the battle.

At 10:50 AM, Captain Winslow turned his ship around and headed for the enemy. Once the Alabama was about a mile away from the Kearsarge, Captain Semmes gave the order to fire. Captain Winslow on board the Kearsarge held his fire until he was about a half a mile away from the Alabama and then he gave the order to start shooting. Both ships were firing at each other while steaming in a large circle and maneuvering to get into a better firing position. The Alabama scored several hits on the Kearsarge, but because of the poor quality of its gunpowder and shells, the projectiles caused only minor damage to the Union warship. In addition, the iron chain armor that protected the Kearsarge deflected many of the Confederate shells, making them bounce harmlessly off the sides of ship. One shell even hit the Kearsarge’s sternpost and failed to explode. (The sternpost and unexploded shell are preserved at the Navy Memorial Museum at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, DC.)

The Kearsarge, however, was scoring numerous hits on the Alabama. After almost an hour of shooting, the Union warship’s accurate gunnery reduced the Alabama into a sinking hulk. Several crewmembers on board the Alabama were killed and many more were injured. Captain Semmes struck his flag and ordered his men to abandon ship. As the Alabama went down, the Kearsarge picked up most of the survivors in the water. But in one of those strange quirks of 19th century warfare, Captain Semmes and 41 members of his crew were rescued by the British yacht Deerhound which was in the area to observe the battle. Like many 19th century battles, this fight was treated like a spectator event, with people on both land and sea watching to see who would win. After picking up Semmes and some of his men, the Deerhound headed for England, preventing Semmes from being captured by Winslow and the Kearsarge (since Winslow couldn’t board a neutral ship, let alone stop it from heading to a neutral port). Semmes and the men with him made it to England and eventually escaped back to the United States to fight with what was left of the Confederate Navy. Although Semmes escaped capture and imprisonment, the CSS Alabama would never again attack another Union ship.

This was considered a major victory for the Union Navy, making Winslow and his men heroes back home. The Kearsarge spent the rest of the war looking for Confederate raiders in the Caribbean and in European waters. She wouldn’t return to the United States until August 1866, when she was placed out of commission.

From 1868 to 1894 the Kearsarge was placed in and out of commission on several occasions. She was used as a typical gunboat, showing the flag and protecting American lives and commercial interests all over the world. The Kearsarge sailed to such places as Chile, Peru, Samoa, the Fiji Islands, Australia, New Zealand and the Hawaiian Islands. In 1874 she also spent three years as part of the US Asiatic Fleet, visiting Japan, China and the Philippines. From 1879 to 1886 the Kearsarge patrolled the North Atlantic, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the waters off the coast of Africa. From November 1888 to January 1894, the Kearsarge protected American interests in the West Indies, off the coast of Venezuela and in the Atlantic off Central America. On 2 February 1894, the USS Kearsarge was wrecked on Roncador Reef off Central America. Although her officers and crew made it safely to shore, the ship was a total loss. Congress appropriated $45,000 to raise the Kearsarge and tow her home, but the salvage company hired to do the job discovered that the ship could not be raised and it was left where it was. The ship’s amazing 32-year career had come to an end.

Some ships never fight in battle, while others fight in many battles. Seldom has one ship become so famous for fighting in only one battle. But, sometimes, winning one important battle is enough for a ship to secure its place in naval history.


Figure 1 (Top): USS Kearsarge photographed in New York Harbor, circa 1890. Her rig had been reduced to a bark in 1886-88. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle, Top): "The action between the Ironclad Federal steamer Kearsarge and the Confederate steamer Alabama, off Cherbourg, June 19th 1864." Print after a painting by W.F. Mitchell. Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Academy Museum. Beverly R. Robinson Collection. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3 (Middle, Bottom): USS Kearsarge vs. CSS Alabama, 19 June 1864. Painting by Xanthus Smith, 1922, depicting Alabama sinking, at left, after her fight with the Kearsarge (seen at right). Courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York. Official U.S. Navy Photograph. Click on the photograph for larger image.

Figure 4 (Bottom): USS Kearsarge (1862-1894). Ship's officers pose on deck at Cherbourg, France, soon after her 19 June 1864 victory over CSS Alabama. Her Commanding Officer, Captain John A. Winslow, is 3rd from left, wearing a uniform of the 1862 pattern. Other officers are generally dressed in uniforms of 1863-64 types. View looks aft on the port side. At left is Kearsarge's after XI-inch Dahlgren pivot gun, with its training tracks on the deck alongside. The original glass negative is held by the Library of Congress. Click on photograph for larger image.

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.