© 2009-2013 Bob Hackett
Revision 3

Who Sank the SYDNEY?
By Bob Hackett


The 12 March 2008 discovery of the wreck of German Auxiliary Cruiser (Hilfskreuzer) HSK KORMORAN and the subsequent 16 March 2008 discovery of the remains of Australian light cruiser HMAS SYDNEY has renewed interest in how SYDNEY was lost to enemy action.

On 19 November 1941, all 645 crew members of SYDNEY died when the cruiser sank after an attack by KORMORAN, that had been on a mine sowing mission, about 100 nautical miles off Western Australia.

SYDNEY, pride of the Royal Australian Navy, was victorious in a 1940 Mediterranean Sea battle in which she sank Italian light cruiser BARTOLEMEO COLLEONI and damaged light cruiser GIOVANNI DELLE BANDE NERE. Therefore, many people found it inconceivable that the redoubtable SYDNEY could have been sunk by a vessel such as KORMORAN, which she totally outclassed.

Post war, rumors began circulating including supposition that KORMORAN flew a flag of surrender until SYDNEY approached to claim her prize, when KORMORAN suddenly and dastardly opened fire with her main battery of concealed 5.9-inch guns and inflicted such damage on the lightly-armored SYDNEY that she sank several hours thereafter.

During the short engagement, SYDNEY’s quick firing twin 6-inch guns of her aft "X" turret returned accurate fire, hitting KORMORAN in the engine room and starting a major fire. When the flames neared the mine storage area, the Germans decided to scuttle KORMORAN. Explosive charges were placed and the surviving crew took to the lifeboats. Later, about 323 survivors including KORMORAN’s captain, Fregattenkapitan (Cdr) Theodor A. Detmers, were rescued by various Australian ships and made POWs.

Another theory that appeared in various books held that a Japanese I-class submarine working with KORMORAN torpedoed and sank SYDNEY. Sander Kingsepp and I have been questioned about this scenario on this page's "Discussion and Questions" board several times in recent years, hence this page.


On 28 March 2008, the Chief of the Australian Defence Force appointed a Commission of Inquiry to report on the circumstances associated with the loss of HMAS SYDNEY. The Commission included a number of distinguished members steeped in marine architecture, engineering, science and naval technology. It was known that SYDNEY was struck by a torpedo in the portside bow, so among the various questions posed to the Commission was a request for their opinion as to whether the damage is indicative of a strike by a large Japanese Long Lance torpedo warhead or that of a smaller German torpedo.

The Commission completed its report which is available in pdf. format at: http://www.defence.gov.au/sydneyii/DSTO/DSTO.003.0001_LR.pdf

The report, of which the above reference is only one (large) part, complete with photographs, drawings and underwater shots, is perhaps the most comprehensive coverage of a wartime sinking this author has seen. Thanks go to Mark Horan for bringing the report to our attention.

More debunking of the Japanese submarine theory was recently posted at: http://www.smh.com.au/national/flag-casts-doubt-on-submarine-theory-20090319-93co.html and at: http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2009/08/12/2653594.htm

The final report entitled "THE LOSS OF HMAS SYDNEY II " is now available on line, three volumes plus Appendix, transcripts, etc. at: http://www.defence.gov.au/sydneyii/FinalReport/index.html

Para 27.116 of the report hammers the final nail in the coffin of this far-fetched theory: "Conclusion: No Japanese submarine was present at the encounter between SYDNEY and KORMORAN. No Japanese submarine was in any way associated with the loss of SYDNEY or her crew."

Questions or comments should be posted on the board below:

Discussion & Questions

-Bob Hackett