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HMAS SYDNEY Loss and Controversy





HMAS SYDNEY began her life as HMS PHAETON, one of three modified Leander Class cruisers ordered for the Royal Navy in 1933. The other two, APOLLO and AMPHION, became her sister ships HMAS HOBART and HMAS PERTH.


In 1934 the Australian Government approved a three-year program to expand the Royal Australian Navy and arranged the purchase of the PHAETON, already under construc tion at Wallsend-on-Tyne. She was taken over “on the stocks” and launched as HMAS SYDNEY by the wife of the Australian High Commissioner to London, Mrs S. M. Bruce, at Swan, Hunter and Wigham Richardson’s Tyneside shipyard on 22 September, 1934.


Commander J. A. Collins RAN led the Australian team supporting her completion program. SYDNEY was commissioned 367 days later in the Tyne and headed for duty at Portsmouth, under the command of her first skipper, Captain J. U. P. FitzGerald RN.


SYDNEY displaced 6,830 tons and could make thirty-two-and-a-half knots — she had a war complement of 645 officers and men.


Her armament included eight six-inch guns in four twin turrets — two forward and two aft — four anti-aircraft guns, three four-barrel 0.5-inch machine guns and eight 21-inch torpedo tubes.


She carried a Walrus catapult-launched amphibious observation aircraft, recovered by crane.


She left Portsmouth for Australia on 29 October but, in the light of the Abyssinian crisis, she was diverted to join the British 2nd Cruiser Squadron at Gibraltar and later the 1st Cruiser Squadron at Alexandria.


She served in and around the Mediterranean until 14 July, 1936 when she sailed for home in company with one of the RAN’s two heavy cruisers, HMAS AUSTRALIA, which had also been serving with the 1st Cruiser Squadron. She reached her home port, Sydney, for the first time on 11 August, 1936.


HMAS SYDNEY was only six years old when she was lost — and had been commanded by only four men. Her commissioning captain, who took her through her first Mediterranean service and delivered her to a proud Australia, was the unconventional Captain J.U.P. FitzGerald RN. He arranged for the “blind-eye” supply of beer during the rubella and mumps quarantine at Gibraltar, won fleet sailing races, planned innovative naval exercises and saw SYDNEY visit Lisbon, Cadiz, Cyprus and Gallipoli, as well as Alexandria.


He was succeeded in July 1937 by another RN officer, Captain J. W. A. Waller, who commanded the cruiser through its pre-war home service and into the first days of World War II.


Captain J. A. Collins (later Vice Admiral Sir John Collins) was the first Australian to command SYDNEY when he relieved Captain Waller in November 1939. He won international naval acclamation and became SYDNEY’s most famous captain for his Mediterranean campaign — and the sinking of the BARTOLOMEO COLLEONI.


Captain Joseph Burnett RAN succeeded Captain Collins in May 1941 and at the age of 41, he was in command the afternoon SYDNEY met the KORMORAN seven months later.


KORMORAN was the renamed STEIERMARK, a diesel-electric ship of 8736 tons, built for the German shipping company Hamburg-America Line. When Korvettenkapitan Theodor Anton Detmers took command in June, 1940, STEIERMARK had completed her sea trials but not made her maiden voyage. She was bigger than the SYDNEY’s 6830 tons. She had six 15cm World War I vintage guns, five anti-aircraft guns (2cm), two 3.7cm anti-tank guns with armour-piercing ammunition and six torpedo tubes. SYDNEY had eight six-inch guns, four four-inch anti-aircraft guns, three four-barrel, half-inch machine guns and eight 21-inch torpedo tubes. SYDNEY also had a considerable speed advantage with 32.5 knots, against KORMORAN’s 18 knots.


The Two Adversaries - A Date With Destiny


Korvettenkapitan (Commander) Theodor Detmers was, like his adversary Captain Joseph Burnett, aged 41 when the KORMORAN met the SYDNEY After a harrowing week in a lifeboat, Detmers and 61 others were found by the CENTAUR and their lifeboat taken in tow for Carnarvon.


The former destroyer captain was a prisoner of war until 1947, held first in Harvey, then transferred to Murchison POW camp in Victoria and later to Dhurringile camp for officers nearby, where he spent the balance of the war.


He was promoted to Captain in 1943 and was the senior German officer for his entire stay at Dhurringile. He escaped in a breakout by 20 prisoners in January 1945 and was free for a week.


He suffered a stroke that March and spent three months in hospital. He was discharged in 1947 and died in 1976, aged 74. He wrote a book about his life and service. A copy is still in the Carnarvon library.


Captain Joseph Burnett RAN was in command of HMAS SYDNEY when she was lost. He was aged 41. He had relieved his predecessor, Captain John Collins, seven months earlier. Both had been first entry year students at the RAN College in 1913.


He served in a wide variety of RN and RAN ships before his posting as Executive Officer of the battleship HMS ROYAL OAK in 1937. He was the third graduate of the College to achieve the rank of Captain in 1938.


Captain Burnett’s tactics in bringing SYDNEY broadside to KORMORAN and within range of her (concealed) guns — as claimed by German survivors — have been criticised. His son, retired RAN Commander Patrick Burnett, sees it as an error of judgment by a cruiser captain “perhaps too confident about his ability to handle any situation”. Was he in error? If so, why? Or was there treachery? Every clue to the truth — apart from the German version — disappeared with SYDNEY.

World Praise For Naval Victories


HMAS SYDNEY’s moment of glory was on 19 July, 1940 when she tackled two of the fastest cruisers in the world and sank one. Her smart gunnery, chasing the much faster and equally heavily armed Italian cruisers, put an end to the BARTOLOMEO COLLEONI.


SYDNEY had joined the British Mediterranean Fleet at Alexandria on 26 May, 1940 after spending the first eight months of the war in Australian waters and the Indian Ocean. A fortnight later, the Allies were at war with Mussolini’s Italy and the SYDNEY was in action with the 7th Cruiser Squadron.


On 21 June, she took part in the bombardment of Bardia and lost her spotter plane, which crash-landed after being attacked by British aircraft which had mistaken it for Italian. There was plenty of action — bombs, gunfire and torpedoes — in the next three weeks to sharpen up SYDNEY for her engagement with history.


On 18 July, 1940 SYDNEY set sail from Alexandria on a sweep for enemy shipping. She shepherded a group of destroyers — HYPERION, HERO, HASTY and ILEX — for 24 hours, before breaking off to commence her assignment, with a fifth destroyer, HAVOCK, in company. Only an hour or so after SYDNEY’s departure, the HYPERION’s captain reported two cruisers — the BARTOLOMEO COLLEONI and the GIOVANNI DELLE BANDE NERE, two of the fastest warships in the world.


These twin, 5,000-ton cruisers, com missioned in 1931, were capable of 40 knots or better, so the four destroyers, outgunned and outpaced, headed north for the SYDNEY. The Australian cruiser, meanwhile, headed south at full speed, maintaining radio silence, while the Italians worked up to full speed in pursuit of the destroyers. Within an hour, at 0820, SYDNEY sighted the Italians, organised an attack from two directions and opened fire on the enemy ships at 20,000 yards (about 18km).


With HAVOCK steaming into attack with SYDNEY, the Italians thought themselves confronted by a force of two cruisers and four destroyers and turned away, making smoke. This frustrated the planned torpedo attack from the destroyers, so SYDNEY gave chase, firing from her forward six- inch turrets when the fleeing enemy ships became visible in the smoke. She concentrated on the BAR TOLOMEO COLLEONI, which soon lost speed and dropped astern of her companion, tn fire and down by the bows.


Two destroyers were left to deal with the COLLEONI, while SYDNEY and the other three set off after the DELLE BANDE NERE. They could not match the Italian ship for speed and eventually abandoned the chase. Having spent most of SYDNEY’s six-inch shells, they headed for home.


The destroyers picked up some 550 survivors, including the commanding officer of the COLLEONI Captain Umberto Navaro, who died later on a hospital ship from wounds. SYDNEY reached Alexandria at 1100 on 20 July, to a rousing naval welcome and tributes from Britain and Australia. Her only scar was a shell hole through her forward funnel. Captain Navaro was buried with full naval honours in Alexandria on 24 July. The procession was led by senior British naval officers and representa tives of all ships in port, according to a newspaper report. “A small number of Italian residents were present at the internment,” it concluded. “They appeared very distressed.”


The Propaganda War

Berlin’s version of the SYDNEY action was given by wartime propaganda broadcaster, “Lord Haw Haw”:


“Two British heavy armoured cruisers and a large force of destroyers attacked two Italian light cruisers off the coast of Crete and in the ensuing battle the two British cruisers were heavily damaged. Slight damage was inflicted on one of the Italian cruisers. Italian super bombers attacked the British Force on its way back to harbour; one ship was set on fire and sunk.”



Sydney's Last Action - Death and Mayhem In The Afternoon


The KORMORAN was steering north-north-east in clear weather, 150 miles south-west of Carnarvon, off the West Australian Coast, on the afternoon of 19 November, 1941.


At 1555 the lookout reported sighting a sailing ship on the port bow, then several ships and clouds of smoke. Fearing a convoy under escort, Commander Detmers turned his ship away to port at full speed. Within five minutes the “sailing ship” was identi fied as a Perth Class cruiser on a course south.


KORMORAN set a course west- north-west at 14 knots, some two knots below her best speed owing to a breakdown in one of her four diesel engines.


SYDNEY, then some 10 miles distant, altered course towards KORMORAN, overhauling and signalling on her searchlight. Commander Detmers made no reply to this signal, not knowing its meaning and thinking that the use of a daylight lamp might arouse suspicion in the Australian cruiser.


He decided instead to hoist the signal identifying KORMORAN as the Dutch Merchant ship STRAAT MALAKKA and await events. As it was placed on a stay between the foremast and the funnel, SYDNEY was unable to read the flags. She signalled — “Hoist your signal letters clear”. After some delay KORMORAN complied.


At 1700 with SYDNEY on the German cruiser’s starboard quarter drawing rapidly abeam, KORMORAN broadcast “QQQ (suspicious ship signal) STRAAT MALAKKA”. According to Commander Detmers’ diary this signal was repeated by Perth radio with a request for a further report if necessary.


An indecipherable message was picked up by Geraldton radio station at this time, but a signal to all shipping requesting a further report if necessary received no response. About 1725 the two ships were steaming on a parallel course about a mile apart.


SYDNEY asked “where bound” and was told “Batavia”. At this juncture Commander Detmers still had some hope of escaping undetected but then SYDNEY hoisted 1K, being two of the four-letter secret signal of STRAAT MALAKKA. Ignorant of their meaning, he could not respond, and when this was followed immediately by a demand by seachlight to “Hoist Your Secret Call”, he had no alternative but to fight.


He recorded that at 1730 the Dutch Flag was struck and the German war flag hoisted in six seconds. KORMORAN opened fire with a single ranging shot at some 1,400 yards. It fell short. The next, ranged 1,750 yards, was over but four seconds after opening fire KORMORAN, according to Commander Detmers, scored hits on SYDNEY’s bridge and director tower. A “full salvo” from the cruiser followed immediately. This passed over due, no doubt, to damage to the director tower.


Lieutenant Fritz Skeries, KORMORAN’s gunnery officer, recalled that his second salvo “hit the bridge near the funnel” the third “the forward tower” the fourth “the machine room and the fifth “shot the cruiser’s aeroplane”.


Up to the fifth salvo no reply came from SYDNEY then “C turret well and fast” (no doubt in local control) scored hits, amidships and engine room, followed by “two or three salvoes from D turret, all of them over.


After about eight or nine salvoes KORMORAN fired two torpedoes. Lieutenant Skeries recorded one hit “between the first two turrets” but his captain recorded the hit “forward of A and B turrets”. The other passed ahead of the cruiser, which was by this time nearly motionless and under heavy fire from KORMORAN’s starboard secondary armament and machine guns.


The only reply from SYDNEY after her last shots from the after turret were some shots from one-inch guns, mostly short”. About five minutes after action began, SYDNEY passed astern of KORMORAN in an unfavourable position for the raider to launch torpedoes. Thick smoke from the fire in the engine room obscured the cruiser from the bridge but the anti-aircraft control officer continued firing with the KORMORAN’s stern armament at a range increasing to some 4,500 yards.


SYDNEY was seen to be losing way on a southerly course with her “bow dipping and listing slightly”. At about 1745 Commander Detmers recorded that he “turned away to port in order to destroy the enemy completely”. As his ship turned her engine revolutions dropped rapidly. Contact was lost with the engine room. Simultaneously four torpedo tracks were observed but he held his course because he said it was “questionable whether the engine would make the turn and tracks deviate well astern”. All four torpedoes passed close astern just as the raider’s engines broke down completely. Five minutes later KORMORAN’s forward gunnery control was again working with the whole port battery firing at a range between 6,000-7,000 yards.


SYDNEY was hit repeatedly and burning from forward of the bridge to the region of the after funnel. At about 1800 KORMORAN fired a single torpedo at 7,700 yards which failed to hit. At 1825 KORMORAN ceased fire by which time the range had increased to more than six miles. She had fired, said Commander Detmers, about 550 rounds of 5.9 inch. By this time the engine room had been abandoned and preparations to scuttle begun. All life-saving apparatus, except for two boats, was lowered and cast off, leaving 120 men and a number of officers still on board.


About 2330 the last two boats were lowered and explosive charge laying completed. At midnight the demolition charges were “touched off” and the last boat cast off. Half an hour later, when KORMORAN was settling slowly, her cargo of some 200 mines exploded, sinking her in two or three minutes, stern first. There was nothing to indicate SYDNEY remained afloat. Last sighted some 10 miles distant, a “glare” had been visible until about 2200 and afterwards for some time “occasional flickerings” then “darkness’.