Recently I read a story about a naval battle that took place on the west coast of Australia early in 1941. During that battle, the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney pursued and engaged a German merchant raider named Kormoran, the result of which was the mutual sinking of both ships; while most of the Kormoran's crew survived the encounter, the Sydney was sunk with all hands. This was the largest single loss of life suffered by the Royal Australian Navy during World War 2.
At first glance, it seems impossible. How could such a heavily-armed and armored warship be defeated by a merchant ship? The Sydney was a purpose-built armored warship armed with eight turreted 6-inch guns and numerous smaller-caliber weapons and had already been involved in several battles. The Kormoran was a fast merchant ship that was converted at the outbreak of war to be a commerce-raiding vessel and was armed with six casemated 5.9-inch (150mm) guns, several 37mm and 20mm anti-aircraft guns, mines, and torpedoes; enough to make it deadly as a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing against merchantmen, but a very poor match against a veteran warship like the Sydney.
While on a routine patrol on the west coast of Australia, the Sydney spotted the Kormoran and gave chase, easily catching up to the German ship (Kormoran’s maximum speed was about 18 knots, while Sydney was easily capable of reaching 30-plus knots). Disguised as a Dutch freighter bound for Batavia, Kormoran’s crew readied their weapons and prepared for a fight they knew they would lose, or so they thought. The ruse seemed to be working, but Kormoran, after being signaled by the Sydney to “show your secret sign”, dropped its camouflage, raised the Kriegsmarine (The name of the German Navy under the Third Reich) flag, and fired on the Sydney. The battle begins.
Sydney simultaneously fired back with all eight of its main guns, but like Kormoran's first salvo, all of the shots missed, flying over the Kormoran. The Kormoran, however, then wisely and accurately targeted the Sydney’s bridge, which it immediately destroyed. Many of Sydney’s crewmen were observed outside the ship on the decks and rails up to the very start of the battle, strongly suggesting that they didn’t think the Kormoran presented much of a threat. Because the ships had closed to within 1200-1300 meters of each other, the Germans used their lighter, rapid-firing anti-aircraft weapons to rake the Sydney, killing and injuring many of her exposed crew.
The Sydney, after suffering numerous shell hits and a torpedo strike, finally started to hit and damage the Kormoran, but the confused and disjointed actions of the ship signaled to the German captain that his opening salvos, which destroyed the Sydney’s bridge, were more effective than he at first thought. The German captain, Theodor Detmers, although knowing by this time that his own ship was probably doomed, reacted with alacrity and continued to pour fire onto the Sydney, which was a flaming wreck by this time. Both of the mortally-wounded ships sunk in the wee hours of the late evening and the next morning; Sydney disappeared under the waves, while Kormoran was scuttled.
How could such a sorry fate have been in store for HMAS Sydney? And why did most of the Germans survive? According to the Germans, the Sydney simply got too close to them, which effectively nullified most of the Australian ship’s advantages in firepower, protection, and speed. Although Sydney was a veteran ship with a veteran crew, why did they take such a casual approach to an unknown ship in a war zone, especially as German raiders were assumed to be in the area and were known to be armed with large-caliber guns and torpedoes? Most of the blame lies at the feet of the captain of the Sydney. Something not mentioned was the fact that the Germans have always optimized their weapons for high rates of fire and train their crews accordingly; indeed, the raider crews were an elite of sorts.
Several years ago, both of the ships were discovered, and their location and respective conditions more-or-less squared with the original German accounts of the battle. The Sydney’s bow was separated from the rest of the ship, apparently from the torpedo strike, and there are numerous very tightly-grouped shell hits on the Sydney’s hull, which was a strong sign of good fire control on the part of the Kormoran. Although it was certainly a tragedy, the lesson was learned; from that point on, suspicious ships were dealt with at a respectful distance. Overall, I’d say that a foolhardy Australian captain was the cause of over 640 brave Australian sailors to die in battle. It should have been very much the other way around.