What Was Australia’s Worst And Most Mysterious Naval Disaster?

This World Maritime Day, we remember the brave men and women who lost their lives in the world’s oceans.

It’s evening on the 19th of November 1941, the HMAS Sydney is on a routine cruise, escorting vulnerable cargo ships from Australia to the UK.

Night had just fallen, the battle-tested HMAS Sydney was patrolling the oceans, in  search for enemy warships attempting to shoot down precious cargo vessels on the Pacific Ocean.

An approaching German warship, known as the Kormoran was disguised. The prefabricated panels and canvas strips made the Kormoran, which was heavily armed look like a mere merchant vessel.

The HMAS Sydney unable to determine the ship’s intention was forced to sail closer. The HMAS Sydney edged closer to the German warship. Commander Detmers of the German warship, Kormoran ,delayed his attack, hoping the HMAS Sydney would pass. As Sydney sailed closer, the German Warship’s disguise as a merchant vessel grew weaker. The HMAS Sydney came within 1.5km of the Kormoran leaving it vulnerable to attack.

“The ensign had hardly broken before the first shot fell from the first gun,” one of Kormoran’s crew later wrote.

At 6.30pm, the German ship aimed its guns with great precision, targeting HMASs engines, the tower control and the guns.

What happened next is uncertain. Separate accounts were compiled together to understand the HMAS Sydney’s final moments.

According to the surviving German accounts, Kormoran revealed her cannons and smaller artillery and fired once upon the HMAS Sydney. The shot fell short, the second shot went wide.

The HMAS Sydney fired back, the cruiser’s 6 inch guns aimed at the Kormoran’s bridge, the shots passed through the bridge without exploding. Kormoran responded with smaller rapid fire and then larger missile fire. Survivors on board the Kormoran describe the effect as “immediate and dramatic.”

Image: Hunt for HMAS Sydney Still

The HMAS Sydney was critically hit, and burst into flames taking her entire crew with her. From observation of the shipwreck, scientists believe her captain had been killed mere moments into battle.

Both ships had sustained severe damage, but the HMAS Sydney had been hit too hard and too accurately to survive and burst into flames, killing the entire crew.

Just three minutes after the first shot both ship’s fates had been sealed. The Kormoran sank at 1.35am with her surviving crew rescued and transported back to the West Australian coastline. 317 of its 397 crew survived.

The HMAS Sydney lost her entire crew consisting of 645 people. The location of the wreckage was only discovered in 2008.

The battle between HMAS Sydney and the German Kormoran still remains Australia’s most devastating and largely unknown maritime disasters.

Lead image: Hunt For HMAS Sydney Still, Lifeboats

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