Operation Battle off Dirk Hartog Island

The 'Battle off Dirk Hartog Island' is the unofficial name of the naval engagement, which has never received an official designation, off the coast of Western Australia between the Australian light cruiser Sydney and the German auxiliary cruiser, or merchant raider, Kormoran (19 November 1941).

Under the command of Captain Joseph Burnett, Sydney encountered Kormoran, under the command of Fregattenkapitän Theodor Detmers, about 122 miles (196 km) off Dirk Hartog island. The resulting single-ship action lasted just 30 minutes, and resulted in the destruction of both ships.

From 24 November, after Sydney failed to return to port, air and sea searches were conducted. Boats and rafts carrying Kormoran's survivors were recovered at sea, while other survivors made landfall at Quobba Station, 37 miles (60 km) to the north of Carnarvon: 318 of Kormoran's crew of 399 men survived. While debris from Sydney was found, there were no survivors from the light cruiser’s 645-man crew. This was the largest loss of life in the history of the Royal Australian Navy, the Allies' single largest warship lost with all hands during World War II, and a major blow to Australian wartime morale. Australian authorities learned of Sydney's fate from Kormoran's survivors, who were held in prisoner of war camps until the end of the war. The exact location of the two wrecks remained unverified until 2008.

Controversy has often surrounded the battle, especially in the years before the two wrecks were located. How and why a purpose-built warship such as Sydney was defeated by a modified merchant vessel such as Kormoran was the subject of speculation, with numerous books on the subject, as well as two official reports by government inquiries, published in 1999 and 2009 respectively.

According to German accounts, which were assessed as truthful and generally accurate by Australian interrogators during the war, as well as most subsequent analyses, Sydney approached Kormoran so closely that the Australian cruiser lost the advantages of heavier armour and superior gun range. Nevertheless, several post-war publications have alleged that Sydney's loss had been the subject of an extensive cover-up, that the Germans had not followed the laws of war, that Australian survivors were massacred following the battle, or that Japan had been secretly involved in the action before officially declaring war in December. No evidence has been found to support any of these theories.

Sydney was one of three 'Modified Leander' class light cruisers of the Australian navy. Built for the Royal Navy, the cruiser was bought by the Australian government to replace Brisbane, which had been built before World War I, and was commissioned into the Australian navy in September 1935. Displacing 8,940 tons, Sydney carried eight 6-in (152.4-mm) guns in four twin turrets as her primary armament. These were supplemented by four 4-in (101.6-mm) anti-aircraft guns, nine 0.303-in (7.7-mm) machine guns, and eight 21-in (533-mm) torpedo tubes in two quadruple mountings. The cruiser also carried a single Supermarine Walrus single-engined amphibious biplane flying boat.

Initially assigned to escort and patrol duties in Australian waters, Sydney was deployed to the Mediterranean Sea in the middle of 1940. Here the cruiser operated against Italian naval forces for eight months, during which she participated in several battles, sank two Italian warships and several merchantmen, and supported convoy operations and shore bombardments. The cruiser was recalled to Australia early in January 1941: among the factors militating for the recall were the need to rest the ship and personnel, planned dissemination of her crew’s combat experience across the Australian navy, and a desire to reinforce the nation following German raider activity in nearby waters. Sydney was assigned to Fremantle, Western Australia, and resumed escort and patrol duties, and command passed from Captain John Collins to Burnett in May 1941.

On 11 November, Sydney departed Fremantle for Singapore with the transport Zealandia. The vessels sailed to the Sunda Strait, where escort of the troopship was handed over on 17 November to the British light cruiser Durban. Sydney then turned for home, and was scheduled to arrive in Fremantle late on 20 November. At the time of the battle, she had a ship’s company of 645 in the form of 41 officers, 594 sailors, six Royal Australian Air Force personnel, and four civilian canteen staff.

During the 1930s, disparities between the conventional warship strength of the Kriegsmarine and other nations' navies as a result of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles led the German military to recognise that auxiliary cruisers engaged in commerce raiding could be of considerable significance during future wars, and that vessels suitable for conversion should therefore be identified. The merchant ship Steiermarkwas one such vessel, and she was taken up by the Kriegsmarine at the start of World War II. Renamed Kormoran, she was the largest and newest of nine raiders, known to the Germans by the designation Hilfskreuzer (auxiliary cruiser) or Handelsstörkreuzer (trade disruption cruiser). Kormoran was commissioned in October 1940: after modification, she had a displacement of 8,736 tons. The raider was fitted with six single 149.1-mm (5.87-in) guns (two each in the forecastle and quarterdeck, with the fifth and sixth on the centreline) as main armament, supplemented by two 37-mm anti-tank guns, five 20-mm anti-aircraft cannon, and six 21-in (533-mm) torpedo tubes (a twin above-water mount on each side, and two single underwater tubes). The 149.1-mm (5.87-in) guns were concealed behind false hull plates and cargo hatch walls, which would swing clear when the order to unmask was given, while the secondary weapons sat on hydraulic lifts hidden within the superstructure. The ship also carried two Arado Ar 196 single-engined floatplanes for reconnaissance and spotting, and could be disguised as any of several Allied or neutral vessels.

Kormoran departed German waters during December 1940, under the command of Fregattenkapitän Theodor Detmers. After operating in the Atlantic, during which time she sank seven merchant ships and captured an eighth, the raider sailed to the Indian Ocean late in April 1941. The raider intercepted only three merchantmen during the next six months, and Kormoran was diverted several times to refuel German support ships. As the raider was carrying several hundred sea mines and was expected to deploy some of these before returning home in early 1942, Detmers planned to mine shipping routes near Cape Leeuwin and Fremantle, but postponed this after detecting wireless signals from a warship (the Australian heavy cruiser Canberra) in the area. Instead, he decided to sail north and investigate Shark Bay on the coast of Western Australia. At the time of the battle, the raider was disguised as the Dutch merchantman Straat Malakka, and carried 399 personnel: 36 officers, 359 sailors, and four Chinese sailors hired from the crew of a captured merchantman to run the ship’s laundry.

On 19 November, shortly before 16.00, Kormoran was 170 miles (280 km) to the south-west of Carnarvon. he raider was heading northward at 11 kt when, at 17.55, her look-outs sighted what was initially thought to be a tall ship sail off the port bow, although it was quickly determined to be the mast of a warship (Sydney). Detmers ordered Kormoran to alter course just to the south of due west, and thus into the sun, at maximum achievable speed, which quickly dropped from 15 to 14 kt as a result of problems in one of her Diesel engines, while setting the ship to action stations. Sydney spotted the German ship at about the same time, and altered from her southward heading to intercept at 25 kt.

As she closed the gap, the Australian cruiser requested that Kormoran identify herself. Communications were initially attempted using a signal lamp for the repeated sending of 'NNJ' (you should make your signal letters), but those aboard the raider did not understand this uncommonly used signal and did not respond. Sydney continued to signal for 30 minutes, after which those aboard the cruiser used flags to send the more common 'VH' signal (you should hoist your signal letters), while the signal lamp was used to transmit the message in plain language. After another delay, Kormoran raised 'PKQI' (the call-sign for the Dutch merchant vessel Straat Malakka) on the triatic stay and hoisted a Dutch merchant ensign. As Sydney was approaching from just starboard of Kormoran's stern and 16,400 yards (15000 m) distant, the call sign was obscured by the raider’s funnel: German accounts vary as to whether this was in order to further the illusion of a civilian ship, or a ruse to lure Sydney closer or an error on the signaller’s part. Sydney signalled 'Make your signal letters clear', which Kormoran's signals officer did by lengthening the halyard and swinging it around to starboard. By 16.35, with Sydney 8,750 yards (8000 m) distant, the malfunctioning engine aboard Kormoran had been repaired, but Detmers chose to keep it in reserve.

Sydney asked Kormoran 'Where bound?', to which the raider responded 'Batavia'. Sydney may have then made signals asking for the raider’s port of origin and cargo; the Germans who claimed this said their replies were 'Fremantle' and 'Piece-goods' respectively. At about 17.00, Detmers instructed his wireless operators to send a false distress signal indicating that Straat Malakka was being approached by a suspicious ship. Transmitted at 17.03 and repeated at 17.05, this message contained the distress call for a merchantman under attack from a raider instead of a warship ('QQQQ' as opposed to 'RRRR'), the latitude and longitude of the transmitting ship, the time per Greenwich Mean Time (normal practice was to transmit local time; using Greenwich Mean Time was to let the Kriegsmarine know that the ship was actually a raider about to be lost), and the ship’s name. This signal was partially received by the tug Uco ('QQQQ [unintelligible] 1000 GMT") and a shore station at Geraldton ([unintelligible] 7C 11115E 1000 GMT'). The Geraldton station broadcast a message to all ships asking if there was anything to report, which the Germans interpreted as an acknowledgement of their signal, but after no response was forthcoming, ignored it until a report on the signal was forwarded to the Naval Board on 27 November.

During the exchanges and distress signal, Sydney positioned herself just off the raider’s starboard beam on a parallel course, about 1,420 yards (1300 m) from Kormoran. The cruiser may or may not have been at action stations: her main guns and port torpedo launcher were trained on Kormoran and her Walrus scouting/spotting aeroplane had been readied for launch, prompting Detmers to prepare to engage Sydney, but her 4-in (101.6-mm) guns were unmanned, and personnel were standing on the upper deck. During her manoeuvre, Sydney appeared to signal 'IK' (you should prepare for a cyclone, hurricane or typhoon), to which Kormoran did not respond, as from their perspective, such a signal did not make sense. The Germans were unaware that the letters were the interior of the real Straat Malakka's secret callsign 'IIKP': to verify her identity, the ship had to signal back the outer letters. The aeroplane was shut down by 17.25, and the catapult swung into the storage position as the two ships were too close for a safe launch.

At about 17.30, after the raider had failed to reply for 15 minutes, Sydney signalled by lamp 'show your secret sign'.

In response to the cruiser’s signal, Detmers ordered that Kormoran's disguise be dropped, the Dutch flag be replaced by the Kriegsmarine ensign, and the guns and torpedoes open fire. Accounts disagree on which ship fired first, but agree that both opened fire almost simultaneously. Sydney's first shots were a full eight-gun salvo from the main guns, and were reported in most accounts to have passed over Kormoran, although some of the Germans said that shells punched through the funnel and the wireless office at bridge level without detonating, and hit the water on the far side of the raider. One analysis claims that this was either a warning shot just over the superstructure, or an attempt to destroy the raider’s bridge as a prelude to the Australian boarding and capture of the ship. With Kormoran's opening salvo, of two instead of four shells because the raider’s two centreline guns were slower to unmask, the gunnery officer attempted to bracket the cruiser’s bridge but failed to hit it, with the shells striking other parts of the ship or missing completely. Two torpedoes from Kormoran's starboard above-water tubes were launched simultaneously with the raider’s attack, and the close proximity of the target allowed the use of the anti-aircraft and close-defence guns to rake Sydney's flank, thereby preventing the cruiser’s use of her secondary weapons.

The raider’s subsequent salvoes were more accurate. The second salvo, of three shells, destroyed Sydney's bridge and damaged her upper superstructure, including the gun direction control tower, wireless offices, and foremast. The fourth 149.1 (4.87-in) gun was ready by this time, and all four began to fire: the third and fourth salvoes knocked the cruiser’s 'A' and 'B' forward turrets out of action before they could fire a second time, and the fifth hit Sydney on the waterline close to the forward engine room, although one shell hit high and destroyed the Walrus. Kormoran's guns were aimed at Sydney's waterline and upper deck during the next three salvoes. After the sixth German salvo, Sydney resumed fire with her after turrets: 'Y' turret fired less than four times with little effect, but multiple shots from 'X' turret struck Kormoran, damaging the raider’s machinery spaces, wounding the sailors manning one of the guns, and starting a fire in an oil tank.

At about the time of the eighth or ninth German salvo, one of the two torpedoes fired at the start of the engagement struck Sydney just forward of 'A' turret and near the Asdic (sonar) compartment, which was the hull’s weakest point, ripping a hole in the side and causing the cruiser’s bow to angle down. After the torpedo strike, Sydney turned hard to port, and the Germans assumed that the Australian ship was trying to ram them, but the cruiser passed abaft the German ship. During the turn, the Germans' tenth salvo tore the roof from 'B' turret and destroyed 'A' turret’s housing.

The main phase of the engagement ended at about 17.35, with Sydney heading to the south and slowing, while Kormoran maintained her course and speed. Sydney's main armament was completely disabled, inasmuch as her forward turrets had been damaged or destroyed, while the after turrets were jammed facing to port and thus away from Kormoran), and her secondary weapons were out of range. The cruiser was wreathed in smoke from fires burning in the engine room and forward superstructure, and around the aeroplane catapult. Kormoran discontinued salvo firing, but the individually firing after guns scored hits as Sydney crossed the raider’s stern.

At about 17.45, Sydney fired two torpedoes from her starboard tubes (although some Germans reported more). Before the torpedo launch, Detmers had decided to destroy Sydney completely and ordered the raider to turn to port so four-gun salvoes could be fired: this manoeuvre caused the torpedoes to pass astern of Kormoran. After completing the turn, battle damage caused Kormoran's engines to fail completely, leaving the raider dead in the water while Sydney continued to steam to the south at low speed. Kormoran maintained a high rate of fire despite being immobilised: some sailors claimed that as many as 450 shells were fired during the second phase of the battle, and these scored hits on the cruiser, although many shells missed as the range increased. The raider fired her guns for the last time at about 17.50, with the range at 6,560 yards (6000 m), and a torpedo was launched at 18.00 but missed Sydney.

By the end of the 30-minute battle, the ships were about 10,935 yards (10000 m) apart, and both ships were heavily damaged and on fire.

Sydney was steaming to the south-south-east, apparently out of control, and quickly disappeared from German sight, although the glow of the burning ship continued to light the horizon until 22.00, with some German survivors stating that the light was visible consistently or occasionally until 00.00. Sydney sank during the night. It was originally thought that the cruiser exploded when fires reached the shell magazines or torpedo launchers, or took on water through the holes in her port side and capsized. However, after the wrecks had been located, it was determined that Sydney was under limited control after the battle, maintaining a course of 130-140° true at speed of 1.5 kt. The ship remained afloat for up to four hours before the bow tore off and dropped almost vertically under the weight of the anchors and chains. The rest of the ship sank shortly after this and glided upright for 550 yards (500 m) underwater until it hit the seabed stern-first.

Kormoran was stationary, and at 18.25 Detmers ordered the ship to be abandoned as damage to the raider’s engine room had knocked out the firefighting systems, and there was no way to control or contain the oil fire before it reached the magazines or the mine hold. All boats and life rafts had been launched by 21.00, and all but one filled: a skeleton crew manned the weapons while the officers prepared to scuttle the ship. Kormoran was abandoned at 00.00. The ship sank slowly until the mine hold exploded 30 minutes later. The German survivors were in five boats and two rafts: one cutter carrying 46 men, two damaged steel life rafts with 57 and 62 aboard (the latter carrying Detmers and towing several small floats), one workboat carrying 72 people, one boat with 31 men aboard, and two rafts each bearing 26 sailors. During the evacuation, a rubber life raft carrying 60 people, mostly wounded, sank without warning, drowning all but three of those aboard. The total German casualties were six officers, 75 men and one Chinese laundryman.

When Sydney failed to arrive on schedule, there was no immediate concern: the northbound journey with Zealandia could have taken longer than expected, Durban could have been late to the rendezvous, Sydney could have diverted to aid southbound merchant shipping, or minor engine problems could have occurred. Warships were expected to maintain wireless silence unless absolutely necessary, and none of the possible explanations were sufficient reason to break silence and inform Fremantle of the delay. When the ship failed to arrive by 23 November, wireless communications stations (initially those in Fremantle, then all high-power stations in Australia) began signalling ordering Sydney to report.

At 06.00 on 23 November, the troopship Aquitania recovered one of the two rafts carrying 26 German sailors. Initially believing that these were survivors of a German raider attack, and that the raider might still be in the area, Aquitania resumed her passage to Sydney, maintaining silence until the afternoon of 26 November. Detmers saw the troopship, but did not make his boat’s presence known as he hoped to be recovered by a neutral ship.

Six Lockheed Hudson twin-engined maritime reconnaissance aircraft from the RAAF’s No. 14 Squadron, based at Pearce, began to search for the ship on the morning of 24 November. When it was learned that the Zealandia's handover had occurred on schedule, air searches also began in the Java Sea. The first information about the engagement between Sydney and Kormoran was received by the Australian Naval Board during the afternoon of 24 November: the British tanker Trocas reported that at 15.00 she had rescued a raft carrying 25 German naval personnel (one had died). After further communication with Trocas, the Naval Board learned that the sailors were men of the raider Kormoran, which had been involved in a mutually destructive engagement with an unspecified ship, which the Naval Board assumed was Sydney.

Attempt to raise Sydney by radio now ceased, as it was assumed that if the cruiser had survived, battle damage or operational reasons were preventing her from replying. Six nearby merchant vessels were instructed to pass through that location and keep a look-out for survivors or wreckage of either ship, while four Australian naval auxiliary vessels departed Fremantle to search the area. Aircraft from Nos 14 and 25 Squadrons were relocated to Carnarvon to begin searches during the next morning, and were supplemented by two Consolidated PBY Catalina twin-engined flying boats; one each from Townsville and Port Moresby. On 25 November, the Free Dutch destroyer leader Tromp was sent from the Sunda Strait to follow Sydney's assumed course had she headed for Soerabaja or Singapore after sustaining damage.

Several German lifeboats were spotted on 25 November during the air search off Western Australia: the 46-man cutter had come ashore at 17-Mile Well, the 57-man lifeboat was nearing Red Bluff when spotted, and a third lifeboat was farther off the coast. These locations were all within the 120-mile (180-km) coastline boundary of an enormous sheep station. That afternoon, the staff of Quobba Station rounded up the two groups that had made landfall, meeting with no resistance. On the morning of 26 November, aircraft spotted two boats at sea, but were unable to find them again that afternoon. At sunset, the 31-man boat was located by the passenger ship Koolinda, which recovered the sailors and made for Carnarvon.

The Australian merchant vessel Centaur, which had been ordered to collect the Germans from Carnarvon and transport them to Fremantle, encountered Detmers’s lifeboat at 22.20. Centaur's crew lowered food to the 62 men in the lifeboat, took on nine wounded, and began to tow the lifeboat. During the passage to Carnarvon, the damaged and overloaded German lifeboat was swamped: Centaur's master lowered two of his lifeboats for the Germans to use, before resuming the tow. Arriving in Carnarvon during the afternoon of 27 November, the Germans were relocated from the boats to Centaur's cargo holds, where they were joined by their colleagues who had reached shore, and a party of Australian army guards. The last boat, carrying 70 Germans and two Chinese, was spotted from the air during the late morning of 27 November, and was recovered shortly after this by the impressed coastal steamer Yandra. On 28 November, the coastal patrol and anti-submarine vessel Wyrallah found a German lifeboat and two four-man liferafts, one of which was carrying a dead German sailor, who was buried at sea.

The search operation was brought to an end at sunset on 29 November. All of the German lifeboats had been found: between them, 318 of Kormoran's 399 personnel survived. None of Sydney's 645 men were found, and the only definite remains from the Australian warship were an inflatable lifebelt located by Wyrallah on 27 November, and a damaged Carley float discovered by the Australian naval tug Heros on 28 November. A second Carley float, which washed up on Christmas Island in February 1942, is believed to be linked with the cruiser.

On 26 November, the Naval Board distributed lists of Sydney's crew to all district naval offices. Telegrams to next of kin, stating that their relatives were 'missing as a result of enemy action' were lodged, although naval censors advised the media that no announcements relating to the cruiser be made. Despite this, rumours about the ship’s loss were soon in circulation, fuelled by the lack of information to substantiate the 'missing' telegrams. The Australian prime minister, John Curtin, officially announced the loss of the cruiser during the afternoon of 30 November. Censorship restrictions were lifted to publish the statement, but radio stations were instructed to wait 48 hours before broadcasting the news to avoid alerting any other German ships in the area. Several Melbourne stations disobeyed, and were temporarily suspended from broadcasting. Curtin made a second announcement three days later, providing some detail of the battle.

The loss of Sydney with all hands was a major blow to morale: it was the largest loss of life in the history of the Australian navy, and the ship’s company constituted more than 35% of all Australian naval personnel killed during World War II. This was compounded by the loss of the sloop Parramatta to a U-boat on 27 November. News of the latter loss was announced a day after Sydney's fate had been made public. The battle was not widely reported in other Allied nations, however, as it was a small loss compared to contemporary naval incidents: the British aircraft carrier Ark Royal and the British battleship Barham were sunk in separate incidents during the same two-week period. Moreover, the loss of Sydney was quickly eclipsed by Japan’s 'Ai' attack on Pearl Harbor and its invasions of Malaya early in December.

In Germany, news of the battle was assembled from communications intercepts during the search for survivors, which was combined with Allied news articles to assemble an account of the battle published early in 1943 for internal consumption by German officials. The events were made public in December 1943, after the early accounts had been confirmed by a sailor from Kormoran returned to Germany in a prisoner exchange.

Rumours that the battle was not what it seemed began almost as soon as Sydney failed to reach Fremantle on schedule, some of the rumours emanating from the highest levels in the administration, but it was not until 1981 that the accepted view of the battle was first challenged. Much of the controversy surrounding the battle stemmed from a refusal to believe that a modified merchant ship could totally defeat a modern cruiser, with most theories describing how the Germans deceitfully gained the advantage. The two ships' armament was closer to equal than this matchup implied, however, and although Sydney normally had an advantage in her armour plate and superior speed, these were lost by closing with Kormoran. The proximity meant that the advantage would go to the ship that fired first. While Burnett likely assumed that Sydney was dealing with a merchantman, Detmers was ready for Kormoran to surprise the cruiser, and the raider’s gun crews knew where to aim for maximum effect,

The claim of Japanese involvement, specifically a submarine operating with Kormoran, is based on several elements. The German survivors were found with milk bottles bearing Japanese labels: although cited as evidence that a Japanese submarine was supplying Kormoran, the bottles had in fact been obtained from the supply ship Kulmerland, which had taken on supplies in Japan. Sketches drawn by one of the interned Germans were believed to contain an account of the battle in a German shorthand system: a civilian working for Australian military intelligence attempted to decode these, and after relying on interpolation and speculation to make sense of the decoded characters and fill in the gaps, came up with a message that included the phrase 'a Japanese gunfire attack from Japan itself'. However, several shorthand experts could later find nothing resembling the German shorthand or any other shorthand style in the sketches.

It has been claimed that the involvement of a submarine is supported by numerous 'sightings' of submarines or submarine-like objects in Australian waters, most especially among these being a sighting off Townsville late in October of six 'strange boats' that surfaced, sprouted wings, and flew off: this had been interpreted as a reference to a floatplane-equipped Japanese submarine which may have reached Carnarvon in time to attack Sydney. The positions of all 46 Japanese active submarines at the time of the battle are known: 28 were in Japanese waters preparing for the attack on Pearl Harbor, seven were readying for operations in the South China Sea and the Philippine islands group, nine were heading for the South China Sea, and two had just departed for patrols in the Pacific.

Japanese broadcasts on a number of occasions claimed that Sydney had been captured and towed to Japan, or that her personnel were interned in Japanese prisoner of war camps. Post-war investigations found that these broadcasts were merely propaganda efforts.

There have been suggestions over the years that the Japanese submarine I-124, sunk off Darwin on 20 January 1942 by the Australian corvette Deloraine, some three months after Sydney's loss, contained information about the real fate of Sydney or may even herself have been involved.