Australia's single worst naval disaster

The light cruiser HMAS Sydney, commissioned on 2 August 1936. Photograph: Navy Photographic Unit, Sydney
The light cruiser HMAS Sydney, commissioned on 2 August 1936.
Photograph: Navy Photographic Unit, Sydney

The sinking of the HMAS Sydney in 1941, and the loss of her 645 crew members, shocked Australians deeply. Lack of information and wartime censorship helped foster rumours about the ship's fate.

In 1999 the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade conducted a detailed inquiry into the loss of the Sydney. It found little evidence to support the most controversial theories.

New evidence was uncovered with the discovery of the Sydney off the coast of Western Australia in March 2008. Drawing extensively on records in the National Archives' collection, a subsequent commission of inquiry examined the circumstances surrounding the loss of the Sydney.

The Archives' research guide, The Sinking of the HMAS Sydney, was first published in 1999. It provides a detailed survey of Commonwealth government records relating to Australia's single worst naval disaster. Some of these records are displayed below. Click on an image to view the enlargement.

News filters through

The HMAS Sydney was sunk on 19 November 1941 after a battle with the disguised German raider Kormoran. On 24 November, after a number of unsuccessful attempts to contact the ship, a wide sea and air search was organised. Other than two lifebelts and a Carley float, no trace of the Sydney was found. Two days later, survivors of the Kormoran provided the first definite account of the Sydney's fate. Further interrogation of the raider's crew enabled Australian authorities to piece together the details of the battle. With many rumours circulating, the Prime Minister confirmed on 1 December that the Sydney had been lost.

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    Concerns about location of the 'Sydney', 24 November 1941
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    Details of searches undertaken to locate the missing 'Sydney', 25 November 1941 
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    Prime minister advised that the 'Sydney' is believed lost, 25 November 1941
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    Telegram sent to father of missing airman, 26 November 1941
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    Minutes of the War Cabinet meeting held on 4 December 1941 
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    The official notetaker’s record of the War Cabinet meeting of 4 December 1941 

Information is gathered

There were no survivors from the sinking of the Sydney. The only source of information about her battle with the Kormoran came from the 315 German crew members rescued after the crippled raider was scuttled. The prisoners were interrogated by Naval Intelligence officers before being transferred to a prisoner-of-war camp in Victoria. No written records relating to the battle surfaced until 1945, when the encoded notebook of the Kormoran's captain TA Detmers was confiscated after his attempted escape.

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    A page from Commander TA Detmers' encoded notebook 
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    Translation of Commander TA Detmers' notebook, 1945 
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    Details of cypher used by Commander TA Detmers, 20 July 1945
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    Report on the interrogation of the 'Kormoran' crew, 11 December 1941
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    Report on 'The search for the HMAS 'Sydney' survivors', October 1945
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    Instructions from Rear Admiral Crace to the interrogators, 2 December 1941

Questions linger

Hampered by a lack of detail and concerned about the impact of the Sydney's loss, the Australian government was reluctant to provide the public with full information about the sinking. This contributed to persistent rumours of a cover-up. Other unexplained events, such as the later recovery of a corpse, and a radio signal of unknown origin, have encouraged speculation.

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    A court of inquiry? Advisory War Council minutes, 18 March 1942
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    Shedden's Advisory War Council meeting notes
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    Proposal to publish account of 'Sydney–Kormoran' action rejected
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    Carley float and body at Christmas Island, 23 February 1942
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    Short-wave radio transmission heard in Geraldton 
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    Annotated copy of the radio message received from Geraldton 
Copyright National Archives of Australia 2014