BOOK REVIEW – The Search for HMAS Sydney: An Australian Story

Ted Graham, Bob King, Bob Trotter and Kim Kirsner, eds., The Search for HMAS Sydney: An Australian Story, Sydney: UNSW Press, 2014. 320 pp.

Review by Tom Frame
Director Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society (ACSACS) at the University of New South Wales

The sinking of the light cruiser HMAS Sydney off the West Australian coast on 19 November 1941 stands alone in the annals of Australian naval history. Not only did the close quarters exchange with the German armed raider HSK Kormoran claim 645 lives making it the nation’s greatest naval loss, no other event has been so shrouded in mystery and surrounded in controversy. As Sydney was sunk with all hands and disappeared virtually without trace, what could be reliably established about the ship’s final engagement and subsequent sinking was frustratingly limited.

We know that Kormoran, a vessel designed as the cargo ship Steiermark and converted for wartime raider operations, sank more than 68,000 tons of shipping in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans in the eleven months since she first put to sea. On the night of 19-20 November 1941, Kormoran was heading towards the West Australian coast to lay a pattern of mines in Shark Bay. At 5pm, as the sun lowered in the sky, Sydney was returning from Sunda Strait where she had escorted the troopship Zealandia. The Australian ship observed Kormoran on the horizon. While the disguised raider attempted to pass herself off as a Dutch freighter, Sydney closed to a range of just 1,200 yards. By then the cruiser had given away a considerable tactical advantage. After a short and devastating engagement at point-blank range, both ships were mortally damaged. When Kormoran was scuttled six hours later, the Germans observed Sydney ablaze and making way slowly over the horizon to the south-west. Most of Kormoran’s crew was recovered from lifeboats several days later with 314 Germans becoming prisoners of war. In tragic contrast, there were no survivors from Sydney.

The disappearance of HMAS Sydney was extremely difficult to explain to a deeply shocked Australian public which had recently celebrated its great operational achievements in the Mediterranean. The only source of information about what had occurred off Carnarvon was the Kormoran survivors. The nation wanted to know how such a catastrophic loss of life could have happened to such a capable ship. Surely the famous Sydney was not lost to a mere armed merchant raider? Many more questions were raised in the years that followed. Some were mischievous, others were even malevolent. Eventually only two remained. What induced Captain Joseph Burnett in Sydney to forego his long-range gunnery superiority when he brought his ship so near to Kormoran? Why was Sydney lost practically without trace when so many Germans had survived?

The loss of Sydney is the most thoroughly researched event in Australian naval history – by a very long way. No other ship has received such attention and no other engagement such scrutiny. I need to declare that I am responsible for one of the books published on Sydney [HMAS Sydney: Loss & Controversy, 1992) a work that has happily been through three editions owing to the enduring and expanding controversy. In March 2008, the Finding Sydney Foundation managed to do what I had previously thought and said was impossible – they found the wrecks of HSK Kormoran and HMAS Sydney. This was news of national and international significance and I was the first to admit publicly that I was wrong. The search team led by David Mearns had not only proved the critics were mistaken, they had shown what thorough research, careful analysis, creative use of technology and sheer determination could produce: a stunning triumph. Why and how a small group of energetic people managed to locate the wrecks is the subject of The Search for HMAS Sydney – a beautifully produced volume that deserves to be ‘the last word’ on the loss of the famous Australian light cruiser.

This hard-bound, lavishly-illustrated, and well-designed work presents a series of perspectives and reflections on the ship and its achievements, the final battle and her tragic loss, the mystery of her disappearance and the needless controversy that followed, the publication of competing views and the angry exchanges between historians, and, finally, the emergence of a small team of professional researchers and community enthusiasts who believed it was possible to find the ship and gain elusive answers to questions that had long haunted the families and friends of those who had perished. The book reveals the extent of goodwill generated within both the public and private sectors, and the collaboration of scholars from a very wide range of disciplines which had previously shown little interest in maritime archaeology. I would venture to suggest that never before had the search for a ship brought together such a gathering of experts, each eager to contribute from the insights of their discipline.

The search also attracted community groups keen to remember the 645 men who lost their lives and then occupied a watery grave whose location remained unknown for more than 60 years. The ways in which disparate local organisations honoured the memories of the cruiser’s men revealed the extent to which the Sydney belonged less to New South Wales and much more to Western Australia – now her permanent home. Anyone unfamiliar with the Sydney story now need purchase only one book to gain a sense of why this ship and its loss proved to be so poignant, and why so many people with no personal connection to those who died were prepared to give of themselves so completely to find the wreck. This book shows the extent to which maritime archaeology remains a fascination to an island people like Australia and the degree to which its practice is enriched by the synergy that flows from a group containing experts and enthusiasts. Readers with a technical interest in the search will be as rewarded as those with a personal interest in commemoration.

This is simply a stunning book and a fitting tribute to those who were lost and to those who found them.

(Return to July 2015 Table of Contents)

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