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  Both Sides Fought Bravely


All pictures and text by Ken Wright

HMAS Sydney


When the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney signalled the unknown merchant ship to 'give your secret call' it was to seal the fate of both ships and their crews and begin a story of intrigue, speculation, claims and counter claims that has become a mystery that may never be sold.

Almost everyone interested in the history of naval warfare has read about the exploits of Sir Francis Drake, of the Confederate ship Alabama, and Felix von Luckner in World War 1. Of the exploits of the U-Boats and the battleships such as the Hood, Bismarck, Arizona and the Yamato or the aircraft carriers Lexington, Ark Royal and Akagi to name a few. Their stories like many others could be considered as the main source of written naval histories. Yet how many of us know anything about the German Hilfskreuzer-auxiliary cruisers of the 1939-45 period. Their activities ranged from the Galapagos Islands to the Caribbean in search of their unsuspecting prey.

These well disguised and well armed raiders which masqueraded as harmless friendly shabby looking commercial vessels are part of a particularly interesting chapter in naval warfare. Fewer than a dozen of these deadly vessels were at sea during the years, 1940 to 1943 yet they managed to sink nearly a million tons of allied shipping. They destroyed or captured 138 ships and their activities on the oceans of the world spread confusion, terror and severe disruption amongst allied commerce. Although they by themselves could not influence the outcome of the war, they tied up many valuable warships assigned to look for them which could have been better used elsewhere.

They were alone, surrounded by a relentless foe whose signals could be hear but not decoded. Their chances of survival were poor, they could never guard against a coincidence that might spell their destruction. Eternal wearisome vigilance and painstaking attention to the most apparently minor detail were their only means of staying afloat. Germany’s raiding campaign was a war within a war. It was carefully planned to spread fear and confusion, a deadly weapon skilfully employed by a numerically inferior navy as a supplement to the more conventional naval operations. Executed with pluck and dash and with one exception, gallant chivalry in a war too often marked by atrocities. The Germans ran a good deal of risk in what they were doing and trying to avoid destruction. To Fregattenkapitan [Commander] Theodore Detmers [Knights Cross] of the raider Kormoran, ‘Every undertaking meant staking everything on victory or total defeat. There was little comfort in running and none in surrender. If discovered, it would be a fight to the finish.’


Fregattenkapitan Theodore Detmers


The Kormoran had sailed from Germany in early December, 1940, flying the Dutch flag and disguised as the Dutch merchant ship. Straat Malakka. Originally, she was the Steiermark, a Hamburg-Amerika line vessel of 9,400 tons. After her conversion to Hilfskreuzer no 41 [auxiliary cruiser] Kormoran carried an armament of six 5.9inch guns, two 3.7 inch plus five light anti aircraft armament plus six torpedo tubes [1 twin set on each side above the waterline and one single tube on each side under water] two Arado aircraft, one light speed boat and 420 magnetic and anchor mines. She began operations in the Atlantic Ocean eventually sinking seven ships and capturing a British tanker. In May 1941 she was ordered into the Indian Ocean where she only managed to send three ships to the ocean bottom in six months of cruising.

On 19th November, it was a beautiful day with warm sunshine and as often was the case in the Indian Ocean, the visibility was perfect. The wind was south south west and the sea had dropped to a medium swell from the southwest. The Kormoran was travelling at medium speed steering NNW approaching Shark Bay on the Western Australian coast with the intention of laying mines in the area. At 1555 a mast and smoke was sighted dead ahead. The lookout was unsure of what he could see and constantly changed his signals. It was two sailing ships, then a number of vessels, then smoke possibly from an escort vessel. Fregattenkapitan  Detmers was under strict orders to avoid any encounter with enemy war ships no matter what the circumstances were as this could mean the loss of the auxiliary cruiser. He ordered a course change to port steering 260 degrees thus attempting to avoid whatever it was in front of his ship. Better to be safe than sorry. The lookouts next report may well have been Detmers worse nightmare. The smoke was identified as coming from an Australian light cruiser and it was approaching at full speed in their general direction.

The Steiermark


The Steiermark Plans for conversion


Fregattenkapitan  Detmers. ‘Evasion was out of the question. There were three hours until dusk at 1900 but the cruiser coming up could move at 32 knots compared with our 18 knots. Even if I could hold him at arm’s length until dusk, that wouldn’t help me much either as the nights in these parts were light with good visibility, which meant that now he had sighted me, he would not lose me again so easily. My aim was to gain time,  time in which the enemy cruiser would come closer, if possible to within six or eight thousand yards or so, then when the shooting started he would not be able to out range me or to withdraw to ten thousand yards and more. If I could get him near enough, my battery of six 5.9 inch guns would not be so inferior to his eight six inch guns. The advantage of his modern fire control would not mean so much at short distances.’

Kormoran set a course west south west at 14 knots some two knots below her best speed as one of her four diesel engines that had been causing some trouble finally broke known.

The ship that would have no doubt caused considerable consternation to the German ship’s Captain and crew was the Australian modified Leander class light cruiser, Sydney with a battled hardened 645 officers and crew [7 were Royal Navy ] 6 RAAF aircrew and 4 civilian canteen staff. This was the second cruiser to bear the name the Sydney. Her engines could push her 7,198 tons along at 32 knots at top speed and her armaments consisted of; four main six inch twin turrets, four inch guns in high angle mounting for AA defence backed up by three quad 5 AA machineguns. A quad 21 inch torpedo tube mounting fitted amidships on both port and starboard sides and a catapult for launching a Supermarine Seagull V Aircraft. She was more than a match for the Kormoran. In charge of the cruiser was Captain Joseph Burnett RAN who had only recently taken command of the ship. This was his first command.


Captain Joseph Burnett


HMAS Sydney had sailed from the Western Australian city of Fremantle on the 11 November 1941 to escort the troopship, Zeelandia to the Sundra Straits where she was to be relieved by the Royal Navy cruiser, Durban who would continue escorting the troopship for its last leg of the voyage to Singapore. The voyage was carried out without incident and Sydney was expected back in Fremantle by the afternoon of the 20 November. The Australian and German ship were about to keep their date with destiny.

The Australian cruiser was about 10 miles distant when she altered course towards the Kormoran and began signalling ‘NNJ’ with her search light. Detmers made no effort to reply to the signal as neither he nor his chief signalman, Ahlback, knew what the signal letters were supposed to mean. Sydney continued to signal and receiving no answer, suddenly signalled, ‘what ship?’ Ahlback asked his captain if he should reply with the search light or the top lamp.

Detmers replied; ‘Neither! Answer slowly and awkwardly like a real merchant navy greenhorn. In the meantime, they’ll come even closer.’ Eventually Ahlback hoisted the signal letters, PKQI identifying the raider as the Dutch merchant ship, Straat Malakka. Because he had deliberately obscured the signal flags, the Sydney signalled, ‘hoist your signals clear.’ After more deliberate fumbling, the Kormoran signalman complied. By now, the cruiser was on the raider’s starboard quarter drawing rapidly abeam.

Detmers. ‘The cruiser signalled that he had understood us at last and asked where we were bound for? Trusting to luck, I signalled, ‘Batavia’ It was now 1725 and the two ships were steaming on a parallel course about a mile apart. According to witnesses, the Sydney was at action stations with their guns trained on what appeared to them a Dutch merchant ship. There is a difference of opinion as to whether the Sydney’s aircraft was warming up on the catapult or not. Her torpedo tubes seem to have been unmanned but again, written observations differ. Fregattenkaptain Theodore Detmers still had a faint hope of avoiding detection but his hopes were shattered when the Sydney signalled, ‘IK’ being the two letters of the four letter secret code for the real Straat Malakka. The Kormoran could not respond as they were ignorant of the letters meaning. Chief signalman Ahlback continued to fumble a response playing for more time but when the cruiser signalled, ‘give your secret call’ the Kormoran’s captain knew the game was over. He was given no choice but to fight. Surrender was not an option. Fortunately for the Germans, the Australian cruiser was now broadside and sailing on a parallel course at a range of about 1,000 yards.

‘I needed no more time. As soon as the enemy had come practically to a standstill, I gave the order to ‘decamouflage’ It was 1730. The Dutch flag was hauled down, the German War flag raised and I gave the order to open fire to my gunners and torpedo batteries’, wrote Detmers in his book.

It should be pointed out that Germans had two advantages over their opponents. Firstly, they already knew they were facing an enemy and were fully prepared for battles whereas the Australians were still unaware of the danger they were facing. Secondly, the German gunners had time to choose specific targets such as the bridge, director tower, turrets and the aircraft because of the closeness of the opposing ship. The more modern Australian cruiser with its direction controlled guns only allowed for distance shooting at a target as a whole unless they were under manual control.

With speed and efficiency born from constant practice, the raiders rails folded down, the heavy camouflage covers fore and aft were whisked away, hatches 2 and 4 opened up to reveal their guns, the anti-aircraft guns were raised, torpedo tubes opened and the whole terrible arsenal of death aimed directly at the unsuspecting Australian cruiser approximately 1000 yards away. Within 6 seconds after receiving the order to decamouflage, the German gunners fired a single ranging shot then a second then like the old battleships in the days of sail, gave the Sydney a full broadside from every available gun scoring hits on the Sydney’s bridge and director tower. The Australian cruiser responded immediately with a full salvo but this passed over the raider possibly due to the damage to the director tower. The gunnery officer aboard the Kormoran, Leutnant Fritz Skeries, recalled that his second salvo hit the Sydney’s bridge near the funnel, the third, the forward tower, the fourth, the machine room and the fifth, hit the cruisers aeroplane. Up to the fifth salvo there had been no reply from Sydney then her ‘C’ turret, possibly on local control, scored hits on Kormoran’s engine room and amidships followed by two or three salvos from ‘D’ turret which passed over the raider.

Kormoran fired two torpedoes scoring one hit between the cruisers first two turrets [A and B]. The other passed ahead and missed.  Sydney, which by now almost motionless and under heavy fire from Kormoran’s starboard secondary armament and machine guns. The only reply from the Sydney were some shots from one inch guns, mostly short.

Detmers wrote in his 1959 book; ‘The Raider Kormoran’; ‘The enemy cruiser turned towards us and passed astern as though she was going to ram us. I thought she was perhaps turning in order to bring her starboard torpedo tubes into action but none were discharged.’ yet in an earlier report he said that the cruiser fired four torpedoes from her stern tubes which all missed. His no 4 gunner, Herman Ortmann, in a 1998 interview also stated the Sydney fired torpedoes, the nearest one passing about 150 metres behind the Kormoran’s stern.

The Kormoran’s gunners continued to score hits on the crippled cruiser until Detmers gave the order to ‘cease fire’ at 1825. By now the Sydney was about 6 miles away, a blazing wreck drifting rather than sailing. A funeral pyre for valiant warriors or a plain bloody burning twisted monument to the stupidity of war. The glow of the doomed ship still visible up until 2100 in the evening sky then it was observed the flames suddenly darted up even higher as though from an explosion then it became a pinprick of light slowly fading into the darkness, then nothing.

Kormoran had also been mortally wounded. She was on fire amidships; all the fire fighting equipment had been destroyed. Every attempt to get it to worked failed as did the efforts to rescue the trapped men in the engine room. The raider had been hit in the funnel, another hit a used oil tank which burst into flames, the burning oil running down into the engine room where thick smoke developed. One shell had exploded near the engine control stand and nearly all the personnel on the stand were unable to escape the flames. There was not much that could be done with her. It may have been possible to have subdued the raging inferno below by flooding but they would never be able to get the engines going again. There was no other choice! Freggatenkapitan Theodore Detmers in his own words, ‘I was faced with the most difficult decision of my life.’

He decided to sink his ship. With his mind made up, his responsibility now was to save as many of his men as possible. Detmers had thought of disposing of the mines that were still on board but decided that they would be better used to assist in destroying the ship.  The first large rubber raft that was launched contained his wounded crew but due to the increasing rough sea, the raft capsized.  Approximately 60 crew drowned. At 2100 other boats pulled away from the raider. Detmers assembled his remaining 120 officers and crew for the last time on the Kormoran. His explosive officer attached scuttling charges near one of the oil bunkers and at approximately a few minutes after midnight the remaining crew finally abandoned ship. At 0010 the charges went off and 25 minutes later, a tremendous explosion took place on the doomed ship. Hilfskreuzer No 41 lifted her bow into the air as if saluting a final goodbye and slipped backwards beneath the surface of the Indian Ocean. It was Thursday 20 November 1941.


Hilfskreuzer War Badge 1941


On the 21 November, when the Sydney had not arrived back in Fremantle at the expected time, the District Naval Officer, Western Australian branch, informed the Naval Board of the cruiser being overdue. There was no immediate alarm but by the 23rd with no reply to radio messages, an air search was organised for the following day. There was nothing to find, the cruiser had simply disappeared.

 It is said that history repeats itself. Back in November 1914 during WW1, German raider S M S Emden was surprised (whilst in the process of destroying the British radio station on the Cocos [Keeling] Islands) was destroyed by the first HMAS Sydney, now the second HMAS Sydney was destroyed by a German raider. This fact would have been the last thing on the minds of Detmer and his crew. They were spread out all over the ocean with little in the way of emergency supplies. On 24 November, the British tanker, Trocas bound for Fremantle reported she had rescued 27 German sailors from a rubber raft 115 miles WNW of Carnarvon. The following day a RAAF aircraft reported sighting two boats 70 miles NNW of Carnarvon then followed by a third boat. During the day, two more were observed. It was not until the 26th before Detmers boat was spotted and the occupants were rescued by the SS Centaur. Fearing the Germans might attempt to take over the ship, the Kormorans survivor's boat was taken in tow until they reached the small Western Australian township of Carnarvon. HMAS Yandra brought in one and another by SS Koolinda. A fifth boat reached shore north of Carnarvon followed by a sixth which had escaped detection from the air. The six boats landed 266 men of Kormorans complement. No further survivors were found at sea but on the 27th November, the troopship Aquitania reported she had on board 26 German sailors from a rubber craft off the West Australian coast at 0830, just a day before the British tanker Trocas reported her rescue.

Of the Kormoran’s complement of 393 officers and crew, 315 were rescued along with three of the four Chinese taken captive when the raider sank the Eurylochus ten months earlier. Twenty had been killed in the battle and the remainder had drowned due to overcrowding in the first life raft and rough seas. Except for the prisoners picked up by the Aquitania which had continued her voyage to Sydney and those rescued by the Trocas which proceeded directly to Fremantle, the prisoners were taken to Carnarvon where the preliminary interrogations took place.

All the prisoners were eventually transferred to Fremantle for treatment, recuperation and a thorough interrogation. Nineteen  were taken to hospital, the remainder were distributed between the Fremantle Detention Barracks, Swanbourne Barracks and the internment camp at Harvey, 87 miles south of Perth, the capital of Western Australia. The prisoners after their interrogation were transferred to Melbourne, the officers on the 13th December aboard the ship Duntroon, and the other ranks in two groups by train. One on the 27th December and the other in early January. They were all sent to a POW camp at Murchison in north western country Victoria where they spent their first Christmas and New Year behind barbed wire. The officers were transferred to the "officers only" camp at a homestead property at Dhurringile, about 10 miles from the Murchison camp that had been converted into a detention camp. Here there were already 60 officers from the Luftwaffe and the Army, mostly from Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Two prisoners who were too ill to travel at the time remained behind in the hospital in Fremantle. Unfortunately one, torpedo man, Erich Meyer died three weeks later of lung cancer and was buried with full military honours in the Lutheran section of the Karrakatta cemetery.  His grave was kindly looked after by the mother of one of the sailors killed on the Sydney until his reinterment in the German cemetery in the Victorian country town of Tatura a few miles north from Dhurringile.

Tatura German Cemetery

News of the action and the presumed loss of the Sydney were publicly announced in an official statement by the Prime Minister, Mr Curtin on the 30 November, 1941. The next of kin had already been informed by personal telegram three days earlier. Unfortunately, through a failure to observe correct censorship by Government and Naval authorities, information had leaked out on the 25 November and gave rise to rumours which spread quickly throughout Australia and caused deep distress to the Sydney crew’s next of kin. Because the only accounts of the encounter were and still are from the Kormorans survivors, it left many with the perception then and in the years that followed that the whole story was not being told.

Rumours circulated and grew. A Japanese submarine had initially torpedoed the ship, the survivors taken to Japan [Japan had not entered the war at that time] the Kormoran crew machine-gunned the survivors so there would be no witnesses to their presence in the area, a ruse de guerre was used to lure the Australian cruiser close, the Germans opened fire under a white flag whilst pretending to surrender or that Australian officials had hidden the truth. On and on it went. Doubt was cast on the veracity of the German view. One strong rumour was that Detmers fired an underwater torpedo before raising his war flag or that the authorities withheld information that may have saved the Sydney. The incident was, as usual, sensationalised in the newspapers at the time which only added fuel to the rumours. For many, what was or is so incomprehensible was that the Sydney could be lost with all hands yet approximately 317 crew [including three Chinese prisoners] of the German raider survived. It was not a common event but it had happened before. During World War 1, six ships were lost with all hands and later during WW2, the German destroyer, Friedrich Eckoldt and the USN destroyer; Jarvis were both sunk with no survivors. However, to the Australian public, it was too hard to accept that their ship was destroyed with the loss of all on board and the only version of the event they have is from enemy survivors. Something was wrong. It had to be!

Compared with the German and especially the Japanese POW camps, the German and Italian prisoners of war were on a holiday. The Australian Government took its Geneva Convention obligations seriously. So much so that both German and Italian ex- prisoners were unanimous in their praise of the generally humane treatment they received from the military authorities. In the Victorian camps, there was a cordial understanding between the officers and men who guarded the prisoners and the officers and men who were the prisoners but most trouble came from the Germans. Now matter how well they were treated, the sheer frustration of being a POW in a strange country almost on the other side of the world with no news from the Fatherland, their loved ones and being crowded together with differences of opinion on a great many issues especially between Austrians and Germans, Nazi and non Nazi. Trouble simmered. The bars of their cage could have been made with gold but those bars still prevented their freedom. Escape plans began to hatch. The Germans quickly realised that if they escaped they were not going to be lined up against a wall and shot. There were no secret police such as the Gestapo or Kempi Tai, but they also understood that because Australia was such a vast island nation, there was nowhere to go. Escape was almost impossible unless they were able to somehow get aboard a neutral ship. Escaping became a sort of therapy to relieve the tension of camp life although a few were actually trying to get home. It was a constant problem for the military and civilian authorities.

Initially, the local population were apprehensive when the first escapes took place but over a period of time they became more relaxed when they realised the Germans were not going to murder them in their beds. Many recaptured POW’s told of the locals giving them the Australian ‘’fair go’’ or sporting chance. Examples such as being given food and directions and told they have 8 hours before they must be reported or given work on farms. They escaped from working parties using clever ruses, dug tunnels and employed a great amount of ingenuity in their escape efforts but for the most part, none got very far or were at liberty for long. Their escape preparations didn’t need to be as well thought out or equipped as their counterparts in Europe or Asia who could possibly be shot if caught. One way the Government sought to ease the tension in the camps was the formal agreement reached in 1943 between the belligerent countries to allow POWs to send airmail letters. Australia was the only country in the world to issue airmail postage for the exclusive use by POWs and internees.

On 5 August, 1944, a total of 1,100 Japanese prisoners broke out from their prison camp near the small rural township of Cowra in New South Wales stabbing or bludgeoning four unfortunate guards to death and wounding four others. The Japanese actively sought death. They wanted to be killed. Only death would wipe away the shame of being captured, the disgrace to their parents, to the emperor and to Japan. The escape sent shock waves throughout the local communities and cause tremendous concern throughout country Victoria and it was to temporarily stifle escape attempts for the Germans at the camp 13 at Murchison. The military authorities killed 183 Japanese while trying to prevent the escape, 36 died by their own hand or by violence inflicted on them by fellow prisoners and 12 by unknown causes. The remainder who were not granted their glorious death were eventually returned to prison. 500 were transferred to camp 13 which now had freshly laid concrete machinegun emplacements surrounding the compound. The military authorities were not taking any chances of a repeat performance by fanatical Japanese prisoners and their ‘death before dishonour’ code.

When Fregattenkaptian Detmers arrived in Dhurringile, he was the most senior rank there and became the Camp Leader responsible in cooperation with the military authorities for the day to day running of four compounds and the historical Dhurringile mansion where the higher ranking officers and their batmen lived. Detmers carried out his duties as camp leader efficiently and was respected by authorities and prisoners alike but in 1944 was something was not right. His men had all been awarded the Iron Cross Second Class for their action against the Australian cruiser. He had also been awarded the Knights Cross in addition to his Iron Cross First Class. His crew were still in the area plotting escapes, playing chess, exercising or out on various work parties. Life in the camp was going along without too many problems but at some point he must have decided do something different. Perhaps a sense of adventure to rekindle his Hilfkreuzer days or simply a final fling!

Prisoners of War at Dhurringile


On 11 January, 1945 the most successful escape of the camp was carried out from the old Dhurringile mansion by 17 officers and 3 batmen. Detmers was one of the escapees. They had tunnelled from a large crockery room, down to a depth of 14 feet in the sandy soil then out under the compound yard, under the perimeter fence and a good distance beyond the wire. A total length of 120 yards. When they were all out, the prisoners scattered in all directions. Detmers had teamed up with Oberstleutnant Helmut Bertram and initially the pair made good progress considering Detmers was twice as old as the other escapees. When they were eventually recaptured about a week later by two local police, Detmers looked ill.

As punishment for his part in the escape, Detmers was sent for a month to the Old Melbourne Gaol [ jail]  a bluestone relic built by convict labour back in 1842-45. When he arrived, the gaol was being used as a military detention centre. Detmers returned to his duties at the camp after his detention time was over but on the 13 March he suffered a stroke during the night and was paralysed. He had been under a lot of strain running the camp, he smoked too much and the physical effort of the escape had taken its toll on his health. Detmers was transferred to a military hospital in Melbourne where he stayed for 3 months. He recovered from his illness but returned to Dhurringile partly paralysed and unable to resume his duties as camp leader. His fellow escapee, Oberstleutnant Bertram took over the duties of camp leader until the war ended in 1945.

The war may have finished but for 2,500 Germans and Italians in the Victorian internment camps it would not be until 21 January, 1947 when they boarded the RMS Orontes at Port Melbourne that they were able to finally return home to Europe. Detmers was going with them but this time in the ships sick bay. Perhaps he may have looked out the porthole and noticed the ship moored at the pier opposite and wondered about the fickleness of fate. Perhaps some of his crew may have also noticed the real Straat Malakka moored opposite.

Fregattenkapitan Theodore Detmers arrived in Cuxhaven, Germany on February 28, still with his crew. He remained slightly crippled from his stroke and retired from the Kriegsmarine on a pension. He lived in Hamburg where he and his wife were always being visited by former crew members until his death in 1976.

Both the Sydney and the Kormoran crews fought a fierce battle with bravery and tenacity but the loss of the 645 Australian crew was not the worst in Australian maritime history. In 1942, the American submarine, Sturgeon sank the Japanese ship, Montevideo Maru with a loss of 1,050 Australian POWs and internees. The most puzzling question about why Captain Burnett brought his war ship so close to the raider is open to a whole range of explanations. It is not a simple matter of the Captain making a mistake or being incompetent which is the easiest and most simplistic way to explain his actions.  He may have simply been a victim of a well thought out ruse. Besides; he was in fact, successful, although at a terrible cost in preventing the Kormoran from laying mines along the Australian coast and with its demise, stopped from potentially sinking more ships, and the loss of more lives and essential cargoes. They did everything they could to destroy the enemy in the best naval tradition and succeeded.

The Sydney/Kormoran debate still continues to this day causing deep divisions among various interested parties.  Historians, researchers, authors and individuals all have their own ideas about what happened on that fatal evening. Even the actual site of the engagement seems to be in doubt among researchers. One of the rumours that have grown stronger in popularity is that the Sydney was preparing to board the Kormoran who had surrendered and was under a white flag when Detmers ordered the firing of his underwater torpedo hitting the Sydney between A and B turrets then decamouflaging and opening fire with his guns. Another speculative rumour is that Detmers somehow made use of his small motor boat that was armed with torpedoes.

Regardless of what theorists may or may not believe, the German version of events has not changed over the years. There have been no major death bed revelations from former Kormoran crew members, no written confessions or story changes in memoirs. Their official accounts of the events has stood the test of time. This fact alone does not prove they told the truth but does indicate a consistency in presenting an account that would be hard to maintain for so long if the original versions were manufactured to cover up some illegal act of war. Nevertheless, the debate will go on unabated.

Allied warships had a standard procedure that suspicious vessels must be approached from the starboard quarter. This was considered to be a safe position. The German Navy were aware of this tactic in the early stage of the war and equipped their later raiders such as the Kormoran with underwater torpedo tubes positioned at 125-135 degree angle to cover this ‘safe spot’. Detmers had carried out successful trials using the angled torpedo tubes so he certainly had the capability to use them. Did he use his normal starboard torpedoes with his battle flag raised or did he use his underwater torpedoes whilst under a white flag of surrender?  This seems to be the main question many want settled first.

Kormoran Memorial

On page 202 of his book, Detmers wrote in part, ‘I felt sure I should have to face an enemy [Australian] court martial over the business’’ It is a proven fact that Detmers did conduct his raiders war with chivalry and respect for his enemies therefore his concern about a court martial may have simply been related to his war conduct as a raider in general or to the fact to survive he had to carry out an illegal act under a white flag against the unsuspecting Sydney.

It is absolutely essential however, that both Captain Burnett and Fregattenkapitan Detmers should not be judged too quickly over their respective actions until conclusive proof is established especially since the whole debate of the Kormoran/Sydney clash has generated so much conjecture and so many conflicting theories. The truth is becoming harder to find.  As time moves on, the only remaining witnesses are becoming less and less which increases the unpleasant reality that the mystery may never be solved.  The Australian government did attempt to put the debate into some sort of rational perspective and perhaps give some form of closure.

In March 1999, the Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia published a 192 page report by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs- Defence and Trade called; ‘Report on the Loss of HMAS Sydney.’ The Committee received 201 submissions, debated extensively all the issues, tried to reach logical conclusions and sadly, at the end of the last chapter stated;

It is important that information and theories be shared and examined. The Committee strongly believes there is a need for all involved in the Sydney debate to move beyond animosity and antagonism and find common ground. No one ‘owns’ the Sydney, or has a monopoly on the truth. The Committee hopes that future researchers will rise above the personal acrimony and suspicion that has marred so much of this debate thus far. The ‘dialogue of the deaf’ that characterises so much of this debate is counter-productive. An exchange of differing views is a positive process, and can only lead to a better understanding of the events of November 1941.   HMAS Sydney deserves no less.’

The author is indebted to the following for permission to use their material and photographs.; The Naval Historical Society of Australia, The National Archives of Australia publication; The Sinking of HMAS Sydney; Prisoners of War, 1999.The Commonwealth of Australia and reproduction of the 1980 painting of the Kormoran and HMAS Sydney clash by Mr Geoff Hunt, Marine artist, Royal Society of Marine Artists, United Kingdom.

HMAS Sydney (WW2) passing the HMAS Sydney (WW1) Memorial Mast at Bradley Head, Sydney NSW.



The Naval Historical Society of Australia, Garden Island, New South Wales, Australia.

German Raiders of World War Two, Pan books, Karl August Muggenthaler 1980.

The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia [Joint Standing Committee] 1999, Canberra.

The Raider Kormoran. Captain T. Detmers. William Kimber, London, 1959.

Frank Macdonough, West Essendon, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

Tatura and District Historical Society Inc. Tatura, Victoria, Australia.

Mac. Gregory. macden@melbpc.org.au

Barbara Winters. Stalag Australia. Angus and Robertson, 1986.

National Archives of Australia, Camberra, ACT. Australia

[C] Ken Wright 2005


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