November 19th, 1941 – The Battle of HMAS Sydney and HSK Kormoran


November 19th, 1941 saw the battle between HMAS Sydney and HSK Kormoran. The two ships sank each other off the coast of Western Australia, with the loss of 645 Australians and about 77 German seamen.

Kormoran & Sydney 680

The battle between the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney and the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran was a single ship action that occurred off the coast of Western Australia. Sydney, with Captain Joseph Burnett commanding, and Kormoran, under Fregattenkapitän (Commander) Theodor Detmers encountered each other approximately 106 nautical miles (122 mi; 196 km) off Dirk Hartog Island, Western Australia. Both ships were destroyed in the half-hour engagement.

From November 24th, after Sydney failed to return to port, air and sea searches were conducted. Boats and rafts carrying survivors from Kormoran were recovered at sea, while others made landfall north of Carnarvon: 318 of the 399 personnel on Kormoran survived. While debris from Sydney was found, there were no survivors from its 645-strong complement; it was the largest loss of life in the history of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), and the largest Allied warship lost with all hands during World War II. Australian authorities learned of Sydney‍ ’ s fate from the surviving Kormoran personnel, 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. The loss of Sydney with all hands and in home waters was a major blow to wartime morale in Australia.

Controversy has often surrounded the battle, especially in the years before the two wrecks were located in 2008. How and why a purpose-built warship like Sydney was defeated by a modified merchant vessel like 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 commentators—Sydney approached so close to Kormoran that the Australian cruiser lost two key technical advantages: its heavier armor and the superior range of its guns. Nevertheless, several post-war publications have alleged that Sydney‍ ’ s loss had been the subject of a cover-up, the Germans had not followed the laws of war, Australian survivors were killed following the battle, and/or the Empire of Japan had been secretly involved in the action (before it was officially at war). No evidence has been found to support any of these theories.

“Today in History” on The Pandora Society dot com is primarily focused on Victorian and Edwardian history and does not always have a direct connection to Steampunk, Dieselpunk, or whatever punk; in fact it rarely does, but it is our hope that in sharing these historical events they might serve as some inspiration to the writers in our community to create potential alternative history stories which we look forward to reading 🙂


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