|German raider Kormoran|
Sunday, November 17, 2013
International Encounter-Fire on the High Seas
Next Tuesday, November 19, forms the 72nd anniversary of a mutually destructive sea battle off the coast of Australia, in which two war vessels were destroyed and sunk. It was on Wednesday November 19, 1941 that the German raider “Kormoran” and the Australian cruiser “Sydney” met in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Western Australia, and at the end of a fierce battle lasting less than an hour, both ships were totally destroyed.
As a result of this disastrous engagement, three radio stations in Australia were ordered off the air for a temporary period of time; a mystery broadcast from the United States compounded the situation; and multitudes of conspiracy theories abounded regarding wireless communications from the two competing war vessels.
It will take three episodes for us to present this long and interesting information, and so here in Wavescan today, we present Part 1, under the title: International Encounter - 1, Fire on the High Seas. We begin with the backgrounds of the two competing war vessels.
The Australian light cruiser, HMAS “Sydney”, was laid down at Wallsend-on-Tyne on the east coast of England, almost against the border with Scotland, on July 8, 1933. This ship was ordered by the Royal Navy under the original name, (His Majesty’s Ship) HMS “Phaeton”. However, even before construction was completed, the ship was bought by the Australian government for use in the Royal Australian Navy and renamed (His Majesty’s Australian Ship) HMAS “Sydney”.
The new “Sydney” was launched on September 22 of the next year, 1934, by Ethel Bruce, the wife of Australia’s ex-Prime Minister Stanley Bruce. The ship saw service in the Mediterranean, Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, before the tragic conflict off the coast of Western Australia seven years later.
The ship “Kormoran” was launched at Kiel in Germany on September 15, 1938, as a merchant cargo vessel under the original name, “Steiermark”, apparently in honor of a state in Austria. After the outbreak of war in continental Europe in September 1939, the “Steiermark” was converted from merchant cargo usage to a merchant raider and renamed (Handelsstorkreuzer) HSK “Kormoran” in honor of a Russian ship in use by Germany during World War 1, and the seabird Cormorant.
The “Kormoran”, though loaded with guns and ammunition and a small airplane, was disguised as a merchant ship, and beginning in 1940, it sailed the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Under its apparently peaceful guise, the “Kormoran” was successful in the destruction of nine cargo vessels and the capture of another during its nearly two year long tour before the fateful encounter with the “Sydney”.
In November 1941, the “Sydney” was on a return voyage from the Dutch East Indies, Indonesia, bound south in the Indian Ocean near towards the Australian coastline, and headed for the Australian navy base at Fremantle in Western Australia. The “Kormoran” was also in the Indian Ocean, heading eastwards towards Perth with the intent of laying mines in nearby coastal waters.
At 3:55 pm on that fateful day, Wednesday November 14, 1941, both ships sighted each other; the German “Kormoran” and the Australian “Sydney”. In the distant haze of a beautiful Spring day, the “Kormoran” at first mistook the “Sydney” as a tall sailing ship. However, when the “Kormoran” realized that she was facing what was at the time a hostile enemy war vessel, she turned west facing directly into the sun and moved away at her high speed, just 16 mph. Meanwhile, the “Sydney” also increased her speed, up to 29 mph.
These events began to take place a hundred miles off the coast of Western Australia, straight out from Carnarvon). As the two ships began to travel parallel to each other at a distance of ¾ mile, the “Sydney” signaled at first by lamp in Morse Code, and then by flags, asking for identification, destination and cargo. The “Kormoran” playing for time, finally identified itself in its disguise as a Dutch freighter, the “Straat Malakka”.
At 5:00 pm, the “Kormoran” sent out a fake radio message in Morse Code, “QQQQ Straat Malakka”, indicating that it was being approached by a raiding vessel. This message was heard by several different radio operators, on land and on the sea. However, the “Sydney” maintained radio silence, as previously ordered by navy headquarters.
Half an hour later, when the two ships were just ¼ mile apart, the “Kormoran” dropped its camouflage and the Dutch flag, hoisted the German war flag, and a barrage with high explosive ammunition began between the two ships, though it is not clear to this day which ship fired first. Thus began a firefight on the high seas that lasted just one hour.
Both ships were totally crippled; the “Sydney” passed astern of the “Kormoran” and then moved away towards Fremantle in the south east, traveling into the darkness, though the glowing of the fires on the distant ship was seen for a total of 2½ hours. Ultimately, as some German survivors reported, there was a brilliant flash on the distant horizon, and then just total darkness. Photographs of the underwater wreck show the bow completely blown off, separated from the main hull, and upside down.
At 8:00 pm Captain Theodor Detmers of the “Kormoran” ordered “abandon ship”; and at 11:30 pm the last of the surviving crew, including Captain Detmers, pulled off in small boats. A massive explosion with flames 1,000 feet high scuttled the “Kormoran” which broke into two pieces and then disappeared beneath the waves. Both ships were now at the bottom of the ocean, 1½ miles down.
Aboard the “Kormoran” were nearly 400 men, and a little more than 300 survived. Some were plucked out of their lifeboats by passing ships, and others successfully made their way in their small craft to the Western Australian coastline, a little north of Carnarvon.
The “Sydney” personnel were not so fortunate. There were nearly 650 men aboard the “Sydney”, and not one survived, making it the largest naval tragedy in Australian history. Strategists have estimated that 70% of the personnel were killed in the massive bombardment, and it is probable that all of the small floatable escape craft were also destroyed. It is possible though that some men were thrown into the waters; but if so, they would have ultimately perished when no rescue was possible.
Two weeks from now, we are planning to present the next episode in this sequence, and you will hear more of the radio story in association with all of these tragic events.
(AWR Wavescan/NWS 247)