Monday, January 13, 2014

72nd Anniversary: International Encounter on the High Seas

The Radio Scene
In two previous editions of Wavescan, we have presented the story of the chance encounter on the high seas in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Western Australia between the German raider HSK “Kormoran” and the Australian light cruiser HMAS “Sydney”. This fire fight took place on Wednesday afternoon, November 19, 1941, just 72 years ago.  As a result of a fierce battle lasting just one hour, both ships sank with a total loss of life for the “Sydney”, and a little less than one hundred casualties for the “Kormoran”.
            Over the years, because of the poignancy of these tragic circumstances, several searches by sea and by air have been made in an attempt to locate the wrecks of both ships lying on the sea bottom.  During March 2008, both the “Kormoran” and the “Sydney” were located by David Mearns aboard the search vessel SV “Geosounder”.
            The wreckages of the two ships lie about twelve miles part, 130 miles off the Western Australian coastline out from Shark Bay and Carnarvon, at a depth of one and one-half miles.  The “Kormoran” broke apart, with two large pieces three-fourths miles apart and a large oval shaped debris field in between.  The bow of the “Sydney” broke off though the main hull sits on the seabed upright.
            Official inquiries into the fate of the “Sydney” and the “Kormoran” have brought to light many reports of radio messages from both ships on that tragic day in 1941.  More than a dozen radio messages have been reported, and some people claim to have heard voice messages, while others lay claim to having heard messages in Morse Code.  Some of these reports indicate that genuine radio transmissions were indeed heard, while the reports from others are considered to be spurious.
            For example, a group of five people in the Esplanade Hotel in Geraldton Western Australia heard a strong transmission in voice mode on 24.5 m (12245 kHz) with reference to a coming Morse message.  This message was heard on a standard radio receiver and research would suggest that this signal was actually a break through transmission from nearby Geraldton Radio, VIN, with subsequent information about the HMAS “Sydney” from Sydney Radio VIS, not the ship “Sydney” itself. 
            A similar report came from nearby Port Gregory where members of the Rob family heard a break through transmission.  Other voice reports came from Fremantle Radio, near Perth, also from Hobart in Tasmania, and from Singapore, and from continental Africa.
            Reports of Morse Code reception from the “Sydney” came from several different locations, including three different locations in Western Australia; and also from Singapore and from the British navy radio station at Kilindini in Kenya, Africa.  The most notable of these Morse Code reports came from Hetty Collings, a 16 year old English girl, serving as a cypher clerk with the British navy in Singapore.  She claimed to have translated a cypher signal that was sent from the “Sydney” in Morse Code.  However, the contents of the message and the timings indicate that her report is incorrect.
            A careful analysis of all of these already mentioned radio transmissions from the “Sydney” and the “Komoran” indicate that all of them seem to be inaccurate, due to timings and content. 
            It has been suggested that the German supply ship, “Kulmerland”, was in Morse Code contact with its compatriot “Kormoran” during the battle, though this is also totally unsubstantiated.
            It should be noted that the “Sydney” carried five radio transmitters; four on the ship and one in the Walrus plane, and all of them for Morse Code only.  It is clearly demonstrated that there was no voice transmitter aboard the “Sydney”.  The “Kormoran” carried two Morse Code transmitters and four receivers.
            So what are considered to be the genuine transmissions associated with these two armed and aggressive vessels?  We take all of these proven transmissions in chronological order, all of them in the year 1941, and all times in local time:-

1. November 11, Tuesday 1332:
            * Last wireless transmission from “Sydney”, just before leaving Fremantle on escort duty with                  the Australian transport ship SS “Zealandia”; “Sydney” maintained radio silence from this                    time onwards; no subsequent transmissions whatsoever.

2. November 19, Wednesday 1703:
            * “Kormoran” sent spurious message in Morse Code, QQQQ indicating suspected disguised                    raider, and gave its own false identity as the Dutch cargo vessel, “Straat Malakka”; 200                watt signal on 500 kHz.
3. November 19, Wednesday 1705:
            * Repeat of same message.  This message was heard by Perth Radio VIP Applecross, and also              by Geraldton Radio VIN, and also by the tug boat “Uco”.  VIN reception very poor and                       without full detail.  VIN asked for further information from other ships also, but no further                    messages received.  Tug boat ST “Uco”, Adelaide Steamship Co in Fremantle, also                 expressed similar poor and partial reception.  At the time it was more than 100 miles                 south west of the combat zone, en route from Darwin to Fremantle.
            * Captain Theodor Detmers aboard “Kormoran” expresses surprise that “Sydney” does not talk                with “Komoran” by radio (in Morse Code).  He was not aware that the “Sydney” was                 under radio silence.

4. November 19, Wednesday 1730:
            * Barrage from “Sydney” hit “Kormoran” radio shack

5. November 23, Sunday: 
            * Navy headquarters orders “Sydney” to break radio silence and give battle details; all                   shortwave communication stations ordered to attempt contact with “Sydney”.

6. November 24, Monday:
            * British tanker “Trocus” picks up some survivors, gives radio report regarding battle events.

            From this time onwards, it was progressively known throughout Australia, and thus throughout the world, the tragic events of the fierce conflict between HSK “Kormoran” and HMAS “Sydney”, a battle that was fought in radio silence on the high seas, and which both sides lost, and neither side won.
(AWR/Wavescan/NWS 255)