HMAS Sydney wreck makes heritage list

By AG Staff with AAP 15 March 2011
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The wreck of the warship HMAS Sydney has been awarded national heritage status.

THE WRECK OF THE HMAS Sydney warship, lost in World War II and the German raider that sank it have been added to the national heritage list.

When she was found in 2008 in deep waters 290 km off the West Australian coast, it ended decades of hunting for one of the nation’s most famous navy vessels. The wreck of the German raider Kormoran, sunk in the same battle, has also been added to the heritage list.

The shipwrecks and associated debris fields lie 22 km apart, 290 km off the coast of Western Australia and under 2500 m of water.

“Together, these sites have outstanding heritage value to the nation,” federal Environment Minister Tony Bourke said in a statement on Monday. The battle had brought the war to Australia’s doorstep and highlighted its vulnerability to attack, he said.


On the afternoon of 19 November 1941, the light cruiser Sydney, sailing from the Sunda Strait to Fremantle, encountered an unidentified vessel purporting to be the Dutch freighter Straat Malakka. Instead it was the disguised and heavily armed mercantile raider Kormoran.

According to Kormoran survivors, their captain Theodor Detmers realised he might one day encounter a warship and the only way to survive would be for the Kormoran to maintain its disguise as long as possible, then open fire with every available weapon. And that’s what happened.

The HMAS Sydney c1939, being loaded with a submarine Seagull V amphibious aircraft. (AWM)

At a range of perhaps 1000 m – point blank range in naval terms – Kormoran could hardly miss. If anything, Kormoran was better armed for a close range fight thanks to five quick-firing 20 mm anti-aircraft guns.

In a battle which lasted perhaps an hour, Kormoran’s six 15 cm guns fired some 450 high-explosive shells. An examination of Sydney’s hulk revealed she was hit by at least 41, 15 cm shells on her port side and 46 on the starboard side.

Many penetrated and exploded, wreaking carnage and starting devastating fires. A torpedo struck about 20 m from Sydney’s bow. All 650 men of the Sydney were lost while estimates suggest 20 Germans may have perished aboard the Kormoran.

“For more than 66 years the fate of the vessels was the subject of much public speculation and heartache, and it is only right that we honour and protect their final resting place,” the minister said. “Their inclusion in the Commonwealth and National Heritage Lists is a fitting tribute to their memory.”