Sydney and Komoran


German Raider Komoran

Legendary Sea Battle Between Sydney And Kormoran

By James Donahue

During the early years of World War II, the Australian Cruiser Sydney II and a German raider Karmoran engaged in a lonely shooting battle off the Western coast of Australia that sank both ships and created an unsolved mystery.

While 341 of the German raider's complement of 390 were rescued by passing ships, the Sydney was lost that day with all 645 hands, and no one has ever been able to explain why. The ship was last seen by the German crew steaming off into the west, its forward deck ablaze. Not a single lifeboat or body was to be found.

Naval experts found it difficult to explain how a raider posing as a merchant vessel could outgun and sink such a formidable ship as the Sydney. Some theorized that the burning cruiser later was hit by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine that finished it off. Because the incident happened on November 19, 1941, in the midst of war, investigation and subsequent information about the battle was and remains difficult to obtain.

At the time of the battle, the Sydney was the pride of the Royal Australian Navy's fleet. The 6,830-ton modified Leander class cruiser already had established an illustrious battle record, having engaged in several conflicts and famously sinking the Italian battle cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni during a scrap in the Mediterranean.

When she engaged the Karmoran, the Sydney was participating in troop ship escort duties between Australia and Southeast Asia. She had just handed over the escort of the troop ship Zealandia in the Sunda Strait and was steaming back to Fremantle when the German raider came into view in the open sea, southwest of Carnarvon.


Sydney II

Since there were no survivors on the Sydney, the record of what happened that day comes from the surviving German sailors who participated in the battle.

The Sydney was the larger of the two ships and many thought it had the advantage of superior fire power. At 562 feet, she was over 30 longer than the 535-foot raider. Her eight six-inch guns had a longer range over the Karmoran's 5.9-inch armament. Both ships were carrying smaller armament, machine guns and torpedo tubes. The Sydney also was equipped with a seaplane and launcher, while the Karmoran was carrying a small fast-attack LS3 vessel.

The Karmoran, under the command of Commander Theodor Detmers, was a converted freighter posing as a Dutch freighter with her guns and identity concealed. It was the largest of the German raiders operating on the high seas that fall. As it turned out, Commander Detmers also had the advantage of stealth.

The two vessels approached each other as the two masters exchanged signals, the new and inexperienced Captain Joseph Burnett on the Sydney desperately attempting to learn the true identity of the vessel he was encountering, and Commander Detmers cleverly playing his well orchestrated game of pretending to be something he was not.

It was not long before the Sydney lost its advantage of gun range. When Detmers at last raised the German flag and opened fire, the two warships were steaming alongside one another, only about a mile apart. The German salvo struck first, blasting away the bridge, obviously killing Burnett and other top officers on the cruiser, and putting control of the ship out of commission.

Sydney's guns opened fire but that first salvo passed over Kormoran, allowing the raider an opportunity to inflict even more severe damage to the Sydney with two more salvos, again striking her bridge and amidships section. The Germans said the Kormoran's guns concentrated on the bridge, torpedo tubes and anti-aircraft batteries. The German guns also knocked out the Sydney's forward A and B turrets, leaving only the after turrets firing. One of those guns finally struck the Kormoran in the funnel and engine room, causing so much damage that the raider's engines soon failed.

The Kormoran fired off torpedoes and one of these struck Sydney and left the warship ablaze and mortally wounded, but still under power.

With her stern now low in the water, Sydney turned sharply toward Kormoran in what appeared to be an attempt to ram. As she turned, a salvo from the raider blew the top of B turret away. The ramming attempt failed and the blazing cruiser passed under Kormoran's stern. It was after that the Sydney steamed southward, her aft guns still firing and the Kormoran firing back, even though she was now standing dead in the water and in a sinking condition.

The battle lasted no longer than about half an hour, with Kormoran firing an estimated 450 rounds from her main armament. The sailors said as the sun sank that evening the Sydney continued steaming off to the south-southeast until all that could be seen was a distant glare from the fires over the horizon. After that the Sydney was seen no more.

With his own command in a sinking condition, Detmers gave the order to abandon ship. Rather than allow the raider to be possibly taken by enemy ships and salvaged, he also ordered the vessel scuttled. Thus the Kormoran also was lost in the battle.

Great And Lost Ships Of The World