On 19 November 1941, the HMAS Sydney [II] was sunk in combat alongside the German auxiliary cruiser HSK Kormoran.
None of the Sydney’s 645 personnel survived, making this the most devastating loss ever experienced by the Royal Australian Navy.
The Sydney was a modified Leander class light cruiser, built in 1935 in Portsmouth, England. Almost immediately after departing Portsmouth she was instructed to join the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet at Gibraltar to help enforce sanctions against Italy relating to the Abyssinian Crisis.
After arriving in Australia in 1936, Sydney spent most of her time on training exercises, until the Second World War began.
Following the declaration of war, Sydney began patrol and escort duties in Australian waters, before heading to the Mediterranean to join the 7th Cruiser Squadron of the Mediterranean Fleet.
Sydney’s most important action in Second World War was her involvement in the Battle of Cape Spada in July 1940, where she was crucial in the defeat of the Italian cruisers Bartolomeo Colleoni and Giovanni delle Bande Nere. This performance against the Italian Navy made Sydney the most celebrated ship in the RAN.
After returning to Australia to be refitted, she engaged in a number of patrol and convoy escort duties, visiting Singapore, Noumea, Auckland and Suva in the first half of 1941.
On 19 November 1941 HMAS Sydney engaged the German auxiliary cruiser HSK Kormoran, which had been disguised as the Dutch merchant Straat Malakka. Sydney was critically damaged in this engagement, sinking with all 645 crew on board.
While the Kormoran was also lost in the engagement, 318 Germans were rescued. The fact that no Australian accounts exist of the battle led to many rumours, accusations and conspiracy theories, particularly due to the view that the Kormoran (a modified merchant ship) should have stood no chance against a cruiser.
Some of these theories were finally put to rest when the wrecks of both ships were discovered off the coast of Shark Bay, WA, in 2008.
To read more about the Sydney, please see the Western Australian Museum website.