Loss of HMAS Sydney - Inquiry blames captain's errors for 1941 tragedy

shamrock
12th August 2009, 09:09
CANBERRA, Australia A military inquiry on Wednesday blamed a navy captain's "errors of judgment" for one of Australia's worst maritime tragedies, in which 645 crew were lost when a cruiser was sunk by a German raider during World War II.

The loss of the HMAS Sydney in a fierce battle with the smaller HSK Kormoran, a converted freighter, off the west Australian coast on Nov. 19, 1941, stunned Australia. The mystery captured imaginations for generations, prompting numerous searches and countless theories to explain the total absence of Australian survivors.

The Australian defense chief who ordered the inquiry after the wreckage of the Sydney was found last year along with vital new evidence of its final battle said its report answered important questions about the circumstances of the tragedy.

"For a long time, our nation has struggled to understand how our greatest maritime disaster occurred," Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston said in a statement.

The inquiry report accepted the account of the battle provided by the 318 Kormoran survivors to Australian military interrogators after they became prisoners of war.

According to them, the Sydney had "acted in a manner not expected of an Australian warship under the command of a competent and experienced officer," the report said.

...cont../..

http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5g0AtY6h05p58avS60aR6l0XpO1GAD9A176CO0

sidsal
12th August 2009, 10:03
The loss of HMAS Sydney brings back the history of her predecessor the HMAS Sydney which in 1914 sank the German cruiser EMDEN off Cocos Keeling
island. She beached herself on North Keeling atoll and when we were on passage there in 1985 in a yacht we understood that Japanese scrap merchants were demolishing her remains.
If you want a really interesting read then The Last Corsair by Dan van der Vat is must. I have read it several times over the years. It is a "Boys Own" adventure story.

teb
12th August 2009, 12:34
Whilst the loss of the then pride of the Australian Navy HMAS "SYDNEY' with all her crew was a huge tragedy in my view it is a great pity that blame should now be placed on the Captain some sixty eight years after the event .It was war time and who knows what circumstances prevailed on board "Sydney" at the time of the engagement. Possibly one good thing to come out of the inquiry is that it may put an end to the claims of a cover-up.

Oceanspan
17th August 2009, 03:34
The loss of HMAS Sydney brings back the history of her predecessor the HMAS Sydney which in 1914 sank the German cruiser EMDEN off Cocos Keeling
island. She beached herself on North Keeling atoll and when we were on passage there in 1985 in a yacht we understood that Japanese scrap merchants were demolishing her remains.
If you want a really interesting read then The Last Corsair by Dan van der Vat is must. I have read it several times over the years. It is a "Boys Own" adventure story.

My great uncle Alf was an A.B. onboard the sloop HMS Cadmus which was sent to the Cocos Islands after the action to bury the dead from the Emden. He retrieved a painting of the ship done by one of the crew, which he found rolled up in a locker on the messdeck. It is hanging on my wall as I type.

AncientBrit
17th August 2009, 09:12
Whilst the loss of the then pride of the Australian Navy HMAS "SYDNEY' with all her crew was a huge tragedy in my view it is a great pity that blame should now be placed on the Captain some sixty eight years after the event .It was war time and who knows what circumstances prevailed on board "Sydney" at the time of the engagement. Possibly one good thing to come out of the inquiry is that it may put an end to the claims of a cover-up.

Isnt it always the case where some over-educated under-qualified dip-sh1t who has been at school or university all his life, now decides it is time to pay his debt to society by demolishing the good name of some service person. Usually all based on the collective readings of previous writings by others just like themselves.
Those that can, do. Those that cannot, write about where the former went wrong.

Tony D
17th August 2009, 09:41
Slightly off topic,I have a sheath knife made from the steel of the Emden,brought back by my father from the Cocos Islands during the war,before the Japanese scrapmen got at her.

Doug Shaw
17th August 2009, 11:04
Isnt it always the case where some over-educated under-qualified dip-sh1t who has been at school or university all his life, now decides it is time to pay his debt to society by demolishing the good name of some service person.

Bob, in many cases that might well be true, but in this case it is not. For those interested, a full copy of the report by the 'HMAS SYDNEY II – COMMISSION OF INQUIRY' is available here (http://www.defence.gov.au/sydneyii/FinalReport/index.html). The report is comprehensive.

Rather than "demolishing the good name" of Capt. Joseph Burnett, the report finds that he made errors of judgement (hardly unusual in a time of war). The Commission's president, Terence Cole, is quoted as saying, "Although I am satisfied Capt. Burnett made errors of judgment, I have not made any findings of negligence." He continues, "One cannot say how others, if placed in Capt. Burnett's position, would have acted."

The sinking of the HMAS Sydney II on 19 November 1941, with the loss of 645 lives, remains to this day Australia's greatest maritime disaster. The Commission was established in May 2008 after HMAS Sydney II and her attacker HSK Kormoran were located 112 miles off the coast of Western Australia at a depth of 2,560 metres.

The fact that the HSK Kormoran, a converted freighter, was able to sink the heavily armed cruiser led to significant speculation and to allegations of a cover-up. In fact, it appears that Capt. Burnett approached the Kormoran (disguised as a Dutch merchant ship) following navy protocols (of the time) written for vessels that appeared "friendly" instead of following procedures required for approaching "suspicious" vessels. He thereby lost the tactical advantage afforded by his vessel's speed and armament.

The full report is worth reading if you have an interest in naval warfare.

Regards
Doug

eriskay
17th August 2009, 13:09
Doug Shaw :

Will look forward to reading that Report, but meantime a perspective :

Almost a million tons of Allied shipping was sunk or taken prize by the stealth and cunning of the nine predatory Armed Surface Raiders of WWII, who could change their profile / silhouette / colours literally overnight, and whose strategy was to appear what they were most definitely not - an innocent and neutral merchantman. It was therefore not uncommon for Allied vessels, including naval ships, to get conned into coming within range of the formidable armanent these specially converted merchant ships carried.

Remember, Raider HSK Thor, only half the size of Raider HSK Kormoran, took on not one, not two, but three large naval vessels and bettered them all :

HMS Alcantara (AMC) 22,209 tons
HMS Carnarvon Castle (AMC) 20,122 tons
HMS Voltaire (AMC) 13,245 tons

in additon to the many other Allied vessels she destroyed, totalling some 155,191 tons.

It does seem that HMAS Syney made the same mistake that very many others made, allowing the Raider to come within firing range. The Raiders always tried to avoid any confrontation with a warship of any kind who could 'stand off' with the advantage of long range firepower. Few who made that error lived to tell the tale. But it should also be remembered that the Carrier 'did the business' and put an end to a dangerous predator, who had already despatched almost 70,000 tons of Allied shipping, albeit at a grave penalty for herself.

sidsal
17th August 2009, 17:26
Oceanspan/TonyD
If you haven't read "The Last Corsair" you should try and get if from your local library or 2nd hand bookshop or Amazon. It really is a great adventure story. The Germans left behind at Cocos comabdeered the Clunies Ross' ageing schooner and saild it to Java and then to the Red Sea. They then made their way by land and by dhow to Istanbul eventually where they were hailed as heroes ( by the Allies too). Their families wee granted the honour of adding Emden to their names and there are still Germans with the name Emden included.

Jeffers
17th August 2009, 17:40
Oceanspan/TonyD
If you haven't read "The Last Corsair" you should try and get if from your local library or 2nd hand bookshop or Amazon. It really is a great adventure story. The Germans left behind at Cocos comabdeered the Clunies Ross' ageing schooner and saild it to Java and then to the Red Sea. They then made their way by land and by dhow to Istanbul eventually where they were hailed as heroes ( by the Allies too). Their families wee granted the honour of adding Emden to their names and there are still Germans with the name Emden included.

There's another version of the "Emden" story in a book entitled "The Last Cruise of the Emden" by Edwin P. Hoyt. I borrowed it from the library many years ago and found it to be a totally fascinating story. (This book is still available from Amazon).

sidsal
17th August 2009, 18:24
Jeffers
Yes - I had that book too but I must have loaned it to someone and not had it returned. ( Happened a lot to me !!)

spoz
27th August 2009, 08:14
My father, who was a close friend of Burnett's (they were contemporaries at Naval College) always blamed the system - Burnett had been in plans for the early part of the war and Sydney was effectively his first sea job. In Dad's view if Collins had still been in Commmand she would not have been lost but Burnett had no way to 'get up to speed' with the operational realities at sea. Dad relieved Burnett in the plans job, so he was pretty certain that he understood the state of Burnett's appreciation of the situation.

melliget
31st August 2009, 16:20
Hi.

When lost in HMAS Sydney in 1941, Captain Joseph Burnett had been in the navy for nearly 29 years. Admittedly he probably saw a good deal of that service in shore establishments but he did spend at least 10 years or more serving on various RAN and RN ships, including HMAS Australia (during WW1), HMS Royal Oak (1921), HMAS Adelaide (1 year and 4 months, 1924/25), HMAS Canberra (on commissioning in 1928 and 2 years from 1935), HMS Royal Oak again (2 years from 1937) and others. HMAS Sydney (II) was, of course, his first command.

Here is his RAN service record card at the NAA:
http://naa12.naa.gov.au/scripts/imagine.asp?B=5423233&I=1&SE=1

An obituary for Captain J. Burnett appeared in The Times, 19 Dec 1941:

CAPTAIN JOSEPH BURNETT, R.A.N., who was
in command of H.M.A.S. Sydney, is now pre-
sumed to have lost his life, states a message
from Australia. He was one of the first entries
in the R.A.N. College on its opening in 1913
and he saw war service in H.M.A.S. Australia
from April, 1917. Later he specialized in
gunnery and was employed as gunnery officer
in various ships until promoted commander
on December 31, 1932. He has at various
times served in the Royal Navy as an exchange
officer. As a commander he completed the
Naval Staff College course, and in 1939 he did
the Imperial Defence College course. He was
promoted captain on December 31, 1938. After
returning to Australia on completion of the
I.D.C. he was appointed A.C.N.S. Navy Office,
Melbourne. He was given command of
H.M.A.S. Sydney in May, 1941. A fine athlete,
particularly at cricket and Rugby, he played
Rugby for the R.N. against the Army in 1923.

Admiral Sir Ragnar Colvin writes:- " The
death in action of Captain J. Burnett, R.A.N.,
removes one of the most outstanding officers
of that young and vigorous service the Royal
Australian Navy. He had much service in
ships of the Royal Navy and came to me from
them as my Vice-Chief of the Naval Staff a few
months after the outbreak of war with high
recommendations. These were not belied, for
his capacity to grasp a situation rapidly and
to formulate decisions was quite remarkable.
His thoroughness, his appetite for hard work,
and his powers of organization were invaluable,
and he had a special faculty for getting at the
heart of a problem and of stripping it of un-
essentials which is given to few.

"When the time came for him to go to sea -
a time to which he eagerly looked forward -
I had no doubt that as captain of the Sydney
he would acquit himself as successfully as he
had at the Navy Office. He did, and what-
ever the sad mischance that befell that gallant
and illustrious ship, Burnett I know went with
honour. The Royal Australian Navy will have
cause to miss him sorely in the future and with
those of us who knew him will honour his
memory."

Note: Sir Ragnar Colvin was first naval member of the Australian Naval Board from 1937 to 1941.


regards,

Martin

Prudence
2nd September 2009, 00:05
Hi Martin, good to see your expertise here. I have in front of me a Tandem publication reprinted 1975 but first published in Uk in 1959 of " The Raider Kormoran" writtne by Captain Theodor Demters and translated from the Grman by Edward Fitzgerald. It is his full account of the sinking.
The Final Report of the Sinking of the Sydney 11 is available on the net. Several incidents regarding the Kormoran survivors are also recounted in Alex Marcus "Dems? what's Dems?" regarding survivors picked up by the Aquitainia and the Centaur.
As I understand the final report, Captain Burnet was absolved from blame. Two interesting documents are presented in thisi report in that merchant ships were not all equipped with signalling lights. the kormoran had turned into the sun making the flag signals difficult to read which the kormoran was deliberately obscuring and did not have the secret radio call sign for the vessel whose identity she had assumed.
Previously the M.V. tulagi had passed the Sydney on 1st January painted white had later in the month passed her painted grey...that was one incident. She also had a predawn incident with the Marella which luckily did have signalling lights thus averting a miss-identification. These incidents did affect the time taken by the Sydney Captain taken to ensure he did not blow a friendly ship out of the water. The bureaucrats in their wisdom assumed that merchant ships always travelled in convoy and that the signals would be relayed by lights by the Navy escorts. These two documents are scanned into the Final Report of the Royal Commission. Some 500 merchant ships, according to the Royal Commission report, were thus not travelling in convoy but alone and many did not have lights. Captain Burnett it was estimated would take over 30 minutes to correctly identify a ship turned into the sun, fumbling flags, radio out and no double check secret recognition signal. He took "friendly " ship protocol. The kormoran was trained to drop her disguise, run up the battle flag and get off the first salvo in 6 seconds. unfortunately the first salvo took out the bridge, all the officers and I think the automated part of the weapons system. Lest We Forget. Prudence.

melliget
7th September 2009, 12:39
Hi Prudence.

Thanks for this info. I haven't read the commission's full report yet but will do so. It certainly was a tragic loss for Australia and one surrounded by a great deal of mystique, conspiracy theories, etc. down through the years so hopefully the findings will go some way to putting things to rest.

As tragic as it was, the loss of HMAS Sydney was one of Australia's worst maritime tragedies but not the worst. The worst, in terms of Australian lives lost, was the sinking of the Montevideo Maru by the submarine USS Sturgeon on 1 July 1942, who mistook the ship for a Japanese Merchant vessel. In all, 1053 Australian prisoners of war and civilians perished.

http://www.fullstory.com.au/html/s02_article/article_view.asp?article_id=1625&nav_cat_id=-1&nav_top_id=-1

May they all rest in peace.

regards,
Martin

Steve Woodward
7th September 2009, 20:11
Martin,
There is a full account of the sinking of the Montevideo Maru in a book By Gregory F Michno titled rather gruesomely ''Death of the hellships''. It is not a read for the feint hearted for it pulls no punches.
Steve

Prudence
8th September 2009, 01:23
Ahoy Martin, i agree. I came across the original debriefings of those who were rescused at sea...Found it quite by accient in a search under RED CROSS in the Australian Archives...the debriefing procedure was stringent and appeared to be triple checked..Some had survived other sinkings, then worked in the jungles of Burma, then marched to coast the sunk again by "friendly' fire...It is a horrific read.
Anyone interested in POW's can find RED CROSS WW 11 reports in the National Australian Archives RECORD SEARCH. Lest We Forget.
When a certain Premier was flogging off Public Assets here in Victoria a hill near the Cenotaph was to a an underground railway station. The hill was quickly dedicated and prisoners in Pentridge made wooden crosses..The first day it was just name, rank and serial numaber on some of the crosses. I bought one for every man on the rafts from the M.V. Tulagi and wrote a bit of the story on each cross as I then knew it. The Sun picked up on it and overnight 645 crosses for the HMAS SYDNEY 11 appeared on the hill. After that crosses appeared everywhere with bits of stories that would break your heart. I took a photo but don't know how to scan it and post...The Hill is well and truly dedicated as the Scouts took up the crosses and the ashes were scattered on that hill. At the going down of the Sun, we will remember them. Prudence

jimmyc
9th September 2009, 21:55
Hi Martin, good to see your expertise here. I have in front of me a Tandem publication reprinted 1975 but first published in Uk in 1959 of " The Raider Kormoran" writtne by Captain Theodor Demters and translated from the Grman by Edward Fitzgerald. It is his full account of the sinking.
The Final Report of the Sinking of the Sydney 11 is available on the net. Several incidents regarding the Kormoran survivors are also recounted in Alex Marcus "Dems? what's Dems?" regarding survivors picked up by the Aquitainia and the Centaur.
As I understand the final report, Captain Burnet was absolved from blame. Two interesting documents are presented in thisi report in that merchant ships were not all equipped with signalling lights. the kormoran had turned into the sun making the flag signals difficult to read which the kormoran was deliberately obscuring and did not have the secret radio call sign for the vessel whose identity she had assumed.
Previously the M.V. tulagi had passed the Sydney on 1st January painted white had later in the month passed her painted grey...that was one incident. She also had a predawn incident with the Marella which luckily did have signalling lights thus averting a miss-identification. These incidents did affect the time taken by the Sydney Captain taken to ensure he did not blow a friendly ship out of the water. The bureaucrats in their wisdom assumed that merchant ships always travelled in convoy and that the signals would be relayed by lights by the Navy escorts. These two documents are scanned into the Final Report of the Royal Commission. Some 500 merchant ships, according to the Royal Commission report, were thus not travelling in convoy but alone and many did not have lights. Captain Burnett it was estimated would take over 30 minutes to correctly identify a ship turned into the sun, fumbling flags, radio out and no double check secret recognition signal. He took "friendly " ship protocol. The kormoran was trained to drop her disguise, run up the battle flag and get off the first salvo in 6 seconds. unfortunately the first salvo took out the bridge, all the officers and I think the automated part of the weapons system. Lest We Forget. Prudence.

"DEMS" Defensivly Equipted Merchant Ship

Prudence
17th September 2009, 14:06
http://cas.awm.gov.au/photograph/305636
different POW ship but shows condition of survivors after being picked up. These incidents happened in New guinea as well...not sure how many men we lost. Prudence

Prudence
17th September 2009, 14:51
http://cas.awm.gov.au/photograph/302864
this is the ships the Kormoran told the Sydney she was....Prudence

Prudence
17th September 2009, 15:27
http://cas.awm.gov.au/photograph/053867
This is the Kormoran...Prudence

Bernard McIver
19th September 2009, 01:58
Prudence, This link is incorrect as it shows SS Age.
Bernard

Prudence
21st September 2009, 03:27
Apologies, working three sites at once.
http://cas.awm.gov.au/photograph/303975 Prudence

Prudence
21st September 2009, 03:32
http://cas.awm.gov.au/photograph/128097

The second photograph held in "Picture Australia" of the Dutch ship whose identity was assumed by the Kormoran in sinking HMAS Sydney. Prudence

viking
24th September 2009, 19:54
have the book im my small collection ISBN 0-586-06265-3 if anyone needs to order it Oceanspan/TonyD
If you haven't read "The Last Corsair" you should try and get if from your local library or 2nd hand bookshop or Amazon. It really is a great adventure story. The Germans left behind at Cocos comabdeered the Clunies Ross' ageing schooner and saild it to Java and then to the Red Sea. They then made their way by land and by dhow to Istanbul eventually where they were hailed as heroes ( by the Allies too). Their families wee granted the honour of adding Emden to their names and there are still Germans with the name Emden included.

Prudence
25th September 2009, 09:30
Thanks for the reference. It appears to be one of those sagas of great daring and seamanship. Will keep a weather eye out for it ..thankyou Prudence