12 August 2009

Aussie inquiry faults skipper of HMAS Sydney II in nation's worst naval disaster

Today Minister for Defence John Faulkner (ALP-NSW) released the loss of HMAS Sydney II Commission of Inquiry Report. The Commission was appointed in May 2008 after the March 2008 discovery of both wreckages of the HMAS Sydney II and the German vessel that sank it, the HSK Koroman.

The purpose of the Commission was to inquire into, and report upon the circumstances associated with, the 1941 sinking of HMAS Sydney II and the consequent loss of life and related events. Although there were prior investigations into Sydney II, none were a formal inquiry like the one convened in 2008.

Air Chief Marshal Allan G. "Angus" Houston, AC, AFC, Chief of the Defence Force, said today in a press release that on 10 November 1941 HMAS Sydney II, a Leander class light cruiser, was lost with all hands following an engagement with the disguised German raider, HSK Kormoran (also known as Schiff 41), off the Western Australia coast.

"For a long time our nation has struggled to understand how our greatest maritime disaster occurred. The unanswered questions have haunted the families of those brave sailors and airmen that never came home," Houston said.

President of the Commission, the Honourable Terence Cole, AO, RFD, QC, said "the commanding officer of the HMAS Sydney II was not expecting to encounter any merchant ship in the location when he encountered Kormoran. That knowledge together with his knowledge of the possible presence of a German raider should have caused the sighted vessel to be treated as suspicious."

Captain Joseph Burnett, commanding officer of the Sydney II brought his ship to "point blank range" of the German vessel -- 1000 metres (3281 feet) of the Kormoran. The Germans caught the Sydney II crew by complete surprise and within minutes 70 percent of the Australian sailors and airmen were killed.

The report indicates that the remaining crew who were not instantly killed sustained serious wounds or suffered smoke inhalation from toxic fumes within the ship, and had little chance of survival when the Sydney II sank.

In total 645 sailors and airmen perished in what is the worst naval disaster in Australia's history. It was also the largest allied vessel, in World War II, with all hands on board killed when it sank. But the Commission came short of any formal findings of negligence on the part of Burnett.

Cole, who previously served as deputy judge advocate general of the ADF and until 1998 was a judge on the Supreme Court of New South Wales, further said that "each of the many frauds, theories and speculations reported to the inquiry were thoroughly investigated and none were found to have any substance whatsoever."

Vice Admiral Russell H. Crane, AM, CSM, RAN, Chief of Navy, has encouraged those interested in the HMAS Sydney II to read the report. Crane indicated that the loss of the HMAS Sydney II needs to viewed in the context of the times.

"An appreciation of the training, tactics and procedures of the time and the particular circumstances of the day in question, including the fact that merchant vessels frequently did not properly respond to queries by warships, must be taken into account to help understand why HMAS Sydney II approached so close to HSK Kormoran," said Crane.

Transcripts of the Commission's proceedings can be found here; the ships plans can be found here; simulated 360-degree DSTO visualisations can be found here; and a complete copy of the Commission's report, which is three volumes, can be found here.

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