Remembering the Sydney

Lise Summers Monday, November 19, 2012 - 16:41

H.M.A.S Sydney was always a welcome visitor to Fremantle Harbour, with exuberant celebrations when she visited the port in 1924 and 1936 (Files 1924/771 and 1936/503, Cons 1703).   In 1941, Sydney had returned again to a quieter reception.  On 11 November, she sailed in escort of the troopship Zealandia, with an expected return of 20 November.  When she failed to appear back at port, it was assumed that she had been delayed, and her radio silence indicated that she may have been engaged in other naval activities.

By 23 November, however, when the Sydney had neither been heard from, nor sighted, naval authorities demanded that she break radio silence and report in.  There was no response.  Naval authorities began to organise a search, arranging for aircraft to undertake an aerial survey of the coast.  Serious alarm for the Sydney began to be felt when the British tanker Trocas, also heading for Fremantle, reported on the 24 November that she had picked up 25 German seaman from a raft 115 miles from Carnarvon.  Naval and civilian vessels, twenty-one in all, were ordered to travel to the area to search for survivors, and coast watchers asked to look out for signs of ‘naval interest’.  The following day, police at Carnarvon reported that the RAAF had spotted two lifeboats.

The hunt was on in earnest.

Discovering the Kormoran

In addition to the sailors rescued by the Trocas, and the two lifeboats of sailors eventually found beached near Carnarvon, tales of other German sailors were being heard.  The Aquitania, a converted passenger ship acting as a transport, had picked up a lifeboat with 26 sailors on the 23rd, the day the Sydney began to be missed, but had maintained radio silence so that naval authorities did not know of their existence until 27 November.   Responding to the order to move to the area where the Trocas had been the anti-submarine vessel, the Yandra, picked up 72 men. [1]  The passenger ship Centaur picked up 60 men and the Western Australian State Ship, the M.V. Koolinda, travelling on its regular voyage from Fremantle to Darwin, another 31.[2]

German raiders had been operating in the Indian Ocean since 1939, attacking and handicapping shipping, hence the need for escorts.  The first raider to be sunk, the Pinguin, had not been found until May 1941.  The presence of these sailors indicated that a second raider had been found.   Captain Airey of the Koolinda had questioned his survivors, and reported on the 29 November that they were from the Kormoran.  (link to images – Koolinda 02 and 03. )  Airey handed over his inadvertent passengers at Carnarvon and proceeded on his way.

Similar tales were being heard from the other survivors, with official interrogations commencing on 26 November, 1941, by Lt Commander Rycroft and his interpreter, who had flown up to Carvarvon from Fremantle.  The search for the Sydney ended on 29 November, although the next of kin were not officially notified until 4 December.  Final interrogation of all prisoners was not completed until 9 December, 1941, and they were then sent to Victoria as prisoners of war.  Only two were too unwell to travel and remained in Fremantle, of whom one later died and is the only survivor to be buried in Australia.

In 1973, an historian looking for evidence of the Sydney, asked State Ships for access to the log book of the Koolinda for this voyage.  It was not held in the Department of Transport, but was thought to be housed in commercial storage.  The log book of this voyage has never been transferred to the State Records Office.


[1] The Yandra was later involved in the defence of Sydney Harbour against Japanese mini submarines, on 31 May 1942.

[2] The Centaur was converted to a hospital ship in early 1943, and was sunk by Japanese submarines on 14 May, 1943.