Case Study

Finding HMAS Sydney II

Photo of HMAS Sydney IIOn 11 November 1941, under the command of Captain J. Burnett, RAN, HMAS Sydney II sailed from Fremantle on escort duty for the troop ship Zealandia. Both ships proceeded to the Sunda Strait where Sydney handed over her charge to the British cruiser HMS Durban at midday on 17 November. The Australian cruiser should have returned to port on 20 November, but was never seen again.

What happened to Sydney was thereafter largely reconstructed from the interrogations of German seamen, some of whom were rescued from lifeboats, while others made it ashore to remote parts of the Western Australian coast. It was learned from these men that they were survivors from the German auxiliary cruiser HSK Kormoran.

According to the German account, on 19 November Kormoran encountered Sydney approximately 120 nautical miles west of Steep Point, Western Australia. The cruiser immediately challenged the unknown vessel's identity, but configured as the Dutch ship Straat Malakka, Kormoran feigned innocence while Sydney continued to close. With the distance reduced to approximately one nautical mile, and not satisfied with the mysterious vessel's responses, the cruiser issued a final challenge to reveal her secret call sign. Not knowing how to respond, Captain Detmers de-camouflaged the Kormoran and opened fire on Sydney at the equivalent of point-blank range.

The last sight of Sydney was a distant glow on the horizon late in the evening as the Germans began setting scuttling charges in their own doomed vessel before abandoning ship. Although 317 of Kormoran's crew survived, none of Sydney's crew of 645 men lived to tell the tale.

A volunteer group known as the Finding Sydney Foundation was intent on conducting an in-water search for Sydney and Kormoran, and established their credentials with the Royal Australian Navy and ultimately the Australian Government. Confidence in the Foundation was further inspired through its alliance with notable shipwreck investigator Mr David Mearns, who had a successful record in locating deep-water shipwrecks, including that of the famous Royal Navy battle cruiser HMS Hood. This alliance aided the Finding Sydney Foundation's objectives considerably and in August 2005 the foundation obtained partial funding for a search from the Australian Government. Other sizeable donations were obtained from the State Governments of Western Australia and New South Wales, while donations were also received from the public. The proposed scope of the search might yet have outstripped resources, but in August 2007 a further commitment by the Australian Government brought total funds to $4.2m.

With sufficient funding in place, detailed planning for the in-water search could begin, with early 2008 set as the start date. Mr Mearns was confirmed as the search director while the Norwegian company, DOF Subsea, secured the contract for the search vessel, the SV Geosounder. The vital deep-water side scan sonar equipment needed to find the wrecks was provided by an American firm, Williamson and Associates.

The search team mobilised from Geraldton, Western Australia in February 2008 and sailed in early March to begin searching an area of seabed equivalent in size to the Australian Capital Territory. The first objective was to find the Kormoran which could then be used as a reference point to find Sydney. Despite setbacks caused by equipment malfunctions and the influence of a tropical cyclone, the defined search box proved accurate and the wreck of Kormoran was identified on 12 March 2008. This discovery enabled Mr Mearns to further refine his search box. Four days later at 11:03am on 16 March 2008 the wreck of Sydney was found at a depth of roughly 2,500 metres. News of the discovery was quickly communicated ashore and an official announcement was made by the Prime Minister, the Hon Kevin Rudd MP, on 17 March 2008.

What has been described as Australia's most enduring maritime mystery had been solved.

Underwater photo - caption follows
First ever underwater pictures of HMAS Sydney II courtesy of the Remotely Operated Vehicle from the Finding Sydney Foundation. (Photographer: David Mearns)