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HMAS Sydney Sunk

19 NOV 1941: HMAS Sydney is sunk. Sydney was lost with its entire crew of 645 men in a sudden and disastrous encounter with the German raider, Kormoran, off the Western Australian coast. The circumstances surrounding its loss remain controversial to this day.

HMAS Sydney, a light cruiser of the Royal Australian Navy with an impressive record of war service, was lost following a battle with the German raider HSK Kormoran in the Indian Ocean off the Western Australian coast.

The loss of the Sydney with its full war complement of 645 remains Australia’s worst naval disaster. The Kormoran was also sunk, but 317 of its crew of 397 were rescued. The fate of the Sydney remains one of Australia’s greatest wartime mysteries; even the location of the wrecks was not established until 2008.

For 12 days the government maintained the strictest secrecy about the loss of the Sydney. When Prime Minister John Curtin made the first of two public announcements on 1 December 1941, he did little more than confirm rumours that the Sydney had been sunk.

For the public the shock of the loss was accompanied by bewilderment that such a disaster could occur. A suspicion that information was being concealed was strengthened by the delay in making the official announcement, by the lack of any real explanation when the announcement did come, and by the secrecy which surrounded the official investigation of the disaster.

Little information was released until 1957, when the official history of the RAN in World War II was published (G Hermon Gill, The Royal Australian Navy 1939–42. Volumes 1 and 2. Official History of Australia in the War of 1939–45, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1957).

Despite the history’s assertion that the story of the Sydney’s last action ‘was pieced together through exhaustive interrogation of Kormoran’s survivors’ and that ‘no room was left for doubt as to its accuracy’, its failure to answer important questions confirmed for some the suspicion of an official cover-up.

The controversy over the loss of the Sydney continued to trouble many Australians and in 1997 the Minister for Defence asked the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade to inquire into the circumstances surrounding the loss of the vessel.

The Committee, which was assisted by an historical adviser, received in excess 400 submissions, and took evidence at hearings held in most Australian capital cities. In its report on the loss of HMAS Sydney, which was tabled in Parliament in June 2000, the Committee placed on the public record for the first time the findings of a major inquiry into the Sydney disaster.

In March 2008, a search organised by the Finding Sydney Foundation, in partnership with shipwreck investigator David Mearns, located the wrecks of HMAS Sydney and HSK Kormoran.

As a result, the Department of Defence held the HMAS Sydney II Commission of Inquiry, which drew on evidence not available at the time of the Parliamentary Committee inquiry. The Commission’s report was released on 12 August 2009. More;

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