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Tales of the Sea: HMAS Sydney

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The Washington Naval Treaty ended competition between the big naval powers in capital ships by invoking a ten year “naval holiday” in which battleship construction would be sharply limited. The Treaty also determined that anything over 10000 tons or with guns larger than 8″ would be defined as a battleship. This determination had the effect of limiting, but not eliminating, naval competition. Led by Japan, the various navies of the world soon began to lay down “Washington Treaty” cruisers, ships of about 10000 tons with between 6 and 10 8″ guns. The London Naval Treaty of 1930 sought to manage even this competition, and limited the number of heavy cruisers (ships with 8″ guns) allowable to each navy. The British, in particular, hoped that this new limitation would bring some sanity to naval construction, and began laying down classes of small light cruisers, each carrying between 6 and 8 6″ guns and displacing between 5000 and 7500 tons. The Royal Navy believed that cruisers were critical to maintaining the trade linkages of the Empire, and that a large number of smaller, cheaper units would better serve this role than a few powerful ships. The Americans and the Japanese, undaunted, responded to the new limitations by laying down “light” cruisers of 10000 tons, carrying 15 (!) 6″ guns in five triple turrets. The Royal Navy felt compelled to respond, and eventually laid down the Town class light cruisers, each carrying 12 6″ guns. HMS Belfast, the last Town class cruiser, is a memorial in London.

HMAS Sydney was a genuine light cruiser. Last of the Leander class, she displaced about 7500 tons, carried 8 6″ guns in four twin turrets, and could make 32 knots. Originally called HMS Phaeton, she was transferred to the Royal Australian Navy during construction and renamed Sydney. Commissioned in 1935, Sydney was one of six cruisers (two heavy and four light) owned by the RAN. Although this was a formidable force for a second tier power, Australia’s fate continued to depend on the machinations of great powers. Australia, like Canada, declared war on Germany in September 1939, and deployed the bulk of the RAN to the Mediterranean as soon as Italy declared war on the Allies. On July 9, 1940 Sydney helped sink two Italian destroyers at the Battle of Calabria, a battle that also involved a gunnery duel between Giulio Cesare and Warspite. Ten days later Sydney and a flotilla of destroyers sank the Italian light cruiser Bartoloneo Colleoni at the Battle of Cape Spada. Later in 1940 Sydney particpated in the Crete operation, and attacked Italian convoys to various destinations in the eastern Mediterranean.

German raiders were becoming a problem in the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, so Sydney departed the Med for Australia in January 1941. Increased tensions with Japan also played a role in the redeployment of the light cruiser, as the Australians were nervous about leaving their main units under Royal Navy control when their own coasts might require defense. Between February and November, Sydney carried out convoy escort duty without major incident. In February she also acquired a new captain, Joseph Burnett. Although lacking the battle experience of Sydney’s previous captain, Burnett had seven months to work with his crew.

On November 19, 1941 HMAS Sydney sighted a merchant ship to the west of Shark Bay. The merchant responded to Sydney’s challenge as the Dutch freighter Straat Malakka. Captain Burnett was apparently unhappy with the response, and wanted a closer look at the Dutch ship. Guns trained, HMAS Sydney closed from 20km to less than 1000 meters, far closer than an escort would normally get to a questionable merchantman. Captain Burnett’s reasoning remains unknown, because neither he nor any of the other 644 men onboard Sydney would ever be heard from again.

To be continued….

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