Sunday Deposed Monarch Blogging will return next Sunday.
According to the search team, the wreck of HMAS Sydney has been discovered “upright and largely intact”, while HSK Kormoran was broken into at least four pieces. The latter makes a lot of sense, as the crew of Kormoran reported that she suffered a massive internal explosion just before sinking. The Sydney find, however, leaves some unanswered questions.
The puzzle with the Sydney is how she managed to sink without survivors. Even badly damaged ships that sink quickly tend to have survivors; USS Indianapolis sank in twelve minutes with 880 initial survivors, while HMS Barham sank in a couple of minutes with about 300 survivors. According to the account of the Kormoran survivors, Sydney drifted north for some time before sinking (indeed, they didn’t report seeing her sink), so there was a relatively long period of time between the infliction of damage and the sinking. One plausible theory for why there were no survivors is that Sydney suffered a magazine explosion after disengaging from Kormoran; this would make plausible the loss of the entire crew, as only tiny handfuls of the much larger crews of the battlecruisers Queen Mary, Invincible, and Hood survived the destruction of their ships.
The initial report, however, brings that theory into question. Most magazine explosions result in extreme damage to a ship; Kormoran was found in four pieces, Hood in two, Invincible in two, Fuso in two, and so forth. If Sydney is in one piece (and it’s too early to say for sure what “upright and largely intact” actually means), then a magazine explosion seems less likely. The distance between the wrecks (about twelve nautical miles) also renders the theory that the Germans executed Sydney’s shipwrecked crew less than plausible. Although ships can drift a bit on the way down, it seems that the Captain Detmers account of the Sidney drifting off, burning and bow down before Kormoran evacuated has been supported. It’s possible that Sydney’s crew would have evacuated in the immediate vicinity of Kormoran while the light cruiser remained afloat, but not terribly likely, and Sydney would have had to stay afloat for some time before finally succumbing. Moreover, the crew of Kormoran would have had plenty of things to do other than execute Sydney’s survivors; Kormoran herself was mortally wounded and on the verge of exploding. So, I think at the very least we can say that Detmers and his crew are likely not guilty of murdering Sydney’s survivors. This is further supported by the fact that none of the survivors of Kormoran ever copped to the slayings, even after sixty years.
My guess is that this is what happened; Kormoran’s surprise shots killed Sydney’s commanding officer and threw Sydney into confusion. Kormoran also struck Sydney with a torpedo, which would have increased the panic and chaos. Ineffectual and disorganized damage control resulted in the ship taking on considerable water, but the chaos and the uncertain chain of command meant that no one knew who was in authority to give an abandon ship order. When a ship takes on water, a list can turn into a roll very quickly, and at some point before a general evacuate order was given, Sydney turned turtle. A handful, or even a couple dozen, sailors may have escaped, but not in good order and not with the safety and rescue equipment that the survivors of Kormoran were able to take. Bad luck, sun, and sharks then finished off this remnant.
Interestingly enough, one other, more outlandish theory has yet to be ruled out. Some have argued that Sydney was, in fact, killed by a Japanese submarine rather than Kormoran. This is implausible for any number of reasons (no record of such an attack is in Japanese archives, Japan was not at war with Australia at the time, the Japanese sub would have to have been working closely with Kormoran, but Detmers and company never admitted to it, and so forth), but it does kind of fit the facts as we now know them. If Sydney drifted off to the north, wounded but not yet sunk, a Japanese sub could have sent her to the bottom quickly and unexpectedly with a couple of torpedoes. Moreover, the Japanese would have had good cause to surface and execute any remaining survivors. It’s terribly outlandish, yes, but it can’t be completely ruled out until someone gets a look at the state of Sydney’s hull.
In any case, this is a very exciting time for naval antiquarians; one of the great mysteries of the Second World War is on the verge of being solved.
UPDATE: It appears that the bow has been separated from the hull, which suggests the possibility of a magazine explosion.