On 19 November 1941, the cruiser HMAS Sydney was involved in a mutually destructive battle with the German ship Kormoran off Western Australia. All 645 aboard Sydney died.
The battle between the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney and the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran (“cormorant’) was a single-ship action that occurred on 19 November 1941, off the coast of Western Australia.
Sydney, with Captain Joseph Burnett commanding, and Kormoran, under Fregattenkapitan Theodor Detmers, encountered each other approximately 106 nautical miles (196 km; 122 mi) off Dirk Hartog Island. Both ships were destroyed in the half-hour engagement.
From 24 November, after Sydney failed to return to port, air and sea searches were conducted. Boats and rafts carrying survivors from Kormoran were recovered at sea, while others made landfall north of Carnarvon: 318 of the 399 personnel on Kormoran survived.
While debris from Sydney was found, there were no survivors from the 645-strong complement. It was the largest loss of life in the history of the Royal Australian Navy, the largest Allied warship lost with all hands during World War II, and a major blow to Australian wartime morale.
Australian authorities learned of Sydney‘s fate from the surviving Kormoran personnel, who were held in prisoner of war camps until the end of the war. The exact location of the two wrecks remained unverified until 2008.
Controversy has often surrounded the battle, especially in the years before the two wrecks were located in 2008.
How and why a purpose-built warship like Sydney was defeated by a modified merchant vessel like Kormoran was the subject of speculation, with numerous books on the subject, as well as two official reports by government inquiries, published in 1999 and 2009 respectively.
According to German accounts—which were assessed as truthful and generally accurate by Australian interrogators during the war, as well as most subsequent analyses—Sydney approached so close to Kormoran that the Australian cruiser lost the advantages of heavier armour and superior gun range.
Nevertheless, several post-war publications have alleged that Sydney‘s loss had been the subject of an extensive cover-up, that the Germans had not followed the laws of war, that Australian survivors were massacred following the battle, or that the Empire of Japan had been secretly involved in the action (before officially declaring war in December). No evidence has been found to support any of these theories.