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HMS Sutherland remembers Australia’s greatest naval tragedy

15 February 2018
With the sun rising over the eastern Indian Ocean, a sailor from HMS Sutherland bows his head in reverence for the greatest tragedy in Australian Naval history.

Beneath this spot, 100 miles off the west coast of Australia and 500 miles northwest of Perth, lies the wreck of the wartime cruiser HMAS Sydney – lost with all 645 men aboard, the only Allied warship in the six years of war sunk with all hands.

Sutherland is the first British warship to visit Australia in five years – and the first Royal Navy vessel to pass over the wreck of the Sydney since it was discovered a decade ago.

So the Plymouth-based frigate paused on her journey to the naval base at Fremantle to pay her respects with a dawn service of commemoration for the crew of the Sydney and the 82 men of the German merchant raider Kormoran killed in the same cataclysmic encounter.

The Kormoran looked like a typical steamer, but instead bristled with hidden guns, torpedo tubes and mines with the aim of tricking Allied shipping and sinking it, as well as laying minefields.

 

HMS Sutherland is about to embark on three weeks of exercises with the Royal Australian Navy, so it is also a timely reminder of the deep bonds that exist between our two navies.

Commander Andrew Canale, HMS Sutherland's Commanding Officer

She sank more than ten vessels in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans in an 11-month deployment which ended when she encountered the Sydney on November 19 1941.

Disguised as a Dutch merchantman, the Germans largely caught the Australians unawares in a ferocious 30-minute encounter, wrecking the cruiser’s guns, bow and bridge. The Sydney’s response caused fires in the Kormoran which threatened to spread to the magazine and blow her apart.

While the Germans abandoned ship – more than 300 were subsequently rescued by the Australians – the Sydney disappeared over the horizon in flames and was never seen again.

“The battle between HMAS Sydney and the Kormoran is a tragic story in the history of the Royal Australian Navy – and for us all as fellow mariners,” said Sutherland’s Commanding Officer Commander Andrew Canale.

“As we were passing the site of these historic wrecks – and as the tenth anniversary of their find approaches – it felt right to pay our respects to those who fought and died in World War 2.

“HMS Sutherland is about to embark on three weeks of exercises with the Royal Australian Navy, so it is also a timely reminder of the deep bonds that exist between our two navies.” 

Lieutenant Rory Hill, one of Sutherland’s Officers of the Watch who led the service of commemoration, added: “This engagement truly shows the global nature of World War 2 and being able to pay our respects at this site, ten years after the wrecks were discovered and 77 years after the battle itself, was an honour for the ship’s company.”

HMAS Sydney was a light cruiser built on the Tyne in 1933 and delivered to the Royal Australian Navy the following year.

Her loss was a tremendous morale blow to Australia especially as only a life raft and lifebelt from the ship were ever found despite an extensive search. The Kormoran’s survivors provided some details about the cruiser’s fate, but it was March 2008 before the wrecks of both ships were found by deep-sea explorers.

Sutherland is on a lengthy deployment to Australia and the Pacific Rim. She is due to arrive in Fremantle on Friday, the first of four ports she’ll visit in the Commonwealth country. 

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