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As we count down to ANZAC Day, it is important to remember that it was the brave men and women who fought for freedom all around the world that have given us the opportunity to fight back against any further threat to our liberties.

This month we have been featuring stories of the wars, the conflicts and the battles waged across the centuries and oceans to bring us what is now being taken without a shot being fired. The Marines, the brave pilots and sailors, the soldiers and the sacrifices that they made for us.

Today, I want to remember the first two Sydneys. The HMAS Sydney from 1901 - 1941.

Lest We Forget. 

There are many ships of the Royal Australian Navy that are dear to the hearts of us older Australians. The Scrap Iron Flotilla that ran the gauntlet ferrying men and materials between Tobruk and Egypt, The Canberra, sunk by friendly fire in the Solomons, the Hobart going down against overwhelming odds in Sunda Strait but none compare with the adulation reserved for HMAS Sydney.

Which one?

The answer would be “both of them” yet that would deny the other three their fair share of applause for jobs well done in less demanding circumstances.


Since 1901 there have been FIVE fighting ships of the RAN bearing the name HMAS Sydney. It will occupy too much space to deal with all of them in one essay so I will split it in two.

The feat of the original Sydney in the defeat of the German raider Emden has already been comprehensively recalled in a recent post. That was confined to one incident.


The original Sydney was commissioned as part of the Royal Navy and stationed at Albany in WA. Prior to the outbreak of war in 1914 her first assignment was to escort two submarines to Singapore. It returned to Sydney, was recommissioned into the RAN, and spent the rest of the pre-war period patrolling Eastern Australian and Pacific Island waters. Her first foray in the war was as part of the fleet escorting The Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force AN&MEF contingent in the capture of the German wireless stations in New Guinea.

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1922: Cruiser HMAS SYDNEY [I] in a stone-age world below the New Guinea Highlands.

In October she formed part of the escort curtain covering the first 38 ship convoy of troops to Egypt. It was on this voyage that she broke away to attack and destroy the Emden. In November she was ordered to proceed to Malta, then to Bermuda to join the North Atlantic and West Indies stations for patrol duty. From there she was transferred to the 5th Battle Squadron at Scapa Flow and spent the rest of the war patrolling the North Sea. At war’s end she was part of the fleet accepting surrender of the German High Seas Fleet and in 1919 returned to Sydney.


The wreck of the Emden

In 1924 she was designated as the Flagship of the RAN until 1928 when she was de-commissioned, taken to Cockatoo Island and broken up. Her mast was removed and installed at Bradley’s Head as a memorial to her

Had it not been for her encounter with the Emden she would probably have just disappeared into the mass of ships that did their duty admirably but were never engaged in anything noteworthy.

The second HMAS Sydney started life as the cruiser, HMS Phaeton until purchased by the Australian government in 1934 and re-named in memory of her predecessor. She remained in Australian waters until April 1940 when she left as part of an escort screen for a large Middle East bound convoy. From there she went to Alexandria and formed part of the British Navy 7th Cruiser Squadron of the Mediterranean Fleet under Admiral Cunningham. It was as part of that fleet that she covered herself in glory. Cunningham effectively destroyed the Italian navy and Sydney played a major role in that.


HMAS Sydney ( 2)

Her first action was the shore bombardment of Bardia. A week later, in company of two other ships, she attacked a contingent of three Italian destroyers and sunk one of them. Following that she was constantly engaged with the Mediterranean Battle Fleet in tracking down the Italian Navy. Her most notable victory was the sinking of the Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni. Two Italian destroyers were also sunk by other units of this flotilla.


The sinking of the Bartolomeo Colleoni

In December, 1940 she was retired to Malta for a refit. She returned to Sydney in February, 1941 where she underwent a further refit. From there she undertook escort duties along the Australian coast, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. In November, 1941, she escorted the troopship Zealandia to Sunda Strait in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia today). On 17th November she left Sunda Strait to return to Fremantle, due to arrive there on 20th November. She never arrived. She was not seen or heard of again.

On 19th November she encountered a German raider named Kormoran. This was in fact a German cruiser disguised as a Dutch merchant ship named Straat Malakka. A battle ensued in which both ships were sunk, Sydney with all hands and Kormoran with 317 survivors. Nothing was heard of Sydney but that was no cause for alarm when she failed to arrive on 20th..It was assumed she was observing radio silence as ordered.

Eventually the Kormoran’s survivors were rescued and related what had taken place. The wreck of the Sydney was not located until 2008 about 100 miles from the WA coast and the wreck of the Kormoran about 12 miles away. What we know about the encounter is what was related by the German survivors. They had no reason to lie but if one is of a mind to doubt their testimony then the only truthful answer to her fate is “Nobody Knows!”. There are no log books, no record of radio communication and, of course, no survivors.


Sydney’s skipper, Capt. Joseph Burnett had replaced her long standing skipper Capt. Collins who had been in command all through the more exciting years when she was part of the Mediterranean Fleet. He did not have the battle experience of Collins and it is thought that this inexperience led him into a trap set by his German counterpart. His previous postings had been shore based and he is accused of being unprepared by taking his ship too close to the enemy and not having the crew at action stations.

After several evasive responses to requests from Burnett for the German to identify itself, Burnett brought his ship on a parallel course at close range. Kormoran suddenly opened fire and inflicted little damage with its first salvo. Sydney returned fire with similar little effect. The next series of salvos inflicted mortal damage on both ships but Sydney suffered more. The battle continued until nightfall when Sydney was last seen drifting away with the glow of her fires still showing below the horizon.

In defense of Capt. Burnett’s actions it has been pointed out that standing orders at the time were for raiders to be sunk from long range but merchantmen were to be boarded and captured. It is contended that Burnett believed he was dealing with a merchant ship and was planning to board her hence the close proximity when Kormoran opened fire.

 photo copyright wa museum 46619

Photo copyright WA Museum

Kormoran was not sunk during the battle but she was crippled fatally and was drifting when the Captain decided to abandon ship and scuttle her. The crew were assigned to the life boats. A mine was set and after all had moved to safety the mine blew and the ship was sunk. The first boatload of German survivors was picked up fortuitously by the Aquitania heading to Egypt with a load of troops and supplies. One by one the others were rescued and the story gradually unfolded.

The loss of Sydney was the worst maritime disaster suffered by the RAN either before or since.

Lest We Forget


The crew of the HMAS Sydney sunk off the Western Australian coast. 645 crewmembers were lost


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