It is evident from information available that the general location of the wreck site of the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney II, sunk during hostile sea engagement in the Indian Ocean in November 1941, was never in doubt, and that the British Government, under Winston Churchill, knew of the actions (including the encounter between HMAS Sydney II and the Kormoran), and consequently the approximate final resting place of the Sydney. However, this information remained secret until after the war, becoming public knowledge in 1960 (USA), 1980 (Britain) and 1991 (Australia), the latter after three parliamentary sittings which subsequently allowed access to the information before the limit imposed by the normal 75-year-rule.
In 1941 Britain was somewhat isolated, and being attacked on all fronts. The Battle of the Atlantic was hurting our supply lines; we were subject to constant aerial bombardment; and German raiders were active at sea damaging our vital long distance trade. This chart shows the ships, both merchant and naval, that were sunk by German raiders (such as the Kormoran) The Royal Navy was stretched to the limit – the ships being made available under the American Lease Lend only keeping pace with those Allied naval ships being sunk. Churchill desperately needed Roosevelt to bring America into the war to assist Allied efforts, otherwise our situation was dire. In spite of Roosevelt being in favour, however, the American Senate was against coming into the war with Britain and Europe – Britain was disliked immensely by many Americans, still being seen as a colonial power.
By this time, Churchill had cracked the Enigma machine of Ultra, and the Japanese Water Code had also been broken. However, these were such sensitive areas that not every allied nation was privy to the information that became available following these magnificent deciphering achievements, especially colonial countries like Australia, who were not trusted to know what could befall them, unless Churchill wanted them to know.
Japan had started sabre-rattling before Germany declared war. In 1941, the Japanese were in Burma where they were affecting the status quo in Imperial India. Indian separatists were moving over to join Japanese forces who were poised to attack India. Then along came the Sydney affair, a fortuitous (in some peoples’ eyes at least) event which allowed Churchill and Roosevelt a way out of their mutual problem (a forthcoming posting will explain the reasons behind this).
Unravelling the secret of the Sydney has taken many years of research and, with the help of subsequently-broken Japanese ciphers, a story has emerged that explains much, but also asks many questions, and we will probably never know completely the full chain of events.
Following our discovery of two RN Terry Chariots off Phuket (see forthcoming posting) it was suggested by Captain Chris Parton that we search for HMAS Sydney II, as that was a good target and the Australians wanted to find it. To find a target, however, you need access to good intelligence. Therefore we commenced a search through UK archives for all known information relating to the fate of the Sydney. It quickly became apparent that this was no normal wartime loss, and we were intrigued.
After checking out a display at the Eden Camp Museum, we had a target area to search. Using the Merlindown system we located the chosen region (to the west of Shark Bay) and photographed a wide area from the Landsat-5 satellite system. We used the images from the year 2000 series, as they are completely clear of cloud. This image shows the sea floor around the wreck area. A section of the Australian coast is seen at top right of the image. Passing the image through the Merlindown software highlighted many wrecks. We therefore set the system to detect only metalled shipwrecks, following which three were located within the relevant section of this image. We then compared these results to the chart showing ships sunk by German raiders (above) and got our fix. However, further confirmation of the positions of these three wrecks was required and this was obtained via C-MAP, a Norwegian system which independently detected metalled wrecks across the globe. C-MAP had also detected, in the same positions, the three wrecks we had found.
On closer examination, the wreck marked as questionable (indicated by an exclamation mark in a circle) turned out to be the Sydney. Why? Because it was the nearest symbol to the location we had determined for the Sydney. Also, the image obtained from Merlindown showed that the wreck in question had one end sliced off, and the consistent account was that the ship had lost part, if not all, of her bows. This image (obtained in 2006), when enlarged, reveals plenty of detail to the expert eye as seen here, where we have the same image, but one annotated. This includes the one active funnel hole (the forward funnel was a dummy); the extensive damage inflicted between the funnels; and the hull was the right shape and length. Therefore, as there is only one cruiser known to be lost in the area with a part of its bows missing, it has to be HMAS Sydney II.