The Sinking of HMAS Sydney

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The Sinking of HMAS Sydney. How sailors lived, fought and died in Australia’s greatest naval disaster. By Dr Tom Lewis OAM. Big Sky Publishing, 2023.

Reviewed by Desmond Woods OAM

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There were many books written about the sinking of the RAN’s light cruiser HMAS Sydney before the discovery of the wreckage of the ship off Geraldton WA in 2008.  Understandably, there were then videos made and more books produced, often with copious illustrations showing the ship upright on the ocean floor.

From the oral and written evidence taken from the German survivors of the battle, and from the photos of Sydney’s broken wreck, we now know as much about the precise circumstances of the famous cruiser’s last battle as can be known. Speculative theories have been discarded and the stark truth of what happened remains. There is one insoluble final mystery; which is why the ship’s bridge team sailed their ship so incautiously close to the unidentified disguised raider Kormoran, and thereby gave up all the advantages of the cruiser’s greater gun range and striking power.  There are no clues left on the seafloor, or anywhere else to help us solve this mystery.

This post discovery attention raises the question as to why another book about the sinking of Sydney has now been written. The answer, as the subtitle indicates, is that the book provides the context in which RN and RAN WWII cruisers and other classes of warship were manned and operated.  In a book of twenty chapters it is only the last five which deal specifically with the loss of Sydney in November 1941.  Among many other narrative tasks these chapters contain a forensic demolition of the many unfounded theories that flourished before the wreck’s discovery.  They also disprove the perverse beliefs by a few media hungry conspiratorial fringe dwellers that still surface in violation of all the rules of evidence and the findings of the Cole Inquiry into the ship’s loss. This is in itself a considerable achievement and long overdue.

Most of this book is about WWII light cruisers as a class of gunship and the men who served in them and the organisation and weaponry of RN and RAN warships in general. It deals admirably with what they were designed to achieve in battle with a highly trained ship’s company of specialist sailors using the latest technology for detection and prosecution of the enemy. The author has researched meticulously into every aspect of life at sea for every branch and produced an extraordinary number of supporting original passages written both contemporaneously and later by those who served in these ships.  These many passages explain and illustrate the book’s general text and provide it with authentic and immediate voices which are indisputably those of the sailors and officers who served and fought in the RAN’s warships before and during WWII.

The book contains the results of an exhaustive research effort that has gone into tracing and collating information from the extensive naval literature and from unpublished private collections of notes and letters particularly those held in the Australian War Memorial archives and Sea Power Centre-Australia files. The ‘List of Works Consulted’ runs to an impressive thirty five pages and is in itself a valuable piece of scholarship, no doubt useful for other future authors.

The result is a 465 page book, with some black and white photos,  giving a comprehensive picture of Australia’s seagoing Navy in the decades preceding WWII.  The author shines a light back into the demographics and daily lives of the officers and senior and junior ratings who went to war in 1939 and tells us who they were by background, education and experience. Most pre-war volunteers for the lower deck of the RAN had grown to young manhood during the Great Depression.  In many cases, they had never known regular abundant food or good boots.  For such men and boys the RAN despite the obvious hardships had compensations. It was attracting young Australians looking to be of service to themselves, their families and keen to avoid the widespread poverty and unemployment of so many civilians in the 1930’s.

Due attention is given by the author to the ship’s company’s selection and training, the divisional system of leadership and management, ship’s standard operating procedures, damage control and the action stations drill in each branch, including the marine engineers on the boiler plates in the bowels of the ship. Medical and dental provision, nutrition, alcohol, messing, sleeping arrangements, uniforms, promotion prospects, sailors’ pets, and the timeless ceremonial rituals and customs of the Navy, are all well covered. Included are the provisions made for the swift but dignified disposal of the dead into the sea in the presence of the CO or Chaplain and ship’s company.

This was a swiftly evolving Navy which routinely used flags and flashing lights as well as near instantaneous wireless telegraphy for communication and was  being equipped with early radar sets and underwater sound ranging. Sydney and her sister ships were equipped with a reconnaissance aircraft mounted on a catapult well able in daylight hours to be the ship’s captain’s eyes over the horizon.  How and why this was used has a chapter to itself.

These ‘state of the art’ RAN light cruisers were operating in a pre-computer age where, nevertheless, six inch shells could be fired accurately in coordinated eight gun salvos at long range. The guns were centrally controlled in the transmitting station where they were calibrated to allow for course, distance, speed of both ships, time of shells in the air, wind velocity and deflection.    Sydney’s gunnery branch demonstrated their proficiency in the Mediterranean to the ‘entire satisfaction’ of the Commander in Chief Admiral Andrew Cunningham, when the ship caught and sank the Italian fast cruiser Bartolomeo Coleone with long range gunfire off Cape Spada.

When Sydney’s gunnery officer and his team were killed by shellfire in the opening moments of the action with Kormoran, and simultaneously A and B turret were put out of action as a torpedo exploded beneath them, Sydney’s remaining gunners in X and Y turrets did not wait for orders. They pulled down their sighting screens, aimed and fired back at Kormoran under local control and set her ablaze.  We know this to be true because we can still see the open sights on their turrets as they left them. In this courageous action, under the most extreme possible pressure, they gained for themselves a place of respect in the gunnery branch and in RAN naval history.

This book does not relate the whole tragic story of Sydney’s last victory and the deaths of all 645 ship’s company.   What it provides instead, and in great detail, is a different kind of tribute to the whole generation of sailors from which so much was asked and taken in the ferocity of war at sea.  It provides for readers, particularly those unfamiliar with the wartime Navy, the story of the daily lives of the RAN’s cruiser sailors who went to their action station for dawn stand to never knowing whether by sunset they would have met with triumph or tragedy.

The book is recommended both for those who are saltwater naval historians and for those for whom this is a new area of study or interest. There is much to learn from this compendium of naval knowledge.   It is particularly recommended as ‘required reading’ for the junior officers under training at the Royal Australian Naval College where the author earlier in his career, taught the history of the RAN at war.

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