The Sinking of HMAS Sydney: How sailors lived, fought and died in Australia’s greatest naval disaster – Book Review

Before the discovery of the wreckage of HMAS Sydney (II) was found off Carnarvon in WA in 2008 many books were written about the sinking of the RAN’s light cruiser. Authors speculated on how the ship met her fate. Once the ship was visible again extensive videos were made and many more books produced, often with copious illustrations showing the ship upright on the ocean floor.

Dr Tom Lewis OAM.
Big Sky Publishing.
ISBN: 9781923004320

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 remaining. Why did the ship’s Commanding Officer, Captain Joseph Burnett or his bridge team steer their cruiser so incautiously close to the unidentified and disguised raider HKS Kormoran. By doing so they gave up all the advantages of their ship’s greater gun range and striking power. There are no clues left on the seafloor, or anywhere else to help us solve this mystery.

Tom Frame’s HMAS Sydney – Australia’s Greatest Naval Tragedy was updated in 2018 to bring together all that can be known about the loss of Sydney and includes the findings of the official Cole inquiry in 2009. So what is the purpose of a new book on this subject? The answer, as the subtitle indicates, is that this 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. Dr Lewis also disproves the various perverse beliefs held by a small band of media hungry conspiracists that still make claims that a great secret is being kept about the ship and her men.

But most of this book deals with WWII light cruisers as a class of gunship, 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 fight 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 the duties of every naval branch. He has produced an extraordinary number of supporting original passages written both contemporaneously and later by those who served in these ships. These 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 is the result of an exhaustive research effort that has gone into tracing and collating information from the extensive naval literature and from unpublished collections of notes and letters particularly those held in the Australian War Memorial archives and in the 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 which will be useful for other writer’s seeking references. The result is a 465-page book, with some black and white photos, providing a comprehensive picture of Australia’s seagoing Navy in the decades preceding WWII.

The author shines a light on the 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 and in many cases, they had never known regular and abundant food or even new boots! For such men and boys the Navy, despite its obvious hardships, had considerable compensations. It attracted young men choosing to be of service to themselves, their families and Australia. They were also keen to avoid the widespread poverty and unemployment of so many young civilians in the 1930’s.

Due attention is given by the author to the ship’s company’s training in their branch’s duties, the Navy’s divisional system of leadership and management, ship’s standard operating procedures, firefighting and damage control and the action stations drill in each branch. The departments covered include the marine engineers on the boiler plates in the bowels of the ship and the torpedo men exposed to enemy fire on the weather decks. Medical and dental provision, nutrition, issue of alcohol, messing, sleeping arrangements, uniforms, promotion prospects, sailors’ pets, and the timeless ceremonial rituals and customs of the Navy, are all well covered. The swift but dignified disposal of the dead into the sea in the presence of the Commanding Officer or the Chaplain and the ship’s company is well described.

This was a swiftly evolving Navy which was routinely still using used flags and flashing lights for line-of-sight communications and was using near instantaneous wireless telegraphy. RAN ships were also being equipped by 1940 with early radar sets and had underwater sound ranging for locating submarines. Sydney and her sister ships were equipped with a Seagull V amphibian aircraft mounted on a catapult and piloted by the RAAF with an RAN observer. These aircraft, equipped with radio, were able in daylight hours to be the commanding officer’s eyes over the horizon and report on what they could see which was invisible to the lookouts. How, when and why these aircraft were used has a chapter to itself. This information raises the question as to why Sydney’s aircraft was not launched to investigate from above the unknown freighter whose quick firing deck guns would shortly prove Sydney’s nemesis.

There is a chapter on the advanced gunnery systems operated by cruisers. These ‘state of the art’ RAN light cruisers were operating in a pre-computer age where, nevertheless, six-inch shells could be fired simultaneously and accurately in eight-gun salvos at very 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 RN Commander in Chief Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, when the ship surprised and sank the Italian fast cruiser Bartolomeo Coleone with long range gunfire off Cape Spada on 19 July 1940.
On 19 November 1941 the same gunnery officer and his well-drilled team in the transmitting station were in all probability killed by 88 millimetre shellfire in the opening moments of the action with Kormoran. Simultaneously A and B turrets were put out of action when a torpedo exploded beneath them. Sydney’s remaining gunners in X and Y turrets did not wait for orders which would never come. They followed their training, shifted their turret to local control, opened their sighting hatches next to each gun and fired shells into Kormoran which set her engine room ablaze and stopped her. 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 great respect in the annals of the RAN’s gunnery branch and in naval history.

This book does not attempt to relate the whole tragic story of Sydney’s bitter 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 social history of the Navy, the story of the daily lives of the RAN’s cruiser sailors who went to their action station for stand-to at dawn 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 a part of what was once considered to be the ‘required reading list’ 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.

Reviewed by Desmond Woods OAM

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