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Research Guides

The Sinking of HMAS Sydney: A Guide to Commonwealth Government Records

Appendix 2: The notebooks of the War Cabinet and the Advisory War Council

The records

The following transcriptions are made from the notes of the official notetaker present at meetings of the War Cabinet and the Advisory War Council, and from the notes of the Secretary to these bodies.

They are a record of the discussions of all meetings of the War Cabinet and the Advisory War Council at which the loss of the Sydney was discussed and are the basis of the formal minutes which were issued following each meeting. Examples of the notes themselves are given in Chapters 1 and 4.

The records of the War Cabinet and the Advisory War Council are discussed further in Chapter 4.

The transcriptions

The original notes are written in pencil and are difficult to read. Some words have proven illegible. As one would expect of a hurried written record of discussion, the notes exhibit little or no punctuation, much abbreviation and mostly incomplete sentences. Many words, even those apparently at the beginning of a sentence, are not capitalised. Abbreviations, punctuation and capitalisation are duplicated in the transcriptions exactly as they appear in the notes.

The relationship between some statements is cryptic, and often the identity of the person making them is not clear. In order to allow readers of this guide to interpret the notes for themselves, they have been transcribed exactly as they appear on the page, with gaps between words and indentations included. Words which the notetaker wrote down and subsequently struck through are also included.

To help the reader, some information has been imposed. In all cases this information is given in square brackets. The information in square brackets indicates

  1. illegible words; or
  2. a suggested translation (which in all cases is followed by a question mark); or
  3. the expanded form of obscure abbreviations.

Each set of notes is accompanied by the date and place of the meeting, the name of the notetaker and the number of the formal minute which resulted from the meeting. The page numbers given are the page numbers of the relevant Cabinet notebooks.

Meeting of the War Cabinet, Canberra, wednesday 26 Nov 1941
Background notes to War Cabinet Minute No. 1521 by Vincent Quealy

p. 624 Sydney
CNS reads
4 things
A raft & lifeboat at sea, 2 life boats on
coast ..
What happened – out of commun[ication] for 3 days,
sunk by cruiser, if Syd sunk
only if took unwise approach &
raiders put two torpedoes into her
– every cruiser captn know certain
things – keep ahead – because may be
trailed by submarine – inconceivable
that this cd have happened –

Message from Trocas
(1) German [vessels?] sunk by gunfire 19 Nov
condition cruiser not known

(2) Survivors 110 70 miles North raider
engagement raider cruiser Perth class –
British ship in flames and believed sunk

(3) Phone conversation from Carnarvon –
engagement with 1 [st?] class cruiser
their ship blew up – when
last seen cruiser was on fire

(4) Wireless operator inform[ed?] – W/T on raider
'Comoran' raider – Guns 8in & a/a [anti-aircraft]
new ship Ind Oc 6 months –
Sank Greek ship – met

p. 625
cruiser Perth class escorting 5 ships
cruiser closed – raider opened fire
½ mile – Cormoran burning and sunk.
Cruiser vanished, burning – believed sunk.

Confirmed [craft or L/T?] – 1 [st?] class cruiser 7000 tons
cruiser thought vessel belonged to
convoy and approached – fired on by raider – crew
CNS     Most unlikely Syd wd be escorting
ships – had no orders to do so ­–
was returning home on her own –
also raiders have not 8" guns in view necessity for 8" guns –
5.9 & 6" guns most likely –
officer of Burnett's perspicacity
think ship join up with
his convoy in broad daylight
– our interpreters arrived
there but not likely to be
– Trocas men may give different
– 3rd lifeboat crew [possibility?]
at[?] 7 miles cruiser (Syd) cd have sunk her
she has 3 inch armour – but at ½ mile or mile point blank range not so good
not effective ag[ainst] raider with 6 inch guns.

p. 626
PM     All conjecture Conclusion is Syd gone
CNS     No survivors picked up – do not
know about 5 merchant vessels –
re survivors – 'could make report
to say Syd missing due to enemy action'
but may get infm shortly –
(If made a mistake & got near
– see torpedoes [coming?] and sunk
ships before [arrive?] – dynamo
may have failed & cdn't send
Press asked told in confidence re
what happened but not to
publish –
cd send message to next of kin
saying missing & further infm
Publn – not policy to publish
infm, give gratuitous infm
to enemy – and if they knew
Cormoran sunk wd be to their adv.
he is ag[ainst] making public statement
but if to be done sld be
done simultaneously UK &
also not say anything about raider

p. 627
merely to say Syd lost due enemy action –
PMin – inf next of kin, & keep
censorship on press and broadcasting


A9240, Set 2 Vol 4
Background notes to War Cabinet Minute No. 1521 by Frederick Shedden

p. 571

HMAS Sydney (CNS present)
[Notes?] circ[ulated?] by CNS
Inform next of kin.
Censorship to be maintained
Announcement to be in a form that does not
convey informn [of value?] to the enemy.

A5954, 730/2
Meeting of the Advisory War Council, Canberra, wednesday 26 Nov 1941
Background notes to Advisory War Council Minute No. 566 by Vincent Quealy

p. 628
CNS statement circulated & CNS comments
110 survivors at Carnarvon
Actn [Action] over 100 miles from land
PM     Communicating with flags instead of wireless
Suggest was decoyed
took place at 5.30 pm –
Crew of Sydney 600 –
PMin     Press inf[ormed] Syd missing confidential
WCab – inf[orm] next of kin –
that such and such person missing
(not quoting Sydney) &
censorship at present for 24 hrs until notified
ultimately release
Hughes     To say they are missing
when know nothing about it – also value infm to enemy
rumours everywhere
hopes next of kin not notified
& censor
PMin     bad thing that rel shd get
news by rumour – honest thing to
advise next of kin missing

p. 629
if we said in[?] 48 hrs Syd missing or sunk
H[ughes] if tell next of kin tell world –
and attack shipping
CNS     Germans do not know where Syd
is operating –
Adm[iralty] practice   to notify
only when we know enemy know
Adm[iralty] inf[orm] rel[atives] as soon as they
know no chance of rescue –
All this happened on 19/11/41
PM     Syd seems to be sunk –
H     attack on Nauru – 5 ships –
Adm[iralty] wdn’t release for weeks
Mr Menzies agree with PMin –
PM[RM?]     600 missing for a week –
Shd tell [them?]
All agreed but Mr Hughes dissents

A9240, Set 2 Vol 4
Background notes to Advisory War Council Minute No. 566 by Frederick Shedden

p. 431
HMAS Sydney (CNS present)
CNS restatement of notes
N of K to be informed missing due to enemy
action – press & broadcasting censorship shd be
Notification of loss of Sydney not to
convey information to enemy.

Appd. Mr Hughes dissenting

A5954, 213/1
Meeting of the Advisory War Council, Canberra, wednesday 26 Nov 1941
Background notes to Advisory War Council Minute No. 571 by Vincent Quealy

p. 639?
interrogation of survivors – Trocus
confirms prev[ious] view –

PM[?]   Raider   6   15cm
4   2cm guns
1 aircraft
400 complement
[list?] ships sunk

Parramatta – sloop sunk outside Tobruk.
There are survivors –
Admiralty asked for infm as to this
PMin     Syd didn't fire first shot – Aquitania
Hughes     believes there must be some survivors
PMin     ask Navy prepare [parties?]
have notified next of kin
no public statement until Navy
inf him that it is opportune to do so
McE     his wife rumours
PMin     same procedure to be followed as to "Parramatta"
"Dunedin" – not answering signals in Atlantic

p. 652
L26 [possibly a cablegram number] [Con?] [III?]     Syd torpedoes missed
Raider torpedo hit 1 salvo
com[menced?] 1600     1830 – Syd last seen
steering south 5 knots – raider
had 25 killed

p. 653
No statement until Navy OK

A9240, Set 2 Vol 4
Background notes to Advisory War Council Minute No. 571 by Frederick Shedden

p. 433
Min for Navy [produced?] teleprinter [message]

A5954, 213/2
Meeting of War Cabinet, Canberra, Monday 1 Dec 1941
Series: A9240
Background notes to Advisory War Council Minute No. 566 by Frederick Shedden

p. 654
PMin     impossible give any
more publicity
Navy     – reassuring statement given as to
PM – DW says raider Steiermark may be
two beside Cormoran – keep infn
from enemy – consult [Navy?]
[other discussions ensue, then]

p. 664     "Sydney"
PM     press anxiety for [stories?] re
Syd – 320 survivors formed part of complement from
raider – none from Syd – should not
be published – whatever the criticism
– also report was Kormoran but
DW990 of 30/11 says
"Steiermark" 9000 tons – no
survivors from Syd
PMin?     is it conceivable there are 2 survivors raiders
Navy     first survivors said off "Cormoran"
British infm says off Steiermark
PM     asks Min for Navy to clear up this
all survivors of Syd may be on
other raider –
Navy     [1 word illegible] has swept Indian Ocean
EA     Catalinas cd have been used
for spotting before
PM     2UW & 3KZ broadcast PMin statement
of last night – in defiance of ban – [there?] are [word illegible]
(1) action ag[ainst] stations
(2) ban on bdcasting to 9 am tomorrow     48 hrs
Offence of grievous nature – NZ Govt lost raider because premature [broadcast?]

p. 665
Interviews [with?] from German prisoners
rept made from Perth paper
for publicn stories & photographs
This prohibited
Will tell press frankly off record
that summons[?] sticky[?] – & [two words illegible]
going to take
action ag[ainst] bcast
Public meeting to inaugurate appeal
for funds to replace ship – can’t buy a ship and money
N [avy?]     Capitalise this for war loan
Supply[?]     quota under Loan Fund
for this – goes into consolidated loan for purpose – cost £2.1
Treas.     £3 ½ m say £4 [m]
Supply[?] Shd not promise ship
PM     Agreed as soon as poss

A9240, Set 2 Vol 4
Background notes to War Cabinet Minute No. 1526 by Frederick Shedden

p. 574
HMAS Sydney
Question of 2nd raider
Broadcasts of PM’s statement by
3KZ & 2UW.
Interviews with German prisoners – desire
to publish.
300 odd German prisoners – no [Austn?].
Replacement – 'There’ll always be a Sydney'

A5954, 731/1
Meeting of War Cabinet, Melbourne, thursday 4 Dec 1941
Series: A9240, Set 2 Vol 4
Background notes to War Cabinet Minute No. 1528 by Vincent Quealy

p. 676 Sydney
Dir of Opns sent to Perth to investigate
German prisoners – and interpreter – &
now have as much infm as poss –
reads acct [account] – Kormoran sited Syd
& turned away – Syd chased & flashing
German ship no answer – as Syd got
closer ask for secret call signs.
Syd suspicious or thought genuine merchant
ship – put on starboard side pos[?] of tactical disadv
position – German said he was Dutch ship [2 words illegible] – aerop[lane] ticking over ready to fly off –
German fire simultaneous – 1 mile
apart – 2 torpedoes – 1 hit Syd in [coms?]
hit bridge & knocked [out] controls. killed Capn –
round stern – German had 15 salvoes into Syd
& Syd got 12 hits into German –
Syd on fire badly – aero[plane] on fire –
[presume the?] [cumulative?] effects
torpedo & gt [great] many hits. Gone away
in burning glow and sunk.

p. 677
PMin     any expn why no survivors
CNS     Carley & 2 life belts – action [one word illegible] at 4pm
5 pm to 5.25 pm –
Captn thought Dutch ship & hesitated
to take action –
this is pre[liminary?] view – naval intelligence
Publicity – difficult – Admiralty
from Lon[don] w/out [without] ref[erence] to us
ran right across what we had
[done?]   – & sent message
to [Admiralty?] as to ban on [one word illegible]
& BBC bdcast – incr[easing?] pressure
– adm[iralty?] clear ag[ainst] everything that normally done –
[ask for?] as much publicity –
no admission as to bad tactical position – no more publicity
Supply     BC 6[th?] time [offended/offensive?] &
Govt shd protest – keep doing it
PM     Navy [to?] put up a proposed cable
no 2nd ship trailing Kormoran
accepted by Navy – W/T in [1 word illegible]

A9240, Set 2 Vol 4
Background notes to War Cabinet Minute No. 1528 by Frederick Shedden

p. 576 HMAS Sydney – loss of [C. gram?] to UK Govt re premature disclosure.

A5954, 731/1
Meeting of Advisory War Council, Canberra, 18 Mar 1942
Series: A9240
Background notes to Advisory War Council Minute No. 842 by Vincent Quealy

p. 177     'Sydney' loss of
PM     Court of enquiry
CNS     full inquiry – 200 Germans
& have full details
conclusions – Syd take up position
15[00] yds starboard quarter – Germ opened
fire & 2 torpedoes one hit –
surmise how got into position –
Captn [hurry?] to get back & took risk –
failed in this respect – Gunnery[?] Off[icer?]
not ready 2 salvoes – 'Syd' shd
have been able to fire first
German ship alone – Captn
has orders how to [treat?]

A9240 Set 1 Vol 2
Background notes to Advisory War Council Minute No. 842 by Frederick Shedden
p. 541
Sydney – Court of Inquiry held
Conclusions – Sydney
took a position about

p. 542   
1500 on starboard beam
German fired salvo & torpedoes, one of which hit
Capt – 24 hrs late in rendezvous –
ship had given wrong name – not on
daily list. Took a risk Capt &
[Nav[igating?]?] officer – Gunnery Officer not
ready – salvoes Sydney shd have
been able to fire first & get in
two salvoes. – Capt did not
follow his orders.

A5954, 213/2