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

The human cost

Image 13: Blandly worded telegram sent to the father of 27 year old Leading Aircraftman Keith Homard.

Image 13: Blandly worded telegram sent to the father of 27 year old Leading Aircraftman Keith Homard.
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In terms of lives lost, the sinking of HMAS Sydney remains to this day Australia's worst naval disaster. The enormity of the tragedy was felt by the entire nation, with few cities and towns unaffected by the loss of friends or relatives. On 1 December, the day of the Prime Minister's announcement, flags on all public buildings in Sydney were flown at half mast. The following day memorial services were held in churches and cathedrals.

The Australian Government was sensitive to the effect of the ship's loss on the country's morale. The Sydney's 645 personnel officially classified as 'missing presumed dead' comprised:

  • 36 officers and 592 ratings (Royal Australian Navy)
  • five officers and two ratings (Royal Navy)
  • one officer and five airmen (Royal Australian Air Force)
  • four canteen staff.1

As already explained, the government sought to delay informing the next of kin for as long as possible because of the desire to keep any information of strategic value from the enemy. However, poorly framed censorship instructions naming the Sydney and forbidding any reference to 'alleged naval activity' combined with leakages from Canberra of the loss of a warship meant that by the time the War Cabinet met on 26 November public rumour had spread to such an extent that the War Cabinet had little choice but to decide that the next of kin should be informed immediately.

Some were still opposed to the idea, but the Prime Minister insisted that the next of kin must be informed because it would be a 'bad thing' if relatives should get the news by rumour, and that the 'honest thing' was to advise them. 2

Following the War Cabinet's decision, telegrams were sent to the next of kin late that afternoon, with a further telegram sent to postmasters at midday the next day asking them to confirm urgently that all telegrams had been delivered. The telegrams sent to the next of kin of naval personnel advised:

With deep regret I have to inform you that your [relationship and name] is missing as a result of enemy action. Minister for Navy and Naval Board desire to express to you their sincere sympathy.

The telegrams sent by the Air Board to the families of the members of the RAAF (see next page) differed slightly in their wording.

The crew of the Kormoran had not escaped unscathed. Of a crew of 393, of which 315 Germans and three Chinese were recovered, 78 lost their lives. Approximately 20 were killed in action on board and the remainder drowned through the capsizing of an overloaded raft.

The government was sensitive about releasing the number of survivors from the Kormoran. In a meeting of the War Cabinet on 1 December the Prime Minister noted that while there were '320 [sic] German survivors, there were none from the Sydney.' Presumably concerned at the effect of this on national morale, he instructed that this information should not be published, 'whatever the criticism'. The same day the Secretary of the Department of the Navy sent a message to his minister, advising him that the number of survivors from the Kormoran should not be published 'in view of the effect on next of kin, relatives and friends of personnel of HMAS Sydney.'3

Three days earlier, at a meeting of the Advisory War Council, the Rt Hon. William Morris Hughes had expressed the view that there must be survivors. At that stage it was still thought possible that there were two raiders. The confusion was caused by the first German survivors stating that they were from the Kormoran while information from the British Government indicated that they were from the Steiermark. Not realising that they were the same vessel, it was thought that survivors from the Sydney may have been on the second raider.

By 4 December the Australian Government was satisfied that all hope of finding survivors from the Sydney had passed. The next of kin were sent a letter from the Secretary of the Department of the Navy referring to the earlier telegram, and informing them that:

The Naval Board direct me to inform you that an intensive search by sea and air has failed to find HMAS Sydney or any survivors from her gallant Ship's Company. The Naval Board, therefore, announce that all are considered to have lost their lives in action, and, with the Minister for the Navy, they tender to you again their heartfelt sympathy.'4

The Royal Australian Air Force was more cautious. In a letter to the next of kin dated 6 December, the Secretary of the Department of Air confirmed the advice contained in the Air Board telegram of 26 November. Intensive searches by sea and air had failed to find any survivors among either the naval or air force personnel of HMAS Sydney. The letter continued:

If, after full consideration of all the circumstances, the Air Board is compelled to conclude that there is no hope of [relationship and name] being found alive, a presumption of death will be made.

In December 1941 and January 1942 requests were made by the naval and air force authorities to the International Red Cross asking that special inquiries be made concerning the possibility of personnel missing from the Sydney being held as prisoners of war. Official uncertainty about the fate of the Sydney's crew was mirrored in the correspondence from the public and the next of kin, who months after the Sydney's loss still hoped that one day their sons, husbands and brothers would be found alive. As related in chapter 6, as late as October 1945 it was still felt necessary to make inquiries in Japan and elsewhere to make sure that rumours of the ship's personnel having been taken prisoner of war were untrue.

It was not until June 1942 that the Air Board officially notified next of kin that it presumed the members of the Air Force serving on the Sydney to have died. The submission to the Air Board from the Air Force Director of Personal Services indicated that the Naval Board had presumed the death of naval personnel on the basis of information obtained from the interrogation of the survivors of the Kormoran, and from the results of the sea and air searches. The submission went on to state:

Action to presume deaths of the Royal Australian Air Force members on board HMAS Sydney was not commenced previously as it was considered that different considerations would apply in determining the fate of Royal Australian Air Force members, some of whom might have been in an aircraft which was possibly in the air at the time when HMAS Sydney sank. The evidence negativing this possibility was not at all conclusive (see Minute 11). In view of the lapse of time and the negative results obtained by enquiries from the International Red Cross Society…it is requested that these members be presumed to have died…on 19 November 1941.5

The Air Board accepted the recommendation. The basis upon which the submission stated that some of the air force personnel were 'possibly in the air at the time when HMAS Sydney sank' and that 'the evidence negativing this possibility was not at all conclusive' is unable to be determined. The file containing this 'evidence' (A705, 32/1/87, HMAS Sydney – members of RAAF missing from) is neither in the custody of the Archives nor in the Department of Defence, and is presumed to have been destroyed.

At the meeting of the War Cabinet in Melbourne on 4 December 1941, the Prime Minister asked why there were no survivors of the Sydney.6
No explanation was given, but the official view was summed up by Mr Frank Eldridge in his report to the Director of Naval Intelligence on 28 February 1942:

Commander Detmers expressed the opinion that Sydney sank as the result of the punishment she had received, and that there could have been no survivors as the whole superstructure had been so smashed, boats on deck must have been destroyed, while any boats stowed below must have been burned by the fires which were raging.7



Chapter 7
The Casualties