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Research Guides

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

About this guide

The loss of HMAS Sydney with its full war complement of 645 remains to this day Australia's single worst naval disaster. Until the findings of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade were tabled in 1999 (see its Report on the Loss of HMAS Sydney), no detailed official report on the sinking had been released. For many the loss of the Sydney had never been fully explained.

This guide describes all federal government archival records known to exist about the loss of HMAS Sydney. As well as describing the records in the official record collections of the National Archives and the Australian War Memorial, the guide describes records still held by the Department of Defence and records held by the Australian War Memorial in privately donated collections. Apart from one manuscript in the National Library of Australia, details of which are also given, no other federal government agency or institution is known to hold relevant archival material.

The guide describes all records identified as dealing in any way with the sinking of the Sydney or related events. Some of the records described bear only indirectly upon the sinking, but have been included to provide a complete picture for those wishing to pursue research into any aspect of the loss or its aftermath.

This guide builds upon an earlier 'source analysis' published by the National Archives in 1991. Many records included in the 1991 source analysis have been excluded from this guide as not relevant – for example, those relating to the Sydney's construction, sea trials, repairs and refits, and wartime service in the Mediterranean. Many additional records relevant to the sinking have been identified since the 1991 source analysis was published and descriptions of these are included.

The guide's purpose is to describe in one place the range of archival material on the subject. This guide will facilitate access to all known federal government archival records.

The identification of relevant records

The records described in the guide have been identified after an extensive search conducted by the author, a former officer of the National Archives in Canberra. The author had unlimited access to all the records described.

In the compilation of the guide the search for archival material was systematic and extensive, but it is not possible to claim that all relevant records have been identified. With almost 360 shelf kilometres of records, the collection of the National Archives alone is vast. For practical reasons the search targeted the most likely sources of relevant material rather than all possible sources.

Since the guide was first published in January 1997, additional material has been identified. In the November 1997 edition the following information was added:

  • A file, AWM124, 4/342, Raiders in the Pacific (described at p. 97), and PR00835, the papers of Major Roland Seymour Browne, 1940–1942 (described at p. 117), both held by the Australian War Memorial.
  • The series MP1103/2, Dossiers containing reports on internees and prisoners of war held in Australian camps, 1939–45 (described at p. 137), held by the Melbourne office of the Archives.
  • Descriptions of three recently located items in series A11163 ( insert linksee pp. 54–55 for more information).
  • A11095, 105/30/AIR attachment, Report on Search for lifeboats of HMAS Sydney and Kormoran (Steiermark – Raider G.41), 1941.
  • PP345/1, 1937/41, Official log book, SS Cape Otway, 1937–42
  • A12982, Photographic prints of document believed to be the encoded notebook confiscated from Commander TA Detmers, Captain of the HSK Kormoran, giving an account of the action between the Kormoran and HMAS Sydney on 19 November 1941.

This guide will be updated if additional records are identified (including the version on the Archives website,

At the time of the preparation of the fourth edition of this guide, the wrecks of both HMAS Sydney and the Kormoran were discovered. More information is available on the Royal Australian Navy website.

The structure of the guide

The guide is divided into an introduction and 10 chapters, each of which covers an aspect of the Sydney's loss and provides background to the events. To impart some of the flavour of the records, they are quoted from and referred to extensively in the introductory narratives to each chapter.

For example, chapter 1 gives an overview of the history of the release of official information about the sinking of the Sydney. For those unfamiliar with the story of the ship's loss, an account originally prepared in 1945 but suppressed from publication at that time by the Naval Intelligence Division of the Department of the Navy is also provided. This is followed by a summary of the information found in the records that relates to the three main areas of current research interest: whether the government had any explanation for the Sydney's loss other than that which it publicly disclosed; whether there was a court of inquiry into the sinking; and whether there is documentary evidence to suggest that the Sydney sent a distress signal either during or after the battle.

Each chapter deals with a specific subject area, except for chapter 10 'Replacing the Sydney and writing the official history') which brings together records of interest not adequately covered by the other chapter headings (including a description of the records of G Hermon Gill, the author of the Navy volumes of the official history of Australia in World War II 1). Supplementary information is provided in the appendixes.