Loss of the HMAS Sidney II

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Loss of the HMAS Sidney II

Post by Ulrich Rudofsky » Fri Aug 14, 2009 11:38 am

The final official report of the sinking of the HMAS Sidney II 14 November 1941 was published in July 2009.
It is important to note that there were no Austrialian survivors and eyewitness evidence is based on German POW statements as well as some postwar restatement.

http://www.defence.gov.au/sydneyii/Fina ... index.html
http://www.defence.gov.au/sydneyii/exhibits.htm
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Re: Loss of the HMAS Sidney II

Post by RF » Fri Aug 14, 2009 12:53 pm

Wow! When I tried to download this my computer nearly blew up!

This is going to take some digesting. Thanks Ulrich for the post - you must have a pretty big computer......
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Re: Loss of the HMAS Sidney II

Post by Ulrich Rudofsky » Fri Aug 14, 2009 1:21 pm

I have a fairly old (3+ years) PC: 2.5 GHz/2G RAM/HD 700G external/400 internal.

Actually I have not yet tried to download the entire publication. I have read some of it on the screen........
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Re: Loss of the HMAS Sidney II

Post by Ulrich Rudofsky » Fri Aug 14, 2009 4:37 pm

There is also a book on the HMAS Sidney affair by a member of the commission, Capt. Peter Hore. It is of interest to miniature ship collectors that the battle scenes are done with 1:1250 Navis-Neptun models from the Peter Tamm collection of Hamburg.
http://www.amazon.de/Sydney-Cipher-Sear ... 921&sr=8-1 http://www.naa.gov.au/about-us/media-re ... -code.aspx

Several years ago Ward Carr wrote up his interview with a member of the ‘Hilfskreuzer’ RAMSES crew that was held with the crew of the KORMORAN in a POW in Australia. I contributed some of the translation and editing of this piece of history. http://ahoy.tk-jk.net/macslog/Interview ... hruef.html

NB: It seems that some of these German auxiliary cruisers were more effective than the actual Kriegsmarine cruisers and battleships.
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Re: Loss of the HMAS Sidney II

Post by RF » Mon Aug 17, 2009 1:41 pm

Hello Ulrich,

Ramses was an unarmed blockade runner, not a hilfskreuzer. If Ramses had hilfskreuzer standard armament the Dutch cruiser that intercepted her might have had rather a tough time of it, but the other Allied ships nearby would have settled the situation...

The hilfskreuzer were effective as Q-ships, ambushing their targets at close range and having the advantage of firing first. They were of very little use at longer ranges and wholly out of their league against 8 inch gun cruisers.
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Re: Loss of the HMAS Sidney II

Post by RF » Wed Aug 19, 2009 2:21 pm

The content of the report confirms the German account and confirms that the conspiracy theories has no foundation. No surprise there.

The commission states that it is unable to explain the actions of Captain Burnett in approaching closely to a suspicious ship. It accuses him of errors of judgement but stops short of accusing him of negligence.
I think that it is very easy to blame Captain Burnett entirely for the loss of HMAS Sydney, after all he is in no position to explain or defend himself. That in my view is a little unfair. Question: would the critics of Captain Burnett have acted any differently if they had been in command of HMAS Sydney, without the benefit of hindsight? I doubt it.

What I think happened is this, and while this is only a theory, it presents the actions of Captain Burnett in a reasonanble light:

On the afternoon of 19 November the lookouts on HMAS Sydney sighted a ship where no ship was expected to be. The officer of the watch had the ship put onto an interception course and asked for the stranger's identity. The strange ship identified itself by a long and time consuming process as a Dutch ship, and behaved as a suspicious and recalcitrant Dutch captain could behave, calling for tact and patience on the part of Captain Burnett. At this point I think that Captain Burnett believed that he was dealing with the real Straat Malakka. The Sydney's seaplane, swung out on its catapult ready for a reconnaissance flight, was swung back on board. That suggests that Detmer's had completely fooled Captain Burnett as to Kormoran's identity - good work on the part of Detmers, but can Burnett really be blamed? To him this wouldn't be a suspicious ship, but the Dutch vessel Straat Malakka.
Only when the portracted and incompetant flag signalling from Kormoran dragged on and on did Captain Burnett start to become suspicious. He had the NNJ challenge signal flashed, and Sydney's guns prepared for a bracketing salvo ahead and astern of the ''Dutch'' ship. At that point you are now committed, and suddenly the trap is sprung, and seconds later Captain Burnett is either dead or seriously wounded.....

I believe that that is the likely scenario of what really happened. In that situation I believe that most Allied ship captains would have behaved as Captain Burnett did, assuming they had believed the Dutch ship really was Dutch.....until it was too late.
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Re: Loss of the HMAS Sidney II

Post by Ulrich Rudofsky » Wed Aug 19, 2009 3:30 pm

The merchantman RAMSES was not totally unarmed: “The armament on board was only light, it comprised two 20mm guns either side of the bridge, two machine guns on top of the Charthouse, and two British machine guns mounted aft (what type???? UR). On the poop, was a large dummy wooden gun fitted on its wooden platform, this contraption had been added in Japan.”
http://ahoy.tk-jk.net/macslog/BlockadeRunner.html
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Re: Loss of the HMAS Sidney II

Post by Bgile » Wed Aug 19, 2009 3:32 pm

RF, have you actually read the report? There was good reason to believe the ship was not the Dutch ship she claimed to be.

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Re: Loss of the HMAS Sidney II

Post by RF » Thu Aug 20, 2009 1:17 pm

Ulrich Rudofsky wrote:The merchantman RAMSES was not totally unarmed: “The armament on board was only light, it comprised two 20mm guns either side of the bridge, two machine guns on top of the Charthouse, and two British machine guns mounted aft (what type???? UR). On the poop, was a large dummy wooden gun fitted on its wooden platform, this contraption had been added in Japan.”
http://ahoy.tk-jk.net/macslog/BlockadeRunner.html
Yes, in common with most of the regular blockade runners a light AA armament was provided, intended as cover for the run (under escort) through the Bay of Biscay. The one exception was Doggerbank, which was provided with two guns for defence against surface ships.
What I was alluding to was that there was no 15 cm gun battery as the hilfskreuzers had. Also the blockade runners had primarily merchant navy crews rather than KM regulars.
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Re: Loss of the HMAS Sidney II

Post by RF » Thu Aug 20, 2009 2:02 pm

Bgile wrote:RF, have you actually read the report? There was good reason to believe the ship was not the Dutch ship she claimed to be.
I have not read every word of the report, as I mentioned above my computer had a reluctance to download it all!

What I have read are the conclusions of the report, which as you say does go on at some length about the ''Dutch ship'' being suspicious. This in fact was the main motivation for my post, giving my impressions as to what I believe actually happened. I think that the question of the ''suspicious'' nature of the ''Dutch ship'' has been emphasised to explain the loss of HMAS Sydney on the basis of ''errors of judgement'' the enquiry believes that Captain Burnett made.
The situation on November 19 1941 was that the Sydney could have used the ''Checkmate system'' to verify whether the Straat Malakka could possibly be in Kormoran's location, in which case the game for Detmers would be up. This was the method used three days later by Captain Oliver on HMS Devonshire when that ship intercepted the hilfskreuzer Atlantis in the Atlantic. But using Checkmate involves the intercepting ship breaking radio silence and then waiting, in the case of Devonshire, nearly a full hour for the reply to come through. Furthermore Captain Oliver had already been told, in the Admiralty orders for the interception given to Devonshire on the preceeding day, that the target ship was an enemy, the information for which had been sourced from enigma transcript to U-boat U126.
Now Captain Burnett had no such luxury from the fruits of intelligence. Kormoran hadn't sunk a ship for the last two months, and there was no history of raider activity off Australia since Pinguin had been sunk six months before. Yes there was information about Kulmerland possibly being in the area and yes there was information that no merchant ships were expected in the area corresponding to Sydney's course. But when a ship is sighted unexpectedly it doesn't automatically mean it must be enemy. It could be a neutral, it could be one of your own ships, either off course or not running to expected schedule for a whole host of reasons. For example, the Norwegian tanker India, the last victim of the hilfskreuzer Michel on 11 September 1943, was sunk without trace and the ship's disappearance went unnoticed for some two months and even then the action taken was only to issue a notice that the ship was overdue at its destination port - in Australia. So the keeping of tabs on all merchant shipping was way short of 100% coverage.

I think it is very easy to say that the Dutch ship sighted just after noon on 19 November 1941 ''must be'' suspicious.'' I think that is a case of being wise after the event. Nobody is perfect, not even members of the enquiry. Yes a horrible mistake was made on Sydney in approaching Kormoran to almost point blank range. Wars are full of mistakes, indeed it can be argued that all wars result from mistakes. I think here that Kapitan Detmers played his cards very well, as did a lot of Q-ship commanders in WW1. So well that it fooled an experienced, battle hardened commander such as Captain Burnett. I don't blame him for being taken in and I feel that that he was is a fact the enquiry finds difficult to swallow.
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Re: Loss of the HMAS Sidney II

Post by Bgile » Thu Aug 20, 2009 4:15 pm

RF,

If one follows your belief that Sydney's captain is not at fault and he was simply taken in by a very clever ruse, then it seems to me that we have to draw the conclusion that any reasonable commander of a British cruiser has a good chance of being destroyed by a German raider. They will all be using clever ruses and if it was reasonable for him to be taken in it would also be reasonable for them all to be taken in. Your argument seems to be that a reasonable commander WILL be taken in by the ruse.

He presumably already was aware of the prior case where another cruiser (Cornwall?) was taken by surprise and damaged.

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Re: Loss of the HMAS Sidney II

Post by RF » Thu Aug 20, 2009 6:23 pm

I think this is a fair summation of what I am saying, however in the case of Sydney there was no prior case of a warship being seriously damaged or compromised by a merchant ship raider. In that scenario it would seem farfetched to a cruiser captain that an enemy armed merchant ship would pose a serious threat even at close range. This again influences my thoughts that blaming Captain Burnett is rather harsh - I don't think that the idea of a cruiser being blown out of the water by a merchantmen would be regarded as a credible proposition - until it actually happened.

You mention the interception of the Pinguin by HMS Cornwall on 8 May 1941 in the Arabian Sea. This needs to be put into context, because my interpretation of that action is that it lends support to the above paragraph and doesn't contradict it.
Pinguin was intercepted one day after its last victim, the tanker British Emporer, broadcast a raider report which was picked up by the Cornwall. Captain Mainwaring immediately had a seaplane search carried out of the area he expected the raider to be. The seaplane pilot found a merchant ship which responded to blink light challenges with the claim that she was the Norwegian ship Tamerlane. The pilot was ready to accept this claim, until the thought came to him that no one was on deck of this ship waving at him. In his experience the pilot thought it odd that no one on the ship would be sufficiently curious to come on deck to at least look at the plane, as it breaks the monotony of the ocean voyage. That was the first of two errors by Kapitan Kruder, an easy oversight to make.
The pilot having made his report to Mainwaring, the Cornwall approached the Pinguin, closed up at action stations, and fired warning shots. Suddenly the Pinguin dropped disguise, fired two torpedoes at Cornwall and opened fire. One 15 cm shell hit the Cornwall, disabling temporarily the cruisers steering gear, followed by another hit at the base of the DCT which started a small fire, extinguished in minutes. Cornwall's 8 inch guns made short work of Pinguin, detonating her mines and magazine within ten minutes.
This action shows that ordinarily a County Class cruiser doesn't have too much to fear from an armed merchant ship, even with the poorly aimed torpedoes from Pinguin. My view on this action is that Kapitan Kruder opened fire too soon - he should have stopped his ship, even with Cornwall firing on him, to insist he was Norwegian, and make Mainwaring hesitate and come in closer. Only at the closest possible range open fire. Even then my money would have been on Cornwall.
After this action the Admiralty did issue a warning to warship commanders about approaching strange and suspicious ships too closely, a warning as much to do with the damage Thor did to three British armed merchant cruisers, as to the action between Pinguin and Cornwall. The latter action was detailed in an Admiralty report, in which raiders were identified as dangerous but not specifically lethal. Question - in view of that report would it be reasonable and foreseeable that a light cruiser could be blown out of the water by an armed merchant ship?

The key point is that when Kormoran opened fire on Sydney it was the few seconds advantage in opening fire first which was decisive - the ability of Sydney to return fire was instantly degraded. Could that situation be anticipated before it actually happened?
With hindsight gained after the event it would plainly be an act of crass negligence for a warship captain, even of a battleship, to approach an unidentified ship such that it could be exposed to fire. But that is being wise after the event - is it reasonable to try and second guess every possible threat, including threats that have not yet been demonstrated as being of any substantial danger?
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Re: Loss of the HMAS Sidney II

Post by Bgile » Thu Aug 20, 2009 11:43 pm

RF wrote: The key point is that when Kormoran opened fire on Sydney it was the few seconds advantage in opening fire first which was decisive - the ability of Sydney to return fire was instantly degraded. Could that situation be anticipated before it actually happened?
With hindsight gained after the event it would plainly be an act of crass negligence for a warship captain, even of a battleship, to approach an unidentified ship such that it could be exposed to fire. But that is being wise after the event - is it reasonable to try and second guess every possible threat, including threats that have not yet been demonstrated as being of any substantial danger?
It doesn't take much imagination to imagine what 5.9 inch guns can do to your ship at point blank range, and it doesn't take hindsight at all. At best, he was stupid and indecisive and it cost the lives of his crew. It isn't generally a good idea to heap blame on the dead, but IMO the commission essentially stated he was to blame while trying to be respectful of a deceased man with a good prior record.

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Re: Loss of the HMAS Sidney II

Post by RF » Fri Aug 21, 2009 7:40 am

Bgile wrote:
At best, he was stupid and indecisive and it cost the lives of his crew.
He made grave mistakes yes - saying that with hindsight - but stupid he was not, and his actions were not indecisive, he was investigating a ship that was initially taken to be friendly and whose behaviour was starting to puzzle him. This action was the only occasion in either of the world wars where a battery of German 5.9 inch guns caused substantial damage on their own to an Allied cruiser. The general reputation of the gunnery of German 5.9's against warship targets was not very good on either side, something commented on by Rasenack of the Graf Spee, Krancke of the Scheer, and Lutjens on Operation Berlin, where in the latter two cases 11 inch ammunition had to be used because the 5.9's failed to do a proper job in sinking drifting, abandoned merchant ship targets..... And I hardly need mention the gunnery of the hilfskreuzer Stier when the Stephen Hopkins was encountered....

Warship captains are there to command within the parameters of their training and experience. They are not expected to be military masterminds. If they were, then they should be commanding something far more substantial than a solitary cruiser policing merchant ships thousands of miles away from the regular military battlegrounds.

Immediately after my previous post here a thought occured to me which caused me to check Martin Brice's book ''Axis blockade runners.''' The book confirms incidents that took place off South Africa early in 1942 concerning the minelayer Doggerbank and the hilfskreuzer Thor. Both these ships were each investigated by Allied warships which both failed to check the German ships identities properly and also approached the German ships to close range after they should have become suspicious of them - and then went away, satisfied the German ships were friendly vessels.
The Thor was inspected at close range by an armed merchant cruiser, and given Thor's record the AMC captain was very lucky that Kapitan Gumprich decided not to push his luck by taking her on...... The AMC then turned away and left Thor alone, after Thor had given an incorrect response to an NNJ challenge....
Eighteen hours later Thor was sighted and challenged NNJ by the light cruiser HMS Durban. Again an incorrect response was given. The Durban accepted the wrong response and went away without further investigation.

Doggerbank was engaged on Operation Kopenhagen, the minelaying operation off the ports of South Africa. An AMC, which the Germans could see was loaded up to the brim with hundreds of Allied soldiers in full military kit on deck, appraoached Doggerbank at night to a range of five hundred yards after the German ship had failed to respond to an NNJ challenge. This range of five hundred yards was less than half the distance between Kormoran and Sydney at the point that Kormoran opened fire. Kapitan Schniewind could have raked the AMC's decks with machine gun fire and killed hundreds of Allied soldiers - but he wasn't a hilfskreuzer, had no 5.9's and his orders were to prioritise the mining of the South African ports. The AMC held a friendly blink lamp conversation with the Germans and accepted their claim to be a British ship without bothering to use ''Checkmate'' or to find out why the NNJ wasn't answered, or even to ask in plain English for the ships call sign. The AMC wished the Germans good night and a pleasant voyage, and disappeared into the night. Schniewind in the next few hours laid a minefield which snared some five Allied merchant ships and one naval auxiliary. No action was ever made against the AMC captain for this piece of negligence......Two days later another Allied warship sighted Doggerbank and accepted her identity without asking for the secret call sign - in an area where an enemy minelayer was now known to be at work.....

All these incidents took place less than six months after the loss of the Sydney. All the Allied captains here should have been suspicious, and aware of Sydney's fate. Captain Burnett had far less reason than these captains to be on the alert to a serious threat.
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Re: Loss of the HMAS Sidney II

Post by Bgile » Fri Aug 21, 2009 3:18 pm

Your reference to ineffective warship use of 5.9" guns is completely irrelevant. None of those engagements were at 1,000 yds or less.

This debate is pointless. He made a mistake which cost the lives of himself and his crew and you think it was fine and could and should have happened to any other British cruiser in the same circumstances, but it didn't. The other British captains were cautious enough that they had a decisive advantage in the subsequent engagement.

I've had my say and so have you. Neither of us is likely to change our mind about this.

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