On 11 November (Armistice Day) 1941, the Modified Leander Class light cruiser HMAS Sydney (II) pulled away from Victoria Quay in Fremantle, Western Australia and proceeded to leave harbour. The Second World War was in its third year and Sydney, which had recently returned to Australia after serving with distinction in the Mediterranean Theatre, was tasked with escorting the troopship Zealandia to Indonesia’s Sunda Strait. Following an uneventful six-day passage, Sydney rendezvoused with the light cruiser HMS Durban, to which it transferred responsibility for Zealandia and the final leg of the troopship’s voyage to Singapore. As Sydney reversed course and began the return journey to Fremantle, those aboard Zealandia and Durban could not have known that they would be among the last people to see the warship then regarded as the ‘pride of the Royal Australian Navy’ for another sixty-six years.
By mere chance, the two ships encountered one another on the afternoon of 19 November. The naval engagement that followed lasted less than an hour, resulted in the loss of both ships, and spawned one of Australia’s greatest naval mysteries.
As Sydney steamed south, a disguised commerce raider of Nazi Germany’s navy, the Kreigsmarine, was cruising north along the coast of Western Australia. The vessel, HSK Kormoran, had been engaged in disrupting Allied merchant shipping in the Indian Ocean for seven months, and was on its way to lay mines in Shark Bay. Once this mission was completed, the raider would continue north to the East Indies (modern-day Indonesia) before heading west to the Bay of Bengal.
By mere chance, Sydney and Kormoran encountered one another on the afternoon of 19 November. The naval engagement that followed lasted less than an hour, resulted in the loss of both ships, and spawned one of Australia’s greatest naval mysteries. Seventy-five years later, the outcome of the battle between Sydney and Kormoran still has resonance, and the recent discovery and ongoing archaeological investigation of their respective shipwreck sites has contributed to our understanding of the two vessels and the showdown that resulted in their mutual destruction.