Greatest Australian Naval Disaster Still Shrouded in Mystery

HMAS Sydney II crew. Credit: Finding Sydney II Foundation

Nationality: Australian and German

Vessel type: Australian Navy Modified Leander Class Light Cruiser & Hilfskreuzer (Auxiliary Cruiser/Raider) 

Date lost: 19th November 1941

Cause of loss: WWII Battle

Number of Casualties: 645 (total loss of life) HMAS Sydney II & 183 men HSK Kormoran

Discovery date: 16th March 2008

Location/water depth: 113 Nautical miles due west of Steep Point, the most Westerly point of Australia at roughly 2500 metres.

The German ship HSK Kormoran had disguised themselves as a Dutch merchant in order to travel north along the West Australian coastline.  At dusk on the 19th November 1941, the HMAS Sydney II approached the Kormoran to investigate the unknown vessel. As the Sydney tried to contact the Kormoran they continued their deception by replying with incorrect signals.

As the Sydney drew within 1000m of the vessel, the crew of the Kormoran were quietly preparing for battle. No longer able to maintain their disguise the Kormoran attacked. Caught by surprise the Sydney suffered several crippling blows. Their bridge was destroyed and with it, the ability to control the ship and its armoury.  

The Sydney drifted toward the coast, broken and defeated. What happened to the Sydney and its crew remained a mystery for 66 years until the final resting place of the ship and its crew was found in 2008.

Secrets Uncovered

Laying on the sea floor with the wreckage of the HSK Kormoran were unexploded mines. This confirmed the reports from the Captain of the Kormoran that his orders were to lay mines off the Shark Bay coast.


HMAS Sydney II at sea. Credit Finding Sydney II Foundation

The Wreck of HMAS Sydney II

Full crew aboard the HMAS Sydney II. Credit Finding Sydney II Foundation

Objects of interest (artefacts, images or other collection items) associated with the shipwreck story.

  • Memorials exist along the coastline of WA – in Geraldton, Denham, Quobba and Carnarvon
  • The Shark Bay World Heritage Discovery & Visitor Centre has on loan some binoculars from the HSK Kormoran. A 3D video of the actual wreckage can be viewed at the Geraldton Museum currently and will also be available at the Shark Bay World Heritage Discovery & Visitor Centre in the near future.
  • Images of the wreckage were taken and used in the book From Great Depths – the wrecks of HMAS Sydney II and HSK Kormoran by M McCarthy. WA Museum has this footage and images. Would love to use these if possible.
  • A Lifeboat from the HSK Kormoran is on display at the One Mile Jetty Museum precinct in Carnarvon.
  • Poem - A Sailor's Prayer by Late Petty Officer H.B. Shipstone, of HMAS Sydney II

AMMC Member Institution

Shark Bay World Heritage Discovery & Visitor Centre

submitted by Deb Court

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