On November 19, 1941, off the Indian Ocean coast of Australia, the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney approached what its captain, Joseph Burnett, thought was the merchantman Straat Malakka. He was wrong.

The ship turned out to be the German armed merchant cruiser Kormoran. When challenged, the Kormoran fired on the unsuspecting cruiser at close range, probably killing Captain Burnett and all the officers on the bridge with the first salvo. More shells and a torpedo severely damaged the Sydney ablaze, but not before the Australian warship managed to set fire to the Kormoran. With his ship loaded with mines, Captain Theodore Detmers ordered his crew to abandon ship, which was then scuttled. Meanwhile the crippled Sydney drifted into the night.

In the end 318 out of 400 German sailors lived the rest of the war in Australian captivity. The Sydney, and her crew of 645, vanished.

For many years, the only evidence of the battle consisted of the accounts told by the German survivors. Especially since the Sydney's loss was Australia's worst disaster at sea, there arose a multitude of alternative theories, some rather irrational and conspiracy-oriented.

Then in March 2008, the wreckage of the Sydney was discovered. That lead to an official inquiry headed by former judge Terence Cole to ascertain, at long last, what happened to the ship.

The Cole Commission's report found that Captain Burnett knew that a German raider could be in the area, and still approached to within 1000 meters of what turned out to be the Kormoran. According to the final report, ''The terrible consequence of his erroneous decision was that Sydney did not go to action stations and approached to a position of great danger, where all her tactical advantages were negated and the advantage of surprise was given to Kormoran. It resulted in the loss of Sydney.''

However, concluded Cole as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, ''I am satisfied Captain Burnett made errors of judgment. I have not made any findings of negligence.''

Again courtesy of the Sydney Morning Herald, there is an excellent analysis of the battle available online, incorporating accounts by some Germans who are sill alive seventy years after.

In addition, the complete official report of the Cole Commission is available online.

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Comment by Jim Werbaneth on August 13, 2009 at 11:23pm
For old-time naval gamers, there is a game on this: It's an introductory scenario of Jack Greene's The Royal Navy. That was my first encounter with both the game,and the story of the Kormoran and the Sydney. So both as a World War II history enthusiast and as a gamer, this drew my attention.
Comment by Mike O'Brien on August 13, 2009 at 11:09pm
great article, thanks
Comment by Joel Toppen on August 13, 2009 at 8:53pm
Interesting read. Thanks for sharing.

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