Australian warship inquiry set to clear Germans

April 6th, 2008 - 11:33 am ICT by admin  

By Sid Astbury
Sydney, April 6 (DPA) The first pictures of the HMAS Sydney confirm that sailors aboard the German ship that sank it in 1941 were telling the truth: Australia’s worst maritime disaster was self-inflicted. Captain Joseph Burnett pulled his cruiser parallel to the HSK Kormoran, presenting Captain Theodore Detmers a point-blank target for his six 150-millimetre guns.

It was all over for the Sydney within minutes. The first shell tore away the bridge and left the ship leaderless. Subsequent hits toppled gun turrets and set the ship alight from stem to stern.

“Her damage matched perfectly to what we expected from the side-scan sonar imagery and from the German accounts of the battle,” said acclaimed wartime shipwreck hunter David Mearns from the Finding Sydney Foundation.

The warships were found last month, seven kilometres apart, 185 km off Australia’s west coast and 2,470 metres below the Indian Ocean.

Mearns was not surprised at the images relayed by a remotely operated submersible that this week began filming the remains of the Sydney and the ship that sank it.

“Captain Detmers’ versions were nearly always identical, so I concluded he was always telling the truth,” Mearns said. “No other shipwreck hunter has had so many vital clues about the Sydney’s resting place.”

All 645 sailors aboard the Sydney were lost. The Kormoran, which was camouflaged to look like a Dutch freighter, was scuttled after it caught fire, and the crew abandoned ship. Of the 397 of its crew, 317 survived.

Finding the wrecks has prompted Canberra to set up a new inquiry. “I think it’s absolutely fundamental that we must leave absolutely no doubts as to what happened,” armed forces chief Air Marshall Angus Houston said.

Naval historian Hal Colebatch predicted the wrecks would corroborate the account that Detmers gave and the new panel would replicate the exhaustive work of a 1999 parliamentary committee that looked into the sinking of the Sydney.

“Those determined to believe esoteric theories unsupported by evidence, such as that Sydney was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, will no doubt not be willingly prised loose from them, but Sydney’s missing bows suggest that Detmers’ account, which is also the common-sense explanation for what happened, is the true one,” Colebatch said.

Tom Frame, a naval historian who has published a book about the Sydney, agreed that a new inquiry was probably a waste of time because the only remaining mystery is the workings of Burnett’s mind.

“One of the drawbacks of doing history by committee is it’s never proved to be a very productive exercise, so I’m not particularly believing that a great deal will come from this latest inquiry,” Frame said.

The 1999 inquiry found that the “endurance of German accounts over time lends weight to the survivors’ recollection of events”. Most importantly for the German survivors, the committee discounted speculation that there was not a single survivor of the Sydney because its crew had been machine-gunned in their lifeboats.

The most telling finding was against the Australian government. News of the loss of the Sydney was withheld for 11 days, and there was no immediate inquiry into the disaster.

One reason given for this oversight was a reluctance to blame Burnett. There was also the consideration that an immediate inquiry would find an inadequate response to the disaster.

There has been no concomitant reluctance on the part of the German survivors to investigate and allocate blame. Detmers wrote a book about the battle.

Ludwig Ernst, 89, the president of the Kormoran Survivors Association, told a Perth newspaper “eventually, Australians will have to comprehend that the guilty party for Sydney’s sinking is Captain Burnett”.

Another survivor, Lieutenant Commander Heinz Messerschmidt, testified that Detmers ran up the German flag before firing.

“The Sydney was not ready for battle,” Messerschmidt said. “It was half an hour of continual fire. It’s no surprise no one survived.”

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