Australians find wreck of German giant-killer

March 17th, 2008 - 9:12 am ICT by admin  

By Sid Astbury
Sydney, March 17 (DPA) It’s almost 70 years since the pride of the Australian navy was sunk in an Indian Ocean gunbattle by a smaller, older, slower German warship dressed up to look like a harmless freighter. The hulk of the giant-killing Kormoran was found Friday at a depth of 2,560 metres, some 1,800 km north of Perth and 241 km off Shark Bay on the west coast.

The 32-strong crew of the survey vessel Geosounder are now confident of finding the remains of the mighty ship it humbled.

The HMAS Sydney went down with all 645 crew Nov 19, 1941. It was the largest vessel to be lost with no survivors during World War II.

Most historians believe Captain Theodor Anton Detmers outwitted Captain Joseph Burnett into thinking the Kormoran was no match for the Sydney. Burnett pulled his 6,830-tonne cruiser to within 900 metres of the Kormoran and stood parallel to it.

It was madness. Fritz Engelmann, a gun loader on the Kormoran, said Burnett made the Sydney a sitting duck.

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.”

The Kormoran also sank. Of the 397 aboard the minelayer with the false nameplate Straat Malakka, 317 survived.

Pat Ingham, who lost 21-year-old husband John when the Sydney went down, recalled the astonishment when news of the nation’s worst-ever maritime disaster broke.

“She’d been in a battle in the Mediterranean and back, and just doing convoy duty on the west coast for a short time, and then that happened,” Ingham said. “Everyone was shocked, they couldn’t believe it.”

The navy suppressed news of the catastrophe for a week. Rescue craft were not launched until five days after the Sydney went down. Rumours were put about, perhaps by an embarrassed navy, that a torpedo from a Japanese submarine was what really sank the Sydney.

The Australian government stumped up the 4.2 million Australian dollars ($4 million) to let the Geosounder put to sea a month ago.

Aboard is renowned shipwreck hunter David Mearns, who made his name by finding British battleship HMS Hood in the Denmark Strait - and the battleship that sank it, Germany’s mighty Bismarck.

The Hood sank in minutes when a shell from the Bismarck punched through its armour. The German ship was hunted down four days later with the loss of over 2,000 lives.

It’s a pity Reinhold von Malapert, signals officer on the Kormoran, didn’t live long enough to learn his ship had been found.

Darmstadt-born Malapert, who died aged 93 last year, gave evidence of Detmers’ unlikely victory. He told of seeing two torpedoes on their way to turning the Sydney into an inferno.

He said the Kormoran was scuttled a few hours later.

The Finding Sydney Foundation, which commissioned Mearns to lead the search, accepts that the Sydney and the Kormoran are war graves and will not be recovered.

In the case of the Hood, which was found four years ago, Mearns followed a look-but-don’t-touch policy. A bronze plaque listing the names of the dead was lowered to the deck.

It’s likely that the Kormoran and the Sydney, when it’s found, will be treated similarly.

Mearns, who always intended to find the Kormoran first, found in Detmers’ diary a coded message he reckoned would lead him to the German wreck.

“Somehow I managed to, in my first day in the archives, come across a box of documents that had been basically overlooked for about 60 years,” he said last year when he was engaged to lead the search.

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