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An official inquiry headed by former judge, Terence Cole, has
found that Captain Joseph Burnett was to blame for the
sinking of HMAS 'Sydney' and the death of its 645 crew.
HMAS 'Sydney' was finally located 112 nautical miles off the
Western Australian coast in early 2008, just twelve miles from the
wreck of the German raider 'Kormoran'. The light cruiser
disappeared on November 19, 1941 after encountering the
'Kormoran'. As all the Australian crew were killed, there have been
unanswered questions as to the vessel's final moments until now.
Members of the inquiry team travelled to Germany to
interview survivors from the 'Kormoran' who gave them graphic
accounts of what happened during the dramatic battle. Despite
their advanced age, the former German naval officers had clear
memories of the day and described the approach of the HMAS
'Sydney' as "powerful and beautiful." There were 318 survivors
from the 'Komoran' and their stories all matched.
An article in "The Age" reported that according to Judge
Cole's findings, the German raider 'Kormoran' disguised itself as
a Dutch merchant ship with its guns hidden behind metal flaps.
He said that the captain of the 'Sydney' had unsuccessfully tried
to communicate with the 'Kormoran' to identify it, however, due
to the German's vague signalling, had chosen to close in and
approached to a distance of about 1,000 metres.
According to accounts by the Germans, the 'Komoran' then
pulled down its Dutch flag and raised the German battle ensign
within 15 seconds. Judge Cole said that it appeared that the
'Komoran' fired first but that 'Sydney' retaliated almost instantly.
Already at an advantage, the German ship fired quick-firing guns,
destroying the bridge of the 'Sydney'.
"Everything happened at once," former German officer Heinz
Messerschmidt was quoted as saying by The Age. "I could see
shells from the 37mm cannon with a covering arc of fire hitting
and wiping out the many men on the bridge."
Judge Cole said that it was likely that 'Sydney's' Captain
Burnett and most of his crew were killed within minutes.
"I saw men running to 'Sydney's' torpedo tubes being shot
down," said Officer Messerschmidt.
Judge Cole said that 'Sydney' was hit at least 87 times by
heavy shells and hundreds of times by lighter explosive bullets.
Officer Messerschmidt described the blaze of the 'Sydney' as "like
the sun setting".
"Those remaining were likely to have been in the aft section
of the ship, seeking to control fires, attend to the wounded and
perhaps engaged in damage control," Judge Cole was quoted as
saying. "Most were probably suffering from severe injuries, burns
and smoke and toxic gas inhalation. They were in a ship that was
rolling severely. Means of escape from within the vessel had
probably been limited by internal damage to the ship."
Judge Cole concluded that 'Sydney' ultimately sank very rapidly.
Judge Cole's findings may provide some closure to the family and
descendants of the crew of 'Sydney' who, for a long time, struggled
to come to terms with Australia's greatest maritime disaster.
Official inquiry into sinking of HMAS 'Sydney' blames captain
Captain Joseph Burnett found to blame for the deaths of 645 crewmen
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