EU Australia Online - News & information from the capital of Europe direct to Australian businesses

German Survivors Shed Light On Sydney

  • January 6th, 2009
  • Posted by Daniel Challis

hmas-sydney-naval-history.jpgSurvivors of the German raider Kormoran, which infamously sunk HMAS Sydney, are helping Australian naval officials put together the pieces of the puzzle of what occurred 67 years ago early in World War II.

One of the 23 crew members, Heinz Christoph Messerschmidt recently gave his account to former Supreme Court Judge Terence Cole and two Australian Naval Reserve Lieutenants from the Defence legal branch…


It is the first time Mr Messerschmidt has spoken in depth about the battle since his capture and transport to Carnarvon by a Australian ship (the ill-fated Centaur, later sunk by a Japanese submarine off the Queensland coast).

The former German lieutenant said a great panic swept the crew when Sydney was spotted and identified as an enemy ship.

They’d been unsure initially as to whether the ship was a threat or not.

“Men were saying they thought it was a sailing ship because it had high masts. Then someone said it was an escort, a cruiser because she was approaching very quickly, the lookout saying the steam was coming from the funnels,” Messerschmidt told the Cole inquiry.

Messerschmidt also spoke of the Sydney’s seeming complacency in mounting a swift approach and that at first it didn’t seem suspicious of the German warship.

He told the inquiry that the Sydney’s attempt to launch one of its seaplanes eventuated in a “weak approach” as the crew seemed unable to get it off the ship.

“My impression when the aeroplane wasn’t launched was that its whole attempt was half-hearted,” he said.

But Messerschmidt said he remembered he and other crew members being terrified of the Sydney which was vastly superior in to Kormoran in military capability.

“We had been at action stations for about one and a half hours. The situation was becoming very tense. I knew that one shot from the cruiser into the mine deck would kill us.

“I could see the enemy approaching with guns and torpedoes pointing at us. For some reason, I did not think the cruiser was really going to use those guns and torpedoes,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald (3-4.1.09).

The Sydney eventually did open fire after trying to get the Kormoran to use a secret code, to establish friendship — which it could not do.
Messerschmidt recalls that once the Kormoran captain knew the Sydney would act, the German ship went on an all-out attack and threw as much at the enemy as possible.

“Our 37mm gun, at a distance of 900 metres, started shooting and killed many of the men, perhaps all of the men on the bridge [on the Sydney]. It was a gruesome sight”, Messerschmidt told the Herald.


The Sydney was lost with its 645 crew, in the Indian Ocean, 130 nautical miles off Shark Bay in Western Australia.

With no survivors able to tell the Australian side of one of the worst disasters in Australian naval history, historians and naval officials have turned to the Kormoran survivors in order to find out where it all went wrong for Sydney.

The ship itself was not found until discovered by an underwater search vessel in 2008; the German crew, the officers and men kept together, gave only a limited, set-piece story at the time — serving their country’s war interests.

Messerschmidt told the Cole inquiry he believed it was tactical misjudgment by the Sydney commander Joseph Burnett and the element of surprise acted on by the Kormoran that led to the ship’s tragic fate.

Messerschmidt and fellow Kormoran survivors also honoured the Sydney crew in the inquiry by referring to them as “brothers” who they still weep for along with the 80 Germans also killed that night.

“Both us, and the Australian men on Sydney, were all caught up in a cruel war. We fought hard and with decency and within the rules of war,” he told commissioner Cole.

The HMAS Sydney was found on the ocean floor 207 kilometres north-west of Geraldton on 17.3.08. See underwater images, through [.]

Les Kennedy, The Sydney Morning Herald (Weekend),3-4.1.09., (5.1.09).

Picture: Light cruiser Sydney,