The battle between the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney and the
German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran was a single ship action that
occurred on 19 November 1941, off the coast of Western Australia.
Sydney, with Captain Joseph Burnett commanding, and Kormoran, under
Fregattenkapitän (Commander) Theodor Detmers, encountered each other
approximately 106 nautical miles (196 km; 122 mi) off Dirk Hartog
Island. Both ships were destroyed in the half-hour engagement.
From 24 November, after Sydney failed to return to port, air and sea
searches were conducted. Boats and rafts carrying survivors from
Kormoran were recovered at sea, while others made landfall north of
Carnarvon: 318 of the 399 personnel on Kormoran survived. While
debris from Sydney was found, there were no survivors from the
645-strong complement. It was the largest loss of life in the
history of the Royal Australian Navy, the largest Allied warship
lost with all hands during World War II, and a major blow to
Australian wartime morale. Australian authorities learned of
Sydney's fate from the surviving Kormoran personnel, who were held
in prisoner of war camps until the end of the war. The exact
location of the two wrecks remained unverified until 2008.
Controversy has often surrounded the battle, especially in the years
before the two wrecks were located in 2008. How and why a
purpose-built warship like Sydney was defeated by a modified
merchant vessel like Kormoran was the subject of speculation, with
numerous books on the subject, as well as two official reports by
government inquiries (published in 1999 and 2009 respectively).
According to German accounts—which were assessed as truthful and
generally accurate by Australian interrogators during the war, as
well as most subsequent analyses—Sydney approached so close to
Kormoran that the Australian cruiser lost the advantages of heavier
armour and superior gun range. Nevertheless, several post-war
publications have alleged that Sydney's loss had been the subject of
an extensive cover-up, that the Germans had not followed the laws of
war, that Australian survivors were massacred following the battle,
or that the Empire of Japan had been secretly involved in the action
(before officially declaring war in December). No evidence has been
found to support any of these theories.