German naval strategy during World War II was similar to that employed in World War I – strangle the United Kingdom by sinking or disrupting its merchant shipping. In addition to the ubiquitous U-boat, the Kriegsmarine utilized surface warships and camouflaged merchant vessels to target Allied shipping in all theaters of the war. One such camouflaged merchant vessel was the HSK Kormoran. Formerly the merchantman Steiermark, the ship was converted in 1940 to carry mines and hidden armaments as well as two float planes. Departing Germany in December 1940, Kormoran captured or sunk 11 merchant ships as it cruised through the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
The Kormoran’s luck ran out, though, when it happened upon the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney on November 19, 1941. Sydney was returning to port from escorting a troopship and decided to investigate what appeared to be a suspicious vessel. The two ships exchanged signals until the Kormoran, posing as the Dutch ship Straat Malaka, failed to identify itself by the Straat Malaka’s secondary secret signal. Realizing he could no longer keep up the ruse, Kormoran’s captain ordered the Dutch ensign struck, raised the German naval ensign and opened fire. The two ships engaged in their deadly duel for about an hour at which point the heavily damaged Sydney, struck by hundreds of rounds of 5.9 inch shells as well as several torpedoes, drifted off to the southwest.
The Sydney disappeared with its entire crew complement of 645 officers and sailors. The Kormoran, irreparably damaged by Sydney’s broadsides, was ordered scuttled by her captain and the crew took to the lifeboats. Only 317 of the Kormoran’s 400 man crew were rescued. While Sydney’s sinking of the Kormoran was a pyrrhic victory for her crew, it helped eliminate the threat of continued predation on Allied merchant shipping and the lives of Sydney’s crew were not lost in vain. On March 12, 2008, searchers from the Finding Sydney Foundation located the wreck of the Kormoran in 2,500 meters of water. Five days later, the wreck of the Sydney was finally located approximately 11 miles from the Kormoran. Today, a new HMAS Sydney proudly serves the Royal Australian Navy and its replacement will be christened with the same name when it enters service in 2017.