80th anniversary of the sinking of the HMAS Sydney

The loss of HMAS Sydney in 1941 sent shockwaves through Australia and remains the greatest single loss of life in Australian naval history.

Earlier in the year, Sydney had been celebrated after returning from her victory in the Mediterranean, where she had sunk the Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni near Crete in 1940. The ship and her crew had been called ‘the toast of the country’, giving the Australian public a victory in the early stages of the war.

On 19 November 1941, Sydney clashed with the German raider Kormoran off the West Australian coast. The Kormoran was disguised as the Dutch freighter Straat Malakaa at the time, luring the technologically superior Sydney into range of its guns and torpedoes.

Both ships were critically damaged during the action, and sank in the Indian Ocean. There were no survivors from the 645 men on board HMAS Sydney.

The first serious attempts to locate the Sydney were organised on 24 November, when Sydney missed her return to port date. That same evening a British tanker crew reported they had rescued 25 German seamen from a raft. Subsequent searches located 315 more of Kormoran's 393 crew.

The Sydney was not located for 67 years, when in 2008, she was found 2,468 metres below the surface and about 20 kilometres from the wreck of the Kormoran.

The loss of the Sydney and her crew had a major impact on the people of Australia, especially the families of the victims, and the circumstances of her loss were shrouded in mystery with people having to rely on the accounts of the Kormoran's survivors.

It’s believed only one Australian sailor made it in to a liferaft during the sinking. Despite surviving the battle, he tragically died at sea. His remains were found near Rocky Point on Christmas Island nearly three months later.

For the past 80 years he has been remembered simply as ‘the Unknown Sailor’.

On the anniversary of the sinking, it was announced new DNA evidence has confirmed his identity as Able Seaman Thomas Welsby Clark from New Farm in Brisbane.

The Office of Australian War Graves has agreed that next year, Tom’s grave in Geraldton War Cemetery will be marked by a new headstone bearing his name. He will be ‘unknown’ no longer.

By identifying Tom, our nation honours all those who lost their lives on HMAS Sydney (II). 

On the anniversary of the loss of the Sydney we remember the victims of this tragedy and all of the Australian service men and women who have lost their lives in the service of our country.

To learn more about the HMAS Sydney, visit: The Anzac Portal: HMAS Sydney.

A cruiser with dazzle paint at sea in a black and white image.