04 October 2006

65 years on: another clue in the HMAS Sydney mystery?

Today the media, including The Australian , The Age and the ABC report on the exhuming of what may be the remains of a survivor (or a crew member) from HMAS Sydney which was lost in 1941 following an engagement with the German raider Kormoran.

The existence of the possible survivor's remains has been known for some time but only now have what may be his remains been re-discovered, afterthey were apparently buried in an un- or poorly marked grave on Christmas Island just before it was occupied by the Japanese in 1942.

Almost 65 years after the event many questions remained unanswered, notably how the Sydney could have been surprised by the Kormoran and why there were 317 survivors of the Kormoran
but none from the Sydney. This has given rise to continuing speculation about what really happened, for example whether survivors were killed by the Germans (or possibly the Japanese even though at the time they weren't at war with Australia but may have had a submarine in the vicinity).

The official view is summarised on RAN and Australian War Memorial websites. Some alternative theories are evaluated here.

In 1999 a Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade reported on the loss of the Sydney. Here is the link to the full report. The Summary of Conclusions and Recommendations is here . It concurred with one author's opinion (prefiguring Donald Rumsfeld's on a broader range of issues) that much about the loss was "unknown and unknowable", but ended with a rousing but essentially hollow appeal to all parties:

The Committee is well aware that the level of interest in Sydney and her fate is so extensive that, regardless of the outcome of this inquiry, individuals and groups will continue to research the topic and expound on their various theories. This is to be welcomed, if it is undertaken with an openness to the information available and a willingness to listen and to take into consideration opposing views. ...The Committee strongly believes there is a need for all involved in the Sydney debate to move beyond animosity and antagonism and find common ground. No one group 'owns' Sydney, or has a monopoly on truth. The Committee hopes that in future researchers will rise above the personal acrimony and suspicion that has marred so much of the debate thus far. An exchange of differing views is a positive process, and can only lead to a better understanding of the events of November 1941. HMAS Sydney deserves no less.

Since then there have been moves to locate the Sydney's wreck, and an organisation Sydney Search Pty Ltd has been set up to do this. The Federal (($1.3 m), WA ($500,000) and NSW (($250,000) governments have provided or promised funding to assist with the search, preparations for which have gone quiet after a report in September 2005 that it would begin "within months".

Perhaps Tony Barrass the writer of today's Australian
piece could shed some more light on the topic. In July this year he wrote that "searchers are deady to start" though he also implied that the usual suspect of a funding shortfall was delaying things.

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