German Auxiliary Cruiser Kormoran - Final Battle and Loss

Final Battle and Loss

Note: All times in this section are UTC+7.

On 19 November 1941, shortly before 16:00, Kormoran was 150 nautical miles (280 km; 170 mi) south-west of Carnarvon, Western Australia. The raider was sailing northwards (heading 025°) at 11 knots (20 km/h; 13 mph). At 15:55, what was initially thought to be a tall ship sail was sighted off the port bow, although the sighting was quickly determined to be the masts of a cruiser, HMAS Sydney. Detmers ordered Kormoran to alter course into the sun (heading 260°) at maximum achievable speed (which quickly dropped from 15 to 14 knots (28 to 26 km/h; 17 to 16 mph) because of problems in one of her diesels), while setting the ship to action stations. Sydney spotted the German ship around the same time, and altered from her southward heading to intercept at 25 knots (46 km/h; 29 mph).

As the cruiser closed from astern, she began to send searchlight signals. The first was not answered because the Germans did not understand the coded Morse. Sydney repeated for half an hour, but then began to send, "You should hoist your signal letters", both by plain-language Morse and signal flag. After another delay, Kormoran raised flags reading "PKQI"—the callsign for her disguise, the Dutch merchant ship Straat Malakka—on the triatic stay and hoisted a Dutch civil ensign. As the cruiser was on Kormoran's starboard quarter at 15,000 metres (16,000 yd), the flags were obscured by the raider's funnel; German accounts vary as to if this was done deliberately to make the ship seem civilian, a ruse to lure Sydney closer, or the signaller's honest mistake. After receiving an instruction from the cruiser to make the flags visible, the signals officer aboard Kormoran did so by lengthening the halyard and swinging it around to the starboard side. By 16:35, with Sydney 8,000 metres (8,700 yd) away, the malfunctioning engine aboard Kormoran was repaired, but Detmers chose to keep it in reserve and maintain speed. Further flag signals were exchanged, with Sydney asking the raider's destination and cargo.

At around 17:00, Detmers instructed his wireless operators to send a distress signal indicating Straat Malakka was being approached by a suspicious ship. Transmitted at 17:03 and repeated at 17:05, it contained the distress call for a merchantman under attack from a raider, rather than a warship (QQQQ as opposed to RRRR), the latitude and longitude of the transmitting ship, the time per Greenwich Mean Time instead of local time (a deliberate error to let the Kriegsmarine know a raider was likely about to be lost), and her name. This message was partially received by the tugboat Uco ("QQQQ 1000 GMT") and a shore station at Geraldton, Western Australia (" 7C 11115E 1000 GMT"). The Geraldton station broadcast a message to all ships asking if there was anything to report, which was interpreted by the Germans as acknowledgement of their signal. During the exchanges and distress signal, Sydney positioned herself off the raider's starboard beam on a parallel course, approximately 1,300 metres (1,400 yd) from Kormoran. Her main guns and torpedoes trained on the raider, but secondary weapons did not appear to be manned, personnel were standing on the upper deck, and although the cruiser's seaplane had been readied for launch, it was soon stowed away. During her manoeuvre, Sydney signalled "IK", which made no sense from the Germans' perspective, as that combination was shorthand for "You should prepare for a cyclone, hurricane, or typhoon". However, those two letters were part of Straat Malakka's secret secondary callsign, and Sydney was expecting the ship to confirm her identity by responding with the callsign's other two letters.

Fifteen minutes later, the cruiser signalled, "Show your secret sign". Detmers knew there was no chance of fooling Sydney for much longer, so ordered Kormoran's disguise dropped, the German battle ensign raised, and for all weapons to commence firing. The raider's opening salvo bracketed the ship, while the next four salvoes destroyed Sydney's bridge, gun direction tower, forward turrets, and aircraft. Two torpedoes were launched simultaneously with the raider's attack, and the close proximity of the target allowed the use of lighter weapons to rake Sydney's flank and interfere with attempts to man the cruiser's secondary weapons. In contrast, Sydney was only able to fire a single full salvo before her forward turrets were knocked out, shells from which punched through Kormoran's exhaust funnel and wireless room, and caused shrapnel wounds in two sailors. Kormoran's gunners shifted their aim to Sydney's waterline with their next three salvoes. Sydney responded from her aft turrets: one damaged the raider's machinery spaces and started a fire in an oil tank, while the other fired only a few ineffective shells. Around the time of the eighth or ninth German salvo, one of Kormoran's torpedoes struck Sydney forward of "A" turret, ripping a hole in her side and causing her to settle by the bow. After the torpedo hit, Sydney turned hard to port in what the Germans assumed was an attempt to ram, but the cruiser passed harmlessly aft.

By 17:35, the cruiser was heading south, heavily damaged, on fire, and losing speed, with her main guns destroyed or jammed facing away from their target and her secondary weapons out of range. Kormoran maintained her course and speed, but discontinued salvo firing; her stern guns continued to score hits as Sydney passed through their firing arcs. The cruiser fired torpedoes at Kormoran, but as the raider was turning to bring her port broadside to bear, these passed harmlessly astern. After completing the turn, battle damage caused Kormoran's engines to fail completely, leaving the raider dead in the water while Sydney continued to limp southwards. Despite being immobilised, Kormoran continued to fire at a high rate—some of the German sailors reported that up to 450 shells were used during the second phase of the battle—and scored hits on the cruiser, although misses would have increased as the range grew. The raider fired her guns for the last time around 17:50, with the range at 6,600 yards (6,000 m), and a torpedo was fired at 18:00, but missed.

By the end of the half-hour engagement, the ships were about 10,000 metres (11,000 yd) apart, with both heavily damaged and on fire. Damage to Kormoran's engine room had knocked out the fire-fighting systems, and as it was only a matter of time until the oil fire reached the magazines or mine hold, Detmers ordered "abandon ship" at 18:25. All boats and rafts were launched by 21:00, during which a skeleton crew kept the weapons manned while their colleagues evacuated and the officers made preparations for scuttling. During all this, Sydney was seen to proceed south-south-east at low speed; she disappeared over the horizon shortly after the engagement, but the glow of the burning ship was seen on the horizon consistently until 22:00, and sporadically until midnight.

Kormoran was abandoned and scuttled at midnight; she ship sank slowly until the mine hold exploded half an hour later. The German survivors were in five boats and two rafts: one cutter carrying 46 men, two battle-damaged steel liferafts with 57 and 62 aboard (the latter carrying Detmers and towing several small floats), one workboat carrying 72, one boat with 31 aboard, and two rafts, each bearing 26. During the evacuation, a rubber liferaft carrying 60, mostly wounded, sank without warning; the three survivors were placed in other boats. Total German casualties were 6 officers, 75 German sailors, and 1 Chinese sailor.

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