HMAS Sydney Cairn

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Cairn for HMAS Sydney II, sunk in 1941

The HMAS Sydney II was a light cruiser in the Australian Navy, serving from 1935 to 1941 when it was sunk during battle, offshore from the memorial cairn in Quobba.

The cairn and signpost were built before the wreck was found in 2008, the actual location ended up being about 200km off the coast from Steep Point, however, this memorial cairn remains at this location. A memorial of HMAS Sydney in Geraldton Brown Sign link has the propeller of the ship as the centrepiece and other artifacts are found in museums.

HMAS Sydney was built at Wallsend-on-Tyne in England. Originally named HMS Phaeton, it was renamed before launch when it was purchased by the Australian Navy.

HMAS Sydney II participated on several deployments during World War II, attaining honours in a few battles.

For her final battle, Sydney intercepted an unidentified merchant ship. The ship signalled with flags it was the Dutch ship Straat Malakka, which was not expected to be in the area.

Sydney asked the Dutch ship of its destination and cargo, which transmitted a distress signal indicating it was being pursued by a merchant raider. Sydney pulled alongside the ship, about 1km away, ordering it to show a secret callsign.

The Dutch ship could not respond with the secret callsign, as it was the German raider Kormoran in disguise. Kormoran responded by removing the camouflage and opened fire. Sydney missed on its first shots fired. The Kormoran took out Sydney’s bridge and gun director tower. After the sixth salvo from the Kormoran, Sydney fired again with a turret putting multiple shells into Kormoran, igniting an oil tank.

A torpedo launched at the start of the engagement hit Sydney, ripping a hole in the side causing the bow to angle down. Sydney continued to be hit be shells as it launched four torpedos, all failing to hit the Kormoran.

The Kormoran’s engines broke down but continued to fire on Sydney. Sydney eventually lost buoyancy during the night and sunk, the bow tearing off as it descended.

The Germans determined they could not control the fires on the Kormoran before it reached the mines and gun magazines, so they abandoned the ship. It sank and later exploded.

All of the 645 personnel on board the Sydney perished with no survivors. 318 of 399 peronnel survived from the Kormoran.

Sydney was due to arrive at Fremantle the following day, however, wireless silence orders could not be broken for general delays which were normal. It wasn’t until German survivors were found by a tanker 4 days later that a search began.

Controversy surrounds the battle with the only witnesses being German questioned under interrogation and disbelief that a modified merchant ship could so successfully beat a cruiser. Alternate views include the German ship used signals of distress or surrender, the torpedos were launched while luring in the cruiser, Japanese submarine was involved, and Australian survivors were killed by the Germans to get rid of witnesses.

The cairn has a plaque with the following:

On 19 November 1941, a battle occurred between the Australian light cruiser HMAS SYDNEY and German raider, the auxiliary cruiser HSK KORMORAN. Based on the accounts of German survivors, SYDNEY closed to identify and was mortally damaged by hits from gunfire and a torpedo. Both ships sank. 80 perishing in KORMORAN while there were no survivors from SYDNEY’s complement of 645. The absence of Australian survivors left many questions on the precise circumstances of the loss which continues to arouse controversy.

Plaque on the HMAS SYDNEY II cairn
HMAS Sydney II Memorial Cairn Signpost

This signpost was donated by Harold Adams & Family on 19 November 2003 in the memory of his 645 shipmates lost at sea aboard HMAS SYDNEY 2 on 19 November 1941


B2255 Able Seaman Harald Adams served on HMAS SYDNEY 2 December 1939 continuously and was last off (medically) prior to departure on its final voyage from Fremantle on 11 November 1941.

Harald was present in Carnarvon for the 60th anniversary of this tragic event and is moved by the efforts of the Carnarvon community and Mr. ‘Bluey’ Dwyer in providing tireless assistance.

Plaque at the HMAS SYDNEY (II) MEMORIAL CAIRN signpost

To get there:

Brown sign for HMAS Sydney Cairn, 57km

From Canarvan, head west on the North West Coastal Hwy. After crossing over the bridge of the Gascoyne River, continue north on the highway for another 10kms and turn left into Blowholes Rd at the brown sign. Follow Blowholes Rd to the end for 49km and turn right on Gnaraloo Rd. After 7.5km, access to the Sydney II Memorial Cairn will be on the left.

From Coral Bay, head back out to the North West Coastal Hwy and turn right. Follow the highway for 232km and turn right into Blowholes Rd at the brown sign. Follow Blowholes Rd to the end for 49km and turn right on Gnaraloo Rd. After 7.5km, access to the Sydney II Memorial Cairn will be on the left.



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