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Seeking HMAS Sydney
How paranormal beliefs delayed its discovery

By Bret Christian

Abridged from an original article in the Skeptic 29(3) September 2009 pages 19-23, which was based on key reports and interviews with leading players. The author is the proprietor, publisher and founding editor of the POST suburban newspapers in Perth, Western Australia. Background information and pictures have been added as noted in the text.

On 19 November 1941 the HMAS Sydney, pride of the Australian navy, battled the German warship HSK Kormoran about 300 km off Carnarvon on the Western Australian coast. (HMAS = His Majesty's Australian Ship. HSK = Hilfskreuzer or auxiliary cruiser.) The battle started around 6 pm and lasted for nearly one hour. Both ships were severely damaged and later sank. More than 300 German sailors were rescued but every one of the 645 men on the Sydney died. It was Australia's worst naval disaster, causing endless grief, debate and controversy. Location of the wrecks remained a mystery for 67 years until 2008 when they were discovered 20 km apart under 2 km of water.

HMAS Sydney

HMAS Sydney in Sydney Harbour in 1941, nine months before it was lost. Built 1933 on Britain's Tyneside and purchased a year later by the Australian navy for use as a light cruiser. Length 171 metres, maximum width 17 metres, displacement 7200 tons, maximum speed 33 knots (61 kph). Sides are camouflaged with broad stripes first applied in 1940. When war began in 1939, HMAS Sydney was sent to the Mediterraneum and achieved outstanding success. It became the navy's best and most famous ship.

HMAS Sydney was based in Fremantle, but her crew of 645 was drawn from virtually every city and large town and country area in Australia. The unimaginable sinking of the Sydney, and the loss of everyone on board, spread in shock waves through each man's home town. The exact location of the sinking was unknown, as were details of what happened. Until 2008 none of the attempts to locate the Sydney had succeeded. The result was a round of speculation that seemed to last forever. By 2009 more than 26 books had been written about the mystery.

Anguish at not knowing
The mystery of what befell the Sydney has haunted the surviving relatives ever since the vessel went down. Especially the young women who in wartime romances had married or promised to marry sailors from HMAS Sydney. Typical was Betty Bell, a nurse at Royal Perth Hospital who married Fred Schoch, an officer engineer. The ceremony at her local church took place just days before Fred's ship sailed from Fremantle on its fateful final voyage. Although Betty re-married after the war, she never stopped worrying about her first husband's fate. Her greatest wish, repeated over and over again, was that his ship be found in her lifetime so that her mind could be set at rest.

Announcement of finding the wreck
On 17 March 2008 it was announced that the wreck of HMAS Sydney had been found. It brought a measure of peace to thousands of grieving relatives of the Australian and German servicemen who had sacrificed their lives all those years ago. There was much joy mixed with waves of sadness for those who had been waiting, and much anticipation about what the wreck would reveal.

At the time, a handful of people in Western Australia knew that the discovery could have been made at least ten years earlier. It had been delayed by wacky paranormal claims and poor historical research, that together had sidelined serious scientific work. In those years, many had died while waiting for answers to their questions, and the grief of others had been unnecessarily extended. The rest of this article is the story of that delay and why it happened.

One last attempt
Back in 1991, a group of men met in a Perth coffee shop and discussed the unsuccessful efforts that had been made to locate the wreck of HMAS Sydney. They decided to have one last serious crack at the job themselves, figuring that theirs might be the last generation to care enough. After all, using 1985 technology, the Titanic had been found in 4000 metres of water, twice the likely depth of the Sydney.

One man at that coffee morning was Ted Graham, a marine surveyor with a deep interest in maritime history. Another was Kim Kirsner, a professor of cognitive science at the University of Western Australia. Also present was Sam Hughes, a search and rescue expert. They could not know it at the time, but eventually their quest would be successful.

Using Sam Hughes's expertise and records of recovered debris, wind strength and direction, the group attempted to track the floating material back to the two sinkings. Life jackets, life rafts and a dog's kennel had been picked up by ships searching for survivors after the battle, and their position and time of retrieval had been recorded. The researchers were worried that small inaccuracies in the data could throw their conclusions off by dozens of kilometres. Nevertheless they managed to identify a likely area that was about 300 km west of Carnarvon.

Focus on Kormoran survivors
At the same time, Professor Kirsner and Associate Professor John Dunn were using cognitive science, testing the style and agreement of the more than 100 statements and written reports of the battle given by the Kormoran's survivors. Key questions were: Who on the German ship actually witnessed the battle? Who knew the correct co-ordinates of the battle? Did they recall the positions correctly? Were they doing their best to tell the truth?

The Kormoran's survivors had either been picked up at sea or had reached the WA coast in lifeboats. They had been interrogated at the first opportunity by Australian intelligence officers. Kirsner and Dunn found that a core group of ten survivors carried more information as a group than they did individually. By analysing the language they used and cross-checking varions statements made during and after the war, they were able to extract vital information.

More importantly, they were able to conclude that, after the battle, the normally secretive Captain Detmers, master of the Kormoran, had given his crew the most accurate co-ordinates for their sinking ship. At that stage the Kormoran was all but gone, mortally wounded by shellfire from the Sydney, and the Germans were far from land in overloaded lifeboats and rafts. They were terrified at the thought of being cast ashore on a desert and dying miserably of starvation. Knowledge of their location was essential for their survival.

Profiles of Kormoran and Sydeny

Profiles of Kormoran and Sydney to the same scale. The Kormoran was originally a cargo ship of 9800 tones. In 1940 it was fitted with torpedoes and 15-cm (5.9-inch) guns for the express purpose of attacking merchant shipping. It could reach 17 knots (31 kph) and carried up to 5000 tons of fuel oil, which at a more economical 11 knots would allow it to remain at sea for twelve months. At the time it was the newest, biggest, and fastest German raider ship, but was without armour. The Sydney was lighter (7200 tons) but faster, being capable of 33 knots (61 kph), but this was achieved at the expense of armour, which protected only the area between the funnels. It had torpedoes and 6-inch (15.2-cm) guns. A 6-inch shell weighed about 45 kg with a bursting charge of about 4 kg of explosive.

Strategy: The Kormoran disguised itself as a harmless cargo ship using the paint colours and flags of whatever cargo shipping was least likely to arouse suspicion in a particular hunting area. Initially it pretended to be the Russian Vyacheslav Molotov, then a year later the Japanese Kinka Maru, then a few months later the Dutch Straat Malakka, which was its disguise when it met the Sydney. The usual strategy was to get close, run up the German flag, and order the target to stop engines and send no distress signals, otherwise it would be shot out of the water. If signals were sent, they were jammed. The crew were evacuated and the ship either taken over or sunk, depending on its value to Germany. Gunnery: But getting close was rather different from the closeness achieved in Hollywood battles between pirate ships. Ships like the Kormoran and Sydney attacked as soon at they were within gunnery range, nominally 15 km -- shorter distances were more accurate but also more perilous if the ship was armed. Firing the guns was literally a hit-and-miss affair. The ship's movement was compensated by gyros attached to each gun that permitterd firing only when level, but the gunners still had to take into account distance, speed and prevailing winds while attempting the equivalent of hitting a drink can at 10 metres in a gale. When the guns were fired, observers noted where the shells fell (long, short, wide), so the gunners could make corrections for the next firing. The above profiles and information are from HMAS Sydney by Tom Frame, Hatchette, Sydney 2008.

The search narrows
An extraordinarily diverse number of statements from the Kormoran survivors, properly analysed and with errors eliminated, added up to a consistent location for the battle. Contrary to a later claim that the search was like looking for a needle in an unknown haystack, Kirsner and Dunn were able to identify a relatively small search area that tended to agree with the earlier back-tracking work. This was inspiring news. After further work they were able to virtually pinpoint the Kormoran's location. But they could not persuade the Navy or the Australian government to use its survey ships to take a look. The reason was simple -- paranormal claims had taken over.

Map dowsing
One important paranormal claim had been made by former Lieutenant Colonel Warren Whittaker OBE, who had devoted many years of his life to trying to find the Sydney. Whittaker had been an RAAF navigator, and he believed in map dowsing as carried out by his friend Lindsay Knight. Knight had waved his hand over a map of the WA coast and claimed to know the position of the Kormoran when it had been on the surface.

Later Knight took to the air in a Cessna light aircraft to narrow the search using his own invention, a black box powered by torch batteries that he called the Knight Direct Location System. It sat on his lap while the plane criss-crossed his dowsed search area at 1000 feet. It generated a narrow microwave frequency supposedly tuned to the target material, which if present would supposedly send back a detectable signal. Afterwards Knight claimed to have found not only shipwrecks, but also samurai swords and human bones. His claims made front page news.

Subsequently University of WA physicist Andrew Lockwood pointed out that, for microwaves to penetrate 2000 metres of salt water, the low-powered black box would have to emit so much energy that it would have boiled the ocean dry. Not to mention what it would have done to Mr Knight's metabolism.

Map of search locations Left: The estimated locations of
the wrecks covered a vast area and
were up to 400 km from the actual
locations (one to the south and three
to the north were beyond the limits
of this map). The final search area
was about 105 x 60 km, but even
here searching for a wreck was like
searching for a drink can at night in
a football field. The smaller grey
area is the subsequent search area
for the Sydney. Map is redrawn
from David Mearns, The Search
for the Sydney
, HarperCollins,
Sydney 2009, pages 96-97.

Enter true believers
Many people, desperate for the wrecks to be located, continued to believe that there must be something in the dowsing and black box claims. They called themselves the "southerners" -- passionate and immovable believers in a southern location for the famous battle. Enter Glenys McDonald, an amateur historian who interviewed wartime residents of Port Gregory, a tiny fishing hamlet near the southern location. Her witnesses claimed to have seen and heard flashes, gunfire and explosions out to sea, at a time which seemed to coincide with the Sydney-Kormoran battle. The claimed location also coincided roughly with the dowsed Knight-Whittaker site. So taken together the two claims seemed compelling. But subsequent discovery of the wrecks showed it would have been impossible to see or hear anything of the battle from Port Gregory, which would have been 400 km away and far below the horizon.

The Navy's useless $1m search
But Glenys McDonald had a direct line to the Navy via her son Lieutenant Commander David McDonald, a surface warfare officer who was one of the Navy's senior navigation instructors. Despite Andrew Lockwood's ocean-boiling calculations, and despite the collected evidence from RAAF intelligence and German survivors that pointed to a different area, the Navy accepted the Knight-Whittaker claims and Port Gregory sightings. As a result, in the early 2000s the armed services mounted two secret and expensive searches in the wrong area. One was by an Orion aircraft flown from Queensland. The other was by two minehunters equipped with sophisticated sonar gear. Unsurprisingly the searchers came back empty-handed, having wasted around $1 million.

Believers continue to believe
But the believers continued to believe. Some even suggested that the Navy had found the Sydney but was keeping its location secret. By this time Kirsner and Dunn had further refined their search area into what turned out to be a bullseye. It was just 20 km off by 1998, and 5 km off by 2004, both well within reach of a search. But it was too late. The waste of $1 million had derailed everything. The government would not sanction and fund another search without the endorsement of the Navy. And the Navy, after a fruitless goose chase of wacky claims, wanted the credibility of an outside expert. The years ticked by.

Kirsner concluded that what the Port Gregory witnesses had seen was a documented series of United States Navy and Air Force exercises off the coast five months after the Sydney-Kormoran battle, and possibly also electrical storms. In contrast, the German survivors were adrift in hostile seas with the best possible motive -- survival -- for accurately recalling their position. Kirsner concluded that their statements were inconsistent with rehearsing fictitious positions.

Four recent books on HMAS Sydney

Four recent books on HMAS Sydney. From left, John Samuels 2005, Glenys McDonald 2005, David Mearns 2009, Tom Frame 2008. Samuels concludes that the Sydney was destroyed by a Japanese submarine, that bodies were washed up and secretly buried, and the whole was a Navy cover-up. McDonald's cover shows the Geraldton memorial described later. Both books show how researchers can be sincere but wrong. Frame's book is comprehensive and very readable. Mearns's cover shows a computer-generated image (based on actual underwater photographs) of the Sydney resting on the sea bed under 2 km of water. The stern of the ship is on the right. Both funnels and much of the superstructure have been torn off by the force of water during descent. In the last moments on the surface, the flooded bow section (weighed down by heavy anchors and weakened by enemy fire) snapped off and fell straight to the sea bed, triggering the Sydney's sinking. The rest of the ship moved forward nearly 500 metres during its two-kilometre descent.

Enter the wreck-hunter
The authorities settled on David Mearns, an American wreck-hunter who had acquired a worldwide reputation for locatiog and photographing up to 50 shipwrecks. He met Kirsner and colleagues in 2004, who gave him their latest conclusions. But Mearns chose to begin his own research, relying heavily on the records of the Kormoran's captain, Theodore Detmers. Kirsner pointed out that Detmers was an unreliable source who had put forward six different positions. But Mearns, with $5 million of federal money to play with, decided that the captain held the key, and that the best starting point was a coded diary recorded by Detmers in a prison camp in Victoria. According to Kirsner it was clear that Detmers and his navigator Henry Meyer were the only two survivors to deliberately provide wrong positions (it was of course their duty to mislead the enemy), which errors were then perpetuated in the Detmers diary.

In his 2009 book, Mearns says that Kirsner's argument against Detmers position "was weak and not based on solid evidence. His argument lacked the common sense and understanding of German naval navigation that was needed to see our point" (page 105). Mearns fails to note that, in the end, Kirsner was right and he (Mearns) was wrong.

The wrecks are found
Nevertheless it was accepted that the best way to find the Sydney was to locate the Kormoran first, then look for the Sydney nearby. The Germans said they had last seen the Sydney on fire, steaming slowly to the southeast before it suddenly disappeared. Their own burning ship drifted north before its captain used timed explosives to scuttle it.

In March 2008, after allocating a month to the search, Mearns began searching with a powerful side-scan sonar aboard the search vessel Geosounder, beginning the search in the area selected by Kirsner and Dunn. In just 64 hours the wreck of the Kormoran was found. It was 5 km from where the cognitive scientiste said it would be -- a bullseye -- and 370 km from where the paranormal believers said it would be. After a further 67 hours of searching, the wreck of the Sydney was found 20 km to the southeast, just where it was expected to be.

In February 2009, before the Cole Commission, Dr Michael McCarthy, curator of marine archaeology at the WA Maritime Museum, acknowledged Kirsner and Dunn's work and lamented the delays and lost opportunities. Had the nation been predisposed to believe the Germans, he said, and taken more notice of the locations provided by Kirsner and Dunn, "David Mearns would have had the smallest search area in his illustrions career". The Commission's final report, released in August 2009, accepted the German account of the battle.

War graves
HMAS Sydney is sitting upright and is remarkably well-preserved, under incredibly high pressure but subject to no light and little oxygen. Under such conditions there is little possibility of human remains, nor can the possibility be evaluated -- both ships are war graves and can be photographed externally but not disturbed. Afterwards, naval experts concluded that the loss of life was partly due to exploding shells and raging fires. The ship would have been unable to cope with the extraordinary level of destruction caused by the Kormoran (the distance between them had been as little as 1.5 km). The crew who were still alive would have either gone down with the suddenly sinking ship, or perished due to lack of lifeboats (which were either destroyed or jammed in position) and exposure to a cold sea in the five days before the loss was known. However, the Sydney was not unique -- larger warships have sunk with total and greater loss of life.

Geralton memorial

The HMAS Sydney Memorial in Geraldton at the summit of Mount Scott, opened on 18 November 2001 (60th anniversary of the battle) at a cost of $2 million. The driving force behind the Memorial was Glenys McDonald. Below the Dome of Souls made of 645 stainless steel seagulls is a black granite wall bearing the names of the 645 men who lost their lives. Left: Part of the Memorial is this statue of a wife or mother gazing out to see, anxiously awaiting news. Over 400 km to the north, the HMAS Sydney Memorial Drive in Carnarvon is lined with 645 palm trees, each with the name of a crew member inscribed on a plaque at its base.

A final word from Betty Hall
No-one regretted those delays more than Betty Bell. She had followed the accelerating search for the wreck with increasing anticipation. "I dont know any wreck that has left such a legacy of pain," she said in late 2007, a few months before the Sydney was located. "The longer we have been kept in the dark, the more hurtful it has become". Later, when the search preparations were nearly finished, after nearly a lifetime of waiting, and a week before her 88th birthday, Betty Bell told her friend John Doohan of her growing excitement. She said: "John, we're getting close to the truth. It won't be long now". The next day she died unexpectedly, one more relative whose wish was unfulfilled.

The main source for this article was the paper "Search Definition in the Search for Kormoran and Sydney: Triumph for Cognitive Science", by Kim Kirsner and John Dunn, 4 November 2008, prepared at the request of the HMAS Sydney Commission of Inquiry. It cites 13 previous academic papers on the subject by Kirsner and other academics notably John Dunn, the first published in 1991.

The substance of the coffee shop meeting is from an interview with Ted Graham by the author, 22 March 2008.

The Whittaker-Knight paranormal claims and accounts of contact with David Mearns are quoted from the most recent Kirsner-Dunn paper, which refers to published and unpublished documents in possession of the authors.

Glenys McDonald published her views in Seeking the Sydney: A Quest for Truth, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands WA 2005.

Captain Theadore Detmers' diary as the search starting point is from an interview with David Mearns by the author, POST Newspapers 24 November 2007.

Dr Michael McCarthy's comment is from transcripts of evidence to the Cole Commission.

The Betty Bell and Fred Schoch information is from interviews with John Doohan by the author, POST Newspapers 30 June 2007, and a personal history written by Betty Bell for her grandson Jonathon Lane, The Australian, 25 June 2007.

This website version 23 November 2009.
Minor correction to Mearns search by author 19 January 2013.

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