NOVEMBER 19, 2016, marks the 75th anniversary of Australia's worst maritime disaster, a disaster that left many questions unanswered and many families haunted by the tragic loss of their loved ones.
The disaster started to unfold on the evening of November 19, 1941, when the Australian light cruiser, HMAS Sydney, encountered the German raider, HSK Kormoran, off the coast of WA.
The resulting battle led to the sinking of both ships with the loss of the entire crew of 645 men on board the Sydney. One of those men was Able Seaman Ernest Dudley Frisch, an uncle whom I never knew but whom I knew about because of the stories told to me by his devoted family.
Ernie, as he was affectionately called, was the only Rocky boy aboard the ill-fated Sydney. He had enlisted in the RAN in September, 1939, at the outbreak of WW2. It seemed logical that Ernie would enlist in the RAN.
His family home overlooked the Fitzroy River where the family boats were moored. Ernie was an avid sportsman and loved spending time on the water.
Little did he know at the time that the water would one day be his grave. He died three days after his 21st birthday.
Up to the time of her loss, HMAS Sydney had been the darling of the Australian wartime fleet.
In the early stages of the war, Sydney was part of Australia's contribution to the British Mediterranean Fleet. She was then under the command of Captain John Collins, a man both trusted and adored by his crew.
In May 1940, Sydney arrived at the British naval base of Alexandria, Egypt, just as France capitulated to the Nazis. Part of the powerful French fleet was also at Alexandria. Sydney's first task was to assist in "neutralising" the French fleet to prevent it falling into the hands of the Nazis. Force was to be used if necessary. Fortunately, the French Admiral, Godfroy, complied with the British ultimatum to surrender and, unlike at some other ports, the event passed peacefully. Meanwhile however, the Italian dictator, Mussolini, had declared war on Britain and her allies.
The British Mediterranean Fleet, which included HMAS Sydney, then had both the Italian Navy and Airforce to contend with.
Over the next several months, Sydney was involved in several battles with Italian navy ships including E boats, destroyers and cruisers.
Sydney was always victorious and came through each battle largely unscathed. Foremost of these battles was the classic duel with the Italian cruiser, Bartolomeo Colleoni.
That loss sent the Italian navy scampering back to Taranto harbour where half of the capital ships in the fleet were destroyed by British carrier-based aircraft.
Although hardened by these battles, Captain Collins was a compassionate man. After each victory at sea, Sydney remained at the site of the action to assist with the rescue of any enemy survivors. Ernie always spoke very highly of "Colleoni Collins" and had told his family that he always trusted Captain Collins "to get the ship home safely".
Sydney was also bombed on several occasions by Italian aircraft.
Although bombs had exploded so close to the ship that seawater drenched the decks, Sydney never suffered any significant damage. Her exploits made her the glamour ship of the Mediterranean Fleet.
She had a charmed life and it seemed that she could do no wrong. During the Mediterranean campaign the crew had felt the pride of victory but had also experienced the horrors of war. They had also witnessed the agony of enemy survivors battling through burning oil after the sinking of their ships. With the growing threat of war in the Pacific, in early 1941 Sydney was recalled to Australia.
Sydney's luck was about to change.
After arriving back in Australia, Sydney served on convoy and patrol duties around Australia. At that time several German raiders, heavily armed warships disguised as merchant ships, were operating in Australian waters.
In May 1941 Captain Collins was replaced by Captain Joseph Burnett, an experienced navy man but one who lacked the battle experiences of his predecessor. On November 11th, 1941, Sydney departed Fremantle on escort duty with the troopship Zealandia.
The Zealandia was carrying men of the ill-fated 8th Division, AIF, to reinforce the Singapore garrison. Sydney handed over control of the troopship in the Dutch East Indies on November 17th and headed home for Fremantle. She was destined not to arrive back at her home port.
Meanwhile, the heavily armed German raider, HSK Kormoran, under Captain Theodor Detmers and disguised as a Dutch merchant ship was heading towards the WA coast.
The Kormoran was a highly effective raider and had already sunk 11 Allied merchant ships. Unbeknown to each other, Captain Detmers and Captain Burnett were on a collision course.
Late in the evening of November 19th, the two ships encountered each other about 120 nautical miles west of Shark Bay on the WA coast. Captain Detmers recognised the Sydney as a heavily armed Australian cruiser but Captain Burnett did not recognise the Kormoran as a heavily disguised German raider.
From later interviews with German survivors from the Kormoran it was learned that through skilful use of ruses and disguises, Captain Detmers was able to lure the more heavily armed Sydney to within a kilometer of his ship.
This was effectively point-blank range for all of the Kormoran's weaponry. Captain Burnett had made a fatal mistake, a mistake that many have claimed that the battle-hardened Captain Collins would never have made. We will never know. By not remaining out of range of Kormoran's guns until certain of the ship's identity, Captain Burnett had sealed the fate of Sydney and her crew.
Sydney was broadside on and travelling very slowly when Captain Detmers ordered the crew to drop all disguises, hoist the German ensign and open fire. Many of the crew of the Sydney had lined the decks to gain a better view of what they thought was a friendly Dutch merchant ship.
It is likely that most of these men were killed by machine gun fire as soon as the battle started. Within seconds of the order to open fire, the 5.9 inch guns of the Kormoran had blasted away the bridge, gun control system and the midships section of Sydney.
Though extensively damaged, Sydney was eventually able to return fire but only from the two rear gun turrets. The Kormoran was hit repeatedly but not before she had fired a torpedo that struck the bow section of Sydney.
The pride of the Mediterranean Fleet was doomed. The German survivors from the Kormoran later reported that after the battle the Sydney moved off slowly towards the WA coast. Neither the ship nor her crew were ever seen again.
The Kormoran was extensively damaged and was scuttled early next morning.
Over the following eight days many of the crew were rescued by other ships or made it unaided to the WA coast near Carnarvon. The search for Sydney began. No survivors or trace of the ship were found.
However, in February1942 a Carley float containing the remains of a sailor was found off Christmas Island. It later proved to be from the Sydney. Towards the end of November 1941 it was realized that the Sydney had been sunk. The dreaded telegram notifying Ernie's parents that their son was "missing as the result of enemy action" was received soon after.
Family members were both shocked and incredulous that HMAS Sydney, the ship that had remained virtually unscathed during the entire Mediterranean campaign had been sunk.
Along with that came the agony of knowing that 645 fine young Australians, men who had chosen to serve their country, were gone forever.
The tragedy of the Sydney was such that it had a deep and lasting effect on the psyche of the Australian public and every effort was made to try to solve the riddle of her demise.
The search for her final resting place that began almost immediately after her sinking was to last, on and off, for another 67 years before the wreck was finally discovered. Thanks mainly to the efforts and persistence of the Finding Sydney Foundation, on March 16th, 2008, the wreck of HMAS Sydney was finally located.
It was lying at a depth of approximately 2,500m only 22km from the wreck of the Kormoran which had been found four days earlier.
Underwater photography revealed that the bow section of Sydney had broken away. Equally telling of the devastation wrought by the Kormoran's guns were the 87 shell holes in the Sydney's hull. Forensic studies concluded that gunfire from the Kormoran would have killed or incapacitated about 70% of the Sydney's crew soon after the battle began. Yet in spite of this, those who survived the initial onslaught were able to mortally wound the Kormoran thus removing what had become a potent threat to Allied shipping.
It was however, a dreadful price to pay.
The tragic loss of the Sydney affected not only the immediate families and friends of the crew but also a significant proportion of the Australian public.
Such was the effect that there was constant public pressure to both continue searching for her final resting place and construct a permanent memorial to the ship and her crew.
Several years before the wreck was located, a permanent memorial was established in Geraldton, WA. The memorial Dome of Souls and Wall of Remembrance, which bears the names of all 645 lost crew, were officially dedicated on November 19th, 2001.
The memorial serves to remind all who visit of the tragedy of war.
On a more personal level, soon after his death became known Ernie's family donated a perpetual trophy, the Frisch Memorial, for annual competition by Rockhampton track cyclists. Unlike Ernie and his shipmates, the trophy is still in existence.
Lest We Forget.