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German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran
The German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran (HSK-8, Schiff 41, Raider G) was a warship used in World War II. It was built by Germaniawerft of Kiel and originally launched on September 15, 1938 as the merchant ship Steiermark of the Hamburg-America Line. Renamed Komoran (meaning cormorant), it entered service as a Kriegsmarine auxiliary cruiser on October 9 1940, commanded by Fregattenkapitän (Commander) Theodor Detmers .
When in service, Kormoran weighed 8,736 tons and had a top speed of 18-19 knots. The ship was a prime example of the relatively successful "disguised freighter" technique used in commerce raiding by the Kriegsmarine in World War Two. The largest of the German raiders, Kormoran operated in the South Atlantic, Indian Ocean, and the South Pacific. In common with other auxiliary cruisers, it had substantial (hidden) armament: six 150mm (5.9 in) guns, torpedoes and seaplanes, but lacked the armour protection and speed of a proper warship. Successful raiding depended on surprise and disguise. For 352 days, from December 3, 1940, Kormoran sank ten merchant ships, comprising a total of 56,965 tons.
Final engagement with Sydney
On November 19, 1941, the Kormoran encountered the 9,000 ton Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney off Western Australia. The German vessel was posing as the Dutch freighter Straat Malakka. According to accounts by crew members of the Kormoran, Sydney — under Captain Joseph Burnett — chased and overhauled the raider, while exchanging signals and attempting to verify its identity. Kormoran maintained the charade as long as possible, but when a password was demanded, it quickly went into action. According to the witnesses, Sydney had approached too close, to a range of about 1,000 metres, but was not fully prepared for battle, as its guns were not trained on Kormoran. In these circumstances Detmers had absolutely no choice but to open fire.
Sydney was eventually hit 50 times by the raider's 5.9-inch heavy guns — a sustained barrage of anti-aircraft gunfire ensured that no-one was able to survive on the ship's bridge and open decks; it was also hit by at least one torpedo. Gunners on the Sydney responded and Kormoran took several 6-inch hits in the engine room and caught fire amidships. The two ships drifted apart and Sydney was last seen by the crew of Kormoran in flames on the horizon. As Sydney disappeared into the hazy twilight, several loud explosions were heard, apparently due to the explosion of her magazines . Neither HMAS Sydney nor any of its 645 officers and men were ever seen again.
However, Sydney had inflicted enough damage to ensure that Kormoran could not be saved. With the engine room destroyed, 20 dead and the fire rapidly approaching the mine storage deck, Detmers had little choice but to abandon ship. Explosive charges were placed and the surviving crew took to the boats, with Detmers the last to leave. A further 40 men, mostly wounded, lost their lives when their lifeboat capsized in the rough seas. Shortly after midnight the charges went off, followed 25 minutes later by the mines. The entire stern and midships section was engulfed in a gigantic sheet of flame that shot a thousand feet into the night sky as Kormoran went down by the stern.
Detmers and about 320 of his crew were rescued and spent the remainder of the war in an Australian prisoner of war camp, from which they were not released until 1947.
In Australia, many people found it difficult to believe that a converted merchant ship with obsolete guns could sink a state-of-the-art cruiser, and — in the absence of any hard physical evidence — the sinking of the Sydney has remained the centre of much controversy and speculation. Many also found it difficult to believe that a senior officer like Burnett took his ship within 1,000 metres of an unidentified and possibly dangerous vessel during wartime, without preparing for action, and with such disastrous results.
- Length: 164 meters (515 feet)
- Beam: 20.2 meters (66 feet)
- Draft: 8.5 meters (30 feet)
- Displacement: 8736 tons
- Drive system: Diesel-electric propulsion
- Performance: Diesel 14,400 PS, electric drive motors 12,740 PS
- Speed: 18 knots
- Complement: 397 officers and men
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