20/09/2005 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Unravelling Sydney's mystery

20/09/2005 - 22:00


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Hardly a year passes without a new development that focuses on the loss of Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney, off Carnarvon, on November 19 1941.

Hardly a year passes without a new development that focuses on the loss of Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney, off Carnarvon, on November 19 1941.

In 1991, Western Australia’s Maritime Museum hosted a forum on Sydney’s fateful encounter with the German raider, Kormoran.

As one who attended, State Scene met most of the recognised big names in the ongoing debates about Sydney’s loss.

Among them was Englishman Michael Montgomery, whose 1981 book Who Sank the Sydney? made popular the theory that Sydney was sunk by a Japanese submarine 18 days before Pearl Harbor’s bombing.

Mr Montgomery’s father, an officer, perished on Sydney’s bridge.

Also attending was WA-born his-torian Barbara Winter, author of HMAS Sydney – Fact, Fantasy and Fraud (1984)

Although they were undoubtedly the forum’s research ‘heavyweights’, several other impressive researchers delivered thought-provoking papers on the then 50-year-old mystery.

One was Tom Frame, then a naval officer, and today Anglican bishop of Australia’s defence forces.

His paper, I quickly learned, was work in progress for a book, published in 1993 and titled HMAS Sydney – Loss and Controversy.

Another I later met was Wesley Olson, now author of the latest hard-headed assessment of Sydney’s loss, Bitter Victory – The Death of HMAS Sydney (2001).

I also cannot forget meeting John Ross, author of Stormy Petrel, and a former Sydney crew member, who was lucky enough to have missed the voyage to Sunda Straits from which she never returned.

Listening to such eminent historians and experts naturally led one to ponder on the various and many mysteries surrounding Sydney’s loss.

Soon after, I even discovered that many Polish acquaintances, who also reached Fremantle as displaced persons, had arrived here aboard Kormoran’s sister ship, Ostmark.

Kormoran was initially Steiermark, while Ostmark was seized by the Allies as a war prize in 1945 in the German port of Kiel, renamed Skaugum and used on the migrant run by its new Norwegian owner, Isak M Shaugen.

Later still it became clear that Kormoran had an even greater significance.

My family is from Wyalkatchem, where the parents of one of the seamen who perished on Sydney, Peter Kitchin, had been wartime residents.

Mr Kitchin worked for the National Bank in the town and was subsequently transferred to South Australia.

But to compound the loss of Peter, another son, David, a merchant seaman, was captured by Kormoran while off India, so was interned on the raider before it engaged and killed his brother.

David was transferred at sea to one of Kormoran’s clandestine supply ships to be taken to Germany to be a POW.

But that supply ship never reached Germany since it was sunk – probably by an allied submarine – in mid-Atlantic.

That meant the second Kitchin boy also perished.

Eight years ago, federal parliament launched an investigation – An Inquiry into the Circumstances of the Sinking of HMAS Sydney – that involved taking evidence around Australia.

This week I burrowed into one of my boxes of documents and found my name mentioned at page 166 of the inquiry’s index – “Poprzeczny, Joseph John: On Memorial and German Archives”.

Elsewhere in that index it said I hadn’t presented a written submission, just spoke during an open forum session.

What did I say?

On recollection, I told the committee that, even though we didn’t know Sydney’s precise resting place, we knew the war grave zone was off Carnarvon.

Because Sydney was there, either in one, two, three or many thousands of pieces, Carnarvon was an appropriate spot for one of three memorials.

Another memorial, I contended, should be erected in Fremantle because that was the last Australian port Sydney was based before departing on her fateful November 1941 voyage, during which 645 Australians perished.

This memorial, like the one in Carnarvon, should also face towards the war grave zone where Sydney lies in one or more pieces.

And I urged that a third memorial, also facing towards the war grave zone, should be erected on Christmas Island since the body of an unknown seaman dressed in a faded blue boilersuit was found drifting in a small life raft off that island in early 1942.

Many contend that that seaman must have been one of Sydney’s 645 men.

If nothing else the inquiry’s March 1999 report is the best summary of all the arguments, contentions, theories, and possibilities pertaining to Sydney’s loss.

But we still don’t know precisely where Sydney now rests, and this despite a long list of excellent histories by some very dogged and insightful historians, including Winter, Frame, and Olson.

HMAS Sydney remains Australia’s greatest maritime mystery.

It was therefore pleasing to read last month that Prime Minister Howard had announced another bid to locate Sydney by approving a $1.3 million grant for the search.

It’s important to note that the Royal Australian Navy hasn’t sat on its hands in relation to this.

Something made clear at the 1991 Maritime Museum forum was that the RAN had made many efforts to locate Sydney in waters adjacent to Carnarvon over the years. This was an ongoing practice whenever survey ships such as HMAS Morseby with suitable search equipment were in these waters.

The $1.3 million grant is being directed to a group called HMAS Sydney Search Pty Ltd.

“A great deal of preparation and research has been undertaken by HMAS Sydney Search Pty Ltd and their partner, David Mearns,” Mr Howard said.

“Mr Mearns was the person who found the Bismarck and the Hood.”

State Scene remains hopeful of this latest development in the now 64-year-old Sydney saga.

Hearing that Mr Mearns had had success in locating HMS Hood was particularly pleasing and encouraging because there could have been little left of Hood after she took a direct hit into her powder magazine.

Many assume Sydney went down after its brief engagement with Kormoran in much the same way as Bismarck, so is likely to be sitting in one piece on the ocean floor.

What is just as likely is that she exploded into smithereens, like Hood, either while still afloat or while actually sinking toward the bottom.

Or to use the words of former Liberal defence minister Ian McLachlan: “The only first-hand accounts available are those provided by the crew of Kormoran.

“Everything else is pure speculation.”

Kormoran’s crew was intensively interrogated.

This became clear during conversations with researchers Barbara Winter, Tom Frame and later, with Wesley Olson.

And here again there’s yet another Wyalkatchem connection.

Wyalkatchem farmer Jim Riches had attended Scotch College and vividly recalled his history teacher, JI (Lionel) Lobstein, being called away in late 1941 to help interrogate some of Kormoran’s crew.

Mr Lobstein was an Alsacian and spoke German fluently.


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