HMAS Sydney (II) - D48 WW2 "Stormy Petrel" motto "I take but I Surrender"

About This Unit

HMAS Sydney (II) D48 - WW2

HMAS Sydney was a light cruiser operated by the Royal Australian Navy from its commissioning in 1935 until its sinking on the 19th of November 1941. It was the second RAN ship to bear the name, and one of three ships in the modified Leander Class acquired by the RAN in the mid 1930s.  The other two were HMAS Perth and HMAS Hobart.

Fig 1. HMAS  Sydney as she appeared shortly after acceptance by the RAN in 1935.

The keel of the ship that was to become HMAS Sydney was laid down as the HMS Phaeton and built at the yards of Swan, Hunter and Wigham Richardson, at Wallsend-on-Tyne in England. The following year she was purchased while under construction on the slipway, by the Australian Government.  Renamed Sydney, in memory of her WW1 namesake and the capital city of New South Wales, she was launched on 22 September 1934 by Mrs Ethel Bruce, the wife of Mr Stanley Bruce, MC, the Australian High Commissioner to Great Britain and a former Australian Prime Minister.

Sydney distinguished itself in the Middle East / Mediterranean theatre early in the war, notably at Cape Sparda where it played the principal role in the destruction of the Italian Cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni in company with several Royal Navy destroyers.  A full account of operations is contained in the excellent HMAS Sydney Virtual Memorial is attached as a link in the sidebar.

It was given the nickname "Stormy Petrel" by Commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Andrew Cunningham.

For its part in these operations HMAS Sydney was awarded the “Mediterranean 1940” battle honours. During its 8 month deployment, only one sailor was killed.

The Sydney’s exploits had made it a household name back in Australia, in much the same way as its predecessor had been.

HMAS Sydney returned to Australian waters and thus missed the RAN actions in the Middle East in support of the evacuation of land forces from Greece and Crete and, later, the resupply and extraction of the 9th Division in Tobruk.  That task fell to its sister ship HMAS Perth.

Back in Australia, Sydney  carried out a number of duties including transporting representatives of all 3 branches of the Australian Military to Singapore for a secret conference between the British Commonwealth, the Netherlands East Indies, and the United States of America in April 1941. 

Its loss with all hands under mysterious circumstances in a duel with the German raider Kormoran, off the West Australian coast on the 19/20th November 1941, was a major shock to Australia and had a serious negative impact on the morale of the nation.  It also began a period in which the RAN sustained a string of major ship losses while fighting the Japanese who entered the war less than a month after the loss of the Sydney.

The search for the Sydney was large, increasingly desperate and as time went on, despondent when it became apparent that she had gone to the bottom with all hands.  

The fate of the light cruiser HMAS Sydney and her 645 crew was the cause of decades of anguish among relatives and speculation among searchers.  It represented a very large proportion of all RAN KIA casualties in WW2. 

The ship's fate remained a mystery for nearly 67 years as both ships were lost, although there were survivors of the Kormoran.  The circumstances leading up to the engagement were not dissimilar to that of the Sydney v Emden battle in 1914, but the result was far different.

The mystery spanned decades until 2008 when the wrecks of Sydney and Kormoran were discovered 19km apart on the ocean floor off Western Australia.

When the wreckage of both ships was discovered, it seemed that the two ships were mortally wounded and that Sydney was attempting to get back to Fremantle when in all likelihood, the bow section sheared off at the point where the Kormoran's torpedo had struck.  The bow section appears to have gone to the bottom immediately and the rest of the ship begain its long terminal descent to the ocean floor 2km below, but separated from the bow by a considerable distance.

Only one body was ever found — a dessicated corpse in a sun-bleached life raft washed ashore on Christmas Island in February 1942. The burial site was lost during the Japanese occupation of the island in World War II and not re-discovered for many years.  Until the advent of DNA testing, nobody was certain it had come from the missing warship. 

In breaking news as at 19 November 2021, he has been identified as Able Seaman Thomas Websley Clark, from Brisbane, Queensland.  The circumstances of his death; alone, probably injured,  adrift and undiscovered, bear deep contemplation.   In the sanctity of our homes, the security of which he and his comrades strove to achieve at cost of their lives, it is ever more important that we reflect on the sacrifice which assured the continuation of our way of life, and in circumstances which were to be come more dire very soon after, with the entry of the Japanese into the war and the start of the Pacific conflict. 

You can see links to all of Sydney's crew including the detachment of RAAF personnel embarked to operate the Seagull amphibian aircraft, on this page.

South Australians lost on the HMAS Sydney (II) are commemorated on a memorial at Birkenhead near Port Adelaide.

Follow this link.  Birkenhead HMAS Sydney Memorial (  These names will be activated as part of a subsequent phase of the development of this site.


© Steve Larkins 27 Mar 2014 updated Nov 2021



Emergency Response by Elsa Reuter

The alarm was raised on November 21, 1941, the day after HMAS Sydney was expected to arrive at Fremantle.

No signals had been received. Nor had Sydney been seen by any other ships in WA waters. She did not respond to radio messages asking for a status report.
Concern was growing for the light cruiser, which had become Australia’s most famous warship after a resounding victory over the Italians a year earlier. Radio silence was an imperative and it was not unheard of for ships to be a day or two late..

But on November 23 a life raft — full of German sailors — was spotted by the troopship Aquitania. The ship did not stop, and was also running under radio silence for security.
The unexplained prompted a search, so six RAAF Hudson bombers set out from the RAAF Pearce air base. They flew out along the expected track of the cruiser as far as their fuel would allow — 480km.

Fast currents and strong winds were rapidly dispersing any floating debris .But then news was received that German survivors had been pulled from a raft by the tanker SS Trocas. They reported having been in a fight with an Australian cruiser.
Two Catalina flying boats were diverted to WA to assist.

The next day the search was ramped up: At daybreak seven aircraft were dispatched along a corridor some 290km wide by 650km deep. Nearby ships were directed to help in the search and were ordered to follow HMAS Sydney’s expected course.
Nothing was seen of heard of HMAS Sydney or her crew.

More Germans, however, were found in life boats or after making their way ashore. The search would last until the evening of November 29.

By then it appeared the worst had happened. Sydney had been lost with all hands.

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