Thursday, November 25, 2021

Why Weren't There Survivors of HMAS Sydney?

A Silent Tragedy

Sailors of HMAS Sydney
Sydney crewmen in Alexandria, Egypt, sometime in 1940. Can't wait to get back to Down Under far from the war where it is safe! Source: Royal Australian Navy Sydney Memorial.

Why didn't anyone survive the sinking of HMAS Sydney?

The sinking of HMAS Sydney on or about 19 November 1941 was one of the great tragedies of World War II that has received the least attention. I sometimes see people claim that World War II wasn’t actually a “world” war because “nothing happened in the Indian Ocean.” Well, in fact, quite a bit of combat happened in the Indian Ocean, with the biggest clash of all being between Sydney and German raider Kormoran.

One of the reasons the action has received so little attention outside of Australia is that nobody from Sydney survived to tell the tale and the German survivors weren’t all that keen to talk about it and were in POW camps for five years. Not only did nobody survive Sydney, for the longest time it was believed that not even a single body was recovered. Sydney just disappeared.

That wasn’t terribly unusual during World War II. Of course, it happened quite often with submarines sunk by depth charges, where the men had no chance to escape. Probably the most famous example was U-47, which disappeared in March 1941 with the famous Günther Prien aboard. That was just one example of dozens and dozens of submarines that disappeared with all hands.

HMAS Sydney
HMAS Sydney 1940 in the Mediterranean. Source: Australian War Memorial 301473.

Submarines may seem like a special case. After all, they’re often caught underwater to begin with. However, it also happened with many, many surface ships, including both naval and commercial ships.

Ships sunk with few survivors included USS Juneau, with only ten survivors out of 697 crewmen, and German heavy battlecruiser Scharnhorst, with 36 survivors out of 1986 crewmen. Destroyer USS Jarvis had no survivors out of 233 crewmen early in the Guadalcanal campaign.

There were literally hundreds of naval vessels sunk during World War II with no survivors. Hundreds of ships. That's right, hundreds of ships with no survivors.

Sailors of HMAS Sydney
Crewmen of HMAS Sydney at Alexandria, Egypt, 1940. Source: Royal Australian Navy Sydney Memorial. 

So, HMAS Sydney had a lot of company in having none of its 645 men survive. It’s all conjecture, but there are several likely causes for the lack of survivors.

Survival at sea requires you to jump over numerous obstacles. Each one, individually, may not seem like much when we’re reading about it 80 years later, but each obstacle whittles down the number of people who can then try to hurdle the next one. It’s a pretty grim cut-down process.

First, the sinking happened around midnight. Tough to get your bearings in the dark, with no lights in an endless sea. Not easy to spot anything to grab onto.

And, there wouldn’t have been much to grab onto anyway. We’re all familiar with how warships look. What’s not obvious until you think about it is that there isn’t a lot of floatable material on deck. Cruise ships are lined with lifeboats on the “boat deck” - cruisers don’t have boat decks. There will be a launch or two, some rafts, and that’s it.

It’s not like everybody would have been standing around on deck waiting for the right time to jump into the water. They would have been below, fighting fires, manning pumps, trying to get the engines to work.

Sailors of HMAS Sydney
Sailors of HMAS Sydney while serving in the Mediterranean, 1940. Source: Royal Australian Navy Sydney Memorial. 

When discovered in 2008, Sydney was found to have sunk after its bow snapped off. Since the bow was found near the rest of the vessel, that probably precipitated the final plunge (as with RMS Titanic). The ship then sank vertically, which would have been quite fast. It’s not easy to climb ladders and stairs when they’re horizontal. People normally topside in the superstructure was killed during the battle, so the survivors of the battle are mostly below the waterline - not a good place to be in a sinking ship.

And that ship, your home perhaps for years by now, the place you knew like the back of your hand and could "walk through blindfolded," is now suddenly alien territory. It is trying to kill you, with nothing where you expect it to be. Oh, wait, that corridor isn't there anymore because a shell destroyed it, better go to Plan B!  Maybe that corridor you used to walk down in ten seconds is now vertical - hard to climb up steel plating. You have to think through every move - where you used to turn left, which way do you go now to get to the surface, and which exit (that you normally don't use very often) is still going to be above water? - and thinking things over with the sea surging in isn't a good plan.

Able Seaman Thomas Clark of HMAS Sydney, who made it to a carley raft but then found the real struggle had only just begun
Able Seaman Thomas Welsby Clark hurdled all the obstacles and made it to carley raft. Having survived a brutal Darwinian cut-down process, this enabled him to wait out endless days and nights with no food or water, waiting for help that never came. Source: Royal Australian Navy via Quadrant Online.

There aren't a lot of openings to the outside in a cruiser to crawl through. There is a set number of exits with no skylights or anything like that where you might get out to safety. Heavy watertight doors will be closed and they open at funny angles that may be against gravity. Water is coming in at random places from shell and torpedo damage. And the lights have failed and there’s total darkness and things have fallen in your way that you have to crawl over. And you’re exhausted from manning the pumps for hours. "Don't tell me it's impossible, lads, you either get 'er done or we all die." And a dozen other sailors, your mates, are in the same corridor blocking your way as the precious seconds tick by. Some of them are dead or dying, maybe calling out for help - do you stop to aid them?

And getting out of the dying ship is only the beginning. So, a small number of lucky sailors would have found their way topside. Avoid getting pulled under from the suction! They would have been struggling in the water in pitch darkness. The sea undoubtedly was covered in oil, perhaps some of it on fire, which makes swimming difficult. You hear voices of dying men crying out for help or just, well, crying out because they know what's coming next.

Carley rafts during World War II
Carley floats were stored in out-of-the-way places and designed to float free in the event of a really bad day. Source: Legion Magazine.

Okay, well, you can handle all that, right? You're out, you watch that dark shadow of the ship slide under a few meters from you, it's nice, warm water because it's summertime Down Under. All's good, you're the lucky one, the clever one, the overachiever who got out! Wasn't so hard! They should have taught those other blokes who didn't get out what's what! At that point, you just tread water and wait for daylight. Look for one of those rafts that you never noticed during your daily routine, what were they called again - oh, sure, carley rafts. With the sun will come the rescuers because that’s what always happens in the movies, right?

Well, the crew of Sydney didn’t get off any distress messages because the Kormoran’s very first salvo destroyed the bridge, killing the bridge crew and likely terminating the radio apparatus. So, nobody even knew that the Sydney had been sunk for five days. A search wasn’t even begun until 24 November and lasted only through 29 November. The men in the water (and there were likely some from Kormoran, too, though miles away from the Sydney men) were probably all dead before the first ship left a harbor or the first plane took off to look for them.

Map of Sydney location and where the only body was found
May of Sydney sinking and where the carley float was found about three months later.

The men in the water wouldn’t see any rescuers at dawn or at any other time because it’s a big ocean and things get lost there very easily. I’m sure you’ve heard about that Malaysian plane, MH 370, that disappeared in 2014. When someone asked me then how long it would take to find it, I said “never.” I compared it to flying a helicopter over the United States looking for a plane that had crashed but you had only the vaguest notion of in which state it might have happened. “Look in the Midwest first.” Yeah, good luck with that. Incidentally, there are many WWII plane crashes that have never been found, too.

But anyway, the men would have been struggling in the water not just until morning, but for one endless day after another. As far as they were concerned, they would be struggling in the water for eternity, getting thirstier, hungrier, weaker, and more sunburned until they finally just accepted it or drank some water ("it can't be as bad as they say") or drowned in the waves.

Some, injured during the battle, would have succumbed quickly. Sailors fighting fires in the bowels of the ship or in the engine room wouldn’t have been wearing much (it would have been hot as Hades below decks), hence had little protection from the cold at night and the burning sun during the day Water sucks the heat out of you much faster than air. Others would have lasted a day, some two days, maybe a few for longer. But each day would have been another obstacle, and notice what I said above about obstacles. No food, no potable water, no shade from the sun beating down on you… it’s not a pretty picture even if you do somehow make it to a raft.

Wreckage of USS Indianapolis
Wreckage of USS Indianapolis from a National Geographic documentary. Source: Television Business International.

The experience of the USS Indianapolis in 1945 will give you chills if you read about it. There were many, many men struggling to survive in the water after it was torpedoed just after delivering an atomic bomb for special air mail delivery to Japan. They grouped together, holding onto each other to survive until rescuers came.

And then the sharks came.

So, the number of survivors of the Sydney was dropping constantly for a variety of factors. There’s one more fact that will make the point. The wreck was discovered about 222 km west of Australia. Okay, so maybe some men would have somehow swum to shore or drifted there, right? You know how wreckage always winds up ashore, some of them should have made it. Well, if they were champion endurance swimmers with perfect preparation, perhaps. But there’s one last fact you need to know before you reach that conclusion: 

the currents in that part of the Indian Ocean sweep in a counterclockwise circular pattern away from Australia and toward Africa. They head north, then west. Not toward land. Even if you made landfall before making the big left turn toward Africa, it would take months - months - to see land in the distance. And, it's not easy to see land far away when you're bobbing in the water.

That’s why bits of the wreckage of MH 370, which could have crashed within a few miles from the Sydney’s wreck for all we know, are still being found in South Africa and on islands off the African coast. Thousands of nautical miles away. And it took months, even years, to get there.

German raider HSK Kormoran
German raider Kormoran, which sank around the same time as HMAS Sydney after their battle (Federal Archive Image 146-1985-074-27).

A fair question is how there were 318 survivors of Kormoran’s 399 -man crew but none from Sydney. Well, it was the luck of the draw. The crewmen on the German raider realized early on that their ship - never built to survive gun battles and thus not expected to take punishment from a cruiser and survive - was going to sink. So, they abandoned the ship early on in good order. That apparently wasn’t the case with the crew of Sydney. And things would have been easier for the Germans after the sinking, too. A converted merchantman would have had plenty of stuff lying around that would float and give men something to grab onto to keep themselves from drowning. The Kormoran even had lifeboats, helpful as a part of the disguise of being an Allied merchantman.

Even then, with the Germans being questioned, it wasn't clear what happened. The German survivors didn't see the Sydney sink. They all had different stories based on the bits of information they did know. Among other things, they didn't know the precise position of the battle. And then, the Germans didn't know how long it took Sydney to sink or which direction it went in (south by southeast, it turned out). The currents by then already had five days to work their magic and take the survivors far away from that location in some random direction anyway.

Carley raft from HMAS Sydney
A carley float from HMAS Sydney that didn't save anyone. Source: Naval Historical Society of Australia.

Days passed with nothing for the survivors to look at but the endless sky. The few sailors nearby that kept you company would have drifted away during the nights, so eventually you were all alone. Hard to spot a single man with no bright clothing or other clear identifiers in the middle of the ocean. Even if you somehow had a flare gun, there aren't a lot of passing ships because you weren't on a freighter on a normal trade route. You were just out there in some random place in the middle of nowhere.

Being adrift after your ship sinks or your plane crashes is one of the worst ways to die. You have plenty of time to think things over and often not a thing you can do to avert the inevitable unless you get lucky and someone happens by and spots your head slightly above the waves.

A passing tanker finding the Germans five days later was the first indication to the authorities that there had even been a battle. Nothing happened in the Indian Ocean during the war, right, so why would there have been a battle? Maybe if the tanker had found Sydney survivors in the water, the losses would have been more even. The Germans got lucky - some even made landfall on their own, in their boats - and the Sydney sailors didn't. Luck of the draw.

This is all just cold, hard reality, and the same thing could happen to any of us at sea.

To show how World War II still haunts the world, just last week - 19 November 2021 - Australia announced that a body found in a carley float near Christmas Island on 6 February 1942 was, as long thought, a certain crewman from Sydney. He was identified using DNA testing of relatives. The sailor, Able Seaman Thomas Welsby Clark, had two shrapnel wounds to his head, one in his left forehead and one above and behind his left ear that destroyed his skull. How he ever made it into a raft is a miracle in itself. Men in the water would have had wounds, too. It's never a pretty sight after a fierce battle.

Even a lucky sailor who somehow made it to a raft couldn’t make it over all the final obstacles. The men in the water had no chance at all.

Carley raft in a South African museum
A carley float in a museum in South Africa. One of these helped one sailor from Sydney die slower. Source: Photograph by Mike Peel (


Saturday, November 20, 2021

WWII Planes in Action: P-51 Mustang

The Iconic P-51 Fighter

P-51 escort fighter
The P-51 was a classic escort fighter.

The United States Army Air Force (USAAF) had several excellent fighters during World War II. Among them were the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, the P-47 Thunderbolt, and the P-38 Lightning.

The most iconic of them all, though, was the North American Aviation P-51 Mustang.

The P-51 achieved its legendary status through a sequence of unusual circumstances. It was conceived as a concept pitched to the British Purchasing Commission, in a tremendous rush for new planes during the Battle of Britain, by North American Aviation as a more modern alternative to the P-40. During this period before Lend Lease (Lend Lease became U.S. law on 11 March 1941), the British were still paying cash for their orders and not just taking whatever the Americans chose to give them.

Taking the company on faith, the British placed their order. North American's top designer, Edgar Schmued, then quickly went to work designing and building an actual plane. Using advanced wind tunnel design techniques, he created advanced and extremely aerodynamic wings and fuselage that were very fuel-efficient. The company finished a prototype in an astonishingly short period of 102 days even though the United States was not at war and not under any particular pressure. The prototype first flew six weeks later, on 26 October 1940, during the dying days of the Battle of Britain.
P-51 escort fighter
Never forget the pilots who made the P-51 into a legend.

The British weren't happy when they got their first versions of the P-51, designated Mark I. Its Allison V-1710 engine was fine below 15,000 feet and the plane's flight characteristics were fine. However, due to its single-stage supercharger, the engine lost its power at higher altitudes. The Luftwaffe's Bf-109 fighter, powered by a Daimler-Benz DB 601 and then 605 engine, had fuel injection that provided superior performance at higher altitudes. This was a big problem because the Luftwaffe pilots preferred the high ground anyway.

Prospects looked bleak for the P-51. It appeared it would be relegated to the decidedly unprestigious roles of tactical reconnaissance and ground-attack fighter-bomber. However, a Rolls Royce test pilot, Ronald Harker, had an inspiration. The airframe was excellent, he reasoned. Why not put a Rolls Royce Merlin engine used in the Royal Air Force's Supermarine Spitfire into the Mustang, since it did not have the Allison engine's high-altitude failings? The idea made perfect logical sense and was immediately embraced by the RAF.

The engine chosen was the  Merlin 61. Unlike the Allison engine, it had a two-speed, two-stage, inter-cooled supercharger, designed by Stanley Hooker of Rolls-Royce, that gave it superior performance at higher altitudes. This change increased the Mustang's 390 mph (340 knots, 630 km/h) at ~15,000 feet (4,600 m) to around 440 mph (380 knots 710 km/h) at 28,100 feet (8,600 m). This was a dramatic difference that made the Mustang a competitor as an air superiority fighter. This version became the Mustang Mk X.

At North American Aviation, the hard decision was made to scrap the Allison engine and replace it with a US license-built Packard version of the Merlin engine. Basically, it was the same Merlin 61 engine, just made in a United States factory. Performance of this version gave a top speed of 445 mph (387 knots, 716 km/h) at 28,000 feet (8,500 m), with a service ceiling of 42,000 feet (13,000 m). This was more than sufficient to compete with the Bf 109 fighter, let alone the new Focke Wulf Fw-190, which was the Luftwaffe's top fighter at lower altitudes.

After some design changes to the Mustang to accommodate the 350-lb heavier Merlin engine led to the P-51B, the USAAF asked in July 1943 that the plane be further modified to maximize fuel capacity. The goal was to enable the Mustang to accompany bombers to the heart of the Reich. The company did some further design changes and added an additional 85 US gal (320 liter, 71 imp gal) fuel tank in the fuselage behind the pilot. This version, the P-51C, had greatly increased range. A bonus was that the P-51Bs could be converted into P-51Cs by using a kit supplied by North American Aviation.

The final and definitive version of the Mustang, the P-51D, appeared in mid-1944. It had a Packard V-1650-7 engine, a license-built version of the two-speed, two-stage-supercharged Merlin 66. The P-51D had a range of 1,650 mi (2,660 km, 1,434 nautical miles) with external tanks, allowing it to accompany bombers all the way to Berlin. While the later Spitfire versions could achieve roughly the same maximum speed as the Mustang and perhaps fly even a little faster, they were interceptor fighters, not escort fighters, and could only stay in the air for a little over an hour. The Mustangs could fly for hours and hours, lingering over the Reich and waiting for opportunities.

The enhanced performance of the P-51C and P-51D had a dramatic impact on the battle for aerial supremacy. Major General James Doolittle, the commander of the 8th Air Force and hero of the "Doolittle Raid" against Tokyo, was so satisfied with the Mustang's capabilities that he changed the rules of engagement in early 1944. Thereafter, Mustang pilots could only loosely cover the bomber stream while they hunted for Luftwaffe fighters and attacked their airfields. This had a dramatic effect on loosening the Luftwaffe's control of the skies over the Reich, let alone Allied territory.

As control of the skies shifted to the Allies, it enabled major changes in strategy. The RAF was able to return to daylight bombing in 1944 after years of night raids. This greatly increased bombing accuracy and further weakened the Luftwaffe's ability to defend the skies.

While the Luftwaffe fought back with new tactics and planes, such as the jet-engine Me 262 Swallow fighter, the P-51D fighters basically cleared the skies over the Western Front. Whereas in the past the Wehrmacht had been able to use the Luftwaffe to help its ground battles, now it had to plan attacks - such as the Battle of the Bulge - for poor weather conditions in which neither side's planes could operate. Thus, the evolution of the Mustang fighter affected both strategy and tactics to the benefit of the Allies, shifting the entire course of the war.

Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering, the head of the Luftwaffe, admitted upon his capture that, "When I saw Mustangs over Berlin, I knew the jig was up." Those fighters were P-51 Mustangs. No other fighter of World War II had as profound an impact on events as did the North American Aviation P-51 Mustang.

P-51 in Switzerland
A P-51 shot down in Switzerland after straying across the border.


Sunday, November 14, 2021

WWII Strafing Runs on Axis Targets

Lightnings, Mosquitoes, Thunderbolts, Mustangs, Warhawks, Oh My!

P-40 Warhawk providing cover for the invasion of Rendova 1943
"Rendova Island Invasion, June 30, 1943. Landing craft debouch U.S. amphibious troops who run for the trees. Overhead a USAAF P-40 provides air coverage."  Naval History and Heritage Command 80-G-52671.

Fighters play many roles beyond air superiority. As shown in the photo above of the invasion of Rendova (Operation Toenail) on 30 June 1942, one of their important roles was strafing enemy targets during World War II.

Strafing a Luftwaffe bomber during World War II
Captain A.F. Eaton of 84th Squadron, VIII Air Force, strafes a Luftwaffe bomber parked on the airfield, 19 July 1944.

Strafing runs were a common feature of both sides during World War II. Sometimes escort fighters would strafe targets after a bombing run, other times it was a planned operation to disrupt ground supply. And, at times, it was just a way for fighter pilots to kill some boredom during long patrols through empty skies.

We start off with fighters strafing a Tiger tank that is on the move during the day in the European Theater of Operations. While bullets often bounced harmlessly off of tank armor, you might get lucky and hit something explosive.

Next, we turn to some strafing runs against trains and fast-moving vehicles in Occupied Europe. It became very dangerous for Germans to drive during the day. In fact, German General Erwin Rommel was badly wounded when he tried this about a week after D-Day in June 1944. His driver, a war hero during the Norwegian campaign, was killed and he was in the hospital for some time.

US Navy planes flew many strafing runs in support of island invasions in the Pacific Theater of Operations. Here, fighters strafe targets on Okinawa during the invasion of April 1945.

US Air Force fighter bombers fired rockets at ground targets during the final year of the war. Here, some fire at Japanese resistance on Okinawa in 1945.

Returning to the ETO, the US Army Air Force spent weeks attacking ground targets prior to D-Day, 6 June 1944, in order to seal off the beachhead area and starve it of supplies. Here, fighters strafe a Luftwaffe airfield.

The campaign up the boot of Italy in 1943-45 was a long, hard slog. The Germans occupied a series of mountain defensive positions that were very strong. They held out for six months on the "Winter Line," a position anchored on the monastery at Monte Cassino. Finally, the Allies succeeded in dislodging them in May 1944 after destroying their supply lines from northern Italy. This was Operation Strangle. Here, Republic P-47 Thunderbolts attack an Italian supply train.

Above is another view of USAAF fighters strafing German ground targets. Sometimes, the pilots would get lucky and hit a fuel storage tank or something similar that would blow up in a huge explosion.

Above, Allied P-38 Lightning fighters strafe German trains. The Germans learned to fear the P-38, which they called the "fork-tailed devil" due to its distinctive appearance with two booms. These kinds of attacks led to the "German glance," which was a worried look back over your shoulder in case an Allied fighter was approaching.

Throughout 1945, the USAAF launched a series of bombing raids on Tokyo. The P-51 Mustang escort fighters would guard the bombers, but once the mission was done, the pilots could choose ground targets at will to liven up the day. Here, they strafe Japanese shipping near Tokyo.

In 1944, the RAF launched a series of raids against German naval shipping that was hiding out in Norwegian fjords. These were difficult missions because the Germans had a lot of defensive artillery that could throw up a lot of flak, and the harbors were surrounded by mountain peaks that required swooping actions and quick pull-up to avoid crashing into the hills. Here, de Havilland Mosquito bombers attack a Kriegsmarine ship in a Norwegian fjord during the summer of 1944.

Strafing shipping during World War II
Strafing by fighters was often more effective against shipping than using level bombers. Even though they were only firing machine guns, they were much, much more accurate.


Sunday, November 7, 2021

Aerial Combat Footage in the Pacific WWII

Massive Destruction From The Air

B-25 bomber during World War II
A B-25 bomber in action during World War II.

Here we have collected some aerial combat footage from the Pacific Theater of Operations during World War II. The US Army Air Force went to great pains to document their operations during the war. Gun-camera footage is usually brief because the cameras only operate while the guns are firing. Naturally, pilots were interested in conserving their ammunition for further encounters and thus usually fired the guns only for short bursts.

During the closing days of World War II, the US Army Air Force had free reign over Japan. Long-range P-51 Mustang escort fighters and other advanced planes could linger over Japanese industry and military installations and pound them at their leisure.

Kamikaze attacks were a severe threat in 1944 and 1945. These were one-way trips for the pilot, determined to hit a US Navy warship as his last act of bravery for the Emperor.

The "para-frag" bomb was invented by George Kenney in the 1920s. Conditions were ideal for its use in the Southwest Pacific Theater of Operations. The para frag was a relatively small bomb (24 pounds or 11 kilograms) designed to shatter into 1" (25mm) fragments upon its impact. The bombs dropped slowly toward their targets under a small parachute.

Japanese airpower lost its punch as the war progressed. The experienced Japanese pilots from early in the war could not be replaced by men of similar quality, so the battles became increasingly one-sided.

Still, even in 1944, the Japanese could muster hundreds of aircraft to attack the US fleet. They scored dramatic successes off Okinawa and other islands, sinking ships and causing the US Navy to reorient its strategy. 

The ultimate solution to the kamikaze attacks was to station destroyers as picket ships far out from the main force. They could alert the aircraft carriers in the center of the fleet in time to launch their defensive aircraft. Other ships could prepare their anti-aircraft defenses with plenty of warning.

Of course, the downside of this strategy was that the destroyers serving far away from the rest of the fleet were vulnerable. Many of these destroyers were sunk with large loss of life. Their sacrifice protected the more valuable capital ships supporting invasions.

US bombers such as the B-25 attacked Japanese airfields with increasing success as the war wore on. The development of long-range escorts that could stay in the air for up to eight hours enabled the bombers to carry out long-range missions as far as Tokyo.

Para-frag bombs in use, 1944
American M-40 para-frag bombs fall toward a Japanese Ki-21 bomber, Buru Island, 1944.