Demystifying the story of HMAS Sydney

The long delay in solving Australia’s ‘greatest maritime mystery’ with the discovery of the wreck of HMAS Sydney can be sheeted home to a lack of resources rather than the difficulty of the search, according to Flinders University archaeologist Mark Staniforth.

Coordinator of the Maritime Archaeology Program at Flinders, Associate Professor Staniforth said the $4.5 million funding eventually provided by the Federal Government to the Finding Sydney Foundation project is in stark contrast with the $400,000 annually allocated to preserve the rest of the nation’s 5,500 wrecks.

“The technology that found HMAS Sydney had to be brought in from overseas, and it is an indictment of the level of Government funding that that sort of equipment is completely beyond the reach of archaeologists, and archaeology students, in Australia,” Associate Professor Staniforth said.

While the locating of the wreck is enormously significant in terms of interest to Australian society, Associate Professor Staniforth said Sydney’s popular reputation as a great maritime mystery was never really justified.

“If you look closely at the documentation, most of what has happened so far simply confirms what the German sailors were saying in 1942; where it sank and how it sank are issues that were known pretty soon after the event,” he said.

“It looks as if the captain simply made a fundamental mistake in getting too close to the German raider Kormoran – HMAS Sydney was shot to pieces and sank quickly.”

At a depth of 2.5 kilometres, HMAS Sydney is unlikely to be disturbed any time soon. But the assumption that the remnants of the warship enjoy protection as a ‘war grave’ is also mistaken, according to Associate Professor Staniforth.
“There is no legal protection for a war grave underwater,” he said.

Associate Professor Staniforth said that like wrecks around the Australian coastline, HMAS Sydney’s protection under law stems from the Commonwealth Shipwrecks Act, a status that is automatically extended to all shipwrecks once they are 75 years old.

Because HMAS Sydney had 10 years to go before it became officially historic enough to be protected, a special case was made and historic shipwreck status was recently granted by the Federal Minister for Environment, Heritage and the Arts, Peter Garrett.

Photo courtesy of The Finding Sydney Foundation
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