HMAS Sydney II and the recent REWIND programme on the ABC

Hi Mac,

If you are interested in historical awareness you may be intererested in the attachments regarding HMAS Sydney II and the recent REWIND programme on the ABC.


Jim Eagles
ex RAN Communications Branch


Thank you, quite fascinating. I do wonder if any attempt will be made to find her, of interest, at our recent display of Sydney/Kormoran material at the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance, Captain Burnett's daughter was one of our visitors, only 4 years old when her Dad died.

This lady, naturally enough became quite tearful when talking about the action which claimed her Father, she indicated that she was not in favour of finding the wreck, and would prefer to let her lay where ever she may be in peace.

On the other hand, many relatives with whom we talked would like to know the last resting place of their individual loved ones.

Thus there are conflicting views on do, or do we not look for the Sydney wreck?

Thanks again,

Best wishes,

Detmers Diary Decoded

To attempt to unravel the some of the misleading information about HMAS Sydney, can be a daunting task at times, especially when information which should be original and reliable is not correct.  A study of the diary/notebook taken from Captain Detmers after his abortive escape attempt from the POW camp in Victoria, seems to fall into this category.  In the book Bitter Victory by Wes Olsen, the code used by the German captain in his notebook is named as the Vigenere code.

“When it was discovered that small dots had been placed under

certain letters, the dictionary was confiscated and sent to a secret

cryptanalysis unit in Melbourne.  (Fleet Radio Unit, Melbourne

or ‘FRUMEL’) for analysis.  It was subsequently established that

Detmers had used the Vigenere grid cipher to record two accounts

of the action between Sydney and Kormoran. (Page 90).

“Because the action report was encoded, it is assumed that it was

never intended to be read by the Australian authorities and is there-

fore considered to be a genuine account of the action between

Kormoran and Sydney.”  (Page 94).


I believe that assumption to be underestimating Captain Detmers by a considerable degree.  The Vigenere code was invented by Blaise de Vigenere (b. 1523), a Frenchman in the service of the Duke of Nevers and at times a diplomant to Rome from the French court.  This is a polyalphabetic cipher and by WW II standards, too simple to fool anybody.


Surprisingly, however, the Commonwealth Government records tell us that the notebook was not in the Vigenere cipher at all but in a (unspecified) German WW II code.  Richard Summerrall in HMAS Sydney, Guide 3, page 94/5 describes the notebook as : “A document in cipher taken from a recaptured German prisoner of war escapee was broken down by Lt Cdr Miller into German plain language.”  In the following file (B5823) the code is described as:

            “This item consists of loosely filed foolscap pages inside a single

            Military Board manila folder which carries the handwritten title

            ‘Dietmar’s Diary–Account of Action Between Kormoran and Sydney.

            Decode and Translations.’  The folder does not contain any document

            resembling a diary, but rather is a set of cryptographic worksheets

and a cryptographic analysis of a German World War II cipher.  The

original cipher was found in a notebook in Captain Detmers’ possession

when he was captured after escaping from Dhurringile prisoner of war

camp in January 1945 …… Using technical details of the German

cipher received from overseas a member of FRUMEL produced a

German language plain text version which was then translated.”


So it wasn’t the Vigenere code at all but a WW II German code that Detmers used.  It is further stated in Guide 3, page 90, that: “Why Captain Detmers encoded the account and then attempted to conceal it when recaptured is not known.  The authorities were satisfied that the account confirmed the stories obtained by the interrogators in 1941, but other have found inconsistencies.”


And well they might, because it dosen’t seem to have occurred to the authorities then (or now) that in the first instance they say they don’t know why Detmers did it and then provide the only possible reason.  He expected to be caught with it, expected it to be decoded and expected it to convince the authorities that the position he had given for the battle was correct.  However, there is more to this puzzle.  As the original notebook is no longer in our hands, it is possible that the coded message is not of Detmers’ handiwork at all, and there is a good reason to give this thought some consideration.

In recent weeks we have seen publicity regarding the decoded diary/notebook belonging to Detmers, the captain of the Kormoran.  I was rather surprised, however, to see that the decoding method used by Captain Peter Hore, was done using the Playfair Code.  I can only say that I was surprised to say the least.  Just what was the Playfair Code and where did it come from.


This code was created in Britain by Charles Wheatstone (co-inventor of the Wheatstone telegraph) and  first demonstrated in January 1854.  It was named after Lyon Playfair, the 1st Earl of Playfair of St. Andrews, Wheatstone’s friend.  It was thought to have been used in the Boer War, and possibly even earlier at the Crimea.  It was adopted as the Army’s field cipher during WW I, it was the world’s first digraphic code.


During WW I an American lieutenant, later Major General Joseph O. Mauborgne (Chief Army Signal Officer from 1937), made an interesting discovery.  David Kahn writes that, “Mauborgne had long been interested in cryptography.  In 1914, as a young lieutenant, he achieved the first recorded solution of a cipher known as Playfair, then used by the British as their field cipher.  He described his technique in a 19-page pamphlet that was the first publication on cryptography issued by the United States government.”


In fact, what he found was an ingenious method for almost automatically determining the letters of a Playfair keyword.  Once this pamphlet had been published, for all intents and purposes the Playfair code was finished and its usefulness was at an end.


During WW 2, however, the British were still using the code up until 1941 and generously supplied Australia with the code.  It was distributed to the Australian coastwatchers in the northern islands for their dangerous work in reporting Japanese troop, air and ship movements.  It remained in use by them until modified by the Australians to make it safer and more secure and was finally superceded by better codes in 1943.


This brings us back to Detmers encoded action report, which was encoded, usefully, in a British code, in fact, the Playfair Code.  National Archives of Australia, in their HMAS Sydney resources website, have some information on this code.


            “Naval historian Captain Peter Hore RN (Rtd) has done a decode

            of page 1 of the encoded notebook.  He has provided the National

            archives with a copy of his translation as well as the ‘Playfair’

            decode table he used.”


It seems Detmers wanted to ensure that Australian interrogators could decode it without too much trouble, or it was not encoded by Detmers at all, but by Australian or British Intelligence to back up Detmers story.  This decoding by FRUMEL was not done until 1945 and it is possible that Detmers did not even know of its existence as it was not released by the government until 1997.  Did FRUMEL use a German system to decode it and Captain Hore a British system ?  Detmers was supposed to have done this encoding, despite the fact, that the Germans had a simple, but very effective  code, known  as the 


Detmers Document

“IR” code, which was used by German prisoners of war to send intelligence and personal messages back to Germany.  The ‘IR’ code was not known to the allies in 1941.

In the Defence collection of the Archives Item B5823, shows a Top Secret document dated 20 July 1945, giving details of the naval intelligence memorandum No 76 detailing the decryption of Detmers’ encoded document.  The document specifically states that the document was ‘Cypher, in German, used by Captain Dietmar’.  It avoids stating that it was a “German code” but certainly gives that impression.  The Archives state that FRUMEL received the code from the UK and decoded the document here.  The system described in the Admiralty memorandum for decoding the German document certainly describes the Playfair code, so it would seem that the Admiralty are the ones responsible for the misleading information.


In this document it indicates that the message was sent under the security clearance just below “ULTRA” for decrypted German enigma traffic (indicated by the classification PEARL/PINUP at the top of the page).  It connects and identifies with the same report from Australia by the word GEFECHTSBERICHT or ‘Action Report’ used as a keyword and is dated 20.7.45.  This same message is the one found in the UK by David Mearns, but is not in any notebook, but loose leaf pages.  Additionally, the Rewind programme showed the dictionary, supposedly encoded by Captain Detmers, but there is not the slightest evidence that Detmers actually encoded any message in it at all.  As indicated by the previous page of decryption notes, this dictionary was apparently in the possession of the British Admiralty for some time as well as the now vanished  notebook.


Even so, the Detmers diary includes a few items of interest in the action report that are worth looking into and raise some valid questions.

Obviously, the first item of interest, and the first priority was to validate the false position Detmers had given his interrogators. 


If the Admiralty did encode it then it contains some interesting information.


It states that the Sydney approached slowly (at 1645) when Detmers made his ‘Q’ signal.  This is rather unrealistic, as soon as he made that signal, the Sydney would have opened fire immediately.  He states Perth received the signal, of which there is no record and he says they asked for a further report.

Detmers then writes that Sydney drew away and after signaling to Detmers “HOIST YOUR SECRET CALL” the Sydney stops her engines.  Two things here are important, only the secret callsign would have induced Burnett to stop and only if Kormoran was stopped as well.  Yet at no time has Detmers indicated that both ships were stopped – certainly in his book – both ships are underway at 14 knots. The ships apparently stopped between 1725 and 1730.  During this time other signals must have been made to indicate to the Sydney that there was a requirement to bring the ship to a halt.  Those signals have never been described.  In the same time period, after challenging Kormoran, Sydney comes to a stop and Detmers states they don’t have the least suspicion.  How could that be, if Sydney asked for the secret callsign and Detmers was unable to supply it ?  Just a few moments later, Detmers states Sydney began slowing down, but she was already supposed to be stopped.  Added to this is Detmers engine room log, and at 1735, again just a few minutes later Kormoran is hit in the engine room by the Sydney.  But reading the two logs a lot took place in those few minutes, perhaps a little too much for the time involved.  According to Detmers report both ships must have been stopped when they opened fire and Detmers describes his torpedo being fired before his guns are fired.


Between 1730 and 1735 Detmers removed his disguise, ran up his flag, gave his guns and torpedoes permission to fire, fires two torpedoes (before he says he opened fire with his guns), altered course to 260o, got away his first salvo(of one gun), that missed short, his second, third, fourth, fifth fired, correction made to guns, next hit on the Sydney’s bridge and control position and then Sydney finally fired a full salvo that missed (probably because they fired as the torpedo hit under ‘B’ turret), Detmers followed with two more salvoes and was then hit amidships in the engine room at 1735. 

The Kormoran is hit by the Sydney in the engine room and his engines cease to function.  Detmers describes this as :


“1735 Several hits in main engine room ….” But in his book describes only the one hit in the engine room.  Significantly, he also describes a number of misses with his own gun, but in his book he states “At that short range every shell we fired was a direct hit”. 

While he gives only one single line to the loss of forty men in the rubber raft which broke away and was lost, in his action report they get no mention at all.  The list of those killed on Kormoran and their rating show that, it looks as if many of them were mechanical and engine room personnel, killed by the ‘several hits’ amidships that destroyed his engines.


Is this Detmers’ version of events, or is it a fabrication provided by the Admiralty, for consumption here in Australia, just for the record ?


Detmers’ Diary, Notebook or Dictionary ?

[I have underlined certain parts of this]


There appears to be some confusion about the dictionary, diary, notebook that was used by Detmers to encode his action report and engine room report.  However, it appears to me that these are all one and the same item.


Detmers kept a form of diary in the notebook, which included some form of encoded message, which was used to encode the reports.  Why these reports should have been encoded is a matter of conjecture, as the information had already been passed to the Australian authorities. 


One account states:

“Mr Mearns says he has discovered a new account of the battle from the captain of the Kormoran, Theodore Anton Detmers, made in a dictionary while he was held captive as a prisoner of war in Australia.

Dots placed under letters in the dictionary, which was kept by the captain’s nephew in Germany, spell out a first hand account of the position of both ships prior to the battle.”


This dictionary was shown on the REWIND programme on the ABC when David Mearns interviewed Detmers’ grandson in Germany and the thought immediately struck me that it was too big.  The dictionary was almost A4 size and ten or twelve centimeters thick.  The idea that Detmers, an escaped POW, would try to get all the way back to Germany in January 1945, with a huge German-English dictionary under his arm is a bit too much to credit.  I’m surprised that David Mearns didn’t see anything ludicrous in this scenario nor apparently did the Australian guards when Detmers was searched and the dictionary apparently found.  The fact is I don’t believe Detmers ever knew anything about the dictionary at all, it never came to light until after his death, but was introduced into the story by naval intelligence and included among other Sydney material.  Every time it is mention there is the added clause, that it confirmed the Germans story.  Now that the truth has been revealed about the code being used, it proves just the opposite.


Tim Clark, Nov 19, 2003 POW-MIA InterNetwork.


Bluewater Recoveries report:


“Over the past two years MEARNS, whose work with retired RN Captain PETER HORE was featured in the ABC Television program REWIND broadcast today, has unearthed previously overlooked documents which point to the location where the battle between SYDNEY and KORMORAN took place.  The missing documents, all secret first-hand accounts made by key German officers and crew from KORMORAN, were found in England, Germany and Australia and have enabled MEARNS and HORE to establish the “factual ground zero” of the battle and sinking events.


The latest document found by MEARNS in Victoria was a photograph copy of the secret encoded notebook found on the German Captain, Theodor A. Detmers, when he was recaptured following his escape from the Dhurringile POW Camp in January of 1945.  This missing document contained a minute-by-minute account of the action against SYDNEY, which when decoded by HORE, was found to closely match the master account that Detmers had secretly hidden in a German-English dictionary three years earlier.


As a result of the contact with MEARNS the owner of this historically important document, Maria Hehir – daughter of the Intelligence Corps Officer Captain John L. Hehir whose unit captured Detmers, has kindly agreed for the National Archives of Australia to have a copy for its own collection.  This step will ensure that all other researchers have equal access to this new and important document.  MEARNS’ previous discoveries were similarly made public in a paper published last December by HORE and MEARNS in the Australia Navy History Review, and also in the posting of 178 pages of original documents on the website of the RAN Sea Power Centre.”


It would seem fairly clear to me that the information from Maria Hehir and the dictionary found in the Admiralty are one and the same.  The reason the copy in the dictionary found in England matched the documents from Maria Hehir in Australia is because it is the same information.  No one knew what happened to the original notebook Captain Hehir photographed, Archives state it was thought to have been lost in the 1974 floods, but obviously it went back to the Admiralty in London.  The other documents that are on the Sea Power website were confiscated from Detmers and the other Germans when they arrived back in Europe and were searched there.  The reason I believe this is because of the following:



Page 219.  “On recapture, escapees had been subjected to a strip search, during which Detmers’ diary was found,  Some of it in “German naval cipher”,  It was decided that, if the contents was important and secret enough for Detmers to go to the trouble of enciphering it, then it was important enough to try to decrypt it, but this was not done until it was sent to the Admiralty after the war.”




As well Frame tells us (page 180):

“A selection of papers was seized and forwarded to Melbourne.  It included a typewritten report on the 19th November action by Petty Officer Otto Jurgensen, diaries written by Lieutenant Commanders von Malapert and Diebitsch, and accounts written by Detmers, Bunjes and Karl Heinz.  After having the German accounts translated and assessed, the Australian naval intelligence concluded that ‘whilst no new information has resulted from research carried out on the documents, they have confirmed previous information held.”


Dots under letters in a dictionary is so obvious that it is a joke, they are what you would call a crib, but one so blatant that it is a complete joke.  It is an insult to Detmers and our intelligence to believe such an obvious clue would be left by Detmers, literally inviting decryption.  Once again, we can see that it was normal procedure to strip search prisoners when they were recaptured, so Detmers must have realized there was little chance of his diary/notebook escaping detection and he certainly wasn’t going to make it all the way back to Germany with it.  He must have expected it to be found.  We also now know that it wasn’t encoded in a German naval cipher at all, but in the British ‘Playfair’ cipher then in use by the British and Australians, so we must ask why would a German have access to and use a code that would be immediately recognized by the Australian authorities.  It is a totally unrealistic scenario, as the Senate Inquiry often pointed out to researchers.  Further, Winter definitely states the book was sent to the Admiralty and decoded so it is not new to the British at any rate.  Then additionally, Frame indicates that although some diaries were found during the search when the Germans returned to Europe, he specifically states that only papers were found on Detmers, not a diary.  Those papers are in the Seapower website.  And finally, the Australian Archives confirm that the diary/notebook/dictionary was encoded by the British ‘Playfair’ code not the German naval cipher, which Detmers would have preferred, as I pointed out previously, they had their own code, the ‘IR’ or Ireland Code, for sending secret information back to Germany.  The allies had no knowledge of this German code at the time and Detmers would certainly have used it in preference to a British code even if he had access to it.  It certainly seems to me that this code can only be a fabrication by either British or Australian Intelligence to confirm to everyone’s satisfaction that the German position was the right one.  That cannot be correct.  For the Australian Archives to have published that it was the ‘Playfair’ code that Detmers used to encoded his secret reports is the biggest joke of all, if they hadn’t done that, we all would have gone on believing Detmers had used a German code as Barbara Winter, mistakenly asserted.  It seems to me that the Notebook, the Diary and the Dictionary are all one and the same document, even if they were all individual documents, they would certainly not have been encoded in a British code, we can be certain of that.


James Eagles

Townsville  ©


Reference sources:

The Codebreakers, David Kahn     

The Coastwatchers, Eric Feldt

Bitter Victory by Wes Olsen

HMAS Sydney, Fantasy, Fake and Fraud, Barbara Winter

HMAS Sydney, Loss and Controversy,  Tom Frame

Australian Archives website


The Ireland Letter Code.


The Kriegsmarine knew that some of its men would be captured in the event of war and therefore devised a secret letter code known as the Ireland code so they could communicate any useful information they might have in their letters home from prisoner of war camps.  The code was made known only to commanders, senior officers and very few long-serving warrant officers.  The next of kin, who were likely to receive such letters, were instructed to forward all mail from prison camps to the Supreme Naval Command.  They were not aware of the code.  Instead they had been told that experts might be able to draw conclusions from the messages.


The code worked quite simply by dividing the alphabet into three groups: letters A to I represented a dot in Morse code; letters J to R a dash and letters S to Z a gap.  All that needed to be remembered were the letters I and R, the last in each set, hence the system became known as the Irland (Ireland) Code.  The decisive letters were the first ones of any word, so it was just a case of composing the secret message in Morse code and then inventing some harmless text in which the words had the correct initial letters to match the coded sequence.


In addition to this there was another system for sending news of successes and the reasons for being sunk.  Successes were reported by greetings at the end of the letter.  For example: Versenkungen (sinkings) = viele Grusse (many greetings or regards), Beschädigung (damage) = beste Grüsse (best regards), Sclachtschiff (battleship) = Schwester (sister), Kreuzer (cruiser) = Kind (child), Flugzeugträger (aircraft carrier) = Vetter (cousin), kein Erfolg (no success) = Nichte (niece – Nicht means no in German) and so on.  Hence the message “Schlachtschiff Hood wurde versenkt’ could be written as ‘Viele Grüsse an Schwester Hannah’ (‘Many greetings to sister Hannah’).


Enigma U-Boats, Breaking the Code. Jak P. Mallmann Showell, Ian Allen Pub., UK 2000,  p185.



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