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Before December 1941, when Japan entered the Second World War on the side of Germany, most of Australia's war effort was concentrated in the Mediterranean theatre. The Royal Australian Navy played a particularly active role and no ship was more well-known than HMAS Sydney. With crew members from all over Australia, people around the country felt an attachment to the ship and followed news of her exploits.

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On 19 July 1940 HMAS Sydney was involved in an engagement off Cape Spada, Crete. Sydney damaged two Italian cruisers and though one escaped, The Bartolomeo Colleoni was stopped and later sunk by two British vessels whose crews rescued more than 500 survivors. Sydney emerged largely unscathed and returned to Alexandria, where triumphant crewmen posed for photos in the damaged forward funnel. In Australia, people rejoiced. Flags flew from government buildings and newspaper readers were reminded of Sydney's proud lineage: "Sydney outfought and destroyed the famous Emden and now her younger sister writes another page of naval history to thrill the civilised world".

Six men lean out through a large shell hole in a ship's funnel, smiling and laughing.
Crew members of the Royal Australian Navy light cruiser HMAS Sydney (II) look through a hole in the forward funnel 3 days after the ship had been damaged in action against the Italian Cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni off Cape Spada, Crete, on 19 July 1940. AWM 002435


Wartime snapshot

In July 1940 Sydney and British destroyer HMS Havock sailed from Alexandria for the Gulf of Athens to support a four vessel-strong Royal Navy destroyer flotilla seeking to intercept Italian shipping moving through the Dodecanese and carry out a submarine sweep along Crete's northern coast. Sydney's captain John Collins, suspecting that the enemy might attack the flotilla off Crete, put his ship on a course to provide support if it were needed.

His suspicion was proved correct when at dawn on 19 July two Italian cruisers opened fire on the British destroyers off Crete's north-western coast. The heavily outgunned British withdrew. Neither their commander nor the Italians knew that Sydney and Havock, both having maintained radio silence, were closing at speed. Collins prepared Sydney for action and having sighted the Italian vessels, ordered the battle ensigns hoisted and opened fire, scoring hits on both, which soon attempted to retreat under cover of smoke. Their fire slackened and one, Bartolomeo Colleoni, on fire and slowing, came to a complete stop. Two British destroyers were ordered to finish her off and pick up survivors.

Sydney continued in pursuit of the second cruiser, Giovanni Delle Bande Nere, one of whose shots hit Sydney's funnel. She was otherwise undamaged but coming within range of land-based Italian bombers and running low on ammunition abandoned the chase. Sydney escaped further damage when Italian aircraft attacked but Havock was hit. Both ships returned to Alexandria to the cheers of members of the Mediterranean Fleet whose Commander-in-Chief boarded Sydney to congratulate Collins and his crew. The battle, the first major success against the Italians, dominated news in Australia, and in London and New York the press lauded Sydney's victory over two superior Italian vessels.

Sydney spent the rest of 1940 on operations in the Mediterranean. In January 1941 she returned to a hero's welcome in Australia, underwent maintenance in Sydney and took up patrol and escort work in the Indian Ocean, on the Australia Station and in the Pacific. On 19 November 1941 she was lost with all hands off the West Australian coast after an engagement with the German raider Kormoran.


Coulthard-Clark, Chris, Where Australians Fought, The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998.

Historical Section, Admiralty, London, Naval Staff History Second World War Selected Operations (Mediterranean) 1940, Battle Summaries, London, 1957.

HMAS Sydney (II), Sea Power Centre,

New, Amanda, 'The sinking of Bartolomeo Colleoni', Australian War Memorial website,

Pelvin, Ric, 'The sinking of the Bartolomeo Colleoni', Wartime, 2, April 1998


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