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.
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.
- Look at the image and read the text on the Anzac Day poster.
- What do you see? Describe the people and their surroundings.
- How might the Australian sailors in this image be feeling?
- What was the reaction of people in Australia to the news that the HMAS Sydney had survived?
- Using the link below, locate the following places where the Sydney saw action during the Battle of Cape Spada.
- Mediterranean Sea
- The Gulf of Athens
- Read the background information and use the link below.
- Before Japan entered the Second World War in December 1941, where were most of Australia's war efforts focused?
- The Sydney was the most well-known ship of the Royal Australian Navy at the time. Why did people feel an attachment to it?
- Identify how the Battle of Cape Spada was described in press reports at the time?
- How were the crew of the Sydney received upon the return to Australia upon their return to Alexandria Harbour on 20 July?
- In November 1941, the Sydney was lost at sea with no survivors off the coast of Western Australia following an engagement with the German raider Kormoran.
- The Sydney was located in March 2008. In November of that year, commemorative ceremonies were held to mark the 67th anniversary of the sinking. Do you think it is important to continue to commemorate the events of the Second World War?
- Discuss how your school and local community could commemorate Australians who have served, particularly those in the Second World War.
- Using the link below, imagine you were an Australian sailor on board the Sydney in 1940. Write a letter home to your family describing the sinking of the Bartolomeo Colleoni, and how you felt about the outcome.
Using the link below, imagine you are a news reporter writing about the Battle of Cape Spada and the sinking of the Bartolomeo Colleoni. Write a newspaper article explaining what happened. Remember to include a catchy headline.
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, www.navy.gov.au/history
New, Amanda, 'The sinking of Bartolomeo Colleoni', Australian War Memorial website, www.awm.gov.au/articles/blog/sinking-of-Bartolomeo-Colleoni
Pelvin, Ric, 'The sinking of the Bartolomeo Colleoni', Wartime, 2, April 1998