The abbreviation HSK comes from Handelsstörkreuzer; German for "commerce disruption cruiser". The ship is sometimes referred to as DKM Kormoran, where DKM stands for Deutsche Kriegsmarine, but the Germans themselves did not use this prefix.
When in service, Kormoran displaced 8,736 tons and had a top speed of 18-19 knots. The ship was a prime example of the relatively successful "disguised freighter" technique used in commerce raiding by the Kriegsmarine in World War Two. The largest of the German raiders, Kormoran operated in the South Atlantic, Indian Ocean, and the South Pacific. In common with other auxiliary cruisers, she had substantial (hidden) armament: six 150 mm (5.9 in) guns, torpedo tubes, and seaplanes, but lacked the armour protection, fire control systems and speed of a proper warship. Successful raiding depended on surprise and disguise.
Kormoran then moved to a new operational area in the Indian Ocean; this was less profitable, and saw only three ships sunk between April and November 1941.
In November, she was cruising off the west coast of Australia, prior to a planned move to a new area in the South Pacific. However, her career came to an end on 19 November 1941, when she destroyed, and was herself destroyed by, HMAS Sydney.
In a cruise lasting for 352 days, from 3 December 1940 to 19 November 1941, Kormoran sank ten merchant ships, comprising a total of 56,965 tons, in addition to the one sent to France.
|13 January 1941||Antonis||3,729|
|18 January 1941||British Union||6,850|
|29 January 1941||Africa Star||11,900|
|29 January 1941||Eurylochus||5,764|
|22 March 1941||Agnita||3,552|
|25 March 1941||Canadolite||11,309||Captured and sent to Bordeaux|
|9 April 1941||Craftsman||8,022|
|12 April 1941||Nicolaos D. L.||5,486|
|26 June 1941||Velebit||3,644|
|26 June 1941||Mareeba||4,884||All 48 crew captured and taken onboard the Kormoran. Ship sunk by demolition charges placed by a boarding party.|
|26 September 1941||Stamatios G. Embirikos||3,580|
|19 November 1941||HMAS Sydney||6,980|
On 19 November 1941, the Kormoran encountered HMAS Sydney in the Indian Ocean at , off the coast of Western Australia between Carnarvon and Geraldton. At the time, the German raider was flying a false flag while posing as the Dutch freighter Straat Malakka, with a black hull and black funnel. Captain Detmers hoped to pass by undetected, but Sydney closed in to investigate. The German ship maintained her deception until Sydney was about away, which gave her a better chance of attacking the superior Australian warship.
According to the surviving crewmen of Kormoran, the Australian warship was not expecting battle, nor fully prepared for it, as her secondary guns were unmanned and therefore not trained on Kormoran. Taken by surprise, Sydney was hit about 50 times by the raider's heavy guns before she managed to return fire. Overall, Sydney received approximately 150 hits. A torpedo hit, scored relatively early in the engagement, caused massive damage to the bow of Sydney. The two heavily damaged ships drifted apart and Sydney was last seen by the crew of Kormoran in flames on the horizon, followed by some kind of explosion.
Sydney had inflicted medium damage to Kormoran, but one hit caused a fire that could not be controlled due to the fire fighting equipment being out of order. With 20 dead and the fire in engine room approaching the mine storage deck, Detmers decided at 18:25 to abandon ship to save as many lives as possible. Explosive charges were placed to scuttle the ship and the surviving crew took to the boats, with Detmers the last to leave. A further 40 men, mostly wounded, lost their lives when their lifeboat capsized in the rough seas. Shortly after midnight the charges were set - at 00:35, the mines exploded and Kormoran went down rapidly by the stern.
Detmers and about 320 of his crew (including 3 Chinese prisoners of war) were rescued from their lifeboats and liferafts by five ships: Aquitania, Trocas, Koolinda, Centaur and Yandra. A further two lifeboats came ashore just north of Carnarvon at 17 Mile Well. Nearly all spent the remainder of the war in an Australian prisoner of war camp, from which they would not be released until January 1947.
The fact that the only survivors of the battle were from the Kormoran has allowed the battle between Sydney and Kormoran to become the subject of much controversy, speculation and conspiracy theory. Eventually, it was realised that Kormoran had inflicted sufficient damage on Sydney for the Australian warship to be lost without survivors.
The wreck of the Kormoran was discovered by the Finding Sydney Foundation, led by search director David Mearns — a prominent American shipwreck hunter — on 12 March 2008 at , approximately off Steep Point at depth of . The probable scene of the engagement between the Kormoran and HMAS Sydney was also identified by the search team as being approximately south of the wreck of the Kormoran.
Following further analysis of sonar search results to confirm the identity of the wreck, a formal announcement of the discovery was made on 16 March 2008 by the Prime Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd. The following day, 17 March 2008, Rudd announced that the wreck of HMAS Sydney had been discovered from the Kormoran.
The wreckage of the Kormoran was provisionally declared to be a historic shipwreck under the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 on 17 March 2008.