German survivor tells how pride of Australia was sunk

Edmund Büttner vividly remembers seeing shells from his ship smash into the bridge of the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney, killing nearly every officer before the crippled and burning warship sank with the loss of all 645 hands.

The Second World War wreck of Australia's worst naval disaster was found only last month, 2,560 metres down in the Indian Ocean, prompting the Australia government to open an investigation into the sinking. But for Mr Büttner, who says he is the last survivor of the engagement that cost his own ship too, there is no mystery.

"Sydney went down because we hit it with one of our torpedoes and because it was burning fiercely," the 87-year-old said. "Her chances of staying afloat were zero."

Mr Büttner was on the 8,700-tonne auxiliary cruiser Kormoran, disguised as a Dutch freighter but armed with six hidden 5.9in guns, torpedoes and seaplanes, when she encountered the 6,800-tonne light cruiser Sydney on 19 November 1941. The Kormoran lured Sydney, armed with eight 6in guns and four 4in guns, to a point-blank 1,000-yard range, raised the Nazi flag, dropped the fake bulwarks and opened fire. "We took them completely by surprise," Mr Büttner said. Kormoran's guns pounded Sydney's bridge, hull and turrets. But Sydney returned fire, several salvoes crippling the Kormoran in the three-hour battle. Sydney withdrew on fire, then exploded and sank.

Hours later, Kormoran was scuttled. More than a fifth of the 371 crew were killed but the rest took to the boats. Mr Büttner was picked up six days later by the Australian troopship Aquitania and spent the rest of the war as a PoW.