How psychology solved a WWII shipwreck mystery
By Alix Spiegel - NPR.org
In November 1941, two ships crossed paths off the coast of Australia. One was the German raider HSK Kormoran. The other: an Australian warship called the HMAS Sydney. Guns were fired, the ships were damaged, and both sank to the bottom of the ocean.
The loss of the Sydney in World War II was a national tragedy for the Australians, particularly because none of the 645 men onboard survived. In the years that followed, there was intense interest in finding the wrecks, particularly the wreck of the Sydney. The idea was that doing this might give the families of the lost sailors some measure of peace, a sense of closure and certainty.
The problem was that the only witnesses to the battle and the sinking were about 300 German sailors who had abandoned their ship after it had been hit. They were eventually picked up by the Australian military.
After their capture, most of these Germans were interrogated and asked to identify where the ships had gone down. But the Germans seemed quite fuzzy on this point.
Bob Trotter, a former director of the Finding Sydney Foundation, a nonprofit group established to help find the Sydney, says their ignorance isn't all that surprising.
"Particularly in a wartime situation, the position of the ship is really kept in the bridge area," Trotter says. "It would not be normal that the rest of the ship's company would be told."
Still, in the course of their interrogations, about 70 Germans did come up with a location. But those locations, taken together, didn't make much sense — the positions were spread out, smeared over hundreds of miles. One survivor even placed the sinking almost halfway to Antarctica.
So most Australians concluded that the Germans must be lying, their conflicting accounts part of a ploy to throw the Australians off the scent. When Sydney hunters went out looking for the boat — and many did — they either completely disregarded the accounts from the Germans, or, in a couple of cases, focused exclusively on the captain's version of the story.