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Sunken Battleship Holds Key to Australian War Mystery

The sinking of Australia's light cruiser HMAS Sydney was the country's biggest World War II tragedy. A weekend discovery of the wreck could finally provide some answers to the 66-year-old naval mystery.

Supplied sonar image released by the Finding Sydney Foundation March 17, 2008 showing the hull of the HMAS Sydney

Sonar images match the HMAS Sydney battleship

The final resting place of the Australian battleship's 645-member crew has remained a mystery for more than six decades. The Sydney sank unexplicably in the Indian Ocean in 1941, taking the entire crew with it, after a 30-minute battle with the German vessel the Kormoran.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said that an Australian research team had found the remains of the Sydney over the weekend, less than 24 hours after locating the Kormoran. The two boats were located 12 nautical miles (14 miles, 23 kilometers) apart, Rudd said a news conference in Canberra on Monday, March 17.

Rudd said it was "a historic day for all Australians, and a sad day for all Australians."

"It's very important to understand that this is a tomb and there are 645 Australian sailors entombed there," he said.

Germany's government had also been informed of Kormoran's discovery and the resting place of 80 German crew, Rudd said, adding both ships would be declared war graves.

Sonar images show match

Photo provided by the Australian War Memorial shows the German ship Komoran

The battle between the Sydney and Kormoran cost hundreds of lives

Searchers thought they had discovered the wreckage several times before, always to ultimately come up empty. The wreckage was found about 240 km (150 miles) west of Shark Bay, off the coast of Western Australia.

A government-funded research ship discovered the wreckage at a depth of 2,470 meters (8,100 feet. Photographs will be taken next week. But high-resolution sonar images showed the wreck was almost intact.

"It's so many emotions that all I can do is cry," said Debra Malycha-Coombs, whose uncle Walter Leslie Curwood was a 23-year-old wire operator on the Sydney. "My mother died over 20 years ago not knowing where he was."

Mystery lingers

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd

Rudd said both ship wrecks will be declared war graves

Australia's navy chief Vice-Admiral Russ Shalders said there was no doubt the wreck belonged to Sydney as sonar images perfectly matched that of the cruiser. But it will "take some time" to know exactly what happened, Shalders said.

"For 66 years, this nation has wondered where the Sydney was and what occurred to her. We've uncovered the first part of that mystery. The next part of the mystery, of course, is what happened," Shalders said.

The witnesses to the battle were the 317 survivors of the Kormoran, which was sailing disguised as a Dutch freighter. The Australian navy's official version of the battle, based on incomplete accounts from Kormoran survivors, says the German ship lured the more heavily-armed Sydney in close and then opened fire with torpedoes and six-inch guns.

David Mearns, a famous shipwreck hunter, was part of the team that discovered the wreckage. He told Australian national broadcaster ABC the damage seems to corroborates the Kormoran crew members' testimony that a torpedo weakened the ships bow, sinking it.

Hope for answers

The sinking embarrassed the Australian Navy and plunged the country into wartime grief. Australia's Navy has been accused of trying to cover up the events out of embarrassment about the incompetence which lead to the Sydney's sinking and the entire crew being lost.

Nick Walden, whose uncle, Albert Hollington, was aboard the Sydney, said he hopes the find will paint a clearer picture of the battle.

"I'd like to see them have a look and work out exactly what happened so we can put to rest all these stories," Walden said.

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