Kormoran, Sydney & Strategy

The object of naval warfare must always be directly or indirectly either to secure command of the sea or to prevent the enemy from securing it.
Julian Corbett, 1911

The Royal Australian Navy suffered its largest loss on 19 November 1941, when HMAS Sydney was sunk by German auxiliary cruiser, HSK Kormoran. This fateful engagement cost 645 Australian (pictured above) and 82 German lives and has puzzled many as Sydney was the superior ship, a battle-hardened and modern cruiser in contrast to the merchant vessel-cum-raider, Kormoran. The enigma is only now being cracked since the discovery of both wrecks in 2008 and 2011.

November 1941 was the beginning of year of heavy losses for the RAN. The loss of Sydney deprived the RAN of warfighting capability against the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) when the IJN was superior to Allied forces in the Pacific, and was followed by the loss of sister-ship HMAS Perth in the Sunda Straight in March 1942. Strikingly, while Perth was sunk after sustained action against a large force of Japanese warships, Sydney succumbed to a single auxiliary cruiser. However, Sydney’s loss, while great, is only one impact of German commerce raiders.

Although the U-boats had a greater influence, Germany’s eleven auxiliary cruisers sank or captured 142 Allied ships with more than 872,000 Gross Registered Tonnage (GRT) (Muggenthaler, 1977). The auxiliary cruisers had greater independence and posed a threat to Allied sea lines of communication (SLOC) across the seven seas: Kormoran cruised for eleven months before it was finally sunk, while Altantis covered 160,000km in 602 days (Muggenthaler, 1977). This incredible endurance provided Germany with sea denial capabilities beyond the Atlantic. Their daring voyages through far-flung oceans and exotic ports captured the minds of the German public and their captains, men like Theodor Detmers and Bernhard Rogge, became national heroes. For a while, the mighty Royal Navy seemed entirely incapable of defending against the raiders, which roved freely—albeit, discreetly—through the Commonwealth’s backyard, off the coast of the Atlantic, South Africa and Australia.

Militarily, the raiders tied up Allied resources in pursuit and contributed to the need to adopt a convoy system. However, as the war progressed, the surface raiders became less effective (Cooper, 2001). Convoys, technology and better detection processes diminished the raiders to a nuisance until they were all sunk or removed from service.

So, what was the use and effect of Germany’s surface commerce raiders? The story of the Kormoran is the perfect way to explore this. But first, we must consider commerce raiding as part of a developing German maritime strategy. Then we will assess the use of commerce raiders, including the tactics of deception, targets and Allied responses. Finally, we will evaluate the strategic impact of commerce raiders, both materiel and economic, with particular focus on the loss of Sydney and the Australian war effort.

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Learning new skills

How much time does it actually take to learn a new skill? That depends on the skill – and, more importantly, how good you want to get. It is said that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. That’s 1,250 eight hour days, or more than five years of full time work – an intimidating number! Yet professional athletes, musicians, writers all have to do at least that much work to become good at their trade, and most, the truly brilliant, spend their entire lifetimes. It is therefore the acme of hubris or ignorance to think that any old Joe can just pick up a paintbrush and create a masterpiece – similarly, not just anyone can run a ten second 100m.

But most people don’t set out to become masters in everything they do. To do so would ensure a limited skillset and an unbalanced life. While not glamorous, there’s a lot to be gained by achieving a novice, mediocre level of skill. If nothing else, building a very basic level of skill across a range of activities can enrich one’s appreciation for actual masters. It can be difficult to work out why something is considered great without the perspective of how difficult that activity actually is. Learning new skills also opens up new worlds and sub-cultures, each with their own argot, heroes and mythos.

There’s a trope in fiction of the Competent Man. The Competent Man is an archetypal character who has an immense breadth of knowledge and skills. James Bond is one such arch-competent man, with knowledge and skill in obscure history, art, wine vintages, gambling, sports, piloting, driving, charming and fighting. Robert Heinlein summarises the skills of a Competent Man:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialisation is for insects.”

Most characters in this mould are presented without explanation for how they gained their depth and breadth of knowledge and ability. This perhaps goes to the origin of the character, Homer’s Odysseus, who like others in that mythic age had at least a little divine blood. So is it folly to strive towards Heinlein’s standards? One may think so, but history provides numerous examples of competent men and women, who seem, like Odysseus, to possess great skill across disciplines.

At ten thousand hours per skill, it would certainly be quite a challenge to achieve mastery across several fields (although some, like Leonardo da Vinci, apparently managed). What if we set our sights lower? Heinlein’s sentiment that “specialisation is for insects” implies that our goal does not need to be mastery but simply competence. And that, fortunately, is a much more achievable goal.

How long does it take to learn a new skill? For a modest, novice level of competence, not all that long. In the past two years I’ve dabbled in several new skills: piano, (digital) painting, German, computer programming and running, among others. My results have varied, and I certainly haven’t achieved proficiency in any of these activities, but I believe that for my modest time commitment I’ve achieved quite a lot.

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Chivalry and Virtue

The Western conception of chivalry, originating as a martial code of honour among the warrior elite of Charlemagne, underwent significant development from the early medieval to the high medieval. The classical archetypes of heroism, with its divine heroes such as Herakles, were perhaps a starting point, and certainly reappeared explicitly in the Renaissance. Alexander’s cavalry Companions offer further inspiration, as do the Roman equites. However, the different values of Christianity vis-à-vis Hellenic paganism meant that European chivalry developed beyond simple veneration of strength, courage and honour – although these remained important. In the catechism of Roman Catholicism there are seven virtues which reflect the moderating influence of Christian on Hellenic values. The four cardinal virtues identified and espoused by Plato, and adopted by the Church Fathers, were prudence, justice, temperance and courage. To these, however, were added three ‘theological’ virtues: faith, hope and charity (or love). The idea of a knight as being a warrior for his feudal lord, a defender of his faith and the generous, magnanimous protector of the weak incorporates the cardinal and theological virtues, and therefore exceeds the limited focus of the Hellenic heroic tradition. The evolution of chivalry from martial honour in the 8th century to chivalry as the Christian masculine ideal in the late Middle Ages is indicative of broader developments in Christian theology and western philosophy, as well as historical context such as the Crusades.

Aristotelian thought re-entered the western intellectual tradition in the 12th and 13th centuries with new translations from Arabic and Greek, prompting a re-examination of the wisdom of the ancients. In Christendom, this work was almost exclusively done by monks and the clergy. Thus the reintroduction of Greek philosophy to western philosophy occurred through the paradigm of Christian theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, whom held Aristotle in high esteem, sought to synthesise Aristotelian philosophy with Christianity, and the influence of Aristotle’s ideas, such as the natural law, is clear in Summa Theologica. Importantly, Aristotle’s virtue ethics found a comfortable match in Christian values, the need for good deeds, and the notion of chivalry.

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Those were beautiful, magnificent times, when Europe was a Christian land. When one common interest joined the most distant provinces of this vast spiritual empire. 
– Novalis, 1799

Was Christendom ever so unified? A hundred cathedrals bear testament to Novalis’ vast spiritual empire, like the old Roman forts, marking the domain of Christ and Church.

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The lesson of vanitas

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
– Ecclesiastes 1:2, KJV

Over the course of our lives we must all confront death. Knowledge of our mortality can paralyse or invigorate. It can distract and destroy, or it can remind us to use what little time we have to focus on the important things, whatever they may be. It is little surprise that our fascination with death is found so readily in artwork, religion, cultural practice and, indeed, all human endeavour. Here I will briefly consider a specific genre of artwork, the vanitas painting, and how we might draw lessons from that theme.

“A vanitas painting contains a collection of objects symbolic of the inevitability of death and the transience and vanity of earthly achievements and pleasures.”
– Encyclopaedia Britannica

Vanitas paintings are interesting as they combine a moral, Christian message with rich painting of the very worldly things that the Christian mentality holds as futile. How, then, should we interpret the message of vanitas? First, we should consider the earlier definition of vanity (vanitas in Latin): futility. This is distinct from the modern meaning of the word. The Christian vanitas paintings juxtapose beautiful, worldly things with symbols of death and change to remind us that temporal things are not lasting and therefore futile when compared to the eternity of heaven.  Continue reading The lesson of vanitas

Odysseus as an exemplar

The tragic man affirms even the harshest suffering: he is sufficiently strong, rich and capable to do so.”
– Nietzsche, The Will to Power

Homer’s Odyssey is the classic tale of errantry. Set after the Trojan War and The IliadOdyssey is the story of its eponymous character’s adventures as he tries to return home. For ten years Odysseus faces adversity of mythic proportions: being trapped in the Cyclops’ cave; avoiding the monstrous Scylla; being strapped to mast to hear the sirens; being held as a sex-slave by a demi-goddess; a brief sojourn to the underworld. And, of course, being caught up in the schemes of the Olympians at almost every turn. In his fantastic adventures we find the wisdom of the ancients.

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Practical virtue ethics

The last stage of the labouring society, the society of job holders, demands of its members a sheer automatic functioning, as though individual life had actually been submerged in the over-all life process of the species and the only active decision still required of the individual were to let go, so to speak, to abandon his individuality, the still individually sensed pain and trouble of living, and acquiesce in a dazed, ‘tranquillised’, functional type of behaviour.
– Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

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Discourse: Urban Techwear

“Clothes make the man”

Much of Shakespeare has transcended quotation and become proverb. This line from Polonius (strictly speaking he says “for the apparel oft proclaims the man”), the fool in Hamlet, accompanies another of Shakespeare’s proverbs: “to thine own self be true”. Perhaps Polonius recognised the tension between these lines, for he surely never followed his own advice.

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