AUSTRALIA - A 92-former Nazi sailor living in South America may hold the key to solving one of Australia's greatest wartime mysteries, the sinking and disappearance of the battleship HMAS Sydney.
Shipwreck hunters have tracked him down in Chile and believe he holds vital clues about exactly where HMAS Sydney sank after being torpedoed by a German raider, the Kormoran, off Western Australia in November, 1941.
The ship went down with its entire crew of 645, none of whom survived, in what remains Australia's worst maritime disaster.
Its fate is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of World War II and repeated calls have been made over the years for Australian governments to mount a search for the wreck.
A non-profit trust has now taken up the challenge and believes it may be getting tantalisingly close to the Sydney's last resting place on the bottom of the Indian Ocean.
The latest clues to the puzzle come from Reinhold Von Malapert, one of the last-known survivors of the Kormoran, who now lives in the Chilean capital, Santiago.
He has been interviewed by David Mearns, an experienced American shipwreck hunter who is leading the search for the Sydney, and Peter Hore, a former Royal Navy officer.
Von Malapert, who was the German raider's chief communications officer, was put in charge of a lifeboat full of survivors after the Kormoran, badly damaged in its encounter with the Sydney, began to sink.
Of the Kormoran's crew of nearly 400 men, 80 drowned.
By an extraordinary act of seamanship he managed to steer the lifeboat and its 56 sailors for several days to Red Bluff, on a remote stretch of the coast of Western Australia.
Von Malapert was interned in a prisoner-of-war camp and repatriated to Germany in 1946.
His recollection of the Kormoran's position corroborates statements taken from the raider's navigator and wireless operator when they were interrogated by Australian military authorities.
The discussions with Von Malapert, conducted in Santiago over five days, point to an area 240km southwest of Shark Bay in Western Australia as being the most likely site of the battle.
"What we hope to do now is find the Kormoran and use that as our starting point," said Bob Trotter, 60, a former Royal Australian Navy submarine officer and a member of the non-profit HMAS Sydney Search group, involved in the venture.
"The Kormoran didn't move very far from where the engagement was, so the Sydney should be close by.
"We're talking about depths of up to 4000m. It's only recently that the technology has been developed to operate that far down."
The federal government and the state governments of Western Australia and New South Wales have pledged A$2 million ($2.4 million) to fund the search, which could begin in October.
A further A$1.5 million is expected to be donated by Queensland and Victoria - the Sydney's crew came from every Australian state.
Using state-of-the-art search sonar, Mearns has discovered more than 20 shipwrecks, including HMS Hood, the flagship of the Royal Navy, which was sunk in the North Atlantic in 1941 by the German battleship the Bismarck.
"The bullet is ready to be fired," Mearns, who is based in West Sussex, in England, told The Australian this week. "Once all the money is in, the search can happen very quickly."
Still, he faces a formidable task - previous searches for HMAS Sydney have ended in failure, with wildly differing estimates of where the vessel might lie.
Some experts believe it sank in shallow water west of the town of Geraldton, 300km to the south.
The fact that the loss of the cruiser was only announced by the Australian government 10 days after it went down has long fuelled rumours of a cover-up.
It has been suggested that the survivors were machine-gunned by the Kormoran's crew - a theory vehemently denied by the Germans.
Another theory is that the survivors were picked off by sharks. Some researchers even believe the battleship was sunk by a Japanese submarine.
There was incredulity that so many Australian men could simply disappear without trace - the only item to be salvaged from the Sydney was a life raft which was pock-marked by bullet holes.
Today it is on display in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, with the lifejacket worn by the Kormoran's commander.
The researchers at HMAS Sydney Search believe the most likely explanation is that the cruiser sank so quickly that few sailors escaped into life rafts, and that those who did succumbed to thirst, exposure or shark attack.
A 1999 inquiry by the Australian Senate, or upper house, recommended an official search, but the federal government and the Navy decided they could not justify the effort because there was no consensus about where the wreck might lie.
In the words of one expert, it was like trying to find a needle without any certainty of where the haystack was.
Since then, however, new evidence has come to light including, intriguingly, an encoded account of the engagement by the Kormoran's captain, Theodor Detmers.
While interned as a prisoner of war, Detmers recorded an account of the engagement by placing faint dots under scattered letters in a German-English dictionary.
Mearns' team went to Germany, found the dictionary in the possession of Detmers' nephew and managed to decode it, providing further pointers to where the ship may have gone down.
Even if HMAS Sydney is found, there are no plans to raise it to the surface. It is an official war grave, and will remain in the ocean depths.
Its discovery, however, would bring closure to thousands of relatives who for 65 years have had to live with not knowing what happened to their brothers, sons and husbands.
"It would be strictly a policy of look, don't touch," said Bob Trotter of HMAS Sydney Search. "The main aim is to commemorate the crew and bring comfort to their families."By Nick Squires