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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

German Raiders in the Pacific

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German Raiders in the Pacific

‘THE ONE AND ONLY POSSIBILITY of bringing England to her knees with the forces of our Navy lies in attacking her sea communications,’ wrote Admiral Doenitz, Commander-in-Chief, Submarines, and later head of the German Navy, in a memorandum dated 1 September 1939. To that end the main resources of the German Navy were devoted in a mortal struggle that lasted sixty-eight months. The U-boat was the enemy’s principal weapon, but he did not hesitate to employ also his most powerful warships whose forays were supplemented by the world-wide operations of a fleet of merchant ships fitted out as auxiliary cruisers.

The operations of German surface raiders, supported by a great and elaborate organisation at home, extended over a period of more than three years and accounted for 182 merchant ships of 1,152,000 tons, an average of about four ships a month. The German aim was the ‘disruption and destruction of merchant shipping by all possible means’, and the orders to the raiders laid it down that ‘frequent changes of position in the operational areas will create uncertainty and will restrict enemy merchant shipping, even without tangible results.’ The raider captains ‘interpreted their orders with comprehending caution’; but the Admiralty were, on the whole, remarkably well informed about their general movements, and by evasive routeing and such cruiser patrols as were possible with a shortage of that class of ships, kept the vital stream of merchant shipping moving steadily and with relatively small losses. The merchant seamen themselves performed their part and sailed without hesitation in defiance of the raider threat to their safety. The Royal Navy had been cut to the bone during the ‘locust years’, and when the war came it had to perform ‘enormous and innumerable duties’ with a woeful shortage of cruisers. Many a ship and many a life were lost as the result of that peacetime improvidence. The provision of adequate cruiser strength would have been a small insurance premium to pay in mitigation, if not prevention, of the losses of ships, cargoes, and men at the hands of German raiders.

The operations of the German auxiliary cruisers covered the period from April 1940 to December 1942. In all, ten ships were employed, one of them making two cruises. Five were destroyed during their cruises in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, one was destroyed by an explosion and fire in harbour at Yokohama, and another was damaged in the English Channel and returned to Germany. That they were efficient fighting ships of their type was shown by the fact that one raider in three separate actions outranged and damaged two British armed merchant cruisers and sank a third, HMS Voltaire. Another raider, the Kormoran, was responsible for the loss with all hands of HMAS Sydney, though she herself was sunk by that cruiser.

Three of the raiders were oil-burning steamships; one was a diesel-electric twin-screw vessel; the others were motor vessels. The largest was of 9800 tons and the smallest of 3287 tons gross register. All were officially known by numbers, but these were apparently allotted at random, and the fact that there was a ship No. 45 did not indicate that there were forty-five raiders. They were also given ‘traditional’ names. The raiders were very well equipped and capable of remaining at sea for at least twelve months, with the assistance of fuel tankers and supply ships, supplemented page 4 by oil and stores taken from captured vessels. Great use was made of disguise. Special workshops and mechanics were carried for this purpose and also for the extensive repair work made necessary by long periods at sea.

In general the raiders’ armament comprised six 5.9-inch guns, a number of small guns, and four or more torpedo tubes; they were fitted with the director system of fire control as well as elaborate wireless telegraphy plants. Most of them carried a small seaplane and several were equipped for minelaying. Whatever their tactics in approaching a victim, the attack was always sudden and ruthless, the primary targets being the ship’s wireless room, navigating bridge, and defensive gun. Captain Helmuth von Ruckteschell, who commanded two different raiders and who was awarded by Hitler the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Insignia of the Iron Cross, is at present serving a sentence of ten years’ imprisonment for his brutal conduct in the sinking of three merchant ships.

The first German raider to operate in the Pacific and bring the war to the shores of New Zealand was Ship No. 36, otherwise known as the Orion. Formerly the Kurmark, of the Hamburg-America Line, she was a general cargo steamer of 7021 tons gross register, her maximum speed when clean being about 15 knots. She had a stowage of 4100 tons of oil-fuel, estimated to give her a steaming endurance of 35,000 miles at 10 knots, but this was well above her actual capacity. Her armament comprised one 3-inch and six 5.9-inch guns, six light anti-aircraft guns, and six torpedo tubes in triple mountings, and she also carried an Arado seaplane.

The Orion was commissioned by Captain Kurt Weyher at Kiel on 9 December 1939 and sailed from Germany on 6 April 1940, three days before the German invasion of Denmark and Norway. She entered the Atlantic by way of Denmark Strait, between Iceland and Greenland, and cautiously made her way south. Her first victim was the British tramp steamer Haxby, 5207 tons, which was intercepted east of Bermuda in the early morning of 24 April. When the Haxby made a distress signal she was ruthlessly shelled for six minutes, seventeen of her crew being killed. The master and twenty-four others were taken prisoner and the ship was sunk by a torpedo.

Having refuelled from her supply tanker Winnetou about 660 miles from South Georgia, the Orion entered the Pacific, passing about 200 miles south of Cape Horn. She arrived in New Zealand waters in the afternoon of 13 June. The raider was carrying 228 mines, and her orders from the German Naval Command were that they should all be laid in the approaches to Auckland. With good visibility, under a cloudless sky, she cautiously approached the land in the early dusk of mid-winter to carry out this operation.

Starting at 7.26 p.m., the Orion laid the first row of mines across the eastern approach to the passage between Great Mercury Island and Cuvier Island. In the clear weather prevailing, said Captain Weyher, it was ‘not possible to approach closer than eight German nautical miles to the Cuvier lighthouse without being sighted by the Signal Station’. A second barrage of mines was laid across the approach to Colville Channel in a zig-zag which overlapped the south-east end of Great Barrier Island. A third and much longer barrage was laid across the northern approaches to Hauraki Gulf. It extended from a point off the northern end of Great Barrier in a wide arc 6 ½ miles off Moko Hinau Islands, and thence in a straight line to the north-west, passing about six miles outside the Maro Tiri Islands to a point about five miles from the mainland. All the mines were of the moored contact type.

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Black and white chart of data

Enemy U-boats, mines, surface vessels, aircraft, and unknown causes accounted for these British, Allied, and neutral merchant shipping losses

During the operation, which took just over seven hours to complete, three outward-bound steamers and one inward-bound vessel were sighted by the Orion, but by eleven o’clock the sky had clouded over and she was not detected. HMNZS Achilles and HMS Hector, an armed merchant cruiser, arrived at Auckland between nine o’clock and midnight while the minelaying was in progress. The last of the mines was dropped at 2.36 in the morning of 14 June and the raider then steamed away to the north-east at full speed.

The mines soon claimed their first victim. In the early hours of 19 June, the Niagara, 13,415 tons, bound from Auckland for Suva and Vancouver, struck and exploded two mines and sank in seventy fathoms in the fairway between Bream Head and Moko Hinau. Fortunately, there was no loss of life. During the morning minesweepers swept and sank two mines close to the position in which the Niagara had gone down. On 23 June the homeward-bound liner Waiotira reported by wireless that she had cut a mine adrift with her paravane in the same locality. During the week four mines were swept and destroyed in the vicinity of Cuvier Island.

The loss of the Niagara and the discovery of the mines were the first indications of the presence of a German raider in the Pacific. The four main ports were closed to shipping until minesweepers had carried out clearing sweeps in the approach channels to the harbours. When traffic was resumed page 6 the inter-island steamers Rangatira and Wahine made the passage between Wellington and Lyttelton in daylight. From time to time during the next twelve months, mines that had broken adrift from the Hauraki Gulf field were washed ashore or were sighted at sea and destroyed. On 14 May 1941 HMNZS Puriri struck a mine, the explosion sinking her immediately. One officer and four ratings were killed. The 25th Minesweeping Flotilla commenced sweeping on 13 June 1941, and by the end of September 131 mines had been accounted for, apart from a number dealt with off Cape Brett.

After leaving New Zealand waters the German raider cruised along the Australia-Panama route. She passed the Kermadec Islands on 16 June and three days later captured the Norwegian motor-vessel Tropic Sea, 5781 tons, bound from Sydney to the United Kingdom with 8100 tons of wheat. On 25 June the raider and her prize refuelled from the Winnetou. The Tropic Sea was placed under the command of the captain of the Winnetou, Lieutenant Steinkraus, with a prize crew of twenty-eight men, and on 30 June she sailed for Europe by way of Cape Horn.

On 3 September the Tropic Sea was intercepted by the British submarine Truant in the Bay of Biscay and was scuttled by the prize crew. The Truant took on board the Haxby survivors and the Norwegian master and his wife, the other Norwegians being rescued next day by a Sunderland flying-boat. Lieutenant Steinkraus and his prize crew landed in Spain and made their way back to Germany. Three months later he arrived in Japan and took command of the captured Norwegian tanker Ole Jacob, which was employed to refuel German raiders in the Indian Ocean.

During the whole of July and the first week of August, the Orion steamed along and across the routes from New Zealand and Australia to the various groups of the South Pacific islands, San Francisco, and Vancouver, but not a ship was sighted. From 19 to 23 July she cruised near the Fiji Group, and on the 28th refuelled from the Winnetou in an area north of the Ellice Islands. After a day’s steaming to the Equator, east of the Gilbert Islands, the Orion proceeded south-west and, passing between the Santa Cruz Group and San Cristobal Island, the most southerly of the Solomon Islands, entered the Coral Sea. On 7 August she refuelled from the Winnetou and the empty tanker then sailed for Japan.

Captain Weyher recorded in his log that the ‘unsuccessful patrols along the previously quoted shipping lanes under conditions of from 20 to 25 nautical miles maximum visibility prove that enemy shipping, even in Australian, New Zealand and South Sea waters no longer steers the peace-time routes. Radio interception shows merely the traffic of United States and Japanese passenger ships which apparently still run on these routes…. Under these conditions it was specially necessary to use the aircraft, but this was prevented by the constant swell.’

North-east of Brisbane on 10 August, one of the Pacific Phosphate Commission’s steamers was sighted, but it altered course away and no attack was made. From 11 to 16 August the raider cruised between Brisbane and Noumea and its aircraft made a reconnaissance flight over the latter port. In the evening of the 16th she intercepted the French steamer Notou, 2489 tons, on passage from Newcastle to Noumea with a cargo of 3900 tons of coal. The crew of thirty-seven, including twenty-seven natives, and one passenger were taken prisoner and the ship was sunk. Twenty-four hours later an unsuccessful attempt was made to close a vessel whose lights were sighted right ahead. This ship apparently saw the raider against the moonlight, for she switched off her lights and ‘was lost to sight and could not be found again.’ The Orion then carried on down the Tasman Sea.