Melbourne, Australia November 8, 1940

The war between the Allies and the German Kriegs­marine (Navy) is well known. Indeed, the Battle of the Atlantic (1939–1945) was the longest-fought battle of World War II. It primarily involved Allied and neutral merchant­men, typically under armed escort, carrying food, oil pro­ducts, iron ore, steel, wea­pons, and other war­time essen­tials between North America and the Carib­bean and their Euro­pean desti­nation, the British Isles and/­or the Soviet Union. A troika of German U‑boats, air­craft, and com­merce raiders sank over 3,500 mer­chant, pas­sen­ger, and troop ships and 175 Allied war­ships. Germans called their com­merce or mer­chant raiders “aux­il­iary cruisers” (German, Hilfs­kreuzer or Handels-Stoer-Kreuzer, HSK). Armed with 5.9‑inch (200mm) cannons along with many lesser-caliber guns, these ocean raiders usually approached their tar­gets under false flags and fake paint schemes. Smaller guns were hidden behind spe­cially designed and hinged bul­warks or under fake deck­houses. Ofttimes ship silhou­ettes were altered with fake fun­nels and masts. Raiders engaged their victims at point-blank range. Some were equipped with torpe­does or obser­va­tion sea­planes or both. Some­times a single raider laid mine­fields or was joined by a captured merchant­man con­verted into an auxiliary minelayer.

This transatlantic battle had its counterpart in the Indian and Pacific ocean theaters with fewer com­merce raiders (there were 5), just as many victims of sinkings by guns, torpe­does, and mines though, all with­out the assis­tance of U‑boats and wolf­packs. The modern 7,766‑ton Pinguin (Pen­guin), Nazi Germany’s most suc­cess­ful com­merce raider, sank (16), captured (16), and damaged (1) 33 vessels. Skippered by 42‑year-old Captain Ernst-Felix Krueder, Pinguin ter­rorized West Indian waters before cap­turing the Nor­we­gian tanker Stor­stad on Octo­ber 7, 1940, carrying 12,500 tons of diesel and fuel oil from British North Borneo to the Aus­tra­lian port city of Mel­bourne, Vic­toria’s capi­tal and the state’s largest city. Krueder con­verted his prize into an auxil­iary minelayer and renamed it Passat.

Steaming south along Australia’s east coast, Pinguin mined the approaches to New­castle and Sydney in New South Wales on Octo­ber 28, 1940, steamed further south to mine the approaches to Tas­mania’s capi­tal Hobart and South Aus­tra­lia’s capi­tal Ade­laide. The Passat mean­while mined the Banks Strait off Tas­mania’s north­east coast and the Bass Strait sepa­rating Tas­mania and Vic­toria. In German minds a mine­field in the narrow Bass Strait was attrac­tive because, as a busy inter­national shipping lane, it would maxi­mize the destruc­tive poten­tial of the mine­field and crimp Aus­tra­lia’s exports of raw and finished mate­rials and food­stuffs that sup­ported the Allied war effort. Sure enough, on the day Passat finished laying 110 high-explosive mines, one of them sank the British refrig­er­ated cargo ship SS Cam­bridge off Vic­toria’s Wilsons Promon­tory at the eastern approach to Bass Strait.

Late the next day, Novem­ber 8, 1940, the 20‑year-old Ameri­can freighter SS City of Ray­ville fell victim to another of Passat’s mines, this off Victoria’s Cape Otway at the western end of the strait. Excluding the Ameri­can gun­boat USS Panay, sent to the bottom of the Yangtze River by Japa­nese air­craft on Decem­ber 12, 1937, City of Ray­ville was the first Ameri­can vessel sunk during World War II. (Excluding the Panay depends on World War II’s start date: in 1939 [Europe] or in 1937 [China].)

Moving south into Antarctic waters in December and Janu­ary 1941, Krueder’s Pinguin seized the bulk of Norway’s whaling fleet (under British charter) in a blood­less maneu­ver before reentering the Atlantic and Indian oceans. It was in the Indian Ocean that fate caught up with Krueder and 531 other persons aboard his war­ship, among them some 200 captives. Inter­cepted by British heavy cruiser HMS Corn­wall on May 8, 1941, the cruiser’s fourth salvo deto­nated all of Pinguin’s 130 mines. Pinguin was literally gone in a flash.

Saga of German Commerce Raiders in the Indian and Pacific Oceans During Second World War

U.S. freighter City of RayvilleBritish heavy cruiser HMS Cornwall

Left: The 5,883‑ton, 402‑foot steamship SS (or MV or MS) City of Ray­ville struck one of 110 German naval mines stra­te­gically planted in broad day­light over a 3‑day period in Aus­tra­lia’s heavily trafficked Bass Strait south of the port city of Mel­bourne. The mine­layer was a con­verted Nor­we­gian tanker renamed Passat after its cap­ture. The west-bound City of Ray­ville, carrying 37,520 lead bars (1,500 tons) it had picked up at Port Pirie north of Ade­laide, South Aus­tra­lia, was off Victoria’s Cape Otway when the inci­dent happened close to 8 p.m. on Novem­ber 8, 1940. Shrap­nel and lead ingots sent up­wards by the explo­sion rained down on the super­struc­ture of the unwary prey as 38 crew­members scrambled into life­boats. Thirty-five minutes later the steamer dis­appeared below the water’s sur­face, becoming the first Amer­i­can vessel sunk by the Germans in World War II. Three boats from the village of Apollo Bay 11 miles north of the Cape Otway light­house com­peted against darkness, rain, and heavy swells to find 37 sur­vivors and tow their life­boats to safety.

Right: An amphibious reconnaissance air­craft from British heavy cruiser HMS Corn­wall located the noto­rious German com­merce raider Pinguin (Raider F to the British) in the Indian Ocean flying the Norwe­gian ensign and bearing the false name Tamer­lane on both sides of its bridge. The 27‑minute single-ship action occurred off the Sey­chelles archi­pelago north of Mada­gas­car Island. Shells from both the “Norwe­gian” and British ships pounded each other. The second shell in a four-gun salvo from Corm­wall’s forward 8‑inch (200mm) turret gun shattered the bridge of the dis­guised Pinguin, instantly killing Cap­tain Ernst-Felix Krueder. Corm­wall’s fourth shell in the salvo landed in the German raider’s ammu­ni­tion stor­age com­part­ment, igniting 130 high-explosive sea mines which broke the ship in two. Of Pin­quin’s 401 crew­members, 323 died in the shelling, or the fiery explo­sion, or by drowning. Sixty enemy crew­men were rescued along with 22 of 222 British and Indian mer­chant sailors who had been snatched from over 30 ves­sels Pinquin had sunk or cap­tured in its 10½‑month com­merce-raiding career. A sea­man from Cornwall was the single British casualty.

Pinguin in the Indian Ocean in 1941Atlantis disguised as Tamesis, 1940

Left: Pinguin in the Indian Ocean in 1941. Known to the Kriegs­marine as Schiff 33 and desig­nated HSK 5, the Pinguin was most suc­cess­ful com­merce raider of World War II. Formerly the freighter Kandel­fels built in 1936, she was con­verted to an auxiliary cruiser (German, Hilfs­kreuzer) and was in the first wave of com­merce raiders sent out by the Kriegs­marine, sailing on June 15, 1940, under the com­mand of Fregatten­kapitaen (Com­mo­dore), later Kapitaen zur See (Captain) Ernst-Felix Krueder. The Pinguin remained at sea for 357 days and sailed over 59,000 miles (51,270 nau­tical miles), more than twice the circum­fer­ence of the Earth. She sank or cap­tured 28 ships (18 Nor­we­gian and 10 British) for a total of 136,642 gross regis­ter tons. 52,000 tons was sent back to Germany or occu­pied Europe under prize crews. A further 4 ships (18,068 tons) were sunk by her mines. Pinguin’s grand total amounted to 154,710 gross regis­ter tons. Pinguin was the first of the Kriegs­marine’s com­merce raiders to be sunk, thanks to the British heavy cruiser HMS Corn­wall, which dispatched the aggres­sive preda­tor on May 8, 1941, in the West Indian Ocean.

Right: Atlantis disguised as the Norwegian cargo ship Tamesis, 1940. Known to the Kriegs­marine as Schiff 16 and desig­nated HSK 2. Formerly the German freighter Golden­fels, the Atlantis was built in 1936 and con­verted to an auxiliary cruiser in 1939. Atlantis traveled a record 100,000-plus miles (86,898 nau­tical miles) in 602 days under Kapi­taen zur See Bern­hard Rogge (1899–1982). Rogge con­ducted exten­sive opera­tions in the South Atlantic and Indian oceans before entering the Pacific in Septem­ber 1941. In the seas around New Zea­land and French Poly­ne­sia Atlantis found few pickings (actually just one) before returning to the South Atlantic for a scheduled ren­dez­vous with a German U‑boat north of Ascen­sion Island. The Kriegs­marine’s instruc­tions were inte­rcepted and decrypted by Bletchley Park code breakers. British heavy cruiser HMS Devon­shire was thus dis­patched to the ren­dez­vous point. When Atlantis, posing as the Dutch ship Poly­phemus, came into view on Novem­ber 22, 1941, Devon­shire loosed three salvos, wounding the pirate ship and setting off its muni­tions. Before slipping under the waves, Rogge’s Atlantis could boast of sinking or cap­turing 22 ships for a com­bined ton­nage of 144,384, taking second place behind Pinguin’s 32 ships. A 1960 Holly­wood ver­sion, Under Ten Flags, tells the Atlantis story from the German viewpoint.

German Commerce Raiders: Aggressive Predators in World War II

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