“The armed freighters were charged with disrupting maritime trade and forcing the Royal Navy to divert warships from the critical North Sea and North Atlantic theatres.”
By Stephen Robinson
In 1940, Hitler’s naval commander-in-chief, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, ordered a small flotilla of five auxiliary cruisers — Orion, Pinguin, Komet, Atlantis and Michel — to take the fight against Allied shipping to the distant South Seas. The armed freighters, which were disguised as merchant vessels and sailed under false flags, were charged with disrupting maritime trade and forcing the Royal Navy to divert warships from the critical North Sea and North Atlantic theatres. For more than a year, the raiders waged an unremitting ‘pirate war’ that spanned half the world’s surface and ultimately cost the Allies more than 60 merchant ships. Yet despite its ferocity, the Nazi’s Pacific campaign has been largely forgotten.
Here are the stories of Germany’s five Pacific raiders and their amazing voyages.
Commanded by Kurt Weyher, the Orion departed Germany in April 1940 and entered the Pacific on May 21. After rounding Cape Horn, the raider headed towards New Zealand and mined the Hauraki Gulf on June 13, the gateway to Auckland, sinking the liner Niagara. Weyher captured the Norwegian freighter Tropic Sea near the Kermadec Islands and, after entering the Coral Sea, he sank the French steamer Notou near Noumea. The raider next intercepted the freighter Turakina near Wellington. Captain James Laird, the freighter’s master, ordered his stern gun to fire, initiating history’s first naval battle in the Tasman Sea. The Orion’s guns reduced the freighter to a blazing hulk, killing 36 men including Laird.
Commanded by Robert Eyssen, the Komet entered via the Northeast Passage and the Pacific Bering Strait on Sept. 10, 1940. The Kriegsmarine obtained permission for the passage from Moscow through the terms of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact. The the Soviet icebreakers Lenin, Stalin and Kaganovich even escorted the Komet to the Pacific.
Berlin ordered the Komet to rendezvous with the Orion and the supply ships Regensburg and Weser at Ailinglapalap Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The freighter Regensburg departed Yokohama but the Canadian armed merchant cruiser Prince Robert captured the Weser in the western Pacific near Mexico. Fearing that Ailinglapalap had been compromised, the Kriegsmarine ordered the ships to proceed to the remote Lamotrek Atoll in the Caroline Islands. The supply ship Kulmerland departed Kobe to replace the Weser.
On Oct. 13, 1940, the Orion reached the Carolines and captured the Norwegian freighter Ringwood. After the four ships rendezvoused at Lamotrek, Weyher and Eyssen decided that the Orion, Komet and Kulmerland would work together. After departing Lamotrek, the raiders sank the steamer Holmwood and the liner Rangitane near New Zealand. By Dec. 6, Weyher and Eyssen steamed into the waters around Nauru and sank the ships Triona, Vinni, Triadic, Triaster and Komata. The tiny island was a major source of phosphates, a vital ingredient in agricultural fertilizers. With the merchant fleet scattered, the German captains considered crippling Nauru’s phosphate production, but were forced to withdraw. Following the action, the Orion, Komet and Kulmerland Germans arrived at Emirau Island in the Bismarck Archipelago and disembarked 514 prisoners into the care of two British plantation owners. Australian seaplanes and ships soon arrived and rescued the castaways.
The Kulmerland returned to Japan while the Orion headed towards the Central Pacific. The Komet meanwhile returned to Nauru on Dec. 27. Eyssen warned locals that he intended to bombard the island’s phosphate facilities and allowed the workers to evacuate. The Komet’s guns opened fire and devastated the loading docks, causing long-term economic damage.
The Orion arrived at Maug Island in the Marianas on Jan. 12, 1941. The crew overhauled the engines and made contact with Japanese and Filipino laborers who were on the island constructing a weather station. After departing, Weyher patrolled the Indian Ocean without success before heading home.
The Orion reached Bordeaux on Aug. 23, having accounted for 15 ships on a voyage covering 112,337 miles. It was the longest raider voyage in history. The vessel was renamed Hektor and became a gunnery training ship. Russian bombers damaged the ship near Swinemunde on May 4, 1945, while she was evacuating refugees from the Baltic. The former raider was shortly after beached on the coast.
After an unsuccessful patrol in the Indian Ocean, the Komet rendezvoused with the Adjutant, a former Norwegian whaler under the control of a German prize crew, and Eyssen converted the vessel into a minelayer. The Adjutant mined the approaches to Lyttelton and Wellington in June 1941, but the mines claimed no victims. Eyssen decided to scuttled the Norwegian ship and patrolled the western approaches to the Panama Canal near the Galapagos Islands. She sank the New Zealand freighter Australind and the British steamer Devon, and also captured the Dutch freighter Kota Nopan.
The neutral United States Navy, furious over the violation of the Pan-America Neutrality Zone, hunted the raider near the Galapagos Islands without success. The Komet reached Hamburg on Nov. 30, having claimed 10 ships. She departed on a second cruise the following year only to be sunk by the Royal Navy in the English Channel on Oct. 13 1942. Her entire crew of 350 perished.
Germany’s most successful raider
Commanded by Ernst Felix Kruder, the Pinguin terrorized the waters near Madagascar before capturing the Norwegian tanker Storstad in the Indian Ocean on Oct. 7, 1940. Kruder converted the tanker into an auxiliary minelayer and renamed her Passat. The Pinguin entered the Pacific and mined the approaches to Newcastle and Sydney on Oct. 28, and later mined the approaches to Hobart and Adelaide. The captured tanker Passat meanwhile mined Banks Strait near Tasmania and Bass Strait, the gateway to Melbourne. These mines sank the British freighter Cambridge, the City of Rayville (the first American ship sunk during the war), the steamer Nimbin and the trawler the Millimumul. The Pinguin later captured the bulk of the Norwegian whaling fleet in Antarctic waters before being intercepted by the cruiser HMS Cornwall in the Indian Ocean on May 8, 1941.
After putting up a valiant fight, a shell detonated her mines, causing a massive explosion that killed Kruder, 340 crewmen and 203 prisoners. The Pinguin, Germany’s most successful raider, had sunk or captured 32 vessels.
Commanded by Bernhard Rogge, the Atlantis conducted extensive operations in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean before entering the Pacific in September 1941. The raider sank the Norwegian freighter Silvaplana near New Zealand on Sept. 10. Rogge next decided to patrol the South Pacific and the Atlantis roamed the seas near French Polynesia and Pitcairn Island, home of the HMS Bounty mutineers, without finding any prey. After the raider returned to the South Atlantic, she rendezvoused with U-126 on Nov. 22, 1941. The Royal Navy had advance warning of the encounter thanks to decrypted Enigma messages sent to the German submarine. The cruiser HMS Devonshire cruiser intercepted the Atlantis and opened fire. Safely out of range, but realizing his situation was hopeless, Rogge ordered the raider scuttled. Before going to the bottom, Atlantis had claimed an astounding 22 ships.
Departing Kiel on March 9, 1942, the Michel broke out into the Atlantic via the English Channel, and sank 13 ships in the South Atlantic and another two in the Indian Ocean before arriving in Kobe on March 2, 1943. The Michel commenced her second voyage on May 1, 1943 under the command of Gunther Gumprich who sank two merchantmen in the Indian Ocean before proceeding to the Pacific via the Great Australian Bight. After destroying the Norwegian tanker India on Sept. 11, 1943, Gumprich ordered a course for Japan. The American submarine USS Tarpon intercepted the raider and torpedoed her100 miles from the Japanese coast on Oct. 17. A distress signal reached Japan but search planes failed to find any sign of the lifeboats. Eventually 110 survivors landed in Japan but 253 sailors, including Gumprich, were never seen again. The Michel’s destruction ended Germany’s auxiliary cruiser campaign and this unique form of warfare vanished from history.
Stephen Robinson is the author of False Flags: Disguised German Raiders of World War II. He studied Asian history and politics at the University of Western Sydney. He has worked at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs researching British atomic weapons tests and as a policy officer in the Department of Defence. He is an officer in the Australian Army Reserve and has served as an instructor at the Royal Military College. He also graduated from Australian Command and Staff College.