“The Allies logically feared that German freighters harbouring in Japan and elsewhere might be converted into armed auxiliary cruisers, ushering in a commerce raider war.”
By Stephen Robinson
THE MOMENT THE Second World War broke out in September of 1939, German merchant vessels at sea sought refuge in neutral ports across the globe. Many of them in the Far East made for ports in Japan and the Dutch East Indies. The Allies logically feared that German freighters harbouring in Japan and elsewhere might be converted into armed auxiliary cruisers, ushering in a war against merchant shipping in all oceans. After all, Germany had done as much in 1914.
Auxiliary cruisers are civilian cargo vessels that have been converted into warships. Before World War I, the Kaiserliche Marine (Imperial German Navy) had well-developed plans to convert liners into auxiliary cruisers for use as raiders. After Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, cruisers operating from colonies, such as the Emden and Karlsruhe, initiated a campaign of commerce raiding and auxiliary cruisers quickly saw action.
The armed liner Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse sank three freighters before being intercepted by HMS Highflyer off Spanish West Africa. The liner Cap Trafalgar, after being armed by the gunboat Eber, headed towards Brazil only to be sunk by HMS Carmania. After the Karlsruhe armed the liner Kronprinz Wilhelm near Cuba, she captured 15 vessels in the South Atlantic before a lack of coal forced her internment in America. The auxiliary cruisers Prinz Eitel Fredrich and Cormoran, armed with weapons from German gunboats, departed China intending to raid Australian waters but a lack of coal made this impossible. The Cormoran eventually became interned in Guam and the Prinz Eitel Friedrich sank 11 vessels before being interned in America.
Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing
As the Kaiserliche Marine had armed civilian vessels across the globe in 1914, the Allies naturally expected the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) to have similar intentions in 1939. They especially feared that German freighters were being armed in Japanese ports. The Australian navy believed the Potsdam in Bangkok and the liner Scharnhorst in Kobe were armed, and it suspected the Elsa Essberger in Nagasaki and the Franken in the Dutch East Indies were raiders. The Australians also feared the Leipzig and Munchen off South America and the Watussi in Port Mozambique were auxiliary cruisers. However, the unprepared Kriegsmarine had no plans to arm freighters at sea or in friendly neutral ports. The Japanese would also never allow German freighters in their ports to be converted into raiders as this would compromise their neutrality. Nevertheless, this threat seemed very real to the Allies.
On Sept. 20, 1939, the New York Times reported rumours of secret merchant raiders preparing for operations in Japan:
Japan has given official assurances to the British Government that she will not permit the arming of German merchantmen in her ports for use as commerce raiders. These assurances were the outcome of a British inquiry in Tokyo following a report in the newspaper Hochi Shimbun that the German liner Scharnhorst, of 18,000 tons, was being converted at Kobe into an armed marauder to prey on British trade routes. . . The British have never forgotten the depredations of the German light cruiser Emden, which ranged the Indian Ocean in the autumn of 1914. . . Nor have they forgotten the damage done by the armed passenger liners Kronprinz Wilhelm and Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. . . The British Admiralty knows the Scharnhorst’s mischief-making capacity if she were armed as a raider, and it is determined not to tolerate anything of the sort.
The Argus, an Australian newspaper, similarly reported:
U.S. Navy Officers are giving very close attention to the reported arming for raiding in the Pacific of at least 12 German vessels in Japanese controlled harbours in China. . . In Tokio the Japanese Navy spokesman, however, characterised as “false and fabricated” reports that German vessels were arming in harbours controlled by Japan.
However, the Germans had actually invented these rumours as part of a deception operation to trick the Allies into unnecessarily altering their naval dispositions and merchant shipping routes. Kapitan Joachim Lietzmann, the German naval attaché in Tokyo, encouraged speculation that the liner Scharnhorst was secretly being armed while appeasing Japanese concerns: “In the event that any doubts might arise on the Japanese side about any such conversion of the Scharnhorst into an auxiliary cruiser, I have intimated to Commander Yoshida that we, for our part, would very willingly invite a Japanese officer to pay a visit to the ship.”
German misinformation successfully deceived Allied intelligence. In October 1939, a spy in Singapore informed Commander Rupert Long, Director of Naval Intelligence in Australia, that the Scharnhorst had been armed with six 4.7-inch guns and four torpedo tubes. An Australian intelligence officer similarly reported in April 1940:
The Chief Officer of SS Masula has reported that SS Scharnhorst now at Kobe, has two six-inch guns in her hold. The chief reason for her not leaving Kobe is the fact that she has no ammunition. This is in another German ship at Kobe. British residents are conducting a water patrol at night to prevent the transferring of the ammunition, which is likely to be carried out by either ship’s lifeboats.
Commenting upon a BBC broadcast that the German freighter Scharnhorst had arrived at a Japanese port, Mr. Hughes said that any suggestion that it was just there in the guise of a merchant ship was a bedtime story. It was armed, not merely with defensive armament, and any suggestion that a German ship should be innocently so far from its home port was absurd. The Scharnhorst might not be responsible for destruction around our coast but it was obviously a raider.
Commander Long also feared that some of the 20 German freighters in the Dutch East Indies might be auxiliary cruisers. As the neutral Dutch were determined not to give Germany any pretext to invade, they refused to cooperate with the Allies. The Dutch Navy was placed on alert to prevent Allied warships stopping German ships in their waters. In response to strict Dutch neutrality, Commander Long arranged for visiting merchant ship captains and Qantas commercial airline pilots to spy on German vessels.
On March 12, 1940, the Allies received an intelligence report from Singapore indicating that German merchant vessels in the Dutch East Indies were planning a mass breakout. However, the next day a Qantas pilot, N. Mathews, reported that the German freighters Naumber, Essen and Cassel at Sourabaya were rusty and unseaworthy. He also reported that German merchant ships in Batavia appeared to have been taken over by the Dutch. Another Qantas pilot, Captain Adair, likewise reported that a German breakout from the Dutch East Indies was unlikely due a lack of coal and also because most of their crews had been paid off.
Despite the sceptical reports from the Qantas pilots, Allied naval authorities continued to fear a mass breakout of German ships from the Dutch East Indies. On March 24, 1940 a Royal Navy report incorrectly stated that only one German pocket battleship was in home waters, fuelling speculation of a surface raider offensive.
Commander Long feared that a pocket battleship might be heading towards the Indian Ocean to link up with supply ships from the Dutch East Indies, an alarming prospect which would completely disrupt Allied dispositions in Asia and allow German merchant vessels in the Far East to breakout and head home. He also continued to fear that some of the German freighters in the Dutch East Indies might be raiders as recent intelligence reports indicated that the Franken and Wuppertal in Padang were armed.
The Phantom Menace
The Allies created the Malaya Force to prevent German freighters leaving the Dutch East Indies. The cruisers HMS Danae, Durban and Dauntless patrolled the waters off Surabaya, Padang and Batavia while the destroyers HMS Tenedos and Stronghold patrolled near Sabang. The escort vessel HMS Falmouth arrived off Tjilatjap and the submarines HMS Rainbow and Perseus patrolled the Sunda Strait. The Australian armed merchant cruisers HMAS Manoora and Westralia joined the force and the Australian air force increased air patrols between Darwin and Timor.
The German breakout never materialized and Germany invaded the Netherlands on May 10, 1940. The Dutch joined the Allies and captured all the German vessels in question, except for the Sophie Rickmers, which was scuttled. Nevertheless, German misinformation had created phantom raiders in the minds of Allied naval planners which disrupted maritime trade and unnecessarily allocated warships from important operations in other theatres to counter a non-existent threat. The German deception operation successfully diverted Allied attention to the Far East when genuine Kriegsmarine auxiliary cruisers were actually preparing for operations in Germany.
The raiders Atlantis, Orion, Thor, Pinguin, Komet, Kormoran and Michel would in time initiate a real commerce raiding campaign in the Far East.
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.