German Auxiliary Cruiser Kormoran - Operational History - Atlantic Ocean

Atlantic Ocean

Having cleared the British blockade, Kormoran's instructions were to search the Atlantic Ocean for targets of opportunity, then move to the Indian Ocean and seek out more merchant shipping, with additional orders to lay mines around one or more Allied ports in India or Australia. Kormoran was also expected to replenish U-boats when ordered to do so, and carried extra torpedoes and spare parts. The raider's first operational area was in the Atlantic, below Latitude 40° North, which she crossed during the night of 19–20 December. The German ship initially patrolled the western mid-Atlantic, outside the Pan-American Security Zone. During the first two weeks, the only ships spotted were merchant vessels flying the United States flag, which merchant raiders were forbidden to attack as they were still neutral.

By 6 January 1941, Detmers was ready to relocate to a point outside the Mediterranean because of the lack of targets, but that afternoon, Kormoran encountered the 3,729-ton Greek freighter Antonis. The raider ordered the freighter to heave to and not send any wireless transmissions, and sent a boarding party over. Antonis was armed with three British machine guns and loaded with 4,800 tons of Welsh coal. Though Germany was not at war with Greece, the presence of Allied weapons and cargo allowed Detmers to sink her or take her as a prize. As coal was of little use to the Kriegsmarine, the weapons, ammunition, and 29 crew were transferred to Kormoran, and the boarding party scuttled her at 18°17′N 28°32′W / 18.283°N 28.533°W / 18.283; -28.533. British Admiralty notifications for raider activity gave the wrong date and location for the attack, and initially attributed it to the raider Thor. Kormoran then headed southeast, avoiding the convoy routes from the Mediterranean to America or down the African coast, in order to prey on vessels sailing alone and without warship escort.

Before sunset on 18 January, smoke was spotted on the horizon, so Kormoran accelerated and altered course to pursue. The source of the smoke was a tanker flying no flags, showing no lights, and zigzagging to minimise submarine attack, leading Detmers to conclude she was an Allied vessel. With little time before the sun set and the likelihood the tanker would resist capture, Kormoran commenced fire at 7,000 yards (6,400 m) in an attempt to disable the ship. When the third salvo hit, the merchantman broadcast a distress call, identifying herself as British Union and saying she was under attack by an unknown vessel at 26°24′N 30°58′E / 26.4°N 30.967°E / 26.4; 30.967. Firing continued until British Union directed a light towards Kormoran, which the Germans assumed was a surrender signal, but as the raider closed to 4,000 yards (3,700 m), four shots were fired by the tanker. All four missed, and heavy retaliatory fire from the raider set the merchant ship alight and forced the crew to abandon ship. The decision was made to destroy the 6,987-ton tanker with a torpedo, although two torpedoes and shells from the raider's main guns were required to sink her, while a third torpedo exploded as soon as it cleared its safety distance and armed; Detmers later stated the quantity of ammunition used during the attempted capture was excessive for the result obtained. The tanker's master, 27 sailors, and a pet monkey were recovered from two lifeboats as the tanker sank at 26°29′N 31°07′W / 26.483°N 31.117°W / 26.483; -31.117, and the raider fled the area. The distress call and glow from the fires attracted the attention of the armed merchant cruiser HMS Arawa, which passed through the engagement site around midnight in pursuit, but failed to locate Kormoran and returned that morning to collect a third lifeboat carrying seven survivors. These sailors stated their attacker had fired on the other two lifeboats, a claim not made by those rescued by the Germans. The Allies initially assumed that the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer was responsible, but after this was proven false, the Admiralty was unable to determine the identity of the attacker.

Just after 13:00 on 29 January, Kormoran encountered a large merchantman which altered course on sighting the raider, but returned to her original heading after Kormoran made no aggressive moves. Detmers instead waited until the distance between the ships had decreased before the raider altered course to intercept, decamouflaged, and ordered the merchantman to stop. The ship did not comply, and after a warning shot elicited no response, Kormoran fired for effect. A distress signal was transmitted but jammed by the raider, and after unsuccessfully trying to break away from the faster German ship, the merchant vessel came to a stop and ceased attempts to transmit. The crew was ordered by signals from Kormoran to abandon ship, but the merchant sailors did not comply until after the raider resumed fire, having observed an attempt to man the ship's stern gun. A boarding party identified the victim as the 11,900-ton refrigerator ship Afric Star, carrying meat and butter to England. The complicated configuration and damaged condition of Afric Star ruled against her capture as a prize ship; after capturing code books and other vital documents, and recovering 76 people, including two women, attempts were made to scuttle her. The merchantman refused to sink, and Kormoran had to use shells and torpedoes to send her to the bottom at 8°44′N 24°38′W / 8.733°N 24.633°W / 8.733; -24.633.

Later that day, lookouts aboard the raider spotted a merchant ship sailing without lights. Sneaking up on the vessel, Kormoran opened fire; her first salvo missed, but within minutes, the target was heavily damaged and aflame. The ship transmitted a distress signal, which Kormoran was unable to jam completely, but this ceased as crewmembers started to abandon ship. The raider ceased firing, but resumed when the merchantman attempted another transmission, and shore stations responded. Communications intercepts and the code books taken from Afric Star earlier that day revealed the target's identity: the 5,273-ton British freighter Eurolychus, with a cargo of bombers for the Gold Coast (now Ghana). These intercepts also indicated that several parties, including the British Air Ministry, were aware of the attack, prompting Detmers to order the torpedoing of Eurolychus. This was accomplished with a single torpedo, sinking the British ship and her cargo at 8°15′N 24°04′W / 8.25°N 24.067°W / 8.25; -24.067, three and a half hours after Afric Star. 39 Chinese and 4 British crew were recovered by the German raider before she fled the area with HM Ships Norfolk and Devonshire in pursuit. Another 28 survivors were found by the Spanish merchant ship Monte Tiede later that night, with 10 men killed during the attack or lost at sea. Eurolychus' Master was among those rescued by the Allies, and recounted that two ships had attacked, one of them armed with 11-inch (280 mm) guns, which led British Naval Intelligence to conclude that the responsible ships were Thor and Admiral Scheer, or an unknown raider operating in concert with one of these. Among the rescued was ships gunner Frank Laskier who, on returning to England, was interviewed by BBC radio and proved so popular he became a figurehead for Merchant Navy enlistment propaganda for the rest of the war through books, newsreels and speaking tours.

After evading pursuit, Kormoran made for a point off the Cape Verde Islands, where she rendezvoused with the supply ship Nordmark on 7 February. During a three-day replenishment operation, Kormoran topped up Nordmark's supply of spare U-boat parts with components brought from Germany, and transferred 170 of the 174 prisoners acquired so far. The four Chinese sailors from Eurolychus were hired to stay aboard the raider as laundrymen, and the British Union crew left their pet monkey aboard as thanks for their treatment while in captivity. A piano was taken from Nordmark's companion Duquesa, a captured coal-burning ship that was to be scuttled when her fuel ran out, but Detmers warned if the piano caused any problems amongst the crew, it would be pushed overboard.

Kormoran left the rendezvous on 10 February and headed south. During the transit, Detmers received a signal from Germany indicating that his ship had been awarded two First Class Iron Crosses, and fifty Second Class Iron Crosses, to be distributed as he saw fit. Detmers transmitted a request on 18 February for WM-80 white metal, as the softer WM-10 used in bearings for two of the four diesel engines were wearing out too quickly. Some metal was acquired from the raider Pinguin on 25 February, but this was not enough to replace all the bearings. On 15 March, Kormoran met U-boat U-124 to transfer torpedoes, provisions, and spare parts, but rough seas forced the two vessels to head south, where they met the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer a day later. The raider's broken radar and a sailor with an eye injury were trasnferred to Scheer, but attempts to replenish the U-boat were again interrupted by bad weather, forcing the two vessels to relocate again. The equipment transfer and refuelling took another three days, during which crewmen from U-124 enjoyed the relatively luxurious facilities aboard Kormoran, and a sick sailor from the submarine was traded for a healthy man from the raider.

The raider sailed north to the Freetown-South America shipping route, and began to patrol near where it intersected the border of the Pan-American Security Zone. On the morning of 22 March, the raider encountered a tanker, which identified herself as the British vessel Agnita. Kormoran instructed her to stop and maintain wireless silence or be fired upon. The tanker instead broke away and began to transmit a distress signal, which was jammed as Kormoran opened fire. Agnita signalled surrender after two salvoes; twelve British and twenty-five Chinese sailors were captured, along with maps of the minefields surrounding Freetown Harbour. Efforts to scuttle the tanker failed, and Kormoran had to waste another torpedo to sink the ship at 3°20′S 23°40′W / 3.333°S 23.667°W / -3.333; -23.667.

Against usual practice, Detmers decided to return to the site of the action three days later, where another tanker was spotted. Kormoran revealed her weapons and fired a warning shot at the large merchantman, which initially attempted to flee, but chose to instead surrender when the morning mist lifted and revealed the nature of the opposition. The 11,309-ton German-built Canadian tanker Canadolite was taken as a prize ship, with a German crew taking the tanker and her 44 sailors to Bordeaux, while the four officers were imprisoned aboard Kormoran. After the captured ship left, it was realised recognition signals to avoid Luftwaffe attack had not been supplied, and Kormoran raced to meet the tanker when she rendezvoused with the supply ship Nordmark. The raider met the supply ship on 27 March, but it appeared Canadolite had enough fuel to reach France and chosen to sail straight there. Two U-boats were scheduled to reach the rendezvous point for resupply; Detmers suggested he meet U-105, which was carrying more white metal for Kormoran's engines, while Nordmark focused on U-106. The commanding officer of U-105 agreed to transmit a warning to Germany regarding Canadolite once the U-boat had left the rendezvous point, which did not occur until six days later because of equipment problems delaying the replenishment. The tanker arrived safely on 13 April, was renamed Sudetenland, and remained operational until her sinking by the Royal Air Force in 1944.

Kormoran was due to meet the tanker Rudolf Albrecht on 4 April, and had no opportunity to search for new targets. The 42 prisoners from Kormoran were transferred to the tanker, but as she was a civilian vessel, her master was sworn in by Detmers as a naval officer, and an armed guard had to be supplied. Detmers ordered the transfer of four men from Nordmark to Rudolf Albrecht as guards, along with a fifth to Kormoran in exchange for the sick sailor taken from U-124 a fortnight previous. The supply ship's commander attempted to obstruct the transfers, and when this failed demanded replacements; one came from Kormoran, while three of the tanker's sailors were drafted. Food, mail, and newspapers were received from Rudolf Albrecht, along with news that another three First Class Iron Crosses and fifty Second Class Iron Crosses had been awarded to Kormoran.

Having returned to the waters off Freetown, Kormoran encountered a merchant ship at dawn on 9 April. As the ship was behind Kormoran and on a similar course, the raider slowed until the merchantman was abeam of the raider and 5,000 yards (4,600 m) to port. The German ship decamouflaged, increased speed, and ordered the freighter to stop or be fired upon. In response, the merchantman attempted to transmit a distress call (which was jammed by Kormoran) and tried to man her stern gun, prompting the Germans to open fire. The freighter took heavy damage, as every time Detmers ordered or was about to order a cease fire, the target ship attempted to escape or transmit another distress signal. Eventually, the 46 survivors of the crew (5 were killed by the attack) abandoned their burning vessel, and boarding parties were sent from the raider. She was identified as the 8,022-ton British freighter Craftsman, carrying an anti-submarine net for Singapore, which was to be delivered after a stop in Cape Town. After scuttling charges failed to sink Craftsman, she was torpedoed, and submerged at 0°32′N 23°37′W / 0.533°N 23.617°W / 0.533; -23.617.

Ships attacked in the Atlantic Ocean
Date Name Tons (GRT) Nationality Location
13 January 1941 Antonis 3,729 Greece 18°17′N 28°32′W / 18.283°N 28.533°W / 18.283; -28.533
18 January 1941 British Union 6,987 United Kingdom 26°29′N 31°07′W / 26.483°N 31.117°W / 26.483; -31.117
29 January 1941 Afric Star 11,900 United Kingdom 8°44′N 24°38′W / 8.733°N 24.633°W / 8.733; -24.633
29 January 1941 Eurylochus 5,273 Greece 8°15′N 24°04′W / 8.25°N 24.067°W / 8.25; -24.067
22 March 1941 Agnita 3,552 United Kingdom 3°20′S 23°40′W / 3.333°S 23.667°W / -3.333; -23.667
25 March 1941 Canadolite 11,309 Canada 2°30′N 23°48′W / 2.5°N 23.8°W / 2.5; -23.8 (captured)
9 April 1941 Craftsman 8,022 United Kingdom 0°32′N 23°37′W / 0.533°N 23.617°W / 0.533; -23.617
12 April 1941 Nicolaos D. L. 5,486 Greece 1°54′S 22°12′W / 1.9°S 22.2°W / -1.9; -22.2

After fleeing the scene, Kormoran headed south, and early on 12 April encountered another ship. After slowly closing on the merchantman over three hours, Kormoran decamouflaged and fired several warning shots. The freighter turned away and sent a distress signal; wireless operators aboard Kormoran were unable to jam it, but there was little concern as the transmission was an SOS instead of the more specific QQQ or RRR for a raider attack, while also giving the wrong coordinates. Kormoran fired for effect, but it was not until the merchant ship's bridge was destroyed that her 35 crew abandoned ship. A boarding party identified the ship as the 5,486-ton Greek freighter Nicholas D.L., carrying Canadian timber. Because of her buoyant cargo, the scuttling charges failed to have major effect, but after firing some shells into Nicholas D.L., Detmers chose to leave the ship to sink slowly at 1°54′S 22°12′W / 1.9°S 22.2°W / -1.9; -22.2. Until 1943, the Admiralty accepted the SOS location, 18° further north, as fact, while attributing the sinking to the raider Atlantis.

On 17 April, Kormoran sighted a passenger ship, but was unable to lure her into range before the vessel disappeared into a rain squall. Two days later, Kormoran met Atlantis and the blockade runner Dresden. An expected shipment of white metal for Kormoran had been supplied to a different blockade runner, which was delayed. Several supply ships arrived at the rendezvous point over the next few days and transferred provisions, ammunition, and fuel to the raider. Prisoners from Kormoran were handed over to the other ships, and the raider received new sailors to make up numbers. Kormoran departed on 22 April, and spent two days changing her disguise to the Japanese freighter Sakito Maru before sailing into the Indian Ocean.

Read more about this topic:  German Auxiliary Cruiser Kormoran, Operational History

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