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FALSE FLAGS: Disguised German Raiders of World War II.

FALSE FLAGS: Disguised German Raiders of World War II

Author: Stephen Robinson

Published by: Exisle Publishing, Melbourne, 2016, 368pp, $39.99.

In the pre-dawn blackness of 19 June 1940 a 13,415-ton Canadian passenger liner, Niagara, struck two mines as it steamed north out of the Hauraki Gulf. Although all passengers and crew made it to safety, eight tons of gold went to the bottom in the liner's hold.

The mines were among 228 laid only six days before by a German raider, Orion--one of four converted cargo ships profiled in Stephen Robinson's excellent account, False Flags. These auxiliary cruisers, or raiders, ranged more widely than any other vessels in the German Kriegsmarine during the Second World War. By the time Orion returned just over a year later from a cruise of 510 days, she had sailed the equivalent of five times around the world.

That Niagara fell victim less than a year into the war demonstrated how unsafe 'home waters' were in any part of the British Empire, particularly in the early years. Australia suffered an even greater blow when another raider, Kormoran, sank the light cruiser HMAS Sydney, with the loss of all 645 crew, off the coast of Western Australia in November 1941.

Kormoran--which sank next day from damage sustained from Sydneys answering fire--showed that a combination of deception and superb seamanship and gunnery could be more than a match for the superior speed and firepower of Allied battle craft. All raiders were heavily armed--5.9-inch guns and torpedoes were standard--and they used spotter floatplanes to locate or track their quarry. But their effectiveness lay mainly in the mastery with which they changed their superstructure and masked their weapons to mimic Allied or neutral merchant shipping. They referred to pictures from international shipping registers as a guide, erected false funnels, masts and other superstructure to alter their profile and regularly underwent repaints at sea to assume the appearance of a 'friendly' vessel.

The aim of the raiders was to sow fear and uncertainty in remote sea lanes so as to force the Allies to create more convoys and travel more-circuitous routes. Convoys were both far less efficient --paced for their slowest ships--and easier for U-boats to locate and target. The effect was to constrict the flow of life blood to besieged Britain and her Allies. By forcing the Allies to protect their merchant shipping in this way, always keeping them guessing, these few raiders caused much more economic damage than the toll of tonnage captured or sunk.

Many ships captured or sunk by the raiders realised they faced a sea-wolf in sheep's clothing only when the raiders withdrew the camouflage screens from their guns and sent shells either howling across their bows or smashing into their radio rooms to silence their broadcast raider warnings. On occasions the raiders also bluffed their way through encounters with heavily armed naval vessels, exploiting the complacency of many ships in home waters. In this way they either evaded encounters or--in the case of Sydney--dealt the killer blows before the cruiser assumed battle stations.

Robinson is an Australian military historian and Exisle an Australasian publisher, which may explain why the cover of False Flags features a map of Australia and New Zealand and the focus is particularly on the four ships that operated in our waters, among a dozen auxiliary cruisers that marauded around the globe. The key to the success of the raiders--which stayed at sea for a year or more on each voyage--was they could turn up anywhere between the waters north of Russia to Antarctica to capture or sink Allied merchant vessels. The most successful described in this book, Pinguin, sank or captured 32 ships, totalling 154,619 tons--in league with the fifteen most successful U-boats-and covered nearly 60,000 miles of ocean in eleven months. Another, Komet, stayed at sea for eighteen months.

The raiders also monitored and exploited Allied radio communications --and compromised British codes--to garner highly classified information, often to locate shipping or to countermand raider warnings. Captured material also revealed lax security by the Allies, for example when in November 1940 one raider seized mailbags from a captured British freighter, Automedon. These contained British War Cabinet minutes detailing the vulnerability of British forces in Asia and describing precisely Singapore's defences and its full order of battle. Although Japan had not at that stage entered the war against the Allies, the German raider sailed with this priceless booty to Kobe and handed the information over to the Japanese, who put it to great use when Japan captured Singapore in February 1942.

The raiders ultimately lost the intelligence contest they had used to such great effect early in the war. The decryption by Bletchley Park of Enigma-coded messages directing U-boat operations, including when they rendezvoused with surface vessels, resulted in the sinking of one raider, Atlantis, in November 1941. In October 1942 Komet was similarly located via Enigma decrypts and was sunk by British destroyers as it ran the gauntlet of the English Channel, bound for the Atlantic on its second cruise.

By then the heyday of the raider had passed. But not until May 1941 had the Royal Navy got the measure of the raider threat, and had begun acting effectively on warnings broadcast by ships under attack. In this way Pinguin was identified, tracked and trapped by the British cruiser HMS Cornwall and sent to the bottom of the Arabian Sea. Of the four raiders whose exploits are the focus of False Flags, only Orion--whose mines sunk Niagara --survived the days of raiding. But not even Orion stayed afloat to see the peace, grounding itself on the East Prussian coast just four days before Victory in Europe Day, after coming under attack from Russian bombers while it evacuated German troops across the Baltic.

Robinson has woven the experiences of these four ships, Orion, Pinguin, Komet and Kormoran--plus others that crossed their paths--into a rich account of one of the previously least known theatres of the war at sea. A wealth of photos and excellent maps are essential to following the raiders' progress, and extensive end papers show the depth and breadth of the original research that has enabled Robinson to amass such a detailed account. His thumbnail profiles of the senior officers who led these operations add to the colour, though these portraits could have been built on to describe the special character and camaraderie of this unusual pirate band, and what enabled them to remain so successful over such long voyages.

Their skill was undoubted but so too was their chivalry: captured Allied crews and passengers--including women--consistently commented on the humane treatment they received aboard the raiders. And although many merchant seamen were killed in clashes before they surrendered or abandoned their ships, Robinson explains the violence as necessary for the raiders to subdue their quarry. He concludes: 'the auxiliary cruisers fought a war without hate'.

STEPHEN HARRIS

Stephen Harris is the author of Under a Bomber's Moon: The True Story of Two Airmen at War over Germany.
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Author:Harris, Stephen
Publication:New Zealand International Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2018
Words:1174
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