Southern Atlantic. Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothes

Hidden guns on the armed merchant cruiser Atlantis. Atlantis posed as Abbekerk to approach and sink unsuspecting allied shipping.

9 July 1942. Around noon, Abbekerk’s lookout spots a dot at the horizon. A bit later a large warship on full speed approaches Abbekerk, all guns pointed at the freighter.

In the Southern Atlantic we were stopped by a British cruiser. All it’s 8 cannons intimidatingly aimed at our ship. But after exchanging the right signals we were allowed to continue.
Only years later I understood what was the reason behind all this. A year earlier the Kormoran, a German armed merchant cruiser,  disguised as an allied freighter, had surprised the Austrlian cruiser HMAS Sydney on the west coast of Australia and sunk it. The English had now become very cautious with fast independent sailing freighters.
Third mate Jacob Visser

Armed merchant cruisers

As well as submarines Germany does use converted fast merchant navy ships as ‘Merchant Raiders or Auxiliary Cruisers’. Equipped with quite heavy cannons, mines and reconnaissance planes, the raider has only one job: sink (or potentially capture) merchant navy ships sailing independent. Disguised as a known allied or neutral ship the raider misleads enemy ships and tries to get as close as possible to its prey. At the last moment it drops its disguise and the canons are brought out, leaving the not or lightly armed merchant ships no options but to surrender.
Germany deployed more than 10 of these ships which were very successful, especially in the early years of the war.

(Source: wikidepia)

Abbekerk -unintentionally- played a part in the successes of the raiders as in 1941 Atlantis ( schiff 16) posed as Abbekerk for some time. Under the command of Captain Bernard Rogge Atlantis was one of the most successful raiders. Leaving Germany in March 1941 it would sink or capture more than 22 allied ships in its 600 days at sea before she was tracked down and sunk.

In June 1940 they disguised the ship with extra loading masts, adjusted smokestack, different paint, flags and even different clothing for the crew. It worked. Near Mombasa at the African coast the Norwegian M/V. Tirranna did not suspect anything as Abbekerk appeared on the horizon on a intersecting course. How good the disguise was is shown in the fact that on board the Tirranna, build at the same shipyard as Abbekerk’s sister ship Arendskerk, they were convinced they were dealing with a ‘kerk’ ship. It even seemed a little race was being held between the two modern fast ships. Only as Atlatis is really close and fires a shot across the bow they realise that it’s not Abbekerk. But Tirranna did not give up without a fight.

M/V Tirranna. Norwegian victim of Atlantis in Abbekerk disguise.
( From Björn Milde’s postcard collection.

She returned fire with the cannon on the aft deck and fled at full speed. She was a little bit faster than Atlantis and was able, whilst zigzagging, to dodge Atlatis’s shots and put 8 km between them in 3,5 hour. Then a direct hit on Tirranna killed all five crew at the cannon. After that the captain surrendered.

That was not the end of it because Rogge found the modern ship and its cargo to valuable to sink. He put a crew on board plus nearly 300 captured crew from other ships and sent her back to France. Surprisingly they managed to get round the allied blockades and reach the French coast. But only a few kilometres short of her destination she was torpedoed by the English submarine HMS Tuna and 90 of the 300 people on board were killed.

In the summer of 1942 most of the raiders were finished: tracked down by English cruisers especially send out to hunt them.It also became increasingly difficult for Germany to supply the ships and it had become next to impossible to enter or leave Germany and France unscathed. And above all: they simply ran out of suitable ships.

Abbekerk continues to Trinidad, a long and uneventful voyage. Next




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