The Bower & Collier Family History

Research by Colin Bower

The Secret Raiders

by David Woodward

The Story of the Operations of the German Armed Merchant Raiders in the Second World War

Extracts

INTRODUCTION

Between 1940 and 1943 there were at sea a total of nine German armed raiders (converted freighters), and between them they sank more than 130 Allied or neutral merchant vessels, totalling over 850,000 tons...

...Altogether, the surface raiders sank as many ships as did the mines, laid by the German navy and air force, which were such a grave danger to the Allies at the most critical stage of the war...

...the Thor drove off two British armed merchant cruisers of greater size (the Alcantara and Carnarvon Castle), and sank a third (the Voltaire)...

...The first six raiders sailed between March 31 and July 9, 1940...They were..the Thor..These ships were referred to as "The First Wave".

THOR (SHIP 10)

...The Thor was one of the smallest of the raiders, being of 3,144 tons (about the size of a large cross-channel steamer); she was built by the Deutsche Werft, Hamburg in 1938, as the banana boat Santa Cruz for the Oldenburg-Portuguesische Line...

...The advantages which the banana boats possessed were two: they were fast compared witht he average merchant ship, and they were samll. The importance of presenting a small target will be seen from the Thor's experience of engaging British armed merchant-cruisers of equivalent armament and about six times the size...

...The Thor was designed for seventeen knots...Her armament was much the same as that of the other raiders-six 5.9-inch guns, one 60-millimetre to simulate the small gun carried at the stern of all Allied defensively equipped merchant ships, two 37-millimetre and four 20-millimetre light anti-aircraft guns, together with four torpedo tubes...

...Her captain was Otto Kahler...

...the first disguise assumed by the new raider was Russian - as the steamship Orsk of Odessa...

...From February 14 to February 28, 1941, she was replenishing...taking on board one thousand rounds of 5.9-inch ammunition, as well as torpedoes...

...Not until March 21 was anything sighted...and then the ship seen...was quickly lost...

...Four days later, however, at seven o'clock in the morning, a cloud of smoke was once more seen on the horizon. There followed masts and a steamer could be seen zigzagging and headed southwards. The Thor hoisted the Yugoslav flag and the crew went to action stations. At 0750 the ship turned away and was seen to be a big freighter with a gun aft: she made smoke and headed northward at high speed. As she seemed as though she might get away, the German flag was hoisted, and fire opened at 10,000 yards...

...The ship being chased was heard by Thor to wireless: "Britannia RRR 7o 24' north 24o 30' west gunned." This, of course, the German operator tried to jam, but the British ship's transmitter was very powerful and soon Sierra Leone radio could be heard repeating the alarm...

...The Britannia was returning the raider's fire with her single gun, and kept on northward until, after Thor had fired 159 rounds, she appeared to stop. Kahler checked fire and as the raider came up she heard a signal to the Britannia which showed that a British warship was just over 100 miles away and coming at full speed to the rescue. As the Thor approached the stationary ship a man was seen in the water, hanging on to a tiny raft. He was picked up by the Germans and said that he had fallen overboard from the Britannia during the chase...

...The 500 people on board the Britannia-200 crew and 300 passengers, including twelve women-took to the boats, and when they were out of the line of fire Kahler started shelling the abandoned ship, and she sank after having been hit sixteen times on the water-line...

...The last signs of the Britannia, a ship of 8,799 tons, visible to the crew of the Thor were the boats on the water and a column of smoke and flame a thousand feet high as she sank...

...Kahler decided to leave the Britannia's passengers and crew in their boats, becuase with a British warship appoaching he had no time in which to pick them up. He steamed away with regret, for he did not want to leave at liberty anyone who had seen his ship...

...In his report to the SKL (German naval staff) on the cruise Kahler was at some pains to excuse himself for having a sunk a passenger ship, adopting two contradictory lines of argument-first, that he could not tell that she was a passenger ship; and second, that she was not a passenger ship but a transport..

...The Thor and the Komet were the only two German merchant raiders to attempt two cruises...

...the Thor...first cruise had lasted from June 1940 to April 1941...

THE IDENTITY OF THE MYSTERY SHIPS

Each of the armed merchant raiders had at least four identities. There was the ship's original name as a merchant ship; then there was the name she received when she became a raider; with this went a yard number prefaced HSK when she was undergoing conversion, and another number prefaced Ship (Schiff), which was generally used in signals and official correspondence; finally there was a letter allotted to each ship by the British Admiralty when she was known to be at sea...

Colin Bower
28 February 2007

Links to:
Britannia Index

 
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