Albany and German Armed Merchant Cruisers During World War II
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By Roger Cunnington – AHS Maritime Research Officer

Albany’s experience of German Armed Merchant Cruisers (AMCs) is extremely limited, but worth examining. In fact, the only AMC to come close to Albany during WW2 was the Orion in September 1940.

In June 1940, Orion laid mines off the coast of New Zealand sinking the Niagara and then patrolled in the Tasman Sea, which resulted in several merchant ships being sunk. The last victim was the SS Turakina, bound from Sydney to Wellington, sunk on 20th August in a gun battle losing 33 of her 53 crew. During the battle, the Turakina managed to transmit radio emergency signals, which were picked up by other allied ships and shore stations.

Fearing increased naval operations searching the Tasman Sea for the raider, Capt. Weyner, Orion’s c/o decided to shift the ship’s attention to the south coast of Australia. She passed 200 n.m. south of Tasmania, then headed north-west and zig-zagged across the Australian Bight to the westward. The hopes of the captain for success in these waters were not however realised, as recorded the raider’s log. ‘Again and again the shipping-lanes from Cape Town to South Australian ports and from Aden and Colombo via Cape Leeuwin to South Australia were crossed without sighting a ship.’ The weather was, as expected, generally very bad. During the night of 2–3 September, with the object of disturbing shipping traffic, dummy mines were laid in view of the Eclipse Island lighthouse, outside King George Sound, but there appears to be no report of a sighting of the raider.

This laying the mines seems to have been a last resort operation. As the Mediterranean was closed to allied shipping due to German U boats and aircraft – even the ships supplying the 8th Army in Egypt traveled from the U.K. round the Cape – the only worthwhile overseas target route would have been from Cape Town. These, as well as coastal ships to/from Fremantle, would have been the only ships to cross the Orion’s mine field. Very few ships called at Albany during the war. Most would have gone to Fremantle, passing far to the west of the minefield. Ships heading for east coast ports would have passed much further south, assuming they would have been using the great circle course or shortest route from Cape Town. On approaching Australia, ships would have been steering a north easterly course from latitude 430 degrees south.
After laying the mines, the raider then headed out to sea at full speed. At eight o’clock next morning a Hudson bomber appeared and circled the ship twice at an altitude of 600–800 metres. The bomber made a wireless report as it flew away and from ten o’clock onwards at least six aircraft, which had just taken off from Busselton, searched for Orion without success, as she was hidden by heavy rain squalls. AMCs monitored radio signals, both local and global, and were well aware of efforts to locate them.

After spending five unsuccessful days patrolling in the Indian Ocean, Orion headed southeast and again resumed patrolling the Tasman Sea on her way to the Marshall Islands to rendezvous with her supply ship Regensburg.

Details of Orion are as follows

  • Original name: Kurmark for the Hamburg America Line.
  • Builder: Blohm and Voss, Hamburg – 1930.
  • Requisitioned by the Kriegsmarine – 1939. Renamed Orion.
  • Length: 148 m. Beam: 18.6 m. Displacement: 15,700 tons. (7,021 GRT)
  • Propulsion: Steam turbines, single propeller (4.6 MKW)
  • Speed 14.8 knots. Range 18,000 n.m.
  • Main Armament: 6 x 150 mm guns.

AMCs were fitted with guns and torpedo tubes on the upper ‘tween deck (immediately below the upper deck) and also carried an aircraft. While patrolling they would be in disguise, flying allied or neutral nation flags. When in close range of a target, the swastika would be hoisted and plating on the ship’s side would be cleared to expose the guns and torpedo tubes. Survivors from the victim ships were taken prisoner until transferred to the raiders’ supply ships. Most eventually ended up in Germany as PoWs.

Dummy mines are a form of psychological warfare. Even a 40 gallon oil drum floating freely or moored could be suspected of being a lethal mine. Some dummy mines were completely empty, some were equipped with an explosive charge with a complex detonator designed to kill any bomb/mine disposal personnel.

Mr. Warwick Hughes, a retired geologist in Canberra, contributed to the research for this article. He has read about WWII most of his life, has worked in WA at times and has family in Perth.

References for the information are:

  • German Raiders in the Pacific – S.D. Waters
  • Orion’s logbook
  • Port of Albany Register of Inwards Movements
  • Wikipedia

This article was originally published in the Albany Historical Society Members Magazine