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...