Built: 1922 by Palmers Co Newcastle.
Tonnage: 7, 628g, 4, 724n.
Engines: Single Screw, Turbine Double Reduction Geared 2 Double Ended Boilers, 6, 000 SHP, 14 Knots.
Completed for the Ocean Steamship Company.
Automedon was Achilles' charioteer.
First of all I believe that some background material is required before we finally arrive at the encounter between the Automedon and the Atlantis, an 8, 000dwt Commerce Raider, which had formerly belonged to the Hansa Line. The story starts in Whitehall where because of Great Britain's failure to be able to meet its commitments in the Far East a meeting had taken place of the War Cabinet. Prior to the meeting the British Royal Navy had severely damaged the French Fleet which was alongside at its base in Algeria, reasons for this action were obvious in as much as the British didn't want the French capacity being taken over by the Germans. But, it did remove French capacity in possibly assisting the British in the Far East should they have chosen that option, as the option was taken away who's to say what would have happened. The British severely underestimated Japan's intentions on the Malay Peninsular and Singapore, all the guns were pointing seawards, there were no tanks and the only planes available were Brewster Buffalos. The Chief of Staff painted a very gloomy picture of not only its land capabilities but also that of the Royal Navy who were severely stretched attempting to patrol both European waters and the Far East with only limited Dutch assistance. The chiefs of Staff declared that Britain was too weak to risk war with Japan and in August of 1940 sent a 28 page report to the Commander in Chief of the Far East, the report was headed as follows:
SECRET COPY 72
COS (40) 302 (also W.P. (40) 302)
TO BE KEPT UNDER LOCK AND KEY
It is requested that special care be taken to ensure the secrecy of this document.
Amazingly this document, bearing in mind its sensitivity and importance, was placed onboard the civilian vessel Automedon, a steamer of the Blue Funnel Line. On the 24th of September she sailed for the Malayan port of Penang, she was never to arrive for in the Straits of Java she encountered the Atlantis under the command of Bernard Rogge.
It is worth mentioning that in previous encounters Captain Rogge's treatment of Prisoners of War had been exemplary and all were treated with courtesy and due respect. In the quotation marks which follow are the statements made by Mr. Stan Hughill who was at the helm at the time of the encounter.
"I arrived on the Bridge at eight o'clock and I goes to the wheel, about twenty past we spotted a way over to Port, a big, rather big vessel which we thought was a Dutchman cos we were near the Dutch East Indies heading for Penang and we were off the Island of Sumatra, (Atchinhead?) actually. When we saw this ship coming the old man (Captain W.B. Ewan) he was walking up and down the Bridge turns to the Second Mate who's on watch and says 'I think he's a Dutchman, Sir'"
But it was the Atlantis whose Captain Rogge was preparing to attack.
The distance between the two ships narrowed from the initial 18 miles to one of 4, 600 yards, the Atlantis swung to Starboard cleared for action, raised her battle flag and fired a warning shot over the Automedon's bow.
"Next minute Bang over the bows with a warning shot, up went the German battle flag so that was it. The Old Man said to me hard a' Starboard, you see, so that meant the ships bow went that way (Stan's pointing) and the stern went that way, next minute we were at right angles to the raider, the one we thought was the Dutchman. Next minute Bang, Bang, bang, cos our captain was the stuff Nelson was made of, they don't exist anymore people like this, shouts 'We'll fight 'em you know' and turned this pea shooter towards this chap who could have blown us out of the water in no time. Three volleys of each three each, Bang Bang Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang Bang, Bang, be the time he had finished all this area was gone(Pointing to the front of the Bridge) , all the boats on the Boat deck was gone, around me the Captain as far as I could see was blown up, actually we had two Second Mates as well as the other chap, auxiliary Second Mates, they were all killed."
The Automedon still steamed on at full speed having taken eleven direct hits. The Gunner manned his stern gun intent on opening fire but before he could do so Atlantis loosed three more salvos destroying the area and killing the Gunner, the Automedon now stopped. She was dead in the water, silence descended on the ship broken only by the sound of escaping steam, the freight and her secret cargo were now at the mercy of Atlantis, Captain Rogge now gave the order to board the British ship.
"The boarding parties came aboard the ship, they had pistols, they had grenades, they had cutlasses, they came aboard, Dirks they called them in the German Navy, and they came aboard in no time."
The boarding party was in a hurry for Captain Rogge knew that they were lying in a relatively busy shipping lane and any other ship arriving on the scene would instantly know what was about and radio for help so he only allowed for three hours to take off Automedon's Crew and Passengers. The surviving crew numbered 31 British of which two later died of their wounds, 56 Chinese and three passengers, one being a woman.
Officers of the Atlantis
The cargo consisted of aircraft, motor cars, machinery spares, bicycles, microscopes, service uniforms, cameras, sewing machines, steel and copper sheets, whisky, beer, cigarettes, food supplies and 120 mail bags.
Of the boarding party one German Officer had the specific task of looking for secret materials and to this end he searched for and located the Strong Room. The door was blown open with the aid of plastic explosive and within lay a veritable treasure trove of secret information, Fleet orders, gunnery instructions, intelligence reports from MI6 and quantities of Merchant Navy code books but later there was one more discovery to be made. Whilst all this was going on below deck the transfer of personnel was taking place above, Captain Rogge had allowed the Crew to take their personal possessions and they showed their appreciation by assisting in the transfer of food but with nothing else. They did show the Germans however where 550 cases of whisky were stored in Number Three Hold and later where two and a half million Chesterfields could be found. Of the 56 Chinese onboard twenty or so had survived the sinking of their ship, Lawther and Latta's Anglo-Saxon, and were on their way home to Hong Kong Captain Rogge was impressed by their phlegmatic stoicism.
Bridge of the Atlantis
The German Officer in charge of searching for secret materials made his way back to what was left of the Bridge and entered the Chartroom. On opening a drawer there lay before him a weighted canvas bag containing the Chief of staff's Report to the Commander in Chief Far East. Orders had been to throw it overboard in the event of an emergency but the Officers responsible for it were dead, now it was in enemy hands. Next the Engineers of Automedon reported that the steering gear had been wrecked in the same salvo that killed the Gunner. Captain Rogge now had to abandon his plan to tow her out of the shipping lane so he sent across a party to lay time bombs and at 1507 the twenty-first victim of the Atlantis sank. During the attack on the ship the Automedon's Radio Officer had managed to send a brief message which was "RRR Automedon 0416N", during that night the Atlantis' WT Office using the decoding books picked up a message between another Holt ship, Helenus and Colombo, Ceylon discussing the RRR message. The Atlantis took a bearing and was able to establish that they were on parallel courses, fortunately for Helenus Captain Rogge was awakened too late and the ships passed in the night.
AFTERMATHS AND CONSEQUENCES.
On inspecting the canvas bag Captain Rogge saw the significance of the Chiefs of Staff's report and secured its swift delivery to Japan. In Tokyo the German Naval Attaché Rear Admiral Paul Vernica handed it over to the Japanese Naval Head of Staff Admiral Kondo. At first the Japanese believed them to be fakes put aboard Merchant ships in order to mislead the enemy but soon changed their minds. Paul Vernica duly recorded the sensational impact on Japanese strategy made by the report seized from Automedon. "Kondo told me how valuable the information contained in the War Cabinet's memorandum was to the Imperial Navy, such as the significant weakening of the British Empires outward appearance". The report was to affect Japanese strategies. Admiral Yamamoto decided having read the report that he could deliver a double blow against the British and Americans in the Far East. On the 7th of January 1941 he wrote to the Naval Minister asking if Japan knocked out America then the remaining British and Dutch forces would be suitably weakened for the Japanese to deliver a deathblow. Planning went ahead for the destruction of the American Fleet at Pearl harbour in Hawaii, the die was now cast for war in the Pacific.
In London the Admiralty was informed regarding the loss of secret material from the Automedon but incorrectly assumed that the canvas bag had been thrown overboard, orders were therefore issued to only change the Navy Codes, this would eventually lead to Britain's humiliation when Singapore fell to the Japanese which was the greatest disaster to befall the British Forces. A year later on the 15th of February 1942 the Japanese accepted Britain's surrender in Singapore.
Emperor Hirihito only ever decorated three Germans, they were Herman Goering, Field Marshal Irwin Rommel and Captain Bernard Rogge.
On its trip North after sinking the Automedon on her way back to Germany the Atlantis came across the Norwegian ship Silver Planet and duly dispatched her to the depths. Atlantis then rendezvoused with the U-Boat to transfer fuel, unbeknown to both ships H.M.S. Devonshire had intercepted a message sent by Atlantis declaring herself to be Polyphemus, Captain Oliver launched his Walrus aircraft to determine which ships message he had in fact intercepted. The reply from the aircraft was that it was not Polyphemus so H.M.S. Devonshire moved in for the kill, the U-Boat dived just before the heavy cruiser arrived and managed to escape. Both ships now opened fire but the Atlantis was outgunned by H.M.S. Devonshire and Captain Rogge gave orders for the scuttling charges to be primed and for the ship to be abandoned, at 10.16 the Atlantis sank. Aware of the proximity of the U-Boat H.M.S. Devonshire steamed away and fortunately for the Crew of Atlantis the U-Boat returned. Lines were put out and the U-Boat as well as taking some members onboard and on deck commenced to tow the Atlantis's lifeboats. Three days later the U-Boat rendezvoused with the supply ship Python but before the transfer was complete the Cruiser H.M.S. Dorsetshire arrived and again the U-Boat dived. After sinking the Python again in full knowledge that a submarine was in the vicinity the British Warship steamed away. Again the U-Boat surfaced and with the assistance of other U-Boats some of which were Italian successfully towed the survivors to the port of St. Nazaire, France. In all the U-Boat covered some 5, 000 miles in the rescue and in total the Crew of Atlantis had been at sea for 655 days. Admiral Radar had all the Crew to a formal reception in Berlin and awarded them a special clasp to commemorate their epic voyage.
An Authentic Great Escape as told to Richard Bowen.
Sam Harper's story is a real-life great escape. For the Sale man was a crewmember of the SS Automedon, a British cargo ship shelled and sunk in a surprise attack off the coast of Sumatra on November 11, 1940. This is his remarkable story.
'At the time I was on watch in the engine room and suddenly there was a god almighty bang followed by a scream of steam escaping because the second shot from the raider hit the base of the funnel.
The Chinese scarpered for the deck. They were my firemen.
The cabin crew were ordered on deck by a squad of armed German marines who later attached explosives to the ship's sides.
After five weeks on the raider, the Atlantis, we were transferred to a captured tanker.
We were told we would spend Christmas in the Antarctic but we ended up in the South Atlantic.
We finally arrived in Bordeaux where we were marched to a prison camp at Sant Medard en Jean.
After five weeks in the camp I and my fellow captives were put on a train bound for Germany on March 12, 1941. The day after I and three fellow prisoners made a break for it, jumping from the speeding train.
We were dead lucky we didn't break any limbs jumping from the train which was travelling at quite a high sped. We set off walking and came to this German station camp.'
The quartet headed inland in an attempt to avoid the heavily militarised French coast.
'To avoid drawing attention to ourselves, we walked in twos - with the man of a similar stature sticking to one another like glue. But there was one heart stopping moment.
After a while we were stopped by a French policeman and this worried us a bit because we had the impression the French police were in cahoots with the Germans but this fella wasn't and he told us where the line of demarcation was, which was this river called the Cher.
When we got in sight of the river, we hid in the wood until dark when we went down to the river.
What followed was straight out of a boy's own novel - the quartet paddled across the fast- flowing Cher is a stolen punt.
We successfully negotiated the river and were befriended by a French peasant who fed, watered and allowed us to spend the night in his African hut style house.
Eventually we found themselves (sic) in Loches where a friendly French official issued us with forged French army papers.
Next stop was Marseilles. We spent three weeks in the French barracks there and we were told that, if we went to the seaman's mission, the Rev Donald Caskey, who was in charge, would fix us up with accommodation.
It was with Caskey's help that we fled Nazi-occupied France into Spain, via the Pyrenees, where we boarded a train bound for Madrid, only to be picked up by Spanish police for entering the country without permission.
After a couple of prison transfers, we ended up in a Spanish labour camp.
You got either a boot up the arse or a smile. We slept adjacent to these two Dutch guys we'd met.
You were supposed to work but with the help of the British who seemed to have some pull, we got out of that.
We got quite friendly with these Dutch chaps who said they wanted to get back to England to become involved in the war.
They gave me a letter to take back to the Dutch government in exile once I returned to England.
We were released from the slammer by the British naval attaché who sent a British embassy offical with orders to cross the palms of the Spanish guards with silver.
It was June 27, 1941, that I again set foot on British soil; seven months after being taken prisoner.
My Dutch friends were recruited by the British secret service and Reigli met his death in Auschwitz after being betrayed by British spies while he was on a mission in Nazi- occupied Holland.
Louis joined the Special Operations Executive and became a very successful British spy. He was dropped into Holland by Lewis Hedges.
Louis was decorated for his war efforts, picked up a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and an array of military honours from the Dutch Queen, Juliana.
It turned out he wasn't just plain Louis, he was a baron. Lewis Hedges became Sir Lewis Hedges, Air Marshall Lewis Hedges. Louis didn't need a title. He'd already got one.'
Frank Walker (Automedon crew member, left) and Sam Harper, right.
Some of the information for the Automedon came from Duncan Haws book on Blue Funnel but in the main from a programme which I saw on the History Channel entitled 'Secrets of the Second World War'. I reproduced the narrative word for word and can honestly say that there seems to be very little sympathy for the crews of the ships which the German Commerce raiders sank. In total Germany had ten Commerce Raiders. As you have previously read Germany welcomed its murderers home and celebrations were held, not once did the programme try to balance this with the loss of so many brave Merchant Seamen.
This month (November 2000) I had an enquiry from a gentleman whose father was killed on yet another Blue funnel ship, the Calchas, I was able to furnish him with details of the sinking and a photograph of the ship. He'd said he could find numerous sites on the net with regards the U-107 but nothing at all on the Calchas. You begin to ask yourself what did they die for?
Additional information concerning the sinking of Automedon