In Alphabetical Order
HK Atlantis HK Komet HK Kormoran
HK Michel HK Orion HK Pinquin
HK Stier HK Thor HK Widder
Click on the image or name of the ships to get to their page

Hilfskreuzer - Introduction
Why the Hilfskreuzer are so Fascinating
During World War Two, the capital ships of the German Navy ships were primarily deployed as commerce raiders.

The Deutschland, the Admiral Graf Spee, the Admiral Hipper, the Admiral Scheer, the Scharnhorst, the Gneisenau, the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen, indeed, all the heavy units of the Kriegsmarine with the exception of the Blücher and the Tirpitz, participated in such operations, but with little success in terms of ships sunk or captured.

Their sorties led to the mobilization of significant Allied naval and air resources, caused disruption to vital convoy supply routes, providing opportunities for Germany’s own blockade runners, and played an important role in maintaining the morale of the German people.

But intriguingly, they implanted in the minds of warship enthusiasts everywhere the image of aesthetically beautiful, somehow doomed vessels, sailing alone or in pairs, eluding more powerful forces, sometimes fighting, sometimes not, sometimes even being scuttling by their own crews, in the face of far superior odds, and in some extraordinary way, their short operational lives have cast a spell over the generations that have followed, as countless people worldwide, from all sides, remain fascinated by them to this day.

Yet, despite their elegance, speed and power, these eight large ships failed. Considering their enormous cost, awesome power, mighty armament and colossal crews, the few ships they sank or captured were a very poor return. The Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen had absolutely no affect on Britain ’s vital supply lines; the Deutschland and the Admiral Hipper fared little better; and the remaining four, with somewhat better results, achieved nothing outstanding. Nothing that could not have been achieved by a single Type VII U-Boat.

But these weren't the only German surface raiders of World War Two.

There were nine other warships, which, between them, accounted for 142 ships sunk or captured, grossing more than 870.000 tons, in a total of 3.769 days at sea, an average of more than 230 tons of enemy ships sunk or captured per day.                  

If this operational record is impressive, then in economic terms, the figures are even more so, as this outstanding performance was achieved by little more than 3,000 officers and men, in nine second-hand freighters, armed with third-hand weapons, the total cost of which, both in terms of purchase price and the cost of fitting out, represented barely 1% of the cost of the battleship Bismarck!

They were the Hilfskreuzer, the Auxiliary Cruisers, commerce raiders, which although built as freighters, went to sea and fought as true warships. They were manned by fighting men, and led by fighting men, by Commanders and Captains no less capable than those who commanded the battleships Gneisenau or Admiral Scheer.

Freighters they may have been, and indeed some of them returned to being freighters when the war was over, but on the high seas between 1939 and 1942, they were real warships, real fighting machines, men-of-war that number among the most gallant in the annals of naval history.

So why do they remain so relatively unknown, their exploits so obscure, their names virtually forgotten?

Because they were not glamourous! They were, in fact, deliberately, very unglamorous. They were non-descript German freighters, disguised as non-descript, non-German freighters. There is nothing beautiful to be seen in the few existing photographs of these ships; their silhouettes have nothing in common with the delicate yet aggressive, beautifully proportioned fighting lines of the Gneisenau or Tirpitz. Their colour schemes do not match those of Admiral Hipper or Prinz Eugen. Their overall appearance could never be compared with that of the Bismarck, Scharnhorst, Deutschland or the  Admiral Graf Spee. But, for all that, they were, in what they set out to achieve, simply perfect.

Their characteristics were precisely right for what was required of them, that in being unglamourous, non-descript, and dirty, they would not attract attention, and could therefore go about their deadly and stealthy business, undisturbed.

Perhaps this is what makes them so fascinating. They were true, old-fashioned high seas Corsairs.
The Strategy behind the Hilfskreuzer

Waging war against commerce using auxiliary warships is as old as war itself.

Most countries have employed Corsairs, which should not in any way be confused with pirates, as a Corsair fights for his country’s flag, a pirate for the Jolly Roger.

In World War I , Germany armed several auxiliary cruisers to harass the British and French sea-lanes, and some of these, such as Wolf and Seeadler, were so successful, that their names echo in history. These ships represented the second wave of auxiliary cruisers and were not the initially improvised ones; the first wave being the large passenger ships already at sea or at neutral ports when the war began. Some of these succeeded in reaching German colonies, where they received some light armament, as their commanders considered that reaching Germany safely would be almost impossible. As these ships were large, well-known passenger liners, and so very coal-consuming, their commanders decided to engage in commerce raiding up to the point where it was no longer possible to continue and to then sink their ships. Although some achieved success, despite the weather, there was no way to continue with ships of such limited endurance, restricted as they were to so few days without replenishing coal and water, and so the strategic planners of the Der Kaiserliche Marine, The Imperial Navy, soon realized that a much more elaborate concept was required, based on the use of small oil-fuelled freighters, and not for example, sailing ships, like Seeadler, well-armed, and capable of remaining several months at sea. They could provide for their most immediate necessities such as oil, food and drinking water by prize-capture, but for armament and spares, some extra help would be needed. This was provided by the ‘Etappendienst’ - the Secret Naval Supply Department, a service born in 1911 to accumulate information about the commercial activities of potential enemies, and also to attend to the German war units spread throughout the world. It must be remembered that at this time Germany was a colonial power, with a strong presence in Africa, the Far East and the Pacific.

Through Etappendienst, the second wave of German auxiliary cruisers, or commerce raiders, could stay at sea for years. The system worked extremely well, even following the loss of the colonies, both in terms of effectiveness and secrecy. The Etappendienst was so secret that the Allies didn't know about it until the end of WW2.  Its Commander-in-Chief during WW1 was later head of WW2 German Military Intelligence, the Abwehr, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. Canaris restored the Etappendienst in 1927, quickly recruiting most of the German commercial maritime companies and creating stations worldwide. The most important of these were in Spain , South-America, The United States and the Far East . The Etappendienst remained ‘dormant’ until 10 August 1939, when, on the eve of WW2 it was re-activated.

Etappendienst was the key for commerce war, for regular naval units, for auxiliary cruisers, for the blockade runners that brought strategic goods to Germany from Japan and other countries, and for the replenishment of fuel, drinking water, food, spares and torpedoes for U-Boats at sea. It was more critical for the auxiliary cruisers than for the capital ships, as the latter were never at sea for so many months, and thus their replenishment needs were correspondingly less urgent. The auxiliary cruisers were often at sea for more than a year. The "Hilfskreuzer" (HK) concept was not entirely supported by the high command of the Kriegsmarine. Only months before the outbreak of WW2, high-ranking staff officers expressed their lack of confidence in the strategy, maintaining that “the sea would be much smaller" in WW2 than it had been in WWI. There would be better communication systems, long-range reconnaissance aircraft, and no ‘safe-haven’ German colonies; the entire Hilkreuzer fleet would have to rely on non-tested, non-guaranteed supply systems; and, critically, reaching the open sea from Germany under the ever-vigilant eyes of the UK and France was considered next to impossible. Behind all this lies the fact that at this time, the strategic thinking of the Kriegsmarine on surface warfare of any kind, was anything but audacious.

The high-ranking "old style" officers were notoriously overcautious.

The Nazi principle of blind obedience to Der Führer, The Leader, who was “never wrong", that single-minded way of thinking so typical of all dictatorial systems, deeply contaminated the Kriegsmarine. The traditional Prussian war principles – the independence of the commander in the field, the open strategy, the general directives and proprietary development of each officers' capacity to think for himself and to make decisions in the field in the face of the enemy - were not embraced. The final compromise reached by the professionals, the old-style thinkers and the Nazi-influenced Admirals and high-ranking officers was as follows: Hilfskreuzer? By all means, but not as a top priority. Only five ships, not fifty, maybe some more later on depending on results; Only general-service freighters, and not particularly the best ones; Obsolete 5,9 inch secondary batteries from the 40 year-old pre-dreadnought battleships; Volunteer crews, not required by other ships; Officers taken mostly from the reserve force; Commanders not considered to be the most brilliant, in other words, those not qualified to serve on the magnificent, very expensive, regular units, and, above all, absolute secrecy - Total Gekados. "GeKaDoS" - GEheime KommAnDOSache was used by the OKWOberkommando der Wehrmacht - The High Command - to classify top secrets.

In other words, the more or less unavoidable loss of the five HK's must not be allowed to affect the German people's morale or their faith in final victory.    Apart from this, the strategy was simple: To stay at sea as long as possible; to disturb the sea lanes as much as they could; to avoid any fight with enemy units of equal strength - AMC's or Armed Merchant Cruisers, as the British called their auxiliary cruisers, were very different from the German ones; and to try, where possible, to send the prize ships back to Germany, when their cargoes justified the risk. For this purpose, the Hilfskreuzer would carry a rather large ‘prize crew’ - to man the captured ships. Some of the HK's were loaded with magnetic mines so that they could act as minelayers in the vicinity of ports that under normal conditions would not have been considered to be at war, such as those in South-Africa , Australia and New Zealand .

At the beginning of the campaign, between April and June 1940, when the first wave of HK's - Orion, Atlantis, Widder, Thor and Pinguin - departed from German ports, the very few Kriegsmarine officers who were even aware of their existence, would not have bet any money on the possibility of their staying afloat for more than a week. Only the old style officers had any confidence in them. Proof of this was to be found in the surprising right given to the HK commanders to ‘Christen’ their ships. This was consistent with the purest of Corsair traditions.

Each raider had at least five identities.
* Her original merchant name.
* A Naval Number prefaced HSK assigned to her during her conversion.
* A Ship Number prefaced Schiff – used for signal purposes.
* Her actual name as a raider – in most cases chosen by her captain.
* A distinguishing letter given to her by the British Admiralty.

These letters were assigned to the individual raiders as they were discovered by the British, so that the Atlantis, which was in fact the first to sail, nonetheless became Raider C, as the existence of both Orion and Komet was already known.

The Hilfskreuzer and their Armament

The first wave of HK's was made up of five ships.

Three of them - Atlantis, Pinguin and Thor - were modern diesel freighters with very long range, around 50,000 miles at the economical speed that gave maximum distance with minimum fuel consumption, and two of them - Orion and Widder - were large enough to carry magnetic mines. These latter two, the former Hamburg-Amerika Line Kurmark and Neumark, had between them the second-hand boiler-turbine engines that had previously powered the Hapag Trans-Atlantic Liner New York - very thirsty and unreliable. None of them had any bulkheads, and all remained unmodified from the point of view of buoyancy. The basic fitting-out they received was concentrated on armament, and on the capacity to disguise the ship. The crews were large by normal freighter standards, but small for a raider cruiser, and thus, one of the main problems faced by their commanders was how to maintain the morale of 300-plus young conscript sailors during months, or sometimes years, of continuous war at sea, not to mention the maintenance of discipline among the often very numerous prisoners taken on board.

Operational experience at sea soon showed that diesel engines were essential for raiders, as Orion and Widder in particular, lost many a prize that simply outran them, and suffered almost unmanageable oil-replenishment problems. So much so, that Widder had to abort her cruise seven months short of the intended one-year operation. This fiasco was just one of the bitter consequences of the lack of vision demonstrated by the high command at the time of their strategically defining the ship-as-a-weapon. By the second half of 1940, because of the amazing successes of the five ships, Hitler himself had joined the ‘pro Hilfskreuzer' lobby, demonstrating one of the few positive aspects of a dictatorship, in that when the dictator is in favour of something, everything is suddenly in its favour. Most of the earlier restrictions were lifted, and a second wave, comprising six ships, was quickly fitted out.

The first of these, HK Komet, reached the Pacific rim on the coast of Siberia in an outstanding feat of seamanship, earning the first Rear-Admirals flag of the raider fleet for her commander, Robert Eyssen, while three more, Stier, Michel and Kormoran, also succeeded in reaching the open sea. The last two however, Coronel, the former freighter Togo , and Hansa, the former Danish freighter Glengarry, one of the best fitted out for the task, were unable to get past the increasingly vigilant British.

Komet was a tiny diesel freighter, unsuitable for mine laying; Stier and Michel were slightly bigger diesel freighters, big enough to even carry a small E-Boat, and Kormoran, the biggest of all nine Hilfskreuzer, also had diesel engines. All of them, especially Michel, which had been seized in Copenhagen by the invading Germans before she was launched, and rebuilt in according with war requirements, had improved bulkheads, which gave them a high buoyancy level. They were by far superior to the first five, but when they reached the open seas, the conditions of war were less favourable than for the HK's a year earlier. Despite this their operations continued to be fairly successful.


All nine HK's carried the same main armament: Six 40 year-old 150mm guns on single mountings, well camouflaged behind false partitions or dummy cargo on the upper hull, some taken from obsolete WW1 battleships, Atlantis and Thor from Schlesien – Widder from Schleswig-Holstein, two to six deck level torpedo tubes - in the case of Kormoran two underwater torpedo tubes - four to six 37mm dual-purpose guns and a 75mm gun, sometimes disguised as a 105mm gun like the ones mounted on the stern of most British and American freighters from early 1942. All of them carried either one or two Heinkel He114 or Arado Ar196 seaplanes, with one often un-assembled in reserve, and several 20mm and seven 92mm AA automatic guns. Both Orion and Stier captured a Nakajima 90-11 at sea. Finally, Stier and Michel each carried a small LS boat or Leichtes Schnellboot, what the Allies called an E-Boat, capable of 40 knots and carrying two torpedoes, to be used as an auxiliary in the event of a fast target trying to outrun the raider.

This armament, in principle, could be compared to that of a British Arethusa-class light cruiser, but there the comparison ended. The six 6-inch guns of an Arethusa were capable of firing broadsides, while only two of the HK’s six could be trained to port or starboard, while the secondary armament of an Arethusa was much more powerful. The HK's were unprotected by armour, while the Arethusa's had reasonable protection, and, most importantly, HMS Arethusa could do more than 33 knots, while Kormoran, the fastest of the nine HK's, was barely capable of 18 knots.

The Hilfskreuzer, in short, were ill equipped to face light or heavy cruisers, and only just capable of fighting Armed Merchant Cruisers, which were usually fitted with eight 6-inch guns in single mountings. While they were not designed to engage in battle, some raiders were forced to face AMC's, light cruisers and even heavy cruisers, and unbelievable as it might seem, the commander of one of them, Otto Kähler in HK Thor, actively sought to do battle with AMC's and light cruisers.


The Tactics of the Hilfskreuzer

At the beginning of Corsair war, as it was during WW1, the tactics were simple. A potential prize was sighted, the distance closed, and under natural conditions, confident in her disguise, and at around 4,000 meters, an optical signal was sent: ‘Stop!Do not use the Radio’.

If the captain obeyed, a boarding party was sent to inspect the ship. This was always carried out with caution, as the Germans had vivid memories of the World War One British Q-Ships.

If the ship was neutral, it was, according to the rules of war, permitted to continue on its way. If it was not, flew an enemy flag, or was found to be carrying war materials to or from an enemy port, the commander had three options open to him.

* To confiscate all valuable supplies, equipment and cargo, such as oil, water, food, documents, spares and arms, take the crew on board and sink the ship, preferably by opening keel valves or using small explosive charges.

* If the cargo was deemed to be of benefit to Germany , or if the ship itself was of such quality as to be useful, to put a ‘prize crew’ aboard and send her to France .

* To convert her into an auxiliary or supply ship.                                                

If, however, the captain did not obey, opened fire, or started sending radio signals, three or four broadsides were generally sufficient to convince him to co-operate. From there, the procedure was as described above.

At the beginning, the German raiders kept all such captured crews on board their own ships until the continuous disappearance of ships in a particular sea area attracted the attention of the British. At this point, the usual procedure was to send the captured crews ashore, minus captains and officers, in the prize’s own boats, after the ship was taken, or to transfer them to an auxiliary prize ship. The raider commanders, in general, had no interest in sending the captured crews or passengers to Germany , and for obvious security reasons, they wished to avoid information about their location and appearance being made known.

By late 1940, war conditions for the Hilfskreuzer had become even more difficult as British Admiralty orders now demanded avoidance of all ships at sea, and the immediate use of radio, regardless of risk. These were tough measures, but necessary in order to locate the raiders. As a consequence, prize-capturing techniques had to change. The raider’s seaplanes became infinitely more important, and not just for reconnaissance purposes.

When a prize was identified, the aircraft would fly over her mastheads, grabbing her radio antennas with a trailing grappling hook, and, if necessary, strafing her decks with machine-gun fire. In some cases the pilot would set down close to the ship, and keep station in front of her, engine running and machine guns trained; a thoroughly convincing display in the case of fully loaded tankers, and await the arrival of the raider.

Even that tactic was to become obsolete during 1941. Ships escaping at full speed, while sending radio distress signals, called for the German procedures to change again. Some raider commanders decided to stop attacking by daylight. Having identified a potential target, they would strive to remain undetected. They would then analyse the bearing and speed of the victim in order to calculate the best bearing and speed that would allow them to get into a favourable attack position after nightfall. The best time was just before moonrise while approaching from the dark horizon. This tactic was to prove very efficient, as the victims, taken completely by surprise, rarely used their radios and invariably surrendered quickly. It was more costly in terms of lives lost, but the toughening war conditions made it almost unavoidable.

The raider commanders were not encouraged to look for battle, but one of them, Hellmuth von Ruckteschell in HK Michel, was an exception.                                                                                                          

His tactic, which was very risky, was to attack an enemy ship at night, allow her to use the radio, and then sink her, leaving the survivors adrift in their boats. He would then withdraw, and hide below the horizon. Provided that during the attack the previous night, the survivors had been unable to identify the raider, he would appear again some hours later, in daylight, approaching at full speed as a friendly ship, to ‘help’ the shipwrecked, but in reality hoping to attack at close quarters which ever ship might be rescuing them. The risk lay in that that ship could be an AMC, or even a cruiser. The von Ruckteschell way of thinking was that nobody would suspect anything until it was too late, as the ‘friendly’ ship rushed to the scene, closing the distance to one thousand meters and then, showing the German combat flag, firing a full salvo of three torpedoes and several broadsides at point blank range. The one time von Ruckteschell came closest to carrying out this daring and controversial tactic, the potential prize, HMS Alcantara, an AMC with some experience of the Hilfskreuzer, having been mauled by HK Thor, had left the scene less than one hour earlier.

Another of von Ruckteschell’s tactics was to use his Schnellboot, LS-4 Esau. The procedure was simple. If the prize was too fast to be caught during the night, the Schnellboot was sent ahead. Then, at the right moment, she would fire one or two torpedoes and then await the arrival of the raider. For the prize, the effect was the same as having been torpedoed by a U-Boat. The problem with this tactic was that the prize ships could not be sent to Germany after being torpedoed. At that time of the war, returning to Germany was almost impossible, even for the most experienced captains or blockade-runners, and for this reason, the Hilfskreuzer Michel never captured a prize ship. She only sank ships, regardless of their potential value or their cargoes. Sometimes this represented a painful loss of badly needed raw materials, but it was necessary to ensure the raider's safety.

Each Hilfskreuzer operated alone, and well away from the others, not only to cover as large an area as possible, but also to avoid mutual attacks. There were only two exceptions - Komet and Orion operating jointly in the Pacific during three weeks in November and December 1940 with moderate success, and Michel and Stier, hunting together in the summer of 1942 in the South Atlantic , but with no results. There were some joint operations between HKs and blockade-runners, such as Stier with Tannenfels, and between HKs and prize ships converted to auxiliary ships – providing replenishment and prisoner accomodation for one or more raiders, but nothing to the same extent of that between Komet and Orion.

The Commanders of the Hilfskreuzer

Hilfkreuzer commanders were a special type of man within the Kriegsmarine. All were high-ranking officers, Captains and Commanders, all, but one, having seen active service before the war, but, who, for different reasons, were considered unsuitable to command regular warships, and too senior or too old, for U-Boat command. While Auxiliary Cruisers needed unusual crews, even more importantly, they needed unusual commanders.

The captain of a regular warship in World War Two had to be a competent and valiant man, eager to fight, yet at the same time well aware of the irregular nature of life on board, long periods at sea, long periods ashore. The only exceptions were the long raiding sorties of the Admiral Graf Spee, Admiral Scheer, Admiral Hipper, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, ranging between one and five months, but even these campaigns were nothing in comparison with those of the Hilfskreuzer. The capital ships, the "true" warships, were not sitting ducks. Most of them could outrun more powerful opponents, and outgun any faster. They could either escape, or fight their way out of a corner, precisely the kind of options unavailable to the commander of an Auxiliary cruiser.

A good example of this was the campaign of the Admiral Scheer in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean She made use of some HK's during this operation, in one case even offering protection against the 8" shells of the British high seas scouting cruisers. The HK commander in question declined the offer, not just for operational reasons, such as the difference in speed, but because of his concept of defence. The main defence of the Admiral Scheer was her powerful main armament - the Hilfskreuzer’s was her capacity for disguise.

The Hilfskreuzer commander had to be a very special man, with very special personal qualities. Firstly, he had to be independent, and this for many, many months, with no Group West or equivalent, to tell him what to do, or where to go. Secondly, he had to be resilient, as he had nobody to give him advice, nobody with whom to consult. His word was the last word. Not much time for tiredness, depression, mood swings, illness or human frailties. On his ship, a Hilfskreuzer commander was effectively, God. Thirdly, he had to be reliable. Never listless, cowardly or temperamental - always cold, sharp and confident. Never openly thinking of home or family - never nostalgic - never indulging in solitude or lowering himself to his officers. The Hilfskreuzer commander had to be the role model for all on board. He had to be absolutely perfect, at least in front of others. In short, he had to be unlike any ordinary warship commander at sea, because a Hilfskreuzer was almost defenceless before enemy warships, unable to escape, and all of this for months and months on end.

The biggest challenge for any Hilfskreuzer commander was the maintenance of morale on board his ship. To maintain the morale of such large crews through frustrating months of no success, monotonous weeks of searching the oceans, often in very high temperatures or extremely heavy seas, with not too much good food, no alcohol, no female company, no entertainment apart from some movies, books and deck sports, was a daunting task for any leader of men. The lives of U-Boat crews of course, were worse, but usually only for a matter of weeks, rarely more than ten, and they were always secure in their ability to fight or escape from danger.

Eight of the ten Hilfskreuzer commanders were truly exceptional men.                                                                           

Horst Gerlach was unlucky, sunk by his final victim after five months of raiding under the most difficult operational conditions, and the tenth, the unfortunate Ulrich Brocksien, had little opportunity to demonstrate his abilities, as his ship, the Komet embarking on her second cruise, was sunk after only six days at sea. The eleventh, Ernst Thienemann, the appointed captain of HK Coronel, would probably have been yet another exceptional commander, as he was the soul of the Hilfskreuzer fleet, the man responsible for the fitting out of all of the ships, but his own ship was attacked and badly damaged by British bombers and destroyers in the English Channel, and so he was unable make the open sea.

Eight of the nine commanders who did go to sea, were highly decorated, receiving the Knights Cross, the exception being the unfortunate Gerlach, and four of them, Krüder, Rogge, Von Ruckteschell and Kähler, the oak leaves, an impressive achievement, given that only 890 such were awarded during the war.                                                                                

In fact the Hilfskreuzer commanders were the most decorated group of all the Heer, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine and Waffen-SS forces. Of the five that had returned to Germany by the end of the war, Rogge, Kähler, Eyssen, Weyher and Gerlach, the first four were promoted Rear-Admiral, Rogge retaining that rank, in the Bundesmarine, the Federal German Navy, in 1957. All deserved recognition for their exceptional wartime performances, but five in particular, Rogge, Kähler, Krüder, von Ruckteschell and Detmers, really exceeded the limits of what could fairly have been expected of a Hilfskreuzer commander.

Bernhard Rogge (04-11-1899 – 29-06-1982) Hilfskreuzer Atlantis remained at sea longer than any other - 601 days. Rogge's war record was comparable to the top performers; 22 ships, totalling almost 146.000 tons, sunk by his tiny 7,900 ton freighter; approximately the same tonnage as that sunk by the two 32.000 ton battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Operation "Berlin". Rogge, on top of his military capabilities, and his prodigious instinct for survival, was a true gentleman, appreciated by both his crew and his prisoners. His ice cool nerve was legendary. Even during the difficult times he remained calm and sharp. Instead of opening fire on HMS Devonshire, which was well out of the maximum range of his guns, he preferred to sink his ship so as not to give the British cruiser the opportunity of knowing whether he was a raider or a blockade runner, and so kept the enemy guessing as to whether or not they had sunk a raider and the very costly British ocean surveillance forces busy. By the end of WWII he had attained the rank of Vizeadmiral (Vice-Admiral) and in 1955 joined the newly formed Bundesmarine, with the rank of Konteradmiral (Rear-Admiral)

Otto Kähler (03-03-1894 – 02-11-1967) In Thor's first campaign, she was forced to engage in combat three times, always with British AMC's armed with 6" guns, all of them bigger, stronger and faster ships than his tiny former banana freighter Hilfskreuzer. The first one was HMS Alcantara, a 22.200 ton Atlantic runner with a top speed of 19 knots. The battle was particularly violent and only finished when the AMC, on fire, listing and almost sinking, broke contact and fled into Rio de Janeiro , for badly needed repairs. The second one was HMS Caernarfon Castle, another 20.000 ton, 19 knot Atlantic runner. The battle lasted 75 minutes. Thor suffered no hits, but the British ship took 26 150 mm (5,9") direct hits, six of them near the waterline, and finally on fire, she broke off contact, and escaped to Montevideo at full speed. The third AMC, HMS Voltaire, a 14.5 knot, 13.245 ton ship, didn't break contact or escape. She was sunk after 80 minutes of hard combat. The HK suffered only one hit that broke the radio wires with no other effects. Three battles, three victories, one adversary sunk, and all of this with a ship not specifically  designed to fight. While Kähler's fighting abilities were widely recognized, luck can sometimes explain a victory over a superior enemy, but these three in a row cannot be put down to luck. It was ability and training. Otto Kähler became a Konteradmiral, Rear-Admiral, and was responsible for the naval defences of Brest , and was later a POW in the United States , but during his entire life he always said that the high point of his career was the command of the HK Thor. On his grave is written "Otto Kähler, Kommandant von Hilfskreuzer Thor".

Ernst Krüder (Pinguin; 06-12-1897 – 08-05-41) Pinguin's captain was the least known of the five "top commanders" as he was the only one to die in action when his ship was sunk. Of all the HK commanders he was the top performer in a single campaign - 32 ships captured or sunk, directly by, or because of his mines, totalling 154.725 tons, and that after 320 days at sea. If this is impressive, even more important for Germany was the quality of his prizes; three whaler-factory ships, fully loaded with whale oil that, having made it back to Bordeaux, satisfied German margarine requirements for many months. Even better, he acquired all this without firing a shot. His luck ran out when Pinguin met HMS Cornwall.    The heavy cruiser's Walrus Hydro located her from forty miles away. After some hours of pursuit at full speed, the distance between the two ships was reduced to 5.000 meters. Apparently, the pressure was too much for Krüder's nerves. He gave orders to open fire from 5.000 meters hoping that a lucky shot might make a fatal hit on the lightly armoured  "Washington Treaty" heavy cruiser. Krüder's gamble nearly paid off, as his first salvo temporarily destroyed the Cornwall 's steering room, but there was no time for a second salvo. The Pinquin fired two torpedoes, both of which failed to hit the target. The first eight 8" shells from Cornwall hit the Pinguin with fatal consequences. Within ten minutes the raider was sunk. The British rescued 22 British and Indian prisoners and 60 German sailors. Krüder was not among them. A short battle that strangely did not change the identification procedures of the Royal Navy or its associated Australian Navy.

Helmuth von Ruckteschell (22-03-1890 – 24-09-1948) The HKs Widder and Michel's first campaign was commanded by a very different type of man. Older than the others, coming from the naval reserve (Captain), he commanded a U-Boat in WWI, during which he torpedoed and sank a major British warship. In many ways he was more of a "corsair", although some people would say "pirate", than the other HK commanders. He wasn't the friendly gentleman type like Rogge. It was said he was very temperamental, even brutal, in his behaviour. He was always worried about his ships security, but not at basic levels. This was because the Widder was technically, the worst, of all the raiders. Slow and oil thirsty her unreliability forced von Ruckteschell to return to Germany after only 178 days at sea, with only 10 ships sunk or captured. With such a poor quality ship under his command, von Ruckteschell's hunting opportunities were very limited, with several possible prizes escaping from him due to their higher speeds, sending warning messages as they did so, thus forcing the raider to leave the area. These circumstances compelled him to develop tactics that were later considered "brutal". He always tried to attack at night and without warning. He simply continued firing until the opponent surrendered, seemingly indifferent to casualties. To him, the security of his ship and crew was the absolute priority. After leaving Widder he was put in command of the last of all the raiders, the last afloat, the Michel. She was a much better ship than Widder as all the previous war experience had been applied to her fitting out, but the sea war conditions of 1942 were much worse than those of 1940. There is a curious anecdote about von Ruckteschell that in a certain way reveals the thinking of this "true corsair". It is not widely known, but the name "Michel" was not fully accepted by the Kriegsmarine, being seen as too frivolous and a little "pro-Jewish" as the Archangel Saint Michel was a very important figure of the Old Testament. Given every commanders right to choose his ships' name, but knowing that to antagonise high-ranking Nazi officers was not healthy, he announced a new name for his command, "Götz von Berlinchingen", a famous warrior and traitor of the religious wars that killed hundreds of thousands of people. Despite the fact that he was also one of Goethe's less savoury characters, the Kriegsmarine finally and reluctantly accepted "Michel". As sea war conditions during Michel's time were much worse than during Widder's time, von Ruckteschell reinforced his tactics still further, complementing them with a tiny E-Boat armed with two torpedoes. However he was forced to leave Michel at Kobe , due to ill health, ceding command to Günther Gumprich. Von Ruckteschell's performance, in both Widder's and Michel's first campaigns was the best of all HK commanders, including Krüder, and totalled 25 ships, 158.065 tons, after 532 days at sea. He was captured and later convicted as a war criminal, having been found guilty of firing too long, by approx 10 minutes, against a surrendered prize, and imprisoned for ten years. In poor health, he died in prison. There are those, not all of them German, who think his imprisonment was not really justice, but simply revenge.

Theodor Detmers (22-08-1902 – 04-11-1976) As a Korvettenkapitän (Commander) Kormoran's skipper was the youngest and lowest ranked of all the HK commanders.          His performance was not particularly outstanding - 12 ships; 75.375 tons; 351 days at sea - but his last day afloat was the most glorious of all the HK commanders, if not of all German warship commanders in WWII. He was forced to fight a regular warship, the HMAS Sydney, an Australian Leander-class light-cruiser, sister ship of Ajax and Achilles, 7,100 tons, 8 6 inch guns and a top speed of 33 knots. Without doubt his fate should have been the same as that meted out to Pinguin six months earlier, but the Sydney's commander, Captain Joseph Burnett, did not seem to have been aware of that battle, because he closed the distance to Kormoran to around 1000 meters. Clearly Kormorans disguise was excellent, but the fatal question "give me your secret identification code" like all the dialogue, was by flag, with continuous repetition necessitated by the poor English of the supposed "Dutch" Straat Malaka's skipper (Detmers was a master in the art of time-wasting) forced him to open fire almost at point blank range. The Australian ship suffered a lot of heavy impacts even before the first broadside hit her. The automatic fire from all the 37 mm, 20 mm and 7-92 mm guns and machines guns on Kormoran was devastating. It killed everybody on the bridge and decks, set the Walrus hydro on fire - it was over the catapult, engine running, but not ready for launching because the catapult was not trained away from the ship - and destroyed all the boats and rafts. Seconds later a torpedo struck Sydney below the forecastle taking both A and B turrets out of action.  Sydney scored four hits on Kormoran with her X and Y turrets, setting her on fire, but in an apparent effort to ram Kormoran, Sydney crossed her wake, exposing her entire starboard side to the Germans. Again, the automatic fire from Kormoran destroyed everything on Sydney 's starboard superstructure, again including all the boats and rafts. It is believed that this was the reason for Sydney 's loss of all hands, 645 officers and enlisted men. Both ships broke contact, and some minutes later when it became clear to Detmers that the fire on his ship was uncontrollable, he gave the order to abandon ship. HMAS Sydney was never seen again. Months later, a damaged raft bearing her name was found thousands of miles away with nobody in it. The wrecks of both ships are believed to rest in swallow waters, a few miles off the Abrolhos Islands , on the west coast of Australia . The surviving members of Kormarans crew (about sixty died) were picked up and interned in an Australian camp. No charges were ever made against commander Detmers, despite some suspicion about possible dirty play against the Sydney , a controversy still open to this day, and the Australian Government released him and his crew 21 months after the war's end. Some people, again, not all of them Germans, think this prolonged internment was a form of revenge. Detmers' health never fully recovered from Australian hospitality, and having been declared unsuitable for service, he could not join the Bundesmarine. For some people, he must be credited with the most extraordinary sea action of WWII.

The Crews of the Hilfskreuzer
The usual complement of a Hilfskreuzer was around 365 men, give or take up to 15%, all of them volunteers.                      Not all the candidates were accepted, as WWI experience had shown that not everyone was able to last up to two years at sea, never resting ashore, never stepping on dry land, living a celibate life, every day "in the trenches" (the open sea is the widest trench in the world); with no comforts (the only air conditioning provided on German warships was for the ammo magazines); living in crowded, badly-ventilated cargo holds, often suffering food rationing, sharing what little food they had with prisoners, with nothing to look forward to other than going down with the ship or spending several years as prisoners of war, if not already hanged as pirates. (Kormoran sailors were in an Australian camp for more than five years, some of them for almost two years after the end of the war in Europe ). Young men are often naïve, and so the Hilfskreuzern never suffered shortage of volunteers. At officer level, it was even better. Former WWI officers at reserve, or well-trained naval reservists serving on merchant ships, applied for the positions. Very few were Nazis; it would seem that the free-spirited, independent life of the corsair was unattractive to the typical Nazi character. It was likewise with the U-Boat crews.

Life on board an HK was very boring. Dividing the number of days at sea between prizes, the mean time between actions was almost 27 days. For commanders it was very important to keep morale high. All the raiders were well equipped with movies, libraries, swimming pools and all kind of sports and entertainments. No girls, obviously, but it is said that some crews were more lucky than others! A standard custom was to allow "vacations" on board as a reward for something especially well done, a sailor could enjoy up to two weeks of simply doing nothing (obviously not on battle stations, or Auf Gefechtsstation!).

The attitude of Hilfskreuzer sailors toward the enemy was usually friendly. There were very few claims of brutality or cruelty, with the most being made against the two ships under von Ruckteschell's command. Life on board with "guests" was usually relaxed, but obviously not during action. The ships were not very comfortable, neither for the crews nor their prisoners, but the decks were wide and everybody had time to walk about, although clearly not under action conditions. The attitude among the crews of the supply/prison ships however, was not always quite so friendly. Their crews were smaller, and their commanders were not always gentlemen as most of the raider captains were. They lived in constant fear of mutiny on board, and so there were fewer facilities for physical exercise and rest space.

A special part of each raider's crew was the "Prize Group", a number of officers and men selected to man captured prize ships. Their task was a rather dangerous one, as they always needed the "co-operation" of at least  part of the captured crew. The task of the prize crew was to reach Bordeaux undetected by British naval forces and according to very specific timing, so as to avoid being torpedoed by German U-Boats. In one case when the Pinguin captured 15 ships in succession, there were insufficient prize crew numbers on board to man all the ships. Fortunately, the Panzerschiff Admiral Scheer was close by and assigned some junior ensigns (Leutnants zur See) to the task, and all but two of the ships succeeded in reaching Bordeaux .

Another highly specialised part of a Hilfskreuzer crew was the "disguising party". Every time an aircraft came close, a suspicious ship crossed their path, or an enemy warship appeared on the horizon, the "disguising party" appeared on the decks. These were often very skilfully simulated "women" (on occasion scantily clad for authenticity!) simulated "coloured" people (at the time it was difficult to imagine a freighter's deck without a really big coloured cook!) and miscellaneous "other" people such as the clergyman sitting in a deckchair, two or three large "ladies" beside him, and some "children" playing games nearby. Without doubt these disguising techniques saved the raiders and their crews on many occasions. In at least one case this very efficient use of disguise by the crew of Kormoran was enough to deceive an Australian light cruiser to the point that it came within 1000 meters to the raider, but it did not always work quite so well. The loss of Pinguin, it was later reported, was as a direct result of HMS Cornwall's sea plane pilot, having inspected the raider closely from the air, and being on the point of confirming that the suspicious ship was in fact the Norwegian Tamerlane, changed his mind when he observed that nobody on the ship's deck, bridge or galley was waving to him! Simply because of this, the British claimed, the Pinguin was attacked and sunk.

Hilfskreuzer crew losses were comparatively low, considering the appalling losses suffered by the U-Boat arm; HKs Michel and Pinguin being the only cases where more men died than survived. The crews of the Hilfskreuzer that did not return to Germany were rather luckier when their ships - Stier, Komet, Kormoran and Atlantis - went down.
The Controversy - HK Kormoran vs HMAS Sydney
The battle that took place off the west coast of Australia on 19 November 1941 remains a source of controversy to this day.    As a sea battle, it is peculiar in that there was only the one side of the story ever told. The German side.                              Not one member of the Australian cruiser's crew of 645 officers and men survived to tell their version of events. This is probably unique in naval history, as there are invariably some survivors, even in the case of sudden sinkings. The German account of what happened that day has been questioned many times, mainly by the Royal Australian Navy and the Australian Government after extensive interrogation of the German survivors. One issue in particular is the fact that the battle took place at a speed of not less than 14 knots, at least during the first part of the engagement. This is incompatible with the suggestion of "foul play" still made to this day by those who are convinced that no raider could destroy a light cruiser on open combat, and eager to reinstate the good name of the Sydney 's captain.

The "foul play" theory alleges that Kormoran's captain, Theodor Detmers, "surrendered" his ship to the Australians, stopped his engines and waited until the Sydney occupied the "safe" position around 135 degrees astern of the raider on the starboard side, at a distance of 1.000 meters. It goes on to suggest that, while still under the protection of the white flag, he ordered a torpedo to be fired from a tube below the waterline which was trained precisely 135 degrees astern. Having hit the Sydney , the raider is then said to have opened fire, crippling the Australian cruiser, but not before she fatally hit Kormoran several times setting her on fire. According to the theory, the cruiser's captain Burnett, had no way of knowing that the raider had hidden torpedo tubes, as this was a secret feature of some of the German raiders, and, apparently reinforcing this theory, is the fact that under interrogation, Detmers placed the battle 150 miles to the northwest of where it actually took place, in order, it is said, to prevent a rescue operation finding survivors who would relate the real facts.

It has been established that Kormoran had two hidden torpedo tubes, one aimed to port and one to starboard, but it has also been established that torpedoes could only be fired from these at speeds less than three knots, or better still while stopped.   All the German survivors questioned were in agreement on one thing, that the Kormoran never reduced her speed, estimated to have been 14-15 knots. This is clearly incompatible with the "foul play" theory. During the war the Royal Australian Navy declined to press charges against Commander Detmers, releasing him and his crew early in 1947.                                    Some years later, and after some rekindling of the "foul play" theory, the Australian Government, after intensive research, declared that there was insufficient evidence against Detmers, placing full responsibility for the loss of HMAS Sydney and her crew of 645 officers and men, upon Captain Burnett.                    

Despite this, there are still those who wish to reopen the case, suggesting that a coordinated dive on the wrecks of both ships - located in moderately shallow waters some miles off Abrolhos Island – could produce vital physical evidence. To this day (March 2003) there are two highly detailed websites on the internet defending the "foul play" theory.

It has also been established that the reason Commander Detmers did not tell the truth about the location of the battle, was that this was simply normal procedure for all commanders in WWII. No commander would ever reveal anything that could jeopardise the security of other ships. To give details of the battle could have affected the security of other raiders and blockade runners, and because of that Detmers never gave any, at least in war time, about this action, or any other action during the Kormoran's campaign. After war he, with J.H. Brennecke, published a book, Hilfskreuzer Kormoran – Raider Kormoran - in which he gives a detailed account of the battle.

Without wishing to give opinions either for or against Detmer's actions or the "foul play" theory, there are some important facts that must be considered, as follows:

• Six months earlier in August 1941, when HMS Cornwall sank HK Pinguin after a short battle at 5.000 meters. British captains learned that being too close to a German raider, within the range of her 150 mm (5.9") guns, was highly dangerous.

• Despite all that has been said about HMAS Sydney not using her radio, it has recently been established that there was in fact some communication between her and several radio stations, one of them in Singapore , supposedly giving details of the battle. The content of these communications has never been published.

• Only three days after the battle, HMS Devonshire sank HK Atlantis, firing at her from more than 10.000 meters, remaining at all times outside the range of the raider's main guns, and then left the area at full speed after Atlantis went down, without waiting around to worry about survivors, regardless of the fact that some of them could have been British. A somewhat different approach to that of HMAS Sydney?

Given all this, why did Captain Burnett put himself within 1.000 meters of an unidentified and suspicious ship?

Regardless of whether the HKs had hidden torpedo tubes or not, it is surely to be expected that an experienced captain would seek to establish all the possible armament of an unidentified, and possibly enemy warship. Neither was the commander of HMAS Sydney inexperienced. Only a few months before her sinking he sank the Italian light cruiser Bartollomeo Colleoni in the Mediterranean .

Why did HMAS Sydney, already badly damaged and on fire, cross Kormoran's wake, exposing her undamaged starboard side? This inexplicable action appears to have cost the lives of her entire crew.

Could it be that the wrecks of the two ships might throw new light on these or other unanswered questions?

The answer to that last question is "maybe". It could be possible to verify whether or not a torpedo hit HMAS Sydney's forecastle on the port side, and also the angle of the impact. It could also be possible to verify whether there may have been a massive internal explosion, and to establish the status of her superstructure, which, according to the German accounts, was totally destroyed by point blank range light calibre gunfire. It could also facilitate an analysis of the undersea Kormoran's tubes, to verify her capacity to fire at speed. Many possibilities, but it would involve a highly professional team examining both wrecks, and this would cost a lot of money. Too much to solve, or simply attempt to solve, a 63 year old mystery.

The End
With the sinking of HK Michel, there disappeared the last commerce raider of WWII, and probably the last such raider in history. This type of war is incompatible with satellites, transponders, GPS and high definition TV. This technology is implacable, and so this form of warfare is no longer possible. Many naval officers thought it was already impossible at the beginning of WWII, but eight German commanders, with their well- trained crews, were able to demonstrate that up to the second half of 1942, it was a perfectly feasible weapon of war. Their success is a great credit to them, and to the Etappendienst. Their ships were poor and unsuitable to the operations in which they were engaged, but their outstanding qualities as commanders ensured that they were able to convert these poor, ill-equipped vessels into highly efficient, lethal war machines.

The surviving HK commanders were respected and highly decorated after their campaigns and also after the war was over.

They richly deserved it. They were the most successful German surface commanders of the entire war, with the possible exception of Admiral Marschall, who was truly Prussian in his thinking, extremely aggressive, never defeated, and with more enemy warships to his name than any other German flag officer.

Any speculation about the HKs must focus on their time, their number and their quality.

What would have happened had they first sailed in September 1939 instead of in April 1940?

What would have happened if the first wave has been made up of 25 ships instead of just 5?

What would have happened if instead of being hastily improvised, poorly armed ships, they had been specifically built, high buoyancy, armoured, better-armed and faster ships?

In the hands of a commander such as Helmuth von Ruckteschell, what might have been expected from a true light cruiser, with diesel engines and a top speed of 30 knots, disguised as an ugly, dirty, unglamorous freighter?

It was clear to the German high command at the time of the naval treaty with Great Britain , that a sea war was not possible. Only a commerce war would be feasible. So why spend such huge amounts of money on the Bismarck Class, H Class and Admiral Hipper Class vessels? Why not put it into a true raider line of ships; to be built in quantity; capable of facing a light cruiser and outrunning a heavy one; capable of staying at sea for years? Capable, in short, of complementing the U-Boats, and winning the commerce war and at the cost of one and a half Bismarcks !

Again, we get the same answer. Unglamorous ships were not to the taste of the Nazi thinkers. The big capital ships were spectacular in many ways, the main one being their aesthetic qualities.                                                                                In a way, they were like the castles built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria , beautiful to see, but largely good for nothing.            The beauty of the Tirpitz is the beauty of Neuschwanstein; her practical capacity for service was the same as Neuschwanstein; very good for improving the view.

The big ships were built more for prestige than for battle; they were, in their respective categories, the most beautiful warships of their time, but probably not so good in practical terms; they were more instruments of propaganda than true men-of-war. Today, that is easy to see, and easy to say; but at the time they were built, this was obviously not the case. But some far-seeing, truly Prussian strategists realised it, and saw that single-purpose, true raiding warships would have been much better for Germany than those huge, magnificent, almost useless beauties, but, they kept their thoughts to themselves.

The capacity to think freely, the first characteristic of any Clausewitzian officer, was totally incompatible with the Nazi system. As Albert Einstein said, "To be an irreproachable member of a flock of sheep, it is mandatory, first of all, to be a sheep".

Hilfskreuzer in Comparison
Hilfskreuzer Atlantis - Komet - Kormoran - Michel
Hilfskreuzer Atlantis Komet Kormoran Michel
Cruise I Cruise II Cruise I Cruise II
Allied code C B G H
Launch year 1937 1937 1938 1939
Tons 7.862 3.287 8.736 4.740
Lenght (m) 155 115 164 133
Beam 18,6 15,3 20,2 16,8
Speed (knots) 17,5 16 19 16
Sail date 31.03.40 03.07.40 08.10.42 03.12.40 13.03.42 21.05.43
End cruise date 22.11.41 26.11.41 14.10.42 19.11.41 02.03.43 18.10.43
Prizes 22 6,5 0 12 15 3
Tonnage 145.960 41.293 0 75.375 99.420 27.630
Fate* 01 02 03 04 05 06
Crew 347 274 400 400
Days at sea 601 511 6 351 354 150
Tons/day 242,86 80,81 0,00 214,74 280,85 184,20
01 Sunk by HMS Devonshire
02 Safely returned to Germany
03 Sunk by British destroyers, off Cherbourg
04 Sunk by HMAS Sidney, west of Australia
05 Refuged in Kobe (Japan)
06 Sunk by USS Tarpoon, east of Kobe
Hilfskreuzer Orion - Pinquin - Stier - Thor - Widder
Hilfskreuzer Orion Pinguin Stier Thor Widder
Cruise I Cruise II
Allied code A F I E D
Launch year 1930 1936 1936 1938 1929
Tons 7.021 7.766 4.778 3.862 7.852
Lenght (m) 148 155 134 122 152
Beam 18,6 18,7 17,3 16,7 18,2
Speed (knots) 15 17 14,5 18 14,8
Sail date 07.04.40 22.06.40 12.05.42 06.06.40 30.11.41 06.05.40
End cruise date 30.08.41 08.05.41 28.09.42 30.04.41 09.10.42 31.10.40
Prizes 15,5 32 4 12 10 10
Tonnage 86.493 154.725 30.725 96.545 55.580 58.645
Fate* 07 08 09 10 11 12
Crew 376 420 325 349 363
Days at sea 510 320 146 328 314 178
Tons/day 169,59 483,52 210,45 294,34 177,01 329,47
07 Safely returned to Germany
08 Sunk by HMS Cornwall
09 Sunk by Stephen Hopkins, her last prey
10 Safely returned to Germany
11 Destroyed by fire at Yokohama port
12 Safely returned to Germany
Hilfskreuzer Figures in Total
Prizes 142
Tonnage 872.391
Crew 3.254
Days at Sea 3.769
Tons/day 231,46

Hilfskreuzer Commander's Awards
No. Commander Knight's Cross HK Ship's Sunk/Captured Oak Leaves HK Ship's Sunk/Captured
1 Helmuth von Ruckteschell 31-10-1940 Widder 10 22-12-1942 Michel I 15
2 Bernhard Rogge 07-12-1940 Atlantis 22 31-12-1941
3 Otto Kähler 22-12-1940 Thor I 12 15-09-1944
4 Ernst Felix Krüder + 22-12-1940 Pinquin 32 15-11-1941
5 Kurt Weyher 21-08-1941 Orion 15,5
6 Robert Eyssen 29-11-1941 Komet I 6,5
7 Theodor Detmers 04-12-1941 Kormoran 12
8 Günther Gumprich + 31-12-1942 Thor II 10 Michel II 3
9 Horst Gerlach Stier 4
10 Ulrich Brocksien + Komet II
11 Ernst Thienemann Coronel

Alfonso Arenas, Spain The architect and creator of the Hilfskreuzer section based on his knowledge and private archive.
Jonathan Ryan, Ireland Helped a lot with valuable background information and support.