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|Hilfskreuzer (Auxiliary Cruiser) Orion|
|British Admiralty Letter||A|
|Builder||Blohm & Voss, Hamburg.|
|Previous Owner||Hamburg-Amerika line (Hapag Line)|
|Previous Name||Kurmark - Sister ship of the Neumark converted into the HK Widder|
|Conversion||Blohm & Voss, Hamburg|
|General Cruise Details|
|Commander||Kapitän zur See Kurt Weyher winner of the Knights Cross|
|Sail date||30 March 1940|
|End date||23 August 1941|
|Fate||Returned to Germany|
|Ships Sunk / Captured||11 sunk (Including 2 sunk by mines - 2 sunk with the HK Komet) - 1 captured|
|Tonnage||73.478 (Includes 50% of the Rangitane and the Triona)|
|Days at Sea||511|
|Tons per Day||143.79|
|Main Armament||6 x 150 mm|
|Secondary Armament||1 x 75 mm, 2 x 37 mm Flak, 4 x 20 mm Flak|
|Torpedo Tubes||6 - 2 x Triple-mounted 53,3 cm (24 torpedoes)|
|Aircraft||1 x Arado Ar-196 A-1 (Later supplied with 1 x Nakajima E8-N1)|
|Engine Type||Blohm & Voss steam turbines - formerly used on the 22.000-ton Hapag liner New York|
|Endurance||35.000 nautical miles at 10 knots|
|Hilfskreuzer (Auxiliary Cruiser / Raider) Orion|
Launched on March 27 1930 by Blohm & Voss Werft in Hamburg for the Hamburg-Amerika (HAPAG) line, the 7,021-ton freighter Kurmark, had five sister ships, the Bitterfeld, Uckermark, Nordmark, Strassfurt and the Neumark, which was converted into the Hilfskreuzer Widder.
148 metres long, 18.6 at the beam, powered by Blohm & Voss geared-turbine engines, producing 6,200 horsepower, driving a single shaft for a rarely-achieved top speed of 14.5 knots, she had a range of 35,000 miles at 10 knots.
Her engines, which had served as half of the power-plant of the 22,000-ton trans-Atlantic HAPAG liner New York for over ten years, before serving the freighter Kurmark for ten more, were unreliable, and were a constant source of problems for the Orion’s engineers.
Classified as Schiff 36, she was converted into the Auxiliary Cruiser HSK 1 by Blohm & Voss in Hamburg between the Spring and December of 1939.
Armed with six 150mm L/45 C/16 guns, one Creusot-Schneider 75mm-L/35 cannon, one twin 37mm C/30 L/83 Flak-mounting and four single 20mm C/30 L/65 Flak guns, Fitted with six 53.3cm torpedo tubes, in triple mountings, with 24 torpedoes, she was fitted with six 53.3cm torpedo tubes, in triple mountings.
She also carried one Arado Ar-196 A-1 seaplane and 228 mines.
Commissioned into the Kriegsmarine by the thirty-eight-year-old Korvettenkapitän Kurt Weyher on December 9, she was officially classified as Handelshcützkreuzer 1 (HSK I) a ‘Trade Protection Cruiser’, or simply Schiff 36.
The former Chief Navigation Officer of the cruiser Nurnberg and captain of the sail training-ship Horst Wessel, named her the Orion.
"As long as there was a war going on anyway, it was the most independent, and thus the finest command of all for a Naval Officer" (Kurt Weyher).
With a crew of 16 officers, 4 prize officers and 356 petty officers and men, her sea trials and training exercises were conducted in the Baltic, over three and a half months during the severe winter of 1939-40, after which, on March 11 1940, she made her way, through the Kaiser-Wilhelm canal to Kiel together with the Atlantis (Schiff 16) under Kapitän zur See Bernhard Rogge, and the Widder (Schiff 21) under Korvettenkapitän der Reserve Hellmuth von Ruckteschell.
Leaving her anchorage in Kiel Bay on the evening of March 30, and heading for the Holtenau Lock, HSK 1 entered the Kaiser-Wilhelm canal at midnight, and arrived at Brunsbüttel, on the lower Elbe, nine hours later.
Moving down the Elbe towards Cuxhaven, she dropped anchor off the island of Wangeroog, in the lower reaches of the Jade, at midday on March 31.
That evening, work parties commenced converting the grey, two-funnelled, naval Auxiliary, Schiff 36, into the multi-coloured, single-funnelled 6,669-ton freighter Beemsterdijk, of the Nederlandsche-Amerikaansche Stoomvart Maatschappij, dismantling the false funnel and the dummy gun on the forecastle.
Arriving at Süderpiep, a small bay on the west coast of Schleswig-Holstein on the following morning April 1, the day on which Kurt Weyher, was promoted to the rank of Fregattenkapitän, the work continued.
Over the next three days and nights, her hull was painted black, with a bright yellow strip along the top matching the masts, her upperworks white, and the single funnel sporting green and white bands, she slowly took on the livery of the Rotterdam shipping line.
Receiving the ‘Clear to Sail’ order on April 6,, Weyher took the Orion northwards, escorted by two torpedo boats, the 924-ton Möwe-class Seeadler and the 933-ton Wolf-class Luchs, and eight S-Boats.
With the S-Boats dropping off that afternoon, and the torpedo boats following later, the raider headed north to meet the U-64, (Kptlt. Georg-Wilhelm Schultz) which had been assigned to escort her, but as it had failed to appear by the morning of April 7, it was clear that it was not to be counted on.
* The U-64 was sunk in Herjangsfjord, near Narvik, a week later, on April 13.
On April 8, the Orion narrowly avoided becoming embroiled in a clash between a group of German destroyers and a British squadron, and later that day, four British destroyers were sighted escorting the minelayer HMS Teviot Bank.
Two of them closed with the raider to inspect her more closely, but with crewmen in civilian clothing visible on deck, the cook coming out to stare at them, and a seaman emptying a load of kitchen waste overboard, her disguise held out.
Commander Weyher’s maxim, painted on a crossbeam in the wheelhouse read, ‘We sail with eagle eyes, a hand on the rudder … and luck!”
Between northern Norway and Iceland, Weyher received a signal from the SKL stating that the U-37 (Krvkpt. Werner Hartmann) would provide his escort, but as she too was withdrawn, he set course for Jan Mayen Island, from where he planned to hug the pack ice off Greenland, and sail through the Denmark Strait.
Arriving off the coast of Greenland, on April 9, where Dutch ships were rarely to be found, and being informed that the real Beemsterdijk was reported to be in West Indian waters, Weyher decided to alter the Orion’s identity.
Working parties immediately set to the task of changing the Beemsterdijk into the anonymous 2,763-ton Russian Sovtorgflot repair ship, Soviet, out of Odessa, on her way from Murmansk to Vladivostock.
On April 11, as she cleared the Denmark Strait and approached the open sea, the Orion ran into the teeth of a full scale Force 10 Atlantic storm, which did not ease off until after nightfall on April 13, when, passing south-east of the southern tip of Greenland, she broke through into the Atlantic.
By April 14, the Orion was beyond the area in which a Russian naval auxiliary might reasonably be found, and so once again, the crew set about the task of giving their ship another new face.
Raising the funnel and lowering the masts, the profile of the ship’s superstructure was altered with timber and canvas, as painters changed her colour scheme, adding realistic touches of ‘rust’, and inscribed the name of the 6,426-ton Greek freighter, Rokos, of the Ionian Steamship Company, on her stern.
On April 16, well on her way to her designated operational area of the eastern Indian Ocean, Weyher was instructed by the SKL to remain in the North Atlantic to give the Allies the impression that a ‘Pocket Battleship’ was at large there, and to proceed to his operational area only after drawing attention to himself.
Reaching the intersection of the busiest trans-Atlantic shipping routes by April 18, in ever-improving weather, Weyher turned south westwards.
On April 22, a large enemy vessel was seen approaching on an opposite course, but, due to her obviously superior speed, was allowed to proceed unmolested.
At first light on April 24, off Newfoundland’s Grand Banks, still disguised as the Rokos, the Orion’s lookouts spotted a ship, travelling without lights, on a parallel south-westerly course.
Passing astern to the starboard side of the vessel, so as to remain hidden against the darker horizon and not arouse suspicion, she was soon clearly visible, but without any sign of life or movement to be seen on board.
Satisfied by the two guns visible on her stern, that the ship was a British armed freighter, and turning to cross her bows, he ordered his ‘Greek’ identifying marks to be covered and ran up the German battle flag.
Firing a 75mm warning shot across the stranger’s bows, he signalled to her to stop and to maintain radio silence.
The British captain chose to disobey both orders, refusing to stop and sending an RRR, ‘warship attack’ signal, leaving Weyher with little choice but to open fire.
Despite the first four-gun salvo putting her two guns out of action, and setting her stern on fire, the freighter continued to try to escape, as her radio operator transmitted a steady stream of distress signals.
Continuing to shell the vessel for six minutes, firing over seventy 150mm rounds, knocking out her radio room and setting her bridge and engine room ablaze, until boats were seen being lowered.
As her crew prepared to abandon ship, Weyher ordered his gunners to cease fire.
With the Orion’s cutters and motor-boats assisting in the rescue work, the ship’s master, Captain Cornelius Arundel, and twenty-three of his men, one of whom later died, were rescued, but sixteen others had lost their lives during the attack.
Identified as the 5,207-ton freighter, Haxby, of the Ropner Shipping Company, en route, in ballast, from Glasgow to Corpus Christi, Texas, to pick up scrap metal for British steel mills, she had been carrying a crew of forty.
Fiercely burning in several places, and producing a gigantic pall of smoke that could probably be seen twenty miles away, the Haxby would not sink.
The shells that had penetrated her hull had buried themselves in the sand she was carrying as ballast, and had exploded with minimal effect, with the sand then serving to plug the holes.
Anxious that an Allied warship would spot the smoke and investigate it, Weyher decided to use a torpedo to finish off the burning freighter, with the resulting explosion cutting her clean in two, and sending her to the bottom.
* This was the first success of the war for the Auxiliary cruiser fleet.
Unsure as to whether the Haxby’s calls, which strangely, and conveniently, in view of the SKL’s instructions to Weyher, had identified her attacker as ‘a warship’, had been picked up, he ordered his radiomen to send further distress calls in garbled merchant code, describing an attack by a ‘pocket battleship’.
Believing his task for the SKL to have been accomplished, Weyher immediately took the Orion southwestwards at top speed.
Later that evening, he stopped his engines, assembled the entire crew on the quarter-deck in their best uniforms, and conducted a service for the dead British seaman as he was consigned with honours to the deep.
On April 25, Weyher decided to change the ship’s identity for the fifth time, and overnight, she was disguised as the 6,588-ton Brazilian Lloyd Brasiliero ship, Mandu, from Rio de Janeiro, with brilliant white superstructure and yellow masts.
Continuing southward at top speed, the Orion ran into her first tropical storm on April 30, and finally crossed the Equator on May 1.
Ambassadors of His Majesty, King Neptune, arrived on board to review the assembled crew, and agreed to Weyher’s request to return at a more suitable time, when the ship was in a safer position, to baptize those seamen who had yet to be initiated into the Southern Hemisphere with the traditional ceremonies.
By May 6, with his ship running low in fuel, Weyher risked sending a brief situation report to the SKL, but had to re-transmit the message twice more over the next two days before receiving a reply.
A day later a fourth signal had to be sent before the raider was informed that the tanker Winnetou would be at a certain rendezvous point from May 12 to 20.
With his engineers spending all of May 11 giving the boilers an overhaul, Weyher reached the rendezvous point on May 12, and finding it deserted, sent his flying officer, Leutnant Klaus Von Winterfeldt, aloft in his seaplane to locate the tanker.
The twenty-seven year-old Winnetou, a British Navy ship during the First World War, which had been on her way back to Germany, under the command of Captain Fritz Steinkrauss, at the outbreak of war, had been ordered to put in to the Canary Islands to await further orders from the SKL.
Having received his instructions, Steinkrauss took his rusty and dilapidated old ship, which had not had an overhaul for four years, out of Las Palmas on April 9, encrusted with barnacles and other marine growth, but, being only capable of a top speed of 7 knots, was unable to make the rendezvous on the given date.
Steinkrauss, a veteran of the Imperial Navy, who had seen service on a heavy cruiser at Jutland, and subsequently christened Captain ‘All Right’ by the Orion’s crew, due to his habit of offering this response in English to just about any order or request put his way, reached the designated meeting place on May 13, and replenished the Orion with 1,900 tons of oil over the next two and a half days.
With over two hundred men required to pass a line between the two ships in high winds and increasingly rising seas, after which the Orion towed the tanker to a calmer location to facilitate the transfer of fuel, ‘Captain All Right’ and Winnetou were released on April 16, to wait at a point west of the Maria Theresa Reefs in the South Pacific, where they had arranged to meet again in two months time.
Consuming an average of forty tons of oil per day, for engines that had to be kept going all the time, as opposed to the seven to nine tons a motor-ship would use, brought it home to Weyher just how unsuitable his ship was, compared to such a diesel-powered vessel, which could stop, start and speed up at will.
The steam turbines that had driven the liner New York, and then the Kurmark, for over twenty years, were not up to the rigours of endless, no-time-in-port steaming, and as such, were totally unsuitable for a raider.
Rounding Cape Horn on May 21, keeping well to the south to avoid any chance meetings with enemy warships, the Orion’s crew spent several days dealing with the first of the countless engine problems that were to plague the ship for the rest of her cruise, before heading along the fortieth parallel towards the Pacific.
New orders from the SKL had specified that Weyher should operate off the coasts of Australia and New Zealand, meet a supply ship in the Caroline Islands, and then proceed to the Indian Ocean, and back into the Atlantic.
On June 3, the working parties set to work to change the ship’s identity yet again, taking just under two hours to convert the Brazilian Mandu into a nameless Dutch freighter of the Nederlandsche-Afrikaansche Stoomvart Maatschappij NV.
Having weathered a severe storm for three days, and suffered a fresh engine breakdown on June 8, causing a further delay, the Orion arrived at her destination, Hauraki Gulf, off the city of Auckland, New Zealand, on June 12.
Between 7.30 pm on the evening of June 13, and 2.30 am on the morning of June 14, the Orion laid 228 moored mines, in three fields, in the shipping lanes in the eastern and northern approaches to the Gulf.
Weyher had had to abandon his original plan to lay the mines inside the Gulf, as doing so in the unfavourably clear visibility would have risked discovery.
As the last of the mines was ceremonially piped overboard, in the early hours of June 14, the raider left the area at her top speed, on a north-easterly course.
After the war, it was revealed that the 7,215-ton heavy cruiser, HMNZS Achilles, which had a top speed of 32 knots, and the armed merchant cruiser HMS Hector, had both arrived at Auckland between 9.00 pm and midnight, while the mines were being laid offshore.
Spotting a ship, close to the Kermadec Islands on June 15, Weyher decided to let her go, as he was reluctant to attract too much attention while still within range of land-based aircraft, and was confident that the vessel was a neutral anyway.
On the following day, June 16, the Orion effectively lost her Arado seaplane, as first it was damaged while being hoisted outboard prior to take-off, and then, on it’s return, it capsized in heavy seas, putting it out of action.
Later that day, as Weyher was sending a signal to Captain ‘All Right’ on the Winnetou, to make arrangements for their re-fuelling rendezvous, his chief engineer, Erwin Kolsch, was in the act of informing him that the ship would have to reduce speed to 5 knots for a few hours to enable him to deal with fresh engine trouble, when a ship’s light was sighted to port.
As the vessel was seen to be progressing at a very slow speed, towards Panama, and with the engine repairs only scheduled to last until midnight, he calculated that with his top speed then restored, she could be caught by daybreak.
At midnight, as the news came up from the engine-room that full speed could once again be resumed, the ship’s lights were still visible on the distant horizon, and by first light, she was caught and passed.
While making interception calculations in the charthouse, Weyher was informed by his Radio Officer that the 13,415-ton Canadian-Australasian Royal Mail liner RMS Niagara, known as ‘The Titanic of the Pacific’, had run into the Orion’s mines off Hauraki Gulf, and gone down.
Bound for Vancouver from Auckland, with one hundred and thirty-six passengers, and a crew of two hundred, she had been carrying a shipment of small-arms ammunition, being sent to England to make good the shortage created by the evacuation at Dunkirk, a massive quantity of mail, and nearly eight tons of gold bullion, valued at 2.5 million pounds, locked in her strong-room.
The bullion, in the form of 590 gold bars, and belonging to the Bank of England, was being sent to the United States as payment for much needed war materials.
* Five hundred and fifty-five bars were salvaged in 1941, with a further thirty being recovered in
1953, leaving five, unfound.
Almost a year after the mines were laid, on May 14 1941, the 927-ton New Zealand minesweeper, HMNZS Puriri, a converted coaster, was sunk with the loss of five lives, while engaged in sweeping one of the mines that had become entangled in the nets of a fishing boat.
One of the measures put in place by the authorities in New Zealand following the sinking of the Niagara was the blacking out all four major ports at night, leading to a collision between the British motor vessel Armadale and the brand-new Norwegian tanker Ole Jacob, on July 13, leaving both ships severely damaged.
* The Ole Jacob was captured by the raider Atlantis on November 10 1940, and subsequently served
the Orion for several months.
* Some accounts claim that the freighters Port Bowen and Baltannic were also sunk by the Orion’s
mines off Hauraki Gulf, but the following records would seem to disprove these claims.
PORT BOWEN was built in 1919 by Workman, Clark & Co. at Belfast with a tonnage of 8267grt, a length of 480ft 8in, a beam of 62ft 5in and a service speed of 14 knots.
Although build to a similar specification as the Port Darwin she was the first of the wider beamed steam turbined vessels but her engines always gave trouble with blade creeping and shedding.
On 19th July 1939, during a voyage from Picton to Wanganui, she ran aground at Castleshore Beach in New Zealand. Her cargo of over 2,000 tons of coal was jettisoned but had little effect as the current bumped her along the beach and carried her further inshore. She was finally declared a total constructive loss and after the remaining cargo and fittings were removed was broken up where she lay.
Knowing that extra caution would now be required in approaching the as yet unidentified ship, Weyher had the Orion slow down so as to allow the stranger, a heavily-laden freighter of some tonnage, to pass astern.
With the ship within 3,000 metres, and abreast of the raider, the battle flag was run up, signals sent, ordering her not to use her radio and to stop, and a warning shot put across her bows, but received no reaction.
When a second warning shot also failed to produce a reaction, Weyher ordered his gunners to fire one full salvo, but placed short.
Moments after a seaman was seen frantically racing aft to run up the Norwegian flag, the vessel identified herself as the 8,755-ton Norwegian motor freighter, Tropic Sea, and surrendered without a fight or using her wireless.
The boarding party, under Leutnant Raschke, reported that the Chr.Østberg line ship was bound ‘from Sydney to the United States’, with a cargo of over 8,000 tons of Australian wheat, and a crew of forty-eight, but that the captain, who appeared to be concealing something, claimed he was travelling as a neutral.
Inviting the captain, his First Officer and one or two others to join him on the Orion, Weyher instructed Raschke to turn the Tropic Sea inside out, whereupon they discovered that she was under charter to the British Ministry of Food, and that the cargo’s final destination was Britain.
Deciding to take her as a prize, Weyher re-named her Kurmark, and under the command of Second Prize Officer Eichrorst, had her sent to an isolated area to prepare her for the long and dangerous voyage back to a German-held port.
Re-joining her on June 22, the two ships rendezvoused with the Winnetou a few days later on June 25, at which point Weyher informed Captain Steinkrauss of his intention to send the prize to a German-held port in France.
Asking him if he would consider taking command of her, as a naval reserve officer, with the provisional rank of Leutnant zur See, his reply, perhaps predictably, was “All Right!”
Having been plundered of anything that might be of value to the raider, and provisioned with food, diesel oil and engine spares, by June 30, pre-prepared for possible emergency scuttling, the freighter was ready to sail.
With a prize-crew of seventeen from the Winnetou and eleven from Orion, she embarked the Orion’s fifty-five prisoners, and set off for Cape Horn and France.
Re-fuelling once more from the Winnetou, now under the command of her former First Officer, Daneil, on July 1, the raider took on 1,500 tons of oil.
This also served to stabilise the ship, which had been too bouyant since she sowed her mines, and had a tendency to toss and roll in the heavy swell.
The Orion spent several fruitless weeks plying the shipping routes in the stifling heat, before meeting the by now very bedraggled Winnetou again on July 28. Taking on 800 tons of fuel, Weyher left 400 tons in reserve on the rusting tanker, which would serve as a scout for him on his way to the Coral Sea.
On July 30, and the following day, he launched his Arado, but found nothing.
Concerned that he had as yet received no confirmation of the dispatch of his prize Tropic Sea / Kurmark from the SKL, Weyher decided to notify them of her current estimated position by devious means, on the international waveband, to the German naval attaché in Tokyo, through a Japanese radio station.
He also informed them that the Winnetou would be sent to the Japanese port of Kobe at the end of the month, when her fuel reserves were exhausted.
Keeping one final rendezvous with the tanker on August 7, off the Santa Cruz Islands, at which he took on her remaining 400 tons, after which he dispatched the rusty worn-out old ship with rapidly failing engines, to Japan, the crew of the Orion once more settled down to the monotony of daily life.
The unrelenting boredom gave way to frustration as the crew began to believe that no matter where or how much they searched, they were never going to find an enemy ship or see any action.
Heading for Brisbane, the level of radio traffic convinced Weyher that aircraft of the Australian Air Force were covering an area up to one hundred miles offshore, and that most shipping was remaining within that cover.
But, on the morning of August 10, smoke was sighted.
Changing course and overtaking the source of the smoke, while remaining just out of sight, he decided to attack after dark, to prevent her calling up air support.
Approaching at speed in the late afternoon, the watching eyes on the Orion could see what a distinctive-looking vessel they were dealing with.
A look at the shipping register confirmed that she was the fast, nine-year-old, 4,413-ton British Phosphates Commissioners ship, Triona, which on spotting the Orion, immediately turned away, into the shelter of a rain squall.
Given the Orion’s lack of speed, and the considerable distance between the two vessels, Weyher realised that it would take too long to catch up with the Triona, and that as he couldn’t do so before nightfall, he let her go, and set course for the French colony of New Caledonia.
On August 12, he was informed by the SKL that the Allies had received a full description of the Orion’s sister-ship, the Widder, and were now aware that ships of the HAPAG ‘Mark und Pfennig’ class were at sea as auxiliary cruisers.
On July 13, a number of survivors of two of the Widder’s victims, the Davisian and the King John, set adrift in lifeboats in the Atlantic, by her captain, Hellmuth Von Ruckteschell, who was averse to filling his ship up with prisoners, had reached the island of Anguilla on July 18.
There they had given a full description of the raider, the first such description of a German auxiliary cruiser the Allies had so far received.
On receipt of this disturbing news, Weyher decided to have any of the distinctive features of the class that might still remain on the Orion, removed.
Shortening the fore and main topmasts and lengthening the funnel went some way to achieving the desired affect, and seemed to please the commander, who made a trip around the ship in a motor-boat to judge the results for himself.
Cruising off Nouméa, the principal harbour of New Caledonia, on August 13, Weyher decided to use his seaplane, but when fuel problems forced it to ditch in the sea, he had to spend a large part of August 14 searching for it.
When, after four hours, it was finally located, Von Winterfeldt reported that he had spotted four ships tied up in the harbour.
On August 16, a ship was sighted heading for the island, making a lot of smoke, which, when challenged, identified herself as the Societé le Nickel, collier, Notou, but refused to stop when ordered to do so.
A warning shot fired across her bows, soon brought her to a halt.
The boarding party reported that the 2,489-ton collier was carrying 3,600 tons of coal from Newcastle, New South Wales, received in exchange for Nouméan nickel.
Taking her crew on board, she was blown up with demolition charges, which initially simply created a gigantic fire, but failed to sink her.
Several rounds from one of the 150mm guns sent her down stern first.
Leaving the seemingly deserted Coral Sea behind, the Orion headed south for the Tasman Sea, the dangerous waters between Australia and New Zealand, where on August 20, Weyher received orders from the SKL to re-fuel once more in the Pacific, and then return home via the Indian Ocean.
Later on the same day, a ship was spotted emerging from a rain squall between the Cook Strait and Sydney, which was clearly identified as an enemy vessel by the gun mounted on the stern.
Weyher approached her head-on, to a range of 5,500 metres, and ordered her to stop and not to use her radio.
Far from complying, the vessel’s captain, J.B.Laird, immediately ordered his radio operator to send distress signals and had his 6-inch gun manned.
Putting a man up the foremast to direct it’s fire, and observe the fall of shot, he then turned his stern to the raider, increased his speed and took off.
As the Orion’s gunners opened fire, and the enemy gunners quickly, but ineffectively, responded, the raider’s radio operators failed to jam the steady stream of SOS messages being transmitted from the enemy ship.
Salvo after salvo was fired at her, devastating the bridge and the forward part of the ship, and in the first fifteen minutes, killing over half the crew, wounding many more, and starting fires which rapidly took hold.
Although the burning freighter soon began to slow down, it was only when her fore-mast was brought crashing to the deck, taking her antenna and the gunnery directing seaman with it, that the stream of radio transmissions finally ceased.
Deprived of their spotter, her gunners, who had managed to maintain a steady rate of fire throughout the action, despite the mayhem all around them, ceased firing altogether.
But the SOS calls had achieved their objective, and from the Orion’s point of view, the damage was done, as Allied naval forces, the light cruisers HMAS Perth in Melbourne, and HMNZS Achilles at Wellington, had been alerted, and were preparing to put to sea.
As Weyher ordered his gun crews to cease fire, and the enemy captain ordered his surviving crew to abandon ship, the two ships lay close together.
It soon became clear to the watching Germans that the freighter’s lifeboats had been reduced to matchwood, as the one boat they saw being lowered sank in the rough seas, and so, as the ship was now no more than a blazing wreck, Weyher instructed his men to prepare to move in to help the survivors to safety.
Approaching to within 2,500 metres of the slowly sinking ship, the enemy gunners suddenly opened fire again, prompting a swift and lethal response from Weyher, who ordered a full broadside to be fired into her, plus a fusillade from the double-barrelled 37mm anti-aircraft guns, silencing it for good.
Sinking slowly, but burning fiercely, with the flames mounting high into the night sky like a huge torch, which could be seen for miles, two torpedoes were fired into the stricken ship, the second of which caused a massive explosion, destroying a lifeboat and killing many of her crew who had jumped overboard, and sent her down by the stern, leaving the survivors in the mountainous seas.
Unable to lower boats to rescue them because of the seas, the Germans dropped rubber dinghies on long leads overboard, and managed, over a period of five and a half hours, during which time they could have been making good their escape from the two Allied cruisers approaching at top speed, to pick up twenty-one men, seven of whom were wounded.
When some of the crew were heard to nervously complain about the delay in leaving the scene, they were sharply reminded by their captain of their responsibilities to other seamen, pointing out to them that while the war required the sinkings and the unfortunate loss of life, once the combat was over “… one fought man’s common enemy, the sea, to save as may souls as possible”.
The ship’s master, Captain J.B.Laird, was not among the survivors, but the brave seaman who had fallen with the foremast and had amazingly survived, died of his injuries the following morning, and was buried at sea with full military honours.
Identified as the 9,691-ton New Zealand Shipping Company refrigerated freighter, Turakina, she was en route to Wellington, with a crew of fifty-seven, and carrying a cargo of 4,000 tons of lead, 1,500 tons of grain, 7,000 tons of wool, plus fruit and piece goods.
Aware that he had stirred up a hornet’s nest, Weyher, took the Orion, by now nicknamed ‘The Black Raider’ by the Australian and New Zealand press, at top speed to the south-west, around Tasmania, under cover of low cloud and rain.
On August 22, she was overflown and investigated by an Allied bomber, but fortunately for her, the Dutch disguise held good, and she continued on her way.
Entering the Roaring Forties, 200 miles south-west of Tasmania, on August 24, the Orion headed into the teeth of a ferocious storm with waves as high as forty feet, and 300 metres long, which lasted for five days.
She was bashed and tossed about so badly, that she sustained a considerable amount of damage and at times had to heave to and simply ride it out.
But, once again, as the days of fruitless searching and inactivity looked like stretching into weeks, the growing atmosphere of frustration was not helped by an accident on board, on September 2, in which two crewmen were severely injured while converting five steel beer kegs into dummy mines to be dropped off the southwest tip of Australia, with one of them dying of his injuries the next day.
The morning of September 4, brought another aircraft alert, as a Lockheed Hudson bomber circled and examined the raider, off the southwest of Australia, and, having been waved at by the ‘civilians’ on board, including Weyher himself from the bridge, made off, seemingly satisfied that she was a harmless freighter.
But, just after midday, the raider’s radio operators reported at least six aircraft heading straight towards the ship.
Fortunately, low cloud and dense, slow-moving rain squalls provided convenient cover, in which she managed to slip away to the southwest, as the aircraft searched in vain overhead, and by next morning, she was safely out of range of a further group of aircraft sent out from Perth to look for her.
Maintaining the precaution of having his lookouts dress in civilian clothes, and no one else allowed on deck, Weyher continued in a south-westerly direction to look for possible prey in the Australia to Cape Town shipping lanes, off Fremantle.
With Schiff 33, the raider Pinguin, under the command of Ernst-Felix Krüder, assigned to cover the eastern Indian Ocean, and already on her way there, Weyher was instructed to proceed towards the Marshall Islands, to rendezvous with the 9,179-ton former Norddeutsche Lloyd tanker Weser, which was due to arrive at the Ailinglapalap Atoll from Mexico, with fuel and provisions, in early October, and from there to patrol in Pacific waters.
Instructing his crew to change the ship’s identity from Dutch to British on September 5, as she had been so recently scrutinised by Allied aircraft, the work was carried out in atrocious weather, with winds up to Gale Force 10.
On September 7, the crew of the Orion received the news that on September 3, when almost in sight of her destination, their prize, Tropic Sea / Kurmark, had been stopped off Bilbao, by the British submarine HMS Truant, the same boat that had crippled the light cruiser Karlsruhe off Norway on April 9, and been scuttled by the prize crew, which had then managed to escape in a boat, landing safely at La Coruna in Spain.
Two days later, on September 9, Weyher was informed that the 8,068-ton former Norddeutsche Lloyd motor-ship Regensburg was on her way from Kobe in Japan, and would be at the October rendezvous with the Weser.
But on September 29, it was reported that the Weser had been captured by the Canadian auxiliary cruiser HMCS Prince Robert, as she left the Mexican port of Manzanilla on September 25, and the SKL called for extra vigilance, as it was feared that the rendezvous point may have been compromised.
A further signal notified Weyher of a rendezvous with the raider Komet, under Kapitän zur See Robert Eyssen, at Lamotrek Atoll in the Caroline Islands.
Feeling it was time to shed his British disguise, and change the Orion’s identity again, Weyher chose to disguise the ship as the 7,005-ton Japanese freighter Maebashi Maru, belonging to the Nanyo Kaiun Kabusiki Kaisha of Tokyo.
With no one on board qualified to write the ship’s name in Japanese characters on the hull, it was finally decided to transcribe a line from the instructions on the export packaging of a roll of film, that had been procured in Tokyo and supplied to the Orion by the tanker Ole Jacob.
With her new name ‘Not Suitable For Use in The Tropics’, emblazoned on her hull, the Orion continued on her way to the Marshall Islands, arriving there on October 10, to find the supply ship Regensburg, also disguised as a Japanese vessel, the 4,163-ton Sawayama Kisen Kabusiki Kaisha freighter Tokyo Maru, under the command of Kapitän Harder, waiting in the lagoon at Ailinglapalap.
By now, Weyher’s Chief Engineer, Erwin Kolsch, was expressing concern about the condition of the Orion’s boilers, which would normally require an overhaul every 900 hours, but had been working non-stop for more than 3,000 hours under severe strain without being cleaned, since they left Germany in April.
Taking on 3,000 tons of oil, and being replenished by the Regensburg, Weyher received a directive from the SKL, to meet with the 7,363-ton supply-ship Kulmerland, the former Hamburg-Amerika line freighter, at Lamotrek.
Two days later, on October 12, with the supply-ship, the faster of the two, leading the way, the Orion departed for her designated meeting with the Komet.
When, just before dawn on October 14, two months since she took her last victim, as the Orion approached the Caroline Islands, one of her lookouts spotted a navigation light, Weyher changed course and increased speed to close with the stranger for a closer look.
Remaining hidden in the darkness, the Orion crept up on the vessel, and from a range of 2,000 metres, signalled to her by morse lamp to stop.
When no response was forthcoming, a warning shot was fired across her bows, but it too had little effect, and the ship continued on her way.
When a second warning shot was fired, bursting close to her side, a signal was flashed back from the ship, identifying herself as the Norwegian motor-ship Ringwood, the former Beljeanne, on her way to Ocean Island from Shanghai.
Ordering her to stop, Weyher signalled that he was sending a boat.
Clearly under the impression that the Orion was a British warship, and therefore transmitting no SOS messages, offering any resistance, or trying to get away, her captain was stunned when he realised that the boarding party being helped aboard his ship was German.
Travelling in ballast, under orders from the Norwegian government-in-exile in London, and the British Ministry of Food, to pick up a cargo of bulk phosphate for Bermuda or Halifax, and then on to Britain, the 7,203-ton Olav Ringdal freighter, was taken without a fight.
Her captain, who protested against the inspection and capture of his ship, and his thirty-four-man crew, which included an anti-social 70-year-old carpenter and his large, and equally unfriendly Mexican tomcat, were taken on board the Orion.
Fed on frozen meat and condensed milk, the giant cat visibly began to suffer in the prisoner’s quarters, while the prisoners began to suffer from the smell of the cat, prompting it’s cantankerous owner to request that it be given the freedom of the ship in order to hunt for rats.
As the thirty or so rats that had sailed with the raider in April had, over the course of the six month voyage, multiplied considerably in the ship’s food stores, became very nervous, the cat thrived, to the satisfaction of all!
Although the Ringwood was an ideal vessel to be sent home as a prize, she had insufficient fuel on board to get her half way around the world, and so, after removing some of her equipment, which had only recently been purchased in Shanghai for $10,000, she was scuttled with demolition charges.
Early on the following morning, a large vessel was spotted, but as the raider’s speed had been reduced due to a fouled-up boiler, she had to be let go.
When, just after midday on October 17, a ship which was sighted and approached at full speed, was seen, at the last moment, to be an official Japanese Inspection vessel, tarpaulins had to be hastily dropped over the ‘Japanese’ markings, and the Dutch flag run up.
With both his own ship, and the Regensburg, disguised as Japanese ships, and Japan still maintaining a neutral, albeit pro-German, stance in the war, Weyher was anxious to avoid any encounters with Japanese vessels, that might precipitate international embarrassment and tension.
But, on October 18, as the two ships finally met up with the Komet and the tanker Kulmerland, at the Lamotrek Atoll, precisely such an embarrassing encounter took place, and as coincidence would have it, on an extraordinarily embarrassing scale.
Spotting a ship heading towards the atoll, early the following morning, both the Orion and the Regensburg, which was the faster of the two German ships, increased speed and pursued her, in an attempt to intercept and identify her before she reached the safety of the lagoon.
Failing to do so, the fleeing vessel likewise increased speed and entered the lagoon before they could catch her.
In doing so, she turned broadside-on to the German ships, and Weyher noticed with horror, that she had the Japanese flag painted on her side.
This was the 4,495-ton Japanese passenger liner Palao Maru, whose captain must have been astonished to find two ‘Japanese’ vessels at anchor in the harbour, and two others seemingly hell-bent on chasing him into it.
To make matters worse, the Kulmerland, by ghastly coincidence, was using the same Japanese name the Regensburg was using, the Tokyo Maru!
The Komet, riding at anchor alongside her ‘Tokyo Maru’, was disguised as the 2,904-ton Tokyo Kisen K.K. ship Manyo Maru, and the Orion, entering the lagoon with her Tokyo Maru, was displaying ‘Not Suitable For The Tropics’ in Japanese.
While the captain of the Palao Maru discussed the situation by radio with the port authorities, no doubt querying the presence and identity of these mysterious vessels, before departing, the German captains could only wait and hope that the camera-toting tourists crowding the liner’s rails didn’t see anything that might subsequently compromise them.
Soon after the liner left the port, an official Japanese Government Inspection Ship arrived to investigate all these ‘Japanese’ ships anchored in the lagoon.
A uniformed officer, boarding the Komet, asking questions about their identity, was told by Captain Eyssen that they were simply four German merchant ships attempting to get back to Europe via the hostile waters of the Pacific.
Making reference to the newly-signed Tripartite Pact and that they had only adopted Japanese identification as protection against Allied warships, and explaining that they had chosen the lagoon as a suitable place to safely exchange fuel and supplies, he took the officer on an inspection tour of the largest of the German ships, the unarmed Kulmerland, and produced genuine Japanese documents that had been issued to both that ship and the Regensburg, when they had cleared the Japanese ports at which they had purchased supplies.
Seemingly satisfied, and totally unaware that he had been on a warship, the official then attempted to board the dilapidated-looking Orion, which seemed to interest him most, but was prevented from doing so by a combination of language difficulties and the mysterious absence of a gangway.
Finally giving up, he returned to his ship, and soon afterwards, sailed away.
Under the command of Eyssen, who was the senior officer present, the four German vessels left Lamotrek on October 20, with the Regensburg, her entire cargo distributed, returning to Japan to re-stock with supplies, and the other three, steaming abreast, the Kulmerland in the middle, heading southeastwards.
While sailing abreast, and spread wide apart to maximise the sea area covered, up to a range of 100 miles, Weyher decided to once again radically alter his ship’s profile and have her re-painted, mainly because of the photographs taken at Lamotrek by the Japanese passengers on the Palao Maru.
When finished, the Orion bore little resemblance to the ship seen at the lagoon.
As the ‘Far East Squadron’ cruised the Panama to New Zealand sea routes without success, the Orion experienced constant engine problems, including one that led to a shortage of fresh water, and also suffered a minor epidemic of influenza on board.
The seemingly interminable boredom was briefly broken on the evening of November 3, when a ship was sighted, and challenged to identify herself.
The response to the morse signal was so slow in coming, that a warning shot had already been fired across the vessel’s bow before she replied ‘City of Elwood’.
Identified as the 6,197-ton neutral American, Pioneer Line motor-ship, she was dazzlingly illuminated by the Orion’s searchlight as the guns were hastily covered, and allowed to continue on her way.
While riding out a severe storm to the east of Auckland, with waves over forty feet high which rolled the ship up to 35°, a bout of food-poisoning swept through the Orion, affecting over a hundred members of the crew.
Ascribed to a serving of potato salad, and the generally debilitated condition of the men, caused by the absence of fresh food from their diet, most were back on their feet within a day or two.
At a meeting on November 24, Eyssen suggested that they head north to attack the Australian trust island of Nauru, and destroy the facilities there. A former German possession, lost to the British during World War One, Nauru was rich in phosphate, exporting almost 800,000 tons of it annually.
As he was the senior commander, Weyher and Pschunder more or less had to agree to what had become a pet project for the Komet’s captain.
On the following day, November 25, he found his first victim.
Spotting a small vessel off Chatham Island, the Komet rapidly closed in on her, ordering her not to use her wireless and to stop.
Her captain, reluctant to risk the lives of the women and children on board his ship, complied immediately, and the boarding party identified her as the 546-ton New Zealand Holm Line coaster, Holmwood, with a crew of seventeen and twelve passengers, including four women and five children, taking a cargo of 1,370 sheep, a horse, and wool from the island to Lyttelton, New Zealand.
Transferring her crew and passengers onto the Komet, as many of the sheep as could be accommodated, were taken, with some difficulty, onto all three German ships, with the Orion taking one hundred and ninety-two of them.
As the sheep settled into their new, and very temporary quarters on the raider’s afterdeck gangway, the ship’s carpenters assembled four sturdy chopping blocks for the eight designated slaughterers, who set to work immediately to clear the gangway in one afternoon.
While the decks ran with blood, Eyssen and Weyher discussed the possibility of using the coaster as an auxiliary minelayer, but finally rejected the idea, as her maximum speed was only 9 knots, and so, it was decided to sink her.
Opening her sea cocks, the boarding party then left the little coaster to the mercies of the Komet’s gunners, who put in some much-needed target practice.
For thirty minutes they shot the little steamer to pieces, turning her blazing wreck into a funeral pyre for the thousand or so unfortunate sheep that had remained on board and went down with her.
On Eyssen’s orders, the horse had been put down before the shooting began.
While the crew initially welcomed the fresh meat, not surprisingly, in no time at all, they came to loathe the daily diet of mutton.
Receiving fresh instructions from the SKL, the Orion was ordered to carry out her long overdue engine overhaul, and then return home, via the South Atlantic.
Her raiding days were clearly numbered in the new operational scheme of things, as she was now the only cruiser remaining with old oil-fired boilers, that would always be dependent on a plentiful supply of fuel being available.
The brand-new former Norwegian tanker, Ole Jacob, taken as a prize in the Indian Ocean by the raider Atlantis the previous November, and now in Kobe, was assigned to supply her, with the Annaliese Essberger taking over in the Atlantic.
In the early hours of the morning on November 27, in poor visibility, a large ship, running without lights, was sighted by the Orion’s lookouts, and reported by lamp signals to the Komet, which circled around her in order to catch her between the two raiders, while the unarmed Kulmerland withdrew, out of the line of fire.
Although not certain whether he was looking at a large cargo ship or a warship, when his radio operators reported to him that the vessel was transmitting distress calls, stating that she was being approached by a suspicious ship, Weyher had a signal morsed to her, ordering her to immediately cease all radio transmissions, and to stop.
Now clearly visible as a large passenger liner with two funnels, the vessel was transfixed in the mist between the Orion and the Komet, clearly silhouetted by the glare of the Orion’s powerful searchlights, which reflected off the misty rain, giving the Komet’s gunners an easy task when ordered to open fire, straddling her with their first salvo.
The Orion’s gunners, unable to clearly see the target because of their own reflected light, were wide of the mark.
Continuing to transmit, and this time reporting that she was being attacked by two German warships, the burning liner vainly attempted to turn away.
Firmly boxed in by the raiders, and with her radio mast shot away, she finally surrendered, precipitating a frantic scramble, as boarding parties from all three German ships raced each other to be the first to claim her, the largest ship ever taken by a raider, as a prize, with Komet’s party eventually winning.
Identified as the 16,712-ton New Zealand Shipping Company passenger liner, Rangitane, en route to Liverpool from Auckland, via the Panama Canal, with a crew of 192 and 111 passengers, 36 of whom were women, a cargo of 124,881 cases of butter, 33,255 cases of frozen pork and mutton, 23,646 cases of cheese, as well as equally large quantities of cocoa beans and other foodstuffs.
She was also carrying forty-five bars of silver.
This was a very valuable cargo, as the Rangitane was a very valuable ship.
With an armoured bridge and wheelhouse, and unusually heavily armed,* she had a 5-inch and a 3-inch, mounted on her stern, several American-made light flak weapons mounted on the wings of her bridge, a depth-charge launcher, and devices to protect her against both contact and magnetic mines.
In many ways, she was better equipped than both of her attackers.
Despite all of this, and her undoubtedly superior speed, he had made no serious effort to defend his ship in any way, or to escape the raider’s trap.
Had she not been boxed in by the raiders, and caught in a cross-fire, she could easily have outrun both of them.
* There is some dispute as to how heavily the Rangitane was armed, as he captain, Lionel Upton was heard on numerous occasions to refer to ‘the gun’.
She had been badly damaged, with her steering and lighting systems out of action, and had sustained severe damage to the midships section, where five people, three passengers and two members of the crew, had lost their lives.
Some prisoners were transferred to the Kulmerland, which now had thirty-nine women and five children on board, while military passengers and ship’s companies were transferred from the supply ship and the Orion, to the Komet.
As the Rangitane’s distress signals had been picked up and re-transmitted to Australian and New Zealand naval units, it quickly became clear from intercepted radio traffic, that both warships and aircraft were rushing to the scene, so, unfortunately for the German prize crews, there was just enough time to transfer the passengers and crew before the burning and slowly sinking liner, and her tempting cargo, had to be sent to the bottom.
With her sea cocks opened, she listed slightly, but, showing no signs of going down, a torpedo was fired from the Komet, which opened a large hole in her side, causing her to capsize and sink, after which the three German ships left the scene at top speed towards the northeast and the island of Nauru.
Two flying boats, the Aotearoa and the Awarura, searched the area later in the day, and on the afternoon of the following day, November 28, the light cruiser HMNZS Achilles arrived at the scene, finding nothing but debris.
While Weyher had agreed with the plan to attack shipping around Nauru, and to put men ashore there to destroy the harbour installations, the radio station, and the phosphate plant, when Eyssen suggested that they leave their accumulated prisoners there, the idea did not at all appeal to the skipper of the Orion.
Fearing that on being rescued, the experienced seamen and military personnel among them would give accurate descriptions of the German ships to the Allies, Weyher suggested that all of the women and children should be transferred to the non-combatant Kulmerland, and that only the coloured prisoners should be left on the island, a suggestion that Eyssen agreed to, and subsequently implemented, as all the women and childen were transferred to the tanker on November 28.
On December 5, Eyssen summoned Weyher to a meeting to finalise the details of the proposed operation against Nauru, outlining his plan to put a 185-man party ashore on December 8, eighty-six of them from the Komet and ninety-nine from the Orion, under Komet’s Executive Officer, Joseph Huschenbeth.
Early on December 6, while work parties were busily reverting the Orion to her original camouflage, her lookouts sighted smoke.
Immediately passing the information to the Kulmerland and the Komet, so that Eyssen could also participate, the Orion approached the stranger which was seen to be a rather distinctive-looking and familiar vessel.
Certain that she was the 4,413-ton British Phosphate Commissioners freighter Triona, that had escaped from him four months previously, and that she was bound for Nauru, where her imminent arrival would compromise the planned operation against the installations the following day, Weyher assured Eyssen, who had reported that he believed her to be a neutral American ship, and Pschunder of the Kulmerland, as to her true identity.
Closing to within ten miles, still unseen by the enemy ship, Weyher used the cover of rain showers, and a smoke screen that hung in the misty air, to creep closer while remaining concealed to the south of his prey, from where he hoped to drive her towards the other two ships which lay to the north of her.
When the Komet and the Kulmerland suddenly emerged from a low rain cloud, having missed the Triona in the thick mist, Eyssen immediately turned and took off to the north of her, as Weyher headed the Orion straight into the cloud that concealed the enemy, emerging from it minutes later to find the freighter caught between himself and the Komet, from which position, there would be no escape.
Nine hours after first being spotted, a warning shot was fired across the bows of the Triona by the Komet, leading the enemy radio operator to instantly transmit a QQQ signal, which was just as quickly ‘jammed’ by the Komet’s radio officer, loudly broadcasting a Japanese radio call on the same frequency.
During one final desperate attempt to escape into a nearby surface-level rain cloud, which was halted by a well-aimed salvo from the Orion, the freighter hove to and was seen to lower her boats.
Once again, the Komet’s prize crew were the first to board the surrendered ship, confirming her identity and reporting that she was carrying a cargo of foodstuffs and piece goods from Melbourne and Newcastle to Nauru and Ocean Island, and a sixty-four-man crew, three of whom had been killed.
With Komet, the faster, and more reliable ship, departing to conduct some reconnaissance around Nauru, Weyher replenished his storerooms from the freighter’s cargo of food supplies, after which she was torpedoed and sunk.
Among the sixty-one survivors picked up, were six women and a child.
On the evening on the next day, December 7, as the Orion and the Kulmerland lay to the west of Nauru, preparing to commence the attack, the Komet, which had met and sunk the 5,181-ton Norwegian motor ship Vinni the night before, after leaving the scene of the sinking of the Triona, was preparing to the east.
Meeting as planned early on the morning of December 8, Eyssen reported that while having found no ships under the loading platforms, he had seen three British freighters waiting to load off the north-east coast of the island, and had evolved a plan in which the Orion would round the island to the south, while the Komet rounded it to the north, to approach and attack them without warning from opposite directions in the early morning half light.
As she moved in to within four miles of the coastline and headed south in pitch darkness and driving rain, Orion’s lookouts spotted a large, brightly-lit ship.
Stealthily closing to within 1,300 metres of her, Weyher challenged her by signal lamp to identify herself and ordered her to stop.
Receiving no response, a warning shot followed, causing the ship’s captain to switch off his running lights, turn away and attempt to escape.
Once the Orion’s searchlight had picked out the gun mounted on the stern, establishing that the stranger was an enemy ship, Weyher’s gunners opened fire, registering hits with each round, killing one man, shooting away the freighter’s radio aerials and crippling her steering gear.
Four salvos later, with his ship ablaze, her captain decided to stop, dumped his papers overboard, and began to lower his two lifeboats.
Taking no time to pick up the survivors, as he’d spotted the lights of another ship to the east, which had been switched off when the shooting started, suggesting that she too was an enemy vessel, Weyher signalled to the Kulmerland to do so, while he went in search of his second victim.
Eyssen, who had observed the action, but had not wished to become embroiled in it for fear of accidentally tangling with the Orion, had rounded the island again, and returned to pick up one of the boats, leaving the other to the Kulmerland, identified the vessel as the 6,378-ton British Phosphate Commissioners, Triadic.
Leaving his first victim’s boats to the Kulmerland and the Komet, Weyher, now demanding every ounce of speed from his engines, pursued the second vessel until she was within range, and opened fire.
With four salvos quickly bringing her to a stop, her captain ordered his boats to be lowered, and abandoned ship without using his radio.
The prize crew identified her as the 6,032-ton British Phosphate Commissioners freighter, Triaster, as Weyher had her captain and his sixty-three man crew taken on board the Orion.
Reporting nothing of interest or value on board, the prize crew was ordered to scuttle her with demolition charges.
As they calmly made their way off the ship, having set their charges in one of the holds, the Triaster suddenly erupted.
Taking on a severe list, the men, some of whom had been searching the ship for items of interest, rushed topside and scrambled frantically to get off, with one of the officers taking a nose dive into the sea, much to the amusement of the crew, and just made it before a second charge went off, taking her down by the bow.
Returning to the listing, burnt-out Triadic, which, despite having sustained fifteen direct hits, had still not sunk, a demolition charge also failed to sink her, and so, once again, Weyher had to employ one of his precious torpedoes.
When even this failed, a demolition crew had to be sent back to carry out the extremely perilous task of placing the charges outboard, against the ship’s bow, and getting away from the red-hot wreck as quickly as possible, before the charges blew a large hole in her hull and sent her to the bottom.
Meanwhile, having sorted out the Triadic’s boats, and taken some verbal abuse from her First Officer for his trouble, Eyssen ran the 3,900-ton British freighter Komata down, signalling to her to heave to.
Unable to decipher the Komet’s signal when morsed to stop and to refrain from using his wireless, her captain called for full speed, radioed for help and tried desperately to escape.
Opening fire and registering several direct hits which silenced the radio and killed two of the officers on the bridge, by the fourth salvo the vessel came to a halt.
Identified by the boarding party as the brand new 3,900-ton Union Steamship Company of New Zealand freighter Komata, her crew of thirty-three were taken on board the Komet and she was scuttled.
This action concluded a very successful forty-eight hours during which five ships had been sunk, totalling 26,000 tons, and over 160 prisoners taken, bringing the total number aboard the three German ships to over 675, of whom fifty-two were women, and eight were children.
The only disappointment was that the proposed landing on the island had not been possible due to the high seas.
Agreeing to meet with Eyssen again on December 13, for another shot at putting a demolition squad on Nauru, Weyher continued his search for fresh targets off Ponape, while the Komet and the Kulmerland left for Ailinglapalap Atoll to re-fuel.
Arriving at the rendezvous off the island on the designated day, the Orion ran into gale force winds and high seas, as once again it seemed as if the weather would prevent the operation going ahead.
With no sign of the Komet or the Kulmerland until December 16, Weyher had to wait for three days in appalling weather for them to arrive.
Tired of operating with a ship that was constantly in need of repairs, Eyssen decided to break up the ‘squadron’, but decided, that before doing so, it had to perform one final task.
As both he and Weyher had received instructions from the SKL in Berlin not to send any prisoners to Japan, but to return them to Europe whenever possible, he proposed that as that was not possible from such a remote location, that they release every one of their 675 captives, 153 from his ship, 265 from the Orion, and 257 from the Kulmerland, on Emirau Island in the Bismarck Archipelago.
Once again, Weyher objected, suggesting that only the women, the children, the disabled and the ‘coloured’ prisoners be put ashore, and that the rest should be put on the Ermland, which was about to set sail, from Japan, for Europe.
By noon on December 21, 343 European and 171 ‘coloured’ prisoners, along with tents and provisions to tie them over until they were picked up, had been landed into the care of the two English families living on Emirau.
* Eyssen was later criticised by the SKL for this decision as the information gleaned from those picked up at Emirau provided Allied Intelligence with vital information about the operational activities of the raiders, their secret re-fuelling points and their use of Japanese facilities and disguises.
The prisoners were subsequently picked up on December 29, by the 6,942-ton British auxiliary Nellore of the Eastern & Australian Steamship Company and landed at Townsville, North Queensland.
One hundred and fifty prisoners remained on the Orion for ‘security reasons’.
When both raiders had replenished their stores and re-fuelled from the Kulmerland, the Komet departed back in the direction of Nauru, the supply-ship set off for Japan to re-load, and the Orion set course for Lamotrek Atoll, for her much-needed and long overdue refit, arriving on Christmas Day, to find the brand new former Norwegian tanker, Ole Jacob, already moored inside the anchorage.
Deciding to remain outside the lagoon, Weyher sent a motor boat to convey his intentions to the tanker’s captain, with instructions to await the arrival of the supply-ships Regensburg and Ermland, only to receive the astonishing news that the captain of the tanker was Captain ‘All Right’, Fritz Steinkrauss.
Having been briefly taken aboard the British submarine, HMS Truant, after the scuttling of the Tropic Sea in the Bay of Biscay on September 3, Steinkrauss had subsequently been released back into one of the lifeboats.
As the British frantically tried to prevent the Tropic Sea from foundering, the Germans quietly slipped away, setting sail for the French coast.
Running into a Biscay storm within the first day, which tore away the mast and the sail, they were left rowing in open boats for several days and nights.
But they managed to get ashore at La Coruña in northern Spain, crossed into occupied France and made their way back back to Germany.
Steinkrauss jumped at the offer of taking over the captaincy of the Ole Jacob, then moored at Kobe in Japan, and crossed Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostock, in order to do so.
While the Orion’s crew were naturally stunned and impressed by the news, Weyher was delighted to see him for other reasons, as the tanker contained 2,000 tons of fuel oil, 1,200 tons of petroleum and 30 tons of drinking water.
Sailing away from Lamotrek to seek a suitable location to carry out his engine repairs in safety, Weyher employed his dilapidated Arado seaplane to explore the surrounding islands and atolls, but with no success.
On top of that, a report came through that, on December 27, the Australian Prime Minister had broadcast the news of an attack on the island of Nauru by a German warship, which could only result in heightened Allied counter measures.
Weyher, and the SKL were understandably furious that Eyssen, as the senior commander, had insisted on releasing so many prisoners in a place where they would be so quickly found, and able to give details, not only of the German ships themselves, but also about where they rendezvoused with their supply-ships.
* Eyssen, who disagreed with Weyher and the SKL on the prisoner release matter, expressing the view that their operational area was already compromised, had returned to Nauru in the early hours of that very morning.
Signalling to shore his intention of bombarding the installation, and warning the residents to evacuate the area, he fired a warning shot to disperse a crowd that had gathered on the beach, after which he opened up with every gun at his disposal, continuing to fire for one hour and eighteen minutes.
Firing 126 rounds of 155mm, 360 rounds of 37mm and 719 rounds of 20mm, he destroyed the cantilevered loading cranes, the fuel tanks, the storage facilities, the boats and the mooring buoys, causing a massive amount of damage and sending 13,000 tons of oil up in smoke.
A further mass inoculation of the crew of the Orion took place on December 28, the sixth in eight months, and the ship got a face lift, as the First Lieutenant set the crew to work de-rusting and re-painting.
Returning to Lamotrek on New Years Eve, to find that the Regensburg had arrived, with a large consignment of Japanese beer, among other supplies, the Orion dropped anchor alongside the bulging supply-ship, and the Ole Jacob, to see in the New Year.
The festivities were dampened somewhat for Weyher, who was acutely aware that the SKL had determined to recall the Orion from active raiding duty.
Her constant need for oil, meant that they had to assign supply-ships to see her home via the Indian Ocean, and the South Atlantic, two areas recently well worked over by other raiders, and therefore unlikely to yield much success.
While the crew spent eleven hours transferring 3,300 cases of supplies to the raider on January 1 1941, the Ole Jacob pumped 1,200 tons of diesel oil into the Regensburg, which continued dispensing provisions for the next two days.
By midday on January 3, the provisioning was complete, leaving the men available to assist with the engine overhaul and the cleaning of the boilers and fuel tanks, a nightmarish job carried out under the most appalling conditions in intense heat, noxious fumes and indescribable filth.
After 286 days at sea, and having travelled over 65,000 miles, the Orion was in desperate need of a thorough refit.
Parts of the engines that had been under continual steam pressure, could be stripped down and overhauled, and the boilers and fuel tanks could be cleaned.
Informed by the SKL on the same day, that they believed both Ailinglapalap and Lamotrek had been compromised due to information given to the enemy by the prisoners picked up at Emirau, the work on the engines had to be halted, the machinery re-assembled, and the ship prepared to depart at first light.
It was decided that once the prisoners were transferred off the ship, the work could be continued at the volcanic islands at Maug, a Japanese possession in the northern Mariana Islands.
The Regensburg departed on the morning of January 4, returning to Japan to reload with supplies, being replaced on January 5, by the 6,528-ton Ermland, a former HAPAG freighter, under Kapitän Kragge.
Once the filthy, vermin-infested holds of the newly-arrived supply ship had been hosed down and prepared to receive them, the Orion’s prisoners were quickly transferred, and she was dispatched to a holding area, to await further orders.
On January 6, the Ole Jacob sailed for Maug, followed shortly afterwards by the Orion, which once again, as soon as she was safely out of sight of the Ermland, with her large number of inquisitive prisoners, had her profile radically altered.
Early on the morning of January 9, the Ermland, having received her sailing instructions, ordering her to set course for France via Cape Horn, departed.
On January 10, the Orion, drawing alongside the Ole Jacob, dropped anchor with some difficulty, in the sweltering, insect-infested crater of the extinct volcano that formed the Maug Islands, ready to complete her overhaul and refit in earnest.
Finding a small group of Japanese and Philipinos setting up a weather station on the supposedly uninhabited islands, they received permission from them to set up a lookout post to watch for enemy warships.
Although completely invisible to all passing ships, their arrival was reported by the meteorologists, and they were visited on the following day by an official Japanese Government inspection vessel, the Marana Maru, from Saipan.
Expertly intercepted by one of Captain All Right’s boats, it’s officials were invited aboard the luxuriously appointed Ole Jacob.
Lavishly entertained with large quantities of ice-cold beer, and facilitated by a Philipino interpreter who spoke a little German and a lot of Spanish, the officials seemed quite content, until one of them delicately enquired as to why the Japanese Rising Sun emblem was painted on the tanker’s funnel.
Promising to have it removed immediately, indeed even before they left the ship, Captain Steinkrauss, pouring more beer, profusely thanked the Japanese for granting him permission to anchor on one of their possessions on his way home. Shortly after the awkward question had been so successfully deflected, the seemingly satisfied officials returned to their ship.
The Orion, on which the work of stripping, cleaning and repairing engines and boilers continued in the punishing heat, escaped inspection.
Flooding several of her tanks, causing the ship to heel over, enabling large numbers of men to scrape and clean the waterline and renew the red lead paint, others, in diving suits, inspected the underside of the hull.
The Marana Maru departed on January 18, shortly after which the Regensburg returned, with one hundred tons of drinking water, fresh fruit and vegetables.
The overhaul was largely complete by the end of the month, and on February 1, the 6,408-ton supply-ship Münsterland, under Kapitän Übel, arrived.
Bringing two hundred tons of drinking water, cigarettes, fresh fruit, eggs, meat and assorted other foodstuffs plus 55,000 bottles of Japanese beer, she was also carrying a Nakajima E8-N1, single-float seaplane, purchased in Tokyo by the German Naval Attaché, Admiral Paul Wenneker.
She also brought Weyher a replacement Medical Officer, in Doctor Müller-Osten, sent to take over from the highly-respected but seriously ill, Senior Medical Officer Doctor Raffler, who had been suffering from an incurable tumour, and who sadly departed on the supply-ship.
Back in Germany, he later lost his life while undergoing surgery.
Early on February 5, the Orion weighed anchor, only to find that having been moored alongside the Ole Jacob for a month, their anchor cables had become entwined with one another.
But by midday, she was ready to put to sea to test her reconditioned engines, under the watchful eyes in the new seaplane.
By late afternoon, Weyher received a report from his Chief, Kolsch, stating that with the completion of the refit, they would now be capable of remaining at sea for six months longer than originally envisaged, and that, despite having only three boilers operational, the ship would be capable of a top speed of 13 knots.
Departing the anchorage with the Ole Jacob for her new area of operations on February 6, resembling a French passenger freighter, Weyher had the Orion’s gunners conduct practice exercises, while Leutnant Klaus Von Winterfeldt practiced take-offs and landings in the Nakajima, which lived up to it’s reputation of being well suited to the prevailing Pacific conditions.
Bidding farewell to the Regensburg and the Münsterland, both of which were returning to Japan, Weyher was informed by the SKL that his presence at Maug had been reported by a neutral ship, and that the Allies were significantly increasing their naval and air strength in the region.
Also informed that his new operational area would be the eastern part of the Indian Ocean, and instructed to rendezvous with the supply-ship Alstertor there in April, when his fuel would be running low, Weyher set course to the south east.
Given that getting there would entail a voyage of 10,000 miles, over six weeks, he decided to cruise the shipping lanes en route, in the hope of finding targets.
By mid-February, as the Orion was approaching the Solomon Islands, Weyher chose to steer the ship into the shallow, narrow passage between Bougainville and Choiseul and the neighbouring islands, in the hope that the air patrols from nearby Rabaul and Port Moresby, would not expect to find him there.
Emerging into the Coral Sea at first light on February 16, the two ships continued south eastwards, roughly 25 miles apart, so as to cover a broad 75-mile front.
With the lookouts and anti-aircraft gun crews on constant alert, both ships were closely inspected later that day by a British Sunderland flying boat, which reported their presence to both land-based stations and naval vessels at sea, leading Weyher to decide to get out of the enclosed Coral Sea immediately.
Instructing Captain Steinkrauss on the Ole Jacob to steer the same course as the Orion, but further to the south, and to rendezvous with him in three days time off New Caledonia, or, failing that, later on at the Kermadec Islands, Weyher headed south south-east through the islands.
Early on the following morning a flying boat was spotted, and Weyher stopped the Orion and escaped detection, but, on hearing from the Ole Jacob that the aircraft had also overflown her, he decided to abandon the first rendezvous and head eastwards at full speed towards the second one.
Passing the southernmost of the Solomon Islands, he headed south in a sweep around the northern islands of the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) reaching the waters around the Santa Cruz Islands on the following afternoon, after which he turned due south, past the Fiji Islands, and into the teeth of a hurricane.
On February 20, in steadily deteriorating weather, the Orion was hammered by winds that rose to Force 12, and even higher in squalls, and was battered and buffetted by colossal seas, sustaining some severe damage.
Five days later, with her continual high speed making serious inroads into her fuel supply, she rendezvoused with the Ole Jacob to re-fuel before embarking on the voyage around New Zealand and Australia to the Indian Ocean.
Taking on 4,000 tons of fuel, she cruised the New Zealand to Panama and Cape Horn shipping lanes to the south of Auckland, without success.
Apart from almost losing her seaplane, which was smashed against the side of the ship while being prepared for take off, and running into more horrendous weather in the Roaring Forties, the weeks once again dragged by without incident, until March 15, when she reached her designated operational area.
Making more frequent use of the seaplane as he moved northwards towards the equator, Weyher’s luck was out again, as it sustained more damage while taking off to see if it could spot the 80,774-ton Cunard liner Queen Mary, then being employed as a troopship, which had been reported to be on her way to Fremantle from Colombo, and which might well have been on the same route as the raider.
When the plane was next operational, Weyher’s worst fears about this zone of operations were borne out three days later.
Finding nothing but a Vichy French ship, the Pierre Louis-Dreyfus, which was approached at top speed by the Orion to a range of 5,000 metres, before being recognised, and allowed to pass.
The Indian Ocean had been well worked over by the raiders Atlantis and Pinguin, as well as by the heavy cruiser Admiral Scheer, leading the enemy to re-route his shipping within air cover closer to the coastlines.
At the designated rendezvous point on April 10, the Orion and the Ole Jacob met the 3,063-ton supply-ship, Alstertor, the former Sloman Line fruit-carrier, which brought a new Arado Ar-196 seaplane and 58 sacks of mail, the first the crew had received since leaving Germany, 369 days ago.
She also brought sufficient fresh supplies of ammunition, torpedoes and bombs to keep the raider fully operational for a further five months, after which she would be available to supply even more.
Both the Orion and the Alstertor re-fuelled from the Ole Jacob, while the crew transferred fresh supplies of eggs, potatoes, cheese and 14,000 bottles of top quality export beer in rowing boats from the Alstertor through choppy seas.
The three ships then departed to another rendezvous point to meet up with the tanker Ketty Brøvig, yet another prize of the raider Atlantis.
On arriving at the meeting place, to find no trace of the tanker, and having written her off as either sunk or captured, the ships headed for Mauritius, before being notified by the SKL that the shipping lanes were now further south.
Cruising off Madagascar, Weyher once again employed the Nakajima, painted with British markings, as it made two long flights each day, but found nothing.
By the end of April, as she patrolled off the coast of Africa, the Orion clocked up 102,500 miles at sea, the equivalent of four times the circumference of the Earth.
With the Alstertor departing for France on April 25, the Orion and the Ole Jacob cruised around the southern tip of Madagascar, but without success, as it soon became clear from intercepted radio traffic that the British were using neutral ships to a greater extent than ever before.
When a ship was spotted by the seaplane on May 3, the Orion gave chase, using her ‘French’ disguise, but, when finally closing to within 3,000 metres of the vessel after dark, she found her running with all her lights on in a repeat of the City of Elwood incident of November 3.
Identified as the 5,447-ton American States Steamship Company freighter Illinois, with a cargo of jute from Calcutta to Cape Town, she was allowed to continue on her way, but, within the hour, was heard to send a cryptic signal, clearly in some sort of code, that stated, ‘Calling everybody. Nothing new here’.
Once again in need of an engine overhaul, which in this case necessitated the raider being towed by the Ole Jacob until May 17, the two seaplanes conducted alternate lookout patrols overhead.
Topping off her fuel tanks on May 7, taking on 3,855 tons of oil that would last her until end of July, when she would already be in the Atlantic, on May 8, the Orion’s radio room intercepted a QQQ signal from the ‘Norwegian’ Tamerlane, the disguise at that time being employed by the raider Pinguin.
Later that day, the Pinguin was sunk by the heavy cruiser HMS Cornwall, with 203 prisoners and 342 of her crew, including her captain, Ernst-Felix Krüder, losing their lives.
Dispatching the Ole Jacob to wait at a mid-ocean holding area from May 25, Weyher took the Orion to the north-west, where, disguised as a French vessel, he cruised off the Seychelles, keeping a lookout for the long-overdue Ketty Brøvig and the supply-ship Coburg.
* Both of these ships had been ambushed and sunk at a supposedly secret location near the Saya de Malha Bank, by the cruisers HMAS Canberra and HMS Leander on March 4, their captains unaware that the German supply-ship transmission codes had been broken.
With her speed down to 10 knots for most of the day on May 17, as once again, Chief Kolsch and his engineers worked on the engines, Weyher received the all clear in the evening.
Next morning, while still visible from the raider as it headed for its designated reconnaissance sector, the Arado was seen to suddenly take evasive action, climbing sharply as if to seek cloud cover, a manoeuvre that was misinterpreted on the Orion as meaning that Von Winterfeldt has spotted a possible target.
Ordering full speed ahead, determined that the enemy ship would not escape this time, Weyher was shocked to see the aircraft re-appear from an unexpected quarter and fire two red warning flares, before touching down.
Quickly retrieved and hoisted aboard, the pilot reported to a horrified Weyher that he had spotted a British heavy cruiser, either the Cornwall, or HMS Glasgow, just over forty-five miles away, approaching on a collision course!
Turning the ship hard to starboard, and summoning every ounce of power the engines could give him, Weyher thanked God it was Sunday, a day that was sacred to British seamen, who were all probably in the middle of a service, and a stifling hot one at that, and prayed that none of them had spotted the Arado, or launched an aircraft of their own.
Everything now depended on the Orion maintaining maximum revs, without making smoke, while speeding away from the approaching menace.
Calculating that the cruiser, which was travelling at a speed of 18 knots, would appear astern at 10 o’clock, the lookouts at the mastheads kept their binoculars fixed on the horizon, while they wondered if these were to be their final hours.
Right on schedule, ninety minutes later, the unmistakable smoke pattern of an oil-fired, three-funnelled ship was reported about twenty-five miles astern, soon followed by a tall, shiny mast.
Noticing that the cruiser was on an easterly, and not north-easterly, course, Weyher turned the Orion sharply away to the south, hoping that the enemy did not decide that this would be a good time to conduct a reconnaissance flight.
His hopes were fulfilled, as the distance between the two ships was gradually seen to increase, until the cruiser’s smoke finally disappeared.
In no doubt as to the lengths to which the British were going to protect their northern shipping routes in the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, Weyher turned south, and later south-west, but as usual, found nothing.
On May 26, the Orion lost her Nakajima, as it capsized in rough seas off the coast of Madagascar while attempting to take off, and although her crew got out safely and were picked up, it sank before it could be adequately secured.
At the the end of the month, Weyher received instructions from the SKL to proceed to the south-east corner of the Atlantic, where he hoped that at last he might have some success off the busy South African ports.
His optimism was tempered by the ship’s mechanical problems, particularly the propellor-shaft bushing at the stern, which, as with her sister-ship the Widder, had suffered so much wear and tear, that at high speeds it knocked so badly as to be in danger of damaging other bearings or breaking the shaft itself.
Meanwhile, ‘Captain All Right’ on the Ole Jacob, who had been at the designated rendezvous since May 25, anxiously awaiting word from the Orion, was delighted when, in the early hours of June 3, he received the pre-arranged signal, flashed through the gloom by the raider’s searchlight.
Re-fuelling without delay, with the tanker retaining just enough to get her safely back to France, the two ships departed southwards, in deteriorating weather, towards the Cape of Good Hope.
Removing the French camouflage, and having the superstructure painted brown and the masts yellow, Weyher had the ship’s disguise altered once again.
On June 8, prior to being released, Captain Steinkrauss came aboard to collect dispatches, charts and codes, as well as a sack of mail, containing letters from the crew to their loved ones at home.
Bidding Weyher and the Orion farewell, he set course for home.
With the ship once again drifting, while her engineers battled with her failing machinery, and having received no further word from the SKL as to the whereabouts of the Alstertor, Weyher feared that she may have been lost.
* Intercepted and attacked by seaplanes on June 22, south-west of Cape Finisterre, the Alstertor put up such a fight, shooting one of them down, that she was reported as being an auxiliary cruiser.
The next day she was cornered by the Ocean Boarding Vessel, HMS Marsdale and the destroyers HMS Faulknor, HMS Fury and HMS Fearless, and scuttled by her crew.
Battling through mountainous seas, well to the south of the Cape, the Orion headed slowly south-west, where, in a particularly savage storm, she got into grave difficulties, as one minute her propellor, pitched clear of the water, and freed from its resistance, raced and knocked so violently that it shook the entire ship from stem to stern, and the next it was buried deep in the turbulent seas.
With her rudder out of the water as much as in, she was being driven off course.
Concerned as they were about the labouring engines and the serious damage being done to their camouflage, the crew were scarcely aware of how perilous their situation had become, or that the propellor-shaft bearings had now worn completely away, until one night, they were brought face to face with the reality of their predicament when their ship began to take water.
The Orion was now fighting for her life.
On June 22, the day Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, she came to a standstill, as the giant bolts that secured the tail shaft bearings broke away under the impact of the constant knocking.
By June 24, she was far enough west of the Cape to begin heading northwards, but Weyher realised that to maintain her course she had to be put in better trim.
The only way to achieve that was to pump water into her holds as ballast.
This was very risky, for while such an enormous quantity of water in her holds would certainly hold the rudder and propellor firmly down, it could also shift with the pitch and roll of the ship, and greatly increase her tendency to capsize.
In the early hours of June 25, 1,500 tons of the South Atlantic ocean poured into Number 1 and Number 4 holds, and into the compartments on either side of the propellor-shaft tunnel.
But a short time later, the bolts holding the upper caps of the propellor-shaft bearings sheared off, leaving approximately thirty feet of the stern end of the shaft unsecured and moving laterally.
This shuddering movement, when transmitted to the forward end of the shaft threatened to break further bearings, or worse still break the shaft itself, which would leave the ship adrift and completely helpless.
To prevent this, timbers, reinforced with angle irons, were fitted over the end bearing to reduce the vibration in the shaft, steadying both it and the propellor.
Just about surviving this series of life-threatening events, the Orion made her way northwards, with Weyher becoming increasingly concerned about fuel.
Her designated tanker, the Anneliese Essberger was only just leaving Japan, and as both of the alternative vessels, the 9,789-ton Egerland and the 10,746-ton Lothringen had been taken by Allied warships and aircraft in the wake of the Bismarck episode, it was beginning to look as if the codes being used by the SKL, the auxiliary cruisers and their supply ships, had been compromised.
In view of these developments the SKL, using a new key, arranged a meeting with the raider Atlantis, three hundred miles north of Tristan da Cunha for July 1.
Forbidden to operate off South-West Africa or Freetown, as both areas had been designated for U-Boat operations, Weyher was free to select his course and hunt for prey as he saw fit, but in view of the increased enemy activity in the Atlantic, and the state of his ship, the SKL suggested that should he find himself unable to reach the Gironde, he should put in at either Dakar or the Canary Islands.
Determined not to end his cruise in such a anti-climactic way, Weyher still had a major fuel supply problem, and resolved to get at least 900 tons of it from the Atlantis, which had 2,900 tons of surplus fuel on board.
On June 27, the commander of the Atlantis, Kapitän zur See Bernhard Rogge, had been instructed by the SKL, to provide Weyher with 700 tons of fuel, sufficient to get the Orion home, but Rogge had other ideas as he headed for the rendezvous.
Approaching one another cautiously in the early morning, and exchanging all the pre-arranged recognition signals, the two ships, that had last been together seventeen months earlier, conducting gunnery drills, drew alongside one another.
It was clear to Weyher, that Rogge appreciated his frustration and anger, and he quickly pointed out to him that if he didn’t get the fuel he would have to switch off his engines and drift about in enemy-infested waters for six weeks or more, until the Anneliese Essberger arrived … if she arrived at all.
Asking Rogge for 1,200 tons of oil, he described how he had seen no action in eight months of searching for targets, while suffering interminable problems with his thirsty, unreliable old engines, adding that he wanted to keep the Orion at sea until September, so as to at least try to make up for his lack of success.
Rogge refused, pointing out that as the Orion’s inefficient engines would consume in one week the amount of oil that would keep his ship operational for two months, it would simply be a waste of the fuel.
Explaining that as he had already been instructed by the SKL to take the Atlantis out of the Atlantic and into the Pacific, he was going to have to remain at sea until the autumn, while the Orion was on her way home, he told Weyher that all he could afford to give him was 580 tons.
Weyher was understandably disappointed, but realised that there was nothing he could do to change Rogge’s mind.
By nightfall on July 2, the fuel had been transferred and working parties were once again changing the Orion’s disguise.
With a black hull, yellow upperworks and a yellow funnel with black and white stripes, the emblem of Japan was once again added, as she became the Tokyo Kaiun K.K. freighter Yuyo Maru.
As the two commanders spent time together exchanging experiences and studying charts, Weyher was painfully reminded of what might have been had he been assigned to a modern diesel-powered vessel like the Atlantis.
Parting company amicably enough on July 6, the Orion headed west towards the coast of South America, while the Atlantis once more headed south, towards the Cape of Good Hope, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.
Continuing on a westerly course for three days, with the Arado being sent aloft three times a day, the Orion met just one ship, the 4,238-ton neutral Brazilian freighter Joazeiro, of the Companhia de Navegacao Lloyd Brasiliero, en route for Buenos Aires on July 9, which was not challenged.
Gradually altering course northwards, and radically changing her appearance yet again over the next two days, with a false passenger deck being constructed, the Orion headed for the Freetown - La Plata shipping route in heavy seas on July 11.
With her engineers again wrestling with their failing machinery, and more water being taken on board as ballast, the Arado was severely damaged when it hit a wave at speed during take off on July 19, and while its crew and the remains of the aircraft were picked up, it was doubtful whether it would ever fly again.
Heading north into the sweltering heat, the worn-out crew of the Orion, already showing the stresses and strains of the past few months, especially the near miss they had had with the British cruiser in the Indian Ocean, after which few of them could really relax, had once again to adjust to an extreme weather change, but on July 29, while heading north-west, a ship was spotted.
On a south-westerly course, she was a medium-sized freighter, sailing in ballast.
Calling for full speed, and remaining just out of sight below the horizon, Weyher stalked her all day, until just after nightfall.
Seeing that she was travelling without lights, he was satisfied that she was not a neutral ship, and began to close in.
It was eight months since his last success, and as his engines would certainly not get him away from any warships attracted to the scene, Weyher was anxious that this vessel did not use her radio.
Remaining ‘invisible’ against the darkening eastern skyline, he closed to within 5,500 metres of her, and attacked without warning.
Firing three torpedoes from a ‘point blank’ range of under 5,000 metres, he was appalled when not only did none of them detonate, but the radio room reported that the ship was transmitting an SSS distress signal.
Identifying herself as the Chaucer, to Weyher’s immense relief not only did the signal state that she was being attacked by a U-Boat, but it gave her position as being 235 miles further north of where she actually was.
When the Orion opened fire, with the first salvos falling short, and the enemy changed his signals to RRR, saying that he was being gunned, Weyher ordered that the freighter be illuminated with starshells.
Approaching her head on, trying to pick her out with the forward searchlight, the Orion suddenly came under fire from her 4-inch gun and her 40mm Bofors, which caused some damage, prompting a murderous response from the raider’s 37mm and 20mm anti-aircraft guns, which soon silenced both of them.
Throughout all of this, to Weyher’s horror, the RRR messages were being steadily transmitted, and were being acknowledged by more than one ship.
To put a stop to it, he ordered three further torpedoes to be fired at her.
Again there were no explosions, but when the main armament opened up again, the crew of the enemy ship, which was now on fire, were seen lowering boats.
As the flames grew higher into the night sky, providing a beacon for any warship within twenty five miles, four more torpedoes were fired into the ship without one of them detonating, leaving a disgusted Weyher to order her sunk by gunfire.
It took fifty-eight salvos before the sturdy 5,792-ton British freighter, en route from Middlesborough to Buenos Aires, finally broke in two and went down, just after midnight on July 30.
Her entire forty-eight-man crew, thirteen of them slightly wounded, were picked up and taken on board the Orion.
It had taken ten torpedoes, not one of which exploded, and over 400 rounds of 150mm ammunition to sink her.
The only damage done to the Orion had been caused by the concussion of her own guns firing as rivets popped, pipes burst, electrical circuits faltered, the lighting system failed and the propellor shaft knocked even more than usual.
Moving quickly away from the scene, and resuming his northerly course, Weyher was relieved to hear that the Chaucer had been reported sunk by a submarine.
On August 9, he was informed by the SKL that two U-Boats had been instructed to meet him off the Azores on August 16 and 17, to escort him into the Bay of Biscay, where destroyers would take over.
As they in turn were to hand him over to a flotilla of minesweepers that would guide him through the Gironde minefield into Bordeaux, Weyher wondered if it would turn out to be as chaotic as the escort he’d had on his way out to sea, sixteen months previously, in April 1940.
On August 13, with fuel running low, he decided to steer clear of the shipping lanes and make for the Azores, where, by a stroke of good fortune, the Spanish fleet was conducting exercises between the islands and the Spanish coast.
When he discovered that among the ships taking part was the 3,000-ton naval collier, Contramaestre Casado, Weyher recognised an opportunity not to be missed, and immediately ordered one final change of disguise.
For what was the Orion’s twentieth change of identity, she was painted all over in battleship grey, adding the red and yellow markings of Spain.
Arriving at the rendezvous, west of the Azores, on August 16, the pre-arranged recognition signal was given and accepted by U-75 (Kptlt. Hellmuth Ringelmann) followed the next day by U-205 (Kptlt. Franz-Georg Reschke) and the three ships headed eastwards in close formation.
Crossing Biscay, with the dilapidated engines driving the Orion ever closer to home, large amounts of water sloshed in her holds, and a member of her crew, up to his knees in water, kept the bearing cover plate wedged firmly in position.
Early on August 22, as she manoeuvred through the Biscay fishing boats, an unidentified aircraft appeared, causing Weyher to alter course towards the Spanish coast to add a little extra weight to his disguise, and as the day dawned, there was a series of alarms on board as she encountered submarines, small vessels of all descriptions and aircraft, all of which turned out to be friendly.
But, later that afternoon, as four destroyers with tripod masts were sighted rapidly approaching, Weyher ordered his crew to action stations.
No German destroyer that he had ever seen, had a tripod mast.
With the gun crews anxiously standing by their weapons awaiting orders, a signal flashed from the leading vessel, identifying them as ships of Number V Flotilla of the new 1936A or Narvik class destroyers, the first of which, the Z-23, had only been commissioned on September 15, while the Orion was battling with mountainous seas off the coast of South Australia.
By now capable of little more than a crawling speed, which caused the speedy dazzle-painted destroyers to zig zag, the Spanish markings and camouflage were disposed of, and the Orion ran up her battle flags for the final lap of her long journey, her crew remaining on constant alert by their weapons.
In the evening, anti-submarine vessels appeared, under air cover provided by Focke-Wulf Condor aircraft, to be replaced just after midnight by minesweepers detailed to guide the raider through the Gironde minefield.
Moving slowly by the light of the shadowy minesweeper’s searchlights, with the four destroyers deployed astern, the sun rose on August 23 1941.
At 7.28, the men crowding on the decks of the raider, heard the lookout cry, “Land in sight!”, as the French coast appeared on the horizon, and three hours later, at 10.44, she dropped anchor off the resort of Royan, to await the tide.
By 14.30, as she was being led further up the Gironde by a pilot ship and two minesweepers, the almost-forgotten sights and smells of land brought tears to the eyes of many of the sea-weary men lining the rails, who turned out on the after deck three and a half hours later, in their best white uniforms, to exchange salutations with German and Italian ships lying down-river from the city.
But the best was yet to come.
As she rounded a bend in the river, just ahead of her lay the Regensburg, and beyond her the Ermland, and then, the unmistakable shape of the Ole Jacob, and the irrepressible ‘Captain All Right’, who, on seeing the Orion, sounded his ship’s siren, sending out a deep and prolonged note, which was echoed in turn by the Regensburg, then by the Ermland, and finally, by every ship in the harbour.
The Orion came to a stop, ending a voyage of 127,337 miles, the equivalent of over five times around the world, over 511 unbroken days at sea, during which she had accounted for 73,478 tons of Allied shipping.
As a ship with such unreliable engines was not going to be sent out on the high seas again, most of her armament and special equipment was removed for further use on the ships then being prepared for the second wave of raiders.
Decommissioned and taken out of service in August 1941, she was re-fitted as a repair ship in 1942, under her old classification of Schiff 36.
Returning to service as the Gunnery Training Ship, Hektor, in January 1943, under Korvettenkapitän Meyer, she was armed with five 150mm guns, four 37mm Flak, four 20mm Flak, and two heavy machine guns.
In October 1944, under Korvettenkapitän Kiesewetter, and later, in January 1945, under Kapitän zur See der Reserve Asmus, she was installed as a Fleet Training Ship, before coming under the overall command of Vizeadmiral Bernhard Rogge, the former captain of the raider Atlantis, in March, being once again classified as a Hilfskreuzer, and re-gaining her fighting name of Orion.
She saw out her remaining days engaged in the desperate evacuation of military personnel and civilians fleeing from the Russians in East Prussia.
Completing sixteen round trips, with 1,500 refugees per trip, from Gotenhafen, Pillau, Memel, and Danzig, to safety in Swinemünde and Copenhagen, altogether, she evacuated almost 20,000 people to the west, and, apart from one Russian air attack during which a lieutenant was killed, she did it without major incident.
But, on May 4 1945, the Orion embarked on her final voyage.
Stopping to pick up the crew of the old battleship Schlesien which had hit a mine five miles off Swinemünde, she was attacked by Russian fighter bombers, and although her gunners managed to shoot one of them down, she sustained two direct hits, which left her severely damaged and on fire.
Although Kapitän zur See Asmus managed to beach the fiercely burning ship on a sandbank, within hours she had to be abandoned, and was totally burnt out.
Between the bombing and the fire, over one hundred and fifty men, cadets and members of the regular crew, including the valiant Asmus, lost their lives.
The wreck was raised and scrapped by a Polish company in 1952.
|Command Kurt Weyher (1901-1991)
“I led my ship with common sense and luck … my men with my heart”
Born on August 30 1901, in Graudenz, Kurt Weyher entered the Naval Service as a War Volunteer and Attended Basic-Training at the Naval-School Mürwik in 1918.
Served on the Heavy Cruiser Freya, the Cruiser Regensburg, the Sailing-Tender Niobe, the Minesweeper M-90, as Watch-Officer on the Torpedo-Boat G-10, Watch-Officer on the Survey-Ship Meteor, Watch-Officer on the Sailing Training Ship Niobe, Roll-Officer on the Cruiser Königsberg, Commander of the Torpedo-Boat G-11, Officer on the Sailing Yachts Asta and Jutta and with the Construction-Indoctrination Gorch Fock at the Blohm & Voss shipyard, Hamburg.
He was First Officer on the Sail Training Ship Gorch Fock, Navigations Officer on the Cruiser Nürnberg and Commander of the Sail Training Ship Horst Wessel, before being detached to the Kriegsmarine Service Office in Hamburg, in September 1939.
Appointed Commander of the Auxiliary Cruiser Schiff 36, on December 9 1939, at the age of thirty-nine, he christened her Orion.
A short, wiry, athletic man, with a snappy manner and a good sense of humour, Kurt Weyher was an energetic and popular commander.
For his exploits with Orion, an unbroken cruise of 510 days, during which she had steamed 127,337 miles, he was complimented by the Führer, awarded the Knight's Cross, and promoted to the rank of Konteradmiral (Rear-Admiral).
On his being awarded the Knight's Cross, he simply said, "We did our duty”
He was placed at the Disposal of the Commanding Admiral of the Naval Station of the Baltic Sea in August 1941, appointed First Admiral Staff Officer on the Staff of the Admiral ‘Aegean’ in November 1941, First Admiral Staff Officer with the Staff of Naval Group South, in April 1942, and Chief of German Naval Command ‘Constanta’, and Chief of the 10th Security Division and Escort Chief Black Sea in January 1944.
Commandant of Sea Fortifications Crete in June 1944, and Commandant of Sea Fortifications Ostfriesland, from November 1944 to July 1945.
In captivity from July 22 1945, he was released on June 6 1947.
With his salary blocked, because he had attained flag rank, he was forced to do menial jobs and work as a ship’s chandler to support his family.
In 1961 he embarked on a career as a political writer and lecturer, and subsequently devoted his time to a society for the study of military science.
He died in Wilhelmshaven on December 17 1991.
“I had the distinction of surrendering in one war as the Kaiser’s youngest cadet, and in another as Hitler’s youngest Admiral!”
Konteradmiral Kurt Weyher
|The Black Raider Kurt Weyher & Hans Jürgen Ehrlich|
|German Raiders of World War II August Karl Muggenthaler|
|Deutsche Hilfskreuzer des Zweiten Weltkriegs Zvonimir Freivogel|
|The Secret Raiders David Woodward|
|Hitler’s Secret Pirate Fleet James P. Duffy|
|German Raiders Paul Schmalenbach|
|Das Grosse Abenteuer - Deutsche Hilfskreuzer - Jochen Brennecke|
|All Brave Sailors J Revell Carr (2004)|
|Notes on the Ships Captured or Sunk by Hilfskreuzer Orion - 7 April 1940 30 August 1941|
On April 16, while on her way to her designated operational area of the eastern Indian Ocean, Weyher was asked by the SKL to remain in the North Atlantic in order to give the Allies the impression that a ‘Pocket Battleship’ was at large there, and to proceed to his original operational area only after successfully drawing attention to himself.
On April 24, began what was to become the first success of the war for the German merchant raiders, when Orion’s lookouts spotted this 5.207-ton armed British freighter, in ballast from Glasgow to Corpus Christi , Texas , to pick up scrap metal for British steel mills, on a converging course. Passing astern of the freighter so as not to alarm her, the raider then turned and followed, and having fired a warning shot from a 75 mm gun, Weyher signalled to her to stop and to maintain radio silence. When the British failed to comply with these orders, refusing to stop and sending an RRR signal, Orion opened fire, putting the freighter’s stern guns out of action almost immediately. The raider continued shelling the freighter for six minutes, until boats were seen being lowered as her crew prepared to abandon ship. Her captain and twenty-three men were rescued, but seventeen men lost their lives.
Although burning in several places, and sending a gigantic pall of black smoke that could be seen for twenty or thirty miles, high into the air, the Haxby refused to sink.
The shells that had pierced the her hull had become imbedded in the ballast sand and exploded with little effect, the sand then serving to plug the holes in her side.
Fearing that an enemy warship would spot the smoke and decide to investigate, Weyher reluctantly decided to use one of his valuable torpedoes to finish off the dying ship, the explosion cutting her clean in half, and sending her to the bottom.
Unsure as to whether Haxby’s calls, which strangely, had identified her attacker as ‘a warship’, had been picked up, Weyher ordered his radiomen to send distress calls in garbled merchant code, describing an attack by a ‘Pocket Battleship’, and then, believing his task for SKL to be done, sailed south to rendezvous with the former World War One, Royal Navy tanker Winnetou. This ancient, barnacle-encrusted vessel, under Captain Fritz Steinkrauss, replenished Orion on May 14, with over two hundred men required to pass the line between the two ships in high winds and increasingly rising seas, after which she was dispatched to the South Pacific to await further instructions.
Consuming an average of forty tons of oil per day, for engines that had to be kept going all the time, as opposed to the seven to nine tons a motor-ship would use, brought it home to Weyher how unsuitable his ship was, compared to a diesel-powered vessel, which could stop, start and speed up at will.
The geared steam turbines that had first driven the 22.000-ton trans-Atlantic liner New York , and then the Kurmark for a further ten years, were not up to the rigours of endless, no-time-in-port steaming, and so, were ill suited for a raider.
Having rounded Cape Horn on May 21, Orion's crew spent several days affecting the first of the hundreds of engine repairs that were to plague the ship throughout her cruise, before heading across the Pacific. New orders from the SKL had specified that Weyher operate off the coasts of Australia and New Zealand , meet a supply ship in the Caroline Islands, and then proceed to the Indian Ocean, and on to the Atlantic.
On the night of June 13/14, Orion laid 228 moored mines in three fields in the eastern and northern approaches to the Hauraki Gulf, off Auckland, which, five nights later, on June 18/19, sank the 13.415-ton Canadian-Australasian Royal Mail passenger liner RMS Niagara, bound from Auckland to Vancouver, with one hundred and thirty-six passengers, a crew of two hundred and carrying nearly eight tons of gold ingots, valued at £2,5 million, in her strong-room, most of which was salvaged in 1941, and a shipment of small-arms ammunition, being sent to England to make good the shortage since the evacuation at Dunkirk. On May 14 1941, the 927-ton converted coaster / minesweeper, HMNZS Puriri, sank with the loss of five lives while engaged in sweeping one of the mines that had become entangled in the nets of a fishing boat.
Having rendezvoused with the Winnetou, on June 17, the raider’s Arado 196 seaplane capsized in heavy seas and was further damaged while being hoisted inboard.Note:
The claims by several sources that the freighters Port Bowen and Baltannic were also victims of the Orion’s mines, seem, on examination of the records now available, to be unsubstantiated. (Thanks to Neill Atkinson, Wellington, New Zealand)
This 5,781-ton Norwegian freighter, with a crew of forty-eight, and a cargo of 8.100 tons of Australian wheat, bound ‘from Sydney to the United States’, surrendered without a fight on June 19.
When it transpired that she was in fact under charter to the British Ministry of Food, and that the cargo’s final destination was Britain, she was taken as a prize.
Re-named Kurmark, she was sent to Bordeaux under the command of Winnetou’s former captain, and now provisional Naval Reserve Leutnant zur See, Fritz Steinkrauss, and a prize crew, with fifty-five prisoners.
In early September, almost within sight of her destination, she was spotted and stopped off Bilbao, by the British submarine HMS Truant - the same boat that had crippled the light cruiser Karlsruhe off Norway on April 9 - and was scuttled by her crew. Leutnant Steinkrauss, having managed to get ashore in Spain with his crew, later crossed Russia by the Trans-Siberian Railway to Japan, to join the Ole Jakob, as captain.
Having met with Winnetou a few days later, Orion spent fruitless days plying the shipping routes, before one final rendezvous with the tanker on August 7, after which the rusty worn-out old ship was sent to Japan.
Having seen the British Phosphates Commissioner’s fast 4.413-ton ship Triona escape before an attack could be launched off Brisbane on August 10, a large part of August 14 was spent searching for the Arado, which had been forced to ditch in the sea with fuel pump problems.
When, after five hours, it was finally located, the crew reported that there were three ships tied up at Noumea.
This small 2.489-ton New Caledonian collier, with 3.600 tons of coal from Newcastle, New South Wales, that was to be traded in Australia for nickel, fell into Weyher’s hands at dusk off Noumea on August 16.
Signalling to her to stop and maintain radio silence, one warning shot fired across her bows, brought her to a halt. Her crew were taken on board, and she was blown up with demolition charges.
On August 20, having received fresh orders from the SKL to re-fuel once more in the Pacific, and then to return home via the Indian Ocean, this 9,691-ton New Zealand Shipping Company’s refrigerated freighter, en route for Wellington, with a crew of fifty-seven, carrying 4.000 tons of lead, 1.500 tons of grain, 7.000 tons of wool, fruit and piece goods, appeared out of a rain squall between the Cook Strait and Sydney, and was ordered to stop.
This she refused to do, sending a warning signal, giving her name and position, and turning her stern to the raider.
The Orion opened fire, and the freighter returned fire, but within a few minutes she had been hit four times, including the bridge, and a fire had started amidships.
Throughout all this, her stern gun had continued to return fire, albeit with little success, and it was only after several more direct hits, that its rate of fire slackened, and with the ship visibly slowing down, finally ceased altogether.
For several minutes the two ships lay close together, with the Orion’s crew preparing to lend assistance as they watched their victim burning. As she slowly settled in the water, the Turakina’s gunners suddenly opened fire again, prompting a swift and lethal response from Weyher, who had her finished off with gunfire and two torpedoes.
She sank slowly on an even keel, burning fiercely, the flames reflecting in the water and mounting high into the night sky like a huge torch, which could be seen for miles, as her survivors struggled in the heavy seas.
Unable to use boats to rescue them, the Germans lowered rubber dinghies and managed, over six hours, during which they could have been making good their escape, to pick up twenty-one men, seven of whom were wounded.
Having been replenished by, the supply ship Regensburg at Ailinglap in the Marshall Islands on October 10, Orion, now nicknamed ‘The Black Raider’ by the New Zealand press, left two days later, with the supply ship, for her SKL designated meeting with HK Komet at Lamotrek in the Caroline Islands.
On October 14, Orion crept up on this 7.203-ton Norwegian freighter in the pre-dawn hours, and having morsed her to stop, sent two warning shots across her bows, stopping, and capturing her, without a fight.
Travelling in ballast from Shanghai to Ocean Island, under orders from the Norwegian government in exile in London, to pick up a cargo of phosphate for Bermuda or Halifax, and offering no resistance, thinking the approaching ship was a British warship, her captain was stunned when he realised that the boarding party being helped aboard his ship was German. Her 35-man crew were taken on board, and she was sunk by demolition charges.
On October 18, the Orion, and the supply ship Regensburg , both disguised as Japanese vessels, finally met up with the raider Komet and the tanker Kulmerland at Lamotrek lagoon.
Having had to deal with a Japanese liner full of camera-toting passengers, and a Japanese government ship asking questions about all these ‘Japanese’ ships, two of which, the Regensburg and the Kulmerland, were using the same name, Tokyo Maru, the four ships left the lagoon on October 20, with the Regensburg immediately returning to Japan to re-stock with supplies.
Sailing with the tanker Kulmerland, the two raiders cruised the Panama - New Zealand sea routes with no success, until finally, on November 24, they deciding to attack the phosphate and copra producing island of Nauru.
On November 25, Komet found her first victim, this tiny 546-ton New Zealand coaster with twenty-nine passengers and crew, taking a cargo of 1.370 sheep and wool from Chatham Island to Lyttelton.
Eyssen and Weyher discussed the possibility of using the coaster as an auxiliary minelayer, but rejected the idea, as her maximum speed was a mere 9 knots.
Her 17-man crew, twelve passengers, and as many of the sheep as could be accommodated, were taken on board the three German ships, and the little coaster was scuttled with demolition charges.
At 3 a.m. on November 27, a large ship, running without lights, was sighted by the Orion’s lookouts. On being informed, the Komet circled around in order to catch the vessel between the two raiders.
She was the 16.710-ton passenger liner Rangitane, on her way from
Unusually heavily armed, and with an armoured bridge, she had a 126 mm and a 76,2 mm mounted on her stern, as well as several light anti-aircraft guns mounted on the wings of the bridge, and a depth charge launcher. Despite all of this, and her undoubtedly superior speed, her captain made no serious effort to escape the raider’s trap, or to defend his ship in any way. Ordered to stop, and to cease all radio transmissions, the liner was transfixed in the mist between the two raiders, clearly silhouetted by Orion’s powerful searchlights, giving Komet’s gunners an easy task when ordered to open fire. Orion’s gunners immediately followed suit, but were hampered by their own searchlight beams reflecting back off the heavy mist. Having refused to cease transmitting, and now reporting that she was being attacked by two German warships, the burning liner vainly attempted to turn away, but, firmly boxed in by the raiders, and with her radio mast shot away, she surrendered, precipitating a frantic scramble, as boarding parties from all three German ships literally raced each other to be the first to claim the ship, the largest vessel ever taken by a raider, as a prize.
Rangitane’s distress signals had been picked up by Australian and New Zealand naval units, and it quickly became clear that both warships and aircraft were rushing to the scene, so, unfortunately for the German crews, there was only time to transfer the passengers and crew before the slowly sinking liner and her valuable and tempting cargo was sent to the bottom by a torpedo from Komet.
Three people had lost their lives in the action. Some of the prisoners were transferred to Kulmerland, which now had 39 women and 5 children on board, while military ex-passengers and ships companies were transferred from the supply ship and Orion, to the relative comforts of Komet.
Leaving the scene as quickly as possible, the raiders headed north to attack the shipping around the island of Nauru, a former German possession that had been lost to the British during World War One, and that was rich in phosphate, exporting between 700.000 and 800.000 tons of it annually.
On December 6, having decided to land a raiding party with 310 prisoners on the island, the squadron ran across this 4,410-ton freighter carrying a cargo of foodstuffs and piece goods from Melbourne and Newcastle to Nauru and Ocean Island, that had escaped the Orion four months previously, and finally cornered her after a chase that lasted over nine hours, during which three of her 64-man crew were killed. Among the 68 survivors picked up were six women and a child.
Komet having departed, the freighter was torpedoed and sunk by Orion.
|The next day, December 7, as Komet led the squadron in towards the island, where two ships were found lying offshore waiting to load under the giant cantilevered loading platforms, a third vessel appeared, and was immediately shelled and stopped, without being able to send a distress signal. She was the 5,180-ton Norwegian motor vessel Vinni, in ballast for
Having conferred for two hours early on December 8, Weyher and Eyssen took their ships in opposite directions around the island, the Komet to the north, the Orion to the south, where this 6.378-ton British freighter, also in ballast, was approached at first light, and ordered to stop.
Her captain immediately ordered all his running lights switched off, turned away, and tried to escape. It was only after the Orion’s gunners had opened fire, killing one man, shooting away the freighter’s radio aerials and crippling her steering gear, that he stopped, dumped his papers and lowered his lifeboats.
Taking no time to pick up survivors, as he’d spotted another ship to eastward, Weyher ordered Kulmerland to do so. Eyssen, having observed the action, and not wishing to become embroiled in it, rounded the island once more and returned to pick up one of the Triadic’s boats, leaving the other to Kulmerland, after which the freighter was scuttled.
Having sorted out the Triadic’s boats, and taken some verbal abuse from her First Officer, Eyssen ran this 3.900-ton British freighter down, signalling to her to heave to.
Unable to decipher the Komet’s signal, her captain ordered full speed, and tried desperately to escape.
Full speed was not enough to shake off the raider, whose guns silenced his radio, blew his First Officer to pieces along with the port wing of the bridge, and mortally wounded his Second Officer.
Her crew having been taken on board the raider, the Komata was scuttled.
Having left the Triadic’s boats to the Kulmerland and the Komet, Weyher, stopped this 6.032-ton British freighter in ballast, and preventing her from raising the alarm, took her captain and his 63-man crew on board, and sank her with scuttling charges.
This concluded a very successful forty-eight hours, during which five ships had been sunk, totalling 26.000 tons, and over one hundred and sixty prisoners taken, bringing the total number aboard the three German ships to over six hundred and seventy-five, of whom fifty-two were women, and eight were children.
Some of these, and a number of ‘coloured’ crewmen having been set ashore on Emirau Island, from where they were rescued by the British soon afterwards, Orion retired to Lamotrek, where she arrived on New Years Eve.
After 268 days at sea, the raider was in urgent need of a thorough refit, and so, while waiting for the tanker Ermland to arrive with fuel from Japan, it was decided that this would be best carried out 800 miles to the north at Maug, as both Ailinglap and Lamotrek were now deemed to be compromised as secret bases due to the prisoners early rescue.
As the Ermland also had a large number of prisoners on board, she had to remain apart from Orion as the raider changed her disguise. The rendezvous with the supply ship, and the Ole Jacob, finally took place as Orion took on the much-needed oil, and a Japanese Nakajima E8N-1 seaplane.
The Ermland then departed for Europe, reaching Bordeaux on April 13, having collected the Admiral Scheer’s prisoners from the Nordmark on the way.
Continuing on her way with the Ole Jacob, the Orion was severely damaged on February 20, as the two ships ran into a hurricane south of the Solomon Islands.
On July 1, she met fellow raider Atlantis and re-fuelled for the last time from the tanker Anneliese Essberger.
The Orion’s final victim was this 5.792-ton British freighter, in ballast and en route to Buenos Aires on July 29, nearly eight months since her last success.
At first, the freighter ignored the Orion’s warnings, but then began to send sending distress signals saying she was being attacked, opening fire with her 40mm Bofors gun as the raider approached, doing some minor damage. Her 48-man crew finally abandoned their sinking ship, and were taken on board.
It took several torpedoes and over 400 rounds of 150mm ammunition to sink her.
|Aftermath - Fate of the Hilfskreuzer Orion|
Having rendezvoused with two escort U-Boats west of the Azores on August 16, Orion crossed the Bay of Biscay disguised as the Spanish Contramestre Casado.
With the submarines now joined by aircraft, destroyers and minesweepers, she entered the Gironde with her battle flag flying, arriving in Bordeaux on August 23, and receiving a raucous welcome from her old comrades Ermland, Regensburg and Ole Jacob, and ending a voyage of 127.337 miles in 510 days.
As there was no question of a ship with such unreliable engines being sent out on the high seas again, most of her armament and special equipment was removed for further use on the ships then being prepared for the second wave of raiders.
Decommissioned and taken out of service in August she was laid up as a repair ship until January 1944. when she was re-named Hektor, and re-entered service as a gunnery training ship under Korvetten Kapitän Meyer.
In October of that year she was installed as a fleet training vessel under Korvetten Kapitän Kiesewetter, and later under Kapitän zur See Asmus, under whose command in January 1945, she was re-named Orion, and once again designated as a Hilfskreuzer, seeing out her remaining days engaged in the desperate evacuation of wounded military personnel and terrified civilians fleeing from the Russians in Eastern Baltic.
On May 4 1945, bound for Copenhagen she was sunk by a Russian bomber off Swinemünde. Only one hundred and fifty of the almost four thousand people on board survived.
The hulk was scrapped in 1952.
|Orion - War Records from 07-04-1940 to 30-08-1941|
|7||Rangitane (With Komet)||Passenger Liner||United Kingdom||27-11-1940||*8.356||Sunk|
|8||Triona (With Komet)||Freighter||United Kingdom||06-12-1940||*2.207||Sunk|
|Ships Sunk by Mines|
|2||Niagara||Passenger Liner||United Kingdom||18-06-1940||13.415||Sunk|
|11||HMNZS Puriri||Auxiliary Minesweeper||New Zealand||14-05-1941||927||Sunk|
|1||Sunk by gunfire and a torpedo. 40 prisoners. Meeting with Winnetou. Mining of the port of Auckland, New Zealand.|
|2||Valuable cargo. Sent to Bordeaux with Haxby’s crew. Torpedoed and sunk off Bilbao by HMS Truant.|
|3||Sunk by explosive charges.|
|4||Sunk by gunfire and torpedoes. 38 killed. 19 survivors taken on board. Orion is nicknamed ‘The Black Raider’ by the Australian press. Meeting with supply ship Regensburg at Ailinglap Atoll in the Marshall Islands.|
|5||Sunk by explosive charges. Meeting with Regensburg, Kulmerland and HK Komet at Lamotrek Atoll in the Caroline Islands. Regensburg dispatched to Japan with the prisoners.|
|6||Sunk by gunfire after several torpedoes failed to do so. Orion arrives safely at Bordeaux disguised as the Spanish Contramaestre Casado.|
|7||Mined off Auckland.|
|8||Mined off Auckland.|
|09||Operating with HK Komet. Sunk by gunfire from Komet. 29 prisoners and over 200 sheep taken on board, leading to a drastic change of diet on Orion, Komet and Kulmerland!|
|10||Sunk by gunfire. 310 prisoners, including 36 women. Only one dead. Some days later 310 prisoners are landed at Nauru in the Solomon Islands.|
|11||Sunk by gunfire and torpedoes.|
|12||Sunk by explosive charges.|
|Alfonso Arenas, Spain||Got the idea and founded the Hilfskreuzer section.|
|Jonathan Ryan, Ireland||Creator of the Hilfskreuzer section, as it is today, based on his knowledge and private archive.|
|Hilfskreuzer (Auxiliary Cruiser / Raider)|
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