Hilfskreuzer

HK Thor

Hilfskreuzer (Auxiliary Cruiser) Thor
General Details
Nationality German
Type Hilfskreuzer (Raider)
Ship Number 10
HSK Number IV
British Admiralty Letter E
Builder Deutsche Werft AG Hamburg-Finkenwärder, converted by Deutsche Werft AG
Launched 1938
Previous Owner Oldenburg-Portuguesische Dampfschiffahrts Gesellschaft
Previous Name Santa Cruz (banana boat)
Additional Information Deutsche Werft AG also built Thor's (Santa Cruz's) sistership called Gran Canaria.

One of the smallest of the raiders, only Komet was smaller, Thor had to fight three British Armed Merchant Cruisers during her successful first tour, severely damaging the first two, putting them out of action, and sinking the third.

General Cruise Details (1. Cruise)
Commander (1. cruise) Kapitän zur See (Captain) Otto Kähler (Knights Cross with Oak Leaves)
Sail date (1. cruise) 6 June 1940
End cruise (1. cruise) 30 April 1941
Fate (1. cruise) Safely returned to Germany
Performance (1. Cruise)
Ships Sunk or Captured 12
Tonnage Sunk 96.547
Days at Sea 328
Tons/Day (average) 294,35
General Cruise Details (2. Cruise)
Commander (2. cruise) Kapitän sur See Günther Gumprich (Ritterkreuz)
Sail date (2. cruise) 30 November 1941
End cruise (2. cruise) 9 October 1942
Fate (2. cruise) Destroyed by fire in Yokohama harbour, Japan on 30 November 1942 by a series of accidental explosions on the German tanker/supply ship Uckermark, which was moored alongside her.
Performance (2. Cruise)
Ships Sunk or Captured 10
Tonnage Sunk 58.644
Days at Sea 314
Tons/Day (average) 177,03
Displacement
Displacement 3.862 tons
Dimensions
Length 122 metres
Beam 16,7 metres
Weapons
Main Battery 6 x 155 mm
Secondary Battery 2 x 37 mm
Torpedo Tubes 4
Mines None
Aircraft
Aircraft 1 Arado Ar 196
Small boats
Schnellboot None
Propulsion
Engine Type Oil-fired steam turbine (AEG)
Horsepower 6.500
Endurance 40.000 nautical miles
Speed 17 knots
Fuel Type Oil
Complement
Wartime 349

Hilfskreuzer (Auxiliary Cruiser / Raider) Thor
The History

Launched at the Deutsche Werft A.G.Hamburg, for the Oldenburg-Portuguesische Dampfschiffahrts Gesellschaft, on March 16 1938, the 3,862-ton freighter Santa Cruz was intended to be a banana boat.

122m long, 16.7m at the beam, powered by AEG oil-fired steam-turbine engines producing 6,500 horse-power, driving a single shaft, for a top speed of 18 knots, she had a range of 40,000 miles at an economical speed of 10 knots.

Designated as Schiff 10, and classified as a Leichter Hilfskreuzer, she was converted into HSK IV by the Deutsche Werft A.G. in Hamburg-Finkenwerder between the spring of 1939 and early 1940, where she was armed with six 150mm L/45 C/13 guns, one 60mm L/18 gun, two 37mm L/83 C/30 anti-aircraft guns, four 20mm L/65 C/30 anti-aircraft guns and four 53.3cm torpedo tubes in twin mountings, and supplied with one Arado Ar-196 A-1 seaplane.

The second smallest of the raiders, with only the Komet smaller, and the only one to complete two successful cruises, following conversion, her top speed had been reduced to 17 knots and her range to 36,000 miles at speeds up to 12 knots.

She was destroyed in Yokohama harbour on 30 November 1942, by a series of explosions on the supply tanker Uckermark, which was moored alongside her.

Appointed to command Schiff 10, the HSK IV, forty-five year-old Kapitän zur See Otto Kähler first set foot on her decks on October 9 1939, in the Blohm & Voss shipyards, and commissioned her into naval service on March 15 1940.

A World War One U-Boat man, and an outstanding navigator and seaman, the former Navigation Officer on the cruiser Karlsruhe and the captain of the sail training ships Albert Leo Schlageter and Gorch Fock, presided over the conversion of the Santa Cruz  into a fighting ship and the selection of her fifteen Officers, four Prize Officers and three hundred and twenty-six Petty Officers and men.

Entering service as the auxiliary minesweeper, Sperrbrecher 26, the HSK IV completed her preliminary sea-trials and gunnery exercises off the Elbe estuary, before heading for the naval base at Kiel, where the serious work began.

In a series of rigourous sea trials, carried out over the following weeks, every aspect of the ship’s performance and capability was tested.

Her manoeuverability, stability, reliability, main armament and anti-aircraft weapons were tested and their crews worked up to operational efficiency.

Torpedo and mine-laying practice, aircraft launch and recovery practice, searchlight practice, everything was rehearsed and re-rehearsed until her new commander felt she was ready.

On June 6, Kähler informed his 345-man crew that he had received his orders to commence operations as an Auxiliary Cruiser, and that henceforward their ship would be named after the Nordic God Thor, the ‘Donnergott’, with the hammer.

Leaving Kieler Förde under the cover of bad weather that same day, ‘Sperrbrecher 26’ headed north, through the Great Belt, the Kattegat and Skaggerak, escorted by Sperrbrecher IV, (Kptn z. S. Drevin) and two torpedo boats, the 933-ton Jaguar and the 924-ton Falke, and Luftwaffe air cover.

With the torpedo boats replaced by the 717-ton minesweepers  M2 and M6, all the way up the coast of Norway the weather was atrocious, perfect conditions for a raider attempting to break out through the British blockade.

Arriving at Bergen on June 8, Thor was released into the custody of the submarine-chasers A,C and D, for the journey into Sörgulen Fjord, where, on June 9, the task of transforming the nondescript ‘naval auxiliary’ into the non-existant ‘Russian’ freighter Orsk, began, in which she received a black hull and funnel and a bright red flag with a golden hammer and sickle.

With the work complete and the weather perfect, drizzle and dense fog, the minesweepers escorted her out to sea on June 11, and bid her farewell.

The next day however, the weather cleared, and in the perfect visibility, the ‘Orsk’ was spotted and overflown by several aircraft, including a German one.

Reaching the open waters of the North Atlantic on June 16, she headed south towards the Azores, where the presence of a Russian ship would be likely to give rise to suspicion, she changed her disguise, becoming another non-existant ship, the ‘Yugoslav’ Vir, from the port of Split, en route from Liverpool to Brazil.

When a ship was spotted with her name painted out, on July 1, just west of the Cape Verde Islands, a single warning shot across the bows brought her to a stop without the alarm being raised.

Her Captain, who’d thought the raider was Dutch, when in fact she was German, posing as a Yugoslav, had felt it wiser not to engage the heavily-armed vessel with his main armament of two revolvers.

The boarding party, under Leutnant-zur-See Werner Sander, reported that she was the 9,289-ton Dutch Koninklijke Rotterdamsche Lloyd freighter Kertosono, on her way from New Orleans to Curacao via Freetown with a cargo of petrol, asphalt, timber and agricultural machinery consigned to British ports, with a crew of fifty-nine, and nine passengers, including four women and a baby.

On being told by Sander that, as the Kertosono was such a fine ship, she was being sent to France as a prize, and that they would be well treated, the fifteen Chinese crewmen, who had apparently tried to jump ship in New York, shouted ‘Heil Hitler!, Heil Hitler!, Heil Hitler!

As Leutnant Sander seemed to inspire such natural, not to mention political, loyalty in the crew, Kähler had decided to send her with a prize crew, under his command, to the French port of Lorient, where she arrived twelve days later.

* Employed as a U-Boat depot-ship, she was sunk in 1943.

Crossing the Equator on July 6, ‘King Neptune’, ‘Admiral Triton’ and their guard of honour were welcomed on board and enjoyed all the traditional ceremonies and initiation rituals that such a visitation entails.

Smoke was spotted on the horizon at noon on the following day.

As Thor approached, the stranger, undoubtedly a British vessel because of the single 4-inch deck-gun clearly visible on her stern, immediately increased speed, turned away and tried to escape.

Following a two-hour chase, Kähler ordered his gunners to open fire on her from 8,000 metres with a full broadside.

Hit by the third salvo, she hove to, and he ordered his gunners to cease fire.

She had used neither her radio nor her gun.

The raider’s boarding party, under Leutnant-zur-See Meckmann, reported that she was the 7,032-ton British Lamport & Holt line freighter Delambre, under charter to the British Admiralty.

En route from Rio de Janeiro to Freetown and Liverpool, with a cargo of cotton, cotton seed and hides, she was carrying a crew of forty-four and one passenger, a film actor named Mollinson.

Having taken them all on board, the Delambre was scuttled.

When Kähler later asked her skipper, Captain Pratt, who had had another ship, also called the Delambre, captured by the German raider SMS Möwe during the First World War, why he had not used either his deck gun or his wireless, he received some good news and some bad news.

Pleased to hear that Pratt had taken Thor for a British ship, he was taken aback to hear that the Englishman hadn’t for one moment considered that ‘such a midget’ could possibly be a German raider.

When a shot across the bows initially failed to stop another ship that came into view, two days later, on July 9, two more were fired over her bridge, bringing her to a halt, without her raising the alarm.

The boarding party, under Oberleutnant zur See Nico Meyer, reported that the 4,983-ton Belgian Armement Deppe S.S freighter Bruges, was carrying a cargo of 6,746 tons of wheat from Necochea and Mar del Plata to St.Vincent and Freetown under charter to the British Admiralty.

Formerly the Kybfels, of the Deutsche Dampfschiffahrts-Gesellschaft Hansa line, captured by the British in 1914, she was scuttled with demolition charges, and her crew of forty-four, plus a brown Brazilian pig, were taken on board the raider, bringing the number of prisoners on board to ninety.

A shot across the bow on July 14, off the coast of Brazil, brought Thor’s next victim to an immediate halt, again without the alarm being raised.

the boarding party, under Leutnant Meyer, identified the ship as the 4,631-ton Confield Steamship Company freighter Gracefield, carrying 7,430 tons of wheat and bran from Montevideo to Freetown and London, under charter to the British Ministry of Food, and carrying a crew of thirty-six.

As the oncoming darkness hindered their transfer to the raider and delayed the delivery of the scuttling charges, Kähler was becoming anxious about attracting attention by setting off a ‘fireworks display’ in a busy sea-lane, and decided to use a torpedo to sink her.

After the first torpedo struck the Gracefield but did not sink her, and the second one went wildly off course and missed completely, circling around the ship, she had to be sunk by gunfire.

Two days later, on July 16, a vessel was sighted producing a lot of black smoke, which enabled Kähler to approach her unseen from directly astern.

In doing so, it was noticed that she was armed, with two guns mounted aft, so in order to avoid an unnecessary gun battle, she was attacked without warning from behind with several salvos, registering one hit on her stern, setting it on fire.

Her radio operator immediately began transmitting a QQQQ Raider Attack signal, and a man was seen running towards the stern guns, presumably intent on using one of them, leaving Kähler with no option but to continue firing.

This time, as the 155mm salvo scored a direct hit on the vessel’s radio shack, and started several fires, her captain, realising that it was futile to try to resist or escape, brought his ship to a halt and ordered his crew to abandon ship.

The boarding party, under Leutnant zur See Schlüter, reported that she was the 5,489-ton British Steamship Company freighter Wendover, carrying 7,250 tons of coal from Britain to Buenos Aires, and that two members of her crew were dead, one of them being the radio operator.

The thirty-eight surviving members of her crew, including two badly wounded, who later died, despite the efforts of Thor’s doctors and medical staff, were picked up and taken on board the raider.

The demolition charges set by Schlüter’s party simply caused the freighter to capsize and float upside down, so she had to be finished off by gunfire.

As was customary on all raiders, the dead seamen were later buried at sea with full military honours, their bodies covered by the British flag.

Fortunate in having only had to open fire on one of his first five victims, Kähler’s good luck returned the following day, when a shot across the bows immediately brought a small freighter to a halt, without her sending any distress signals.

Identified by Schlüter as the 3,777-ton Dutch Vrachtvaart Maatschappij freighter, Tela, carrying 5,451 tons of wheat, maize and millet from Rosario to the UK via Freetown, she was also found to be carrying a large quantity of live poultry, as well as frozen turkeys, chickens and ducks.

Having taken her crew of thirty-three on board, and liberally replenished their larder from this massive foodstore, the freighter was sunk by demolition charges.

In seventeen days, Kähler’s Thor had captured one and sunk five Allied ships, totalling over 35,200 tons, and now had 194 prisoners on board to feed.

On board the Tela, details were discovered of ‘Route 271’, on which Thor’s last four victims had been found, leading Kähler to decide to remain in the same sea area off the coast of Brazil for ten further days, with both crew and prisoners settling into a peaceful routine, but without any further successes.

On the eleventh day, July 28, all that changed, when his lookouts spotted a large ship approaching fast, which turned out to be the 22,209-ton Armed Merchant-Cruiser, HMS Alcantara, the former Royal Mail liner, armed with eight 6-inch and two 3-inch guns, and travelling at a speed of 19 knots.

With the range down to 28,000 metres, but under orders not to engage enemy warships, Kähler turned away at top speed, further arousing the suspicions of the enemy captain, J.G Ingham, and for three hours tried in vain to outrun him.

As the Alcantara was the faster of the two ships, Kähler knew that his best hope of escaping lay in inflicting sufficient damage on her to slow her down.

At about midday, with the range down to about 15,000 metres, and the British requesting the identity of his ship, he slowed Thor down to fifteen knots, to allow his gun crews to operate more accurately, and by way of reply, turned suddenly hard to starboard, ran up his battle flag, crossed the cruiser’s bows and opened fire with a full four-gun broadside, straddling her with the third salvo.

As the British vessel also turned, to bring her own full broadside to bear, the German gunners, with the afternoon sun directly behind them, had a major advantage over their British counterparts, and immediately registered two hits, one between the bridge and the funnel and one aft, and, with the third salvo, scored a hit on the waterline at the forward end of the engine-room, causing flooding that significantly reduced the cruiser‘s speed.

When a further salvo put the Alcantara’s fire-control system out of action, the British gunners were still further handicapped.

Eight minutes into the action, realising that he now had the advantage of speed over his adversary, Kähler altered course to steam away from her, but immediately sustained two hits from her 6-inch guns, killing three of his men.

Altering course again, he brought Thor dead ahead and stern-on to the cruiser to present her gunners with the smallest possible target.

The incapacitated Alcantara was now visibly slowing and was completely hidden behind swathes of steam and smoke, as Kähler ceased fire, before turning to bring his ship out of its own smoke-screen and opening fire once more.

As the risk of sustaining the one unlucky hit that could end his cruise, prevented him from closing to finish off the almost stationary cruiser, after a four and a half hour battle, during which he had fired 284 shells from his 150mm guns, he broke off the engagement, and departed under a smokescreen.

The Alcantara, scarred, holed and listing, eventually managed to get moving again, and limped away to seek refuge at Rio de Janeiro.

First burying his dead, Kähler then took Thor south, turning eastwards on July 30 into the quieter waters to the north of Tristan de Cunha to carry out repairs.

He had Thor’s disguise changed again on August 2, and spent twelve days having her boilers cleaned, before heading north to keep his rendezvous with the supply ship Rekum on August 26, prior to heading back into Brazilian waters.

Back in familiar hunting grounds on September 8, Thor stopped and searched the 5,283-ton Yugoslav Dubrovacka Plovidba A.D. freighter, Federiko Glavic, which was bound for Brazil, but allowed her to proceed, as she was a neutral and was not carrying any enemy war materiel.

This was the only diversion in over a month, and was followed by two and a half further weeks without incident, until on September 26, the crew of the seaplane, which had been used as often as the weather permitted, spotted a large vessel.

After a couple of shots across the bow brought her to a halt, she was identified as the 17,801-ton Norwegian Hvalsfangerselskapet Kosmos A/S whale-oil tanker Kosmos III, en route to Curacao from Walvis Bay, carrying  17,662 tons of whale oil and a crew of eighty-nine.                                                                              

This would have been a very valuable prize but for the fact that she was slow, short of fuel, due in Curacao in a short time, and, with twin funnels, distinctive in appearance and impossible to disguise.

Her failure to arrive at her port of destination would have been certain to stir up a hornet’s nest of British naval activity as they searched for her.

Much to the subsequent annoyance of the SKL, Kähler had her sunk by gunfire.

On October 8, operating within the Pan American Neutrality Zone, and following another 12-day boiler cleaning session, Thor’s lookouts spotted a large vessel heading towards South America.

When challenged, she turned and put on speed in an attempt to escape while her radio operator transmitted distress calls.

Pursuing the ship for over an hour Thor’s gunners opened fire from a range of 9,000 metres, scoring an immediate hit, and then ceased fire.

Despite the ceasefire, the freighter continued to use her wireless, and so, fire was resumed while the German operators continued to try to jam the signals.

After 175 rounds of 150mm had been fired, registering at least four hits, the freighter’s captain, J.W.Carr*, realising that it was pointless trying to escape, stopped his ship and ordered his crew to lower the boats.

* Captain Carr and Otto Kähler became good friends after the war.

To save time, and because of the heavy seas, Kähler did not send a boat, choosing instead to have the survivors hauled on board from their lifeboats.

Identified as the 8,715-ton British Royal Mail refrigeration ship Natia, in ballast from London to Buenos Aires, with crew of eighty-five, one of whom had lost his life, the eighty-four survivors, including one man who would later succumb to his injuries on board the raider and be buried at sea, brought the total number of prisoners on Thor to three hundred and sixty-eight.

The prisoners now out-numbered their captors.

This, plus the urgent need to re-fuel, and the continuous failure of the raider’s boiler gauges, prompted Kähler to request a rendezvous with a supply-ship.

Anxious to leave the area as soon as possible because of all the signals sent by the Natia, a torpedo was fired at the stricken vessel which tore open her side from below the waterline to the upper deck amidships revealing the refrigeration spaces that were keeping her afloat.

It required a further 35 rounds to finally sink her.

In the four and a half weeks following the sinking of the Natia until the day of the rendezvous, Kähler searched for prey, but with no success.

On November 9, he transferred all but four of his prisoners onto the 6,062-ton blockade-runner Rio Grande, formerly of the Hamburg-Sudamerikanischer Dampfschiffahrtsgesellschaft, which had been held in Rio by the Brazilian authorities, but had managed to break out.

In order to avoid diplomatic complications with the Brazilian government, the Germans had re-named the ship and had her modified so that she would appear to be her own sister-ship, the 6,095-ton Belgrano, which was well known to the Allies, but which was at that time docked in a German port.

This was to give the impression that a supply-ship had been sent from Germany to replenish the raider and to transport her prisoners back to Europe.

The exceptions were the four British captains, who remained on board in case they might be tempted to provide leadership to the three hundred and sixty-four other prisoners in a bid for freedom on the lightly-armed supply-ship.

On November 16, their business concluded, the raider headed south, while the ‘Belgrano’ headed for France, reaching Bordeaux on December 13.

There followed a period of weeks during which life on board returned to normal, with just a handful of prisoners to care for and no action, but also during which signals were received from the SKL warning all German warships of the increased Allied naval vigilance and activity in the South Atlantic.

This welcome period of normality ended shortly after dawn on December 5, when  one of Thor’s lookouts spotted a large and powerful ship emerging from a bank of sea mist a mere four miles away.

Kähler almost immediately recognised the 20,122-ton Armed Merchant-Cruiser HMS Carnarvon Castle, the fastest liner on the pre-war South Africa route, now armed with eight 6-inch guns, two    3-inch and with a top speed of 19 knots.

Hoping to avoid her, Kähler altered course, and for a time seemed to be succeeding, as the liner disappeared astern, but she was soon seen to be following the raider and rapidly closing with her.

Being in command of the only German raider with three 150mm guns aft, Kähler decided to force the enemy into a stern chase, but once he’d been asked to identify his ship, ordered to stop, and then fired upon, he had no choice but to run up his battle flag, drop his disguise and return fire.

By the fourth salvo the German gunners had found their target, but aware that once again the enemy was the faster ship, Kähler altered course to turn the chase into a circular fight in order to bring his full broadside into play.

While intermittently laying down smoke, Thor fired off two torpedoes, both of which missed, but as she was still undamaged, she was in total control of the action, circling and firing, and registering some significant hits, much to the obvious delight of her commander, who could clearly see the havoc his grimy and exhausted gunners were wreaking on the large enemy ship.

Their guns however, obsolete even before the first World War, were no longer up to such sustained action, with the recoil systems malfunctioning due to overheating and the barrels going out of train, but that no longer mattered, for suddenly, to everyone’s astonishment, the Carnarvon Castle ceased firing, made smoke, turned, and made off at top speed.

Flushed with pride in his ship and his crew, Kähler also ceased firing.

With 593 rounds fired, only a third of his 150mm ammunition remained.

But his ship was completely undamaged, he had suffered no casualties, and he was free to go anywhere he wished at his top speed of 18 knots.

This he did, knowing that the Royal Navy would mount a massive hunt for the German raider that had now hammered two of its Armed Merchant Cruisers.

His battered opponent, limping into Montevideo harbour on December 7 with four dead, thirty-two wounded, and a ten degree list, had taken twenty-seven hits.

Granted an extension to the 24-hour period permitted to warships in neutral harbours, her riddled hull had to be repaired before she was deemed seaworthy.

* With plates salved from the sunken wreck of the ‘Pocket Battleship’ Admiral Graf Spee.

After so many days of endless searching without any further success, Kähler was ordered to rendezvous with the Admiral Graf Spee’s sister-ship, the heavy cruiser Admiral Scheer, at point ‘Andalusia’ in order to transfer a number of men to serve as prize-crews on the Norwegian whaling-fleet captured by the raider Pinguin.

On December 21, Thor rendezvoused with the 5,947-ton supply ship Eurofeld, (Kapitän Blessin)  and commenced re-fuelling the following day.

Joined on Christmas Day by the Admiral Scheer, Kähler and her commander, Kapitän-zur-See Theodor Krancke, briefly considered an SKL suggestion that they try hunting together, but rejected the idea due to the vast difference in their respective speeds, and Kähler’s view that Thor would simply become a tender and prison-ship for the cruiser!

The Scheer’s ‘floating delicatessen’, the 8,651-ton British refrigeration-ship Duquesa, captured on December 18, with her 3,500 tons of frozen meats and fifteen million eggs, arrived on December 27.

On January 6, Kähler once again met up with the Scheer and the Eurofeld, plus the 7,750-ton naval tanker Nordmark, and the Pinguin’s prize ship, the 8,998-ton former Norwegian tanker Storstad, at which time he transferred a prize-crew to the Scheer, for later use by the Pinguin’s captured whalers, and transferred the rest of his prisoners to the Nordmark.

January and February 1941 were spent in fruitless hunting, the monotony broken only by a change of disguise on January 26, when Thor took on the identity of yet another non-existant ship, the Yugoslavian freighter Brac, and meetings with the tanker Eurofeld on February 5, and the supply-ship Alsterufer on February 16, where Thor took 1,000 rounds of 155mm ammunition and a fresh supply of torpedoes on board.

On March 5, while repairs were being carried out on the raider’s port boiler, Kähler supervised the provisioning and re-fuelling of two of the Pinguin’s ten whale-catchers, the Star XXI and XXII, from the 9,323-ton tanker Spichern, the former Norwegian Krossfonn, captured by the Widder on June 26.

The next day two more, the Star XIX and XXIV were re-fuelled and manned by prize crews from Thor, followed on March 7 by the remaining catchers, Star XIV, XXII and XXIII, Pol VIII, Pol X and Torlyn, after which all ten set off for Europe.

All of them, bar two, the Star XIV and XXIV, which were forced to scuttle when intercepted by the British sloop HMS Scarborough, arrived in France on March 20.

Kähler re-fuelled from the tanker once more over March 8 and 9, before releasing her on her journey back to France, after which he spent two weeks spotting either neutral ships or nothing at all, until early on March 25, when smoke was sighted.

Turning towards it and increasing speed, the raider pursued what turned out to be a large, and clearly British, passenger-ship for almost an hour, until with the range at about 11,000 metres, her lookouts spotted Thor.

Changing course, making evasive manoeuvers and transmitting, first RRRR, then QQQQ, she identified herself as the 8,799-ton former Anchor Line passenger-ship Britannia, and made off at high speed under a thick oily smoke-screen.

With his battle ensign flying, the range down to 10,000 metres, and his radio operators frantically trying to jam the signals, Kähler’s gunners opened up, firing a total of 159 rounds at an elusive, fast moving and occasionally invisible target, which was also returning fire from her stern-mounted gun.

Having taken several hits, and set on fire, the liner finally slowed and stopped. Signalling that she was surrendering, Kähler ordered her captain to abandon ship.

The evacuation of the vessel was seen to develop into a pitched battle between her crew and her passengers, many of whom were R.A.F. and Royal Navy personnel, about access to the lifeboats.

When Kähler was satisfied that the crew of 200 and all of her 327 passengers, which included 12 women, had been fully evacuated, he had her sunk with sixteen 150mm rounds to the waterline.

She went down almost vertically, bow first, into a boiling oily sludge, under a column of smoke and flame rising hundreds of feet into the sky.

As Kähler was instructing his crew to prepare to bring the survivors on board, his radio operators intercepted a signal to the stricken liner from another British ship approaching at full speed from a little over a hundred miles away, promising to arrive and provide assistance within the next few hours.

Interpreting this signal as indicating that it had to be a warship approaching, he decided it would be far too dangerous to spend time rescuing the survivors.

Picking up one man, who had been swept overboard during the chase, and advising the SKL that there were now over 520 people adrift, and explaining his reason for leaving them, he reluctantly sailed away from the boats and rafts, confident that the approaching ship would find them and pick them up.

Tragically, he was wrong, for whatever ship it was that signalled it was coming to the rescue, failed to find the unfortunate souls huddled in splintered overcrowded lifeboats and clinging onto slippery rafts, and for whom life soon turned into a living nightmare, as starvation, thirst and sharks took their toll.

With seventy-nine of them being picked up by the Spanish ship Cabo de Hornos, on March 29, the Raranga rescuing sixty-seven, and a further fifty-one being picked up by another Spanish ship, the Bachi, by April 15, only one hundred and ninety-five survivors had been accounted for.

With others being picked up by different ships over the following days, one lifeboat turned up at Sao Luis, on the coast of Brazil, after a 23-day, 1,500-mile ordeal, with only 33 of the original 82 that had boarded her still alive.

Out of a total of 527, only 332 people survived the sinking of the Britannia.

* Zvonimir Freivogel states in Deutsche Hilfskreuzer des Zweiten Weltkriegs that only 115 survived, and there would appear to be no two sources in agreement as to what the exact numbers of crew and passengers on board were in the first place, let alone the numbers that lost their lives and survived.

Several hours after leaving the scene of the sinking of the Britannia, Thor fired a warning shot across the bows of a freighter which stopped without transmitting.

Identified by the boarding party as the 5,047-ton Svenska Amerika-Mexiko line motor vessel, Trolleholm, an inspection revealed that although Swedish and neutral, she was carrying a cargo of coal from Newcastle to Port Said, via Cape Town, under charter to the British Admiralty.

From the moment the warning shot was fired across her bow, to all thirty-one members of her crew being safely on board the raider, no more than 90 minutes has elapsed, and the ‘neutral’ freighter was scuttled with demolition charges.

On March 29, Kähler learned of the tragic fate of the survivors of the Britannia, when his radio operator picked up a signal from the Cabo de Hornos stating that she had found seventy-nine people adrift in lifeboats and rafts, and alerting other vessels to look out for hundreds more nearby.

Appalled by what he’d heard, he could not believe that the British ship that had signalled that it was on it’s way to the liner had not found the boats.

Images of the wretched people in the shark-infested waters were to haunt the captain and crew of the raider Thor for the rest of their lives.

As it transpired, the ship that had sent that rescue signal was never identified.

Just after sunrise on the morning of April 4, smoke was sighted on the distant horizon 900 miles west of the Cape Verde Islands, that was adjudged to be coming from a coal-burning ship.

Turning towards the approaching ship, Kähler called for full speed and examined her further through his binoculars, deciding that she was a passenger-liner, and because she was taking no evasive action to avoid him, most probably a neutral.

Although still disguised as a Greek freighter, Kähler nonetheless ordered his crew to their battle stations, as the approaching vessel flashed a signal, requesting that Thor identify herself.

Kähler responded by replacing the blue and white flag of Greece with the red, white and black of the Kriegsmarine battle flag, and fired a shot across her bow.

Immediately, the two guns mounted on the enemy vessel’s bow were revealed.

Only then did Kähler realise that he had inadvertantly challenged yet another Armed Merchant Cruiser, the third one he’d encountered on the cruise, and while ordering his entire battery to open up, from a range of about 9,000 metres, he decided that this time he would have to finish the job.

Thor’s first salvo ripped into the cruiser’s generator and radio room, destroying her fire-control system and preventing any signals being sent.

With her severely-hampered gunners doing their best, and the raider maintaining a constant barrage, in four minutes she had been turned into a blazing inferno.

Although clearly out of control, her steering gear out of action, taking water, and steaming in circles at a speed of 13 knots, and with fires raging from her bridge to her mainmast, two of her 6-inch guns, one fore and one aft, one of which was manned by her captain J.A.Blackburn, continued to engage the raider, but with little success, recording just one hit, which tore away her radio mast.

At this point, Kähler’s obsolete guns, that has been firing so many shells that they overheated and seized up, as they had done in the two previous battles, forced him to cease firing.

While he was manoeuvring for a torpedo shot, white flags were seen waving on the shattered cruiser.

Standing off at a safe distance for fear of explosions on the blazing ship, the Germans prepared for the task of rescuing her crew, but realising that her boats had either been shot to pieces or consumed in the mass of flames that now engulfed her, Kähler moved his ship in as close as he dared to the enemy ship and lowered his own boats.

Once the doomed and badly listing vessel had slid stern-first below the waves, they spent over five hours motoring back and forth picking up as many as they could find, safe in the knowledge that she had been unable to use her wireless.

Captain Blackburn and 196 members of the crew of the 13,245-ton British A.M.C. HMS Voltaire, the former Lamport & Holt liner, armed with eight 6-inch and three 3-inch guns, were rescued.

With over half of the survivors wounded, the German and British doctors worked through the night treating their injuries.

Two of them passed away and were buried with full military honours the next day, with both captains in attendance.

In the fifty-five minute action, during which seventy-two of a crew of 269 on the British ship, had lost their lives, Thor had expended 724 rounds, more than half of her ammunition, but had suffered no damage other than the loss of her mast.

On April 12 and 13, once again disguised as a Russian ship, she re-fuelled and replenished from the 7,603-ton former Norwegian tanker Turicum, now German supply-ship Ill, disguised as the Spanish Campoamor from Bilbao, and transferred 170 prisoners to her, leaving fifty-seven from the Voltaire still on board.

With her wireless mast repaired, Thor headed into northern waters, where at noon on April 16 she challenged, stopped and searched a Swedish freighter.

A tour of inspection disclosed that the 7,739-ton Grängesberg-Öxelosund ore carrier Sir Ernest Cassel, sailing in ballast to Lourenco Marques was to load a consignment of ore for the U.K.

Having been thoroughly searched and with her forty-five man all-Swedish crew having been taken on board the raider, she was sunk by demolition charges.

By April 18 she turned towards the Bay of Biscay, where, on April 23 she was met by two Luftwaffe aircraft and three destroyers of the Fifth Destroyer Flotilla, the Erich Steinbrinck, Bruno Heinemann and Friedrich Ihn.

Forced by bad weather to temporarily drop anchor off Cherbourg, on April 27, disguised as Sperrbrecher Hamburg and escorted by three minesweepers of the First Minesweeper Flotilla, she proceeded through the Ärmelkanal to Germany.

Despite being reinforced initially by five M-Boats and seven R-Boats, and later by six M-Boats and eleven R-Boats, the British somehow failed to notice this massive concentration of escort vessels.

On April 30 1941, having spent 329 days at sea, and covered 57,532 sea miles, the tiny raider that had not only accounted for twelve ships, totalling 96,547 tons of shipping, but took on three Armed Merchant Cruisers, two of them six times her size, had lived up to her name and ‘hammered’ all three, sinking one, tied up in her birthplace, the Deutsche Werft in Hamburg-Finkenwerder.

CRUISE 2

Undergoing a thorough overhaul and refit at the naval dockyard at Kiel, during which the ancient 150mm guns that had served her so well were replaced by more modern weapons, and she was fitted with radar, the newly-provisioned raider Thor was once more ready to put to sea.

Under the command of Kapitän zur See Günther Gumprich, and assigned to operate in the Indian Ocean, as a replacement for the Kormoran, she weighed anchor on the evening of November 19,* and left the naval base, disguised as a fleet auxiliary, and headed through the Kaiser-Wilhelm canal towards Brunsbüttel.

* Coincidentally, the Kormoran was lost on the very same day following her sinking of the 6,830-ton cruiser HMAS Sydney off the west coast of Australia.

Her departure did not turn out to be as smooth as her new skipper would have liked when at 2130 the following evening, in dense fog, she slammed into the fully-laden, and insufficiently-lit, 1,343-ton Swedish ore-carrier Bothnia, which was anchored in the fairway and which promptly sank.

Although no one was injured, the raider had to return to the dry-dock at Kiel for repairs to her shattered bows. 

As it transpired Gumprich was fortunate as the weather was not ideal breakout weather and the British were aware of the raider’s whereabouts and movements.

Having overseen the completion of the necessary repairs and once more passed through the Kaiser Wilhelm-Canal, Gumprich was again lying off Brunsbüttel, where on November 30, he briefly conferred with Robert Eyssen, the commander of the returning raider Komet.

Finally, seven months to the day since she had tied up in Hamburg at the end of her first cruise, the raider Thor, under cover of suitably appalling weather, set sail on her second cruise.

With no alternative but the hazardous route through the English Channel, she picked up her torpedo boat escorts, the 844-ton T2, T4, and T7 and the 839-ton T12, of the Second Torpedo Boat Flotilla, at Wilhelmshaven on December 2.

By proceeded cautiously along the Dutch coast through the Ärmelkanal, mainly under cover of darkness, Gumprich reached La Rochelle on December 17.

Having attempted to put to sea six days later, on December 23, she was forced to return to port, due to British air activity in the area, particularly the attacks on the motor-tanker Benno by British bombers in the Bay of Biscay, she tried once more to depart for her zone of operations on January 14 1942.

* The Benno was the former Norwegian tanker Ole Jacob, captured by the raider Atlantis and named after her popular commander Bernhard (Benno) Rogge.

This time she was delayed by a combination of bad weather, and the news that a heavily-escorted British convoy, en route for Gibraltar, was expected to pass through her chosen breakout route.

Leaving port again on January 17, three days later she reached the latitude of the Azores, where Gumprich turned southwards and set course for Antarctic waters, crossing the Equator on February 4.

Arriving in southern waters on February 25, his radio operator intercepted signals suggesting the presence of a whaling-fleet nearby, leading Gumprich to make use of his Arado, sending Flying Officer Meyer-Ahrens aloft on no less than eighteen flights over the following days, involving more than eighty take-offs and landings, carrying out broad sweeps, but without any luck.

By early March he had decided to abandon the search for the whaling fleets and turned northwards into the South Atlantic, where he planned to operate until relieved by Schiff 28 / Michel, after which he was to proceed to his designated area of operations in the Indian Ocean.

Early on the morning of March 23, to the north of Tristan da Cunha, smoke was spotted, which was initially thought to be from their supply-ship, the Regensburg, but on closer inspection it was found to be coming from a small freighter.

Closing rapidly, Gumprich ordered his gunnery officer, Hermann Kandeler, to fire one 150mm warning salvo, while he signalled to the ship to stop and ordered her to refrain from using her wireless.

Unwilling to unnecessarily risk the lives of his crew in what he could clearly see would be a pointless attempt to escape, the ship’s captain sensibly obeyed.

The boarding party identified the vessel as the 3,942-ton Greek M.A. Embiricos ship Pagasitikos, en route for Montevideo with a cargo of coal.

Having taken her crew of thirty-three, which included one woman, on board, the elderly freighter was dispatched with a torpedo.

The next day, Thor rendezvoused with the 7,850-ton Regensburg, which had, with the Kulmerland, supplied both the raiders Orion and Komet, as part of Robert Eyssen’s ‘Far East Squadron’, and then made the long journey back to France, from where she had sailed again in mid-February.

With the raider re-fuelled and replenished, the two ships parted company on March 27, with Thor heading north towards St Helena to await the Michel.

On March 28, with his seaplane out of action, Gumprich had to reluctantly abandon a three-hour chase when an enemy vessel proved to be too fast.

When Thor’s lookout spotted a ship early on March 30, Gumprich shadowed the vessel for nearly seven hours until just after two o’clock, when he sent in his seaplane with orders to remove the wireless aerials and machine gun the bridge.

With the aerials torn away, and unable to raise the alarm, the vessel responded with anti-aircraft fire, driving the plane off, before the raider closed in and opened up with a couple of 150mm salvos, which appeared to bring the ship to a halt.

But when she was then seen to be under way again, the Arado renewed its attack, and again coming under anti-aircraft fire.

Within thirteen minutes of Thor’s 150mm guns being once more called into action, the freighter was stopped and her crew were seen to be abandoning ship.

As the lifeboats approached Thor, the boarding party identified their ship as the 4,469-ton British J & J Denholm freighter, Wellpark, carrying a cargo of aircraft parts and military vehicles and a crew of forty-eight.

With seven members of her crew dead, the forty-one survivors were taken on board the raider, and the Wellpark was scuttled with demolition charges.

Gumprich repeated his ‘Spot the ship – Rip off the aerials - Stop the ship’ strategy when another vessel was picked up by the Arado early on April 1.

Stalking the vessel all day and closing just before sunset, Gumprich launched his seaplane with orders to remove the wireless aerials. Approaching out of the sun, the plane was fired at as it tore away the aerials and dropped its two bombs, both of which missed.

On 1 April 1942 a plane with US Navy markings carried away the main aerial by trailing a large hook from its tail. This meant that the effective range for any SOS signals was only around 40 miles. The Army gunners managed to hit the plane, which had come from a German commerce raider, and the crew discovered later that the observer had been hit in the arm. Shortly after, the raider fired salvoes of shells at the Willesden and ordered the crew to abandon ship or she would be sunk.

The crew retaliated by returning fire with a few shots from the antiquated 4 inch gun on the poop:
We fired 6 shots at the raider without result, but the raider was keeping up a rapid fire of three guns and circling us in ever decreasing circles at 23 knots. In no time shells were ripping into the ship and the high octane fuel on the foredeck was soon a mass of flames. The shocking thought that flashed through my mind was, unlike being attacked in convoy when you had ships all around, we were alone in an almost empty ocean being attacked by this monster hurling shells at us alone. It was absolutely terrifying, especially as we could not do anything”

(From the memoirs of Willesden survivor David Wilson).

As Thor moved in and opened up with her 150mm guns, setting the freighter’s deck cargo of oil drums alight, the British gunners returned her fire as the rest of their shipmates took to the boats.

But they could only manage six shots before they too had to leave the blazing ship, into which Thor had pumped 128 shells, killing one man and wounding six.

One of the wounded who later died of his injuries on board the raider was laid to rest at sea with full military honours.

Identified as the 4,563-ton British Watts Shipping Company freighter Willesden, bound for Alexandria from New York, the surviving members of her crew were picked up and she was sunk by a torpedo.

Later transferred to the Regensburg, with the crews of Thor’s other victims, these men were evidently very well treated on board the raider.

Sailors lined the rails on the raider and waved goodbye to us and, of course, we responded. It was hard to realise that they had sunk our ship and nearly killed us a short while back but, strange to say we were a little sad at leaving them!”

(From the memoirs of Willesden survivor David Wilson).

On April 3, the Arado found another target and repeated the procedure, backed up by several well-aimed salvos from the raider, bringing the ship to a halt.

Finding little of any value on the unarmed 5,630-ton Lundegaard & Sonner freighter Aust, the boarding party scuttled her with demolition charges.

En route from Pernambuco (Recife) in Brazil to Capetown, the coal-burning Norwegian ship was the fourth ‘silent’ victim of Thor’s campaign.

With bad weather, poor visibility and high seas preventing the use of the Arado on April 10, Gumprich decided it was time he tried out his radar, the first such apparatus ever fitted on an auxiliary cruiser, and little used so far on the cruise, and almost immediately located a ship that was not yet in sight.

Uncertain as to what type of vessel he was tracking, and aware of the risk he was running, he stalked the invisible ship until nightfall, took Thor in for a closer look, and identified her as a freighter.

Relieved that she was not a warship and satisfied that as she was travelling without lights she was an enemy ship, Gumprich was sufficiently certain that she was not one of his own supply-ships to order a torpedo fired at her from a range of about 2,000 metres.

When it missed, he ordered his gunners to fire several 150mm salvos, the second of which scored a direct hit and set the vessel’s wheelhouse and bridge on fire.

Illuminating his victim with Thor’s powerful searchlight and ceasing fire, Gumprich was surprised to see her turning towards him, in what appeared to be an attempt to ram, a move that was later explained by the fact that the First Officer had simply, and tragically as it turned out, left the helm unattended when the first shells hit.

Successfully evading this apparently aggressive manoeuvre, fire was resumed as fourteen further salvos were sent crashing into the hapless and blazing steamer. When tiny red lights were seen bobbing in her wake, it became clear that, although still under way, her crew were somehow managing to abandon her.

Taken completely by surprise and anxious to escape the rapidly spreading flames, the freighter’s crew had scrambled to abandon ship, only to find that their boats had either been destroyed or blown completely away during the furious shelling.

With no alternative but to leap into the water, most of them were rescued by boats launched from the raider, which remained at the scene searching for survivors for over three hours.

Identified as the 4,842-ton British Ropner & Company freighter Kirkpool, the raider’s fifth ‘Lautlos aufgebrachten schiff’,* thirty of her crew of forty-six were picked up, including her captain, and she was dispatched by a torpedo.

(* ‘Silently taken ship’ – August-Karl Muggenthaler – German Raiders of World War II)

Her officers and crew were later transferred to the supply-ship Regensburg.

Thor’s seaplane spotted, and photographed, another vessel on April 16, but as she could not be identified with any certainty, Gumprich decided that she was probably either the raider Michel, or the auxiliary minelayer Doggerbank, and that he would not run the risk of attacking her.

Finally receiving orders to leave the South Atlantic and head for his designated zone of operations, Gumprich took the raider Thor round the Cape of Good Hope on April 22, where his lookouts briefly spotted the 6,267-ton British Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Bulolo.

On May 4 he rendezvoused with the Regensburg, taking on some much-needed supplies and transferring 162 prisoners.

At 8 o’clock on the morning of May 10, approximately 1,500 miles off the coast of Western Australia, Thor’s seaplane spotted an large coal-burning liner.

Returning six hours later, with Thor following hard, it swooped low over the ship, but having failed to hook the radio aerials to prevent her calling for help, strafed her bridge with machine-gun fire.

Circling the liner and still hammering away with its machine guns, the Arado made a second attempt to hook the aerials, but was met with a hail of bullets, both from the liner’s machine gun, and an assortment of rifles and handguns fired by members of her crew … and several of her passengers!

The liner’s radio operators transmitted distress signals continuously on several different wavelengths which the Germans desperately tried to jam, as the rapidly approaching Thor’s 150mm guns opened fire from 13,000 metres.

Keeping the raider astern, and piling on steam, the liner steered a zigzag course in a futile attempt to out-run her attacker, while firing several shots from her hopelessly out-ranged stern gun, all of which fell short of the target.

With both ships flat out at top speed, the Arado made further attempts to snatch the wireless aerials.

Finally, after more than twenty minutes of gunfire, the German gunners began to find the range and straddled the liner, scoring several direct hits.

At this point, her captain, anxious to avoid unnecessary loss of life, lowered his colours, ordered his gunners to cease firing, prepared to scuttle and signalled that he was abandoning ship.

Despite this, and also because the liner’s radio operator continued sending signals giving her position, which, in the words of Kandeler, Thor’s gunnery-officer, ‘had to be considered a hostile act’, the Arado continued to try to grab the aerials and Thor continued firing until the passengers and crew were seen to be safely away in eight lifeboats.

Identified as the 7,131-ton Eastern and Australian Steamship Company liner, Nankin, en route from Fremantle to Bombay, she was carrying a general cargo, a crew of 180, and 162 passengers, including twenty-three naval and military passengers and thirty-eight women and children.

Having repaired the damage the liner’s scuttling crew had done to her engines, Gumprich re-named her the Leuthen, put a prize-crew on board, and together they rendezvoused with the Regensburg, where 500 prisoners were transferred, before both ships headed for Japanese-held ports and Thor resumed her cruise.

Over a month later, on June 14, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, Thor’s primitive radar picked up a ship at 10,000 metres. Unable to use his seaplane because it was too dark, Gumprich closed to within 1,800 metres and opened fire, hoping to knock out the radio room.

To the horror of the watching crew of Thor, the hits registered by the first salvo turned the vessel, which turned out to be a tanker, into ‘a floating wall of flame’, steaming in circles with her damaged steering gear jammed.

As her crew frantically tried to get off their burning ship, which was rapidly turning into a raging inferno, one man was rescued by the raider.

Identifying her as the 6,307-ton Dutch Curacaoschen Sheepvaart Maatschaappij tanker Olivia, fully-laden from Abadan, he was the only member of her crew of forty-six to be picked up at the scene.

Of the remainder, thirty-three perished either on board or in the water, which was covered in burning fuel, while twelve escaped with the tanker’s Third Officer, who had managed to get a boat away with three of his fellow countrymen and eight Chinese crewmen aboard.

Adrift in an open boat, for thirty days, starving and with little water, one of the Dutchmen and seven of the Chinese died before the boat capsized in the breakers on a beach in Madagascar on July 13, and the surviving four men were interned.

Five days later, on June 19, another tanker was spotted and attacked from the air with machine-gun fire and two bombs and had her radio aerial hooked away.

When a 150mm warning salvo, howling over his head, convinced her captain of the futility of resisting with his elderly 3-inch gun, he brought his ship to a halt.

Identified as the 7,892-ton Norwegian S.Herlofson & Company motor-tanker Herborg, carrying a cargo of 11,000-tons of oil, the entire crew were taken on board Thor.

As a fully-laden and undamaged tanker was a valuable prize, Gumprich re-named her Hohenfriedberg, put a prize crew, under Oberleutnant zur See Gerwin, aboard, and sent her to Japan, where she duly arrived on July 7.

* Later converted into a blockade-runner and dispatched to France, she was intercepted by the British heavy cruiser HMS Sussex on February 26 and scuttled.

On July 4, in an almost identical replay of the capture of Herborg, another tanker was discovered by the Arado, and became the eighth vessel taken by Gumprich without a fight.

Identified as the 5,894-ton Norwegian A.I.Langfeldt & Co. tanker Madrono, travelling in ballast to Abadan, she was re-named Rossbach, and sent to Japan with a prize-crew under Oberleutnant zur See Sander, arriving there on August 5.

Converted into a blockade-runner, she was dispatched to France in November.

Having reached the South Atlantic, she was re-directed by the SKL to Batavia, and spent the next few years in Far Eastern waters, where, in May 1944, she was torpedoed and sunk by the submarine USS Burrfish off the coast of Japan.

Thor’s next victim, not only used her radio when challenged on July 20, but tried to escape, and returned fire with her stern-mounted gun as she ran.

When the raider opened fire, it became clear that the freighter was not about to surrender without putting up a fight, and making off at full speed, she got two shots away before the gun position sustained a direct hit, killing the chief-gunner and putting the gun out of action.

Despite the fact that his ship was on fire, the radio operator kept up a continuous stream of distress signals until he too was killed by a direct hit, this one also setting the ship’s bridge on fire.

With the radio finally silenced, her crew panicking, and the ship by now so firmly ablaze that there was no point in trying to board her, Gumprich ordered his gunners to cease firing, and set about picking up the forty-nine survivors.

Identified as the 5,187-ton British refrigerated Hain-Nourse freighter Indus, with a crew of seventy-one, she was the raider Thor’s final victim, bringing her second cruise total of ships sunk or captured to 55,587 tons.                                                             

Rendezvousing with the 7,840-ton blockade-runner Tannenfels on August 29, and transferring his prisoners, Gumprich took Thor, eastwards, cruising, without further success, off the west coast of Australia, through the Sunda Strait and the Java Sea to Borneo.

Fast running short of fuel, he left there on September 29, and set course for Japan for a scheduled refit, arriving at the port of Yokohama on October 10.

By November 30, with most of the work completed, Thor was taking on supplies and ammunition for her next cruise, moored alongside the tanker Uckermark, formerly the Altmark, supply-ship to the Admiral Graf Spee, on which Japanese and Chinese working parties were busy cleaning the insides of the tanks.

In the early afternoon, with Gumprich on board his prize Leuthen, the former liner Nankin, a series of massive explosions tore the Uckermark asunder, shooting great sheets of flame high into the air, blowing her superstructure apart, and sending large sections of it crashing down onto the raider tied up alongside.

Both ships were quickly engulfed in flames, which spread rapidly across the oil covered surface of the basin in which they were moored, consuming Thor’s prize, the Leuthen, the 3,023-ton Japanese freighter Unkai Maru 3 and several harbour craft, reducing all to smouldering wrecks.

Fifty-three members of the crew of the Uckermark lost their lives in the inferno, thirteeen of the crew of the raider Thor, plus an unknown number of Japanese and Chinese shipyard workers.

It was presumed that the explosions were caused by some of the workers being careless while chipping rust from the giant gas-filled fuel tanks, or smoking in an area that was insufficiently ventilated.

260 survivors of the catastrophe were among the 365 seamen later sent back to Europe on board the blockade-runner Doggerbank (Schiff 53) all but one of whom were to lose their lives when she was torpedoed and sunk in error off the Azores by the U-43 (Oblt. Joachim Schwantke) on March 3 1943.

On May 1 1943, replacing the ailing Hellmuth von Ruckteschell, Gumprich put to sea again as commander of the raider Michel, only to lose his life when she was sunk by the submarine USS Tarpon off Yokohama on October 17 1943.

Over two cruises Thor had accounted for 22 ships – for a total of 152,134 tons.

Konteradmiral Otto Kähler
Commander HK Thor – 1940 / 1941

Born on March 3 1894, Otto Kähler, the son of a merchant captain, was a tall, well-built man who had joined the Imperial Navy before World War One and during which, had served in U-Boats.

Between the wars, having first served as a staff officer, Kähler, who was a superb navigator and seaman, served as Navigation Officer on the cruiser Karlsruhe before being appointed, like Bernhard Rogge, as master of the sail training ships Gorch Fock and Albert Leo Schlageter.

He was later made commander of the Kriegsmarine’s fleet of patrol boats.

Assigned to Schiff 10 in October 1939, Kähler was a straightforward, practical man who sported a thick Vandyke beard and was an avid cigar smoker.

In Thor’s first campaign, she was forced to engage in combat three times with British Armed Merchant Cruisers, vessels fitted with 6" guns, and all of them bigger, stronger and faster ships than his tiny former banana boat.

In the first engagement, with HMS Alcantara, a 22,200-ton Atlantic liner with a top speed of 19 knots, the battle was particularly violent, and only finished when the British cruiser, on fire, listing, and slowly sinking, broke off contact and fled into Rio de Janeiro, for badly needed repairs.

In the second, with HMS Carnarvon Castle, another 20,000-ton, 19-knot Atlantic liner, the conflict lasted seventy-five minutes, with the British ship sustaining twenty-six direct hits, six of them near the waterline, on fire, breaking off and escaping to Montevideo at full speed, while Thor suffered no hits whatsoever.

The third AMC, HMS Voltaire, a 14.5-knot, 13,245-ton ship, did not break contact or manage to escape.

She was sunk, after eighty minutes of hard combat.

Thor sustained one hit, which knocked out her W/T aerials, but no other damage.

Three battles, three victories, one adversary sunk, and all of this with a ship not designed to fight.

While Otto Kähler's fighting qualities were widely recognized, luck can sometimes explain a victory over a superior enemy, but these three-in-a-row were down to sheer ability and good training.

Awarded the Knight’s Cross on December 22 1940, and the Oak leaves on September 9 1944, Kähler was promoted Rear-Admiral, and given responsibility for the Naval defences of Brest, where he was eventually captured, after which he spent some time as a prisoner-of-war in the United States.

For the remainder of his life he maintained that the high point of his career was the command of the Hilfskreuzer Thor.

He died on November 2 1967.

On his gravestone is written "Otto Kähler, Kommandant von Hilfskreuzer Thor".

Kapitän zur See Günther Gumprich
Commander HK Thor – 1941 to 1942
Commander HK Michel - 1943

Günther Gumprich was born on January 6 1900 in Stuttgart, and having served as a staff officer with the Admiralty in Berlin, was assigned to take over command of HK Thor in June 1941.

Between November 1941 and October 1942, during 268 days at sea as Commander of the HK Thor, he sank seven ships, totalling 34,670 tons, and sent three ships, totalling 20,917 tons, back to Japanese ports as prizes.

Following the catastrophic explosion on board the supply tanker Uckermark, tied up alongside her, that destroyed the raider in Yokohama in November 1942, he was assigned to the German Naval Attache’s Office in Tokyo.

Taking command of HK Michel, after the illness-enforced retirement of Helmuth Von Ruckteschell, Gumprich sank three further ships, totalling 27,632 tons, during 150 days at sea, being awarded the Knight’s Cross on December 31 1942.

He died on October 17 1943, going down with HK Michel, torpedoed by the American submarine USS Tarpon in the Yellow Sea east of Yokohama.

Thor - War Records from 06-06-1940 to 30-04-1941 and from 30-11-1941 to 09-10-1942
Number Prize Name Type Flag Date Tonnage Fate
1 Kertosono Freighter The Netherlands 01-07-1940 9.290 Captured
2 Delambre Freighter United Kingdom 07-07-1940 7.030 Sunk
3 Bruges Freighter Belgium 09-07-1940 4.985 Sunk
4 Gracefield Freighter United Kingdom 14-07-1940 4.630 Sunk
5 Wendover Freighter United Kingdom 16-07-1940 5.490 Sunk
6 Tela Freighter The Netherlands 17-07-1940 3.775 Sunk
7 Kosmos Whale-oil Tanker Norway 26-09-1940 17.800 Sunk
8 Natia Freighter United Kingdom 09-10-1940 8.715 Sunk
9 Britannia Passenger United Kingdom 25-03-1941 8.800 Sunk
10 Trolleholm Freighter Sweden 25-03-1941 5.045 Sunk
11 HMS Voltaire Armed Merchant Cruiser United Kingdom 04-04-1941 13.245 Sunk
12 Sir Ernest Cassel Freighter Sweden 16-04-1941 7.740 Sunk
Subtotal Thor (Kähler) Prizes 96.545
Number Prize Name Type Flag Date Tonnage Fate
1 Pagasitikos Freighter Greece 23-03-1942 3.490 Sunk
2 Wellpark Freighter United Kingdom 30-03-1942 4.650 Sunk
3 Willesden Freighter United Kingdom 01-04-1942 4.565 Sunk
4 Aust Freighter Norway 03-04-1942 5.630 Sunk
5 Kirkpool Freighter United Kingdom 10-04-1942 4.840 Sunk
6 Nankin Freighter United Kingdom 10-05-1942 7.130 Captured
7 Olivia Tanker The Netherlands 14-06-1942 6.305 Sunk
8 Herborg Tanker Norway 19-06-1942 7.890 Captured
9 Madrono Tanker Norway 04-07-1942 5.895 Captured
10 Indus Freighter United Kingdom 20-07-1942 5.185 Sunk
Subtotal Thor (Gumprich) Prizes 55.580
Total Thor Prizes 152.125
Notes to:
1 Dispatched to Lorient. She arrived safely.
2 Sunk by explosive charges.
3 Sunk by explosive charges. 90 prisoners now on board Thor.
4 Sunk by gunfire after torpedo attack.
5 Sunk by explosive charges.
6 Sunk by explosive charges. Battle with British Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Alcantara, which, almost sinking, broke contact and sought safety in Rio de Janeiro.
7 A valuable ship and cargo, but slow and low in fuel. Sunk by gunfire.
8 Sunk by explosive charges. 368 prisoners now on board. Later transferred to the blockade runner Rio Grande.    Battle with British Armed merchant Cruiser HMS Carnarvon Castle, which broke contact on fire and with many dead, to seek safety in Montevideo. Meeting with the Admiral Scheer and four supply ships. Admiral Scheer’s captain, later Admiral, Theodor Krancke, suggests that the two ships hunt together, but Thor’s captain politely declines.               Later, meeting with supply ships Eurofeld, Alsterufer, Spichern and the 10 whale catchers captured by Pinguin.
9 Sunk by gunfire.
10 Sunk by gunfire.
11 Sunk by gunfire after an 80 minute battle. 72 dead, 197 rescued, including the captain. Prisoners transferred to the German tanker Ill which safely reaches Bordeaux.
12 Sunk with explosive charges. Thor safely reaches Hamburg through the English Channel.
-
1 Sunk by torpedo. Meeting with supply ship Regensburg. Through the excellence of her disguises Thor escapes the attentions of HMS Durban and some days later, the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMS Cheshire.
2 Seaplane removes radio aerials. Sunk by torpedo.
3 Sunk by torpedo after gunfire.
4 Sunk by explosive charges.
5 Sunk by torpedo after gunfire.
6 A valuable ship. Dispatched with prisoners to Japan. Meeting with supply ship Regensburg.
7 Sunk by gunfire.
8 Valuable cargo. Dispatched to Japan.
9 Valuable cargo. Dispatched to Japan.
10 Sunk by gunfire. Thor safely reaches Yokohama. Destroyed after a fire on supply ship Uckermark moored alongside.

Notes on Ships Captured or Sunk by Hilfskreuzer Thor - 1st Cruise - 6 June 1940 to 30 April 1941
1 - Kertosono
This 9,290-ton Dutch freighter was stopped on July 1 with one warning shot without the alarm being raised, by a ship thought to be Dutch, but which was actually a German, posing as a Yugoslav!

On her way from New Orleans to Curacao and Freetown with a cargo of petrol, asphalt, timber and agricultural machinery consigned to British ports, she carried a crew of 56 and nine passengers, including four women and a baby.

As she was such a fine ship, Kaehler decided to send her with a prize crew to Lorient, where she arrived safely twelve days later.

2 - Delambre
A week later, following a two-hour chase on July 7, Thor opened fire on this 7,030-ton British freighter from 8,000 yards with a full broadside. Hit by the third salvo, she did not succeed in using either her radio or her 4-inch stern gun and hove to.

The raider’s boarding party reported that the steamer was under charter by the British Admiralty, en route from Rio de Janeiro to Freetown and Liverpool, with a cargo of cotton, cotton seed and hides, and a crew of 44, all British. Having scuttled the ship, her crew were taken on board the raider.

3 - Bruges
Two days later, on July 9, this 4,985-ton Belgian freighter carrying a cargo of 6,746 tons of wheat from Necochea and Mar del Plata to St.Vincent and Freetown was stopped by shots across the bows, without raising the alarm.

A former German vessel, captured in 1914, she was scuttled, and her crew of 44 taken on board the raider, bringing her number of prisoners up to ninety.

4 - Gracefield
Stopped off Trinidad on July 14, this 4,630-ton British freighter carrying 7,430 tons of wheat and bran from Montevideo to Freetown and London, was sunk by gunfire after only one of the two torpedoes fired managed to hit the target, and her crew of 36 were all brought on board Thor.
5 - Wendover

As this 5,490-ton British freighter carrying 7,250 tons of coal to Buenos Aires, was seen on July 16 to be armed, with two guns aft, she was attacked without warning from behind a smoke cloud.

Straddled by the third salvo, hit aft, and set on fire, she began to send a raider alarm and her gun was manned.

Kaehler immediately reopened fire, and after two more hits, the signals stopped, and, as the fire spread, the ship slowed and her crew began to abandon her. Demolition charges set by the boarding party caused the freighter to capsize and float upside down so that she had to be sunk by gunfire.

Two of her crew of 40 had been killed, including the wireless operator, and when a further two died of their wounds on board the raider, they were buried at sea with full military honours, their bodies covered by the British flag.

6 - Tela

The following day, July 17, this 3,777-ton Dutch freighter, with 5,451 tons of grain from Rosario to the UK via Freetown, was stopped by a shot across the bows and abandoned without sending any distress signals.

Her crew of 33 was taken on board and she was sunk by demolition charges.

On board the Tela details were found of ‘Route 271’, on which her last four victims had been found, and so the raider remained on the same course for ten days, but without any further success.

On the eleventh day, July 28th, Thor’s lookouts spotted the masts of a large ship approaching fast, which turned out to be the 22,210-ton former Royal Mail liner, now Armed Merchant-Cruiser, HMS Alcantara, armed with eight 6-inch guns.

Under orders not to engage with enemy warships, Kaehler turned away at top speed, and for three hours tried in vain to outrun her, but, realising that she was by far the faster ship, he decided that his best hope lay in inflicting enough damage on her so as to slow her down, thus enabling Thor to escape.

Having run up the battle flag and slowed to fifteen knots to enable his gun crews to operate more accurately, Thor crossed the cruiser’s bows and opened fire with a full four-gun 5.9-inch broadside, straddling her with her third salvo.

With the sun behind them, the German gunners had an advantage over their British counterparts and registered two early hits, one between the bridge and the funnel and one aft, and then, with the third salvo, a significant hit on the waterline at the fore end of the engine-room causing flooding that caused the cruiser to reduce speed.

Eight minutes into the action Kaehler altered course to steam away from the enemy ship, and having almost immediately sustained two hits from the British

6-inch guns, with 3 of his men losing their lives, he brought the raider dead ahead of the cruiser to present the smallest possible target.

With the crippled Alcantara visibly slowing and completely hidden behind swathes of steam and smoke, Kaehler ceased fire before turning to bring his ship out of his own smoke screen and opening fire once more.

But the risk of sustaining an unlucky hit that could end his cruise for good, prevented Kaehler from closing to finish the now stationary cruiser off, and so, after a four and a half hour engagement, and having fired 284 of Thor’s 5.9-inch shells, he broke off the action and made off under smoke.

The Alcantara, scarred, holed and listing, limped into harbour at Rio de Janeiro.

7 - Kosmos
FHaving buried her dead, carried out repairs, changed her disguise, and spent 12 days cleaning her boilers, Thor rendezvoused with the supply ship Rekum on August 25, and then headed back into Brazilian waters.

On September 8 the Yugoslav Federico Glavic was stopped and searched but allowed to proceed, as she was a neutral and not carrying enemy war material. On September 26 the raider’s plane picked up the 17,800-ton Norwegian whale-oil tanker Kosmos, en route from Walvis Bay to Curacao with 17,662 tons of whale oil and a crew of 89.

This would have been an extraordinarily valuable prize but for the fact that she was slow, short of fuel and very distinctive in appearance, and so, much to the subsequent annoyance of the SKL, Kaehler ordered her sunk by gunfire.

8 - Natia

On October 8, following another 12-day boiler cleaning session, the raider pursued this 8,715-ton British refrigeration ship, in ballast from London to Buenos Aires, and opened fire from 9,000 yards, scoring an immediate hit and then ceasing fire.

Despite this, the freighter continued to use her wireless, and fire was re-opened while the signals were being jammed.

Although 175 rounds of 5.9-inch were fired with eight or nine hits, followed by a torpedo, which tore open the freighter’s side from below the waterline to the upper deck amidships, it still required a further 35 rounds to sink her. Within half an hour, 84 of her crew of 85 had been taken on board, bringing the total number of prisoners on Thor to 368.

Between November 9 and 16 most of these were transferred to the supply-ship Rio Grande, which safely reached Bordeaux on December 13.

Shortly after dawn on December 5 one of Thor’s lookouts spotted a large ship emerging from a bank of haze a mere four miles away, and immediately recognised it as an Armed Merchant-Cruiser.

It was the 20,120-ton HMS Carnarvon Castle, the fastest liner on the South Africa route before the war, with eight 6-inch, two 3-inch and a top speed of 19 knots. Hoping to avoid her, Kaehler altered course, and for a time seemed to be succeeding, as the liner disappeared astern, but she was soon seen to be following and was rapidly closing the range.

Thor being the only German raider with three 5.9-inch guns aft, he decided to force the enemy into a stern chase, but having been asked to identify his ship, ordered to stop, and then fired upon, he ran up his battle flag, dropped the disguise and opened fire.

By the fourth salvo the German gunners had found their target, and realizing that the enemy was the faster ship, Kaehler altered course to turn the chase into a circular fight in order to bring his entire broadside into play.

While intermittently laying down smoke, Thor fired off two torpedoes, both of which missed, but, still undamaged, she was in total control of the action, circling and firing, and registering some significant hits, much to the obvious delight of her commander, who could clearly see the havoc his grimy and exhausted gunners were wreaking on the enemy ship.

Their guns however, obsolete even during World War 1, were not up to such sustained action, with the recoil systems beginning to malfunction due to overheating and the barrels going out of train, but, suddenly, to everyone’s amazement, the Carnarvon Castle ceased firing, dropped smoke floats, turned and fled at top speed.

Kaehler, having fired 593 rounds and with only one third of his 5.9-inch ammunition remaining, also ceased firing, undamaged, without casualties and free to go anywhere he wished at his top speed of 18 knots.

Her opponent, limping into Montevideo harbour on December 7 with six dead, 32 wounded, and a ten degree list, had taken more than 20 hits.

Having requested an extension to the 24-hour period permitted to warships in neutral harbours, her damaged hull was repaired, ironically with plates salved from the wreck of the Admiral Graf Spee, before she was deemed seaworthy.

Flushed with pride in his ship and his crew, but after one hundred days of endless searching without any further success, Kaehler was ordered to rendezvous with Graf Spee’s sister-ship the Admiral Scheer, in order to transfer a number of men as prize crews for Pinguin’s captured whaling fleet.

The meeting took place between the 22 and 25 December and included Scheer’s prize Duquesa and the tankers Nordmark, Storstad and Eurofeld.  Having briefly considered working together with Scheer, the idea was abandoned due to vast difference in their respective speeds and Kaehler’s view that Thor would simply become a tender and prison ship for the battleship.

January and February 1941 were spent in fruitless and monotonous hunting broken between February 14 and 28 by meetings with the tanker Eurofeld and the supply ship Alsterufer where Thor took on board 1000 rounds of 5.9-inch ammunition and a fresh supply of torpedoes.

On March 5 Kaehler, while urgent repairs were carried out to the raider’s port boiler, began the supervision of the provisioning and re-fuelling of Pinguin’s ten whale catchers from the tanker Spichern, after which all ten, and the tanker, made for Europe.

All of them, bar two of the catchers forced to scuttle when intercepted by the British sloop HMS Scarborough, arrived safely in France on March 20.

9 - Britannia

On the morning of March 25, this 8,800-ton British former Anchor Line passenger ship with a crew of over 200 and over 320 passengers, including 12 women, turned tail when she spotted Thor, and made off at high speed under thick oily smoke while radioing, first RRRR, and then QQQQ.

As the raider’s operators tried to jam these signals, her gunners opened up, firing 159 rounds at an elusive, fast moving and occasionally invisible target, scoring several hits, until the liner stopped, and signalled that she was surrendering.

When Kaehler was satisfied that the Britannia had been fully evacuated, she was sunk by sixteen 5.9-inch rounds into the waterline sending her down almost vertically, bow first, into boiling oily sludge, under a column of smoke and flame hundreds of feet high.

As she was being abandoned, the German radio operators had intercepted a signal to the stricken liner from a British warship approaching at full speed from a little over a hundred miles away, promising assistance within a few hours.

For this reason Kaehler decided it would be too dangerous to waste time rescuing the survivors, and so, having picked one man, who had been swept overboard during the chase, off a raft, and advised SKL that there were over 500 people adrift, and his reasons for leaving them, reluctantly sailed away from the numerous boats and rafts, confident that the approaching warship would find them and pick them up.

* Tragically he was wrong, for whatever ship it was that had signalled that it was coming to the rescue, failed to find the unfortunate souls huddled in splintered overcrowded boats and clinging onto slippery rafts, for whom life soon turned into a living nightmare, as starvation, thirst and sharks all took their toll.

Seventy-nine of them were picked up by the Spanish ship Cabo de Hornos, on March 29, but by April 15, only 195 of the survivors had been accounted for, with Raranga rescuing 67 and a further 51 being picked up by the Spanish ship Bachi.

One boat grounded after a 23-day, 1,500-mile ordeal, at Sao Luis, on the coast of Brazil, with only 33 surviving out of the original 82 aboard.

Out of approximately 520, only 331 people survived the sinking of the Britannia.

As it turned out, the vessel that sent the rescue signal was never identified.

10 - Trolleholm
Later that same day, March 25, another ship was sighted, not the cruiser coming to the aid of the Britannia, but this 5,045-ton Swedish motor vessel, bound from Newcastle to Port Said with a cargo of coal and a crew of  31. From the moment the warning shot was fired across her bow, to all 31 being safely on board the raider, no more than 90 minutes has elapsed, and the freighter was scuttled with demolition charges.
11 - HMS Voltaire
Just after sunrise on the morning of April 4 this 13,245-ton British Armed Merchant Cruiser armed with eight 6-inch and three 3-inch guns, with a crew of 269, was spotted  900 miles west of the Cape Verde Islands. Approaching head-on she signalled a series of AAA’s, to which Thor responded with a shot across the bow.

Only then did Kaehler realise that he had challenged an Armed Merchant Cruiser, the third he’d encountered on the cruise, and while ordering his entire battery to open up, he made his decision, “This time, I have to finish him off”                           

Thor’s first salvo ripped into the cruiser’s generator and radio room preventing any signal being sent, and within four minutes the former liner had been turned into a blazing inferno.

Although out of control with her steering gear out of action, taking water and steaming in circles, fire raging from her bridge to her mainmast, two of her 6-inch guns, one fore and one aft, bravely continued to engage the raider, but with little success, recording just one hit, which tore away the her radio aerial.                                                                                                

At this point Kaehler’s obsolete guns overheated and seized up, as they had in the two previous battles, forcing him to cease firing, but while manoeuvring for a torpedo strike white flags were seen being waved on the stricken cruiser.

Standing off at a safe distance of 4000 yards for fear of explosions on the AMC, the Germans commenced the task of rescuing her crew, 72 of whom had died in the action, and once the doomed and badly listing Voltaire had slid stern-first below the waves, they spent over five hours motoring back and forth picking up as many as they could find, safe in the knowledge that she had been unable to use her wireless.

The captain and 196 of his men were rescued after a 55-minute action in which Thor had had to expend 724 rounds, more than half of her total ammunition.

12 - Sir Ernest Cassel

Disguised as a Russian, and with her wireless repaired Thor headed into northern waters, where on April 12-13, she re-fuelled from the tanker Ill and transferred her prisoners, all of whom safely reached Bordeaux. Heading for home, she had her twelfth and final success on April 16, when she stopped this 7,740-ton Swedish ore carrier in ballast with two warning shots, took her crew on board and sank her with demolition charges.

Notes on Ships Captured or Sunk by Hilfskreuzer Thor - 2nd Cruise - 30 November 1941 to 9 October 1942
1 - Pagasitikos
Thor’s first victim in the South Atlantic was this 3,490-ton Greek freighter, which was sunk by torpedo on March 23 after her crew of 32 men and one woman had been taken off.

Her radio antenna having been removed, she was unable to sent any signals.

2 - Wellpark
Having rendezvoused with supply ship Regensburg on March 24, Thor pursued this 4,470-ton British freighter for seven hours on March 30.

Gumprich ordered his seaplane in to removed the aerials and machine gun the bridge, but it was then driven off as the raider opened fire.

After two salvoes the freighter appeared to stop but was then seen to be under way again so the plane renewed its attack.

When Wellpark’s gunners again responded with anti-aircraft fire, Thor’s 5.9s were once more called into action, ending the conflict within fifteen minutes as the crew were seen fleeing their ship in boats.

3 - Willesden
Gumprich repeated his by now well developed ‘sight the ship -tear away the aerials - stop the ship’ routine when this 4,565-ton British freighter bound for Alexandria from New York was picked up by the raider’s Arado on the morning of April 1, but the plane was fired upon as it tore away the aerial and dropped its two bombs, both of which missed.

The British gunners also returned fire as Thor opened up with her 5.9-inch guns, setting the freighter’s deck cargo of oil drums alight, and the rest of their shipmates took to the boats.

But they could only manage six shots before they too had to leave the blazing ship, into which Thor had pumped 128 shells.

One torpedo later, the 12-hour action was over, leaving one of Willesden’s crew dead and six wounded. One of the wounded later died of his injuries and was laid to rest at sea with full military honours.

4 - Aust
This 5,630-ton unarmed Norwegian coal-burning freighter became the fourth ‘silent’ victim of Thor’s second cruise on April 3. She was scuttled with demolition charges.
5 - Kirkpool
Due to foggy conditions and poor visibility, and having picked up this 4,840-ton British freighter on his radar, the first ever installed on a raider, Gumprich had to forego his usual tactics on April 10, tracking his victim all day and attacking at night, first with a torpedo, and then with a 5.9-inch salvo, both of which missed their almost invisible target.

The second salvo however, registered three hits, setting the freighter’s bridge and wheelhouse on fire, and, having illuminated his victim and ceased firing, Gumprich was surprised to see her turning towards him, in what appeared to be an attempt to ram.

Successfully evading this manoeuvre, fire was resumed with ‘dreadful effect’ as 14 salvos crashed into the hapless and blazing steamer, until tiny red lights were seen bobbing in her wake, and it became clear that, although still under way, her crew were somehow managing to abandon her.

After a three-hour search under lights, her Captain, Chief Engineer, First Officer and 27 others out of a crew of 46, were fished out of the water, and their doomed ship finished off with a torpedo.

It transpired that with the wheelhouse ablaze, the helm had been left unattended, causing the Kirkpool to veer towards her attacker, precipitating her response. Commands to lower the boats and abandon ship had been drowned out by the noise of the explosions, which destroyed the boats and their derricks, blew the men attending them overboard, and killed the rest.

Her Officers and crew were later transferred to the supply ship Regensburg.

6 - Nankin

On May 10, 1,500 miles off the coast of Western Australia, Thor’s seaplane spotted the 7,130-ton Eastern and Australian Steamship Company liner, Nankin, outward bound from Fremantle to Bombay, via Colombo, with a general cargo, 162 passengers, including 38 women and children, 18 naval and 5 military passengers and a crew of 180, and having failed to hook the radio antennas to prevent her calling for help, strafed the vessel’s bridge with machine-gun fire.

Still hammering away with it’s machine guns, the Arado made a second attempt to hook the aerials, but was met with a hail of bullets both from the Nankin’s machine gun, and an assortment of rifles and handguns fired by members of the crew and several passengers!

The liner’s radio operators transmitted distress signals continuously on several wavelengths with the Germans trying to jam them, as Thor’s 5.9s opened fire from 13,000 yards.

Keeping the raider astern, the liner steered a zigzag course at top speed in a futile attempt to out-run her attacker, while returning fire with 28 shells from her stern gun, until finally, the German gunners began to find the range, straddling her, scoring several direct hits.

At this point her captain, in order to avoid unnecessary loss of life, lowered his colours, prepared to scuttle and signalled that he was abandoning ship.

Despite this, and because the liner continued radioing, the Arado continued to try to grab the radio aerials and Thor continued firing until all the passengers and crew were seen to be safely away in eight lifeboats.

Having repaired the damage the liner’s scuttling crew had done to her engines, Gumprich re-named her Leuthen, put a prize crew on board and together they rendezvoused with Regensburg, where 500 prisoners were transferred, before both ships headed off for Japanese-held ports and Thor resumed her cruise.

7 - Olivia
Over a month later, on June 14, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, Thor’s primitive radar picked up a ship at 10,000 yards.

Unable to use her plane because it was too dark, the raider closed to within 1800 yards and opened fire, hoping to knock out the radio room.

To the watching German’s horror the first salvo turned the 6,310-ton Dutch Shell tanker outward bound from Abadan, into ‘a floating wall of flame’ steaming in circles with her steering gear out of action, blazing from stem to stern.

Most of her crew of 46 perished either on board or in the water, which was covered in burning fuel.

Third Officer W.A. Vermoet had managed to get a boat away with three other Dutchmen and eight Chinese aboard, but only one man was found by Thor.

During a tortuous month, starving and parched in an open boat, one of the Dutchmen and seven of the Chinese were to die before they capsized in the breakers on a beach in Madagascar on July 13, and they were interned, 30 days after 41 of their shipmates had been cremated, over 2,000 miles to the east.

8 - Herborg

This 7,890-ton Norwegian motor tanker was attacked from the air with gunfire and two bombs on June 19, had her radio aerial hooked away, and was then fired upon with a 5.9-inch warning salvo, bringing her to a halt.

Realising that their one ancient 3-inch gun would be no match for the heavily armed raider, she was stopped and her crew abandoned ship.

The entire crew, which included 38 Chinese, were taken on board Thor.

A fully-laden oil tanker was a valuable prize, and so, with a prize crew aboard, Herborg was sent to Japan under her new name, Hohenfriedburg.

9 - Madrono

This 5,895-ton Norwegian tanker was captured without a fight on July 4, in an almost identical replay of the capture of Herborg.

She too was re-named, and was sent to Japan with a prize crew, as Rossbach.

10 - Indus
Thor’s final victim was the 5,185-ton British refrigerated freighter Indus attacked on July 20.

Unlike her previous two victims, this reefer, with a crew of 71, was not about to surrender without a fight, making full speed, and returning fire with her stern gun, getting two shots away before the gun position sustained a direct hit, killing the chief gunner and putting the gun out of action.

Despite the fact that his ship was on fire, the freighter’s radio operator kept up a continuous stream of distress signals until he too was killed by a direct hit, this one setting the bridge on fire.

With the ship now so firmly ablaze that there was no point in trying to board her, the radio finally silenced, and her crew panicking, Gumprich ordered his gunners to cease firing, and set about picking up the 49 survivors.

Aftermath - Fate of the Hilfskreuzer Thor

With the ten ships sunk or captured on the cruise grossing over 56,000 tons, and having transferred his prisoners to the blockade-runner Tannenfels, Gumprich took the feisty little Thor, via Batavia, to meet her sad destiny in Yokohama.

There, on October 30, the third in a series of explosions in the German tanker/ supply ship Uckermark, moored alongside the raider, blew her superstructure apart, with large sections of it crashing down on Thor, setting her on fire.

Both ships were quickly engulfed in flames which spread rapidly across the oil covered surface of the basin in which they were moored, consuming Thor’s prize the 7,130-ton former British liner Nankin, now supply ship Leuthen, and the Japanese freighter Unkai Maru, and killing 53 of Uckermark’s crew, 13 of Thor’s, and an unknown number of Japanese and Chinese shipyard workers.

Gallery

Credits
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.