Auxiliary Cruiser (Raider)
Launched on December 21 1929 at the Howaldtswerke in Kiel for the Hamburg Amerika (HAPAG) line, the 7,851-ton freighter Neumark was a sister-ship of the Kurmark, which was converted into the Hilfskreuzer Orion.
152 metres long with a beam of 18.2 metres and powered by two Blohm & Voss steam-turbine engines, producing 6,700 horse-power, which had previously driven the Hapag passenger liner Hamburg, driving a single shaft, for a maximum speed of 14 knots, and a range of 34,000 sea-miles at 9 knots.
Converted into an Auxiliary Cruiser at the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg, she was armed with six 150mm L/45 C/16 guns, one Creusot-Schneider 75mm L/35 cannon, one twin 37mm C/30 L/83 and four single 20mm C/30 L/65 flak.
Supplied with two Heinkel He-114 A-2 seaplanes, and four, two twin-mounted, 53.3cm torpedo tubes, with 24 torpedoes, she carried no mines.
Within days of the outbreak of war, Blohm & Voss received orders to convert two Hamburg-Amerika liners, the Kurmark and the Neumark, into Auxiliary Cruisers.
Both ships had unreliable, fifteen-year-old engines, that consumed far too much fuel, and were totally unsuitable for vessels engaged in sustained raider warfare.
Officially designated as Handelsschützkreuzer 1 and 3 (HSK I and HSK III) or ‘Trade Protection Cruisers’, for security reasons, Schiff 36, the Kurmark, would become the Orion, while Schiff 21, the Neumark, would become the Widder.
As the complex task of converting the freighter into a fully operational warship progressed over the following weeks, the equally important task of deciding who would command her occupied minds at Naval Command, particularly as by January 1940, four regular Navy officers had, not surprisingly, given the peculiar characteristics of the vessel, turned the assignment down.
Kapitän-zur-See August Thiele had been expected to assume command, but had since been assigned to take over as commander of the Lützow, the former Panzerschiff Deutschland, now re-classified as a heavy cruiser.
On February 18 1940, to the trepidation of the regular Navy officers on board, the position of commander was finally assigned to a controversial 49-year old former World War One U-Boat commander, an officer of the Naval Reserve, recently promoted to the rank of Korvettenkapitän … Hellmuth Von Ruckteschell.
Their trepidation increased when, due to ill health, their newly-appointed captain, who suffered from acute stomach problems and chronic migraine headaches, was unavailable to oversee the ship’s pre-commissioning preparation and trials.
With the captains of raiders granted the privilege of choosing the names for their ships, Ruckteschell, who had been born under the sign of Aries, the Ram, chose the German word for Ram, Widder, a powerful and symbolic name in itself, but in this case, also a personal extension of the commander himself.
A complex, religious and cultured man, with an artistic nature and a passion for classical music, he was moody, introspective and difficult to like.
Although her conversion from a freighter into a raider was completed by the Blohm & Voss yard by November 30 1939, at which time she was commissioned into the Kriegsmarine as HSK 3, Schiff 21 experienced so many problems with her engines during her trials that she spent some weeks at the Howaldtswerken in Kiel, not leaving until February 25 1940.
Due to the severe winter of 1939-1940, she was unable to carry out any further exercises or trials, and was not cleared to sail until May, by which time, with the nights being shorter, an unobserved break out would be all the more unlikely.
Undergoing further trials between April 23 and May 3 in the eastern Baltic, finally with a crew of thirteen officers, including four prize officers, and 346 petty officers and men, and escorted by three E-Boats, the Widder proceeded along the Kaiser-Wilhelm canal to the river Elbe on May 5, and set course for Bergen.
Heading up the coast of Norway on May 6, escorted by three patrol boats and covering aircraft, Ruckteschell kept everyone on board at action stations, despite the fact that with most of the country now under German control, these waters were now far safer than when the Atlantis had sailed them a month earlier.
It was just as well, as she was almost immediately attacked by a British submarine, which fired two torpedoes, both of which missed, before being driven off, and the next day another submarine was sighted and also chased away.
Escorted by two small minesweepers, Schiff 21 successfully negotiated the minefields off the Norwegian coast and entered the safety of the outer anchorage of the port of Bergen on May 8.
The following day, while leaving Bergen, one of the minesweepers was sunk in an air attack, and the raider had to seek refuge in Bindness Bay in the Hjeltefjorden to the north of Bergen, while she waited for more favourable weather conditions.
Arriving in the anonymous grey livery of a naval auxiliary, all hands, from the lowest ranks to the senior officers, set to work on transforming Schiff 21 into the 4,251-ton neutral Swedish, Grängesberg-Oxelösund freighter, Narvik.
With most of the crew remaining out of sight, and with those who did venture on deck wearing civilian clothing, she remained at anchor in Bindness Bay for three days, during which time, nine British aircraft flew over her, but without incident.
So as not to have to sail on the following day, May 13, the superstitious crew weighed anchor in the late evening of May 12, and set off northwards on the next leg of their journey to the Denmark Strait.
After her air cover, a Heinkel He-111, had appeared but had then to be withdrawn due to deteriorating weather on May 13, Widder met the 2,710-ton British minelaying submarine, HMS Clyde, travelling on the surface.
Changing course, Ruckteschell tried to escape, but was pursued by the submarine, which fired a warning salvo across the his bow.
Anxious to maintain his neutral disguise, Ruckteschell continued to take evasive action, but when the submarine intensified her attack, he revealed his stern gun and returned fire, enjoining a battle that lasted for over an hour.
With no hits registered on either side, the Clyde suddenly broke off the engagement and disappeared, after which Ruckteschell sought shelter in Sandsfjord, north of Strandlandet, close to the island of Rundöy.
On the following morning, he left under cover of stormy weather, and headed away from the coast out to sea, and by May 15, had crossed the Arctic Circle.
At a pre-arranged rendezvous, the Widder was re-fuelled and replenished by the badly ice-damaged supply ship Nordmark, the former Westerwald, on May 16, close to Jan Mayen Island, before receiving the welcome news from the weather ship WBS 4 / Adolf Vinnen, that the Denmark Strait was ice-free.
Negotiating the narrowest section of her passage in fog and ice without incident, and passing westwards along the edge of the polar ice, she sustained some damage to her propellor, which would hamper her speed for the rest of her cruise, before sailing through the Denmark Strait on May 20.
Passing Cape Farewell on the southern tip of Greenland into the Atlantic and on southwards, she reached her operational zone, a massive area the size of the United States of America, between Africa and Central America, on the edge of the ‘Pan American Neutrality Zone’, on May 26.
Re-fuelling and replenishing from the 6,466-ton former Norddeutschen Lloyd supply ship, Königsberg, on June 7, Ruckteschell spent several frustrating days slowly patrolling the Trinidad-Azores shipping lane, conserving fuel, while mechanics struggled with the faulty engines of his Heinkel He-114 seaplanes.
When a lookout spotted smoke early on June 13, the Widder, still disguised as the neutral Swede, Narvik, approached the ship, an armed British tanker in ballast, as if to pass in the usual way.
As the stranger made no attempt to avoid the raider, and proceeded to pass within 6,000 metres, Ruckteschell instructed his gunnery officer, Oberleutnant zur See Damschen, to open fire without warning, in order to prevent her from putting up any resistance, and to deter her from transmitting any radio distress signals.
Firing three salvos at the unsuspecting ship at virtually point blank range, the first two of which missed, the third tore down her radio antenna, killed two of her crew, destroyed her bridge and radio room and set her on fire.
With their ship rapidly beginning to founder, the rest of the crew took to the lifeboats, and were picked up, as the tanker was finished off with a torpedo.
Identified as the 6,891-ton British Tanker Company’s British Petrol, bound for Trinidad from Glasgow to pick up a cargo of oil, with a crew of forty-seven, the forty-five survivors were picked up and taken on board.
Nine of them were wounded, one of whom, despite the best efforts of the Widder’s surgeons, Doctors Negenborn and Schröder, died later in her sick bay.
The following morning, as the British sailor’s body was consigned to the deep, Ruckteschell conducted a religious service, attended by his own crew and the crew of the enemy ship, at which he delivered an extraordinary sermon, dedicated to the memory of the dead man, but which amounted to a plea for world peace, universal understanding and tolerance.
Having lost the use of both of his aircraft with engine failure, and reluctant to waste more time trying to repair them, Ruckteschell had their highly-inflammable fuel and their 200 bombs dumped overboard for safety, as the Widder spent ten days traversing the sea-lanes without success.
Trouble in the raider’s engine intake valves caused further enforced inactivity and frustration, as the SKL informed Ruckteschell of a 9,349-ton Norwegian tanker, the Sticklestad, heading his way, en route from Casablanca to Martinique.
On June 26, two days after the repairs were completed, a tanker in ballast was seen approaching, which Ruckteschell assumed was the Sticklestad.
Allowing the vessel to pass astern, he ran up the German battle flag, had two warning shots fired across her bow, and signalled to her not to use her radio.
The tanker, making no attempt to radio, run or fight, immediately obeyed, and came to a halt, in the first of Widder’s two’silent’ and ‘bloodless’ victories.
The boarding party identified her as the 9,323-ton Norwegian Sigval Bergesen tanker, Krossfonn, in ballast from Casablanca to Fort de France, Martinique, and not the Sticklestad after all.
With a prize-crew, under Kapitänleutnant Wünning, on board, she was dispatched to the French port of Lorient, which had just fallen into German hands, and was the first auxiliary cruiser ‘prize ship’ to arrive there.
Before she departed, Ruckteschell ordered that her tanks be filled with seawater, as an empty tanker heading for Europe was certain to attract attention.
* Re-named Spichern, and commissioned into the Kriegsmarine as a fleet tanker, she was a supply-ship to the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen in Operation Rheinübung in May 1941.
On July 7, the 5,724-ton Spanish freighter Motomar of the Compania Espanola de Navegacion Maritima, was stopped, searched and allowed to proceed.
While patrolling along the southern boundary of the Pan-American Neutrality Zone, on July 10, a heavily-laden ship was sighted approaching from the east, heralding an action that was to have a significant bearing on the later life of the captain of the Widder, Hellmuth von Ruckteschell.
Seeing the Widder ahead, her captain had no particular reason to suspect that she was anything other than just another freighter, until, without warning, from a range of about 6,000 metres, seven 150mm salvos tore into his ship, bringing down her antenna, setting her on fire, and hammering her to a standstill.
Unable to radio for help, and not prepared to take on a heavily-armed raider with one ancient 4-inch gun mounted on the stern of his ship, he ordered his crew to lower the boats and abandon ship.
* The British later claimed that the raider’s gunners continued to fire for eight minutes after a signal was sent indicating that they were abandoning ship, but the Germans maintained that no such signal was received.
On seeing the boats being lowered, Ruckteschell had in fact ordered his gunners to cease firing, but, as three seamen were then observed heading aft towards the ship’s gun, in what he took to be a foolish and dangerous attempt to resist, he ordered his 37mm and 20mm anti-aircraft guns to rake the vessel’s decks, instantly killing all three of them, and wounding several others.
* This action was to form the basis of the first of five War Crimes charges made against Ruckteschell in 1947, a charge on which he was found ‘Guilty’.
The boarding party identified her as the 6,433-ton British Harrison Line freighter Davisian, carrying 4,000 tons of coal, and 2,000 tons of briquettes and chemicals, from Cardiff to the West Indies, and a crew of fifty.
Once the ship had been thoroughly searched, and some foodstuffs and tobacco removed, the surviving members of her crew, six of them wounded, were picked up, bringing the total number of prisoners on board the Widder to one hundred.
Surveying them from the bridge, Ruckteschell was heard to describe them as, “Englishmen … not Scots … insolent and noisy”
The boarding party’s attempts to scuttle the ship with demolition charges failed, and so she was finished off by a torpedo.
When his lookouts spotted another freighter on July 13, Ruckteschell closed to within a few miles of her, before once again employing the tactic of opening fire with all the guns at his disposal, to prevent her from signalling or fighting back.
Registering several hits and with the vessel seemingly vanquished, he ceased fire, but when her radio operator then began to transmit distress calls, he ordered his gunners to hammer her into submission.
As the 37mm anti-aircraft guns directed a murderous barrage at the helpless ship, destroying her bridge, radio room and gun position, where the ready-use ammunition exploded, setting her on fire, Ruckteschell’s radio officer, Oberleutnant zur See Kindler, reported that the freighter’s radiomen had reported their position incorrectly by some one hundred and fifty miles.
The boarding party, which included the Widder’s doctors, identified the vessel as the 5,228-ton British King Line freighter, King John, in ballast from London to Vancouver, and reported that three men had been killed and six wounded, and that there were no fewer than fifty-nine survivors.
With one hundred prisoners already on board, Ruckteschell’s well-known aversion to filling up his ship with prisoners, was now exacerbated by his distaste for the twenty-one survivors from the 4,919-ton Panamanian freighter Santa Marguerita, which had been sunk by U-29 (Kapitänleutnant Otto Schuhart) on July 2, and had been picked up by the King John, whom he later described in his War Diary as, ‘Yugoslavs, Portuguese, Maltese and a Spaniard … dirty and lousy people’.
He then made a decision that was to have far-reaching consequences.
Taking only the Captain, Chief Engineer and the wounded on board, leaving the remainder in the boats, he had a further forty-one men, survivors of the Davisian, ordered into these boats, supplemented by the largest of his own lifeboats.
Provided with water, supplies, sails and compasses, and instructed to make for the Lesser Antilles, 240 miles away, the problem of the large number of prisoners on board the Widder was drastically solved.
The King John (2) proved remarkably difficult to dispose of, when first, the scuttling charges, and then a torpedo, failed to do the job, eventually taking forty-two rounds of 75mm fire to dispatch her to the bottom.
Upon hearing Ruckteschell express irritation at how long it was taking for the ship to go down, her master, Captain George E. Smith, who, having unsuccessfully tried to escape in a boat, now stood with him as he watched her death throes, annoyed him further by remarking, “Naturally .. made in Britain!”
Heading north until out of sight of the boats, the Widder then turned east.
On this occasion, Ruckteschell was correct in his assumption that the men in the lifeboats could make landfall, as they reached the island of Anguilla on July 17 and July 18, where they made a full report on what had happened, and gave a detailed description of the Widder, including her Swedish disguise, the first such description of a German auxiliary cruiser the Allies had so far received.
* On being informed of this by the SKL, three weeks later, while cruising off the coast of Australia, Kurt Weyher, the commander of the Widder’s almost identical sister-ship the Orion, had to immediately alter the appearance of his ship.
The Davisian survivors also gave a detailed report on what they considered to be the brutal treatment meted out to their ship by the Widder on July 10.
The immediate result was that all independent sailings were cancelled, convoys were re-routed, and a large force of Allied warships was sent out to search for the raider, which, with her cover blown, was now in need of a change of identity.
Over the next couple of weeks Widder was totally transformed, as all traces of the Swedish freighter Narvik disappeared, and she took on the identity of the 3,569-ton Spanish freighter El Neptuno.
On July 28, she re-fuelled, taking on 1,465 tons of oil from the 5,540-ton tanker Rekum, which was then released to rendezvous with the raider Thor.
At this point, realising that the Allies were by now probably well aware of his presence, Ruckteschell decided to radically change his tactics.
Calling his officers to a meeting, he outlined to them his intention to apply the same approach he had used as a U-Boat commander in World War One, one which was still being applied by submarines in the current war, that of stalking by day and attacking without warning at night.
This tactic, although it carried the risk of exposing the Widder to return gunfire, was considered by Ruckteschell as the most likely to bring best results in the least time, with minimum expenditure of ammunition, and to give the enemy the least opportunity to use his radio.
He maintained that as all Allied ships had instructions to immediately radio their position if attacked, and to return fire with their defensive weapons, this was the best way to prevent both, and thus safeguard his ship and her crew.
On top of that there was the message from the SKL warning all raider commanders that British captains had been ordered to use small arms fire if necessary, to resist capture, and while this might have seemed preposterous, it nonetheless increased Ruckteschell’s anxiety, and hardened his resolve to avoid casualties among his crew.
On the morning of August 4, the first opportunity to try out this new concept presented itself, when a tanker was sighted and tracked all day in preparation for a surprise close range night attack.
Closing to within 2,500 metres of the poorly blacked-out vessel, on a reciprocal collision course, to minimise her chances of escape, he opened up on her without any warning, with a fusillade of thirty 150mm rounds, registering nine direct hits, quickly bringing the shattered tanker to a standstill.
As her terrified crew lowered their lifeboats, Ruckteschell ordered his gunners to rake the helpless vessel with their light anti-aircraft weapons and machine-guns, arguing that he did not wish his men to be picked off by a rifle fire.
Identified by the boarding party as the 6114-ton Norwegian Björn Björnstad & Co. motor tanker, Beaulieu, travelling in ballast from the Azores to Aruba, four crewmen including the captain, had been killed.
Having failed to sink her with a torpedo, which proceeded to run around in circles, the derelict tanker was blown up with demolition charges, after which the Widder immediately steamed away.
Making no attempt to pick up the survivors, who had clearly made off to avoid capture, Ruckteschell chose to leave twenty-eight of them to their fate, over 1,200 miles from the nearest land.
* This decision he later had to explain, not only to his officers and men in the aftermath of the action, but also in answering what was to be the second charge against him in a post-war War Crimes Court in May 1947, a charge on which he was initially found guilty, but later acquitted on appeal, in August of that year.
* The successful appeal of this charge, based on the fact that the survivors had deliberately sought to avoid being picked up, and that he claimed he had kept the Widder in the area for a considerable time looking for them, led to his prison sentence being reduced from ten to seven years. It made little difference, as he died in June 1948.
Ruckteschell argued that as the gun flashes and the glare of the searchlight might well have alerted enemy warships nearby, he clearly had to be cautious, and that apart from the fact that it could take hours to locate and rescue them, many Allied seamen deliberately tried to escape, and often frustrated rescue attempts, thereby risking their own lives.
His Executive Officer, Ernst-Günther Heinicke, pointed out to him that his officers and men were having difficulties with some of his more ruthless procedures, and insisted that in future every effort be made to pick up survivors.
The Widder’s surgeon, Dr Negenborn, likewise impressed upon his captain the necessity to adopt a more humane approach to the safety of survivors.
While he clearly didn’t want prisoners on his ship, particularly in view of the chronic shortage of food on board, which necessitated rationing, Ruckteschell listened, and took some time to pick up the entire complement of his next victim, despite the fact that they were a lot closer to land than the Norwegians had been.
The twenty-eight survivors of the Beaulieu were rescued on August 9, by the British tanker Cymbeline, and landed at Gibraltar, where they gave a full report of the attack on their ship, and on the behaviour of their assailant.
When a ship was spotted on August 8, close to the Azores, the Widder once again slipped below the horizon, with navigation officer Rödel making sure that contact was maintained throughout the afternoon, until, as night fell, he positioned her so the vessel was in stark silhouette against the rising moon.
Attacking without warning from a range of only 3,500 metres, with over forty rounds of 150mm gunfire, registering six hits, starting several fires that quickly went out of control, the Widder then closed to within 2,000 metres, to rake the vessel’s bridge and gun positions with light anti-aircraft and machine gun fire.
Despite this, the freighter’s entire company of thirty-four men, managed to get off the blazing ship in two boats, and were all safely picked up.
Identified as the 5,059-ton Dutch NV Stoomvaart Maatschappij Nederland freighter, Oostplein, en route from Cardiff to Buenos Aires with a cargo of 5,850 tons of coal and coke, the ship was sunk by a torpedo and further gunfire.
Two days later, on August 10, the Widder came upon a most unusual sight, as a three-masted barque appeared over the horizon under full sail.
After a couple of warning shots had been fired, the stately vessel backed her mainmast and stopped without sending any signals.
A boarding party sent to check her papers and inspect her cargo, identified her as the 1,817-ton Finnish ship, Killoran, bound for Las Palmas from Buenos Aires, with a cargo of 2,500 tons of maize and 500 tons of sugar.
A neutral ship, from a country later to join in the war on the German side, and travelling from one neutral country to another, with a harmless cargo, everything appeared to be in order, but, when it transpired that both her shipping agent, and the owner of the cargo were British, according to the prize rules, Ruckteschell had the majestic vessel sent to bottom by demolition charges, with all her sails still set, and her crew of eighteen picked up.
It has been said that Ruckteschell was reluctant to sink the Killoran, and that it was the ship’s surgeon, Negenborn, who pressed him into doing so.
The surgeon had been filming the voyage for Nazi propaganda purposes, and needed the sinking to have a good ending to the film, and allegedly threatened to report Ruckteschell to Berlin if it was not done.
Despite the fact that Ruckteschell ordered the Finnish flag to be lowered before she was sunk, all the true seamen on board the Widder regarded the sinking of such a beautiful old sailing ship as a murder.
* In April 1940, Bernhard Rogge, commander of the raider Atlantis, as he watched a similarly beautiful sailing ship passing by, was reported as saying, “Even if she’d been British, even if she’d been packed with contraband, I still couldn’t have sunk her! What manner of man could sink a sailing ship these days?”
The Widder now held one hundred and sixteen captives of thirteen different nationalities on board, including six ships captains.
Initiating a program of training men from his deck crew to work in the engine room, so that Kapitänleutnant Penzel and his crew, who had been working without relief for two and a half months, since the voyage began, just to keep the ship operational, could take some ‘leave on board’, Ruckteschell noted in his war diary that, “A steamship for this purpose, is, and remains, foolishness”.
The manner in which the Widder’s captain went about subdueing his next victim, would ultimately prove to be his undoing.
Early on August 21, having just concluded a highly contentious court martial proceeding, in which one of the ship’s officers, a Leutnant Scharnberg, was being tried for falling asleep while on watch the night before, a ship was sighted.
Ruckteschell instantly decided to employ the same sudden attack without warning method that had brought success against the Beaulieu and the Oostplein, and so the Widder retired to wait below the horizon until after dark. As it was not due to be pitch dark until 8 o’clock, and with moonrise due at 8.18, the Widder’s captain had just 18 minutes in which to surprise the enemy.
Approaching on an opposing course, but unable to see his prey until the last moment, he closed with her from directly in front, finally catching sight of one of her lights at 8 o’clock, and opening fire at 8.08 from a ‘point blank’ range of 2,500 metres, hitting her deck gun and setting its ready-use ammunition on fire.
When Kindler reported signals being transmitted, the Widder’s anti-aircraft weapons and machine gunners were instructed to spray the freighter’s bridge and decks, ripping the radio-room apart, until they stopped.
This murderous barrage not only prevented the ship from calling for assistance, but it also shredded her lifeboats, leaving her surviving crewmen with just one small ‘jolly boat’ intact on the port side of the bridge, in which seven men, three of them wounded, managed to get away, and several life-rafts.
Desperately trying not to attract attention, and quickly putting as much distance between themselves and the shattered, burning ship as possible, they watched, as some of their shipmates managed to launch a couple of the life-rafts, but were horrified to see them appear to come under fire from the German warship.
* This action, described as ‘the indiscriminate machine gunning of the survivors in their boats and rafts’, formed the basis of the third War Crimes charge brought against Ruckteschell after the war, a charge on which he was found ‘Not Guilty’.
* Anglo Saxon’s sole survivor, Able Seaman Robert Tapscott, although unavailable to attend Ruckteschell’s trial, testified that the Widder had opened fire on the boats and rafts as they moved away from the sinking ship.
* Ruckteschell’s defence counsel countered that due to the noise of the guns firing over the heads of the men in the boats, it was difficult to communicate the ‘cease fire’ command to the gunners, while he himself claimed that if anyone had inadvertently fired at the boats, it was accidental.
* Ruckteschell was found ‘Not Guilty’ of this charge, as it was hard to believe that any sailor would knowingly fire at fellow seamen in lifeboats, particularly in view of the fact that the Widder’s crew had so recently complained about their captain’s tactic of firing at vessels without first warning them.
Convinced that the Germans were determined to eradicate all evidence of what they had done, the men drifted off into the darkness, as the raider’s searchlight swept over what was left of their ship, picking out her name on the stern.
The 5,594-ton British Nitrate Producers Steamship Co. freighter Anglo Saxon, had been on her way to Buenos Aires with a cargo of Welsh coal.
Ruckteschell instructed his torpedo officer Malte Von Schack, to finish her off.
Following a massive explosion, which blew a large hole in her hull, she went down slowly by the stern, taking thirty-four of her forty-one man crew with her.
Lights had been observed in two life-rafts, as Morse signals were briefly seen passing between them, but as no one appeared to be actively seeking assistance, and as it appeared as if the survivors were attempting to evade capture, making any rescue virtually impossible, Ruckteschell decided not to try to pick them up.
Besides, the large explosion that sank the freighter would have been seen for a great distance, and, as he later recorded in his war diary, the lifeboats were ‘… only 800 miles from the Canaries…’ and ‘… the wind was favourable…’
* This decision formed the basis of the fourth War Crimes charge brought against Ruckteschell in 1947, one that was to cost him dearly, as he was found guilty of ‘Not providing for the safety of the crew’.
Seventy days later, the Anglo Saxon’s jolly boat drifted onto a remote beach in the Bahamas, having covered a staggering 2,700 sea miles.
Of the seven men who had scrambled on board, amazingly, two were still alive.
Adrift for over two months in the tiny open boat, Able Seamen Robert Tapscott and Roy Widdicombe, who crawled ashore half-dead on the island of Eleuthera, on October 30, had endured a most appalling ordeal, as, in the first two weeks after the attack, they had seen their three wounded shipmates succumb to their injuries, and the other two choose to take their own lives rather than face an agonising death from hunger and thirst, after which they themselves had clung to life for a further eight weeks, alone in the vastness of the Atlantic.
* Having spent months recuperating from this ordeal, Roy Widdicombe lost his life while being repatriated to Britain on the freighter Siamese Prince, which was sunk with all hands by the U-69 (Kptlt. Jost Metzler) south-west of the Faroe Islands on February 17 1941.
On August 26, Ruckteschell failed to close with two potential victims, a freighter and a tanker, due to the Widder’s lack of speed, which at times was down to seven or eight knots maximum, a speed at which just about anything could get away from her, he decided to take her to the northern edge of his operational zone to carry out the repairs necessary to keep her faltering engines going.
Early on September 2, a tanker was spotted in the distance, just as Penzel’s overworked engine-room crew had managed to get all of her boilers working, and she was accelerating towards her maximum speed of 14 knots.
The large amount of funnel smoke that this created was spotted by the tanker’s lookouts, leading her captain to alter course, but, by following her closely all day, Ruckteschell was able to close with her shortly after dark, and open fire under the eerie light of a star-shell, from a range of 2,600 metres.
The first salvo caused one of the tanker’s boilers to explode, swathing the entire stern section of the ship in scalding steam, making it impossible for her gun crew to even approach their gun, let alone use it.
Ceasing firing after the explosion, Ruckteschell was informed that the enemy ship was transmitting distress signals, leaving him with little alternative but to instruct Damschen’s gunners to resume firing, concentrating on the tanker’s bridge, which was soon utterly devastated and ablaze.
Circling the ship, and examining her under the beam of the raider’s searchlight, he identified her as the 6,317-ton, British C.T. Bowring & Co.,tanker Cymbeline, sailing in ballast, from Liverpool to Trinidad.
Dispatching the burning ship with a torpedo, Ruckteschell, in keeping with his promise to his Executive Officer Heinicke, and to his Surgeon, to make every possible effort to rescue survivors, spent four hours searching for her thirty-six man crew, who, having abandoned ship, had made off in the boats.
Little did he know, while his ship was engaged in this humanitarian activity, that the captain of the Cymbeline had not only taken evasive action on spotting the raider that morning, but he had reported her as ‘a suspicious ship’.
With seven men having lost their lives during the attack, twenty-six survivors were found and picked up, leaving three, including the Captain, unaccounted for.
Leaving the scene, Widder had one hundred and forty-two prisoners on board.
The tanker’s captain, J.A. Chadwick, his First Officer and his Third Engineer, all escaped in a boat, and were rescued fourteen days later, on September 16, by the tanker Yolonda, and taken to Venezuela.
* Coincidentally, the Cymbeline was the ship that had picked up the Beaulieu’s twenty-eight survivors on August 9, during a previous crossing.
Over the next few days, significant changes were made to the raider’s paintwork and appearance, as she was painted grey to make her look like ‘an Englishman’, all white surfaces were painted brown, to make her less visible at night, and masts and derrick booms were either reduced or removed, to alter her profile.
While this work was going on, her engines were shut down, as once again major repairs were carried out, leaving her adrift and helpless, and more than one of her crew beginning to wonder if they would ever manage to get her home.
As Widder was scheduled to re-fuel in two weeks, close to the spot where the Cymbeline was sunk, Ruckteschell was anxious to distract British attention away from the area, and decided to do so by blatantly revealing his presence in the southeasternmost sector of his operational zone.
Steaming south, he received an urgent communication from the SKL alerting him of the imminent passage of the tanker Eurofeld through his area of operations.
Well aware of Ruckteschell’s tactic of attacking ships at night without warning, without even establishing their nationality, Naval Command were anxious to avoid such a lethal and disastrous attack being made on a friendly vessel.
Having reached her destination, the Widder’s engine problems flared up again on September 8, reducing her speed to a mere 8 knots, and Penzel’s crew had to spend the day conducting the necessary repairs.
That night, with the repairs complete and the engines once more capable of making 12 knots, a freighter appeared, heading straight towards the raider.
Turning on her lights and ordering the approaching vessel to stop, under the light of a star shell, she obeyed without any signals, or a shot being fired.
The boarding party identified her as the 5,866-ton Greek J.D. Chandris collier, Antonios Chandris, bound for Buenos Aires from Cardiff with 6,616 tons of coal, and a crew of twenty-nine.
With one hundred and forty-two prisoners already on board, Ruckteschell instructed the boarding party to tell her captain, George Gafos, to provision his ‘well founded’ lifeboats, and make for the west coast of Africa, adding that as there was so much rain falling, there would be no a shortage of drinking water!
Thirty-one days later, on October 8, Gafos and his twenty-one starving half-dead men were lucky to be picked up by the Portuguese freighter Serpa Pinto, over 1,400 miles from where they had been set adrift.
Having provided the raider with meat and other foodstuffs, the Antonios Chandris was sunk by demolition charges at first light the next morning.
Heading back towards the northwest at a ‘top speed’ of 8 knots, the engine troubles again became acute, reducing her speed to 5 knots and finally to a complete standstill, leaving her drifting helplessly for a full day.
Had any sort of Allied warship come along, she would have been ‘a sitting duck’.
Knowing that their own lives, as well as those of their shipmates, not to mention the one hundred and forty-two suffering souls in the prisoner accomodation, depended on their getting the disabled engines going again, Penzel’s engineers worked frantically to repair them.
Anxious to meet up with the Eurofeld in order to get rid of some of his prisoners, Ruckteschell fretted, as his ship spent a week crawling towards the rendezvous point, but at last, on September 16, she was spotted.
On seeing the raider approach, the tanker’s captain, Blessin, believing his ship to be under attack, took off and tried to escape, until, after an infuriating four and a half hour chase, the Widder’s signallers finally convinced him they were friendly.
Dismayed to learn that the tanker could not take his prisoners, as she was due to remain at large in the Atlantic as a replacement for the Rekum, Ruckteschell was relieved to hear that the supply-ship was bound for France.
Sailing south with the Eurofeld to a rendezvous with the supply-ship, to which he consigned his war diary, mails and reports, and sixty-five of his prisoners, he took on 1,600 tons of fuel oil, during the two days the three ships remained together.
As Ruckteschell chose to retain all seventy-seven of his English prisoners on board, whilst transferring those of other nationalities, it has been suggested that he may have intended using them as hostages in the ever-increasing likelihood of the semi-crippled Widder being caught cold by a British warship.
Parting company on September 21, with the Eurofeld heading for a rendezvous with the raider Thor in the South Atlantic, and the Rekum for Saint-Nazaire, the Widder resumed her cruise, but, with her engines undergoing almost continuous running repairs, and her maximum speed down to eight knots, a slow-moving collier had to be let go, and indeed avoided, on September 26.
That evening, the engines broke down completely, and on the following morning, while completely disabled, a ship was reported heading straight for the Widder.
Immediately running up the Norwegian flag, and the internationally recognised signal for ‘Not Under Control’, Ruckteschell ordered his crew to their battle stations, and prepared to bluff it out.
Fortunately, the vessel, passing at a range of just over two miles, and identified as the 4,945-ton Vichy-French freighter Capitaine Paul Lemerle of the Société Générale de Transport Maritimes à Vapeur SA., en route from Martinique to Casablanca, ignored the raider, and simply went on her way.
With the repair work continuing all that day, and into the next day September 28, the engines were finally back on line and getting up towards 12 knots again by midday, only for them to fail completely again that evening.
This time, as new bearings had to be cast, it took six days to solve the problem, which at least gave the exhausted engine-room crews a chance to take some well-earned rest, but left the Widder hopelessly exposed for almost a week.
On October 4, as Penzel’s miracle workers managed to get the engines into a state where they were capable of seven knots, only for them to start overheating and vibrating, Ruckteschell finally conceded that the Widder’s war was probably over, and expressed the view that he would be happy to get home.
Following another two days of enforced immobility, during which he decided to terminate the cruise and head for a home port, he transmitted a signal to that effect to the SKL on October 6.
Receiving no response, he had it sent again the next day, eventually receiving acknowledgement and permission to proceed on October 9, with the additional welcome news that the Rekum had arrived safely at Saint-Nazaire, news he immediately shared with his crew.
On October 10, the crippled raider turned northward for France, and over the following three weeks, passed close to the places where she had attacked so many of her victims, and spotted several ships, including an Alfred Holt & Co., ‘Blue Funnel’ liner, in a severe storm, west of Cape Finisterre, on October 25.
Taking evasive action as best she could, given her slow speed and the condition of her engines, the extreme weather provided refuge and she escaped unseen.
On October 27, as she turned eastwards to approach the coast of France, she was met by the Italian submarine Maggiore Baracca, which reported the raider’s arrival to Naval Group West, which promised her air cover the following day.
With the storm still unabated the next day, no aircraft materialised, but on the morning of October 29, one did appear, only to completely ignore her.
That night, in pitch darkness, she was challenged, and having given the correct response, was welcomed by the U-29 (Kptlt. Otto Schuhart), sent to escort her over the remaining miles towards the port of Brest.
With the weather preventing the units of the Fifth Torpedo Boat Flotilla putting to sea, she was joined by several patrol boats over the final stretch, arriving into the port, and dropping anchor in the roadstead of Brest on October 31.
After almost six months at sea, during which she had sunk nine ships, and taken one as a prize, for a total of 58,644 tons, and caused considerable chaos and disruption in the Allied shipping lanes, the Widder’s controversial captain was almost immediately embroiled in controversy.
By way of a hand-delivered message, he was ordered by the SKL to proceed, through the heavily-patrolled English Channel, to Hamburg, for essential engine repairs, a hazardous prospect for any ship, let alone one in such poor shape.
Ruckteschell refused point blank to obey, pointing out to the officer whose job it was to convey his reply to Berlin, that such a voyage would put his highly experienced crew in unnecessary danger for a jaded ship with clapped out engines, adding that he would present this view personally in Berlin, if necessary, but that under no circumstances would he take the Widder back out to sea.
Because of this, he was refused permission to land after six months at sea.
As several events had been arranged for them, including a ‘homecoming celebration’ on board, the crew of the Widder were understandably very frustrated, so much so, that one man drowned while trying to swim ashore.
Remaining at anchor for two weeks, the raider was moved into the local shipyard on November 14, and the crew were given their well-deserved shore leave.
Their captain, summoned to account for his actions, boarded a train for Berlin .
In view of his undoubted accomplishments with the Widder, the Naval High Command decided to adopt a lenient approach to his defiance of their order, and within days he and his crew were being reviewed and decorated by the Chief of Staff to the Naval Commander, Brittany, Kapitän zur See Bauer, who presented each officer with the Iron Cross First Class, and Second Class to each of the men.
The award of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, an honour bestowed only upon German heroes, to Korvettenkapitän Hellmuth von Ruckteschell, confirmed that his masters in Berlin viewed him as such, and that they approved of his methods.
J.Revell Carr, in his superb book on Hellmuth von Ruckteschell and the sinking of the Anglo Saxon, ‘All Brave Sailors’, describes this as ‘ … a key moment of redemption for Ruckteschell … He was recognised as a true German hero, and that stature in the eyes of his fellow officers and countrymen could not be taken from him. A new phase in life could begin for this man who had renewed confidence and no longer carried the burden of having to prove himself’
He was rewarded further by being assigned to precommissioning duties in a fresh command, the brand new, fast, motor-vessel, Bielsko of the Gdynia America line, designated Schiff 28, which awaited him at a shipyard in Danzig.
* The only raider captain to be put on trial after the war, charged with failing to secure the safety of the crews of the Anglo Saxon and the Beaulieu, and with continuing to fire on the Davisian after her captain had indicated that his ship was being abandoned, Ruckteschell was sentenced to ten years in prison in 1947, and died in the Fuhlsbüttel Penitentiary in Hamburg, in June 1948.
The Widder, her raiding days over, finally made the hazardous journey up the English Channel to Germany, where she was stripped of her armaments and installations, most of which were assigned to her former captain’s new command, Schiff 28, which would become Hilfskreuzer IX, the raider Michel.
Reverting to her original Hapag name of Neumark, she was de-commissioned, and re-assigned, as a supply and repair ship.
Curiously, the Neumark / Widder, which, like her sister Kurmark / Orion, was undoubtedly the most ill-suited of all the Hilfskreuzer for the strenuous demands of sustained raider warfare, was the only one of them to survive the war, seeing out the hostilities as a repair ship in Norway .
Anchored in Kåfjord she accomodated the shipyard workers assigned to carry out repairs on the bomb-damaged battleship Tirpitz.
On November 12 1944, she witnessed the death of the giant ship off Hannoy Island near Tromsö.
Requisitioned by the British as a reparations prize after the war, she was sold to the Ionian Maritime Company of Piraeus , in 1947, and re-named Ulysses.
During her three years with the Greek company, her chronic propulsion problems persisted, even leading to a collision with another freighter off the coast of India in 1950, which necessitated her putting in to a shipyard in Singapore for repairs.
She returned to German ownership in 1951, being purchased by the Unterweser Reederei AG, for 2.4 million marks, where she was re-named Fechenheim, and extensively re-fitted at a cost of a further 1.6 million marks.
She operating as a tramp for the next five years, and on May 17 1954, while being rebuilt as a motor-ship, a wreath was found, draped on one of the old uneconomical turbines which were being replaced by 8-Cylinder FIAT diesels.
On October 3 1955, in service as an ore transporter between Narvik and Emden , the Fechenheim entered the Maalöysund, near Bergen , carrying a cargo of 11,306 tons of iron ore.
As neither her captain, Ludwig Lindner, nor the local Norwegian pilots, had been informed that an important marker beacon had been moved, the 26-year old freighter ran out of luck, and onto the rocks, tearing a massive hole in her side.
Despite Lindner’s managing to beach her, she broke in two the following day, and was pounded to destruction by heavy seas six days later.
She was finally broken up, in 1956, by the Eisen und Metall-KG of Hamburg .
Notes on Hellmuth Von Ruckteschell’s Tactics and Post-War Trial for War Crimes
Helmuth von Ruckteschell was the only one of the Hilfskreuzer commanders to be tried for war crimes, being convicted of failing to pick up the crews of the Beaulieu and the Anglo Saxon, and of continuing to fire on the Davisian after her Captain had signalled that the ship was being abandoned.
Ruckteschell was highly-cultured, artistic and devoutly religious.
Although physically tough, he was a complicated and introspective man, with a quirky and mischievous sense of humour, but whose often moody, irritable, and temperamental disposition, was shared by many former U-Boat Officers.
Like so many others, his submarine service had left him with a nervous stomach, severe migraine headaches, and understandably, a paranoid fear of Q Ships.
He was of the view that the British Admiralty’s orders to ships masters could not be reconciled with International Law, and that he could never be certain what any one of them might do under pressure.
He had therefore refined his method of attack, tracking and stalking by day, a fast approach at nightfall and then, usually without warning, a sudden assault with his main armament, accompanied by anti-aircraft and machine-gun fire aimed at the victim’s bridge and radio room, that generally resulted in a number of deaths and injuries before the enemy even knew they were under attack.
This was a risky and controversial tactic, particularly hard on those victims that were, for example, unarmed, or willing to surrender without resisting.
Captain S. W. Roskill, the eminent British naval historian, remarked in ‘The War at Sea’ that “It is only fair to mention that the captains of German armed merchant raiders generally behaved with reasonable humanity towards the crews of intercepted ships, tried to avoid unnecessary loss of life and treated their prisoners tolerably”.
Ruckteschell, in his view, was “ The only exception”, his conduct being “So far contrary to the Hague Conventions that he was brought to trial and convicted as a war criminal in 1947”.
But, in ‘A Merchant Fleet at War’, he stated that “Under International Law, the immunity of a merchant ship from attack depended on her not resisting capture”.
Trying to escape or returning fire, was obvious resistance, but Ruckteschell and many other Germans maintained that the use of wireless also constituted ‘resisting’ and so justified their attacking ships that did so.
It might even be argued that organising ships into escorted convoys was a form of resistance to capture.
Ruckteschell confided in his family that the thought of being executed was not nearly as hard to bear as the thought of “ Being condemned on false evidence”.
As an officer, he refused to ask for mercy, saying that he simply wanted justice, conceding that, “I may have erred, and now it is they. We both did it on orders, and in the belief that we were right, and now, we are both wrong”.
On May 21 1947, he was sentenced to ten years in Hamburg-Fuhlsbüttel prison, the sentence subsequently being commuted to seven years, due to the fact that the charges concerning the Beaulieu could not be upheld.
On June 24 1948, shortly after hearing that he was to be released because of his deteriorating heart condition, Hellmuth von Ruckteschell died.
While the British held to their contention that his methods were brutal, there were those on the German side who, while possibly feeling that Ruckteschell was emotionally somewhat unsuitable to command a raider, still believed that the court had acted in vengeance for his escape from prosecution as a U-Boat commander who had applied himself so aggressively to his service during WW1, that the Allies had hoped to finally bring him to trial for war crimes.
A British officer who had spent eighty days as a captive in the raider Michel said, “War is a systematic way of killing one another … lawful on both sides … to us … at least … Ruckteschell was a Christian and a gentleman”
“How many people did I frighten and make to suffer with my ship? - Now it is my turn”
Hellmuth Von Ruckteschell - May 1947
It is worth noting that Von Ruckteschell was also in command of the raider Michel when she sunk Gloucester Castle
I would like to acknowledge the web site www.bismark-class.dk who are the authors of this article.