Operation Romulus (i)

(mythical founder of Rome, and brother of Remus)

'Romulus' (i) was the German oceanic rendezvous to the east of the Tuamoto archipelago in the south-west Pacific for raiders and their supply ship Münsterland operating from Japan (20/27 September 1941).

The first to take on ammunition, fuel and other supplies was the 7,862-ton Atlantis (otherwise Schiff 16 and, to the British, 'Raider C') on 20 September. Second was the 7,500-ton Komet (Schiff 45 and, to the British, 'Raider B') and her prize Kota Nopan on 24 September. Third was Atlantis once again, on 27 September, on this occasion with her prize Silvaplana. Both prize ships and Komet then departed to enter the Atlantic via Cape Horn, and Atlantis followed on 29 September.

Commanded by Kapitän Bernhard Rogge, Atlantis travelled more than 99,400 miles (16000 km) in 602 days, and sank or captured 22 ships totalling 145,690 tons before herself being sunk on 21 November 1941. The measure of the success enjoyed by Atlantis is that she was second only to Pinguin in terms of tonnage destroyed, and had the longest raiding career of any German commerce raider in either world war.

The ship was built by Bremer Vulkan in 1937 as the freighter Goldenfels, and late in 1939 she was requisitioned by the German navy and converted as an auxiliary warship to become the commerce raider Atlantis in November 1939. The ship carried one or two Heinkel He 114B floatplanes, four waterline torpedo tubes and 92 mines, and was also fitted with six 150-mm (5.9-in) guns, one 75-mm (2.95-in) gun on the bow, two twin 37-mm anti-aircraft guns and four 20-mm cannon: all of these were hidden, mostly behind pivoting false deck or side structures, though a mock crane and deckhouse on the after section concealed two of the 150-mm (5.9-in) guns; the other four were concealed via flaps in the side. The ship was powered by two Diesel engines driving a single propeller, and had very long range as well as a maximum speed of 16 kt.

The ship’s departure was delayed by ice until 31 March 1940, when the former battleship Hessen was sent to act as an icebreaker to clear a passage for Atlantis and two other commerce raiders, Orion and Widder. Manned by 350 men, Atlantis headed past the North Sea minefields between Norway and the UK, crossed the Arctic Circle and after passing between Iceland and Greenland headed to the south. By this time Atlantis was disguised as a neutral Soviet vessel named Krim, but after crossing the equator on 24/25 April became the Japanese vessel Kasii Maru.

On 2 May she met the British passenger liner City of Exeter, but Rogge was unwilling to cause non-combatant casualties and did not attack. Once the ships had parted, however, City of Exeter's captain radioed his suspicions to the Admiralty. On 3 May Atlantis met a 6,200-ton British freighter, Scientist, loaded with ore and jute. The German ship’s 75-mm (2.95-in) gun fired a warning shot, and the British immediately began transmitting an alarm signal, which the Germans jammed. Scientist turned to flee, and on the second salvo from Atlantis burst into flames and started to spout steam from her ruptured boilers. One British sailor was killed and the remaining 77 were taken prisoners of war. After failing to sink the ship with demolition charges, the Germans sank Scientist with gun and torpedo fire.

Continuing to the south, Atlantis rounded the Cape of Good Hope, reaching Cape Agulhas on 10 May. Here she laid a minefield with 92 horned contact naval mines in a pattern suggesting that a U-boat had laid them. The minefield was successful, but the deception was foiled and the ship’s presence revealed by a German propaganda broadcast boasting that 'a minefield, sown by a German raider' had sunk no fewer than eight merchant ships, three more were overdue, three minesweepers were involved, and the Royal Navy was not capable of finding 'a solitary raider' operating in 'its own back yard'. Furthermore a British signal was sent from Ceylon on 20 May and intercepted by Germany, based on the report from City of Exeter, warning shipping of a German raider disguised as a Japanese ship.

Atlantis headed into the Indian Ocean disguised as the Dutch vessel Abbekerk. On 10 June, Atlantis stopped the 7,230-ton Norwegian ship Tirranna with 30 salvoes after a three-hour chase. Five Norwegians were killed and others wounded. Filled with supplies for Australian troops in the Middle East, Tirranna was sent to France with a prize crew. On 11 July the 7,505-ton liner City of Baghdad surrendered after gunfire had been directed at her, and the German boarding party discovered a copy of Broadcasting for Allied Merchant Ships, which contained communications codes. Like Atlantis, City of Baghdad was a former Hansa liner, but in this instance captured by the British in World War I. A copy of the report sent by City of Exeter was found, and Rogge therefore altered his ship’s profile.

On 13 July, Atlantis opened fire on a cargo ship, the 7,770-ton Kemmendine, which was heading for Burma. Filled with whisky, Kemmendine was quickly ablaze and a boarding crew returned empty handed. Lifeboats carrying women and children were taken aboard. On 2 August Atlantis sank the 6,730-ton Talleyrand, Tirranna's sister-ship. Then she encountered the 4,745-ton King City, carrying coal, which she mistook for a British Q-ship as a result of her erratic steering (actually a result of mechanical difficulties). Three shells destroyed the bridge, and the ship sank.

On 9, 10 and 20 September Atlantis sank the 9,550-ton tanker Athelking, 5,800-ton freighter Benarty and 10,060-ton French passenger liner Commissaire Ramel. All of these were sunk only after supplies, documents and prisoners had been taken. On 22 October, the 5,620-ton Yugoslav freighter Durmitor was taken: the ship was then loaded with documents and 260 prisoners, and dispatched to Mogadishu in Italian Somaliland. On 9 and 10 November Atlantis took a pair of Norwegian tankers, the 6,750-ton Teddy and 8,305-ton Ole Jacob, the former being sunk and the latter taken as a prize.

At about 07.00 on 11 November, Atlantis encountered the 7,530-ton Blue Funnel Line cargo ship Automedon about 250 miles (400 km) to the north-west of Sumatra. At 08.20 the raider fired a warning shot across Automedon's bow, and the British vessel’s radio operator at once began transmitting a distress call. Atlantis shelled Automedon at a range of about 1,970 yards (1800 m), ceasing fire after a three-minute engagement which led to the destruction of the British ship’s bridge, accommodation and lifeboats. Six members of the crew were killed and 12 injured. The Germans boarded the stricken ship and broke into the strong room, where they found 15 bags of top secret mail for the British command in the Far East. This included a large quantity of decoding tables, fleet orders, gunnery instructions, and naval intelligence reports. Then a search of the Automedon's chart room found a small weighted green bag marked 'Highly Confidential' and containing the Combined Chiefs-of-Staff report to Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, the commander-in-chief Far East. The bag should have been thrown overboard, but the men responsible for this had been killed or incapacitated. The report contained the latest British assessment of Japan’s military strength in the Far East, along with details of Royal Air Force units, naval strength, and notes on Singapore’s defences. In overall terms, the report painted a gloomy picture of British land and sea capabilities in the Far East, and declared that the UK was too weak to risk war with Japan. Automedon was sunk at 15.07 and, appreciating the importance of the intelligence material which had been captured, Rogge quickly transferred the documents onto the recently acquired Ole Jacob, which was ordered to head with al possible speed to Japan, where the captured ship arrived in Kobe on 4 December 1940. The mail reached the German embassy in Tokyo on 5 December, and was then hand-carried to Berlin via the Trans-Siberian Railway. A copy was given to the Japanese, and provided them with valuable intelligence.

After assessing the report, on 7 January 1941 Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Combined Fleet, wrote to the naval minister asking whether, in the event that Japan knocked out the USA, the remaining British and Dutch forces would be weak enough for the Japanese to deliver a deathblow. Thus the Automedon intelligence on the weakness of the British empire in the Far East is credibly linked with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the attack leading to the fall of Singapore.

During the Christmas period of 1940, Atlantis was at the Kerguelen islands group in the Indian Ocean. There the crew undertook maintenance and replenished their water supplies. On 24 and 31 January 1941, off the east coast of Africa, Atlantis sank the 5,145-ton British freighter Mandasor and captured the 5,150-ton British freighter Speybank. Then, on 2 February, the 7,300-ton Norwegian tanker Ketty Brøvig was captured and relieved of some of her fuel. The rest was used to refuel the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer and, on 29 March the Italian submarine Perla. The last was making its way from the port of Massawa in Italian East Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, to Bordeaux in France.

By April, Atlantis had returned to the Atlantic where, on 17 April 17 Rogge, mistaking the 8,300-ton Egyptian liner Zamzam for a British liner being used as a troop transport or Q-ship, as she was in fact the former Bibby Line’s Leicestershire, opened fire at a range of 9,300 yards (8500 m). The second salvo hit and destroyed the wireless room, and Atlantis took 202 persons prisoner. The Germans allowed one of them, the Life magazine photographer David E. Scherman, to take photographs, and although his film was seized when they returned to Europe aboard a German blockade runner, he did manage to smuggle four rolls back to New York. It is possible that his photographs later helped the British identify and destroy Atlantis.

After the battleship Bismarck had been sunk at the end of 'Rheinübung', the North Atlantic was swarming with British warships, and Rogge therefore decided to abandon the original plan of returning to Germany, and instead turned back via the Indian Ocean into the Pacific. During this passage Atlantis sank four British freighters, namely the 6,810-ton Rabaul, 4,530-ton Trafalgar, 4,760-ton Tottenham and 5,375-ton Balzac, in the period between 14 May and 23 June. On 10 September, to the east of New Zealand, Atlantis captured the 4,790-ton Norwegian vessel Silvaplana.

Atlantis then patrolled the South Pacific, initially in French Polynesia between the Tubuai islands group and the Tuamotu archipelago. Without the knowledge of French authorities, the Germans landed on Vanavana island and traded with the inhabitants. They then hunted Allied shipping in the area between Pitcairn island and uninhabited Henderson island, making a landing on the latter. The vessel’s floatplane made several fruitless reconnaissance flights.

Atlantis headed back to the Atlantic on 19 October, and rounded Cape Horn 10 days later. On 18 October Rogge was ordered to rendezvous with U-68 at a location 500 miles (805 km) to the south of St Helena and refuel her, then refuel U-126 at a location to the north of Ascension island. The rendezvous with U-68 took place on 13 November, and on 21 or 22 November Atlantis met U-126. Early on the morning of 22 November Atlantis was intercepted by British heavy cruiser Devonshire, and U-126 dived, leaving behind her captain, who had gone aboard Atlantis for a bath. At 08.40 Atlantis transmitted a raider report posing as the Dutch ship Polyphemus, but by 09.34 Devonshire had received confirmation that this was false and, opened fire at a range of between 15,000 and 16,500 yards (13715 and 15100 m), outside the range of Atlantis's 150-mm (5.9-in) guns. Within 30 seconds, salvoes of 8-in (203-mm) shells started to reach the German raider, and the second and third salvoes hit the ship. Seven sailors were killed as the crew abandoned ship, her ammunition exploded, the bow rose and the ship sank by the stern.

Devonshire left the area and after surfacing once more, U-126 rescued 300 Germans and one wounded US prisoner, all of whom it began carrying or towing to Brazil, some 930 miles (1500 km) to the west. Two days later the German refuelling ship Python arrived and took the sailors on board. On 1 December, while Python was refuelling two U-boats, the third of the British cruisers seeking the raiders, Dorsetshire, appeared. The U-boats immediately submerged, and Python's crew scuttled their vessel. Dorsetshire departed, and it was left to the U-boats to recover the crew. Eventually various German and Italian submarines took Rogge’s crew back to Germany.

The 3,287-ton Komet and her career ended in October 1942 when she was sunk by British motor torpedo boats. Built by Deschimag and launched in January 1937 as the freighter Ems for Norddeutscher Lloyd, the ship was requisitioned at the start of World War II, converted into a merchant raider by Howaldtswerke, and commissioned on 2 June 1940. The ship was powered by two Diesel engines for a speed of 16 kt, and was armed with six 150-mm (5.9-in) guns, one 75-mm (2.95-in) gun and one 37-mm and four 20-mm AA guns, as well as six torpedo tubes. She also carried a small 15-ton fast boat for minelaying, and two Arado Ar 196 floatplanes. After lengthy negotiations, the Soviets agreed to provide Germany with access to the North-East Passage through which the German could access the Pacific Ocean. The two countries had initially agreed to the passage of 26 ships, including four armed merchant cruisers, but this was soon reduced to one ship, Komet.

Before her transit of the North-East Passage, Komet had her bow strengthened and was fitted with a special propeller suitable for ice navigation. Under the command of Kapitän (later Konteradmiral) Robert Eyssen, Komet departed for her first raiding voyage from Gotenhafen on 3 July 1940 with a 270-man crew. Komet initially made her way along the Norwegian coast disguised as the Soviet icebreaker Semyon Dezhnev. While waiting in Teriberka Bay in July and August because of Soviet security concerns, she took the false name Donau. The, aided by the Soviet icebreaker Lenin, she passed through the several stages of the North-East Passage and passed through the Bering Strait into the Pacific early in September. Komet next travelled to the south to the Japanese island of Lamutrik, and met the raider Orion and supply ship Kulmerland in mid-October. The three captains decided to work together, concentrating on the New Zealand to Panama passage taken by most Allied merchant ships.

The captains decided on Japanese disguises, Komet and Kulmerland having the names Manyo Maru and Tokio Maru painted on their hulls. By the time Komet and Orion sank the 546-ton Holmwood and 16,712-ton Rangitane, on 25 and 27 November respectively, Komet had already been at sea for 140 days. Early in November, Komet resupplied and refuelled in Japan, disguised as the Japanese merchantman Manyo Maru.

Komet then operated in company with Orion, disguised as Mayebashi Maru, and the supply ship Kulmerland, posing as the Tokio Maru. Between 6 and 8 December, Komet sank five Allied merchant ships in the form of the 4,413-ton Triona, 5,181-ton Vinni, 3,900-ton Komata, 6,378-ton Triadic and 6,032-ton Triaster, which had been waiting off Nauru island to load phosphate, and then on 27 December shelled the phosphate processing and loading facilities on Nauru. Co-operating with Orion, Komet sank two more British ships (5,020-ton Australind and 9,036-ton Devon) on 14 and 19 August respectively, and on 17 August captured the 7,300-ton Dutch freighter Kota Nopan, which was sent as a prize to Bordeaux.

Komet then passaged to the south-east through the western and eastern Pacific, around Cape Horn and finally to the north through the Atlantic to reach Cherbourg in German-occupied France.

Komet reached Hamburg on 30 November 1941 after a voyage of 516 days and about 118,000 miles (190000 km).

Komet's second cruise, under the command of Kapitän Ulrich Brocksien, began early in October 1942. However, only a week out of Hamburg, on 14 October, she was attacked by British motor torpedo boats near the Cap de la Hague, hit by a torpedo from MTB-236 and sank with no survivors.