THE "KOMET" RAIDER
On the 3rd of July 1940 a strange vessel left a German port Gotenhaven. From a first glance it was an ordinary cargo-passenger ship, but an experienced seaman would have noticed for sure unusually large crates and covered by tarpaulins numerous installations on its deck and something similar to gun port lids in the upper part of her hull. The ship soon headed northwards and, having passed by the Scandinavian Peninsula, entered the Soviet territorial waters. She refueled in the Bay of Western Litsa – a base courteously rented out by the USSR to the Nazi Germany. Then without any problems she crossed the free of ice Barents Sea and soon entered the Straight of Matochkin Shar dividing the Southern and the Northern islands of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago. Soon the ship approached a tiny settlement on the Straight coast whereby several ships were anchored. The ship slowed her speed and downed a motorboat. When the boat had returned, tall people in fur-lined leather coats and felt jackboots ascended the deck of the mysterious ship. They were Soviet sea pilots – captain of far navigation D.N. Sergievsjyi and his colleague A.G. Karelskikh. Having received from the captain of the mysterious ship information on its immersion, maneuverability, types of guide screws and hull strengthening, they took her under their conduct and led into the Kara Sea…
The Soviet pilots led a German raider "Komet". Initially it was indeed a cargo ship built in 1936 and named "Ems". In the beginning of the WWII the Krigsmarine (German Navy) command again decided, as well as during the WWI, to use raiders disguised as cargo ships for strikes on transport routes of its then main enemy – Great Britain. A whole series of ships disguised as merchantmen of different countries were re-equipped into auxiliary cruisers. Thus the "Komet" raider with a displacement of 7500 t, armed with six 5.9-inch guns, six AA guns and six torpedo tubes joined the ranks. Besides, "Komet" carried two hydroplanes, a torpedo boat and 270 mines. The crew consisted of 270 men. Food and equipment stores, availability of seawater fresheners might have let the ship to be in an autonomous navigation for at least a year.
Various equipment might have allowed the ship to operate in all possible environments. Amongst it there were a sledge, fur clothes, tropical uniform, mosquito nets and even toys for inhabitants of remote Pacific islands.
An experienced sailor, hydrograph and polar explorer kapitan zur see Robert Eyssen was assigned to be the ship’s captain. It was he who had suggested the Krigsmarine command to use the Northern Sea Route for the quickest and safe pass into the Pacific. A request of the German Naval attaché in Moscow had been coordinated with Stalin. He approved a 970,000 DM commercial deal and ordered the chief of Glavsevmorput (Northern Sea Route Department) I.D. Papanin to include conduct of a German vessel into the navigation plan of year 1940. Actually, then Stalin considered Great Britain as his main enemy, the Soviet newspapers were full of anti-British articles, and, thus, the deal was in a full match with the foreign policy of the USSR.
Having passed though the Straight of Matochkin Shar, "Komet" entered the Kara Sea. Its waters were free of ice and the ship moved to 650 of the Eastern longitude. Here Eyssen stopped and asked the "Stalin" icebreaker for a conduct through the ice fields. "Stalin" replied that she was far away, but the "Lenin" icebreaker with a caravan was already approaching Dixon, that’s why "Komet" would have to return to Matochkin Shar for safety and wait for a signal on the beginning of a conduct through ice. Eyssen was deeply dissatisfied but willingly or unwillingly he had to return. After comeback to the Straight he decided to give his crew an opportunity to walk on hard ground, to take photographs for memory, collect souvenirs. However, a permission to do it was not obtained immediately but only after a preliminary radio-request made by the Soviet pilots from the board of "Komet".
Only on the 19th of August "Komet" did the open sea again after a radiogram from the "Stalin" icebreaker and on the 22nd of August anchored in the Nordenscheld archipelago north of the Taimyr coast. Here "Komet" had stayed for three days waiting for the "Stalin"’s arrival. Meanwhile, the latter had been involved in much more an important work – it had provided an eastward conduct for the Sh-423 submarine, which was being transferred from Murmansk for reinforcement of the Pacific fleet. Captain Eyssen, of course, was not meant to know about it. He had not received any explanations and underwent a strike of suspicion.
On the 25th of August the "Lenin" icebreaker approached "Komet", and the German ship followed him. The ships passed through the Straight of Vilkitsky (between the continent and the Severnaya Zemlya archipelago) and a powerful icebreaker "Stalin" met them in the Laptev Sea. As soon as the caravan had approached the edge of thick ice fields, Eyssen was invited to "Stalin". Here the captain of the Soviet icebreaker Belousov asked him about the technical characteristics and condition of "Komet" and after that invited Eyssen and his interpreter for breakfast. During the breakfast served with the traditional Russian hospitality, the Germans had to take part in an active exchange of toasts, although, of course, they had not had a habit to drink a lot at 6 a.m. But the protocol required it. Besides, Eyssen noticed that the pilots Sergievskyi and Karelskikh who had not touched spirits onboard of "Komet" were not following this rule onboard of "Stalin".
On the 26th of August at 10a.m. "Stalin" led "Komet" further eastwards. Soon a small caravan entered thick ice fields almost fully obscured by fog. Here the icebreaker had to release from ice traps "Komet" stuck in the pass cut through the ice. The ice was so thick that "Stalin" had to crawl on ice at a speed literally smashing it by her hull. A day after the ships entered clear waters again. Here "Stalin" let know that the way was open eastwards from here up to the Straight of Sannikov (between the Kotelny Island and the Liakhovskye Islands) and left "Komet" alone.
Passing across the East-Siberian Sea was safe at the beginning. An experienced polar explorer Eyssen led "Komet" between the Medevezhyi Islands relying only on the sonic depth finder measurements. He understood well that the ice condition in front of the mouth of the Kolyma River would be acceptable due to warm water masses and did not err. East of the Medvezhyi islands the "Kaganovich" icebreaker led by a famous polar captain, chief of the marine operations of the East Arctic sector A.P. Melekhov met "Komet". The most difficult part of the route lay ahead – exclusively thick ice fields were in front of the seamen. "Komet" was hardly moving through a narrow canal quickly filled by ice again. On the night from 31st of August to the 1st of September the ice movements and compressions, complicated by powerful snow blizzards and hurricane wind, began. "Kaganovich" had to approach "Komet" a few times in order to chip off closing ice fields. Captain Eyssen remembered this night decades after: "I’ll never forget this night. The ice was nine balls, snow blizzards. Permanent fear for the rudder and the guide screw… The rudder machine failed. Helpless drift. I’ve already been on the captain's bridge for 22 hours. Again terrible darkness – and al this in such ice!" It took 4 hours to repair the rudder machine – all this time "Komet" was helplessly drifting in ice.
Having passed a hardest portion 60 miles (about 110km) long, on the 1st of September the ships entered almost clear waters near the Ayon Island in the Eastren part of the East Siberian Sea. Over here "Kaganovich" lay in drift and after that A.I. Melekhov approached "Komet’ in a boat and advised Eyssen that they had received an order from the Chief of Glavsevmorput I.D. Papanin to return "Komet" back. Appearance of ships hostile to Germany in the Bering Sea was named the reason for it. Eyssen tried to convince Melekhov that it was impossible after such an effort, but the Soviet captain kept repeating firmly that he was not discussing the orders from Moscow. Eyssen objected that he had orders of his own Command from Berlin and that he was ready to lead his ship through the Bering Straight at his own risk. Moreover, he was ready to pass the remaining 300 miles to the Bering Straight himself.
What had actually happened? Eyssen sensibly thought, that the Russian pulled back and wanted to withdraw from this business fearing to spoil relations with England in case world radio and press broadcast [news] about the Soviet-German naval operations on passing of German raiders into the Pacific – strategic backyard of the anti-Hitler coalition. Besides, the captain had learnt from radio intercepts that "the hostile ships" in the Bering Sea had been nothing more than Japanese whalers… Eyssen announced it to Melekhov with a straightness of a soldier having requested to transfer the "calming information of the German radio intelligence to Mr. Papanin". A day after Melekhov returned to the icebreaker having expressed his agreement upon continuation of the conduct up to the nearest anchorage in order to get in touch with Moscow again. Eyssen agreed to wait for a day precisely.
Many years after people who had known Melekhov, told that he terribly feared that Eyssen would spit on the order and take off further east, and Moscow would make a scapegoat out of him for all political consequences. Captain Melekhov was sure that in this case he would be sentenced to the capital punishment. Because of all this he sent Papanin a coded radiogram in which he reported that the coded message had come too late and he had no means to stop Eyssen.
On the 2nd of September at 3 p.m. the term of the Eyssen’s ultimatum expired. At 9 p.m. Melekhov and Sergievskyi returned to "Komet" with a message that no news had arrived. Eyssen summoned an urgent meeting with participation of the Soviet seamen and declared that he had no more time to wait and, fearing weather deterioration (his forecast was later confirmed), he had to move further. The Soviet seamen received a memorandum with clarification of the position of the German side and gratitude for the conduct to the last anchorage. However, Eyssen agreed to wait till the 3rd of September 8 a.m. The morning had come but Moscow kept silent. About 6 a.m. Eyssen walked the Soviet pilots Sergievskyi and Karelskikh to the jacob's ladder. The interpreter Krepsch, which had to hand commercial documents over to Melekhov and get from him copies of acts on completion of the conduct, went with them. Krepsch returned with documents and a message from Melekhov, in which the latter advised: "Wait for signals from the icebreaker. Three long buzzes will mean that "Kaganovich’ is leaving you, two – the interpreter has to arrive at the icebreaker, one – follow me eastwards". Eyssen went mad and announced that he will order to take off at 8.30 a.m. but 21 minutes before it he heard two buzzes from "Kaganovich". When Krepsch had arrived at the icebreaker, he was advised that Moscow had sent Papanin’s permit to continue the conduct and, if necessary – with icebreaking.
Having raised the anchor, "Komet" headed eastwards following the Soviet icebreaker across absolutely clear waters. 25 minutes after the symbolic conduct ended, the Soviet icebreaker hoisted the signal "I wish you a happy voyage!" and headed west. On the 6th of September "Komet" passed through the Bering Straight, in the meantime Eyssen said literally the following: "I’ve done it, I’ll never agree to do it again". A bit later "Komet" anchored in the Anadyr bay. Here captain Eyssen stayed for several hours in order to let the divers to scrutinize the guide screws and the rudder and to fix up something. Then, having disguised as a Soviet steam ship "Dezhnev", "Komet" did an open sea again…
In November 1940, having refilled stores of fuel and food in Japan, "Komet" went further south and began to hunt passenger and cargo ships. She was disguised as a Japanese merchant ship "Manio Maru" and operated together with a raider "Orion" ("Mayebashi Maru") and an auxiliary ship "Kulmerland" ("Tokio Maru"). On the 27th of November in the New Zealnd waters near the Chatham Island they sank their first victim – a small cargo steam ship "Holmwood". On the 27th of November the German raiders sank a large liner "Rangitine" (immersion 16,000 t), heading to Great Britain with several thousand tons of meat and food. The captain of the liner, nevertheless, had managed to broadcast an alarm signal before the German boarding team turned off his radio station. The New Zealand authorities warned all ships about a necessity to avoid the area from which "Rangitine" had sent an alarm signal. On the next day the "Achilles" cruiser and the "Puriri" minesweeper arrived at the place of the "Rangitine"’s disappearance but found only floating debris, an empty boat and oil films on the water. Crews of hydroplanes launched from "Achilles" found nothing either.
On the 6th of December "Komet" and "Orion" sank a passenger-cargo ship "Triona" between the Solomon Islands and Nauru. On the next day "Komet" sank a Norwegian ship "Vinnie". On the 8th of December "Orion" sank a phosphorite-loaded ship "Triadic" in a view of the people of the Nauru Island, then caught up and sank a cargo ship "Triaster". Smoke from the burning "Triadic" attracted attention of the islanders. Besides, a radio station on the island received signals of alarm sent by another victim of "Komet" – the "Komata" ship – and strange radio signals with which radio operators from "Komet" tried to muffle the alarm signals. The Nauru radio station transmitted a radiogram to the RAN headquarters. All ships were given an order to disperse and head to other ports. Nevertheless, no ship replied. Debris from the sunken ships began to get thrown on the Nauru shore…
In the meantime, the RAN could do little to protect the sea routes since there was not a single Australian naval ship in the Pacific. Darwin was the nearest port where there was a naval ship "Manoora" (an auxiliary cruiser), but it was in four days of sailing. The RAN headquarters had other problems too – on the 5th of December a cargo ship "Nimbin" struck a mine, sowed by a German raider "Penguin", and sunk near the New South Wales coast, two day later the same happened to a British ship "Hartford". Thus, the war had come to the Australian shores. The Australian communists, meanwhile, kept agitating against the "imperialistic" war and army enlistment.
Debates on the adequacy of sea route safety in the Australian waters commenced in the Australian parliament. Information about sunken ships appeared in newspapers and radio programs, the public opinion was stirred up by the alarming news. Due to it the RAN headquarters referred to the British Admiralty with a request to return a certain number of Australian naval ships from the Mediterranean to Australia.
On the 21st of December 1940 "Komet", "Orion" and "Kulmerland" anchored by the Emirau Island north of Kavieng. All imprisoned crewmembers and passengers from sunken ships (about 500 people) excluding a small number of military servicemen were sent ashore. They had been given a small boat in order to enable them to reach a larger island and find help. Later on the released prisoners regarded exclusively highly captain Eyssen who had treated them exemplarily well. It is noteworthy, that the German raiders would open fire at cargo and passenger ships only in case the latter did not obey an order to stop. The ships were sunk only after all crew and passengers had been taken off them.
After a call to Emirau "Kulmerland" headed back to Japan, "Orion" – to the Maug Island in the Martian Archipelago to repair her engine. Captain Eyssen led "Komet" back to Nauru to shell the port installations. Having stopped at the traverse of the island "Komet" hoisted the Krigsmarine flag and sent a radio signal with an order to clear the moors and the oil storage. But since the crowd of bystanders had not dispersed, Eyssen gave a warning salvo which swept the crowd out very quickly. Then a real shelling began and ruined the port. It is noteworthy that a fire destroyed a large stockpile of phosphorite bought by the Japanese, which had precariously provided the German raiders with an opportunity to base in their ports. "Meanwhile "Komet" was heading south…
The crewmembers and passengers from sunken ships, left on Emirau, had somehow found out about the plans to shell Nauru. Those who managed to reach Kavieng sent to the RAN headquarters a warning about the oncoming attack but there were no naval ships to prevent the raid. This had become the last drop, which filled the growl of patience. The cruiser "Sydney" and the auxiliary cruiser "Westralia" were called home from the Mediterranean. In the beginning of January 1941 "Sydney", which performed excellently in engagements with the Italian naval ships, headed to Australia. On the 9th of February cruiser arrived in Sydney where people of the city cheerfully greeted her.
Approximately at the same time, on the 3rd of December 1940, another German raider – "Cormoran" left the port of Danzig (Gdansk). On the second day of navigation the raider disguised herself as a Soviet ship "Viacheslav Molotov" from Leningrad. All deck installations were painted in brown, the pipe – in black with a red strip. A red flag was hoisted on a mast. For some time after that the crewmembers entertained each other using the word "comrade" as a reference and greeting each other with a Red-Front salute – half raised, bent in shoulder right hand and clenched fist. Officers didn’t pay much attention to it justifiably considering it as a sign of high moral… The routes of "Sydney" and "Cormoran" will cross a year after – on the 19th of November 1941. In a short battle near the West Australian coast both ships would be sunk and nobody from the "Sydney" crew would survive.
Anyway, let’s return to "Komet". After the shelling of Nauru captain Eyssen led his raider to the New Zealand shores to hunt on the sea route New Zealand – Panama. Here he reached the southernmost point of his navigation – the crew saw the Antarctic shores. In the end of February 1941 captain Eyssen received an order to move to the SE sector of the Indian Ocean. He knew that the "Sydney" cruiser was based in Fremantle (seaport near Perth) and did his best to stay away from the West Australian coast since he understood that his chance will be nil in an encounter with a first class cruiser. For several months the raider looked for new victims far from common routes of cargo and passenger ships. The luck, seemingly, abandoned "Komet". On the 21st of May "Komet" headed towards the Pacific again according to a new order.
In early August captain Eyssen heard from a radio program, that patrol aircraft of RAAF had driven the German raiders away from their territorial waters, and made an appropriate note in his logbook. An experienced seaman understood well that the Australians were not up to such a task – the continent was too big. However, quite probably the radio program had played its role in his decision to move closer to the New Zealand coast and then to head east towards the South America coast. On the 14th of August "Komet" came across a ship "Australind" near the Galapagos Islands. Her radio operator tried to send a SOS signal, but the ship was shelled and several sailors died (see a page "A Sailor from "Australind"). The survivors were taken off the British ship which was blasted after that. Five days after "Komet" captured a Dutch ship "Kota Napan" and sank a British ship "Devon". The POWs were transferred to the captured Dutch ship and a prize crew led "Devon" into Atlantic and further to Germany (later on a German raider "Atlantis" would unload her POWs on her near the Sierra-Leone coast).
"Komet" moved eastwards desisting of new attacks. Having passed around the Horn Cape, "Komet" entered the Atlantic waters and on the 26th of November 1941 arrived in Cherbourg. The last part of her navigation was the hardest – ‘Komet" was constantly under attack of British torpedo boats and planes. But again the luck was with captain Eyssen – a bomb hit "Komet" but never exploded. On the 30th of November "Komet" arrived in Hamburg. An unprecedented round-the-globe navigation which had lasted for 516 days, ended.
Circumnavigation of "Komet" - July 1940 - November 1941
The situation in the world had changed completely over a year and a half since "Komet" had begun its route. Only days remained till the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and outbreak of a big war in the Pacific. The Soviet-German war had been already raging for several months. The Arctic, so well explored by captain Eyssen during his trip along the Great Northern Route, had become an arena of fierce battles in which the former partners in icebreaking conduct had become deadly enemies. The Eyssen’s observations in Arctic later served the Germans well – in August 1942 a German "pocket"-battleship "Admiral Scheer" using an excellent knowledge of the ice conditions of the Arctic, reached the Taimyr coast, sank an icebreaker "Sibiriakov" and shelled the port of Dixon.
The second and last navigation of "Komet" was much shorter and unluckier than the first one. On the 7th of Octobet 1942 "Komet" armed with new guns and equipped with radar did an open sea under escort of four torpedo boats and several minesweepers. The British Intelligence had been aware of the oncoming attempt of a German raider to break through the English Channel into the Atlantic. En route from Havre to Cherbourg in a short engagement with the ships of the Royal Navy "Komet" was sent ablaze and exploded. All the crew – 351 men died with the ship.
V.F. Vorobiev. Krugosvetka reidera "Komet". Sbornik Gangut. Vypusk 16 (1998) i 19 (1999)
M. Montgomery. Who Sank the Sydney?, 1981
B. Winter. HMAS Sydney. Fact, Fantasy, Fraud. Brisbane, 1984
T. Frame. HMAS Sydney. 1993
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