- Nicholson, Ian
- Ship histories and stories, WWII operations, Book reviews, Naval Engagements, Operations and Capabilities
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Sydney II
- September 1999 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Title: The Raider Kormoran Author: Captain Theodor Detmers Publisher: Tandem (UK, 1959) with numerous German & English reprints
(This, the only book written by a participant, calls for close analysis in the light of developments since publication, particularly the Sydney Inquiry. Apart from expected German bias, is the account entirely factual? Our member’s findings below are quite revealing and cast doubt on Capt Detmers’ credibility.)
It is evident that Commander Detmers was a very able and shrewd Captain. He had previous command experience in destroyers and was obviously highly regarded to commission Kormoran when still comparatively junior in the rank of Lt-Cmdr. It also appears that he was excessively secretive and somewhat devious, e.g.:
- He regretted being “talked into” taking a Propaganda Department reporter and cameraman on cruise, as with them present “you weren’t as free as you would like to be”. (p.38 – apparently they had left the Kormoran by one of the supply ships or other raiders before the final engagement).
- From all indications he did not take other officers into his confidence – not even his second in command (XO). Although on p.23 he says that “from the start I took him into my confidence in all important matters”, on p.42 he notes: “Of course no one onboard apart from myself knew the exact date of our departure” (XO and Engineer, only, told on night before and others kept in the dark).
- His deceptive manoeuvring in closing in on merchant ships sighted, without raising any undue suspicion, was quite extraordinary. He was a master of deception, and rarely was he thwarted.
- He practiced “unobtrusive” underwater torpedo firing at an unsuspecting ship (page 35).
Detmers states that he based his account on his War Diary which must have been sent home in one of the last supply ships prior to the action with Sydney and retrieved or copied from German post-war records (p.120, etc). His book itself was obviously geared for popular public demand and is a little free with the facts at times and somewhat reticent at others, e.g: He recalls the Sydney or sister ships in Sydney during the cruiser Koln’s visit in 1933, but they did not arrive in Australia until 1936 at least (p.178).
As one would expect, he names and often praises key members of the crew and all the regular officers, – with one notable exception:- Lieut. Baron R. von Malapert, who was the Wireless & Cipher Officer and played a very important if not critical role during the entire cruise. Perhaps it was because von Malapert was one of the “violent” Nazis aboard who would probably stop at nothing, but so was Lieut. Greter who is named. The omission was more likely due to the sensitive work which the Wireless Officer supervised and about which there is an occasional vague clue, e.g:
- Mention of the Wireless Officer and his staff closely monitoring if there were any radio transmissions from vessels being intercepted and attacked (page 154). In practice this scanning of enemy maritime frequencies was a regular task undertaken by tactical SIGINT teams in at least some of the German raiders. B-Dienst in Germany could steer them onto target transmissions and they could also cover local traffic outside the range of the former.
Such a close watch ashore and afloat was bound to detect some callsign compromises and other lapses in Allied security, e.g.:
- After sinking Eurylochus off Freetown, c. Feb 1941, Detmers says `the ether was alive’ and they heard a nearby merchant ship asking the Admiralty if she should continue to Takoradi (p.85).
- Interception of reports that the Germans had mined the waters off Brazil (page 125).
- Later, in the Indian Ocean, Detmers was immediately aware that the British had taken a DF bearing of a coded message he had made on dispatching the supply ship Alstertor, and that Mauritius station also got a bearing of the latter on the next night (page 141).
There is no doubt that Kormoran had a small but effective intelligence gathering capability to supplement the sophisticated support from B-Dienst and HQ in Germany. (Adm. Doenitz in his memoirs of 1959 – the same year Detmers’ book was published – states they were able to read most signals giving the position of British ships, convoys and submarines, and this was a very great advantage, especially as it was not suspected that the codes were being broken). Besides, the ship was evidently well briefed before departure from Germany and she held details of the Admiralty’s general instructions for British merchant ships (p.169), which would have included QQQQ signals, etc, and the procedures for Challenge & Reply (which Detmers pleaded ignorance of when he met Sydney – p.180). What else we can only surmise as Detmers is quite reticent in his book, apart from the occasional slip, while Admiral Doenitz is much more frank.