Ninety two year old Baron Reinhold von Malapert is today the senior surviving officer of the German raider Kormoran and as Radio Officer he had a grandstand view of the battle with the Australian cruiser Sydney. Early this year retired Captain Peter Hore RN travelled to Chile and spent five days with von Malapert, and this short article is a summary of several hours of interview. The report of that interview comes to us with the compliments of Richard Francis.
Von Malapert’s career started ordinarily enough, joining the Kriegsmarine in 1933. His first ship was the light cruiser Karlsrühe. Next he served in the light cruiser Dresden on her cruise to the Americas and by the beginning of the war he was a communications specialist serving in the elderly (pre-dreadnought) battleship Schlesien. In 1940 he saw some action in the invasion of Norway, and on returning from Norway as a passenger in a damaged U-boat he was attacked from the air. In mid 1940, after a period ashore, he was appointed to the HSK (armed merchant cruiser) Kormoran, when he met her Captain, Theodor Detmers, for the first time.
Detmers was a secretive individual who did not consult his officers, though von Malapert knew, perhaps more than most, what was going on because he read the signal traffic in and out of Kormoran. Also, von Malapert knew where the ship was because an operations plot was kept in the radio room. Normal communications between the bridge and the radio room were by sound-powered telephone, but von Malapert would also stand at the door of the radio room, and by raising his voice, could talk to Captain Detmers at the front of the bridge. So, when HMAS Sydney asked HSK Kormoran for her secret callsign, Detmers was able to speak to von Malapert directly and ask him ‘Do we have this?’ When von Malapert replied ‘No’, he noticed Detmers’ face harden and knew at once that Detmers had decided to drop the ship’s disguise and to fight.
Kormoran’s shooting murderous
Besides the radio equipment, von Malapert was responsible for all minor electrical equipment, including the telephone system. There were windows in the radio room so he had a clear view of Sydney’s approach and of most of the action, though he was not watching Sydney all the time. For instance, he recognised the cook’s whites of several men standing in Sydney’s waist and he saw that Kormoran’s shooting, especially with her smaller guns, was murderous. He heard and felt several rounds from Kormoran’s 150mm guns and he saw two torpedoes from Kormoran’s upperdeck tubes leap into the air for a few seconds before they hit the water. When he next looked at Sydney he saw that the roof of one of the forward turrets was open and her aeroplane was on fire. Sydney was on a parallel course about a mile way on the starboard beam and her relative position did not change appreciably during the battle.
After the action, von Malapert was busy helping to get the lifeboats out of the hold and fighting the fires; his last sight of Sydney was from Kormoran’s bridge. One moment she was in flames and billowing smoke, about 5 to 7 miles away, and the next time he looked she had disappeared from sight. He thought she must have sunk quickly.
Alone upon the dark sea
After the first wave of lifeboats left Kormoran at about 2100, von Malapert was busy helping to get one of two boats out of the forward hold, and he left in the first of these boats at around midnight. Exhausted from the effort of hauling the two heavy steel lifeboats out of the forward hold by hand, von Malapert cast off from Kormoran and as they drifted away from the burning ship, they found themselves alone upon the dark sea.
That first night they continued to drift but by the light of dawn, they began to sort the boat out. Apart from a compass and sea anchor the boat was poorly equipped; it had a large sail but no mast. Von Malapert used the yard of the sail to make a mast, which had to be packed into the tabernacle with clothing, and there was no rudder. He jury-rigged an oar (to steer) and for the next five days he sailed with the oar under his left arm, and the sheets in his right hand. Each time he nodded off, he was awoken by his chin hitting his chest; the only rest he got was when the wind died away.