Marauders of the Sea, German Armed Merchant Ships During W.W. 2

Michel

Michel (Ship 28)
On the night of the 13th. of March, 1942, "Michel" started out from Flushing - with an escort of 9 Minesweepers and 5 Torpedo Boats. It was immediately evident that the British had been busy laying their mines in the German swept channel, mines were blown up by the attendant sweepers. Suddenly there was a 4 minute action with British Motor Torpedo Boats, one was set alight. Early next morning off Le Touquet, star shell lit up British M.T.B's and 4 Destroyers at just under 2 miles, although both sets of forces closed, no effective action took place.

British M.T.B's and Motor Gun Boats, plus 4 Destroyers were all strewn across "Michel's" path, the destroyers went into action, and "Windsor" and "Fernie" suffered slight damage, but 8 crew from 'Michel" died. She was able to reach Le Havre, and then Gironde. Finally she made it out of European waters on the 20th. of March, and set out for the Azores.

We have already met Ruckteschell her Captain, when he Commanded "Widder"- he had taken half of her crew with him to this new Command.

Michel had been built as the Polish ship Bielsko, named after the city of the same name in Southern Poland. She was captured in Danzig where she was built, after the German invasion of Poland in 1939. She had yet to be launched, and was reconstructed for her role as a Raider. Her armament was also different, 4 by 5.9 inch, 3 by 4.1 inch guns, light weapons, and torpedo tubes.

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Radar was fitted, but it was pioneer type equipment, the ability to detect enemy radar transmissions was also included on board. A spotting type seaplane was loaded, plus two torpedo boats with a speed capacity of 40 knots, each of these to carry 2 torpedoes, making them a formidible addition to the ship's fighting ability.

Her masts and derricks were made portable to give the ship the opportunity to move or remove them, and quickly change her look. The funnel was able to be moved, and could make smoke, to give the appearance of a coal burner, and not a diesel powered ship, a great deal of thought and effort had been made to give her Captain as much flexibility as practicable. Michel sailed to the South Atlantic to reach station between the equator, and a latitude of 15 degrees South, "Thor" would operate below this area.

On arrival, she fueled from the Tanker, Charlotte Schlieman. Two Allied Tankers, the British Patella, 7,468 tons, and the American 8,684 ton Connecticut, were soon captured, the latter being the first victim of'Michel's torpedo boats. Ruekteschell soon developed the tactic of following a potential victim unseen for as long as possible to ascertain her course and speed - after dark, he would then lower a torpedo boat, using her superior speed, this boat would get well ahead of the prey, lie in wait, then, as appropriate use torpedoes.

Early on the morning of the 1st. of May, another chance for action arrived for the torpedo boat, the British Blue Funnel Line, 10,000 ton Minelaus hove into view, the Raider ordered this ship to stop, her Master, Captain J.H. Blyth, refused, his lookouts had quickly reported Michel's first appearance, and the Captain prudently kept his distance.

When the Raider opened fire, the British ship worked up to full speed, using her radio to broadcast the alarm- Minelaus began to draw away, making 1.5 knots better than her rated full speed. Up bounded a torpedo boat, flying a White Ensign, and signaling "stop" by International Code, a torpedo was fired, but Blyth was able to alter course to avoid it. Although varying attempts were made by 'Michel" and the torpedo boat to stop Minelaus- all failed. The torpedo boat was recovered, and the Raider abandoned the chase.

Blyth was not bluffed by the attempt to disguise the torpedo boat as a British boat, he noted that British duffel coats were worn on a warm morning, they were also worn over Merchant Navy type life jackets, not of a Royal Navy pattern, the word patrol when signaled, was spelled with two t's - the White Ensign was a very poor replica of a true White Ensign, that even at 1.5 miles distance had not fooled Captain Blyth.

He had Captained his ship with vigor, bravery, and good common sense had prevailed, in many of the actions reported, we have seen how many ships, at the very first sign of danger, "just rolled over," but not Captain Blyth, his crew or his ship Minelaus.

Rucktschell needed to fuel again, he found his Tanker, transferred prisoners, and on the 20th. of May came across a 4,245 ton Norwegian, Kattegat, who surrendered after a few rounds were fired at her, the crew were taken off, and scuttling finished her life.

In another two weeks, the American Liberty ship, George Clymer of 7,176 tons was found, she had broken down and had been drifting aimlessly, 600 miles South West of Ascension.

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Her engines were again started up, but she was followed, to be attacked by the torpedo boats at night. Two torpedoes struck home, but this ship did not go down. she radioed her plight and Capetown responded:- "A Cruiser is coming to pick you up."

SKL had previously told Ruckteschell that the only Cruisers in the area, were old "C" class ones, no better armed than himself, or, Armed Merchant Cruisers of similar type to those that Thor had already dealt with effectively. He decided to set up an ambush, and treat any British Cruiser as Kormoran had done to Sydney, and waited over the horizon, pretending to be a British ship, that was going to the aid of the US Liberty ship.

When he thought it right, off he went back to the last position of George Clymer, but, on arrival, too late, nothing there, just away in the distance, a hint of a tripod mast of the British Cruiser, off; with the American survivors already rescued.

This ship was in fact, Thor's old protagonist, the Armed Merchant Cruiser, Alcantara she had come across the badly damaged American, sank her, and picked up her crew.

In another week, another victim, the 5,200 ton Lylepark from Glasgow, ex New York for the Cape carrying 8,000 tons of useful warlike stores. She was immediately struck in the charthouse and on the boatdeck by the Raider's shells, and fires caused her abandonment. All the crew bailed out, except Captain Low, and his Chief Officer, both wished to avoid captivity, but 18 crew died and are listed on Panel 66 of the Merchant  Memorial at Tower Hill. A further crew member died in Japan.

These two intrepid sailors used a boat's falls to lower themselves into a damaged lifeboat, still alongside. It promptly sank under them, the two officers swam away, the Chief Officer taking refuge on a raft, the Captain almost worn out, at last, found a raft. The Raider steamed past, watching Lylebank burn. By dawn the ship sank, and Michel had gone.

Low discovered the water tank on his raft was near empty, another raft ranged up alongside, this one with a full water tank. An aircraft flew over head, he fired distress rockets, to be ignored, and in despair watched it land on board a distant Carrier. A second aircraft took off; this time he was lucky, he was spotted, and very soon was rescued and aboard the British escort Carrier, Archer.

Low was dropped off at Freetown, after another week, his Chief Officer, plus his 2nd. Officer arrived by courtesy of the Avila Star. Captain Low arranged to take passage to Liverpool in this ship, but, on the night of the 5th. of July, Avila Star was torpedoed North East of the Azores.

The first lifeboat that Low was to board, quickly sank before it could take survivors, he made it into a second boat, which was immediately destroyed by a second torpedo fired at the sinking vessel. Low was tossed into the water being wounded in an arm and shoulder, he swam as best as he could, covered in oil, to be picked up by another boat, which quickly sank.

Other life boats rescued these seamen, including Low, and finally, they were picked up by a Portuguese destroyer. What a saga for one brave, determined Captain from the Merchant Navy!

Michel had 22 survivors from Lylepark, and transferred them to the supply ship and blockade runner Doggerbank- in her former life she had been Speybank captured by Atlantis in January 1941. This supply ship had made two successful round trips between Europe and the Far East.(38)

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38 Mines had been laid off Capetown, and probably accounted for the steamers Alcyone, and Soudan sunk from mines.

Close to Ascension , 'Michel' sank 3 ships, Gloucester Castle- 8,006 tons, US Tanker William T Humphrey - 7,982 tons, and Norwegian Tanker, Ararnis, - 7,982 tons, the last vessel, whilst attempting to run for it, was overtaken and torpedoed by the Raider's Torpedo Boats, gunfire completed the task the next day.

Gloucester Castle had 134 people on board, she suffered a good deal of damage from gunfire, and but 61 were saved. After 3 weeks they were transferred to the Charlotte Schliernann where the total number of prisoners now reached 300, all confined in the hold forward of the oil tanks- one survivor wrote,

"The hold was rat infested, no sanitary arrangements were provided, the food was mostly unfit to eat."

The ship now spent a month stationary in the South Atlantic, then, on the 1st. of September~ they sailed for Japan. As soon as the tropics were left behind, all the prisoners were freezing cold in their confinement in the hold. When Japan was reached, women and children went off to a civilian internment camp, and the remainder served the next 3 years working as coolies.

The area Michel was now working in, had provided rich pickings, but her Captain thought that 2 Raiders, in concert, would prove better than one alone. He met Stier (ship 23 ) and proposed to Gerlach, her Captain, that they should work together, however Gerlach had been doing well as a single operator, and did not go along with this suggestion.

Off St.Helena, "Michel" sank a British freighter, Arabistan, then fueled again from her old friend the Tanker Charlotte Schliemann, and entered the Indian Ocean. Immediate success.

He quickly dispatched the new American Leader a 6,778 ton cargo ship.He was now ordered by SKL, to go back into the South Atlantic to meet another oiler and blockade runner, whilst obeying these orders, Michel met and sank the British Empire Dawn. Despite this freighter indicating she was stopped, and abandoning ship, Ruckteschell maintained his gun attack. Half of the 44 crew were killed as a result. This action became the subject of one of the charges laid against him, and of which he was found guilty at his subsequent appearance at a War Crimes Tribunal.

On the 22nd. of September, prisoners were given to the blockade runner Tannenfels on her way to Japan, then he refueled once more from Uckermark and took on extra torpedoes. He now returned once more to the Indian Ocean. In a few days time, a message was read saying that Stier was so badly damaged by enemy action she needed assistance, in fact she bad to be scuttled, and Tennenfels picked up her crew.

October went by without any action, then Michel was told to go off to the Antarctic to try and replicate "Pinguin's " success against the Allies Whaling Fleet operating down there. Ruchteschell did not believe a second foray against the Whaling ships would prove to be viable.

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He argued successfully against this proposed course of action, and gained approval from Control to operate between the Cape and Australia. The blockade runner Rhetokis was met on her way from the Far East to France, but she was not destined to arrive. Spotted by Coastal Command aircraft off Spain, the British Cruiser "Scylla" was homed in, she arrived, opened fire, and the German ship promptly scuttled. It had all changed from the early days of the War, British forces were stronger, they were now bottling up the exit and ingress from and to the Germans home ports along the coast of France. This tide had indeed turned.

Michel's Captain soon proved his ligament not to go to Antarctica vindicated. He promptly sank 3 ships, the British Reynolds-5,1 13 tons, the American, Sawokia,- 5,882 tons, and finally a Greek, Eugene Livanos, of 4,816 tons.

On the 12th. of December he was ordered to go home to Germany, giving the Cape a wide berth, Michel sank another Britisher, Empire Marsh. Ruckteschell was now abeam of St. Helena when SKL changed their minds, and told him to return to the Indian Ocean. On board, one could well understand the frustration that would be evident in her Captain, eg:

"What the hell are they up to in Berlin? Have they any idea what it's like to sail from the Indian Ocean, be in a position to make a final run for home, and now be ordered to retrace our steps back to the Indian Ocean?

"They are not at risk, they go home to wives, families, even to mistresses every night, here we are at risk every day, and may never see our families again, oh for a shore appointment! When I am in charge of Raiders, at least, I will make sound ligaments, and be aware of the welfare of my Captains, their crews and their ships."

Michel had also been told to proceed to a port in Japan, not withstanding the feelings of Captain and crew, the other side of the coin portrayed a different scenario. As indicated a little earlier, the Allies had tightened the noose thrown around the coasts of Europe, and the sea approaches to them, this had trapped Rhetokis. Control no doubt believed that Michel would have been under a real threat of destruction, had she been allowed to continue her run home, and acted accordingly.

On the 13th. of February, having been at sea 324 days, land was sighted again, the Raider had arrived at Batavia, a Japanese pilot taking the ship into port, later the Germans were to complain about their treatment from the Japanese, indicating that their supposed Allies had related to them little better than if they had been spies.

A further stop was made at Singapore, thence on to Kobe, to be met by the German Naval Attache, Admiral Wenneker, and Gumprich, former Captain of Thor, to learn for the first time about the demise of that Raider, and the fact that his ship was the last surface Raider still operational. A refit was needed, but before he could again sail, as a sick man, he was relieved of command by Gumprich, and sent to hospital in Peking. There he remained, his war was over, but after the surrender of Japan, he was repatriated, then to be finally convicted as a War Criminal.

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Gumprich took Michel off to sea again, and traversed the Indian Ocean to the Western Australian coastline, here on the 14th. of June, they met up with a Norwegian freighter, Hoegh Silverdawn, - 7,715 tons, no warning was given, guns just opening fire, two torpedoes sent on their way, then, as star shells lit up this vessel, fire was maintained as the Norwegians tried to escape from their burning ship.

The crew believed that Gumprich was, quite deliberately, trying to destroy their lifeboats, thus but one boat survived this onslaught, and that too was damaged by machine gun fire. The Ship's Captain managed to sail and navigate this boat with 13 on board, safely to shore, arriving at Calcutta, one month, and, one day later. They had been sunk some 130 miles South West of that port.

Had the Germans suddenly changed their policy about taking prisoners captive? Of course, taking them on board posed huge problems, of space, their general welfare, having to provide food often in short supply for themselves, etc.

On the 14th. of June, Michel sank a second Norwegian, Ferncastle, using 4 torpedoes fired from the Torpedo Boats. These had proved their worth, and made an impact. Again, it seemed that attempts were made to destroy survivors, but one boat load was picked up after 11 days at sea, and 1,300 miles West of Fremantle.

Gumprich waited in vain for further orders, and started off for Japan once more, by the night of 17/18 of October, his ship was but 60 miles from Yokohama, it was flat calm, a bright moon illuminated the sea, the United States Submarine Tarpon, was running on the surface, they sighted the German Raider, taking her to be a Japanese Naval Auxiliary.

 

Night firing of a six inch gun

Night firing of a six inch gun.

Michel, was tracked for an hour, with Tarpon trying to work herself into a successful firing position, at 0156 (1.56 AM ) 4 torpedoes hissed Out of their tubes, two were seen to hit. Michel stopped, listed to port, then started to move again, pointing herself straight at the Submarine - Commander Wogan, Tarpon's Captain, immediately took his boat deep, passing under the Raider.

When surfacing again, he found Michel stopped, but firing her guns wildly in several different directions. Three more torpedoes were squirted off, 2 missed, but the 3rd. blew off the stern of Michel, still she floated, and it was at 0230 (2.30AM) before another torpedo caused an explosion. When the smoke and flames died away, Michel had disappeared, finally sunk, she had indeed proven stubborn, not wanting to go!

It was some months later before the Allies learned from a captured blockade runner Bergenland that the final German Surface Raider had, at last, been sunk.

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