Marauders of the Sea, German Armed Merchant Ships During W.W. 2
Widder (Ship 21)
The zone set out for "Widder" in which to operate was roughly halfway between the West lndies and Dakar in West Africa, 40 degrees North latitude and West of a longitude of 30 degrees West. Given command was Helmuth von Ruckteschell, a Naval Reserve Captain, who had very strict orders not to violate the pan-American neutrality zone that separated the West Indies and the South American coast.
When sailing from the Elbe on the 6th. of May in 1940, the "Widder" was immediately set upon by a British Submarine, but she avoided the 2 torpedoes fired at her. "Widder's" crew now took up the task of turning her into a likeness of the Norwegian "Narvik" but whilst slipping along the Norwegian coastline on the 13th. of May, both "Widder" and H.M.Submarine "Clyde" mutually discovered each other. Thee submarine chased the German Raider on the surface, gun fire was exchanged, but "Widder" managed to outrun its foe, and got away unscathed.
Ruckteschell eventually managed to meet up with a supply ship, the "Konisburg" and took aboard sufficient oil for a 4 months stint on his station. The supply ship on her way to Vigo met a French Cruiser, and she was scuttled to avoid the valuable cargo of rubber and copper falling into enemy hands.
By early June, the 'Widder' was between the Azores and Trinidad, and for 3 days she patrolled towards Panama, then or the 13th of June, lookouts sighted smoke. In time, it transformed into the tanker "British Petrol" 6,891 tons and making for Trinidad in ballast. On arival, she would fill her huge tanks with much needed oil for transport back to Britain. The importance of keeping a sharp lookout cannot be emphasised enough. The Raider had to rely upon the naked eyes of her lookouts to seek out opportunities for her Gunnery or her torpedoes.
The discovery of a tanker was indeed a great cause for joy, better if she was filled with oil, which could be destroyed with the tanker, reducing in a small way the flow of this life blood to the Allies. At this time of the war, Britain with aid from her Dominions of Canada, Australia and New Zealand, stood alone against the might of Germany, the only shield against the free world being overrun. I believe that too often today, we tend to forget that it took until Pearl Harbor in December 1941, for America to enter the war.
But back to the "British Petrol," "Widder" opened fire at a range of 6,000 yards, hitting with her first salvo and the tanker was abandoned. A a torpedo sent her to the bottom.
All the crew were rescued, except for two members killed by gunfire during the attack.
Ruckteschell found out that his aircraft, after flying for 4 hours, had broken down, and this would unfortunately be a permanent situation, leaving him without any air reconnaissance. The importance of an aircraft to a Raider Captain has already been noted.
A further mishap, "salt water in the intake valves" found "Widder" dead in the water. She remained stopped for 6 hours, whilst engine room staff toiled to deal with this problem. Mean time, Control in Germany had sent the news that a Norwegian steamer "Sticklestad" was expected to be in the vicinity, and Ruckteschell fumed whilst his ship wallowed listlessly in mid Atlantic, quite powerless to take advantage of this target.
No sooner had repairs been made when a ship, thought to be the Norwegian hove in sight. A shot was fired, which persuaded the ship to stop. It turned out to be another Norwegian, the tanker "Krossfonn" of 9,000 tons, and in ballast. This ship was boarded and despatched to Brest, recently having fallen into German hands when the German army overwhelmed both the French and British Armies.
"Krossfonn" had her tanks filled with water to give the appearance of an oil laden tanker proceeding to Europe. A tanker with a silhouette of one in ballast proceeding eastward would be a very unlikely event, and one to alert any Allied warship to have a close look at that phenomenon. She became the first prize ship to be brought into the port of Brest.
Two further British ships were encountered and then sunk, the "Davisian," 6,433 tons and the "King John," 5,228 tons, the latter carrying survivors from the Panamanian ship "Santa Marguerita" which had been sunk by a U-Boat. It would be traumatic enough to be sunk by what ever means, (during the war, I had been sunk by the Japanese Navy at the Battle of Savo Island, in the Solomons whilst serving as a young Sub Lieutenant in H.M.A.S. "Canberra." )
That had been full of drama, and a terrifying experience.) But, to he sunk, survive, be rescued, and then to be sunk a second time, would be most difficult to cope with, and to happen in the Atlantic Ocean, one of the meanest stretches of water to be found anywhere, is almost too much for a sailor to endure.
Now, "Widder" was totally crowded, 100 prisoners taxed all available space, so her Captain immediately solved this problem by bundling all prisoners with the exception of the Captain and Chief Engineer from the "King John," plus 7 wounded men, into boats and suggesting they should shape a course for the lesser Antilles, about 240 miles away.
When attacked, "King John" had sent off an SOS message by radio. The Germans were delighted to learn from some prisoners that an error of some 150 miles had been made in the stated position they had given.
Mid July found "Widder" asking their home base for supplies. They were informed that the tanker "Rekum" would meet them in 14 day's time. The French Cruiser "Jeanne d'Arc" reported that 41 survivors from "Davisian" and "King John" had anrived at Anguilla, reporting for the first time the presence of a German Armed Raider operating in mid Atlantic. The Admiralty alerted 2 County Class Cruisers, 5 Armed Merchant Cruisers, plus a Sloop to be on the lookout for the "Widder," but she evaded this drag net, and remained operational.
Finally "Rekum" was met, but alas, no fresh food was forthcoming.
On the 4th of August, another tanker, again in ballast, a further Norwegian, the "Beaulieu," was attacked at night. The crew made off in boats and 9 days later, were picked up by the tanker "Cymbeline." Trying to despatch "Beaulieu" the "Widder" fired a torpedo and found themselves in some danger as this torpedo ran around in circles, and did not find either of its possible targets. Explosive charges needed to be set on this tanker, and she finally succumbed.
Once again, the "Wilder" used successful night attack tactics to sink the Dutch "Oostplein" carrying almost 6,000 tons of coal and coke to Buenos Aires, having picked up her cargo at Cardiff and Hull.
The Finnish 3 masted Barque "Killoran" was stopped, the crew transferred to the Raider, then blown up by setting explosives in her. At this stage of the war Finland was a neutral country, but at a later time did enter the conflict on the side of Germany.
On board "Widder," were now 6 prisoners including 6 Captains from sunken ships, a virtual League of Nations, as they formed 13 different nationalities.
During September, a night attack, using both gunfire and a torpedo sank the "Anglo Saxon" - two lights from the ship's boats were observed, but no attempt was made to look for any survivors. The Raider Captain always found himself in a difficult situation after sinking a ship; did he exercise a moral judgement and seek to flnd and rescue his victims? This action may well put his ship and her company at risk of being detected by an enemy warship. This particular night action was to have serious repercussions for Ruskteschells at a later date.
An Able seaman from "Anglo Saxon" at the Captain's trial gave evidence that the Raider had fired on these two life boats, and after a 70 day odyssy one of the boats had made it to the Bahamas, but from 8 people on board only 2 had survived.
Two further ships were sighted and chased, but they proved too fast for "Widder" and managed to escape from the clutches of the Raider. Ruckteschell now moved to the northern end of his patrol area in the hope of finding fully loaded ships making for the British Isles from the Ametican continent.
He came across the "Cymbeline" whom we had met earlier in a rescue capacity. Gunfire from the Raider quickly set her alight and a torpedo finally sank her. Survivors were searched for over a 4 hour period and 26 crew were recovered but another 10, including the Captain could not be found.
The Atlantic run was the most hazardous stretch of water in the world. It became the graveyard for almost 12 million tons of Allied shipping during the war, and over 30,000 British Merchant seamen died.
"Cymberline" survivors when interrogated aboard the Raider stated that a warning had been sent by radio indicating that a suspicious ship was approaching. "Widder" had not read this message, and her crew now set about to alter her appearance.
(12 until Thor)
Engine trouble continued to dog the ship, and as she was virtually only filling in time awaiting the arrival of "Rekum" to refuel and victual them.
To relieve the monotony, the Greek ship "Antonio Chandres" of 5,866 tons was run down and then blown up, all their crew being put off into the ship's boats, Ruckteschell noting they were "well found" and adding there would be "no shortage of fresh water as it was raining."
They met up with their tanker, which turned out to be not "Rekum" but the "Eurofeld." By the 16th. of September, the fuelling task was completed, but by now the "Widder's" engines were at the end of their useful life. She could only make 8 knots and was too slow to even overtake an old collier which she had sighted.
The engines again stopped although the engine room staff had spent 6 days slaving over them, and only 5 knots could be coaxed from them. The Captain was faced with but one decision, "if possible, it is now time to make for home."
Slowly they proceeded in a north westerly direction towards France and sanctuary. Their luck held, reaching Brest on the last day of October.
They had sunk 10 ships of 58,645 tons, although they had spent only a brief time on station, namely from the 6th. of May to the 31st. of October 1940. Ruckteschell did not exhibit the flair of Rogge from "Atlantis," but had done a workman like job for his country. All the guns and equipment were now removed, to be reused in new Raiders. The Captain was given time at home, then placed in a new Raider command, "Michel."
Post war, he became the only Raider Captain to be tried as a War Criminal, and was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, and subsequently died whilst in custody. Ruckteschell was guilty of failing to secure the safety of the crews from "Beaulieu" and "Anglo Saxon" and to have kept up firing on the "Davisian," after her Captain had indicated that his ship was being abandoned. The long arm of memory had reached out and struck him down.
"Widder" survived the war and becarne the British ship "Ulysses" - then was sold back to Germany and renamed 'Eichenheim."