Postscript to Marauders of the Sea. WW2, with an unusual twist.

 SS Automedon sunk by Atlantis in Indian Ocean on the 11th. November 1940
SS Automedon sunk by Atlantis in Indian Ocean on the 11th. November 1940
In my Marauders of the Sea. WW2 (See Atlantis), I covered briefly the activities of the German Armed Merchant Raiders in WW2. The Atlantis under Captain Rogge was one of these, and in her career sank some 22 ships, the most important being SS Automedon, a 7,528 ton freighter built by Palmer's Shipbuilding and Iron Company at Jarrow in 1922 for the Blue Funnel Line from Liverpool. She was some 459 feet long with a 58 foot beam , designed for a speed of 14 knots. On the 11th. of November 1940, she was sailing between Nicobar Island and Ceylon bound for Singapore.

Atlantis sighted her, closed to 4,000 yards and opened fire, hitting Automedon on the bridge killing all there including the Master, Captain W.B.Ewan.

Although the freighter sent an initial distress signal, RRR Automedon, 0416N-- the first three letters of which indicated " under attack by armed raider " and two British ships Matara and Helenus read this signal, and sent off details of the attack to Singapore, the German Raider quickly destroyed Automedon's radio mast by accurate gunfire, stopping any further radio traffic. The ship was hit some 11 times before Atlantis ceased firing at her hapless victim. A lone woman, 312 crew plus 56 Chinese were taken onboard the Raider.

First Lieutenant Ulrich Mohr, leading the boarding party, in the Chart Room came across a long narrow envelope enclosed in a green bag fitted with brass eyelets to allow water to enter, and sink it, in the event of its necessary disposal.

This document was marked: "Highly Confidential .... To be Destroyed" its envelope marked to:"The Commander-in-Chief Far East.... To be Opened Personally." This highly sensitive, fascinating, and important document was drawn up by the Planning Division of the War Cabinet. It carried details of RAF units, details of Naval strength, an assessment of the role of Australia and New Zealand. A long appreciation regarding the possibility of Japan entering the war, and copious notes on the fortifications at Singapore.

One of this document's most worrying aspects was about the inability of Britain to muster a Fleet to defend Singapore, as the Navy was at full stretch in its struggle with Germany and Italy. It stated that even if Japan attacked Indo China and Siam Britain would not intervene, and that Hong Kong would be abandoned. In short, this document stated that Singapore and Malaya could not survive a concentrated attack by Japan.

But, why on earth, would such sensitive and important material be despatched in mail carried by an old freighter like Automedon? It could, or indeed should have been carried in an aircraft, or in one of HM ships of war. The Governor of the Straits Settlements in Singapore, Sir Shenton Thomas was on leave in UK, he could have carried this copy of the report personally home, and handed it to the new C-in C, Sir Robert Brookes Popham.

Importantly, the British Government never made any papers about the loss of this important document available to the public. It clung to its secret that these papers were captured by the Germans, and must also be in Japanese hands.

The Government must have known it had fallen into enemy hands, the two merchant ships had reported the attack on Automedon.

One of her engineers, Samuel Harper, was sent as a POW to the ship Storsad, and arrived back at Bordeaux in January of 1941. He escaped from a train, crossed the Pyreenes, through Spain to reach Gibraltar on the 31st. of May 1941. He was debriefed by M16, all the circumstances of the loss of his ship to Atlantis were recorded.

The British Government just had to know that their secret document was most likely in German hands and that it would be passed on to Japan.

Post war, in 1948, Sir Robert Brookes Popham asked the embarassing question, "What happened to my copy of the report in 1940?"

The pretence was maintained, he was told it had been sunk in a U-Boat attack and lost, and that it was not until 1945, after Germany had surrendered, that we realised that the German Submarine Commander had managed to obtain the secret documents from the ship before sinking it. The cover up about Atlantis obtaining this document continues post war.

But, back to Captain Rogge, he understood English, and quickly realised what a gem had been captured. He despatched the document in the captured Norwegian ship Ole Jacob to arrive at Kobe Japan, a few weeks later. Vice Admiral Wenneker, the German Naval Attache in Japan read the document, and made this asssessment of it:

"Churchill's Cabinet had decided that the British were unable to send a Fleet to the Far East and must avoid "Open Clash" with Japan, until Military cooperation with US was agreed. The British would not go to war even if Japan attacked Thailand or Indo China. Instead efforts would be made to buy off Japan with concessions including abandoning Singapore and making a deal over Malaya."

The original documents were now despatched off to Berlin at the rush. On its arrival there a copy was given to Hitler, who closely studied it, and then sent it off to the Japanese Naval Attache resident in Berlin, Captain Yokoi.

Thus on the 12th. of December 1940, Yokoi sent a message to his Naval Staff in Tokyo:

"I have received from the German Navy, memorandum of the British War Cabinet held on the 15th. of August this year, dealing with operations against Japan. It outlines the main points of the British War Cabinet held on the 15th. of August this year dealing with operations against Japan. It outlines the main points of the British Cabinet decisions that day that Britain was not in a position to resort to war if Japan attacked French Indo China or Siam. That Hong Kong would be abandoned because the existing situation would not allow Britain to send a Fleet to the Far East."

The original copy was handed to Vice Admiral Kondo in Japan, he was at first sceptical of the findings, believing it was a ploy of the British to lull Japan into a false sense of security. But, when learning how the document was captured, he decided to accept the findings as legitimate.

Japan thus had a year's warning before the outbreak of war, that Britain could not defend her Colony at Singapore.

Admiral Wenneker in his War diary entry on the 12th. of December 1941 states:

"Kondo repeatedly expressed to me how valuable this information contained in the British War Cabinet memorandum was for his Navy. Such a significant weakening of the British Empire could not have been identified from outward appearances."

But why was this War Cabinet assessment sent off to Singapore via a slow British freighter SS Automedon? We will never really know the answer to that question, but, one is tempted to think that Winston Churchill as the British Prime Minister with his country fighting for survival, the Battle of the Atlantic going Germany's way,. wanted the US desperately to enter this war. Was he hoping, even plotting for this document to be captured by Germany? If it was, it would soon be in the hands of Japan, he could not defend Singapore, was he provoking Japan to attack and occupy this Colony? with the hope of drawing the United States in on the side of the Allies. With the might of the US victory in due course would be assured. But what an incredible scenario!

Once more, why was this memorandum sent by freighter? In the hands of the Japanese it allowed them the luxury of concentrating their Combined Fleet against the Americans at Pearl Harbor when they unleashed their sneak attack on the 7th. of December 1941.

At last, Winston would be happy in the knowledge that with the US fighting alongside Britain and her Dominions, victory was now assured, it would be just a "Matter of time."


This site was created as a resource for educational use and the promotion of historical awareness. All rights of publicity of the individuals named herein are expressly reserved, and, should be respected consistent with the reverence in which this memorial site was established.

Copyright© 1984/2014 Mackenzie J. Gregory All rights reserved