A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing: The KMS Atlantis

Source: Wrecksite

The infamous "merchant ship" hid behind a shocking secret that allowed its crew to dominate both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

The Atlantis had an armament that would make most destroyer captains blush. She operated six 15cm guns, leftovers from the Kaiser's last great shipbuilding program. In the bow, Atlantis housed another 7.5cm gun, while across her spine were two 3.7cm and two 2cm twin AA guns. Amidships she had four torpedo tubes, and her aft spaces housed almost 100 mines. The Atlantis, unusual for ships of her size, also had two float planes for reconnaissance.

Disguised for Ambush

Ship 16, the cruiser Atlantis. Source: Wikipedia
Ship 16, the cruiser Atlantis. Source: Wikipedia

Her crew had dubbed her Atlantis in port, but truth be told she went by many names. The Kriegsmarine called her 'Schiff 16.' British intelligence dubbed her 'Raider-C.' This name was perhaps the most apt, because Atlantis was like few other ships in the German navy. Converted from an old merchant ship, Atlantis was designed to be commerce raider. But unlike the submarine raiders which we identify with Germany's navy, the Atlantis disguised her identity and sailed as a merchant ship. Her extensive armament was concealed in cargo containers, under false panels, and as the ship's machinery. From both the air and the sea, the Atlantis would resemble any other unarmed merchant ship until she dropped her disguise and opened fire on unsuspecting convoys. Ulrich Mohr, a sailor aboard the Atlantis for the duration of her cruise, described her as a 'Wolf beneath the Fleece.'

The Atlantis set sail on March 31st, 1940 from the German port of Kiel. She was the first, and most famous, of ten-armed merchant cruisers built by the German government for the explicit purpose of commerce raiding. Her raids across the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean would become legendary. Between 1940 and 1941, the Atlantis would sink 22 ships representing over 144,000 tons of shipping. Some of these ships were merchant ships hauling goods and supplies for the Allied powers. Others were passenger liners who were caught by the Atlantis and her crew. In every case, the Atlantis would follow the same basic tactic. It would approach as close as possible without revealing her identity. Once she was close, she would order the other vessel to stop and surrender. If it tried to run, the Atlantis would open up with its batteries and shell the ship into submission. Once its victim surrendered, the crew of the Atlantis would board, take any supplies and provisions they needed, and then transfer the crew and passengers of the captured ship either to the Atlantis or to a third vessel which would sail them to a friendly port. The target ship was then sunk.

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Successful Raids

These raids were not only successful in disrupting Allied trade, but they also contributed greatly to the German war effort, as in the case of the SS Automedon. On November 11, 1940, while sailing through the western Pacific, the Atlantis encountered the British cargo ship the SS Automedon. After a brief chase, the Atlantis overtook the Automedon and began to shell her. Fearing for the loss of his ship and crew, the captain of the Automedon quickly surrendered. Most of what the Germans found aboard were standard military supplies. But in the radio room sat a small, unassuming, green bag. Its contents were labeled "Highly Confidential." Standing orders had dictated that the bag be thrown overboard if the Automedon was captured. However, in a twist of morbid luck, one of the last shells fired by Atlantis had hit the Automedon's bridge, killing all six of her British officers.

The SS Automedon before World War II. Credit: Wrecksite
The SS Automedon before World War II. Source: Wrecksite

Back aboard the Atlantis, the bag was emptied and its documents were examined. What they found was astonishing. The Automedon was carrying sensitive telegraphs from the British Far East Command, including intelligence and a high-level report on the relative strength of the Japanese and British forces across the Pacific. What the Atlantis had captured was nothing short of an intelligence coup.

After realizing the importance of the documents he had just found, the captain of the Atlantis Bernhard Rogge immediately dispatched the documents via a third-party courier to the Japanese port of Kobe. Unlike the Automedon, Rogge's courier completed his mission and delivered the bag and its contents to the German embassy in Tokyo, where a copy of the documents were made. The originals were sent to Berlin via the still neutral Trans-Siberian railway, while copies were given to the Japanese government. These documents and the secrets they contained would be instrumental in the Japanese push West in 1941.

Shifting the War

The destruction of the SS Automedon. Image source: Wrecksite
The destruction of the SS Automedon. Source: Wrecksite

An intelligence coup of this magnitude would be a crowning achievement for any crew, but the Atlantis was far from done with its raids. After sinking the Automedon, the Atlantis would go on to sink ten more merchant ships. In late 1941 her crew was ordered back to the Atlantic Ocean where she was to help in submarine operations in the South Atlantic. However, British intelligence had become increasingly interested in the ship they called 'Raider-C.' They dedicated an increasing number of resources to trapping and destroying the Atlantis. Unfortunately for the Atlantis and her crew, the British had cracked the enigma code especially favored by the submarine forces, and when she was routed to refuel the U-126, the British knew. They routed the County-class cruiser HMS Devonshire to crash the rendezvous. Two years prior, while the Atlantis was still trapped in port, Ulrich Mohr had written that, "Once [we] were caught… There could be but just one ending to all our hopes and toil; for whereas the battle wagons had a better than even chance, we would have no chance at all."

His prediction came true. The Devonshire was faster than the merchant ship and her eight 200mm guns outranged the Atlantis. Most importantly, the Devonshire could see the wolf for what she was. The battle between the two was short and entirely one-sided. Of the 350 sailors aboard the Atlantis, seven were killed, while 300 more were rescued by the Devonshire and imprisoned in England. The remainder were rescued by the U-126 and interred in neutral Brazil. The cruise of the Atlantis was over, but she and her crew would go down in history, joining the ranks of Germany's great surface raiders.

So what do you think? What impact do you think the capture of the Automedon had on the war? What about the strategy of disguising commerce raiders as merchant ships? Was it genius, or a war crime? Leave your thoughts below!

Contributing Editor

B.T. Graves lives far from the sea amidst the trees and the hills. He spends every night at home with his two cats in a soft leather chair reading about great captains and legendary battles while he dreams of the salty sting of the ocean air.