- Arundel, Richard, Captain, RAN Rtd
- RAN operations, Ship histories and stories, WWII operations, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 2007 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Evans’s post POW recovery report could not be located if indeed he survived his incarceration. However Automedon’s 4th engineer, Samuel Harper, escaped from his POW train taking him from Bordeaux to Germany, made his way courageously to Gibraltar, and was duly interrogated on 31 May 1941 by Naval Intelligence when confirmation of the compromise was established. The author has a copy of a manuscript letter in Harper’s thin official file that appears never to have been sent to him, offering him an award for his courageous endeavours. Perhaps he did not survive the war?
What could have been significant for the RAN is whether in this, or subsequent ship captures, rather than a complete copy of the Mership Secret War Callsign book the compromised material might have comprised updated book amendments which could have included details of the Straat Malakka. An attempt by the author to obtain from the UK Prime Minister’s Office a list of the material so compromised resulted in a reply that this information could not be released until 2013! That the highly successful HSK Atlantis subsequently met up with Kormoran in the southern ocean during the period 19-22 April 1941 would have almost certainly resulted in an exchange of tactical data between the highly successful Captain Rogge and Detmers as well as their radio communication officers. Furthermore it was shortly after they parted that Kormoran took on a new disguise – as the Dutch trader Straat Malakka.
Curiously, Detmers says, in his report of proceedings that is devoid of tactical information, as these reports were subject to capture in support vessels on their way back to Germany, that after changing into his last disguise he had requested from Berlin the latest information on the Straat Malakka. Did he also ask for confirmation of its Secret War Callsign? Since, after the war, efforts were made to decrypt German Enigma machine ciphers for war trials and historical purposes, details of which may remain stored in US archives, it would be interesting to know precisely what Detmers had asked and whether he received a reply?
Thus it does not seem unreasonable to examine further Nicholson’s theory. However the author is now inclined to believe that, as the German story has remained coherent with the passage of time, unless a Government sponsored search is ventured this prevailing ‘known unknown’ with the truth of signal communications is likely to persist.
The article in the Review refers to a now infirm veteran in a nursing facility in Chile to which country he had moved after his repatriation from an Australian POW camp in 1947. Von Malapert refuses to talk in any detail about his signals war, but when RADM Crace, the RAN Fleet Commander, interrogated him in Swanbourne Barracks in 1941, he described him as ‘a violent Nazi’ and after giving the Admiral a Hitler salute, von Malapert was incarcerated in a cold cell. There must have been some irony when the German survivors embarked in the steamer taking them back to Germany that on an opposite Melbourne pier was a Dutch merchant ship – the Straat Malakka. Von Malapert also kept a secret diary which was confiscated on his disembarkation at Cuxhaven. It does not appear to have been examined by a signals expert and the Public Record Office in Melbourne now reports it is missing from their records!
In sum, Sydney did not have a specialist signals officer embarked when she was lost and it was unlikely that Sigint skills existed in other members of the ship’s Command Team. No deep specialist signals and Sigint investigation after the sinking is known to exist. Perhaps timely and vital intelligence of secret merchant ship war callsign compromises may have alerted Sydney to be more prescient. Finally there is evidence that one of Kormoran’s bridge rangefinders recorded Sydney at ‘9 hectometres’ when she stationed herself on Kormoran’s starboard beam. This would confirm that Sydney was conforming with manoeuvring instructions that required cruisers and above to be at 1000 yards Standard Manoeuvring Distance when taking station on any other Allied unit at sea. Thus something very convincing occurred for an experienced warship to believe she was approaching a friendly ship!
Von Malapert may not have known Straat Malakka’s secret callsign but his version remains untested.