- Winter, Barbara
- Ship histories and stories, WWII operations, Letter to the Editor
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Sydney II
- March 1999 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Ref: Naval Historical Review, Dec. 1998
The generally intelligent and logical analysis by I.H.N. of the communications aspects of the encounter between Sydney and Kormoran falls down in one respect where the writer does not have a sufficient foundation of fact on which to base his deductions.
FACT 1: A list of disguises to be adopted by German raiders and blockade runners was issued before each ship sailed. The commanders had only limited authority to adopt any other disguise. Captain Rogge did briefly assume an unauthorised disguise when he believed that the ship as which he was disguised had been sunk. The disguises were decided at a High Command level, and they had two purposes. One was to enable a raider to get within easy range of a merchant ship without arousing suspicion; the other was to alert the German High Command if one of their ships was in trouble. By the call sign, they knew which ship it was. Thus Atlantis and Pinguin, virtual sister ships, had completely different lists of disguises. It would not have been easy to adopt a new disguise to accommodate an Allied call sign that might have been compromised.
FACT 2: With all due respect to Captain Roskill: he is alleged to have said only that the Germans had gained knowledge of some (repeat SOME) secret call signs. That might have meant three or four. Komet found the secret call sign of Komata, but only after that ship had been boarded then sunk, this was the most frequent cause of a secret call sign becoming known, but obviously it had no operational use. A few, very few, secret call signs were learnt when a careless merchant ship sent a W/T message using its regular call sign, and followed it up fairly soon with one using its secret sign. This was also of no use unless the ship concerned was one as which a raider could plausibly be disguised. I have read the War Diaries of Kormoran, Atlantis, Komet, Pinguin, Orion and Thor, as well as a fair bit of the Seekriegsleitung War Diary, I have found no suggestion that this happened. I have found no evidence that any secret call sign was ever found by capture from another ship or by espionage ashore. Would anyone wishing to contradict me like to do as much work as I have?
FACT 3: A reading of the interrogations of Kormoran crew, especially that of Erich Ahlbach, makes it clear that Detmers had not the faintest idea of what the IK signal was supposed to mean. Ahlbach’s puzzlement is palpable; the story he was telling made little sense to him, but it did to his interrogators.
FACT 4: The story that secret call signs were or could or might have been captured from Automedon is speculation. A list of captured documents shows nothing of the kind. In fact, a secret call sign would not have been considered a very high priority, for a merchant ship was not authorised to ask for the secret call sign of another ship, and in fact would not have recognised it, while the raiders had orders to avoid anything that looked like .an Allied warship.
There has been a truly lamentable tendency to turn “might have been” into “was”, and to base explanations and excuses on such slight foundations, because it allegedly “stands to reason that” something must be so. I am sorry to keep on spoiling people’s fun by asking them to produce real evidence.
Barbara Winter (Poniewierski) (Life Member)
RESPONSE by I.H.N.
None of the “facts” in Barbara Winter’s letter negate the theory of Kormoran‘s use of Straat Malakka‘s secret callsign, including the emphatic denial by the Germans of any knowledge of the secret challenge “IK” (which some reports state was repeated in plain language by morse light). What else would the German prisoners say to questions touching on their likely subterfuge?
There is no definite proof that Kormoran did not hold the secret callsign – nor is there any proof that she did – but the latter appears to be the only logical explanation for the Sydney’s movements and actions during the initial encounter.
It is significant that following the Sydney disaster, and the almost simultaneous sinking of the raider Atlantis in the Atlantic by HMS Devonshire, the Admiralty reviewed merchant ship recognition and identification procedures. Plotting and reporting were improved and a more streamlined system introduced for warships to confirm the identities of merchantmen with their shore HQ’s. It was called the `CHECKMATE” system and generally superseded the challenge and reply method for off-shore use, which had been open to error and liable to compromise.