A German raider, often referred to as an auxiliary cruiser or Hilfskreuzer, was a heavily armed merchant ship disguised to look like an innocent trader. Raiders always took on the appearance of a real ship flying a neutral flag and disguises changed many times at sea by adding or removing false decks and masts. Disguises in the Pacific area were predominantly Japanese before Japan entered the war. As a normal merchant ship, there would have been about forty crewmen; as a raider, there were as many as four hundred including specialist code breakers, surgeons, linguists and intelligence officers. The accommodation and stores had to be sufficient for a totally independent floating village including provision for survivors from captured ships.Raiders generally worked alone and were replenished at intervals by unarmed Kriegsmarine supply ships. By mid-1940 there were six raiders at sea causing problems for Allied shipping. The British had little idea of how many raiders there were, where their areas of operations lay and what they looked like. There have been many books and memoirs published on auxiliary cruisers. While many give a factual account of their strategic impact, others are very personal accounts from their victims. This book combines the two narratives: it looks at the circumstance and consequences, nationally and personally, of the sinking of the RMS Rangitane by two raiders working together with their supply ship in the South Pacific in November 1940.
The significance of this particular incident is that many of the survivors were convinced that the Germans knew exactly where to find Rangitane and that secret information was being released in New Zealand. The British, Australian and New Zealand authorities were thrown into turmoil, resulting in an official inquiry which looked at the whole question of the security of merchant shipping. But there is an amazing parallel story of how, despite the circumstances, the survivors were treated with great respect by their captors. Rangitane’s captain and the German commander were both seasoned seamen and both had experience of deception ships in the First World War. They were brothers of the sea. Their relationship was instrumental in the raiders sailing over 1,000 miles to a small, remote British island and releasing the majority of the prisoners. They were rescued just two days later. The prisoners, many of whom were women, endured many problems of poor food and inadequate accommodation and would have been excused for despising their captors. But they reserved their disgust for two fellow prisoners who believed that their status gave them priority over everybody and everything. Many people, with benefit of hindsight, will claim that the Rangitane incident was no different from the thousands of similar losses in the maritime war. To the individuals affected, it was all very personal.