Privateers freighters are already a very old idea: Since the Renaissance and seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, merchant ships were armed, but with a reduced artillery. One could still make a difference. But from the nineteenth century, all hulls were painted with rows of false gun ports, and this according to a stylistic tradition continued until the twentieth century.
The principle was to deter potential "predators". During the Secession war already, the Confederate Navy largely outclassed, used armed civilian ships as commerce raiders and blockade runners, while already the young American navy used fast bricks and armed merchant clippers to attack British vessels in 1815. Some corsairs also started to use various disguises to hide their armament, unveiled only at the last moment.
German Raiders in ww1
During the Great War, Germany employed several ways to disrupt British trade and counter the Blockade, using a number of privateers: The Möwe, Wolf, Greif, Wolf II, Geier, Leopard, Iltis, and Seeadler (a tall ship). Using such kind of ship was singular but not anachronistic: Nearly half of the merchant tonnage in 1914 was still assumed by sailing ships. These ships enjoyed mixed success, had artillery up to 105 and 150 mm, light guns and torpedo tubes. Guns were hidden under the hinged folding panels for quick release. The Hochseeflotte also commissioned a number of fast ships as auxiliary cruisers: Steamer SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, Prinz Eitel Friedrich, Crown Prince Wilhelm, and Kormoran, Cape Trafalgar, Berlin, Vineta and Meteor.
German Auxiliary Cruisers in Action
Their process was intangible: When a raider spotted a merchant ship, the former was closing up to be at firing range, compared the name of the ship to Lloyd's register to identify her as Belligerent or neutral. By megaphone, the raider's captain then intimated his fellow counterpart to stop, while unveiling its artillery and true flag. The cargo was then torpedoed or gunned into oblivion after been warned to evacuate, leaving a chance to the crew. Neutrals were visited by a company that checked the bulk list.
Blueprint of the Komet
If it was bound for neutral ports, the cargo could resume its journey unmolested, otherwise the process was repeated, crew evacuated and the ship sunk. Eventually raiders also sometimes attacked military vessels. Disguised as a cargo and flying neutral flags and markings or the silhouette of another ship through improvised contraptions. The captain waited until the military ship was close enough to launch an inspection party and unveiled at the last moment its true colours while revealing its artillery hidden behind folding panels, and opening fire asap, even also sometimes launching a torpedo without warning. What generally followed was a short and bloody artillery duel at close range for which the Raider had the advantage of surprise.
German Raiders in 1939
In 1939, facing a lack of ships to launch an effective commerce war, the concept was reactivated with new ships converted, even more heavily armed than in teh first world war. The "Hilfskreuzer" (auxiliary cruisers, generally complemented by "HSK"- Handels Stör Kreuzer, commerce raiders) were one of the trump cards of Admiral Raeder in his strategy. They ships were generally recent, powerful and fast, roomy and adaptable (and equipped) to fake numerous identities. Their armament was obsolete (old cannons salvaged from cruisers of the Hochseeflotte), but their crews were hand-picked and the best in the German Navy. However the results of their campaign was relatively disappointing. One the right are some of these Ships and their stories.
Blueprint of the Pinguin, same class as the Atlantis
Just as during the First World War, the German navy turned for use as auxiliary cruisers a number of recent, massive and fast freighters. The changes, made through civilian authorities with civilian engineers and military equipment were sometimes radical, and the vessels in question, apart from speed, had real offensive capabilities, threatening even for cruisers. The aim of the design was to have them mimicking a large array of near-similar or approaching neutral ships, approach other ships, then reveal their true identity.
Such procedure did not include capture but annihilation of the opposing ship, often after allowing the crew to evacuate, by means of 150 mm reformed guns and torpedo tubes. They could also laid mines unsuspected, or repel strafing attacks by their AA artillery, all served by modern fire control systems. For long range reconnaissance they embarked one of two seaplane. Small torpedo crafts tailored to operate also from the ship were another way to deal with protected harbours, extend her reach or catch faster ships.
The results they obtained in operations were generally good. 9 ships (HK1 to HK9) were put into service, keeping their civilian name: Orion, Atlantis, Widder, Thor, Pinguin, Stier, Komet, Kormoran and Michel. Their most active and effective period was 1939-1941: Together they sank 140 ships, a total of 700 000 tons. A score well above other military ships of the Kriegsmarine, and also superior to many U-Bootes. They were feared by allied crews, but in general their captains behaved according to the natural unwritten solidarity rules of sailors at sea. When not gathered to be kept on board, crews of sunk ships were often given food, blankets, navigation instruments or maps and directions.
KMS Orion in 1940 (bismarck-class.dk)
Launched in 1931 in Hamburg, former SS Kurmark. Requisitioned, armed, equipped and put into service in December 1939. Covers: Dutch Beemsterdjik, Soviet SS Sovet, Japanese Maebasi Maru. Sank 5 ships (41 138 GRT), participated in the destruction of 4 others. Became the gunners training ship Hector in January 1944, then cadet training ship Orion in 1945. Sunk by RAF in Swinemünde April 4, 1945.
6 x 150mm, 1 x 75mm, 4 x 37mm AA, 4 x 20mm AA, 6 TT 533 mm, 288 mines, 2 planes
Battle between HMAS Sydney and Kormoran
Probably the most famous German Hilfskreuzer, and corsair of the Second World War. Formerly the bulk carrier Steiermark, it was rebuilt in Kiel in 1938-39, and completed in 1940 under the name of Schiff 41, and a profile resembling Viacheslev Molotov and Japanese Satiko and Kinka Maru (above). She could also quickly be converted in many other disguised. British secret service "Raider-G." Like any of its kinds, she wore a heavy armament, hidden 150 mm pieces and AA artillery in dismantled parts easy to reassemble very quickly. Two banks of torpedo tubes were hidden in the sides, above the waterline, but the other two were submarine. No radar was provided so she carried Arado 196 for advanced long range recognition, and a single torpedo craft LS3, able to launch two aviation torpedoes. Her cruise in the Pacific lasted 350 days, during which she sank or captured 11 ships, to be eventually tracked down and sunk by the Australian cruiser Sydney (also lost), following a bloody close quarter duel.
6 x 150mm, 1 x 75mm, 4 x 37AA, 5 x 20mm AA, 6 TT 533 mm, 360 mines, 1LS MBT, 2 planes
Profile of the Atlantis disguised as the Kasii Maru
Launched in 1938 in Bremen. Requisitioned, armed, equipped and returned into service in November 1939; Covers: Freighter MS Goldenfels, Norwegian Knute Nelson, Soviet freighter SS Kim, Japanese Kasii Maru, Dutch Abbekerk. Its 150 mm guns came from the battleship Schliesen. She had 2 Heinkel 114. Sank or captured 22 ships during her career (145 968 GRT), which classed her among the best German Hilfskreuzers. Ended in an unequal duel against the British heavy cruiser HMS Devonshire in the South Atlantic, November 23, 1941
155 x18.70 x8.70 m ( ft)
Tonnage (Empty/Fully Loaded)
17,600 tons (7862 GT)
1 screw, 2 MAN diesels 6cyl, 7600 hp = 16 kn
6 x 150, 1 x 75, 2 x 37AA, 4 x 20AA, 6 TT 533 mm, 92 mines, 2 planes
Launched in 1930 in Kiel. Requisitioned, armed, equipped and put into service in September 1939. Also training ship Neumark. Covers: Norwegian SS Narvik, Spain's Neptuno. Its 150 mm guns came from pre-dreadnought Deutschland. Had 2 Heinkel 114. Sank or captured 10 ships (58 644 GRT) in a 180-day cruise. Survived the war and became the British repair ship Ulysses. Returned to Germany, was used as training ship Fenchenheim. Ran aground on a sandbar near Bergen and was scrapped in situ in 1955.
KMS Thor, South Atlantic 1940
Launched in 1939 in Hamburg as SS Santa Cruz. Requisitioned, armed, equipped and put into service in March 1940. Very fast for a cargo ship. Covers: Yugoslav SS Vir. Its 150 mm guns came from the old battleship Deutschland. Known by British intelligence as "Raider E". Sank or captured 12 ships (96,541 GRT) in her first trip, 10 more in the second, totaling 55,587 GRT. Tied to the supply ship KMS Uckermark in Yokohama November 30, 1942 but exlosed for still unclear reasons. Declared total loss, scrapped in situ afterwards.
122 x 16,70 x 8,10 m
Tonnage (Empty/Fully Loaded)
9200 tons (3862 GT)
1 screw, AEG turbine, 2 boilers La Mont, 6500 hp = 18 kn
6 x 150mm, 1 x 75mm, 1 x 37mm AA, 4 x 20mm AA, 6 TT 533 mm, 1 plane