False Flags Cover

False Flags

Disguised German Raiders of World War II

Stephen Robinson

Exisle Publishing, Wollombi, Australia, 2016, 336 pages

Book Review published on: March 8, 2019

In False Flags: Disguised German Raiders of World War II, Stephen Robinson brilliantly tells the little-known story of German commerce raiders in World War II. Based upon lessons learned in World War I and restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, the Kriegsmarine (German navy) knew that it could not hope to match the British Royal Navy on the seas. Instead, it embarked upon a strategy of using U-boats and commerce raiders to target Allied ships carrying war materiel. The strategy would slow Allied shipping by requiring convoys to be escorted, and it would divert and disperse naval strength to cover expansive shipping lanes, allowing for opportunities to intercept solitary ships.

With such an unconventional mission, all raider captains were chosen by Grand Adm. Erich Raeder, the commander in chief of the Kriegsmarine. These captains personally oversaw the conversion of their ships from freighters to auxiliary cruisers. Not only were the ships equipped with panels and spare masts, which allowed them to alter the appearance of their superstructure and hide armaments, but they were also exceedingly well armed. With six 5.9-inch guns, four 75-millimeter guns, twin 37-millimeter antiaircraft guns, and four 20-millimeter antiaircraft guns, as well as six torpedo tubes, the raiders were considerable threats. These ships also carried crews of nearly four hundred and were capable of putting to sea for almost two hundred days before requiring resupply.

The book follows four raiders that deployed in 1940 and 1941: Komet, Orion, Pinguin, and Kormoran. They broke through British blockades in the North Sea and journeyed across the Atlantic into the Pacific and Indian Oceans before operating in the waters around Australia, New Zealand, and Madagascar. In many daring engagements, these four ships combined to sink or capture sixty-nine Allied ships totaling over 340,000 tons. They mined Australian harbors, provided intelligence on Allied naval operations, and disrupted shipping lanes. In its final engagement, the Kormoran sank the HMAS Sydney, a cruiser that was the pride of the Royal Australian Navy. All six hundred and forty-five sailors on board the HMAS Sydney were lost. Despite the constant deception required in their operations, Robinson is careful to point out the lengths that the raider captains went to in order to obey the Hague Convention rules of war, rescue crews and passengers from their targeted ships, and subsequently care for these prisoners.

Using records from archives and other primary sources, Robinson is able to vividly describe the journeys of these raiders as they captured and sank Allied ships, taking hundreds of prisoners along the way. His narrative style makes the book very readable and entertaining while carefully documenting the raiders’ operations. Robinson’s book addresses an important and little-understood niche in World War II history. While the book would certainly appeal to those interested in naval history, it is a unique story told in such a descriptive manner that it would interest almost anyone who follows military history or even military fiction.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. David S. Pierson, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas