Robert Eyssen

Robert Eyssen

(Dec. 18, 2020) This week, 80 years ago, the German Auxiliary Merchant Cruiser Komet was on her first cruise, to hunt, sink or capture Allied merchant ships sailing in the Pacific Ocean.

At 3,287 tons, the Komet was the smallest of all the German Auxiliary Merchant Cruisers when it embarked on a mission similar to that of the Imperial German Navy in World War I.

These Auxiliary Merchant Cruisers formed a sort of “Pirate Fleet” that roamed the oceans in search of Allied merchant ships to sink or capture.

These cruisers were given mythical names such as Atlantis, Penguin, Thor, Widder, Orion, Komet, Kormoran, Steir and Michelle.

The success of these cruisers was far more impressive than any of the Kriegsmarine’s pocket battleships, battleships, battle cruisers or heavy cruisers during World War II.

The German capital ships were designed with a primary function — to conduct commerce raiding. It was a huge investment for Germany to build such powerful warships to conduct this type of warfare.

These capital ships were only able to sink 58 merchant ships with a total tonnage of a little more than 318,000 tons.

In comparison, the Auxiliary Merchant Cruisers sank 110, and captured 31, Allied merchant ships, with a total tonnage of more than 900,000 tons.

These disguised commerce raiders accomplished this in a period of less than three years, with an investment cost of almost one percent of the total cost to build these powerful and complex warships.

But the true value of these commerce raiders was not only in the ships they sunk, but in the disruption they caused to the Royal Navy by sending false signals of raider activity that forced the British to spend invaluable fuel and time chasing ghosts across all the oceans of the world.

These commerce raiders were also used to lay hundreds of mines in the channels and the entrances of enemy ports.

The Komet was launched on Jan. 16, 1937, at the Deschimag-Werk-Weser in Bremen, for the Nord-Deutscher Lloyd line to be operated as the freighter Ems. It was selected by the German Naval High Command to be converted to an Auxiliary Merchant cruiser.

In such a role she was intended to be used as a commerce raider. At 359 feet long, a beam of 50 feet, and drawing less than 20 feet of water, she was powered by two 6-cylinder two-stroke MAN diesel engines, producing 3,900 horse-power, driving a single shaft.

She had a top speed of 16 knots and a range of 51,000 miles (twice the distance around the globe on the equator) at 9 knots.

The Komet was armed with six 5.9 inch- L/45 C/16 guns of World War I vintage, one 60mm cannon, one twin 37mm C/30 flak mounting, four single 20mm C/30 flak guns and six 21 inch torpedo tubes, with 24 torpedoes, two Arado Ar-196 A-1 seaplanes and a Light Mine-laying Speedboat, LS-2, with 30 sea-mines.

The crews of these Auxiliary Merchant Cruisers were thoroughly trained to alter the look of their ships and make them look like any commercial ship from any country. They had the tools and the materiel on board to do it.

The Komet was commanded by the 48-year-old Capt. Robert Eyssen, who knew exactly what kind of ship he wanted, and personally chose the smallest of those being prepared for commerce raiding service.

He also knew the advantages of being able to safely transfer warships from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and when he was informed of the idea that his ship should sail in the Arctic Ocean, on top of the Soviet Union, to reach the Pacific Ocean, Eyssen was confident that he and his tiny ship could be the ones to do it.

Since the Soviet Union and Germany had a Non-Aggression Pact, signed in August 1939, Germany asked the Soviet Union to provide ice-breakers to assist the Komet in her passage through the Arctic ice fields.

The Komet, the last of the first wave of raiders to put to sea, sailed from Gotenhafen on July 3, 1940, in the company of minesweepers MJ7 and M18.

With 35 German cargo vessels stranded in the Pacific region by the outbreak of war, the high command was anxious to test the feasibility of bringing them home during the summer of 1940, as well as exploring the possibility of using the Arctic route for other shipping, preferably commerce raiders, enabling them to safely pass to and from the Pacific.

The Komet passed the North Cape on July 12, 1940, but was unable to proceed much further east due to weather conditions.

Capt. Eyssen rejected the Soviet suggestion that he should wait in the port of Murmansk until conditions improved. The Kriegsmarine felt that his ship would eventually be spotted by the British and his mission would be compromised.

Capt. Eyssen chose to remain at sea off the island of Nova Zemelya.

The Soviet government was concerned that having assisted a German warship to reach the Pacific could be interpreted by the Royal Navy as a breach of neutrality.

When Komet was only 400 miles from the ice-free Bering Strait and the open Pacific Ocean, Capt. Eyssen managed to persuade the Soviet officials to allow him to proceed by giving them written assurances that he understood the Soviet position and was taking full responsibility for his actions.

On Sept. 10, the Komet entered the Pacific Ocean and headed for her operational zone. Capt. Eyssen was instructed by the high command to operate off the coast of Australia and in the Indian Ocean, and, if possible, to seek out the Antarctic whaling fleets.

Eyssen was also to lay mines off ports in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Once she was in the Pacific, she started hunting for Allied commercial ships. Capt. Eyssen took his ship to an area of operation northeast of Australia, around New Zealand, and all the way to the Galapagos Islands.

The Komet in this regard was the only Merchant Raider to go that far. It also teamed with the Merchant Raider Orion and supply ship Regensburg forming a “Far East Squadron” hunting naval group.

On that first cruise, the Komet sailed 87,000 miles lasting 524 days, crossed the equator eight times, and working alone, or in conjunction with the Orion, sank nine ships and captured one, totaling 52,130 tons.

This was a little more than the Admiral Graf Spee accomplished in her sortie to the South Atlantic in 1939.

After her Pacific cruise, Capt. Eyssen took the Komet back to Germany, arriving at Hamburg on Nov. 30, 1941.

For the next 11 months, the Komet was repaired and overhauled while Capt. Eyssen started planning for a second cruise.

However in March 1942, Eyssen was given a new assignment as a naval liaison officer with the German Air fleet IV in the Soviet Union.

The Royal Navy worked feverishly to prevent the Komet from reaching the Atlantic to go on her second cruise. The Royal Navy formed two naval combat groups of nine destroyers and eight motor torpedo boats (MTB) with the sole purpose of preventing the Komet from breaking out to the Atlantic Ocean.

On the night of Oct. 7, 1942, the Komet departed under the command of Capt. Ulrich Brocksien, with a group of minesweepers.

Off the coast of Dunkirk, four of the minesweepers were lost to mines. After a week of playing hide and seek with Royal Navy, the Komet, escorted by four motor torpedo boats, made a run for the open sea on Oct. 13, 1942.

Shortly after midnight, they were sighted by the Royal Navy, and a fierce gun battle erupted. At 2:15 a.m., the Komet was hit by a torpedo fired by the Royal Navy torpedo boat MTB 236.

Within minutes she exploded and sank. Thus ended her career as a Merchant Raider.

Next week: Siege of Giarabub

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