World War II was a trade war

Stephan König, trade war at sea. A historical comparison of German auxiliary cruisers and Armed Merchant Cruisers of the British Empire during the Second World War, Berlin: Lang 2018, IV, 567 p. (= Military historical studies, 17), EUR 89.95 [ISBN 978-3-631-75959- 2]

This is where legendary terrain is entered. But Stephan Koenig's book, originally presented as a dissertation at the University of Munich, is not a »sea devil 2.0«. In the wake of the more recent scientific publications on the subject of trade wars with auxiliary cruisers in World War II (Werner Rahn, Jörg Hillmann) and, with some reservations, older publications (including Gerhard Hümmelchen), König provides an elaborately researched research work on this excerpt from the naval war - and far removed from that romanticism which has all too often promoted this subject into the genre of popular scientific literature. What is also new is the comparative presentation of the history of the German auxiliary cruisers (Handelsstörkreuzer / HSK) with their (supposed) counterpart on the British side, the Armed Merchant Cruiser (AMC), passenger ships that were converted to warfare and used to secure convoy, to which not even on the British side explicit studies exist, as presented here by König. In fact, the author has obtained a tremendous amount of material on HSK and AMC in numerous archives in Germany, Great Britain and Australia and has documented this in no fewer than 1981 individual notes. In this way, a monumental fund of printed sources, such as, above all, unpublished archival finds (studies, memoranda, operational orders, photographs, films, watercolors by HSK commandant Kurt Weyher, personal documents, private records, war diaries of the ships and command authorities), all of which are systematically presented in an opulent overall presentation presented.

An introduction to the delimitation of the field of investigation, the derivation of the comparative approach and an overview of the sources and previous reception of the topic are followed by an excursus into the history of the use of merchant ships in naval warfare as well as a valuable legal historical consideration of trade warfare in international and national naval law. Then the pre-war plans of both sides for the use of civilian ships as substitute naval warfare in view of the lack of regular combat units are presented against the background of corresponding experiences already in the First World War ("Desperate Weapons", p. 465). These plans brought the AMC much more "on scene" than the German auxiliary cruisers. In the descriptive center of the book (pp. 195–433), the HSK and AMC operations that can be determined during the course of the war are then reported in detail from the sources, including the »threats and dangers« (p. 380) from submarines, aircraft and surface units. The era of this trade warfare, however, as König finally shows, ended on both sides before the end of the war, and that of the 56 AMC deployed first. They were all used for other purposes, especially as troop and material transport ships. The end of the HSK, which acted as a trade disruptor for “cruiser warfare in foreign waters” (p. 264), however, resulted in the loss of seven of the nine operationally deployed HSKs due to their sinking and - in view of the increasing above and underwater threat from the Allies - by staying sealed in their bases.

The text part of the book ends with a »final consideration« and the respective national assessments of the effectiveness of the use of the HSK and AMC in the trade war. In doing so, due to the premature end of these missions on both sides, the operational futility of these types of ships in modern naval warfare scenarios is ultimately diagnosed.

All in all, Stephan Koenig's study is a depiction of the Auxiliary Cruiser War that has not yet existed in this level of detail, characterized by the utmost thoroughness and accuracy in detail, and this is based on a source and literature fund that is equally impressive due to its scientific urgency and immense research work. The author guides the reader legibly and insightfully, as it were as a bibliographic scout, through the thicket of primary and secondary literature.

The great documentary achievement of the book is not least recognizable in its appendix: with the »route map« from HSK »Atlantis« under Bernhard Rogge, which with its intricate courses impressively shows the »coverage« of large sea areas in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans by a single auxiliary cruiser Augen guides you with a British poem on the correct behavior in convoys and, above all, with the tabular »overview data« including ship's name, BRT, commander, launch, whereabouts. In the case of the AMC, conversions are also specified with the start, location and »equipment«.

The plausible and strictly fact-based description of the HSK / AMC operations is flanked by 98 rare photo documents - from taking over fuel to 15 cm gunfire, bringing down merchant ships, rescuing castaways to shelling a land facility and using an on-board aircraft. Then the spectacular camouflage at sea on the ship's hull, chimney and the attachment of "apparent" upper deck superstructures, underlaid with a sheet of the silhouettes of the auxiliary cruiser "Komet" in five merchant ship versions. All of this illustrates the finesse-rich commitment of the HSK, the resourcefulness and leadership of their commanders and the team performance of their crews. Ship stories that sometimes and almost logically change into the »adventurous« without »glorifying« this aspect of HSK deployment (see p . »Atlantis« 622 days, see p. 363) challenging ship and people guidance on board; in the case of a single HSK commander up to “drifting into a disproportionate type of HSK mission” (fire without warning, running without looking for castaways, see p. 344).

The heuristic "highlight" of the book, the "first historical comparison of the two auxiliary warship types" (p. 19), proves to be highly profitable, with regard to the fundamentally different, even contrary, operational approach of the two types of auxiliary cruiser under consideration: the main character of the AMC, which is defensive and escorted, as well as the main offensive, escorting and single ship-threatening function of the HSK, as well as their different effectiveness. Here, König shows how, in view of the poor maneuverability and, above all, its barely camouflaged, conspicuous silhouette, soon after the outbreak of the war, "disenchantment" (p. 454) with regard to the operational effectiveness of the AMC set in on the British side. It was different with the HSK: Their main task was fulfilled with “very considerable effects” (p. 469), according to the author, “fully” (p. 468), through finesse and varied presence in different, changing sea areas and, next to Approximately 900,000 GRT of sunk shipping space, due to uncertainty in British merchant shipping.

Due to the astonishing abundance of material, the immense number and well-considered selection of the sources consulted, the well thought-out systematics and the profound results including extensive background and framework information (armaments, law, naval war history), the present work can be used as a manual on British and German auxiliary cruisers in the Second World War be valid. Despite its scientific claim and its level of detail, the present compendium is legible and a "handy" standard work in the truest sense of the word. Or to put it another way: In future, if possible, one should no longer comment on the HSK / AMC operations in the Second World War without consulting Stephan König's "trade war at sea".

Published online: 2020-05-08
In print: 2020-05-05

© 2020 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin / Boston