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German surface raiders disguised as freighters, war criminals?

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  • German surface raiders disguised as freighters, war criminals?

    I post the story below with the question, did the German raiders who disguised themselves as freighters, flying the flag of neutral nations, with guns hidden until they were in range commit war crimes?
    Please explain your reasoning.

    During World War II, the German Navy used heavily armed, converted merchant ships as "surface raiders" or "auxiliary cruisers" to prey on Allied shipping. These ships were usually disguised as neutral-flag cargo ships, but typically had two torpedo tubes forward, six 15cm (5.9-inch) guns, plus anti-aircraft guns. Most carried seaplanes and torpedo boats. They changed their profiles frequently through the addition of fake masts and stacks. Their guns were camouflaged as deck cargo or behind false deck panels.
    The raider Stier, formerly the merchant ship Cairo, was built by Krupp in 1936, at 434 feet long, 56.5 feet broad, with a top speed of 14 knots. The Allied code name for her was "Raider J." She began operation as a raider in May 1942 under the command of Horst Gerlach, with a crew of 324 well-trained Navy men.

    Her first three victims were: Gemstone (British), Stanvac Calcutta (Panama-flag U.S.-owned), and Dalhousie (British).

    On the morning of September 27, 1942, the Stier was taking on supplies from the blockade runner Tannenfels off the coast of South Africa when she spotted a ship coming out of the mist not far away. It was the Liberty ship SS Stephen Hopkins, operated by the Luckenbach Steamship Co. out of San Francisco. Built by Kaiser Richmond No. 2, she was on her maiden voyage - San Francisco - Bora Bora - Auckland, New Zealand - Melbourne - Port Lincoln, Australia, Durban - Capetown - and bound in ballast for Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana.

    At 9:30 AM that Sunday morning Captain Paul Buck, Chief Mate Richard Moczkowski, and George Papas, A.B., were on the bridge. Kenneth Vaughn, 3rd Assistant Engineer, Michael Fitzpatrick, fireman, and Andrew Tsignonis, wiper, were on watch in the engine room. Ford Stilson, the 32-year-old Chief Steward, heard a shot pierce the superstructure, then the general alarm. He grabbed his lifejacket and went to his battle station. He would set up a makeshift hospital in the officers’ mess.

    The Armed Guard gunners and mariners assigned as loaders raced to their guns. Off the starboard bow, they saw a ship about the same size as the Hopkins firing at them. A larger ship was behind her. Explosions rocked the ship and machine gun fire was raking the decks. One of the first shells killed two mariners as they stepped on deck.

    Moczkowski gave orders to steer so the stern of the ship - with its 4 inch gun - would continue to point at the enemy ship and at the same time present the smallest target.....
    Continued
    http://www.usmm.org/hopkins.html
    Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.

  • #2
    I consider anyone who stood with the paper hanger a war criminal. That simple enough?
    Credo quia absurdum.


    Quantum mechanics describes nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense. And yet it fully agrees with experiment. So I hope you can accept nature as She is - absurd! - Richard Feynman

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    • #3
      It's a bit difficult to convict WW2 German captains of war crimes, when it was the Royal Navy that made the procedure commonplace during WW1, and was not subsequently ruled contrary to international law.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Q-ship
      "It's like shooting rats in a barrel."
      "You'll be in a barrel if you don't watch out for the fighters!"

      "Talking about airplanes is a very pleasant mental disease."
      — Sergei(son of Igor) Sikorsky, 'AOPA Pilot' magazine February 2003.

      Comment


      • #4
        Originally posted by Bwaha View Post
        I consider anyone who stood with the paper hanger a war criminal. That simple enough?
        Throwing the baby out with the bath water.

        The captains of the German disguised raiders were well known for their very high standards of humane treatment towards their opponents.

        They certainly did not ascribe to the proposition that chivalry in war was dead.

        The opposite was in fact the case.
        "It's like shooting rats in a barrel."
        "You'll be in a barrel if you don't watch out for the fighters!"

        "Talking about airplanes is a very pleasant mental disease."
        — Sergei(son of Igor) Sikorsky, 'AOPA Pilot' magazine February 2003.

        Comment


        • #5
          Commerce raiding has a long, long history in naval warfare. From Drake, to the Confederates, to the Germans and Japanese in WW 2, and many more cases in between. So long as the raider ends their ruse just before they open fire, it's really pretty much legal to quasi-legal.
          But, as everybody has done it to one degree or another for centuries it'd be really hard to convict a captain and crew of piracy or some "war crime" for carrying out merchant raiding.

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          • #6
            Why are the rules any different for ground troops?
            If a ground pounder disguised himself as a citizen, then opened fire on a uniformed soldiers, he would be considered a spy, or an assassin.
            Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.

            Comment


            • #7
              In all instances that I have read of German "RRR" activity, they lowered their neutral flag, and raised the K.M.S. flag before opening fire or signalling their intention to open fire.

              For example, in the November 1941 action between HMAS Sydney and disguised raider Kormoran - HSK-8(in which both were sunk):

              [.....]
              Action

              In response to the cruiser's signal, Detmers ordered that Kormoran '​s disguise be dropped, for the Dutch flag to be replaced by the Kriegsmarine ensign, and for the guns and torpedoes to open fire.[48]
              [.....]
              https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle...Identification
              Last edited by At ease; 20 Jan 16, 23:29.
              "It's like shooting rats in a barrel."
              "You'll be in a barrel if you don't watch out for the fighters!"

              "Talking about airplanes is a very pleasant mental disease."
              — Sergei(son of Igor) Sikorsky, 'AOPA Pilot' magazine February 2003.

              Comment


              • #8
                The mere fact of carrying out commerce raiding while using ruses de guerre before the actual engagement was no war crime, and I don't know of trials with such an accusation. If anybody does, I'd like to hear about them.

                There have been cases of commanders of auxiliary cruisers tried for war crimes, but they were accused of other specific violations, not in general of waging commerce raiding under a false flag.

                The latter is considered a typical example of a ruse, and ruses were specifically permitted. As others have said, one could not fly the false flag during the actual engagement, but I don't know of instances of this happening.

                Generally speaking, all of the disguised auxiliary cruisers - employed by all sides in all wars after 1907 - will have normally violated a convention, i.e. the specific Hague VII. That is, the provision that when you converted a merchant ship into a warship, you had to make that known to the whole world. Which I suspect did not happen, in most cases.
                But in that case, the violators wouldn't be the commanders of such ships; rather, the admirals back in the admiralty.
                Michele

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                • #9
                  It was a long established and well understood convention of naval warfare dating back to pre Napoleonic days that it was fair game to fly false colours provided that you raised your true colours before actually opening fire. Everyone did it. It was part of what was known as "amusing the enemy" (language changes and amusing then meant fooling so when Victoria said we are not amused she meant I'm not fooled) Opening fire under false colours was regarded as tantamount to piracy and a capital offence. Amusing the enemy also included changing the appearance of your ship so it was not unusual for French commerce raiders in the Napoleonic period to attempt to appear like merchant men or even fishing vessels (and on occasion East Indiamen put off French raiders by acting like ships of the line). All legitimate ruse de guerre. British ships often had a Tricolour in their flag locker and French ships a British flag in theirs. The use of neutral flags was also common (including before 1812 the US national flag). AFAIK this was never formally changed so in WW2 it was still legal.
                  Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe (H G Wells)
                  Mit der Dummheit kaempfen Goetter selbst vergebens (Friedrich von Schiller)

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                  • #10
                    Nope, legitimate if sneaky... help keep everybody on their toes!
                    The long toll of the brave
                    Is not lost in darkness
                    Over the fruitful earth
                    And athwart the seas
                    Hath passed the light of noble deeds
                    Unquenchable forever.

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                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Urban hermit View Post
                      Why are the rules any different for ground troops?
                      If a ground pounder disguised himself as a citizen, then opened fire on a uniformed soldiers, he would be considered a spy, or an assassin.
                      The difference rests in fighting under false colours or using them as a method of deception. As pointed out in the many examples given in this thread, German raiders raised their own colours when engaged in actual combat.

                      If you'd like an example of how this legality was interpreted in ground combat situations, Operation Greif is a good case study.

                      From the wiki
                      Operation Greif:

                      After World War II, Skorzeny was tried as a war criminal at the Dachau Trials in 1947 for allegedly violating the laws of war during the Battle of the Bulge. He and nine officers of the Panzerbrigade 150 were charged with improperly using American uniforms "by entering into combat disguised therewith and treacherously firing upon and killing members of the armed forces of the United States." They were also charged with participation in wrongfully obtaining U.S. uniforms and Red Cross parcels consigned to American prisoners of war from a prisoner-of-war camp. Acquitting all defendants, the military tribunal drew a distinction between using enemy uniforms during combat and for other purposes including deception; it could not be shown that Skorzeny had actually given any orders to fight in U.S. uniforms. Skorzeny said that he was told by German legal experts that as long he didn't order his men to fight in combat while wearing U.S. uniforms, such a tactic was a legitimate ruse of war. A surprise defense witness was F. F. E. Yeo-Thomas, a former Allied SOE agent, who testified that he and his operatives wore German uniforms behind enemy lines.
                      In the case you provided, if your soldier would be engaging in combat in an enemy uniform then he's SOL. If he changed out of enemy uniform before engaging in combat (for example wearing his authentic uniform under his disguise) then he's protected under convention.
                      I will note the example you give , fighting in civilian clothing, gets into the concept of partisans and their role as combatants which is a whole different set of legalistic considerations versus your initial discussion of disguising yourself as an enemy combatant.

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                      • #12
                        Originally posted by At ease View Post
                        It's a bit difficult to convict WW2 German captains of war crimes, when it was the Royal Navy that made the procedure commonplace during WW1, and was not subsequently ruled contrary to international law.

                        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Q-ship
                        My old grandfather was a captain of a Q Boat during WW1 and sunk a German sub and never charged as a criminal .....He was RNVR Lt on cruisers and later given command of a Q Boat......still later as a civvy he took his three fishing trawlers on an afternoon cruise to a place called Dunkirk to pick up a bunch of non paying passengers...

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                        • #13
                          Originally posted by Bow View Post
                          My old grandfather was a captain of a Q Boat during WW1 and sunk a German sub and never charged as a criminal .....He was RNVR Lt on cruisers and later given command of a Q Boat......still later as a civvy he took his three fishing trawlers on an afternoon cruise to a place called Dunkirk to pick up a bunch of non paying passengers...
                          "It's like shooting rats in a barrel."
                          "You'll be in a barrel if you don't watch out for the fighters!"

                          "Talking about airplanes is a very pleasant mental disease."
                          — Sergei(son of Igor) Sikorsky, 'AOPA Pilot' magazine February 2003.

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Originally posted by Bow View Post
                            My old grandfather was a captain of a Q Boat during WW1 and sunk a German sub and never charged as a criminal .....He was RNVR Lt on cruisers and later given command of a Q Boat.....
                            The Germans were quite incensed by the Q Ships and did accuse them of war crimes and might well have shot him if he had been captured in much the same way as they shot the captain of a British Merchantman who rammed and sank a U boat that was attacking his ship and was unfortunate to be taken prisoner in a later incident. But then the Germans tended to make up law to suit themselves - they court martialed some British Airmen who had been dropping leaflets and convicted them of treason because the leaflets insulted the Kaiser
                            Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe (H G Wells)
                            Mit der Dummheit kaempfen Goetter selbst vergebens (Friedrich von Schiller)

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Originally posted by Urban hermit View Post
                              Why are the rules any different for ground troops?
                              If a ground pounder disguised himself as a citizen, then opened fire on a uniformed soldiers, he would be considered a spy, or an assassin.
                              Not quite the same thing.

                              If a soldier were to disguise himself as a civilian, then drop the disguise before opening fire, he'd be emulating a Q-ship - remember, a soldier in uniform expects to be treated in a certain way, not as a spy/ guerilla.

                              Deception may be frowned upon by the victims, but everybody does it, and there are far worse crimes committed in warfare. Q- ships always showed, "Their true colours," (that's where the expression comes from) before opening fire, and sinking an enemy ship in time of war is not a war crime.
                              Indyref2 - still, "Yes."

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