SS Automedon

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Name: SS Automedon
Operator: Alfred Holt and Company
Builder: Palmer's Shipbuilding and Iron Company, Jarrow
Launched: 1922
Fate: Sunk 11 November 1940 by German surface raider Atlantis
General characteristics
Class and type: Passenger and cargo steamer
Tonnage: 7,528 GRT
Length: 459 ft 4 in (140.00 m)
Beam: 58 ft 4 in (17.78 m)
Propulsion: steam
Speed: 14 kn (26 km/h; 16 mph)

The SS Automedon was a passenger and cargo steamer which was shelled and sunk on 11 November 1940 during World War II by the German surface raider Atlantis. At the time she was carrying Top Secret documents to the British Far East Command, the capture of which is thought by some to have played a prominent part in the Japanese decision to enter World War II.


At around 07:00 on November 11, 1940, Automedon encountered the German surface raider Atlantis about 250 mi (400 km) northwest of Sumatra, approaching on a heading that would bring the two ships close together. At 08:20, when the Automedon was less than 5,000 yd (4,600 m) away, Atlantis ran up her German ensign and uncovered her guns. Automedon at once responded by transmitting a distress signal, but only managed to send "RRR – Automedon – 0416N" ("RRR" meant "under attack by armed raider") before the Germans jammed her transmissions.[1]

The Atlantis' gunners then opened fire from a range of 2,000 yd (1,800 m), four salvos hitting Automedon's bridge and midsection. The first shells destroyed Automedon's bridge, killing everyone present there including her Captain and all her officers. The Automedon was still steaming at full speed and a crewman attempted to reach her stern gun to return fire. A final salvo was fired which hit the ship, killing the would-be gunner and stopping her.

When the Atlantis' boarding party went on board the Automedon they were met by the vessel's First Mate. Ulrich Mohr of the Atlantis later said that the ship was in the worst condition he had ever seen; the close-range shelling had destroyed virtually every structure above the hull, and nothing was left undamaged. Six crew members had been killed and 12 injured; six of the injured were at once transferred to the Atlantis for medical assistance.[1]

The freighter's cargo of crated aircraft, motor cars, spare parts, liquor, cigarettes, and food bound for Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai was valuable but of little use to the Atlantis, so no thought was given to salvaging any of it. A thorough search of the ship, however, found 15 bags of Top Secret mail for the British Far East Command, including a large quantity of decoding tables, Fleet orders, gunnery instructions, and Naval Intelligence reports. The most significant find was, however, a small green bag discovered in the chart room near the bridge. Marked "Highly Confidential" and equipped with holes to allow it to sink if it had to be thrown overboard, the bag contained an envelope addressed to Robert Brooke Popham, Commander-in-Chief of the British Far East Command. The envelope contained documents prepared by the British War Cabinet's Planning Division which included their evaluations of the strength and status of British land and naval forces in the Far East, a detailed report on Singapore's defenses, and information on the roles to be played by Australian and New Zealand forces in the Far East in the event that Japan entered the war on the Axis side.

Captain Rogge of the Atlantis set a time limit of 3 hours during which time 31 British and 56 Chinese crewmen, 3 passengers, their possessions, all the frozen meat and food and the ship's papers and mail bags were transferred. He was concerned about the situation as another ship observing the two stationery vessels would quickly guess what was happening and send a radio message before any action could be taken by the Atlantis. Automedon was sunk by scuttling charges at 15:07 after being judged too badly damaged to tow. Her survivors eventually reached Bordeaux aboard the captured Norwegian tanker Storstad.

Captain Rogge soon realised the importance of the intelligence material he had captured from the Automedon and quickly transferred the documents onto the vessel Ole Jacob, captured earlier, ordering Lieutenant Commander Paul Kamenz and six of his crew to take charge of the vessel and convey the captured material to the German representatives in Japan.[2]

After an uneventful voyage Ole Jacob arrived in Kobe, Japan, on December 4, 1940. The mail reached the German embassy in Tokyo, on December 5, and was then hand-carried to Berlin via the Trans-Siberian railway. A copy was given to the Japanese and it is sometimes argued that this played a prominent part in the Japanese decision to initiate what it referred to as the, "Greater East Asia War". Following Japan's entry into the war and the fall of Singapore, Rogge was presented with an ornate katana Samurai sword on 27 April 1943; Japan only ever presented three such swords, the other two being to Hermann Goering and Erwin Rommel.[3]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Duffy, pp. 22-24
  2. Slavick, p. 113
  3. Slavick, p. 237