How one merchant ship doomed a colony


Mrs Ferguson’s Tea-Set, Japan, and The Second World War: The Global Consequences Following Germany’s Sinking of The SS Automedon in 1940, by Eiji Seki. Global Oriental, 187 pp., 2007, £35 (cloth)

On her way to Penang on Nov. 11, 1940, the Blue Funnel Line merchant vessel SS Automedon was sunk by the German raider Atlantis masquerading as the British auxiliary cruiser Antenor, southwest of Achin Head on the northwestern tip of Sumatra.

Before the ship was sunk, the Germans discovered “Most Secret” papers being sent to the British commander in chief in the Far East. They “contained extremely detailed information on the Royal Navy’s and the RAF’s armaments and positions, the defence of Singapore and possible response measures to Japanese aggression, as well as an analysis of the roles of Australia and New Zealand.”

This was a hugely important find and so steps were taken by the German commander of the Atlantis, Captain Rogge, to ensure that the papers were delivered as soon as possible to German intelligence in Japan. They were then soon in Japanese hands.

Eiji Seki, the author of this book, thinks that the Japanese misinterpreted the intelligence in these documents, which were out of date by the time the Japanese received them. He believes that this was an influential factor in the decision to attack Pearl Harbor and open hostilities in December 1941.

The story that Seki relates is a fascinating one, making the book difficult to put down. He describes in graphic detail the voyage of the Automedon and the actions that led to her loss. He follows the survivors from her crew and passengers through their hardships, captivity and release as well as the adventures of those who managed to escape. The reader also learns what happened to these people after the war ended. Two survivors attended the launch of the book at Daiwa Japan House in London on Nov. 2.

Also provided is an account of the actions and fate of the Atlantis and its captain, who survived to become commander of NATO forces responsible for the defense of northern Germany.

It is hard to understand today why these “Most Secret” documents were sent by a merchant ship, which might be intercepted and sunk, rather than by a warship. Communications at that time were difficult and air transport was not only very limited but equally dangerous. Even so, and despite the fact that they were in the hands of an experienced and reliable master such as Captain Ewan of the Automedon, who was under instructions to destroy the documents in the event of an emergency, the decision to send the papers via a merchant ship was odd.

As Seki explains, it was only by a series of misfortunes that the documents were even discovered. The German raider’s instructions to the Automedon not to send out a distress call was not obeyed for understandable reasons, and the Atlantis then shelled the British ship’s bridge killing the captain and either killing or seriously wounding other senior officers.

Second officer Stewart, who had been injured, tried to get at the mailbags inside the strong-room but he couldn’t find the key, and before he could act a German boarding party had reached the ship. The Germans might still have not have found the mailbags if it had not been for the innocent request of one of the passengers, a Mrs. Violet Ferguson, who was on her way to Singapore with her husband. She asked that, if possible, her belongings be rescued. Captain Rogge agreed to help her, and her luggage, including her tea-set, was collected from the Automedon and the mailbags were discovered before the ship was sunk.

This book is a reminder that the threat to British shipping came not only from German U-boats but also from surface raiders about which less has been written. The story is a salutary lesson on the importance of maintaining document security. It also underlines the fact that even the most significant documentary intelligence can be misinterpreted by wishful thinking and over-optimism.

The heroism of the merchant seamen who suffered so much and of the many who lost their lives in the conflict is rightly brought out by this story. The author gives due praise to Captain Rogge who treated his captives with consideration, but he also draws attention to the cases of ill-treatment of prisoners, especially of East Europeans, in Nazi Germany.

In investigating this story, Seki has done a huge amount of painstaking research and he is to be congratulated on turning the results into what is a gripping yarn as well as an informative and interesting piece of history.