The Kondor Incident.
It had been a busy night in Bletchley Park, quite a few nets had been broken and a large number of decodes had been passed for translation and analysis. Shortly before 4am one interesting message was being studied by the Naval team; they quickly realised it referred to the movements of a German surface raider. The text of the message was re-written and put on the teleprinter to the Admiralty in London. Deep in the Citadel the ship´s location was plotted on the Atlantic charts.
"It´s typical!" Commander Nyman exclaimed, "We locate this ´Kondor 3´ and we´ve no surface units close to it."
"Surely the cruisers off Ireland can intercept it?" asked Lieutenant-Commander Wisley.
"No, they´ll take too long to reach it, she could be heading anywhere along the French coast." Nyman replied.
"Is there anything on its way back from North Africa?" Wisley said, before adding "What about the Malacian Navy they are convoying ships from the West Indies to North Africa."
"One light ex-first-world-war battleship, some old cruisers and destroyers some of which are in Tobermory learning how to hunt U-boats. I don´t think they´ll be in a position to do much, Andrew." He turned to the Petty Officer who ran their filing system. "Rosemoor, what has the Malacian Navy got to hand?"
The young Petty Officer lifted a sheet of paper he had been using to make notes. "Their battleship Panther is covering a convoy returning to the Caribbean which has a cruiser and half a dozen destroyers as its escort, sir." .
"Exactly what is this Panther like?" Asked Wisley.
Rosemoor quickly looked down at his notes. "She is the Gin Palace, Sir. Malacia bought her in 1920, and she had a major refit just before this war broke out. She has the same main armament as the King George Fifth class but in five twin turrets, she has twenty four-point-five inch dual purpose guns and some six-pounder anti-E-boat guns." Rosemoor looked up at the officers, aware that several other officers were gathering around them, alerted by the mention of the German raider. "She can make twenty-three to twenty-four knots and has a pair of Walrus on board."
"Right, who´s the Malacian liaison officer?" asked Nyman.
"Lieutenant Hinton." Replied Rosemoor. "He´s just behind you."
Nyman turned and took in the figure of the young RNVR Lieutenant, a tall blond man with a neat full set.
"How can I help, sir?"
"We need to know if Panther can intercept the Kondor." Nyman turned to his staff to ask for the Kondor´s position in time to see Rosemoor hand Wisley a sheet of paper; Wisley brought it across.
"Kondor´s reported position and course, sir."
"Thank-you, Andrew." He said, as he quickly glanced at the sheet before handing it to Hinton. "Can you pass this to the Malacian Navy, we´d appreciate a rapid reply."
Lieutenant Hinton returned to his office and drafted a signal before dictating it over the telephone. He instructed the Leading Seaman in his office that any reply should be brought straight to him in the Atlantic plot room; he then walked back there.
In the Plot room Wisley had walked back to Rosemoor´s desk and saw the pen and ink sketches that Rosemoor had made of some ships. "Do you have one of Panther?" He asked.
"Yes sir, here." He replied handing Wisley a quarto sheet. "The top sketch is as she was as HMS Agincourt, the lower is how she left Liverpool in 1939 after her refit."
"They are rather good, how did you get all the detail?"
"My father served aboard her in the last war and he was present at Jutland. I was on leave when she left for Malacia so I was able to get a good look at her."
Hinton´s signal was received on board HMMS Panther and her captain, Roger van Leazin, decided to pursue the raider. Issuing several commands to his bridge staff he waited until the convoy commodore was aware that the battleship was leaving the convoy before giving the order to steam north. Even as the ship built up to its maximum speed of 24 knots he dictated his reply to the British Admiralty´s signal to advise of his movements.
Back at the Admiralty the rating brought Hinton the reply he was waiting for. He read it as he walked across to Nyman and handed it to him. "Panther is proceeding with all despatch to intercept the Kondor. The Captain says that if the storm continues to abate he´ll be able to fly-off his two Walrus at first light."
Dawn broke to reveal Panther surging forwards into a still choppy sea, the wind whipping round the ship chilling the crew as they readied the two Walrus flying boats, Zadok and Zebedee. Soon the ship turned a few points to Port to take advantage of the wind and launched the first Walrus. The noise of the wind was pierced by the sharp scream of the rocket powered trolley as the biplane was flung into the air. Dipping for a few seconds it soon recovered and started to climb as it circled its ship like a homing pigeon gathering its bearings. Less than a minute later the second was similarly catapulted off the ship and seemingly lumbered into the air, and the two biplanes set out to the north to search for the Kondor, each aircraft working a fan-shaped pattern each side of Panther´s course. All of Panther´s lookouts, backed up by the various guns´ crews, were at their stations anxiously scanning the horizon for a trace of the raider, their efforts impeded by the low cloud and frequent rain showers. Shortly before eleven one of the flying boats could be seen returning; ´Zadok´ swung around to the south of Panther before touching down on the crest of a wave and running along it, slowly weathercocking into the wind, until it was almost in the lee of the battleship. Panther turned 20 degrees to Starboard, creating a slick of smooth water for the Walrus, enabling it to approach close enough for the observer to grab the crane´s hook and the flying boat was hoisted back onto the ship´s deck. The crew bustled round the bi-plane refuelling it and a pair of armourers fitted new rockets to the catapult trolley; in what seemed like a few moments time it was winched back and the rockets flung the Walrus back into the air. Minutes later the second aircraft ´Zebedee´ was seen approaching from the north to follow the same procedure.
At five past twelve the radio-room buzzed the bridge ´sighting report from Zadok´ and moments later a rating entered with a flimsy containing the report and handed it to the Captain. He read it and then passed the signal to his navigating officer. "Plot an interception course and pass it straight to the helmsman." He then turned to the other officers. "It seems that one of our trusty Steam-pigeons has located the Kondor. Copy the report to the British Admiralty and our Naval Ministry."
At 14:08 one of the bridge look-outs called out "Contact Red 010!" Everyone on the bridge peered forward to try and catch a glimpse.
Moments later the main director responded "Contact confirmed Red 009."
Captain van Leazin turned to his navigating officer but before he could ask for a course Lieutenant Emmetts said "Maintain current course, sir."
"Very good. Update the Admiralty and copy our Ministry."
For the next two hours Panther slowly gained on the merchant ship, her weight and shape enabling her to plough through the heavy sea at close to her maximum of 24 knots. Their quarry was suffering from the short swell on her port quarter, and corkscrewing heavily as she ploughed her way to the north-north-west, allowing Panther to catch up. As the distance closed Captain van Leazin ordered his ship slightly to starboard, instinctively placing Panther between his quarry and its probable European destination. As Panther closed in he ordered her further to starboard; he knew the risk of getting too close to a raider such as Kondor III. When he considered they were close enough he ordered the ship to action stations and the guns to be loaded with common shell but the turrets to be kept in their for-and-aft positions. "Signal the ship to identify itself." He added.
The sound of the signal lamps was clearly heard on the bridge, but there was no response from the merchant ship.
"Are they ignoring us or haven´t they seen us chasing them?" asked lieutenant Bodnant, to no-one in particular.
"It could be either." Replied van Leazin. "Signal them again."
Over the next few minutes the battleship signalled the merchant ship to identify itself several times before it responded, claiming to be the Swedish ship SS Corona. "Send the standard query to the Admiralty." Van Leazin instructed. After waiting for a minute he continued. "Ask Corona what she is carrying and where she is bound."
After a short delay Corona replied that she was returning to Malmo with a cargo of coffee, sugar and other foodstuffs.
A couple of minutes later the Admiralty´s reply arrived, stating that the SS Corona had left Ecuador bound for Santiago four days previously. "Send the challenge." Van Leazin ordered. "Lay the directors onto that ship."
The challenge hoist, consisting of QU -the first and fourth letters of Corona´s identity code- was made; there was no response. After a minute he continued. "Signal ´Why are you not replying with your secret code´. Guns to follow directors; open fire on any offensive action."
Panther´s five main turrets swung round to point at the suspect raider, followed by the port anti-aircraft turrets and the six-pounders.
On the German ship the captain was puzzled by the two-flag hoist. "Anchoring is prohibited? Secret code? What the hell does he mean? Realising that his bluff had been called he called out his orders. "Deploy starboard torpedoes and fire." As soon as the crew started to swing out the torpedo tubes he spoke again. "Break out the colours and open fire with the guns, aim for the bridge."
The captain of Panther´s port after six-pounder gun, Lieutenant Polsden, had been watching the merchant ship and saw some of its crew walk to a well roped down canvas sheet on the after deck. He followed them with his binoculars and his suspicions were confirmed when he saw the ropes being unclipped, and recognised the shape of a pair of German torpedo tubes. "Lay the mount onto those crewmen by the after superstructure; close breeches. Studley, tell the bridge she is deploying torpedo tubes." He continued to watch, and as the tubes were being swung out he shouted "Engage!"
Panther´s bridge crew, alerted by Lieutenant Polsden´s commands, saw the torpedo tubes being uncovered and Commander Barrington called out "Shoot!" The fourteen inch guns fired their first salvo seconds after the six-pounder crew started to fire at the Kondor´s torpedo tubes. They had under estimated the range, however, and their shots fell short; the main director ordered a correction of ´up two hundred´ while the six-pounder´s crew walked their fire up the raider´s hull until they hit the torpedo mount. The gunners had a glimpse of the crew thrown aside as the torpedo mounting jammed before they were hidden from view by the smoke from their own shells.
The Kondor´s gunners had uncovered their guns and were swinging them round to fire at the Panther but the combination of the short swell running from the previous day´s storm and the effect of the near miss from Panther´s main armament made it difficult to keep their guns lined up on their target. They too underestimated the range and the 5.9 inch shells broke up against Panther´s main armour belt. The six-pounder´s gun crew kept up a high rate of fire which Polsden directed onto the amidship guns, reasoning that these would be having the least trouble in maintaining their aim. Then Panther´s second salvo arrived, falling much closer to the raider; one shell hit the hull just on the waterline and exploded in the engine room, completely wrecking it. Without power Kondor quickly lost way and swung to port putting her beam-on to the sea and her rolling increased. Kondor´s bow and stern guns continued their fire but their shots were going wild, fires had started below decks and the smoke was beginning to roil about the ship making their task even harder. Panther´s main guns fired a third salvo and this time gained several hits, Kondor started to list badly to starboard and her guns fell silent. Her crew could be seen gathering at her stern and fo´csle getting ready to abandon ship. Captain van Leazin took Panther close in to the sinking merchant raider and had some of the ship´s boats put down to rescue the survivors. Once this was done he recovered both of his Walrus flying boats and changed course for the West Indies to put the German crew into British hands.
This page copyright SR Jenkins June 2016; reproduction without prior approval is prohibited.
Page last updated: 2nd March 2018.
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