Updated: Dec 21, 2022
Part I - Pinguin and Passat
On October 7, 1940, lookouts on the German auxiliary raider Pinguin, under the command of Kapitän Ernst-Felix Kruder, spotted a ship south of Christmas Island. The unarmed 8,998 ton Norwegian tanker, Storstad, under Captain Egil Wilhelmsen, had been proceeding from Borneo to Melbourne when the disguised Pinguin came into view. Kapitän Kruder ordered Storstad to stop and await boarding. Captain Egil Wilhelmsen, wishing to avoid bloodshed, obeyed the order and Pinguin's boarding party captured the tanker, in tact.
Kapitän Kruder dispatched a prize crew to take charge of Storstad, with Oberleutnant zur See Erich Warning in command. His crew consisted of three fellow officers, seventeen Kriegsmarine sailors and five of the original Norwegian engine room crew.
The two ships, in company, arrived in the less frequented waters between Java and Australia where Storstad, now renamed Passat (Trade Wind), was fitted out for her coming mission. Kruder was pleased with his prize ship, as Storstad was soon expected in Australian waters and a tanker would arouse less suspicion than a freighter. The Allied forces were on the lookout for suspected German raiders, which were always freighters, so the tanker would be perfect.
On October 12, Passat parted company with Pinguin, loaded with 110 mines destined for Australian waters. Kruder and the Pinguin planned to mine the Australian east coast and the approaches to Newcastle, Sydney and Hobart, while Erich Warning and the Passat would mine the Bass Strait.
The Pinguin continued east through the Great Australian Bight before rounding southern Tasmania. Days later, the German raider approached Port Stephens on a dark, cloudy night, the people ashore oblivious to the threat. Ten mines were dropped overboard near Catherine Hill, while the Navigation Officer, Kapitänleutnant Michaelson, plotted their next course using the well-lit lighthouses as beacons. The Pinguin's crew saw the bright lights of Newcastle and Sydney that night, reminding them of home. After laying another thirty mines, Pinguin fled south, the city lights fading away behind them.
On the night of October 31, the Pinguin approached Bruny Island near Hobart in wet conditions. Around sunset, the Officers of Pinguin observed the natural beauty of these waters.
At 21:20 hours, despite the presence of a patrol vessel, Kruder dropped fourteen mines in the entrance of D'Entrecasteaux Channel.
Pinguin then headed for Spencer Gulf, Adelaide.
Meanwhile, Passat had passed Cape Leeuwin on October 17, before heading into the Bight.
After proceeding south around Tasmania, Passat turned north towards the Banks Strait, between Tasmania and Clarke Island. The Passat struggled in terrible, rough weather and Erich Warning found it difficult to reach his target area on schedule. Passat laid five mines south of Cape Barren Island and then another twenty-five in the Banks Strait.
On October 30, under the cover of darkness, Passat entered the Bass Strait, the gateway to Melbourne, Storstad's original destination.
Oberleutnant zur See Erich Warning had a tense moment when Wilson's Promontory Naval Station signalled "What ship?" Warning replied "Tanker Storstad, from Miri to Melbourne." The station had been expecting the Storstad for a while, but commented on the weather, which no doubt they thought delayed the tanker. Passat then laid ten mines just south of the station and continued laying them off Wattle Hill and through the Strait.
While mining the Bass Strait, Warning and his men saw lights from both houses and cars, a reminder of normal life which made the Germans homesick. At midnight on October 31, Passat dropped her last ten mines and escaped into the Bight.
The Pinguin and Passat triumphantly escaped and rendezvoused 750 miles west of Fremantle on November 15, 1940. Passat, now Storstad once again, sailed with Pinguin as a scout ship, before running the blockade to occupied France with 524 prisoners onboard. Storstad reached Bordeaux on February 4, 1941.
Pinguin would go on to sink another 7 merchant ships and capture the entire Norwegian whaling fleet. On May 8, 1941, Pinguin came into contact with the British cruiser HMS Cornwall and in the ensuing battle Pinguin was sunk. There were 61 German survivors and out of the 238 prisoners Pinguin was carrying, only 24 survived.
Together, the Pinguin and Passat had laid 230 mines in Australian waters without alerting the Australian authorities. It wouldn't be long before the minefields were discovered.
On the night of November 7, the Cambridge, a 10,846 ton freighter, would be the first to strike a mine from the Passat. Cambridge sank thirty minutes later with only one casualty.
Next to go was the 5,883 ton American freighter, City of Rayville, which struck a mine from Passat six miles out of Cape Otway. This freighter was the first U.S. ship sunk during the war. Fishing boats rescued thirty-seven survivors.
On December 5, the 1,052 ton Australian coastal freighter, Nimbin, struck a mine from the Pinguin near Port Stephens. She sank in five minutes, taking eight lives.
Two days later the 10,923 ton freighter, Hertford, was damaged by a mine but Captain Tuckett and his crew saved their ship, which was towed into Port Lincoln.
Lastly on March 26, 1941, the little fishing trawler, Millimummul, was sunk by a mine from the Pinguin.
It would be left to the minesweepers of the Royal Australian Navy to destroy the German mines, a most hazardous task that would last until 1946. By that time, our minesweepers had found and destroyed ninety-eight German mines.
These minefields were the product of a well coordinated and daring operation by Kapitän Ernst-Felix Kruder and Oberleutnant zur See Erich Warning, which left a scar on Australia's shores.
Next: Part II - The Battle of Nauru Island
'False Flags, Disguised German Raiders of WWII' by Stephen Robinson.
Photos from: https://www.wrecksite.eu