September 24, 1940 the 7,528 tons Blue Funnel Line merchant vessel ‘SS
Automedon’ of the A & R Holt Shipping Line prepared to leave
Liverpool on a routine voyage to Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
On board was a general cargo consisting of crated aircraft, machinery,
vehicles, foodstuffs, Mrs Ferguson's tea-set and 120 mail bags, including the latest merchant navy
code deciphering tables 7,8 and 9. In addition to this was a slender green
bag, placed aboard on the orders of Air Chief Marshall, Sir Cyril Newall of
the Chiefs of Staff. Inside of which was a full copy of the August 1940 COS
Far Eastern Appreciation. This was destined for the attention of the CinC Far
East, Air Chief Marshall Sir Robert Brooke Popham.
Precisely why a copy of this report was sent to the colony in such an
insecure manner is a question that, in all probability, will never receive a
satisfactory explanation. Though whilst offering consideration to this point,
another issue warrants far deeper consideration. This being, why was an
Appreciation dealing mainly with the defence of Singapore and Malaya
despatched to its Commanders at such a late date, particularly as the
document had now been in restricted circulation for more than a month?
The most feasible theory attached to this deliberate action concerns itself
with the British War Cabinet and their possible desire to ensure the entire
Appreciation could not be discussed at the Singapore Defence Conference of
October 1940. Particularly as documented evidence alludes to the War Cabinet
having deep reservations that any pessimistic disclosures within the
Appreciation could prelude a detrimental reaction on recent requests to
Australia and New Zealand for reinforcements to be sent to the Middle East
If we accept this theory to be an indicative of events; with the War Cabinet
having successfully denied the full details of the Appreciation from their
colonial allies and in direct contrast, perhaps they deemed it as beneficial
in future dealings with the Dutch to discuss the Chiefs of Staff Appreciation
in its entirety at the forthcoming Anglo-Dutch Staff Talks of November 26-29.
A meeting at which the Dominions were not represented, though an American
observer was allowed to attend. Furthermore, and in support such speculation,
barring unforeseen circumstances, the full Appreciation would have arrived at
the colony a number of days before onset of these talks.
This appears consistent with the ‘Most Secret’ document being on board
Automedon; especially as the Governor of Singapore, Shenton Thomas left
Britain for the colony before Automedon set sail, commencing his journey by
seaplane prior to Japan signing the Tri-Partite Agreement. However he never
reached Singapore until December 5, some three weeks after the ‘Blue
Funneller’ was set to arrive…and obviously too late for the Appreciation to
be available for deliberation at the Anglo-Dutch Talks. Even so…it cannot be
questioned that Thomas’s mode of transport was a far safer method for such
sensitive documentation, particularly when the waters of the Indian Ocean, in
which Automedon would be travelling were known to be infested by German Raiders
(armed merchant ships).
Though without question, the greatest mystery of all surrounds the newly
appointed CinC Far East Brooke Popham who departed Britain to take up his
post on October 27, arriving at Singapore a few days before Automedon was due
for docking. Surely it made more sense to allow Popham to carry a copy of the
Appreciation with him, particularly as he was never privy to its full
contents prior to leaving Britain. Subsequently, to have a copy in his
possession on a journey of more than two weeks would have served two
purposes. In the first instance it would have offered the CinC precious time
to conduct a full evaluation of the Appreciation’s findings whilst enroute to
the colony. Secondly, with Brooke Popham due to Chair an important conference
within days of his arrival, prior knowledge of the reports contents would
have enabled him to discuss any contentious issues with his Local Commanders
before onset of talks with the Dutch?
Irrespective of such matters, SS Automedon enjoyed an uneventful voyage until
the evening of November 10, 1940, when her wireless operator picked up a
distress call from the Norwegian tanker ‘Ole Jacob’ which read:
”QQQ-QQQ-QQQ- Position 2-degrees 34’N…70 degrees 56’E Ole Jacob…unknown ship
has turned now coming after us”. Followed by a further signal of…”QQQ –
Stopped by unknown ship”
Unfortunately for Automedon her fate had now been sealed, as this intercepted
distress call preceded the capturing of Ole Jacob by an infamous German
Raider. In a matter of hours Automedon would be their next victim.
The remainder of the night passed without disturbance and as first light
broke on November 11 the ‘Blue Funneller’ was some 250 miles off the north
western tip of Sumatra, her Second Mate, Mr Stewart was on watch. Gradually
the outline of a ship came into view, approximately three points off the port
bow. Stewart responded by calling Captain Ewan to the bridge, after much
deliberation they surmised the vessel to be of Dutch origin. Regrettably,
this was a fatal error of judgement.
The unidentified ship continued steaming on a converging course and after
more than an hour the range was down to 4,600yds. Suddenly, at 08.20hrs the
early morning calm was shattered as a ‘warning shot’ screamed across
Automedon’s bow. This was no innocent Dutch merchant ship, it was the most
successful German raider of WWII Atlantis or as the Royal Navy knew her
(Ship-16). Within seconds Automedon’s wireless operator began tapping the
distress call (RRR – Automedon – 0416N) the first three letters of which,
were identifiable as “under attack by armed raider”
With Automedon at 2,000yds the raider responded by pouring salvo after deadly
salvo into the merchantman, quickly destroying her emergency dynamo house and
causing horrendous damage throughout the ship, seconds later the Germans
jammed the distress call. And after just three minutes of chaos the one-sided
action was over as the Raider ceased fire. Though such was the accuracy of
her gunnery, Automedon was now a listing hulk with six of her crew dead and
12 injured. Understandably, the scene onboard was appalling with the bridge
and accommodation quarters in a shambles and all the life-boats destroyed.
Although the ‘RRR’ was brief and incomplete (the wireless operator being
unable to offer a longitude reading before the radio mast was destroyed) it
had nevertheless been intercepted by the British merchant ship SS Helenus,
which ironically belonged to the Holt shipping line. The Master of Helenus
(P.W. Savery) responded by forwarding details of the incident onto Colombo,
though because of ineptitude by wireless operators at the shore base, it took
one and a half hours until acknowledgement of the message was received by
The attack had taken place in a relatively busy shipping lane, subsequently
the Germans wasted little time in boarding their prize. The leader of the
party was First Lieutenant, Ulrich Mohr. It is perhaps fitting for him to
take us through subsequent events:
'We got to work on the strong room, finding fifteen bags of secret mail,
including one hundredweight of decoding tables, Fleet orders, gunnery
instructions, and (so-called) Naval Intelligence reports…..
After spending a fruitless hour gaining entry into the ship's safe, to
discover nothing more than….“a few shillings in
cash”. (where are the so
called Malayan $1 &$5 banknotes?)
search of the Chart Room, brought far greater rewards:
As history would have it the important information was passed on to the Japanese High Command and she subsequently entered into the Second World War by bombing Pearl Harbour.
Our prize was just a long narrow envelope enclosed in a green, bag
equipped with brass eyelets to let water in to facilitate its sinking. The
bag was marked ‘Highly Confidential…To be destroyed’ and the envelope
addressed to The C.in C, Far East…To Be Opened Personally. The documents had
been drawn up by no less an authority than the Planning Division of the War
Cabinet and contained the latest appreciation of the Military strength of the
Empire in the Far East. There were details of Royal Air Force Units; there
were details of naval strength; there was an assessment of the role of
Australia and New Zealand; and most piquant of all, a long paragraph
regarding the possibility of Japan entering the war, a paragraph accompanied
by copious notes on the fortifications of Singapore. What the devil were the
British about, sending such material by a slow old tub like Automedon, I,
puzzled? Surely a warship would have been a worthier repository? We could not
Mohr’s skipper, Captain Rogge, (who was fluent in English), soon realised the
importance of this intelligence windfall, which also contained….new cipher
tables for the fleet, information on minefields and swept channels, maps and
charts and British Secret Service reports.
The wrecked site of the SS Automedon at 0416N
Extracted from MarineBio Conservation Society
Green Dot represents the wreckage spot
Basing on documented war journals, the wrecked site map and diagram flow of the Indian Ocean currents during the winter months of the Northern Hemisphere, it is not possible that even if the SS Automedon did carry the ill-fated banknotes it could not have floated against the current and into the Straits of Malacca where some of the local population managed to be beneficiaries of the1940 banknotes as told by some numismatic gurus.
A more plausible scenario would be when the local treasury was destroyed by bombs some of the banknotes were spirited away by the locals and they coined the crap that it was from the two vessels so that they would not be charged as thieves if caught.
What a laugh! and I supposed our regional numismatist gurus never knew about these documented facts otherwise they would have long disputed the facts that SS Eumanes and Automedon carried the 1940 Malayan banknotes and that some floated into the Straits of Malacca.
Well, whatever it is, the fact is that the 1940 Malaya $1 & $5 are very rare indeed but available and they now command astronomical prices if you desire to own one.
More importantly, do try to do some research on the particular banknote that you intend to buy and I cannot emphasized more, be very, very careful when you are dealing with the banknote dealers.
A rather strange but true episode that happened after the German raider had captured the SS Automedon.