The Attack on the HK Coronel by 137 Squadron.
Schiff 14 – HK Coronel, was the last raider to try to break out through the English Channel.
Built as the freighter Togo in 1938 by the Vulkan Werft, Bremen-Vegesack, for the famous Woermann Line.
On September 1 1939, just before the outbreak of the war, she was serving with the Deutsche-Afrika Line on the Hamburg – West Africa run, Togo was in Douala, French Cameroon, guarded by local troops and unable to procure her clearance papers.Her Belgian-born captain, Eugene Rousselet, not about to surrender his ship to the French, took her down the coast to Boma at the mouth of the river Congo under cover of darkness, without a pilot.
With rumours that the largest submarine in the world, the French Surcouf, was waiting for them, and with the ninety ‘native’ stevedores wanting off the ship, Rousselet was periodically going ashore to visit his Belgian friends in order to receive the latest intelligence on the movements of the French Navy, and his 41-man German crew, sat it out in the humid mosquito-infested river until October 25.
Reliably informed by a mail pilot friend that the coast was clear, the Togo set sail for Germany.
Despite allegations that Rousselet had distress signals transmitted reporting the Togo’s sinking in order to throw the French off her track, his Third Officer did believe that he planted the story of her being torpedoed with the press!
Arriving back in Germany on December 23 1939, and having been earmarked for service on the proposed Operation Sealion, she served as a troop transport during Operation Weserübung, the invasion of Norway and Denmark, hitting a mine on April 1940 but managing to get safely back to port.
Once repaired, she was commandeered by the Kriegsmarine and converted to serve as a minelayer and patrol vessel under Fregattenkapitän Rudolf Betzendahl, before being refitted as an auxiliary cruiser, first at Rotterdam’s Wilton-Fijenoord yards, and finally at the Oder-Werke yard at Stettin, under the command of Kapitän zur See Ernst-Ludwig Thienemann, the father figure of the raider building programme.
The decision to send this ship to sea was one of the last taken by Admiral Erich Raeder prior to his resignation and replacement by Admiral Karl Donitz, and was taken without any expectation of success due to the near total mastery of the English Channel by the Allies at the time.
Beginning at Rügen in the Baltic, the Togo completed her working up at Christiansand in Norway while Thienemann waited for suitable break-out weather,and a high tide to facilitate passage through the narrow swept channels in the coastal minefields, and a new moon so as to limit the chances of detection.
On January 31 1943, Thienemann set sail to attempt a break out through the Channel.
Initially heading due North, as all the earlier raiders had done, to appear as if he were making for the Denmark Strait, he turned about after dark, and altered course to the South.
Unfortunately he ran straight into a violent storm in the Heligoland Bight, which caused him to seek shelter from mines torn loose from their moorings.
Having laid up in Sylt, he finally sailed on February 7 with an escort of minesweepers, one of which hit a mine off Rotterdam and had to withdraw.
Moving through very shallow waters, the Togo ran aground twice on sandbanks off Dunquerque on February 8. On the first occasion she managed to extricate herself fairly rapidly by running her engines full speed astern, but on the second occasion she remained stranded off the port in full view throughout the daylight hours, waiting for the next high tide.
Four heavy flak batteries were brought to the shore, 300 metres from where she lay, in anticipation of an air attack, which never materialised.
When she finally floated off the following night, February 9, there was no longer sufficient darkness to attempt the Straits of Dover unseen, and so a bitterly frustrated Thienemann was left with no other option but to take refuge in the exposed and highly dangerous port.
The following night, February 10, she left Dunquerque unscathed with an escort of twelve minesweepers, and had reached Gravelines on her way to Calais when she came under highly accurate fire from the heavy coastal batteries above Dover.
Steaming at full speed for over forty minutes through thirty-three salvoes, while returning fire with her own heavy guns, she remained unharmed, until spotted by RAF Whirlwind fighter-bombers which scored one hit, causing heavy damage, forcing Thienemann, with one dead and three wounded, to put into Boulogne at a reduced speed of six knots to assess the damage.
As a result, five Hunt-class destroyers and six Motor Torpedo Boats that had been sent to intercept her,but failed to locate her.
Finding that it would take up to four months to repair, an impossible task given the security situation in occupied France , he had no choice but to turn back.
Remaining in harbour for the next two days, she was the target for an attack by fifty-six British aircraft on the February 12, but did not suffer any further damage, but following a visit by the RAF and the US Eighth Air Force on the February 13, she left Boulogne and headed back towards Dunquerque.
Once again coming under heavy fire from the coastal batteries at Dover, she survived twenty-three salvoes unscathed, reaching Dunquerque on the morning of February 14.
Next morning, as it was clear that a safe passage through the Channel was no longer possible, Thienemann received orders from the SKL, now under the command of Dönitz, to return to the Baltic, but was attacked yet again before he could depart.
The eighteen bombers involved scored no hits on the raider, but severely damaged the lock gates of the port, so that it was impossible for her to leave.
With the gates finally repaired on February 26, a thick fog prevented her from putting to sea, but did not prevent RAF Hudson bombers from mounting yet another attack on her, with one bomb passing clean through the after part of the ship without exploding, but bursting in the water under her stern, killing three men, wounding three more and causing serious flooding.
Despite this setback she was able to sail the next day, when once again she twice ran aground on the sandbanks outside the port, fortunately getting off under her own power on both occasions.
Although further attacked by eight British MTBs and MGBs which were successfully driven off by her escort, she arrived safely back in Cuxhaven on February 28.
As the captains of German raiders usually named their ships after they’d got out to sea, the Togo would have become the Hilfskreuzer Coronel had she succeeded in making it through the Channel.
Temporarily employed as a Blockade-Runner in 1943, she was subsequently converted into a Radar and Night Fighter Direction ship, under Korvettenkapitän Rudolf Lueck.
She retained her old name Togo until the end of the war, helping in the evacuation of beleaguered German troops from Poland and East Prussia, being bombed several times while doing so.
Seized as a prize by the British in August 1945, she was allocated to the US Navy in 1946, and used to repatriate Polish prisoners of war.
Sold to the Norwegian government as a fleet auxiliary in 1947 and renamed Svalbard, she was used by the Norwegian Navy to transport occupation troops to Germany.
Sold again, this time to private interests in 1954, for whom she sailed for two years as the Stella Marina and the Tilthorn, she was re-purchased by her original owners, the Woermann-Deutsche Afrika line. As the Togo yet again, and handsomely refurbished, she returned to the Africa run for a further twelve years, after which she was sold to Taboga Enterprises Inc. of Panama.
Renamed Lacasielle in 1968, she was, amazingly, still in tramp service in the early 1970s.
Renamed Topeka in 1976, she ended her days aground off the coast of Mexico on November 21 1984.
Thanks go to © John Asmussen 2000 – 2009.and Jonathan Ryan, Ireland, Creator of the Hilfskreuzer section for the above article.
In reply to an email query from Jim Munro to John McClure ex 137 Whirlwind pilot the answer as to who bombed the Togo came back as….
On checking my log book I see that F/O Eddie Musgrave, Australian pilot on 137 Sqd found this ship and bombed it. I was unable to locate it as my note states that the ceiling was 10/10 at 3000 ft. and very black.
F/O Eddie Musgrave was flying P7114 at the time of the attack.
Extract from the Squadron log book of S/Ldr Humphrey St John Coghlan DFC.
kindly sent to us by his son Mike Coghlan.
Eddie Musgrave had a number of close calls while flying Whirlwinds. He was awarded the DFC after his attack on the TOJO. he failed to return from a night attack while flying P7063 and is buried in Pihen-les-Guines War Cemetery.
Pictures courtesy of Rob Bowater.