S.S. Automedon 
The Ship That Doomed A Colony

© Alan Matthews 1999 

On 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. 

Onboard was a general cargo consisting of crated aircraft, machinery, vehicles, foodstuffs 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 and Fiji. 

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 onboard 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 WW11. 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 on to 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 Helenus . 

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 ships safe, to discover nothing more than….“a few shillings in cash”. A search of the Chart Room, brought far greater rewards: 

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 understand it”. 

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. Subsequently he quickly transferred the documents onto the recently acquired prize ship ‘Ole Jacob’, wasting little time in ordering Lieutenant Commander Paul Kamenz, and six of his crew to take charge of the vessel. Kamenz supplemented shortfalls in manpower by making use of a large contingent of Norwegians rescued from the Jacob, and another Norwegian merchantman, sank by the Raider a few days earlier and after an uneventful voyage they arrived in Kobe- Japan, on December 4, 1940. 

Within an hour of docking the German reporter ‘Herr Kehrmann’ boarded the vessel for the sole purpose of collecting the documents and delivering them to the German Naval Attaché in Tokyo, Admiral Paul Wenneker, who had already been informed of the Raiders haul. Who, on viewing their contents sent a highly detailed four-part cipher telegram to Naval H/Q Berlin. Subsequently on December 6, after making copies of the COS Appreciation, Wenneker entrusted the original documents with a courier, who journeyed by train through Russia (then still neutral) onto Germany. On arrival in Berlin….after scrupulous examination by relevant authorities a copy was sent to Captain Yokai, the Japanese Naval Attaché in Berlin. And on December 12 1940 he completed the Axis circle of distribution, by despatching a summary of contents to the Chief of Third Section, Naval Staff, Tokyo which stated: 

From: Naval Attaché in Berlin. 

To: Chief, Third Section Naval General Office Tokyo. 

12/121630/1940 73900. 

I have received from the German Navy the minutes of a meeting of the British Cabinet held on 15 August this year dealing with operations against Japan. The document will be sent by the next courier; meanwhile here are the main points:

1-Although Japan cherished the ambition of Capturing Singapore, the existing situation would not allow Britain to send her fleet to the Far East, and she must defend it by sending Army and Air Force reinforcements.

2. Japan would probably invade French Indo-China of Siam as a first stop, and the Netherlands East Indies and Singapore would follow. However, Britain was not in a position to resort to war in the event of an attack on French Indo-China or Siam.

3-Hong Kong would be abandoned, but would continue resistance as long as possible.

4.-If the operations against the Italians in the Mediterranean should proceed rapidly and successfully, it would be possible to send a fleet to the Far East.

5-Operations must be conducted jointly in the Netherlands East Indies.

6- Since it was probable that the Japanese would occupy Suva in the Fiji (?) Islands as a base, one Brigade must be sent there from New Zealand. 

Navy Trans 08-12-45

Top Secret Ultra. 

The same evening in Tokyo, Wenneker received permission from Berlin to hand the original report to Japans, Vice Admiral Kondo. An entry in the Attaché’s war diary dated, 1800hrs, December 12, 1940 recalls: 

“Kondo repeatedly expressed to me how valuable the information contained in the British War Cabinet memorandum was for his navy. Such a significant weakening of the British Empire could not have been identified from outward appearances”. 

Initially, it appears the Japanese were sceptical of the reports contents, believing it to be a German ploy designed to coax them into military action against Britain. However, events from December 27, 1940 up until January 21, 1941 clearly indicate that intelligence material taken from Automedon (in particular the Far Eastern Appreciation) were regarded as authentic and indicative of future British policy regarding the Far East. As on the former date, at a Liaison Conference meeting navy Minister Oikawa Koshiro stated…. 

According to our intelligence document, it is estimated that Britain would not go to war as long as Japan confines itself into advancing into French Indo-China, but war would become inevitable if Japan should advance into the Dutch East Indies”. 

From this meeting onwards the Japanese adopted an expansionist attitude towards southern Indo-China, subsequently we can assume the captured COS Appreciation must have greatly contributed towards this move. Further evidence that the Automedon incident was influential in this policy was evident on January 21, 1941. when Captain Yamaguchi Bunjiro (head of 5th intelligence section - dealing with the USA) and Captain Horiuchi Shigetada (head of 8th intelligence section – dealing with Britain & India). Offered an intelligence report to appropriate parties within the Japanese General Staff. One issue dealt with Indo-China, on which the officers advised their commanders: 

“Even if Japan sends forces into Indo-China, Britain will not go to war” 

By means of comparison, paragraph 33 of the captured report reveals the Chiefs of Staff viewpoint on this issue under the heading ”Penetration of Indo-China”: it was recommended that “We should not under present circumstances go to war with Japan in the event of a Japanese attack on Indo-China” . Concluding on the matter of whether or not, Automedon’s cargo was instrumental in Japan’s decision to implement a southward expansion into Indo-China, it must be appreciated that three weeks after the General Staff were informed of British reluctance to enter into conflict over Indo-China. They began formulating plans to move forces into Indo-China under the guise of mediators in border disputes between Indo-China and Thailand. Would they have dared act in such a bold manner, if not already having been in receipt of the COS Far Eastern Appreciation? 

Having briefly covered subsequent events proceeding the disaster from a Japanese perspective; the most pertinent question that must now be addressed is how soon after the incident could it be assumed the British Government realistically knew of Automedon’s demise? Despite the absence of supporting documentary evidence in British Archives a weekly Australian Naval intelligence summary, dated November 14, 1940 and despatched from Singapore that very day gives mention of the attack in the following manner: 

"Raider attacked Norwegian tanker ‘Ole Jacob’ and British ‘Automedon’ between Colombo and Achin Head. Subsequent search unsuccessful”. 

When this signal is combined with the fact that on January 3 1941, the latest British merchant shipping codes (a copy of which was onboard Automedon) had been changed as a safeguard against the possibility of them being in Axis hands. The issue arises, if Britain’s leaders accepted Automedon’s shipping codes had been captured, would it not also be necessary to assume the worst scenario… this being…the Chiefs of Staff Appreciation had also fallen into enemy hands’? 

Another incident related to Automedon can be found in the most unlikely of sources, namely the Official British History of ‘War Against Japan’ as on the subject of future Far Eastern aircraft deployments, the historian innocuously states: 

It seems not unlikely that this decision became known to the Japanese. Just a year later the Air Ministry received information from Singapore that a document from a Japanese aircraft which had crashed in China showed their estimate of the British air forces in the Far East by the end of 1941 as 336 aircraft”. 

Admittedly, the author would not have knowledge of the intelligence disaster, but at the time of the original disclosure (mid-1941) surely on receipt of such information the British War Cabinet must have perceived this as indicative that the Japanese were in receipt of the Far Eastern Appreciation taken from the ‘Blue Funneller’. 

However, it cannot be denied, particularly during the tense period of late 1940 that Britain’s military leaders could have overlooked many issues concerning the fate of Automedon. It is however, inconceivable to accept Churchill and his Cabinet were not informed of the mode of transport chosen to deliver the Appreciation to Singapore. Particularly, when one of his Chiefs of Staff was directly responsible for sending the documents on a lengthy and precarious sea voyage when far safer alternatives were available. 

Nevertheless, the question has to be poised…did anyone in Government contact Brooke Popham to establish Automedon’s arrival at Singapore? It must be stated present day investigations into the disaster allude to this never occurring, in fact the author of the Official History of ‘War at Sea’ when covering the exploits of Atlantis only makes the briefest of mentions on the sinking of Automedon…. 

In the same week the British ship Automedon was attacked and sunk….search of the captured ship yielded valuable intelligence to the enemy. 

Hardly the correct manner in which to describe the entire contents of the COS Far Eastern Appreciation falling into enemy hands, yet to this day it remains the only disclosure by successive British Governments regarding this monumental intelligence disaster . 

It would therefore appear we are to believe Whitehall nonchalantly accepted a copy of the Far Eastern Appreciation never arrived at its point of destination…and no action was taken to ascertain what became of Automedon and her precious cargo. In 1948 Brooke Popham enquired as to the fate of his copy of the COS Appreciation, which as we know, was due for arrival in Singapore in late 1940. Whereupon the former CinC, although not offered the name of the British vessel responsible for delivering the report….was nevertheless informed it had been sunk by a German ‘U’ boat whilst enroute to the colony. 

In addition the correspondence went on to say that official knowledge of circumstances surrounding the incident were not clarified until the fall of Germany. This was a most clever ploy…as by not disclosing the identity of the repository for his copy of the COS Appreciation as SS Automedon…Whitehall effectively barred Brooke Popham from questioning the ‘U’ boat claim. For if in receipt of such information it would only have been a matter of time before he became aware that a Raider…not a ‘U’ boat had been credited with sinking Automedon. Though, as with the best laid plans, quite often simple oversights mark their demise…this is now the case with the official reply to Brooke Popham. As when laying this elaborate web of deception, official sources of the period appear to have discounted the prior fate of Automedon’s 4th Engineer Samuel Harper. A fate that effectively makes a mockery of the explanation offered to the former CinC 8 years after Automedon’s demise. 

A question of escape. 

Within an hour of the attack and having rescued Automedon’s crew, the Germans scuttled the vessel and quickly left the scene. After a month onboard in relative comfort the British prisoners were transferred to the prison ship ‘Storsad’. Conditions onboard which, being in stark contrast to those of Atlantis, so-much-so that one of Automedon’s crew died of pneumonia, whilst enduring a voyage that mercifully ended on February 5, 1941 when Storsad docked at Bordeaux. From here Automedon’s crew along with other captives were transferred to a Stalag holding camp. Worthy of note is by this time the Holt Shipping Line had received official notification of Automedon’s loss and the casualty listings of her crew…In Sam Harper’s case information could not have been clearer, particularly as his employers were informed… 

Samuel Elsby Harper R-173908 :- Nationality/Birthplace :- Liverpool :- 4th Engineer :- Particulars of Discharge :- Vessel sunk by enemy action :- Prisoner of War”. 

Returning to the crew’s continuing plight. On March 12, Harper and his shipmates were marched from Front Stalag 221, to a railhead to commence a train journey of several days to Munich. Though by this time the young Liverpudlian had decided to attempt an escape. Subsequently, in the dead of night as the train rounded a bend his carriage door opened; swiftly Harper and three other men jumped clear in a desperate bid for freedom. 

From this point on, through a series of adventures, mixed with strokes of good fortune, he and one other escapee, a Mr Dunshea (former 5th Engineer of the merchant ship Maimoa) made it to Figuares in Spain where their luck ran out, as the civil guard promptly arrested them. The next day Harper and his companion were escorted by train to Barcelona, whence they endured fifteen days incarceration after which they were transported by road to a Concentration Camp. Soon after his arrival Harper managed to wire the British Military Attaché in Madrid, Colonel A.H. Hilgarth. Who, in turn, sent money to ease their plight, until securing their release a few days later. Whereon, and after being thoroughly deloused (courtesy of British Embassy Officials) the intrepid pair were sent to Gibraltar, arriving on May 31, 1941. 

Before leaving ‘Gib’ Harper was debriefed. Officers undertaking this task were fully informed as to circumstances surrounding Automedon’s sinking . Obviously, Harper never witnessed the removal of the COS report as he had no-knowledge of it being onboard. But in his statement he confirmed the Germans searched the vessel and made use of Automedon’s crew to transfer stores to the Raider. In such a situation it would be ludicrous to imagine any other alternative other than the COS Appreciation had been located. Furthermore, Harper is convinced all interested parties would have soon learnt of his arrival in Britain, as he was also interviewed in London before beginning the journey to Liverpool. Where, just six months after being declared a POW, he returned to work at the Holt’s Shipping Line. Though, understandably after such an epic escape he remained on shore duties in the Drawing Office for 12 months before returning to active sea duties. 

It may appear peculiar to have spent time in covering the exploits of Samuel Harper but this is much more than an account of a classic escape by a brave young man. As we must understand the historical significance attached to Harper’s story. To this day his return to Britain offers irrefutable evidence that full details of the Blue Funneller’s loss was known of in Whitehall long before outbreak of war with Japan….Though research into the background to this disaster indicates that all relevant authorities knew of the incident long before Harper reached home-shores. 

In light of the above, one would have expected the British Government to have informed their Dominions that a copy the August Far Eastern Appreciation had been lost enroute to Singapore, with a distinct possibility of it being in Axis hands. However, to have acted in such a manner, may have caused a major incident particularly when recalling their earlier actions on the reports restricted dispersal. We must therefore consider Whitehall effectively had their hands tied in a web of their own deception. Furthermore, evidence alludes to them choosing the simplest solution of all, which was to cast the entire incident to one side….enveloping it in a veil of secrecy. Which in reality is a true portrayal of later events, as details of the episode were not only withheld from the Dominions…this act of censorship also extended to the Americans..

Though the most damning indictment of all regarding the War Cabinet’s actions in this matter concern the CinC Far East, Sir Robert Brooke Popham. In the first instance this man had been charged with implementing a strategic defence plan for a colony, whose fallibility had been known of for many years beforehand. In itself, this was an insurmountable burden to bear; however when this is allied to the undoubted fact that during his term of command he was never informed that his copy of the Far Eastern Appreciation had been lost enroute to Singapore. Or worse still, was in all probability, in Axis hands. A situation rapidly evolved in which all attempts by the CinC during 1941 to dissuade Japanese expansionist moves in the Far East with threats of intent, must have been viewed by their military leaders with much amusement . 

Damaging Repercussions. 

Present day discussions on the loss of the COS Far Eastern Appreciation, are many and varied; certain academics place little significance on the incident, often claiming, by the time Japan entered WW2 the COS Appreciation was out of date. However, and whilst offering due consideration to such opinions what must be remembered is the August 1940 COS Appreciation never underwent a full re-evaluation up until the outbreak of war with Japan. This can only mean the Japanese gleaned information from Automedon that remained indicative of British Far Eastern Policy up until December 7, 1941. 

Furthermore, to evaluate the disaster in this way belies the true significance of Japan’s intelligence windfall. In so much as, the material handed over to the Japanese has to be considered within the time period of its capture. Subsequently, the only questions to be asked on this issue do not concern themselves with Japan’s entry into the war, rather, we must determine, to what extent did the captured COS Appreciation confirm to them that a southward expansion was now a realistic proposition. More importantly, would they have reached a similar conclusion and moved forces into southern Indo-China during 1941, if Automedon had not fallen prey to the Raider? 

The reason I make this point is that one author is rather dismissive of the entire episode, stating in so many words that little importance was attached to the captured COS Appreciation by the Japanese, mainly because the intelligence haul was ‘four months old’ . And as… 

things had changed on the other side of the world…for Britain had survived the Blitz…and there was no chance of Germany invading Britain in the immediate future…Much better…(from the Japanese perspective *)to treat the contents of the papers with caution” (1).* my italics 

It must be said, such opinions appear to be lacking in foundation, particularly when (as already depicted) much evidence lends itself to the fact that the intelligence haul was discussed at the highest levels of Japanese Government. A more informative assessment of the Automedon incident is offered by one of the leading experts on Anglo-Japanese relations during the build up to WW2, Professor J.W.M. Chapman. who was responsible for translating Admiral Wenneker’s War Diaries. Within the foreword to this acclaimed work he offers a most interesting personal evaluation of the world-wide significance attached to the Automedon incident, when stating… 

Perhaps the most important evidence of German influence over the Combined Fleets (Japanese*) can be demonstrated in the handing over in December 1940 of top-level British Cabinet papers captured off Singapore by the Raider ‘Atlantis’. This fact enabled the Japanese Combined Fleet to concentrate single-mindedly on the attack on Pearl Harbor in the certain knowledge that Britain could not provide strong enough forces to compel the Japanese to divide the Combined Fleets more evenly between the Anglo-America Fleets. It also accounts for one of the reasons for the British authorities who had the original War Diary (Wenneker’s *) in their possession since 1945, being reluctant to reveal fuller details of the incident and its background. This knowledge is quite indispensable for an understanding of the reasons why the European war was transformed into a global conflict”. (2) *-my italics- 

I would like to conclude on the issue of whether or not SS Automedon’s precious cargo helped formulate Japan’s entry into WW2 in the following speculative manner. To begin with; what if in August 1940 the COS had presented a Far Eastern Appreciation to the War Cabinet which, in general proclaimed.’At the first signs of hostile intent by Japan – (ie their forces encroaching into southern Indo-China or Thailand)…we shall immediately dispatch a substantial fleet to Singapore…. irrespective of damage this would incur to present theatres of operations…..Furthermore, we are not willing to act in appeasing manner towards Japan….to the contrary….we shall closely monitor their every move in the Far East and respond with force whenever the situation warrants. As under no-circumstances are we prepared to jeopardise the security of Singapore’. 

With such a positive report in mind, it would be fair to say that if the Japanese had gained access to its findings (under the exact same circumstances) . They may have refrained from moving any forces into Southern Indo-China during July 1941 ? (3) .As with having written proof that Britain was prepared to defend the colony to the utmost of their capabilities, combined with the distinct possibility of American assistance being sent to aid British efforts. Such a pre-emptive move could have been viewed by their normally reserved military leaders as nothing more than courting disaster. 

This in turn invokes a very interesting situation…one in which the Japanese would not have held air-superiority from ‘day one’ of conflict (if in fact conflict had begun in a similar manner)…simply because of the vast distances involved in flying warplanes from bases outside of southern Indo-China to their intended targets. Though more importantly, we know the Japanese built many new airfields in that country during the summer of 1941, bases that were used to devastating effect on December 10, 1941 when warplanes flown from some of these airfields hunted down and sunk the British Capital ships….HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse. 

It cannot be questioned that without the unrestricted use of such bases the aerial onslaught on the ships could never have unfolded in the manner which history depicts. Therefore its perfectly feasible to consider the Automedon disaster contributed directly to the shattering loss of Britains woefully under strength Far Eastern Fleet, on only the second day of conflict. Furthermore, from December 12 1940 the Japanese were fully aware, not only of Britains inability to defend Singapore (4); it was now clear to their leaders that the only force standing in the way of their complete domination of Far Eastern and Asiatic waters was the American Pacific Fleet, a threat effectively nullified in the early hours of December 7, 1941. 

Admittedly, controversy will always surround the ultimate significance of a report captured on a British merchant ship in November 1940 and whether or not it was the catalyst for Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. However on a more personal note, the Japanese appear to have been most grateful to the skipper of Atlantis for indirectly delivering the intelligence material to them. As eighteen months after Automedon’s sinking and shortly after the fall of Singapore, they presented Bernard Rogge with an ‘elaborate Samurai Sword’ (5). 

It must be remembered this was an extremely prestigious award, almost unheard of for a European to gain. Furthermore, as Atlantis was never in similar position to offer further intelligence material to the Japanese, up until her sinking in late 1941. It is fair to assume the sole reason why Rogge was bestowed with this honour can only have originated from the Automedon incident, which in turn can be portrayed as further evidence of the Japanese deeming the intelligence haul as instrumental in planning their opening moves in the Pacific War. 


1- Peter Elphick: Far Eastern File pp-265-66. Elphick also comments, the COS Appreciation “contained no instructions requiring immediate action by Brooke Popham. Whether it took four or six weeks to reach him was of little consequence, and in fact, no replacement copy was ever sent” The latter point is hardly surprising, as Popham and his Commanders were never informed the report was lost. In addition, he omits to mention one vitally important issue; just six weeks after the cessation of the Singapore Defence Conference and as a direct result of the Automedon incident. The much-awaited report was being discussed, in its entirety, by the Imperial Navy, a privilege never extended to Dominion leaders, Commanders stationed at Singapore or Britain’s future ally the USA. 

2- Doctor JWM Chapman (now Professor). Foreword to Price of Admiralty vols l1-111. 

3- As already mentioned on September 23, 1940 Japan moved military units into northern areas of Indo China on the premise that adjacent airfields could be used against the Chinese. Though it was recognised by the British that such bases could be used as staging points for offensives against Thailand and Malaya. Kirbky op-cit pp 48-50. 

4- This is the date when Admiral Wenneker handed the COS Appreciation over to Vice Admiral Kondo of the Imperial Japanese Navy. 

5- ‘Mohr’ op cit p-132. On the morning of November 22, 1941 Atlantis was lying stopped 350 miles north-west of the Ascension islands undergoing mechanical repairs, with U-126, fuelling astern. When the British Cruiser ‘Devonshire’ located her and in a one-sided action the Raider was quickly sunk. After an unbelievable journey Rogge and the majority of his crew eventually returned to their homeland in early 1942. 

Appendix 1: 

On receipt of the Chiefs of Staff Appraisal, Admiral Wenneker, Germany’s Naval Attaché to Japan sent the following summary to Berlin. 

Despatch of cipher Tel, Nr 209/40 gKdos to 212/40 gKdos to Navy High Command 

For Naval War Staff: 

Of note amongst materials reaching here on 6 December from Ship ‘16’ is a captured report of the War Cabinet about the situation in the Far East in the event of Japanese intervention against Britain, dated 15 August: 

1) In present situation we (i.e. Britain) are unable to send fleet to Far East. 

2) Japan needs Singapore in order to meet its ambitions. 

3) Until the situation in Europe clarified itself, open breach between us and America and Japan improbable. 

4) We must avoid ‘open clash’ with Japan in order to gain time and promote military co-operation. 

5) In the absence of Fleet, we are unable to prevent damage to our own interests. We should retire to a base from which it will be possible to restore our position later on. 

6) Four possible Japanese attacks: 

(a) Direct attack 

(b) Advance into Indo-China or Siam. 

(c) Attack on Dutch East Indies. 

(d) Attack on Philippines. 

7) Japanese first step either Indonesia or Siam; then Dutch East Indies before Singapore. 

8) In current situation we would put up with Japanese attack on Siam or Indo-China without going to war. 

9) In event of Japanese attack on Dutch, and they offered no resistance, no war between us and Japan. But if Dutch resist, then they would have our full military support. 

10) Hong Kong without any significance and cannot hold out for long without presence of a substantial fleet. However, will be held as long as possible. 

11) Strategy in Event of War: 

a) Impossible to prevent Japanese gaining access to Indian Ocean. 

b) We cannot maintain naval lines of communication with Northern Malaya. 

c) Hope to maintain bulk of commerce by sea with Suez and eastern Australia. 

d) Apart from cruiser raids, Japanese attack on Australia improbable without first taking Singapore. 

e) Japanese occupation of Suva and Fiji likely in order to use as a base. 

f) Need to defend all of Malaya and not just Singapore Island. 

g) Holland probably willing to prepare joint plan for defence of Dutch Indies. In view of limited assistance we can give, their help unlikely if British territory attacked. Consequently, not desirable to begin Staff Talks at this time. 

h) As long as no fleet, forced to turn to air force. But this can only be provided in a limited way. Therefore, 

strong land forces necessary in Malaya. Concentration there a top priority. 

i) Borneo indefensible. Very little air power available for protection of shipping in Indian Ocean. 

j) Until situation in Europe improves, Far East gravely threatened, especially if subjected to determined 

Japanese sorties, with heavy naval units. 

1) Our construction programme never intended to cover war with Germany, Italy and Japan, simultaneously. 

The only hope for providing a fleet for the Far East based on early, successful attack on Italy and the 


12) Objectives we must seek to achieve. 

a) Commonwealth must send one Division to Malaya. 

b) By end of 1940, two fighter squadrons and two squadrons of long-range (?) land aircraft to be sent to Far East. 

c) Naval construction programme to be accelerated. 

d) Withdrawal of Garrison from North China and Hong Kong. 

e) New Zealand must send one brigade to Fiji. 

f) General Staff consultations with Holland once situation in Malaya improves. 

13) Detailed information on the strengths of land, sea and airforces in the Far East. 

Addendum by Naval Attaché: 

Request permission to hand over copy to Japanese Naval Staff. 

Appendix 2:

As previously mentioned, in 1948 Sir Robert Brooke Popham enquired as to the fate of the COS August Appraisal, destined for his command at Singapore, which we now know to have been onboard Automedon. The Air Ministry’s reply is not only misleading in content, it also strongly implies that Popham never viewed the full Appreciation at any period during his term of office as CinC Far East. 

Squadron Leader Wiles to Brooke Popham July 15, 1948. 

(page 561-Price Of Admiralty. Dr JWM Chapman) 

15th July 1948. 


King Charles Street, 

Whitehall, S.W.1. 

Dear Air Marshall, 

I am sorry to have not yet been able to get hold of the document which was sent to you by Lord Newall when you were out in Singapore, and I have to go away with the C.A.S. for a few days and will not be back in the office until Thursday of next week. 

The circumstances as I remember them are that Lord Newall in the late summer of 1940 sent to you a Chiefs of Staff Appreciation of Far Eastern Strategy (1). It was realised that this document never reached you, but it was not until the collapse of Germany that the Intelligence investigating teams discovered the document in the German Archives in Berlin. I remember seeing the document when it was brought back to this country at the end of 1945, and the German translation accompanying it, and as far as I can recall somebody had written across it. “This is a document of first importance and should be sent to N.A. Tokyo”. It has been alleged that this was Hitler’s writing but without having access to the document I cannot say for certain.(2) 

It subsequently transpired the Lord Newall’s letter and the document was sent by safe sea route! The ship carrying the papers was sunk by a German submarine, but it was not until after the war had ended that we discovered that the German submarine Commander had managed to obtain the secret documents from the ship before sinking it. 

Donkin is still working with Hilary Saunders, and the next occasion I see him I will certainly ensure that he is aware of this occurrence in order that he may be able to obtain the papers. However, I hope to be able to get them myself in due course, and if I am able to do so, I will get in touch with you again.(3) 

Yours sincerely 

(Click here to view a picture of the above letter) - (opens a new window)

(1) Professor John Chapman states that within Brooke Popham’s papers held in the Liddell Hart Centre, Kings College, London in folio v/9/34 of March 1953, is a pencilled comment on page 94, of Major General Kirby’s original draft of the official history of the Far Eastern war (The War Against Japan). In which, Popham remarks “was it at this time that the lost COS Appreciation was sent out to me? 

(2) It was not Hitler’s writing; the actual source being Captain Rogge of Atlantis. 

(3) Hilary Saunders was co-author with Denis Richard of ‘The Fight Avails’. A History of the Royal Air Force: 1939-45.