Friday, November 16, 2012

The long strange voyage of Paul Kamenz

Interested as I am in the odd corners of history there are certain areas that I find fascinating and keep coming back to study.  In particular the tale of disguised commerce raiders that I have touched upon once or twice is one of those marvelous anachronistic things that seems such a throwback to an earlier age of salt and sail.

And such odd stories.

Consider the travel itinerary of a certain Kapitanleutnant (Lieutenant Commander) Paul Kamenz.  He was the Navigation officer of the German commerce raider Atlantis.  This warship in disguise had a successful career in the early days of World War Two, traveling about 100,000 miles in a cruise that lasted 602 days.


Seven months into their voyage Atlantis had by chance captured a British ship, the Automedon, off of Java.  The Automedon was indiscreetly carrying a highly classified report on British defenses in the Far East as well as various code and cypher charts.  Recognizing the value of this information Kamenz was put in charge of a prize crew that took the information to then neutral Japan aboard a captured tanker.

From Tokyo Kamenz had to travel to Vladivostok, Russia and hand carry the intelligence information 5,000 miles over the Trans Siberian Railway to Berlin. 

After he was given only a brief rest he then had to report to occupied France, where he boarded a U-boat, later transferring to a blockade running supply ship, and finally rejoining Atlantis in the Indian Ocean in April of 1941.

In November of 1941 the precarious career of Atlantis came to an end.  While resupplying a U-boat they were sighted by a British cruiser who shelled them from a safe range then steamed off over the horizon.  Kamenz and the roughly 300 survivors of the Atlantis were left bobbing about in life boats.  The U-boat obligingly took them in tow, heading for the distant coast of Brazil.

Things started to look up when a German supply ship, Python, was able to rendezvous with the castaway flotilla and take the shipwrecked Atlantis crewmen aboard.  But only a few days later when Python was refueling another U-boat the same disaster struck....a British cruiser appeared, shelled the German ship into a broken wreck and steamed off. 

(To be fair to the Royal Navy, the U-boat did manage to launch torpedoes this time that missed.  The Germans suspected, correctly as it turned out, that their naval codes had been broken).

Now the crews of Atlantis and Python were in the same boat.  Or literally the same lifeboats.  But somehow several German and Italian submarines were summoned to the South Atlantic and everyone was crammed into all available space for a claustrophobic but successful trip back to France.

Thus concluded the long strange voyage of Paul Kamenz.  He traveled the lonely parts of the ocean as an officer of a modern day privateer.  He rubbed elbows with diplomats and spies in Japan during the run up to Pearl Harbor.  He took an epic train journey over thousands of miles of Siberia a few short months before Russia and Germany engaged in a battle to the death.  Then in the face of rising British naval strength he made a second sea journey by life boat, two or three different submarines and on three different surface ships, two of which were sunk under him!

Of this remarkable fellow I have found few later traces.  His would have been a remarkable biography to read in detail.

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