Another product of Swan, Hunter and Wigham Richardson from their Low Walker yard. She was a 6987 ton diesel tanker launched on 26 September 1927 and completed for the British Tanker Co. Ltd., London during November of that year.
On 18 January 1941, sailing in ballast between Gibraltar and Curacao she was intercepted and sunk by the German raider Kormoran.
Kormoran was one of nine civilian ships taken up by the German Navy for conversion into merchant raiders, they were referred to alternately as auxiliary cruisers or trade disruption cruisers. She was the largest of the raiders, and the most recently constructed when she was taken up for modification and was fitted with four 9-cylinder diesel engines driving electric motors, which could propel the ship at 18 knots.]
The raider was fitted with six 150mm World War one guns as primary armament: two each within the forecastle and quarterdeck, and one each fore and aft on the centreline. The forecastle and quarterdeck guns were hidden behind counter-weighted false hull plates, while each centreline gun was concealed by fake cargo hatch walls.
The secondary armament consisted of five 2 centimetre anti-aircraft guns. Two on the forecastle, two on the after funnel deck, and the fifth in the quarterdeck. All five were hidden by the structure of the ship until they were raised clear on hydraulic platforms. There had been plans to fit four 3.7-centimetre anti-aircraft guns, but due to the shortage of available weapons, only two ex-army anti-tank guns were installed on her superstructure, hidden by sheet metal panels. She was also equipped with six torpedo tubes: two dual launchers on the upper deck, and a single underwater tube on each side.
Before sunset on 18 January, Kormoran spotted smoke on the horizon, so increased speed and altered course to intercept the unknown vessel. The source of the smoke was a tanker flying no flags, showing no lights and sailing a zigzag course, leading her commander to conclude she was an Allied vessel. With little time before the sun set and the likelihood the tanker would resist capture she commenced fire at 7,000 yards in an attempt to disable the ship. When the third salvo hit, the merchantman broadcast a distress call, identifying herself as British Union and saying she was under attack by an unknown vessel. Firing continued until British Union directed a light towards the raider, which the Germans assumed was a surrender signal, but as she closed to 4,000 yards four shots were fired by the tanker. All four missed, and heavy retaliatory fire from the raider set British Union alight and forced the crew to abandon ship. Two torpedoes and gunfire were required to sink her, while a third torpedo prematurely exploded as soon as it cleared its safety distance.
The tanker's master, 27 crew members and a pet monkey were recovered from two lifeboats as the tanker sank and the raider fled the area. The distress call and glow from the fires attracted the attention of the armed merchant cruiser HMS Arawa which passed through the engagement site around midnight in pursuit. She failed to locate Kormoran and returned that morning to collect a third lifeboat carrying seven survivors.
On 19 November the Kormoran was involved in a sea fight with HMAS Sydney off Western Australia and resulted in severe damage to both ships. Around midnight Kormoran was abandoned and scuttled. The German casualties were six officers, 75 ratings and one Chinese sailor.
Photograph belongs to Stuart Smith.
Copyright World Ship Photo Library.