The years long struggle between the Royal Navy, and the U-boats and surface raiders of the German Kriegsmarine to cut off Great Britain of supplies from the Americas and Asia during the Second World War is usually known as the Battle of the Atlantic. However, this is misleading because that fight took place across the world’s oceans, and nowhere fiercer than the southern reaches of the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The shipping lanes around South America and South Africa were prime targets, not for the resource heavy U boats, but for the hilfkreuzers, or auxiliary cruisers, essentially fast merchantmen armed with guns scavenged from obsolete First World War warships. They were the scourge of the South Seas. Though they were no match for any proper naval ships, they preyed on the merchantmen far from the naval bases of the North Atlantic. Ton for ton they were the most effective commerce raiders in the German Navy. And none was more feared than HK 2 “Pinguin”
By early 1941, the Pinguin had already sunk or captured over 100,000 tons of shipping, and sent more than few back to Nazi occupied France with prize crews. She had two seaplanes for scouting, a plethora of cannon, two torpedo tubes, and carried more than 300 mines. She survived almost exclusively on the captured stores of her victims and routinely posed as a Norwegian freighter to evade the Allied navies. (The Norwegian navy and merchant marine were under the control of Great Britain after its occupation by Germany in the summer of 1940.)
On Christmas Eve 1940, while prowling the seas near South Georgia Island, the Pinguin intercepted a message between two Norwegian ships on a whaling expedition off of Antarctica. Posing as a supply ship on 14 January 1941, the Pinguin appeared out of the fog and slipped next to the whaling fleet’s factory ships. Her crew quickly and quietly boarded and overtook them. Then with a bit of speed, subterfuge, and distributed decisive action, took control of all of the whalers and the supply ships. In a bloodless victory, the Pinguin captured the entire Norwegian national whaling fleet of 14 ships, totaling 36,000 tons of shipping, 10,000 tons of fuel oil, and enough whale oil to supply the German Navy for a year. Additionally, prize crews would take all but two of the ships back to France where the factory ships were converted into auxiliary cruisers, and the whalers into minelayers.
In Berlin, Admiral Raeder was ecstatic at the news, and immediately issued orders for other German surface forces to break out into the Atlantic. (If a slow, lightly armed merchantman could do such damage, imagine what a real cruiser, of even a battleship, could do? …or so the thinking went.) In early February the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau made a successful foray into the Atlantic. Although the shipping sunk was limited, their sortie threw the convoy system into chaos as the Royal Navy reacted. Buoyed by the success, Raeder began planning an even bolder sortie to unleash the most powerful German battleship into the Atlantic: the Bismarck.