German Raider Skipper Charged In Davisian Incident


By James Donahue


War today is not a gentleman’s game. But in 1940, in the early days of World War II, the skippers of German submarines and raiders of the sea were still respectful of human life. There was a strange practice of hailing the target and allowing everyone on board to abandon ship before it was sunk at sea.


This quickly ended after the British began arming their merchant ships and some of the German attack vessels got caught by unexpected gunfire.


One such incident involved the German commerce raider Widder and the British freighter Davisian when the two vessels met on the North Atlantic on Oct. 7 and the Davisian was sunk.


A raider, for those who do not know, was a warship with a false superstructure making it appear to be a commercial freighter. Such ships operated like pirates, stopping vessels on the open sea, raiding their cargos, sending their crews off in open boats and destroying the targeted vessel.


According to the Davisian’s captain, T. J. Harrison, he had no warning that the approaching vessel, that had all of the appearance of another commercial freighter, was an armed German raider, until the Widder opened fire. According to his report, the first shots destroyed the Davisian’s radio antenna, thus preventing a distress call.


The Widder’s commander, Helmuth von Rucktescheel, then ordered the guns silenced to give the crew of the doomed Davisian time to abandon ship. As the life boats were being lowered, however, Rucktescheel said three men were observed running toward a stern gun mounted on the Davisian. At that, the Widder opened fire once again, killing three men on the Davisian. Six other sailors were wounded.


The Widder picked up fifty surviving crew members from the Davisian and the Widder even drew alongside the doomed ship so the German sailors could plunder it. Finally the Davisian was sunk by a single torpedo. The freighter was carrying patent fuel, a mixture of coal-dust and bitumen, so it was destroyed by a single blast.


Documents reveal that the Davisian crew members were held aboard Widder for three days. After this they were set adrift in boats from another victim of the raider, the King John. The boats made their way to Martinique Island, and the sailors later were rescued by a British cruiser.


Later, as the war heated up and the German U-Boat “wolf packs” became notorious for sinking vessels all across the North Atlantic, the courtesies offered to the crew of the Davisian were quickly forgotten. Many a merchant marine died with the fleet of ships sent to the bottom during the terrible years that followed.


Strangely, however, Rucktescheel was singled out after the war and successfully charged and convicted of war crimes connected with the Davisian incident. The British claimed a signal was sent alerting Widder that the Davisian was surrendering, but the Widder fired the rounds that killed crew members only eight minutes later. The German’s claimed, however, that they received no such signal. Was it because the radio antenna was knocked out in the first salvo?


Because of this charge, plus other charges brought against him involving other cases, Rucktescheel spent the rest of his life in Hamburg-Fuhlbuettel prison. While only sentenced to seven year of prison, Rucktescheel died in prison from a heart condition. He was the only captain of a German commerce raider ever charged with war crimes.



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