11 Sep 20
Posted by: Dr James Bosbotinis

This is a fascinating book examining a less well-known aspect of the Second World War. Prompted by an interest in the potential contemporary uses of disguised platforms and weapon systems, such as the Russian Club-K, this reviewer was immediately interested in False Flags. The book covers Germany’s development and use of auxiliary cruisers as part of their campaign against allied shipping in the Second World War, including operations in waters off Antarctica and around Australia and New Zealand. The author, Stephen Robinson, combines an academic and military background, including serving as a Major in the Australian Army Reserve, as an instructor at the Royal Military College of Australia, and as a researcher with the Australian Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Robinson’s abilities as a researcher are ably demonstrated in False Flags.

Divided into 25 chapters, and featuring an epilogue, appendix, and glossary, and covering 359 pages, False Flags provides an in-depth examination and account of German raider operations, including devoting the final two chapters to the unfortunate encounter between the Kormoran and HMAS Sydney, resulting in the loss of the latter with its crew of 645 off Western Australia in November 1941. One chapter is also dedicated to operations off Antarctica, covering what Robinson describes as “the most successful raider action of the war”; the seizure of the whaler Pelagos with a cargo of 9,500 tons of whale oil, and seven whale catchers. A total of more than 20,500 tons of whale oil worth more than $4 million, was captured. Robinson also notes the capture of the British freighter Automedon on 11 November 1940 and with it, the capture of War Cabinet documents providing an assessment of the strategic situation in the Asia-Pacific and “a report outlining the defence of Singapore, including a complete order of battle for air, land and sea forces”. The documents were shared with Japan. The book includes detailed endnotes and a comprehensive bibliography, which highlights the research Robinson undertook for False Flags. A glossary is included, as is an appendix detailing the technical characteristics of the raiders, and the results they attained. The book also features an excellent selection of black and white photographs and maps supporting the text.

False Flags provides a detailed and compelling, yet highly readable account of German raider operations in the Second World War and covers both the naval aspects and human dimensions of the operations and their consequences. The book is well-written and enjoyable to read. It will particularly appeal to those with an academic or professional interest in naval history but is also accessible to the casual reader. Whilst at £20, the book is excellent value for money. The book also provides a valuable case study into the effectiveness of an asymmetric maritime campaign, as Robinson notes, “To counter the raiders, the Australian and New Zealand governments recalled cruisers from overseas stations to strengthen local defence, weakening the Allied war effort in more important theatres”. In this respect, the book provides much food for thought. False Flags will provide a useful addition to bookshelves, it is recommended.