Seldom an unequal battle, like the one between the Dutch oil tanker Ondina escorted by the British Indian corvette HMIS Bengal, and two heavily armored Japanese auxiliary cruisers has ended up in such unexpected way. One of the Japanese raiders was sunk and the two allied ships, in spite of everything, reached safe harbors. The heroic battle of the Ondina and the Bengal already created the necessary sensation during the Second World War and till today it is an example of courage and perseverance of both merchant navy personnel as well as of military seamen.
German auxiliary cruisers or Hilfkreuzer, merchant ships converted into war ships, were used in the beginning of the Second World War as privateers against enemy merchant ships as Handelsstörkreuzer [trading-disturbing-cruisers]. The British called such auxiliary cruisers “Armed Merchant Cruisers” (AMCs) and the ones that were operated against merchant ships were called “surface raiders”. The German raiders were very successful in disturbing the trans-oceanic supply lines of the British by sinking thousands of tons of allied ships’ capacity. The most successful German raider was the “Pinguin”, which sank or captured 28 allied merchant ships with a total capacity of over 154,000 ton, before the ship disappeared beneath the waves of the Indian Ocean, foundered by the British cruiser HMS Cornwall. Early 1942 all German raiders had been sunk or were on their way back to Germany.
The Japanese did not so much recognize the strategic necessity of disturbing supply lines of the allies, at least not in the sense the Germans did. They had been irritated however by the presence of the German raiders in the Indian Ocean, which they considered to be their home turf. But nevertheless they began to become concerned about the allied tankers that transported costly oil products from the beginning of 1942 almost undisturbed from the Middle East to Australia. In order to prevent the Germans from utilizing new raiders in what they considered to be their maritime territory and in order to interrupt the allied oil provisioning, they decided to engage a number of surface raiders themselves.
They utilized therefore some fourteen freighters with passenger accommodation and converted those into auxiliary cruisers. The Japanese raiders however appeared not to be as successful as their German counter parts because the Japanese lacked experience with this type of sea warfare. Apart from that, the Japanese raiders did not stay out on sea for a long period of time, something the German Handelsstörkreuzer did. The German raider Atlantis for example stayed out at sea for 602 days continuously and captured or sank during this time 23 allied ships with a total capacity of 145,000 ton. Also the Japanese committed always several pirate ships at the same time as they were afraid to loose them. This was of course not so clever as the success of the privateer depended on the element of surprise, disguise and deception. Two or more auxiliary cruisers together were always suspect in the eyes of a potential victim.
On November 11, 1942, the heading of two Japanese surface raiders crossed that of a Dutch oil tanker and a British corvette. The allied ships attacked the heavily armed Japanese auxiliary cruisers and were in all aspects in a disadvantageous position. The battle would however provide a totally unexpected result.