Central Planning in War
By David Henderson
In the last 2 months, I’ve read 6 books about the attack on the Zam Zam in April 1941. It was the ship my uncle Fred Henderson and aunt Jamie Henderson were on when they were heading to the Belgian Congo to be medical missionaries. It was attacked and sunk by the German raider Atlantis and they, along with all the other ship’s passengers and crew were taken prisoner, transferred to the Dresden, and sent to occupied France. From there my uncle was sent to a German prison camp in Upper Silesia and my aunt was ultimately sent to Berlin. I’ve posted about it here, here, and here. I interviewed my uncle about it in 1993, a year before he died, and he told me about his and my aunt’s capture, his time working as a doctor in the German prison camp under the direction of a German doctor, his blowing the whistle on the German doctor when the Swiss Protecting Power came through to audit the camp (the German doctor had been asking prisoners at sick parade if they were Jewish), and, finally, his escape from occupied France (they had been moved to a newly built prison camp—I’m guessing it was because the Russians were coming) to Switzerland.
The book I’m currently reading, titled Under Ten Flags, is by Wolfgang Frank and Captain Bernhard Rogge. Rogge was the Captain of the Atlantis. The book, by the way, was made into a movie by the same title. I remember excitedly going to the movie theatre in Carman, Manitoba to see it in either late 1960 or early 1961. I was disappointed when they didn’t show the sinking of the Zam Zam. (At least that’s what I recall almost 48 years later.)
In one chapter, Rogge tells of a huge screwup by the central planning authorities in Germany, a screwup that caused the prisoners from the Zam Zam to have way worse a diet than they would have had for their weeks as prisoners before landing in occupied France. The screwup happened only a few days before the attack. Here’s the passage:
As we had been delayed by our meeting with the Perla, the Alsterufer had been sent off far to the south and so the first ship we met, also four days behind schedule was the Lloyd liner Dresden which, after acting as supply-ship for the Graf Spee, had sought sanctuary in Santos, Brazil. I was delighted to see Captain Jager of the Dresden as he due to give us some much-needed supplies of fresh food, but he looked unhappy as we shook hands.
‘I’m afraid I have a disappointment for you,’ he said. ‘I embarked your fresh food all right but then I got instructions from our Naval Attache to hand them over to the Babitonga, although she has no cold room. Both her captain and I pointed out that with a temperature of 104 degrees, the fresh food would undoubtedly go bad in her holds, but we were simply told to obey orders.’
I was livid with rage. After months at sea we were desperately in need of fresh fruit, vegetables and potatoes; our vitamin tablets were becoming steadily less effective and the crew’s health was suffering. The Dresden could have preserved the fruit and vegetables in perfect condition in her cold room, but she had been prevented from doing so by a piece of bureaucratic and high-handed stupidity that merited heavy punishment.