Helmuth von Ruckteschell

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Hellmuth von Ruckteschell
Born (1890-03-23)23 March 1890
Died 24 September 1948(1948-09-24) (aged 58)
prison Hamburg-Fuhlsbüttel
Allegiance  German Empire (to 1918)
 Weimar Republic (to 1933)
 Nazi Germany (to 1945)
Service/branch  Kaiserliche Marine
Years of service 1910–45
Rank Kapitän zur See of the Reserves
Commands held German auxiliary cruiser Widder
German auxiliary cruiser Michel
Battles/wars World War I
World War II
Awards Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves

Hellmuth Max von Ruckteschell (22 March 1890, Eilbek - 24 June 1948, Hamburg) was an officer in the Kaiserliche Marine and the Kriegsmarine, serving in both World War I and World War II. He was one of the most successful merchant raider commanders, serving as the captain of the German commerce raiders Widder and Michel during World War II. He was ruthless in the execution of his duty, and after the war was convicted of war crimes.

Pre-World War II[edit]

Born in 1890, he joined the German navy in 1910; in 1916, with the rank of Oberleutnant zur See, he transferred to the U-boat Arm. He served as Watch Officer on U-3 and U-57, before being given his own command in July 1917, first of UB-34, then, in March 1918, of U-54. He earned a reputation as an overly aggressive commander, which caused him to be placed on a black-list of officers that the Allied powers considered to have breached the laws of war. This contrasted with his artistic and cultured nature. He was an avid reader and loved classical music, and was a student of Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophy.

After the war, he left Germany to escape the harassment suffered by former submariners at the hands of the victor nations. He lived in Sweden and Lapland for several years, earning a living as a lumberjack and a surveyor, before returning to Germany in the early 1930s.

World War II[edit]

Von Ruckteschell was recalled to duty in the Kriegsmarine in 1939 and placed in command of an auxiliary minelayer. When he took command of the Widder and sailed out into the Atlantic Ocean on 6 May 1940, he commenced a cruise (finally ending on 31 October 1940) that would sink or capture a total of ten vessels. When Widder returned to Brest, Ruckteschell refused the Naval Command's order to take the ship to Hamburg, because he estimated the transfer through British controlled waters to be too risky. After returning to Germany, he took command of the commerce raider Michel on its first cruise (9 March 1942 to 1 March 1943), in which fifteen ships were sunk or captured. Von Ruckteschell was then relieved at his own request for health reasons.

Raider career[edit]

Ruckteschell was one of the more successful raider captains. The measure of a commerce raiders success is both the tonnage destroyed and the time spent at large. Ruckteschell accounted for 152,727 gross register tons (GRT) (second only to Ernst-Felix Krüder of Pinguin) and stayed at large for 538 days, (second only to Bernhard Rogge of Atlantis ); however, this was over two voyages.

Out of 13 voyages by 10 raiders, Michel and Widder claimed 15 ships of 94,363 GRT, and 10 ships of 58,464 GRT respectively (4th and 6th highest), and stayed at large for 358, and 180 days respectively ( 4th and 9th longest).

War Crimes trial[edit]

Ruckteschell was the subject of one of the first war crimes investigations undertaken by the British Admiralty. It was alleged that on several occasions the warships commanded by Ruckteschell had continued firing on merchant vessels after they had surrendered. Since such behavior contravened the laws of naval warfare, the Admiralty requested that Ruckteschell and his crew members be detained for interrogation.

At the end of World War II Ruckteschell was on the staff of the German naval attaché in Japan and he was eventually located in an internment camp near Kobe from where he was brought back to Germany for trial.

According to the British charges submitted to the United Nations War Crimes Commission, the evidence revealed "at least one clear case of mass murder and several equally clear cases of the sinking of vessels whose crew were on the vessels when they were fired on, and were not picked up subsequently when on boats, rafts and in the water."[1]


  • 1. Regarding SS Davisian, which was attacked on 10 July 1940 by Widder.
The charge was that he continued to fire after the radio was knocked out and the signal to surrender acknowledged. It was claimed that the Widder's gunners continued to fire for eight minutes after a signal was sent indicating that the Davisian's crew were abandoning ship.
The defence maintained no signal had been seen or received and that three seamen on board the Davisian were seen heading towards her gun.
  • 2. Regarding SS Anglo Saxon, attacked on 21 August 1940 by Widder.
The charge was that he fired on the lifeboats, and failed to ensure the crew's survival. Able Seaman Robert Tapscott of the Anglo Saxon, although unavailable to attend Ruckteschell’s trial, testified that the Widder had opened fire on the boats and rafts as they moved away from the sinking ship.
The defence maintained he was firing over heads at the ship; and that the boats attempted to escape and were lost in the dark.
Ruckteschell was found guilty of "not providing for the safety of the crew".
  • 3. Regarding SS Beaulieu, attacked on 4 August 1940 by Widder.
The charge was that he failed to ensure the safety of the survivors. Ruckteschell chose to leave 28 of them adrift over 1,200 mi (1,900 km) from the nearest land.
The defence maintained it was dark, and that Widder searched for them for 2½ hours without success.
He was initially found guilty on this charge, but was later acquitted on appeal in August 1947.
The charge was that he continued to fire after she had surrendered.
The defence maintained that the surrender signal was not seen; also that there was confusion on the bridge of Michel whether the ship was using a radio.


The trial was held in Hamburg between 5 and 21 May 1946. Ruckteschell chose as his defence counsel Dr. Otto Zippel, who had earlier represented Karl-Heinz Moehle. Zippel tried to define the limitations of international law, called Vizeadmiral Bernhard Rogge as an expert witness, and questioned the testimony of the British sailors. In closing, he asserted that "the law has recognized that in matters of sea even clever people are more liable to commit an error than in other walks of life".[1]

The British military court convicted Ruckteschell on three of the four charges - Charges 1, 2, and 3 were upheld, while Charge 4 was rejected - and sentenced him to 10 years imprisonment. Three years were later remitted from his sentence on 30 August 1947.

The trial raised serious concerns about further war crimes trials involving naval affairs, since only one junior naval officer had sat as a judge during the trial, and army officers could not be expected to have a good knowledge of naval warfare; Zippel opined during the appeal that "a court composed of experienced sea officers would have arrived at a different judgment in the case". Royal Navy officers acknowledged that there was a real chance of a miscarriage of justice and the naval authorities actually discouraged further naval-related war crimes trials due to the difficulty of finding suitable naval officers to take part in them, and Ruckteschell's trial was the last held under the Royal Warrant on behalf of the Royal Navy.[1]


He died in the Hamburg-Fuhlsbüttel prison on 24 June 1948, shortly after hearing that he was to be released due to his deteriorating heart condition.

Awards and decorations[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Madsen, Chris (1998). The Royal Navy and German Naval Disarmament, 1942-1947. Taylor & Francis. pp. 181–182. ISBN 0-7146-4373-4. 
  2. ^ a b c d Thomas 1998, p. 228.
  3. ^ a b Scherzer 2007, p. 643.
  4. ^ Fellgiebel 2000, pp. 366, 502.
  5. ^ Fellgiebel 2000, p. 64.


  • Dörr, Manfred (1996). Die Ritterkreuzträger der Überwasserstreitkräfte der Kriegsmarine—Band 2: L–Z [The Knight's Cross Bearers of the Surface Forces of the Navy—Volume 2: L–Z] (in German). Osnabrück, Germany: Biblio Verlag. ISBN 978-3-7648-2497-6. 
  • Fellgiebel, Walther-Peer (2000). Die Träger des Ritterkreuzes des Eisernen Kreuzes 1939–1945 – Die Inhaber der höchsten Auszeichnung des Zweiten Weltkrieges aller Wehrmachtsteile [The Bearers of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross 1939–1945 — The Owners of the Highest Award of the Second World War of all Wehrmacht Branches] (in German). Friedberg, Germany: Podzun-Pallas. ISBN 978-3-7909-0284-6. 
  • August Karl Muggenthaler : German Raiders of World War II (1977) ISBN 0-7091-6683-4
  • Paul Schmalenbach : German Raiders 1895-1945 (1977 )  !SBN 0 85059 351 4
  • Stephen Roskill : The War at Sea 1939-1945 Vol I (1954) ISBN (none)
  • Scherzer, Veit (2007). Die Ritterkreuzträger 1939–1945 Die Inhaber des Ritterkreuzes des Eisernen Kreuzes 1939 von Heer, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine, Waffen-SS, Volkssturm sowie mit Deutschland verbündeter Streitkräfte nach den Unterlagen des Bundesarchives [The Knight's Cross Bearers 1939–1945 The Holders of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross 1939 by Army, Air Force, Navy, Waffen-SS, Volkssturm and Allied Forces with Germany According to the Documents of the Federal Archives] (in German). Jena, Germany: Scherzers Miltaer-Verlag. ISBN 978-3-938845-17-2. 
  • Thomas, Franz (1998). Die Eichenlaubträger 1939–1945 Band 2: L–Z [The Oak Leaves Bearers 1939–1945 Volume 2: L–Z] (in German). Osnabrück, Germany: Biblio-Verlag. ISBN 978-3-7648-2300-9.