Saturday, October 8, 2022

Mrs. Ferguson, Her Tea Set, and Japan’s Entry into World War II

by Martha Hutchens

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Sometimes in history, the largest events turn on the smallest things. Or, you could say, truth is stranger than fiction.

Violet Ferguson had had a tough four years since her marriage in 1936, but 1940 topped them all. In June 1940, at the same time as the Battle of Dunkirk, she fled France on the last ferry to leave Bordeaux. I’m sure she felt relieved to escape the invading Germans, but that relief wasn’t to last.

On November 11, 1940, the SS Automedon sailed through the Indian Ocean west of Sumatra. At this point in time, Japan had invaded China and was eyeing Indo-China, but had not entered World War II. The Indian Ocean was not near any theater of war. Mrs. Ferguson’s bad luck held, because at 7 a. m., her ship met the German cruiser Atlantis.

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The Atlantis’s captain, Bernhard Rogge, had previously disguised his ship as both Russian and Japanese, but was now sailing under a Dutch flag. When his ship reached shooting range of the Automedon, the captain ordered flags hoisted that meant, “stop, do not raise an alarm.” If that wasn’t a clear enough signal, the Atlantis also fired a warning shot.

The Automedon decided to fight, but was pitifully outgunned and soon defeated.The captain and five crew members died, another 12 were wounded. The Germans boarded the Automedon, removed anything they found of value, and took the passengers and crew prisoner, including Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson.

This is where history takes a strange twist. Mrs. Ferguson, crying, begs the German captain to retrieve her luggage containing almost all of her worldly possessions—including her prized tea set. She describes the luggage space where it could be found, and Captain Rogge commands his men still aboard the Automedon to look for it.

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The one remaining British officer on the Automedon attempted to deflect the Germans from the luggage area, because he knew what Mrs. Ferguson didn’t. Along with her tea set, the area contained sacks of mailbags, some of which contained official communications. The crew had not had time to throw them overboard. These bags contained decoding tables, fleet orders, gunnery instructions, and naval intelligence reports. A further search found a bag in the chart room labeled highly confidential.

The Germans carried all of the material across to their ship, realized the treasure of intelligence they had found, and sent it (along with the prisoners—and a tea set) to the German embassy in Tokyo. Copies of the key material was sent to Germany. After it was read in Germany, the embassy in Japan received orders—signed by Hitler himself—to give the information to the Japanese.

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What did these documents contain? The most important piece of intelligence was a copy of a staff report presented to the British war cabinet entitled “The Situation in the Far East in the Event of Japanese Intervention Against Us.”

This document asserted Churchill’s government’s belief that they did not have enough resources to protect against a Japanese attack in Asia. They did not believe they would be able to defend even Hong Kong in case of attack. If Japan attacked Australia or New Zealand, England would only be able to appeal to the United States for aid. Britain’s war in Europe required all the forces they had.
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It is likely that these documents contributed to Japan’s decision to attack the West’s overseas empires—and Pearl Harbor—instead of engaging the Soviet Union. It is also likely they were tending this direction anyway, so we will probably never know just how important a role this intelligence played. Like most of us, the Japanese government gave more weight to the intelligence that supported what they wanted to do.

Would they have found those documents without searching for the tea set? Maybe. The most devastating document was found in the chart room after the search of the luggage area. Once again, we will never know.

Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson survived years of internment, as did the infamous tea set. The Automedon was scuttled after this incident, as the damage was too great for her to continue sailing. The Atlantis was sunk by the HMS Devonshire on November 22, 1941. Captain Rogge survived and eventually rose to the level of vice-admiral. He was one of the few high-ranking officers not arrested by the allies at the end of the war, largely due to his humane treatment of the prisoners he took during his command of the Atlantis. He eventually joined the West German navy and became a rear admiral.

Whitehall hid this incident for decades, likely embarrassed by their careless handling of top secret information.

Martha Hutchens is a transplanted southerner who lives in Los Alamos, NM where she is surrounded by history so unbelievable it can only be true. She won the 2019 Golden Heart for Romance with Religious and Spiritual Elements. A former analytical chemist and retired homeschool mom, Martha is frequently found working on her latest knitting project when she isn’t writing.

Martha’s current novella is set in southeast Missouri during World War II. It is free to her newsletter subscribers. You can subscribe to my newsletter at my website,

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Nate Armstrong has all the land he can manage, especially if he wants any time to spend with his four-year-old daughter. Still, he can't stand by and watch the Finley family lose their dream. Especially after he learns that the banker's nephew has arranged to have their loan called.

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  1. Fascinating. I've never heard about this incident. Thanks for sharing! And your book sounds intriguing.

  2. Thanks for posting today! What a strange story. I wonder how it was passed down to the family; whether it got the bad luck twist or the miracle of surviving so much!