The Capture of German New Guinea 15 September 1914

The Commonwealth of Australia was formed on 1 January 1901 by a Federation of the six self governing British colonies of Australia. Five of them had maintained naval forces, which were amalgamated into the Commonwealth Naval Forces on 1 March 1901. It was granted the title of Royal Australian Navy on 10 July 1911.

In August 1914 the RAN consisted of the battlecruiser HMAS Australia, the light cruisers HMAS Pioneer, Encounter, Melbourne and Sydney, the destroyers HMAS Parramatta, Warrego and Yarra and the submarines HMAS AE1 and AE2. All were modern ships built for the RAN in British yards to British designs, except for Encounter and Pioneer, old light cruisers transferred from the Royal Navy in 1912.

Warrego was built in Britain but then dismantled and the parts sent to Australia so that Australian shipyard workers could reassemble her and obtain expertise in warship construction. In August 1914 a light cruiser, HMAS Brisbane, and three destroyers, HMAS Huon, Swan and Torrens, were under construction in Australia.

Another old British cruiser, HMS Psyche, was in New Zealand waters. The battlecruiser HMS New Zealand was paid for by New Zealand taxpayers, but was part of the RN and was based in the UK in 1914.

At the outbreak of war the RAN was put under the control of the British Admiralty. Its initial missions were to capture German South Pacific colonies and to protect shipping against the German East Asia Squadron. The higher positions were held by British officers, as it would take time until Australians were ready to hold them. Rear Admiral Sir George Patey RN commanded the Australian Fleet.

The first British Empire shot of the First World War was fired by an Australian coastal defence battery. At 12:45 pm on 5 August 1914, Sergeant John Purdue of the Royal Australian Garrison Artillery fired a warning shot across the bows of SS Pfalz, a German merchant ship attempting to leave Melbourne harbour.

A significant Australian contribution to the war at sea came on 11 August when the German merchant ship SS Hobart was boarded and her code books seized, although they did not reach the Admiralty in London until October.

On 6 August the British Government sent the Australian Government the following telegram:

If your Ministers desire and feel themselves able to seize German wireless stations at Yap in Marshall Islands, Nauru, Pleasant Island and New Guinea, we should feel that this was a great and urgent Imperial service. You will, however, realise that any territory now occupied must be at the disposal of the Imperial Government for purposes of an ultimate settlement at conclusion of the war. Other Dominions are acting in similar way on the same understanding, in particular, suggestion is being made to New Zealand in regard to Samoa.[1]

Arthur Jose writes in the Official History of the RAN in WWI that many Australians were puzzled to be told to use their navy not to defeat the enemy fleet, but to capture territory, ‘exactly the purpose against which all their previous advisers had warned them.’[2]

The main threat came from the German East Asia Squadron of the armoured cruisers SMS Gneisenau and Scharnhorst and three light cruisers. The armoured cruisers were greatly inferior to HMAS Australia but superior to any other Australian warship. Their location was unknown.

An initial plan to seize German wireless stations expanded into one to take territory. This would deny the German cruisers possible bases. However, Jose suggests that this plan was devised in London, where some, expecting a short war, wanted to ‘have in hand some German territory for bargaining purposes, possibly to exchange for Belgium.’[3] On the other hand, Hew Strachan notes that ‘[b]oth Australia and New Zealand harboured their own imperialist ambitions’ and accuses Jose of ‘glossing over [the] sub-imperialist thrust’ of their actions.[4]

The RAN covered the move of a New Zealand force to Samoa, which was taken without a fight on 30 August.

It then, accompanied by the French cruiser Montcalm, escorted the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force, comprising 1,000 Australian  infantry and 500 Australian and British naval reservists and commanded by Colonel William Holmes, to capture German colonies in New Guinea. Melbourne was despatched to destroy the German wireless station at Nauru.

The main force reached Rabaul on 11 September. Sydney put a 25 man naval landing party ashore at Herbertshöhe, now Kokopo, and Warrego and Yarra landed a similar force at Kabakaul They were ordered to find the wireless stations. Patey thought that there were two, one, inland from each landing point.  In fact, both were at Bita Paka. The Herbertshöhe party was therefore unable to find its objective. The Kabakaul one was fired on as it advanced.

Two companies of naval reservists and two machine gun sections were landed from HMAS Berrima, an armed transport. They encountered a force of about 150 local police commanded by German officers and were reinforced by four companies of infantry from Berrima. Progress in the Battle of Bita Paka was slow, but the Germans retreated after the destroying the radio mast. The attackers removed the rest of the radio equipment.

Australian casualties were two officers and four men killed and an officer and three men wounded. Able Seaman W. G. V. Williams became the first Australian to be killed in action during the war.

The Official British Naval History says that ‘[f]or the Germans further resistance was now hopeless, but the Governor…[was] bent on making negotiations as dilatory as possible.[5] On the morning of 14 September Encounter bombarded a German fortified position on a ridge. Australian troops advancing towards it in the afternoon were met by a flag of truce. The German governor surrendered German New Guinea on 15 September.

On 14 September AE1 disappeared on patrol off Rabaul with the loss of all 35 men on board, a mixture of RAN and RN personnel. She probably struck a reef or other submerged object and was the first RAN warship to be lost and the first British Empire submarine to be lost in the war. Her wreck has not been found but efforts to do so continue.

[1] Quoted in A. W. Jose, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, vol. ix, the Royal Australian Navy, 1914-1918, Ninth ed. (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1941), p. 47.

[2] Ibid., p. 48.

[3] Ibid., p. 52.

[4] H. Strachan, The First World War: Vol. 1, to Arms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). p. 464 and footnote 44 on p. 465.

[5] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 285.

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HMS Carmania Sinks SMS Cap Trafalgar 14 September 1914

The Cap Trafalgar was a new, large and luxurious liner that in April 1914 was brought into service by the Hamburg-Sud Amerika Line for service between Germany and the River Plate.

At the outbreak of war she was at Buenos Aires, where the German navy requisitioned her as an auxiliary cruiser. After coaling at Montevideo she sailed for the remote Brazilian island of Trinidade, 500 miles off the mainland. There, she met the old gunboat SMS Eber, which transferred her armament of two 105mm (4.1 inch) guns and six one pounders, their ammunition and some of her crew to Cap Trafalgar, which was to raid merchant shipping under the command of Korvettenkapitän Wirth.

Cap Trafalgar’s first commerce raiding cruise was a failure. According the British Official Histories, the quantity of wireless signals from British cruisers had discouraged her from approaching the main trade routes.[1] On 13 September she returned to Trinidade in order to coal from two colliers.

The next day, HMS Carmania, a Cunard liner that had been armed for trade protection duties, visited Trinidade, which the British suspected might be used by German commerce raiders to coal. Carmania and Cap Trafalgar were of similar size, about 19,000 tons, but the British ship had a much bigger armament: eight 4.7 inch guns. Both were designed for 18 knots, but Robert Massie says that the British ship could make only 16 knots.[2]

The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich in London owns a painting of the action, which is reproduced on its website. The caption says that Cap Trafalgar had been modified and painted to resemble Carmania.

The German ships set sail once they saw Carmania approaching. They seemed initially to be fleeing, but Cap Trafalgar then turned towards the enemy. Julian Corbett speculates in the Royal Navy’s Official History that Wirth may have realised that his opponent was another armed liner rather than a warship.[3]

Neither ship had the fire control systems or ammunition hoists of a modern warship, so the action was fought in the style of Nelson’s day, with ammunition being brought to the guns by hand and the guns firing as the target bore.

Carmania’s captain, Noel Grant, ordered a warning shot to be fired at 12:10 pm at 8,500 yards range. Carmania began to fire her port guns at 7,500 yards, with Cap Trafalgar replying. At 4,500 yards the British switched to firing salvoes, the second and third of which hit the German ship on her waterline. The Germans scored a significant number of hits, but most of them were high, hitting Carmania’s masts, funnels, ventilators and bridge.

At 3,500 yards the German one pounders were in range and the barrels of the elderly British guns were red hot. Grant turned his ship in order the fire with the starboard guns.

Both ships were now on fire and Cap Trafalgar was listing. Wirth tried to use his ship’s superior speed to escape and succeeded in getting outside Carmania’s 9,000 yard gun range by 1:30. However, Cap Trafalgar was too badly damaged to escape, and she sank with colours flying at 1:45. Wirth went down with her.

Carmania had been hit 79 times. Many were high but five holes were on the waterline, and she was one fire, leaving her in no position to rescue Cap Trafalgar’s survivors. Nine of her crew had been killed and 26 wounded. Grant also feared that smoke that could be seen to the north might come from a German cruiser that Cap Trafalgar had been radioing. In fact it was from one of her colliers, the Eleonore Woermann, which picked up the German survivors.

The only source consulted to give German casualties is Wikipedia, which says that 279 Germans were rescued and between 16 and 51 were killed. Conway’s says that Cap Trafalgar’s crew was 319, implying a number at the top of that range.[4]


[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 307; C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade., 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1920). vol. i, p. 223.

[2] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 206.

[3] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, p. 307.

[4] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), p. 184.



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E9 Sinks SMS Hela 13 September 1914

On 5 September 1914 the German U-boat U21 sank the British cruiser HMS Pathfinder. Eight days later the British submarine E9 sank the German light cruiser SMS Hela.

Britain’s submarines were commanded by the aggressive Commodore Roger Keyes. His main striking force consisted of the eight D class and 10 E class boats of the Eighth Submarine Flotilla. The older A, B and C class submarines were small and short ranged, so were suitable only for coastal defence.

Keyes’s submarines made repeated patrols into German waters, where they saw few potential targets. He wrote in his memoirs that the conditions for the crews were very tough:

‘the notoriously short, steep seas which accompany westerly gales in the Helgoland Bight…make it difficult to open the conning tower hatches and vision is limited to about 200 yards. There was no rest to be obtained on the bottom…even when cruising at a depth of sixty feet, the submarines were rolling and moving vertically twenty feet.’[1]

At dawn on 6 September E9, captained by Lieutenant-Commander Max Horton, surfaced after spending the previous night on the bottom of the sea 120 feet below the surface, six miles south-south-west of Helgoland.

E-9 immediately spotted the old German light cruiser SMS Hela less than two miles away and manoeuvred to attack. She fired two torpedoes and heard one explosion as she dived. Horton brought his boat back up and saw that Hela had stopped and was listing to starboard, but was then forced to dive again by gunfire. An hour later E9 surfaced and found only four or five trawlers where the cruiser had been. Most of Hela’s crew had been rescued.

Horton was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for this and the sinking of the destroyer SMS S116 off the River Ems on 6 October. He rose to the rank of Admiral and was Commander-in-Chief of the Western Approaches in the Second World War, where he proved to be as skilful at fighting submarines as he had been at commanding one.

[1] Quoted in R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 125.

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U-21 Sinks HMS Pathfinder 5 September 1914

On 5 September 1914 U-21, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Otto Hersing, torpedoed and sank the scout cruiser HMS Pathfinder, leader of the Eighth Destroyer Flotilla, off St Abbs Head on the south east coast of Scotland. This was the first time that a submarine had sunk a ship using a motor powered torpedo.

The Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley sank the sloop USS Housatonic during the American Civil War by attaching a spar torpedo to her hull. The word torpedo was then used to describe weapons that would now be called mines. A spar torpedo is more akin to a limpet mine than to a twentieth or twentieth century torpedo.

The sea was very rough, meaning that U-21 was plunging up and down, but Hersing succeeded in hitting his target with a single torpedo. It struck Pathfinder under her forward funnel. Her forward magazine blew up and she sank within four minutes, too quickly for her to launch her boats.

Most of her crew went down with Pathfinder, but sources differ on the exact number of men killed and saved. A BBC report on the laying of a wreath on the wreck on the 100th anniversary of the sinking by divers says that 18 survived and 250 died. Wikipedia names 18 survivors, but adds two civilian canteen assistants to the total on board, giving 252 dead. R. H. Gibson and Maurice Prendergast write in The German Submarine War that 259 were lost.[1] The website Naval History gives 278 on board, of whom 16 survived. Elsewhere it lists the casualties.

The survivors included Pathfinder’s captain, Francis Martin-Leake, who was wounded. He was adamant that his ship had been struck by a torpedo, although it had at first been thought that she had been struck by a mine. His report can be found on the website The Dreadnought Project.

The 7 September 1914 edition of The Scotsman newspaper reported an official press release that stated that Pathfinder had struck a mine.[2] The next day it printed an eye witness account that talked of ‘the diabolical policy pursued by Germany in strewing the sea with floating mines in tracts where peaceful fishermen are as likely as the crews of warships to be the victims.’[3]

By 15 September, however, The Scotsman was reporting that Pathfinder had been sunk by a torpedo fired by a U-boat that it claimed wrongly to have been sunk by the ‘brilliant British gunnery’ of a number of cruisers.[4]

‘Another eye witness to the sinking was the writer Aldous Huxley, who was staying at St Abbs at the time. He wrote to his father saying that:

I dare say Julian told you that we actually saw the Pathfinder explosion – a great white cloud with its foot in sea.

The St. Abbs’ lifeboat came in with the most appalling accounts of the scene. There was not a piece of wood, they said, big enough to float a man—and over acres the sea was covered with fragments—human and otherwise. They brought back a sailor’s cap with half a man’s head inside it. The explosion must have been frightful. It is thought to be a German submarine that did it, or, possibly, a torpedo fired from one of the refitted German trawlers, which cruise all round painted with British port letters and flying the British flag.’[5]

The sinking of Pathfinder by a U-boat made a big impression on Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, who decided to keep his Grand Fleet as far north as the Admiralty would allow. However, other British admirals ignored the threat from submarines to surface ships, leading to disaster later in the month.

Martin-Leake’s brother Arthur became the first man to be awarded a bar to the VC for his courage as an army doctor at Zonnebeke between 29 October and 8 November 1914. He had previously been awarded the VC in the Boer War.

[1] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), p. 6.

[2]<<>&gt; Accessed 11 September 2014. Note that this and the next two references are to a password restricted subscription website. I have access to it via the National Library of Scotland.

[3] <<>&gt; Accessed 11 September 2014.

[4] <<>&gt; Accessed 11 September 2014.

[5] <<>&gt; Accessed 11 September 2014.


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The Battle of Helgoland Bight 28 August 1914

The first month of the First World War saw little naval action in the North Sea. Kaiser Wilhelm II was unwilling the risk the German fleet in action. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the architect of the German fleet thought that ‘it was simply nonsense to pack the fleet in cotton wool’, but his job was largely administrative and gave him little input into strategy.[1]

Wilhelm and his Chancellor Theobald von Bethman Hollweg wanted to preserve the fleet as a post war bargaining counter. The German generals saw the navy’s role as protecting the army’s flank and stopping amphibious assaults by the British on Germany’s North Sea coast or the Russians in the Baltic.

The German navy had expected the British to carry out a close blockade of the Helgoland Bight, which would allow the Germans to whittle down the Royal Navy (RN). However, the RN instead conducted a distant blockade of the North Sea.

The RN had assumed that the Germans would come out and challenge it at the start of the war. Admiral Sir William James, a Commander in 1914 who served in Naval Intelligence and the Room 40 code-breaking centre later in the war, told the naval historian Arthur Marder that ‘[r]epeated [German] excursions might have seriously weakened us.’ Marder notes that the Germans failed to use the major advantage that the use of Zeppelins for reconnaissance would have given them.[2]

By 19 August the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had been transported to the Continent. The RN closed the English Channel to raiders and the Grand Fleet was positioned to prevent the German High Seas Fleet from interfering with the transports.

Admiral Reinhard Scheer, then commanding the German Second Battle Squadron, described the idea that the Germans might have attacked the British supply lines as a ‘totally impossible demand’ that would have led to heavy German losses.[3]

Some of the more aggressive British officers wanted to take action. These included Commodores Roger Keyes and Reginald Tyrwhitt, commanding respectively the submarines and destroyers at Harwich, and Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty, commanding the Grand Fleet’s battlecruisers.

Keyes’s submarines gathered useful intelligence about the organisation of German patrols. He put forward his plan, supported by Tyrwhitt, on 23 August. Three surfaced submarines would be placed 40 miles off Helgoland in order to draw out the German destroyers. They would then be attacked by Tyrwhitt’s 1st and 3rd destroyers flotillas, each led by a light cruiser.

Three more submarines would lie submerged closer in to the coast in order to attack any German cruisers that came out to support their destroyers and two more would be placed at the mouth of the River Ems. The battlecruisers HMS Invincible and New Zealand, which had recently moved to the Humber under the command of Rear Admiral Archibald Gordon  Moore, would give support. Five old Cressy class armoured cruisers would be held in reserve under the command of Rear Admiral Arthur Christian.

On 24 August it was decided to carry out Keyes’s plan four days later. Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, the commander of the Grand Fleet, was not informed until 26 August. He suggested bringing the Grand Fleet south in support; he was told that this was unnecessary, but that his battlecruisers could ‘support if convenient.’[4] On the morning of 27 August he sent Beatty’s three battlecruisers and Commodore William Goodenough’s six light cruisers south.

The signal informing the local commanders that Beatty and Goodenough’s ships were supporting them reached Christian but not Keyes or Tyrwhitt. This nearly led to Goodenough’s light cruisers being fired upon by other British ships.

The Battle of Helgoland Bight is described by Paul Halpern as being ‘a most confusing encounter.’[5] Fog and haze restricted visibility and restricted the involvement of the German shore batteries.

The tides meant that German capital ships could not cross the Jade Bar and put to sea in the morning. Marder wonders if this ‘may have been lucky for the attackers (or was it foresight in planning?).’[6] Most other writers, including Sir Julian Corbett, the official historian, mention this fact without giving any indication whether it was due to luck or judgement.[7] However, Robert Massie notes that Beatty had a set of the German coastal tide tables.[8]

Tyrwhitt had the Third Flotilla of 16 modern L class destroyers and his flagship the brand new light cruiser HMS Arethusa (2 6 inch, 6 4 inch guns, 4 21 inch torpedo tubes) along with the First Flotilla of the light cruiser HMS Fearless (10 4 inch guns, 2 18 inch torpedo tubes) and 15 older  destroyers. The First Flotilla’s other four destroyers were with the Humber battlecruisers. Keyes flew his flag in the destroyer HMS Lurcher, which was accompanied by the destroyer HMS Firedrake.

Tyrwhitt’s force first sighted a German destroyer at 7 am and was soon engaged with ten enemy destroyers. Two German light cruisers, SMS Stettin and Frauenlob (both 10 4.1 inch guns, 2 17.7 inch torpedo tubes) appeared about 8 am. They easily outgunned the British destroyers and were similarly armed to Fearless. Arethusa was theoretically more powerful, but was new and not fully worked up. However, Goodenough’s Town class light cruisers had 6 inch guns, making them far more powerful than the German cruisers.

The British destroyers fell back on Arethusa and Fearless. Stettin withdrew after covering the withdrawal of the German destroyers. Arethusa was reduced to 10 knots and one 6 inch gun because of damage inflicted by Frauenlob and gun jams, but was able to damage Frauenlob so badly that she retired. The only German ship sunk in this part of the battle was the destroyer V187.

The action was very confused because of the poor visibility and poor co-ordination by both sides. Keyes had not been informed that Goodenough’s squadron was in the area, so assumed that HMS Nottingham and Lowestoft were German when he first saw them. The submarine E6 fired a torpedo at HMS Southampton, which then tried to ram E6. Neither vessel was damaged.

By 10:40 am Arethusa had restored her speed to 20 knots and brought all four of her 4 inch guns back into action. Eight more German light cruisers had by then left harbour, but Rear Admiral Leberecht Maass, their commander, committed them piecemeal. By 11 am Tyrwhitt’s flotillas were engaged with four German light cruisers; SMS Stettin, Strassburg and Ariadne and Köln: some sources call the last named ship Cöln, but I have used the current spelling of the city’s name. A fifth, Mainz, was on the way. All were armed with 4.1 guns, but the British wrongly identified Köln as a much more powerful armoured cruiser.

Beatty ordered Goodenough to send two of his cruisers to support Tyrwhitt, but Tyrwhitt took all his squadron. Beatty was concerned that the British light forces might be overwhelmed, but also of the risk to his battlecruisers from mines, U-boats, enemy capital ships and even mis-identification by British submarines.

Beatty said to his Flag Captain Ernle Chatfield that ‘if I lose of these valuable ships the country will not forgive me.’ Chatfield replied that ‘surely we must go’, which convinced Beatty to order all five battlecruisers to head for the action at full speed at 11:35 am.[9] They arrived at 12:37 pm and withdrew at 1:10 pm. By then Köln, Mainz and Ariadne were sunk or sinking.

The first two German battlecruisers SMS Moltke and Von der Tann did not cross the Jade Bar until 2:10 pm. They were ordered by Rear Admiral Franz Hipper, commanding the German battlecruisers, not to engage the enemy until he joined them with his flagship SMS Seydlitz, which was an hour behind. He did not want to repeat Maas’s error of feeding in his ships piecemeal.

Helgoland Bight was a clear British victory: three German light cruisers and a destroyer were sunk and three light cruisers damaged, with 1,242 Germans were killed, capture or wounded. Maas was amongst the dead. Only one member of Köln’s crew survived. Others abandoned ship but the Germans did not search the area for three days, by when all the rest were dead. The British had one light cruiser and three destroyers damaged but lost no ships. 35 British sailors were killed and 40 wounded.[10]

Despite this, the British made a number of mistakes. There was little co-ordination between the different squadrons and flotillas and communications were poor. As well as the failure to tell Keyes and Tyrwhitt that they were being supported by Beatty and Goodenough, Keyes and Tyrwhitt did not give the speeds and courses of their ships when requesting support.

The Germans concluded that their system of patrol lines was a mistake and replaced them with minefields. In future there would always be at least four capital ships outside the Jade Bar, with all at two hours’ notice for steaming. The Kaiser became even more determined not to risk his ships. He ordered that the commander in chief of the High Seas Fleet should ask his permission before taking part in a fleet action.

The main impact of the battle was moral, both positive on the British and negative on the Germans. The New Statesman said that it was of ‘immense moral, if slight material, importance in its effect upon the two fleets.’[11]

[1] Quoted in A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). i, p. 43.

[2] Ibid. i, pp. 45-46.

[3] Quoted in P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 29.

[4] Quoted in Marder, From. i, p. 51

[5] Halpern, Naval, p. 31.

[6] Marder, From. i, p. 52.

[7] G. Bennett, Naval Battles of the First World War (London: Pan, 1983), p. 133; J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). i, p. 119; Halpern, Naval, p. 31; R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 107.

[8] Massie, Castles, p. 108.

[9] Quoted in Marder, From. i, p. 52.

[10] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. i, p. 119 and footnote 1.

[11] 5 September 1914 edition, quoted in Marder, From. i, p. 54

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The Sinking of the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse 26 August 1914

In 1914 both Britain and Germany armed merchantmen. British armed merchant cruisers were intended to protect trade and to enforce the blockade of Germany. The German equivalents were commerce raiders.

The only commerce raider to leave a German port and slip out past the British blockade in August 1914 was the Norddeutscher Lloyd Line’s 14,000 ton Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, commanded by Kapitän Max Reymann. The other early German merchant cruisers were abroad at the start of the war and were armed by German warships.

She was capable of 22.5 knots and on her maiden voyage in 1897 won the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic. As a merchant cruiser she was armed with six 105mm (4.1 inch) and two 37mm (1.5 inch) guns. Her main weakness was her high coal consumption.

On 7 August, three days after leaving Hamburg, the Kaiser Wilhelm captured and sank the steam trawler Tubal Cain, whose crew were taken on board the German ship.

A week later the Kaiser Wilhelm picked up a signal from the British liner Galician, which was concerned about the threat of German commerce cruisers near Tenerife. The German ship sent her a reassuring message and then intercepted her on the afternoon of 15 August.

The Galician was carrying a general cargo and nine first class and 30 second class passengers. Reymann had her wireless disabled and took off two of her passengers, Lieutenant J Deane of the First Battalion East Lancashire Regiment and Gunner C Shurmer of the Royal Garrison Artillery. At 5 am on 16 August Reymann allowed the Galician to go with the following signal: ‘I will not destroy your ship on account of the women and children on board. You are dismissed. Good-bye.’[1] Click here for a film reconstruction of the incident.

On 16 August Kaiser Wilhelm intercepted three British merchantmen. The Kaipara and Nyanga were sunk after the 101 men on board them had been transferred to the German ship. The third ship, the modern Royal Mail steamer Arlanza, had women and children amongst her passengers. Reymann allowed her to go after she threw her wireless overboard.

The Galician made Tenerife on 16 August and informed the Admiralty of the presence of the German raider. The Galician was able to rig up an emergency wireless with help of some spare parts obtained at Tenerife. The Arlanza was also able to set up a replacement wireless. Both ships used their temporary radios cautiously, listening for enemy signals rather than transmitting their own.

The Arlanza reached Las Palmas on 17 August and sent a report to the Admiralty. Just outside the port she told the armoured cruiser HMS Cornwall what had happened. This affair shows that commerce raiders were putting themselves at risk if they released enemy merchantmen and that it was hard to silence a radio equipped ship permanently.

The protected cruiser HMS Highflyer, captained by Henry Buller, was sent on 24 August to investigate a report that the Kaiser Wilhelm had been at Rio de Oro, a remote anchorage on the coast of Spanish Sahara, a week earlier. She was still there when Highflyer arrived on 26 August, re-coaling and re-provisioning from the merchant ships Arucas, Magdeburg and Bethania. A fourth merchantman, the Duala, had returned to Las Palmas.

The Kaiser Wilhelm was hopelessly outgunned by Highflyer’s 11 6 inch guns, nine 12 pounders, six 3 pounders and two 18 inch torpedo tubes. She was faster than the British ship’s 20 knots, but could not flee as she did not have steam up.

The three merchant ships fled; Reymann had transferred his prisoners to the Arucas, who were released when she reached Las Palmas on 28 August. The Bethania was heading for Charleston in the USA with 450 of Kaiser Wilhelm’s crew, but she was captured by HMS Essex on 7 September.[2]

After an hour and a half the Germans scuttled and abandoned their ship. The British Official History states that Buller left them because they took up ‘a menacing position behind the sandhill.’[3] British casualties were one man killed and five wounded. The damage to Highflyer was too minor for her to need dockyard repair. This website says that Reymann worked his passage back to Germany as a stoker on a neutral vessel.

Both sides breached Spanish neutrality in this action, the Germans by using the harbour as a base and the British by attacking them; the Spanish protested to both. The Admiralty concluded that Captain Buller was correct in attacking, since not doing so would have invited commerce raiders to use other remote anchorages in neutral countries that lacked the naval strength to enforce their neutrality. Spain accepted the British apology.

The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse’s cruise was notable mainly for Reymann’s chivalry. His ship sank only three merchant ships with a total tonnage of 10,685 tons; the ships and their cargoes were worth under £400,000.[4] Later in the war, the Germans would find that innocuous looking freighters were better commerce raiders than fast liners with a high coal consumption.

[1] C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade., 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1920).  i, p. 79.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938)., i, p. 136, footnote.

[3] Ibid. i, p. 185

[4] Figures from Fayle, Seaborne. i, p. 82.


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Allied Capture of German Naval Code Books

In the early hours of 26 August, the German light cruiser SMS Magdeburg ran aground at Odensholm lighthouse off Estonia whilst participating in a sweep against Russian patrols in the Gulf of Finland. The destroyer SMS V26 had to abandon her attempts to free Magdeburg when the Russian armoured cruiser Pallada and the protected cruiser Bogatyr appeared.

The Germans tried to scuttle Magdeburg, but were only partially successful. One of her four copies of the Signalbuch der Kasierlichen Marine (SKM), the German navy codebook, was burnt and two thrown overboard. However, the Russians recovered the latter two from the sea and the fourth from the captain’s safe. They later scrapped Magdeburg where she lay.

The Russians retained two of the codebooks for themselves and offered the third to the British, provided that a British ship collected it. This did not happen immediately, but the Admiralty received the codebook on 13 October.

Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, later wrote that Britain ‘received from our loyal allies these sea-stained priceless documents.’[1] Christopher Andrew and Robert Massie both note that the copy of the SKM in the UK National Archives [ref ADM 137/4156] is not sea-stained.[2] The Russians kept the two copies retrieved from the sea and gave the British the one from the captain’s safe.

As well as the SKM codebook, the British obtained a set of the German squared charts of the North Sea and Heligoland Bight that used to identify the location of German and enemy forces. Arthur Marder writes that Churchill and The Naval Staff of the Admiralty, a Naval Staff Monograph, both state that they were provided by the Russians. However, he goes on to say that Lieutenant W. F. Clarke RNVR, who worked in codebreaking, says in an unpublished paper called ‘Jutland’ that they were from the safe fished up by the trawler.[3]

It took some time until the British could read German naval signals sent using the SKM. Weather reports were encoded only by it, but other ones were re-ciphered. By early November, Fleet Paymaster Charles Rotter, a Naval Intelligence Department German expert, had realised that the re-ciphering was a simple substitution table. The key was changed periodically, but later ones were broken more quickly.

The SKM was the second German naval codebook obtained by the British. The SS Hobart, a German merchant ship, had been boarded by Australians off Melbourne on 11 August. They seized a copy of the Handelsverkehrsbuch (HV), which was used principally for communications between warships and merchantmen, but was also used by naval shore bases and later by U-boats and Zeppelins.

The Australians did not initially realise the importance of their prize and it then took time to send it to Britain, so the Admiralty did not receive it until late October.

The British obtained the third German naval codebook, the Verkehrsbuch (VB), when a trawler caught a lead-lined chest on 30 November. It had been thrown overboard by a German destroyer sunk on 17 October. The VB was used for cable communications with naval attachés and warships abroad and by admirals at sea.

The ability to read German codes would become very significant later in the war, but it took time for the Admiralty to get its decryption operation, known as Room 40 after its original office, working well. At first, the civilian cryptographers did not always understand naval matters and some naval staff officers looked down on them. The Admiralty was also excessively secretive with the decrypts, meaning that it did not always make the best use of the intelligence. Paul Halpern comments that ‘Room 40 would not reach its peak of efficiency and become a true intelligence centre until much later in the war.[4]


[1] W. S. Churchill, The World Crisis, 1911-1918, 5 vols (London: Odhams Press, 1939), v, Kindle edition, location 7846 out of 9432.

[2] C. M. Andrew, Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (London: Heinemann, 1985), p. 89; R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), footnote, p. 316.

[3] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70), ii, footnote 2, p. 132. Marder says that Captain Stephen Roskill, whosse papers are now at Churchill College, Cambridge, had a copy of Clarke’s paper.

[4] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 37.


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