Monthly Archives: September 2015

Allegations of War Crimes at Sea in 1915

Germany announced on 4 February 1915 that it would conduct unrestricted submarine warfare in the waters round the United Kingdom from 18 February. It justified this on the grounds that the British blockade of Germany contravened international law. This led to heavy losses in Allied shipping, most infamously the sinking of the liner Lusitania on 7 May with the loss of 1,201 lives including 128 Americans.

A number of incidents involving submarines that occurred between 18 and 21 August led to both Germany and the UK accusing the other of being guilty of atrocities.

The first of these took place in the early hours of 18 August. The submarines HMS E8 and E13 were on their way to the Baltic to join their sister boats E1 and E9 when E13 suffered problems with her magnetic compass. She went off course and ran aground in Danish waters. At 5:00 am a Danish torpedo boat arrived, informing Lieutenant-Commander Geoffrey Layton, E13’s captain, that he had the normal 24 hours to get his boat underway, but that no help would be given.

At 9:00 am, by when another Danish torpedo boat had arrived, two German destroyers appeared. One of them, SMS G132, fired a torpedo at E13 from a range of 300 yards and opened fire with all her guns, although the submarine was in neutral waters. She was soon in flames and her crew abandoned ship. The Germans fired on them in the water until one of the Danish torpedo boats put herself between the German ships and the swimming survivors. Fifteen men were killed and the others picked up by the Danes.[1] They were interned, but Layton escaped after three months. He rose to the rank of Admiral, holding commands in the Mediterranean and Far East during the Second World War.

The next two incidents both took place on 19 August. The website lists seven British and one Spanish merchant ships as having been sunk that day by U24, U27 and U38, which were operating between Ushant and St George’s Channel. A Norwegian ship was also sunk by U25 in the North Sea. Two days earlier U-boats had sunk 11 merchantmen, but they were on average smaller, with a total tonnage of 15,733 tons versus 38,434 tons for the nine sunk on 19 August. The largest ship sunk on 19 August, the 15,801 ton British liner SS Arabic was bigger than all the ships sunk on 17 August combined.

Kapitänleutnant Rudolf Schneider’s U24 was in the process of sinking the 4,930 ton merchant ship Dunsley by gunfire when she observed the Arabic, which was on her way to the USA, approaching. Earlier that day, U24 had survived attempts to ram her by the armed yacht Valiant II and the unarmed trawler Majestic and had been fired on by the defensively armed liner City of Exeter. Schneider was therefore wary of the Arabic and mistook her zigzag course for an attempt to ram his boat. U-boats had been ordered not to sink passenger liners without warning unless the liner was attacking them. Schneider thought that the Arabic was attacking him, so fired a single torpedo which hit her. She sank about ten minutes later.[2]

There is some doubt about the number of people on board the Arabic and the number of dead, with the three British Official Histories giving different figures: Naval Operations says 40 dead out of 428 onboard; The Merchant Navy gives 39 killed out of 429; and Seaborne Trade states that 44 died.[3] The Naval Staff Monograph, an internal Admiralty document written in 1926, says that she was carrying 429 people, 181 passengers and 248 crew, of whom 40, 18 passengers and 22 crew, were killed.[4] A document later published by the British government in response to German accusations that the British Q-ship HMS Baralong had murdered members of U27’s crew claimed 47 dead, a number that was increased to 49 in a later note.[5] Paul Halpern says that 44 died, including two or three US citizens.[6]

Baralong was one of a number of merchantmen given concealed armament and RN volunteer crews in order to act as decoy ships that could trap and destroy U-boats. She was a 4,000 ton ship, capable of carrying 3,000 tons of coal in four holds, that had been requisitioned as a supply ship by the RN. She was given three 12 pounder guns, two of which were concealed by dummy life belt lockers and the other by a sheep pen. Two of her holds were used for coal and the other two were filled with empty barrels that would help to keep her afloat if torpedoed. She was captained by Lieutenant-Commander Godfrey Herbert RN, a submariner, with Sub-Lieutenant Gordon Steele RNR as first lieutenant. Her maximum speed was 12 knots ‘on a good day.’[7]

Baralong received the Arabic’s SOS, but arrived too late to help.[8] At 3:00 pm she spotted that a steamer 9 miles away had changed her course significantly. She then received a radio message from the steamer, which was the Nicosian, saying that she was being chased by a submarine. Herbert headed for Nicosian, hoisting the signal for ‘Save life’ when 3 miles away.[9]

The Nicosian was a 6,250 ton ship of the Leyland Line, carrying a cargo of cotton, timber, steel rods and tinned meat plus mules for the British Army from New Orleans to Liverpool. She was unarmed, but carried a dummy gun on her stern. She was British but most of the 48 muleteers who tended to the mules were Americans. Baralong then flying the US flag and also had boards along her sides indicating that she was a US ship.[10] Sailing under false colours was legitimate under the rules of war, provided that the ship lowered and replaced them by her true ones before opening fire.

The submarine, which was U27, was firing on the Nicosian, whose crew had taken to her boats, from 1,000 yards. Baralong passed behind the merchantman, meaning that she was out of sight of the U-boat, dropped her neutral colours, raised the White Ensign and opened fire at 600 yards range once U27 was in sight. Several of the German deck gun crew were hit before they could fire on Baralong. She scored 34 hits with her 12 pounder guns and U27 sank, with the surviving members of her crew jumping into the sea and swimming for the Nicosian. Herbert claimed in her after action report that he was worried that they might try to scuttle or set fire to the ship in order destroying her and her cargo. He consequently ordered his crew to fire on them. Six succeeded in getting on board, so Herbert sent a party of marines across, warning them to be careful in case the Germans found the rifles that were in the Nicosian’s charthouse. According to Herbert, the six Germans who made it on board the Nicosian all ‘succumbed to the injuries they had received from lyddite shell.[11]

The German government issued a memorandum to the British government via the US government that accused ‘Captain William McBride’, a pseudonym adopted by Herbert as part of the pretence that Baralong was a merchant ship, of murder. They produced affidavits sworn by six of the American muleteers made to US public notaries. The witnesses were either on or in the process of boarding Baralong when she fired on the Germans in the water. They agreed that U27’s captain, Kapitänleutnant Bernd Wegener, was shot in the water after raising his hands in surrender. [12]

One of them, James J. Curran, claimed that Baralong had opened fire before she lowered her US colours. He also stated that Herbert said to his crew ‘Boys, we’ll shoot those poor wounded devils in the water’ and then told the men that he sent aboard the Nicosian ‘Get them all, take no prisoners.’[13] Another American muleteer, Bud Emerson Palen, said that he heard Herbert tell one of the boarding party that ‘My orders are to take no prisoners.’[14]

The testimony of a seventh American can be disregarded. Larrimore Holland had joined the RN, claiming to be a Canadian. He said that he had been a member of Baralong’s crew, but in fact never went to sea during his four months in the RN. He admitted to being American on 11 August and was discharged from the RN on 24 August.[15]

The British responded to the German demand that ‘McBride’ be charged with murder by suggesting that an impartial court of investigation, perhaps comprising United States Navy officers, should be set up to investigate the alleged incidents in four sinkings that occurred close together: E13 on 18 August, the Arabic and U27 on 19 August and the SS Ruel on 21 August.

The 4,029 ton collier Ruel was attacked by a surfaced submarine whilst returning from Gibraltar to Barry Roads in ballast. After a chase lasting an hour and half Ruel’s crew abandoned ship once the U-boat was a mile away. It then fired on her lifeboats, killing one man and wounding eight. The Ruel sank just as the armed trawler Dewsland and the drifter Campania appeared, chasing off the U-boat.[16]

The Germans said in reply to this that they had already investigated the three incidents in which accusations had been made against their navy. They claimed that that E13 was sunk in the final stage of an engagement and noted that British ships had attacked German ships in neutral waters, that Schneider thought that the Arabic was attacking U24 and that the attack on Ruel was in line with the policies that they had introduced in retaliation to the British blockade. They reiterated their demand that the British take action against ‘McBride.’[17]

The British awarded Herbert the Distinguished Service Order but did not say why, a normal security measure when decorations were given to Q-ship crews.

E13 was certainly attacked whilst helpless in neutral waters. The light cruiser SMS Dresden was sunk by the British in Chilean waters, but she had stayed there longer than allowed by international law, which E13 had not.

It is unlikely that the Arabic was trying to ram U24, but Schneider may well have genuinely believed that she was trying to do so.

The Germans may have intended to scuttle the Nicosian. However, Herbert’s claim that all the Germans who managed to swim from U27 to the Nicosian and haul themselves onboard her by ropes were so badly wounded that they soon died is impossible to believe, suggesting that he had something to hide. There are two witnesses that he told his marines to take no prisoners. Curran was an Irish-American who may have been prejudiced against the British.[18] Palen, however, was born in Canada.[19]

There was no justification for the Germans continuing to fire on the crew of the Ruel after they had abandoned ship.

The allegations made by both UK and Germany against the other would therefore appear to be justified, but there was little hope of either side admitting to this in the midst of a war in which the level of violence and ruthlessness was increasing. The first successful use of poison gas was by the Germans at Ypres on 22 April: the French had earlier made limited use of tear gas and a German attempt to use gas on the Eastern Front in January had failed because it did not work in temperatures below zero.[20] The first raid on London by an airship took place on 31 May, killing five people and injuring 35.[21]

The blockades imposed by Germany and the UK both aimed to starve the enemy. Diplomatically, the big difference Germans was that killed Americans as well as British.

The USA sent Germany a series of strong diplomatic notes after the sinkings of the Lusitania and the Arabic. On 27 August Kaiser Wilhelm II accepted the view of his Chancellor, Theodore von Bethman-Hollweg, that passenger ships, even enemy ones, should not be sunk without warning. Three days later the order was amended to included ‘small passenger steamers’, without defining what this meant.[22]

The naval high command objected, Grosse Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the State Secretary of the Imperial Naval Office, and Admiral Hugo von Pohl, Commander-in-Chief of the High Seas Fleet, both offered their resignations, which were rejected. Pohl argued that the 30 August order meant that U-boats would have to examine ships before attacking them in case they carried passengers, making it impossible to conduct submarine warfare against commerce.[23] Tirpitz was told that he would no longer be needed at ‘consultations on naval questions connected with foreign politics.’[24]

Vize Admiral Gustav von Bachmann was removed as Chief of the Naval staff. On 18 September his replacement, Admiral Henning von Holtzendorf, announced that U-boats would be withdrawn from the west coast of the UK and the English Channel. The minelaying UC-boats based in Flanders and some U-boats continued to operate in the North Sea, but the latter were required to follow prize rules . Others were sent to the Mediterranean, where they could attack Allied commerce and communications with much less risk of sinking American ships or killing Americans. The transfer of boats to the Mediterranean and the need to repair others meant that only four would have been available for use west of the UK.[25]

On the night of 4 September the passenger liner Hesperian, bound from Liverpool to Canada, suffered an explosion 125 miles south west of Queenstown. The Germans insisted that she had struck a mine, but fragments of a torpedo were found on Hesperian before she sank. Kapitänleutnant Walter Schweiger’s U20, which had sunk the Lusitania, was in the area.[26] It is unlikely that the Germans would have mined an area in which their submarines were operating..

The last U-boat patrol to the south west of the UK was carried out by U41, which sailed on 14 September. She sank three British ships on 23 September. The next day she stopped and sank the liner Urbino. Another ship then appeared, which U41 approached and ordered to stop. She was HMS Baralong, now captained by Lieutenant-Commander A. Wilmot-Smith. She opened fire and quickly sank U41, before picking up the crew of the Urbino and the two survivors from the U-boat.[27] One of them, Oberleutnant Iwan Crompton, was later repatriated to Germany because of the severity of his wounds. He claimed that Baralong had been flying the US flag when she opened fire, which the British denied.[28]

The switch of U-boats to the Mediterranean did not prevent them killing Americans. On 7 November U38, a German boat that was flying Austro-Hungarian colours because Germany and Italy were not yet at war, sank the Italian liner Ancona off Bizerte, killing over 200 people, including about 20 Americans.[29]

From the outbreak of war to the start of unrestricted submarine warfare on 28 February 1915 U-boats sank 13 merchant ships with a total tonnage of 23,490 tons. From March to September they sank 431 ships of 677,184 tons.[30] New construction and seizure of enemy shipping meant that the British merchant fleet actually increased in size in the first year of the war. Construction, however, began to fall as shipyards switched to naval construction and repair work and shipyard workers joined the armed forces. At the same time, overseas campaigns increased the demand for shipping.[31]

Five U-boats were lost in 1914, two in January 1915 and 15 from March to September 1915.[32] New construction, meant that Germany had 46 boats at the end of September, but 15 of them were UB coastal boats and 14 were UC coastal minelayers. Only 17 were ocean going, compared with all 26 available at the start of the year. These figures exclude U25, which had been damaged too badly to return to active service, the obsolete U1-4 and U66-70, built in Germany, originally for Austria-Hungary, and then undergoing trials.[33]

The U-boats had shown that they were a potentially deadly weapon. The numbers available in 1915 could not, however, do enough damage to Allied shipping to balance the harm that they did to German relations with the USA.

[1] The last two paragraphs are based on J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, pp. 135-36.

[2] Ibid., p. 131.

[3] Ibid; C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade., 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1920). vol. ii, p. 103; A. S. Hurd, The Merchant Navy, 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1921). vol. ii, p. 25.

[4] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xiv, Home Waters part v, July 1915 to October 1915. pp. 81-82.

[5] PP, Further Correspondence with the German Government Respecting the Incidents Alleged to Have Attended the Sinking of a German Submarine and Its Crew by His Majesty’s Auxillary Cruiser “Baralong” on August 19, 1915, HMSO 1916 [Cd. 8176]. p. 4; Memorandum of the German Government in Regard to Incidents Alleged to Have Attended the Destruction of a German Submarine and Its Crew by His Majesty’s Auxiliary Cruiser “Baralong” on August 19th, 1915 and Reply of His Majesty’s Government Thereto’, January 1916, HMSO 1916 [Cd. 8144]. p. 16.

[6] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 301.

[7] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), pp. 21-22.

[8] Ibid., p. 23.

[9] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. ‘Appendix N, Report from M.F.A. Baralong’, p. 229,

[10] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 24-27.

[11] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. pp. 229-30.

[12] PP, Cd. 8144. pp. 1-4.

[13] Ibid., p. 11.

[14] Ibid., p. 8.

[15] Bridgland, Sea Killers, p. 37.

[16] Hurd, Merchant. vol. ii, pp. 33-34.

[17] PP, Cd. 8176.

[18] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 26, 36.

[19] PP, Cd. 8144. p. 6.

[20] H. H. Herwig, The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914-1918 (London: Arnold, 1997), pp. 135, 168-69.

[21] W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). vol. iii, pp. 97-98.

[22] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. p. 173.

[23] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 141

[24] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. p. 173.

[25] Halpern, Naval, p. 302.

[26] Naval Staff vol. Xiv. p. 175.

[27] Ibid., pp. 176-77.

[28] Bridgland, Sea Killers, pp. 51-54.

[29] Halpern, Naval, p. 385.

[30] V. E. Tarrant, The U-Boat Offensive, 1914-1945 (London: Arms and Armour, 1989), pp. 152-53.

[31] Halpern, Naval, p. 303.

[32] Tarrant, U-Boat, p. 24.

[33] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), pp. 63-64.


Filed under War History

The First Sinking of a U-Boat by a Q-Ship

The Royal Navy, faced with increasing losses of merchant ships to U-boats, came up with the idea of using decoy ships to trap German submarines. They were eventually known as Q-ships after Queenstown, now Cobh, in Ireland, where many of them were based.

Early war U-boats carried only around six torpedoes, so their captains preferred to surface and sink smaller merchant ships by gunfire. A Q-ship would give the impression of being an innocuous tramp steamer. Her armament would be hidden inside false deck houses or lifeboats or on swivel mountings that could appear when needed. Most of her crew, who were volunteers, would also be concealed, with hidden alleyways and special trap doors allowing them to get to their action stations without being seen. The majority of the crew of a warship are concerned with fighting rather than sailing her, so Q-Ships had far larger crews than they would have had as merchantmen. The collier Loderer had a crew of about six officers and 25 men in merchant service and 11 officers and 56 men after being converted to the Q ship HMS Farnborough.[1]

The first Q-ship to see action was HMS Prince Charles, a 373 ton collier that was given an armament of two 6 pounder guns, two 3 pounders and a number of rifles. Her civilian crew of Captain F. N. Maxwell and Chief Engineer Anderson and nine other men volunteered to remain on board. Lieutenant William Mark-Wardlaw RN was given command, with the crew being completed by Lieutenant J. G. Spencer RNR, two RN petty officers and nine RN ratings.[2]

Prince Charles was a civilian ship under charter to the RN and based at Scapa Flow. The terms of her charter allowed her to defend herself. Mark-Wardlaw’s orders of 20 July 1915 from Admiral Sir Stanley Colville included the following clauses (the earlier ones describing the area in which he was to operate have been omitted):

  1. ‘The object of the cruise is to use the Prince Charles as a decoy, so that an enemy submarine should attack her with gun fire. It is not considered probable, owing to her small size, that a torpedo would be wasted on her.

  2. In view of this, I wish to impress you to strictly observe the role of decoy. If an enemy’s submarine is sighted make every effort to escape, if she closes and fires, immediately stop your engines, and with the ship’s company (except the guns’ crews, who should most carefully be kept out of sight behind the bulwarks alongside their gun, and one engineer at the engines) commence to abandon ship. It is very important, if you can do so, to try and place your ship so th a t the enemy approaches you from the beam.

  3. Allow the submarine to come as close as possible, and then open fire by order on whistle, hoisting your colours (red ensign).

  4. It is quite possible that a submarine may be observing you through her periscope unseen by you, and therefore on no account should the guns crews on watch be standing about near their guns.

  5. If by luck you should succeed in sinking a submarine, on no account are you to allow the information to leak out of your ship, the strictest precautions are to be taken on arrival in a harbour, or meeting a ship at sea, that none of the officers or men give away the information.’[3]

Prince Charles left Scapa Flow at 8:00 pm on 21 July. In the early hours of 24 July she encountered a merchant ship stopped near a surfaced submarine 10 miles WNW of Rona. Mark-Wardlaw’s report stated that:

‘Shortly after this the submarine was observed to start her oil engine and proceed towards us at full speed. I then hoisted my ensign. At about 7.5 p.m., submarine being about 3 miles distant, 5 points on the port bow, she fired a shot which pitched about 1,000 yards over.

I then stopped engines, put ship’s head to swell from NNW, blew three blasts, and boat’s crews were ordered to get boats out.

All this time the submarine was coming very fast towards us (20 knots) and at 7.10 she fired a second shot which went between funnel and foremast and landed 50 yards over.

The submarine then turned so as to bring her broadside to us at about 600 yards, and as the submarine continued to fire and seeing that the range could not close any more, I opened fire with both port guns.

Directly I opened fire the gun’s crew of the submarine deserted their gun and entered conning tower and she apparently attempted to dive.’[4]

The submarine, which was U36, was struck by a shell as she dived. She came back up, turning. Prince Charles closed to 300 yards and continued to fire, scoring several hits. U36’s crew abandoned ship, with 15 out of 33 men, including her captain, Kapitänleutnant Ernst Graeff, being saved by the British.[5]

The steamer that had been near U36 when Prince Charles came upon them was Danish. Mark-Wardlaw suspected that she had been supplying the U-boat, so ordered her to follow him to port for inspection. The Danes turned out to be pro-British and delighted at the outcome of the action. They agreed to keep quiet about it and were released. [6]

­U36 had sunk a Norwegian sailing ship and steamer, a French steamer, a Russian steamer and nine British trawlers during her cruise. She had also fired on but missed the armed merchant cruiser HMS Columbella and captured the US sailing ship Pass of Belhama, which was sent to Cuxhaven with her cargo of cotton. She later became the German commerce raider Seeadler, like Prince Charles an apparently innocuous vessel with a concealed armament.[7]


[1] T. Bridgland, Sea Killers in Disguise: The Story of the Q Ships and Decoy Ships in the First World War (London: Leo Cooper, 1999), pp. 14-15.

[2] Ibid., pp. 8-9.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1926 vol. xiv, Home Waters part v, July 1915 to October 1915. Appendix J, p. 220.

[4] Ibid., p. 37.

[5] Ibid., p. 38.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., pp. 38-40.


Filed under War History

The First Aerial Torpedo Attack on a Ship

The first ship to be torpedoed by an aircraft was an Ottoman steamer supplying troops during the Gallipoli Campaign. On 12 August 1915 a Short 184 seaplane flown by Flight Commander Charles Edmonds took off from the seaplane carrier HMS Ben-my-Chree in the Gulf of Xeros carrying a 14 inch torpedo.

He spotted a merchant ship and dropped his torpedo from an altitude of 15 feet and a range of 300 yards. It struck the ship abreast the mainmast, sending up a large amount of debris and water. Edmonds saw that the steamer was settling by the stern. It was subsequently discovered that the ship had been beach four days earlier after being torpedoed and shelled by the submarine HMS E14, captained by Lieutenant-Commander Edward Boyle VC.

Edmonds torpedoed another enemy ship 5 days later when he launched a torpedo from an altitude of 15-20 feet and a range of 800 yards that struck one of three Ottoman steamer bringing supplies and reinforcements to Gallipoli. The ship caught fire and had to be towed to Istanbul.

On the same day Flight Lieutenant G. B. Dacre was forced to land on the sea near an enemy hospital ship by engine trouble. He persuaded the ship that he was a friend with a wave. His engine was working well enough to taxi, so he headed off on the surface. He spotted and approached a large steam tug, fired his torpedo and scored a hit. He came under rifle fire, but was able to take off after a two mile run, returning to Ben-my-Chree. The tug sank.

During the Gallipoli Campaign, Royal Naval Air Service aircraft made 70 attacks on enemy ships with torpedoes and bombs. These helped the attempts by submarines to shut down Ottoman seaborne supplies to Gallipoli. The main problem was that the Short 184 seaplane could only take off with a torpedo if conditions were ideal: a calm sea with a slight breeze and an engine that was in perfect working order. Even then, they could carry enough fuel for only a 45 minute flight when armed with a torpedo.[1] The performance figures quoted in the Wikipedia page linked in the first paragraph are for a later model with a 260 horse power engine. Ben-my-Chree carried the first Short 184s built.[2]

R. D. Layman points out in his history of Naval Aviation in the First World War that it is impossible to indentify the Ottoman ships involved or to be sure of how badly damaged they were because no accurate list of all Ottoman merchant ships sunk during the war is available.[3] It appears from the British reports, however, that all three ships were attacked and at least damaged.

HMS Ben-my-Chree belonged to the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company before the war: her name means Woman of My Heart in Manx. She was requisitioned by the Admiralty and converted to a seaplane carrier in 1915. She carried 4 seaplanes and was capable of 24.5 knots, making her the fastest of the merchantmen converted to seaplane carriers by the RN. She was sunk by Ottoman onshore artillery on 11 January 1917.[4]

Edmonds served in the Royal Air Force after the war, rising to the rank of Air Vice Marshal during the Second World War. He had previously been awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his part in the Cuxhaven Raid on 25 December 1914.


[1] The above is based on W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). vol. ii, pp. 64-65.

[2] R. D. Layman, Naval Aviation in the First World War : Its Impact and Influence (London: Chatham, 1996), p. 149.

[3] Ibid., pp. 62-63.

[4] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), p. 68.


Filed under War History

The End of the Last of the Early German Commerce Raiders: SMS Konigsberg

At the outbreak of the First World War eight German cruisers were outside home waters or the Mediterranean. The five ships of Vize Admiral Maximilian Spee’s East Asia Squadron sank the British armoured cruisers HMS Good Hope and Monmouth at the Battle of Coronel on 1 November 1914, but four of them were then sunk at the Falklands on 8 December. The other, SMS Dresden, was destroyed on 14 March 1915. These ships sank or captured a total of 29,826 tons of Allied merchant shipping, 12,927 of it by Dresden and 15,299 by SMS Leipizig.[1]

The two most successful German commerce raiders in the early stages of the war were SMS Emden, which accounted for 82,938 tons of merchant shipping, the Russian cruiser Zhemchug and the French destroyer Mousquet and SMS Karlsruhe, which sank or captured 76,909 tons of merchant shipping. Both were destroyed in early November 1914, Karlsruhe by an accidental internal explosion on the 4th and Emden by HMAS Sydney five days later.

By late November the light cruiser SMS Königsberg was the only one of the eight cruisers still afloat. She had sunk the old light cruiser HMS Pegasus at Zanzibar on 20 September 1914, and had previously sunk the 6,600 ton merchantman City of Winchester. The British then lost trace of her until the light cruiser HMS Chatham captured the German liner Präsident on 25 October. Papers found on board her indicated that Königsberg was in the Rufiji Delta in German East Africa, now Tanzania. [2]

Chatham spotted her masts on 30 October, but locals reported that the creek in that she was in could be mined and was defended by shore batteries and trenches. The waters were shallow, had no navigation marks and a major warship could pass them for only a few hours a day. Consequently, Königsberg was fairly safe from attack but was also trapped, since she could not hope to evade her blockaders.[3]

On 2 November the light cruisers HMS Dartmouth and Weymouth arrived. They tried to fire on Königsberg, her supply ship Somali and the shore positions, but observation was difficult, especially as the German cruiser had removed her top masts and camouflaged herself with foliage. An attack on the Somali by a steam launch carrying two torpedoes on 7 November failed, but Chatham was able to set the Somali on fire, destroying many of the Königsberg’s stores. Three days later the British blocked what was believed to be the only navigable channel out of the Rufiji by scuttling the collier Newbridge in it. The British lost two men killed and nine wounded in this operation.[4]

A seaplane was sent to the Rufiji, locating Königsberg on 22 November; she was out of range of any ships outside the delta. It was damaged, but returned after being repaired with a new hull that allowed it to carry an observer and bombs. A reconnaissance flight on 4 December revealed that there were two other channels that Königsberg might use, as well as the one that had been blocked. Six days later the seaplane was lost after a forced landing. [5]

Dar-es-Salaam was attacked on 28 November in order to destroy merchant vessels that might have supplied Königsberg. Commander Henry Ritchie was awarded the RN’s first Victoria Cross of the war for courage during it.

On 6 February the armed tug Adjutant was lost whilst investigating the entrance to the delta. The British Official History says that she was captured by the Germans and later used on Lake Tanganyika, but the Naval Staff Monograph, an internal Admiralty document, states that it was a different ship of the same name that was captured.[6]

Two Sopwith seaplanes with 100 hp engines and capable of carrying 100 pound bombs were sent out from the UK, but they were not powerful enough for the climactic conditions, one of them crashing on 24 February. Combined operations using marines were considered but rejected.[7]

The Admiralty commenced a formal blockade of the Rufiji on 1 March, meaning that neutral ships should leave, although none were present. The need for refits and redeployments of modern ships meant that the squadron off the Rufiji consisted of HMS Weymouth, the older light cruisers HMS Hyacinth and Pyramus and HMAS Pioneer, the armed merchant cruiser HMS Kinfauns Castle, the armed steamer Dupleix, the armed tug Helmuth and the armed whalers Fly, Pickle, Echo and Childers.[8]

On 6 March Vice Admiral Herbert King-Hall. C.-in-C. of the Cape Station arrived at the Rufiji in the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Goliath to take command. On 24 March Pyramus was sent for a refit. The next day Goliath was ordered to the Dardanelles, where she was later sunk. King-Hall transferred his flag to Hyacinth.[9]

Three more Short seaplanes with 160 hp engines arrived on the armed merchant cruiser HMS Laconia on 20 April. They carried out reconnaissance flights on 25 and 27 April, taking photos of Königsberg and fixing her position. She was, however, too well camouflaged to see whether or not she had landed any of her guns. The seaplanes came under heavy fire at their maximum height in this climate of 800-1,000 feet, so King-Hall decided not to carry out further flights for now. He suggested attacking Königsberg with a torpedo armed launch, but the Admiralty had come up with an alternative plan.[10]

On 28 April the monitors HMS Mersey and Severn left Malta for East Africa, accompanied by the fleet messenger Trent, four tugs and a collier. The monitors were shallow draft vessels designed for river operations and armed with two 6 inch guns. They struggled to make the journey, since they were not designed for the open seas or for the heat of the Red Sea, but they arrived on 3 June after a ‘voyage…as arduous as any in the war.’[11]

King-Hall’s squadron attacked Königsberg on 6 July. Pyramus had by then rejoined and Kinfauns Castle had been replaced by the armed merchant cruiser HMS Laurentic. The cruiser HMS Challenger arrived two days later. An onshore aerodrome had now been set up.[12]

The monitors headed up river at 4:15 am, stopping 10,800 yards from Königsberg at 6:20 am They easily dealt with machine gun and rifle fire and an attempt to launch a torpedo from the shore. They opened fire at 6:48 am, firing alternate salvos with an aeroplane spotting for them, but problems were encountered in receiving the corrections. Königsberg opened fire at 7:00 am, quickly straddling the monitors. Mersey’s captain decided to change her position after she was slightly damaged at 7:30 am, but one of her 6 inch guns was then knocked out. Six of her crew were killed and two wounded. She withdrew a short distance at 7:40 am. In the meantime, the light cruisers were bombarding suspected German positions at the entrances to the delta.[13]

The seaplane found it easier to spot for only one monitor, and Severn began to hit Königsberg from 7:51 am onwards. Mersey returned at 8:10 am, but both monitors then started to miss the target. Severn changed position at 9:15 am, reopening fire at 9:50 am, but the aeroplane had now left because of technical problems. Around this time, Königsberg’s fire became ineffective after an onshore German observation post was found and destroyed. Another aeroplane arrived in the afternoon, but little further damage was done before the British withdrew at 3:30 pm.[14]

The attack was resumed on 11 July, as soon as the monitors and aircraft had been repaired. This time, Mersey would move to the same position as before and open fire with the sole intention of covering Severn’s move to a different position 10,000 yards from Königsberg. The aeroplane would spot only for Severn. If she had not put Königsberg out of action in an hour, Mersey would move to 7,000 yards from the German ship and take over. If this did not work, Severn would advance to 6,000 yards range. Only one monitor would be firing at any one time to ease spotting for the aeroplane.[15]

The monitors were in the entrance by 11:45 am. Mersey’s attempt to distract Königsberg failed, and Severn came under heavy fire. She opened fire from 9,500 yards at 12:31 pm, closing to 8,800 yards after the first five salvos had missed. At 12:42 pm, the eighth salvo hit and hits continued to be scored until 12:49 pm, when shrapnel damage forced the aeroplane to ditch near Severn. Its last signal informed the monitor that all her hits had been in the forward part of the German cruiser. Severn corrected her fire and at 12:52 pm scored a hit that produced a large explosion and dense smoke. The Germans then stopped firing.[16]

Severn continued firing until 1:46 pm, when Mersey was ordered to close to 7,000 yards. As she advanced, Königsberg suffered a number of explosions, presumably an attempt to scuttle her since she was not then under fire. Mersey opened fire at 2:15 pm, with another seaplane spotting. She could not get closer than 8,000 yards and could bring only one gun to bear, but after 15 minutes Königsberg was on fire, listing heavily and had lost a funnel, so the British ceased fire and withdrew. Their only casualties were two men slightly wounded on Mersey.[17]

Königsberg inflicted little damage on Allied shipping, but she was able to tie up a large number of British warships, both in blockading her and in escorting troop convoys before she was found. The survivors of her crew joined the German force under Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck that was successfully conducting guerrilla warfare in East Africa.

The Germans also armed five merchant liners as commerce raiders in 1914. Two were quickly sunk: SMS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse (10,400 tons sunk) by the protected cruiser HMS Highflyer on 26 August 1914 and SMS Cap Trafalgar (no ships sunk) was sunk by the armed merchant cruiser HMS Carmania on 14 September 1914. SMS Cormoran (no ships sunk), short of coal, interned herself at Guam on 14 December 1914. The other two, SMS Prince Eitel Friedrich (33,423 tons sunk) and Kronprinz Wilhelm (60,522 tons sunk), conducted successful cruises before interning themselves in Newport News on 10 March and 11 April 1914 respectively. Both ships urgently needed repairs, Prince Eitel Friedrich was almost out of coal and some of Kronprinz Wilhelm ‘s crew were suffering from beri-beri.[18]

The sinking of Königsberg meant that there were no German commerce raiders at large. The eight warships and five converted merchant liners had sunk a total of 300,318 tons of Allied merchant shipping and five warships. Even adding in ships sunk by submarines and mines and ones interned in enemy ports, the UK lost less than 2.3 per cent of its total merchant shipping and less than 2.6 per cent of steamers of over 1,000 tons from the outbreak of war to 31 January 1915. The Allies sank, captured or interned nearly 15 per cent of the Central Powers’ steam tonnage over the same period.[19]

The main effect of the commerce raiders was that a large number of Allied warships were used to search for them and to escort troop convoys. The main problem for the raiders was coal supply. Their threat would have been greatly reduced if Allied cruisers had been used to convoy trade, especially colliers, instead of hunting for the raiders.[20] A second round of German surface commerce raiding began in early 1916. It used smaller and innocuous looking merchant ships that needed less coal.


[1] Shipping losses are from Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) vol. xxv, ‘Review of German Cruiser Warfare 1914-1918’. p. 1.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 338.

[3] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1921 vol. ii, ‘East Africa to July 1916, Cameroons 1914’. ‘Monograph 10 East Africa to July 1916’, pp. 54-55.

[4] Ibid., pp. 56-60.

[5] Ibid., pp. 61-68.

[6] Ibid. p. 75, footnote 1; Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 288, footnote 2.

[7] Naval Staff vol. ii. pp. 74-75. footnote 2, p. 75.

[8] Ibid., pp. 77-78.

[9] Ibid., pp. 79-82.

[10] Ibid., pp. 92-93.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 64.

[12] Ibid. p. 64, footnote 2.

[13] Naval Staff vol. ii. pp. 96-97.

[14] Ibid., pp. 97-99.

[15] Ibid., pp. 99-100.

[16] Ibid., pp. 100-101.

[17] Ibid., p. 101.

[18] Naval Staff vol. Xxv. pp. 12-13.

[19] C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade., 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1920). vol. i, pp. 384-86.

[20] Naval Staff vol. Xxv. p. 3.


Filed under War History