SMS Seeadler: A First World War Sailing Warship

The wreck of the German First World War commerce raider Seeadler was recently discovered strewn across the Mopelia atoll, almost 300 miles west of Tahiti in French Polynesia. The link below from The Times above includes pictures of the wreck

SMS Seeadler was one of the last sail powered warships. She was built in Glasgow as the merchantmen Pass of Belhama and was US owned and registered by August 1915, when she was captured by the U-boat U36. She was flying British colours at the time of her capture as a British cruiser had stopped her on suspicion of carrying contrabrand and put aboard a prize crew to take her to a British port.

U36 was later sunk by the British Q-ship Prince Charles, making her the first U-boat to be sunk by a Q-ship, an apparently innocuous merchant ship that carried a concealed armament.

The Germans also gave merchant ships hidden weapons, in their case to act as commerce raiders. Pass of Belhama was chosen to be one such ship. She was renamed SMS Seeadler and given a concealed armament of two 105mm guns, two machines guns and two torpedo tubes.

She was also fitted with accommodation for prisoners, including a library of English and French books, an auxiliary engine that meant that she was not dependent solely on the wind for propulsion, oil tanks holding 40 tons of oil and large fresh water tanks.[1]

Kapitänleutnant Felix Graf von Luckner was appointed her captain. He had refused to follow his father into the cavalry and served on a number of sailing merchant ships before joining the German navy. One of them was Norwegian and he spoke fluent Norwegian.[2]

Seeadler was disguised as the Norwegian ship Irma. Her deck machinery, thermometers, barometers and compasses bore the names of Norwegian companies. Her crew included  another 23 Norwegian speakers. They were given cover stories that included love letters in Norwegian and family photos stamped with the names of Norwegian photographers. They were required them to become experts on their alleged home towns by reading about them in Bäedeker’s tourist guide.[3]

Seeadler sailed on 21 December 1916 and on Christmas Day she was stopped between by a British armed merchant cruiser between the Faeroes and Iceland. All of the crew except the Norwegian speakers stayed below, heavily armed. The boarding officers were satisfied that the Seeadler was the Norwegian Irma but their boat had problems getting clear and they almost saw the screw of the auxiliary engine, which was not mentioned in her papers. Von Luckner, however, avoided this be distracting them with a rope.[4]

Seeadler’s sails gave her a wide radius of action. She headed into the Atlantic and captured two steamers off the Azores before heading to the South Atlantic, where her mission was to attack the sailing trade.[5]

On 28 July 1917, Seeadler anchored outside the narrow entrance to a lagoon at the uninhabited island of Mopeha. The crew were showing signs of scurvy and plenty of coconuts and turtles were available there. The crew camped ashore. On 2 August a sea storm started suddenly, wrecking Seeadler.[6]

According to The Times, von Luckner blamed this on a tsunami but Seeadler’s logbook and the position of her anchor and other parts of the ship show that she had been poorly anchored when the crew went ashore.

Two boats, provisions, firearms and enough canvas and spars to construct shelters for the crew were saved. Von Luckner then set off with three officers and two seaman with the intention of capturing a schooner and returning for the rest of his crew.

Von Luckner managed to persuade the British Chief Resident on Atiu in the Cook Islands that he and his men were Dutch Americans and obtained fresh fruit and provisions. They then sailed westwards. At their next stop, Aituaki, the inhabitants saw through them, but were unarmed so the Germans continued to Wakaya, where they were arrested by the police.[7]

Von Luckner was first imprisoned at Suva, then transferred to New Zealand, where he was held with interned Germans from Samoa on the island of Motuihi. He led an escape, initially using the commandant’s launch before capturing a schooner and reaching the Kermadec Islands, where they were recaptured by the cable steamer Iris. He was then held more securely but continued to plot escape attempts.[8]

The remainder of the crew, led by Leutnant Kling,  managed to capture a small French schooner, which they sailed to Easter Island. They were captured by a Chilean cruiser and interned as belligerents who had taken refuge in neutral territory.[9]

Seeadler  captured or sank three British and one French steamers with an aggregate tonnage of 12,000 tons gross and 12 sailing ships, four of them British, with a tonnage totalling just under 18,000 tons. This includes the schooner captured by Kling and his men. The British official history of the trade war at sea says that this ‘was a creditable record for a ship of her class but had little significance in relation to the volume of Allied trade.’[10]

According to The Times, Seeadler was responsible for the death of only one enemy sailor, a 16 year old member of the crew of the French barque Horngarth, who was accidentally struck by a warning shot.= fired by Seeadler,

There was also only one death amongst Seeadler’s crew: a dachshund called Schnäutchen who apparently had a heart attack after meeting a hermit crab. Schnäutchen probably combined the roles of ship’s mascot and rodent controller.


Bridgland, Tony. Sea Killers in Disguise. Barnsley: Leo Cooper, 1999.

Fayle, G. Ernest. Seaborne Trade. London: HMSO, 1920.

Newbolt, Henry. Naval Operations. Vol. iv. v vols. London: HMSO, 1928.

[1] Henry Newbolt. Naval Operations. Vol. iv. v vols. London: HMSO, 1928, p.195.

 [2] Tony Bridgland. Sea Killers in Disguise. Barnsley: Leo Cooper, 1999, pp. 246-47.

[3] Newbolt, p. 196.

[4] Newbolt. p 204.

[5] G. Ernest Fayle. Seaborne Trade. London: HMSO, 1920, p. 29.

[6] Newbolt, p. 204.

[7]  Newbolt, p. 204.

[8] Newbolt, p. 204-5.

[9] Newbolt, p. 205.

[10] Fayle, p. 144.


1 Comment

Filed under War History

One response to “SMS Seeadler: A First World War Sailing Warship

  1. Excellent post. Thank you.

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