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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

The Sinking of SMS Dresden 14 March 1915

The light cruiser SMS Dresden was the only German ship of Vizeadmiral Maximilian Graf von Spee’s East Asia Squadron to escape the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914. The British force that hunted for her initially comprised two battlecruisers and 10 cruisers, but was reduced to four cruisers and an armed merchant cruiser after about a fortnight.

Dresden managed to evade the British ships for three months, hiding in the many inlets and bays of Tierra del Fuego. She kept in touch with Puntas Arenas by motor boat. Mr Milward, the British consul there, wrote an accurate report about Dresden’s whereabouts. However, Rear Admiral Archibald Stoddart, commanding the Royal Navy’s South Atlantic and Pacific Stations, thought that Milward had been misled by a German plan to trick British ships into a remote area in order to permit Dresden to escape.[1]

The Naval Staff Monograph vol. xxv, a British Admiralty publication written post war for internal use, attributes the failure to find her as being because ‘the intelligence organisation, centred in London and Montevideo…proved defective.’[2]

The Admiralty was convinced that she was hiding on the almost inaccessible Last Hope Inlet, a notion that seems to have resulted from German disinformation. The light cruisers HMS Bristol and Glasgow were sent there to await the arrival of the armoured cruiser HMS Kent. This allowed Dresden to enter the Pacific on 14 February 1915.

Glasgow, Bristol and the armed merchant cruiser HMS Orama were ordered back to Last Hope Inlet on 3 March after a report that there had been a light cruiser there, although Captain John Luce of Glasgow realised that this was a sighting of his own ship on her previous visit.[3]

An intercepted signal then revealed the location of a rendezvous between the German collier Gotha and Dresden. Kent was ordered there on 7 March and spotted Dresden. She saw nothing that day, but waited. The next morning was foggy, but the fog lifted in the afternoon to reveal Dresden 12 miles away, Kent pursued her, but was still eight miles from her when night fell. Kent was too short of coal to continue the chase.[4]

Luce, whose ship was coaling at Coronel, had decided to search the island of Más a Fuera in the Juan Fernandez Islands with Glasgow and Orama. Bristol was under repair after damaging her rudder at Last Hope Inlet. An intercepted signal then revealed that Dresden was at Más a Tierra, the main island of the group. Kent was then ordered to join Glasgow and Orama there on 14 March.[5]

The British ships found Dresden in Cumberland Bay. She was under steam, showing that she was not interned but intended to flee. The British opened fire at 8,400 yards and Dresden appeared to lower her colours after three minutes, although Fritz Lüdecke, her captain, claimed that they had been shot away and were re-hoisted. The British ceased fire and the Germans sent a boat carrying a flag of truce. The officer in charge of it, Leutnant Wilhelm Canaris, claimed that Dresden had been interned, which Luce rejected.

Another boat then approached Glasgow. It was carrying the local marine governor, who was also the lighthouse keeper. He protested the British action, but admitted that he had no means of forcing Dresden to leave Chilean waters. Luce offered compensation for the damage done to Chilean property by the British fire. In the meantime, Lüdecke had scuttled his ship by blowing up her forward magazine.[6] Nine Germans were killed and fifteen wounded.[7]

The survivors were interned, but Canaris managed to get back to Germany. He captained a U-boat and later rose to the rank of Admiral, becoming head of the Abwehr, German military intelligence. He was executed near the end of World War II because he had conspired against Adolf Hitler.

Another survivor of Dresden was a pig: warships then sometimes carried animals in order to provide fresh meat. He was rescued from the sea by HMS Glasgow, whose crew adopted him as a mascot and named him Tirpitz after the German admiral. He later transferred to the Naval Gunnery School at Whale Island, Portsmouth, before being auctioned to raise money for the Red Cross. His head was mounted after his death and presented to the Imperial War Museum.

Both sides had breached Chilean neutrality, the Germans by staying for five days rather than 24 hours and the British by opening fire.[8] The Chileans protested to both. The British apologised quickly, but noted that Dresden was hiding in an area where Chile had no means of enforcing its neutrality. The Germans took six months to reply. The British Official History argues that this meant that the action ‘rather increased the sympathy of the Chileans for the Allied cause as against that of the Central Powers.’[9]

Dresden captured a total of 12,927 tons of Allied merchant shipping during her cruise. Her destruction meant that the only German surface raider still at sea was the armed merchant cruisers Kronprinz Wilhelm, which would be interned at Newport News in the USA on 11 April 1915. The armed merchant cruiser Prinz Eitel Friedrich had been interned in the same port on 10 March 1915.

However, the Allies did not yet know that the light cruiser SMS Karlsruhe had been destroyed by an accidental explosion on 4 November 1915. The light cruiser SMS Königsberg was blockaded in the Rufiji River in German East Africa, now Tanzania.



[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol ii, pp. 243-44.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  vol. xxv, ‘Review of German Cruiser Warfare 1914-1918’. p. 6.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 248-49.

[5] Naval Staff vol. xxv. p. 6; Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 249

[6] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, pp. 249-51 and footnote on p. 250.

[7] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 285.

[8] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 100.

[9] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. ii, p. 251.


Filed under War History

The Cruise of SMS Emden

On 14 August 1914 Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee detached Fregattenkapitän Karl von Müller’s light cruiser SMS Emden (3,664 tons, 23.5 knots, 10 x 4.1 inch and 8 x 2 inch guns, 2 x 17.7 inch torpedo tubes) and the supply ship Markomannia from his East Asia Squadron to operate in the Indian Ocean.[1] Spee wrote in his war diary that:

A single light cruiser, which consumes far less coal and can, if necessary, coal from captured steamships, will be able to maintain herself longer than the whole Squadron in the Indian Ocean, and as there are great prizes to be won there (Indian, East Asiatic and Australian shipping), it seems advisable to despatch our fastest light cruiser, the Emden, with our best collier. She can subsequently proceed to the African coast, or should Holland remain neutral, to the Netherland East Indies.[2]

However, the Dutch decided to ‘rigorously enforce their neutrality.’[3] On 27 August the Dutch coast defence ship Tromp ordered Emden to stay out of Dutch territorial waters. She had earlier sent away a German collier that had stayed too long in Dutch waters. This meant that the Germans had to abandon their pre-war plan that supply ships should wait for orders in neutral waters. Emden’s coal bunkers had a capacity of 790 tons. She might carry up to 1,000 tons, but her combat efficiency and the crew’s living conditions would be adversely affected by the need to store coal wherever space could be found. At her most economical cruising speed of 12 knots she consumed 60 tons of coal an hour. At the maximum speed that she managed on trials of 23.85 knots she used 371 tons per hour. Thus, with a normal coal load, she had an endurance of just over 13 days and a range of just under 3,800 miles at 12 knots. She could maintain full speed for about 50 hours and 1200 miles.[4] Müller used the following tactics when attempting to capture a merchantman: The commerce raider should not show its colours until the last moment; it should raise the signals “Stop” and Do not use your wireless” along with its ensign; as little use as was possible should be made of searchlights; and the raider should take up a position that made it impossible for it to be rammed by the merchant ship. He also recommended that cruisers employed as commerce raiders should have larger than normal crews in order to be able to provide prize crews for colliers and guards for prisoners. Secrecy was vital for a commerce raider, but the disappearance of merchant ships and reports from neutral ships would mean that the enemy would discover the cruiser’s operating area. Consequently, delaying landing prisoners at ports would help preserve secrecy only if the cruiser had not stopped any neutral ships or if it was operating a long way from enemy signal stations or ports.[5] Emden’s appearance on the Colombo to Calcutta route in the Bay of Bengal surprised the British. They had returned to peacetime procedures, as they had not realised that Spee had detached one of his cruisers. Consequently, her early victims assumed that she was a British cruiser. Müller encouraged this by having a fake fourth funnel rigged. British light cruisers had two or four funnels, whereas Emden had three.[6] Emden coaled at Simular Island off Sumatra on 5 September, narrowly missing the armoured cruiser HMS Hampshire, which had searched there the day before.

On 10 September, Emden stopped a neutral ship, the Greek Pontoporos, whose cargo of coal was British, making her a legitimate target. Müller kept her as a collier. Emden had captured five British ships by 13 September. One, the Kabinga, had a US cargo, so was retained as a prison ship. The other four were sunk. The next ship intercepted by Emden was another neutral, the Italian Loredano. Her master, Captain Giacopolo, refused to take Emden’s prisoners on board on the grounds that his ship had insufficient provisions. Müller allowed her to go. She did not have a wireless, but the next day met and warned the City of Rangoon, a new ship carrying a cargo worth £600,000, which did have a wireless.[7] This led to a suspension of trade, which meant that several ships that would probably have been caught by Emden remained in Calcutta: she was then very close to that port. She did, however, capture and sink another merchantman that had already sailed. Müller now decided to change his area of operations. He first sent the Kabinga to Calcutta (now Kolkata), with his prisoners, before heading for the coast of Burma (now Myanmar). On the way, Emden captured and sunk another British ship, transferring her crew to a Norwegian ship on 16 September Müller’s next move, after coaling, was to attack Madras (now Chennai) after dark on 22 September. Some damage was caused to the steamer Chupra and to the town, but the main damage caused by the attack was the destruction of 425,000 gallons of oil in the Burmah Oil Company’s tanks. It also led to an interruption of trade in the Bay of Bengal at 2 am on 23 September, only 18 hours after the previous suspension had been lifted, and to alarm in Madras and the surrounding area. Five people were killed and a dozen wounded.[8] Between 25 and 27 September Emden took six prizes in the area of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Three were in ballast, but the Admiralty collier Buresk carried 6,000 tons of Welsh steam coal, the best coal in the world for naval use. Buresk was retained as a collier, four of the ships were sunk and the sixth sent to Colombo with the prisoners.[9] Emden then coaled in the Maldives, before arriving at Diego Garcia on 9 October to carry out repairs. Diego Garcia is still British territory and is now a major US base, but it was then so remote that its inhabitants had not learnt of the war. However, on 12 October the light cruiser HMS Yarmouth sank the Markomannia and removed the Pontoporos from German control. Müller next took his ship back to Ceylon, capturing seven merchantmen from 16 to 19 October. Five were sunk and another sent to port with the prisoners. The sixth, the Exford, was retained as she was another Admiralty collier carrying 6,000 tons of Welsh tons.[10] On 21 October Emden passed within 10-20 miles of Hampshire and the armed merchant cruiser HMS Empress of Asia, but the ships did not see each other because of poor visibility. At 5:00 am on 28 October, Emden entered Penang, which had no fixed defences, but was defended by three French destroyers and a torpedo boat. The Russian protected cruiser Zhemchug was also present (3,103 tons, 24.5 knots, 8 x 4.7 inch and 4 x 1.9 inch guns, 4 x 18 inch torpedo tubes): she was smaller than Emden, but not hugely outclassed.[11] Emden was initially assumed to be a British cruiser and did not raise German colours until she was three quarters of a mile from the Zhemchug. Emden then fired a torpedo at her, closed to 800 yards and opened fire.

The Allied ships were caught unprepared. Emden sailed passed the French ships, turned and fired another torpedo into the Zhemchug, which sank 15 minutes after the start of the action. 91 of her crew of 340 were killed and 108 wounded. Emden tried to capture the steamer Glenturret, which was waiting for a pilot and was flying a flag that indicated that she was carrying explosives. However, the French destroyer Mousquet then returned from patrol. She was quickly overwhelmed by Emden and sank in seven minutes. The Germans picked up the French survivors, but then left, as the other French destroyers had now been alerted. Müller learnt from his prisoners that he had lost Pontoporos before he put them onto a merchant ship that he captured soon after leaving Penang. On 1 November a large convoy carrying Australian and New Zealand troops to Egypt left King George Sound, Albany, Western Australia. It was escorted by the Japanese battlecruiser Ibuki (14,636 tons, 21.5 knots, 4 x 12 inch, 8 x 8 inch, 14 x 4.7 inch and 4 x 3.1 inch guns, 3 x 18 inch torpedo tubes), the British armoured cruiser HMS Minotaur (14,600 tons, 23.1 knots, 4 x 9.2 inch, 10 x 7.5 inch and 16 x 12 pounder guns, 5 x 18 inch torpedo tubes) and the Australian light cruisers HMAS Melbourne and Sydney (each 5,400 tons, 25.5 knots, 8 x 6 inch and 4 x 3 pounder guns, 2 x 21 inch torpedo tubes).[12] On 8 November Minotaur received an order to join the Cape Squadron in South Africa in place of the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Goliath, which had suffered mechanical problems. The Admiralty by then knew that Spee’s squadron was in the south Pacific, so the only threats to the Australasian Convoy were Emden and Königsberg. That day Emden and Buresk were meeting Exford 40 miles north of the Cocos Islands. The next day Emden appeared at Direction Island, landing about 50 men under Kapitänleutenant Hellmuth von Mücke to destroy the wireless station.[13] However, the fourth funnel had been poorly rigged, so the wireless station personnel realised that Emden was German and sent a warning. The convoy was 55 miles north of the Cocos just before 7:00 am when it received the warning. Captain M. L. Silver of Melbourne, the escort commander, was not allowed to detach his own ship, and decided that his must retain his most powerful one, Ibuki, in case the two German cruisers combined to attack the convoy. He therefore sent Sydney to the Cocos. On the morning of 9 November Emden saw smoke, which was assumed to be the Buresk. However, it soon became clear that it came from a four funnelled cruiser. She was Sydney, One of Emden’s officers assumed initially that she was either HMS Newcastle or Yarmouth, which both operated in the area. He later wrote that he was ‘pleased’ about this, which is rather puzzling.[14] Yarmouth was as strong as Sydney and Newcastle outgunned Emden, though not overwhelmingly (4,800 tons, 25 knots, 2 x 6 inch, 10 x 4 inch guns, 4 x 3 pounder guns, 2 x 18 inch torpedo tubes). Müller thought that she was Newcastle.[15] Müller ordered his ship to raise steam. There was not time to recover the landing party, and Emden left the lagoon entrance at 9:17 am. Müller wanted space in which to manoeuvre. Emden opened fire at 9:40 am at a range of 9.500 yards and soon scored hits, but her 4.1 inch guns could do little damage at that range.[16] Sydney initially over estimated the range, so did not hit until her 12th round.[17] Her actual speed advantage was more like 4 knots than the theoretical 2 knots, so her captain, John Glossop, was able to keep his ship out of the Emden’s effective range whilst causing heavy damage to the German cruiser. Early in the action, Emden lost her forward funnel and her steering gear, forcing her to steer with her engines. Sydney closed to 5,500 yards in order to launch a torpedo, which missed. She then opened the range. Müller tried a torpedo attack but could not get close enough By 10:20 am Emden had lost all three funnels and both her fire control positions. She was holed both fore and aft and the amount of smoke coming from her led Sydney to think briefly that she had sunk. The unequal action continued until 11:20 am, when it became obvious that Emden was sinking. She ran herself aground on the reef of North Keeling Island. Sydney then headed off in pursuit of Buresk. A prize crew boarded her, but the Germans had already opened her scuttles, and she was sinking. Sydney then returned to North Keeling Island and at 4:00 pm started firing on Emden, which was still flying her ensign because the lines that were used to raise and lower it had been shot away. Müller ordered his crew to abandon ship, but many were drowned as they tried to swim ashore. Sydney ceased fire after a white flag was shown and Seaman Werner climbed the mast to lower the ensign.[18] This was the Royal Australian Navy’s first victory over a warship. Müller was unhappy that Sydney fired on a helpless ship.[19] However, there were plenty of examples of both sides in this war carrying on firing on enemy ships until they struck their colours, including SMS Nürnberg on HMS Monmouth at Coronel eight days before.[20] Sydney then returned to Direction Island with the intention of capturing the landing party, first picking up the survivors of Emden who were in the water. When she reached the station, the landing party had sailed away in the proprietor’s schooner, Ayesha. The schooner became SMS Ayesha and managed to reach Arabia, then part of the Ottoman Empire. One man died of typhus and others were killed in skirmishes with Bedouin tribesmen. The 49 survivors travelled by the Hejaz Railway to Constantinople, where on 23 May 1915 they were welcomed by the German commander of the Ottoman fleet, Admiral Wilhelm Souchon. They were the only men from Germany’s two German and six light cruisers outside European waters at the outbreak of war to reach friendly territory with colours flying. [21] On 10 November Sydney returned to North Keeling Island to rescue Emden’s survivors. 134 of her crew had been killed in the battle and four of the 66 wounded prisoners died of their wounds. 145 men were captured unwounded. Sydney had four men killed and 122 wounded.[22] More of Emden’s crew were captured when Sydney boarded Buresk and when HMS Himalaya re-captured the Exford in December. Sydney lost four men killed and 12 wounded. Müller was much admired by both sides. Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, ordered that:

‘The captain, officers and crew of the Emden have earned the most honourable treatment possible under the rules of war. If there are no incidents that would preclude otherwise, the captain and his officers may retain their daggers.’[23]

This was equivalent to allowing army officers to keep their swords, but the daggers had been lost with the ship. The Official History of the RN in WWI praised Müller for his ‘skill, resource and boldness…and for the chivalry and humanity with which his duty had been discharged.’[24] Emden was one of only two German warships in WWI whose entire crew were awarded the Iron Cross Second Class, the other being the submarine U9. Müller was awarded Germany’s highest decoration, the Pour le Mérite, popularly known as the Blue Max, in 1918. By then, the British had allowed him to go first to the Netherlands and then back to Germany on the grounds of poor health. He had previously been awarded the Iron Cross First Class, but this medal had become more common since 1914, so a higher award was by 1918 thought to be more appropriate. Emden was the most successful of the German cruisers employed as commerce raiders. She destroyed 16 merchantmen with a total tonnage of 82,938 tons, and also sank two Allied warships. This was not greatly superior to the 76,609 tons of merchant shipping destroyed by Karlsruhe, but Emden caused far more disruption to British trade. Karlsruhe operated off the north east coast of Brazil and did not cost the British much more than the value of the ships that she sank. Emden caused trade in the Bay of Bengal to be suspended from 14 September to 2 October, apart from brief periods on 22-23 September and 1 October. An average of one Japanese battlecruiser, four armoured cruisers, four light cruisers and two armed merchant cruisers were searching for Emden at any one time.[25] The final word on Müller and Emden should go to the German Official History:

‘Müller delivered his blows where they would have the greatest political and economic effect. His sudden appearance and disappearance at the scene of operations and a correct appreciation of the enemy’s counter moves enabled him not only to achieve success in each individual operation, but also to render his capture difficult. It was not luck, but the capacity for forming an accurate estimate of the situation from the scanty information obtainable from prizes and intercepted wireless, that were responsible for his achievements in spite of all the enemy’s endeavours to catch him. Far from keeping to any fixed scheme, Captain Von Müller instantly dropped a predetermined course of action when circumstances rendered a change of plan desirable.’[26]

[1] Technical details of warships are from R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985). unless otherwise stated. [2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical)  Review of German Cruiser Warfare 1914-1918. p. 4. [3] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 74. [4] Gray, Conway’s 1906-1921, p. 157; R. K. Lochner, The Last Gentleman-of-War : The Raider Exploits of the Cruiser Emden, trans., T. Lindauer, H. Lindauer (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988), p. 307.,  where the coal consumption is stated to be 60 tons a day at 12 knots. An alternative of 48 tons a day is given on p. 16, but the higher figure is the same as used by Gray. [5] German Cruiser Warfare. p. 7. [6] Lochner, Last Gentleman, p. 73. [7] C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade., 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1920). vol. i, p. 207. [8] Ibid., pp. 209-11. [9] Ibid., p. 213. [10] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 334. [11] See Wikipedia entry linked to ship’s name in text above. <<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_cruiser_Zhemchug>&gt;. Accessed 10 November 2014. [12] P. H. Silverstone, Directory of the World’s Capital Ships (London: Ian Allan, 1984), p. 182. [13] UK National Archives, Kew, ADM 137/10221, ‘S.M.S. Emden: Later Papers’. ‘Account by Officer ex S.M.S. EMDEN of SYDNEY-EMDEN Action 9/11/14’, p. 272 says the landing party was 53 men, with a total of about 60 including boat crews; Lochner, Last Gentleman. says 50, p. 213. [14] ADM 137/1021, p. 273. [15] 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. 195. [16] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, p. 382. [17] ADM 137/1021, p. 273. [18] Lochner, Last Gentleman, pp. 184-85. [19] Jose, R.A.N., pp. 200-1. [20] Ibid., pp. 188-89. [21] Lochner, Last Gentleman, pp. 279-80. [22] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval, p. 384. [23] Quoted in Lochner, Last Gentleman, p. 207. [24] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, p. 385. [25] German Cruiser Warfare. p. 8. [26] Quoted in Ibid.


Filed under War History

The Cruise of SMS Karlsruhe

In July 1914 the new German light cruiser SMS Karlsruhe was in the Caribbean in order to relieve SMS Dresden as the warship protecting German interests in Mexico, where a revolution was in progress. Her first task after the outbreak of war was to rendezvous with the liner Kronprinz Wilhelm in order to transfer guns, stores and men to her. The liner would then operate against Allied trade as an auxiliary cruiser.

At 11 am on 6 August the transfer had almost been completed when the British armoured cruiser HMS Suffolk appeared. The two German ships headed off; Suffolk pursued Karlsruhe, but was unable to catch the faster German ship. Kronprinz Wilhelm had received two 88mm guns, but only a third of the intended ammunition.

The high speed chase used up a lot of Karlsruhe’s coal, so her captain, Fregattenkapitän Erich Köhler, decided to head for Newport News in order to coal. However, at 8:30 pm in moonlight his ship spotted the British light cruiser HMS Bristol, which had already seen the German cruiser. An indecisive long range engagement followed, but Karlsruhe was out of sight by 10:30 pm.

Köhler was unable to get in touch with the supply ship Neckar, so decided to head for the Hamburg-Amerika line’s coal depot at St Thomas in the Virgin Islands. However, Karlsruhe did not have enough coal to get there, so diverted to Puerto Rico, narrowly missing the British armoured cruiser HMS Berwick during the night. She reached Puerto Rico with her bunkers almost empty.[1]

The US authorities allowed Karlsruhe to coal, but only 800 tons were available. Köhler, concerned that his ship was being pursued by more powerful British ships, accepted what was available before sailing to the Dutch island of Curacoa for more coal.

Once Karlsruhe’s coal bunkers were full, Köhler headed for the north east coast of Brazil, which he correctly anticipated would be a safer and more lucrative area for commerce raiding. He joined up with the supply ship Patagonia en route.

Karlsruhe began operations off Brazil on 30 August. She was able to coal five times from supplies obtained from neutral ports by her supply ships or captured from British ships. She always coaled off Lavadeira Reef, which Köhler ‘considered the only suitable anchorage in that area.’[2]

Karlsruhe captured 16 British merchantmen plus one Dutch ship that was carrying a British cargo with a total tonnage of 76,609 tons. Their value was estimated by British insurers as being well in excess of £1 million.[3]

She retained some as supply ships, scuttling the rest. The large number of prisoners taken became a problem, so on 18 October the supply ship Crefeld was sent to neutral Tenerife with 419 prisoners. The British Official History of Seaborne Trade during the war comments that some of the prisoners later complained about their treatment, ‘but it is generally admitted that the Germans did as well as was possible in the circumstances.’[4]

The Crefeld was due to reach Tenerife on 22 October. The prisoners would probably report Karlsruhe’s coaling base, and she had been observed by neutral ships, so Köhler decided to leave the Brazilian coast on 24 October and return to the West Indies. He intended to attack Barbados, destroying shipping in its harbour and interrupting British trade communications in the Caribbean.[5]

Karlsruhe made the last and largest of her 17 captures on the way, the 10,328 ton liner Vandyck on 26 October. She carried 200 passengers and a large amount of stores. Late the same day, Karlsruhe stopped the British merchantman Royal Sceptre, but released her after her master persuaded the boarding officer, falsely, that her cargo was neutral.

On 4 November Karlsruhe suffered an accidental internal explosion. 262 of her crew, including Köhler, were killed, but other 146 were rescued by two of her supply ships. One of these, the Hoffnung, formerly the British Indrani, was then scuttled. The survivors managed to get back to Germany a month later via Norway on the other, the Rio Negro.

Karlsruhe was the second most successful of the five German light cruisers employed as commerce raiders, after SMS Emden. At least 26 cruisers and armed merchant cruisers took part in the search for her at different times. There were 12 cruisers and 3 armed merchant cruisers looking for her at the end of August.[6]

The British learnt of her move away from Brazil when the prisoners from Vandyck and other prizes reached port on 2 November. However, they knew nothing of her destruction, so continued to search for her for some time. The battlecruiser HMS Princess Royal joined the search in mid-December, and reports about Karlsruhe’s alleged movements continued to be received during February and March 1915.

Kronprinz Wilhelm took 15 prizes, with a total tonnage of 60,522 tons, before 11 April 1915, when the poor state both the ship and her crew’s health forced her to enter Hampton Roads, where she was interned. She was comfortably the most successful of the five German merchant ships commissioned as commerce raiders in 1914.[7]

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) ‘Review of German Cruiser Warfare 1914-1918’, p. 10. says that it was estimated that 4 tons would be left; J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 50, says 12 tons were left.

[2] German Cruiser Warfare, pp. 1, 10.

[3] C. E. Fayle, Seaborne Trade, 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1920). vol. i, p. 331.

[4] Ibid. p. 261, footnote 1.

[5] Ibid., p. 330.

[6] German Cruiser Warfare, p. 12.

[7] Ibid., pp. 1, 12.


Filed under War History

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.




Filed under War History

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.


Filed under War History