Grief and HMS Alcantara

May 11, 2010

Sir, when I sent the information on my grandfather who was lost on the Alcantara, I omitted to include my email
address it is.  

James Watt.


Here are some details about the fight between the German Armed Raider Grief and HMS Alcantara.

If you give me the full name again of your Grandfather please. I will try to find him for you on the  Commonwealth War Graves Commission site.

Marauders of the Sea, German Armed Merchant Raiders During World War I Greif.Only operational from the 23rd. of January to the 29th. of February 1916, and in that time managed to claim but one vessel of 15,831 tons.Launched as Guben on the 29th. of July 1914, this cargo ship of just on 5, 000 tons had a service speed of 13 knots.

      At the commencement of 1916, Grief was pressed into
Naval service and sailed for Kiel for a dockyard
conversion into an Armed Merchant Ship.

      Built with two funnels, quite unusual in a tramp
steamer, the second funnel was removed, and 4 by
15cm. guns were added, two on the upper deck between
her bridge and foremast, and two more, one on each
beam before her mainmast.

      A further single 10.5cm. was hidden in a gunhouse on
the after deck, and two torpedo tubes were also
added. She thus became a quite formidible weapon if
met on the trade routes by an unsuspecting Allied
ship sailing alone, unprotected by the strength of a
convoy and its associated escorts.

      Grief moved on the 25th.of February 1916 from Kiel
to Hamburg, then sailed two days later moving out
into the North Sea.

      Poor weather obtained, mist and snow flurries being
severe enough for the accompanying Submarine U-70 to
lose contact with her charge. This U-Boat reported
seeing a British Submarine which appears to have
reported Grief's position to the British Admiralty.

      Admiral Jellicoe on the 28th of February at 2338
(11.38 PM) sailed light cruisers Cordelia and
Inconstant with four attendant Destroyers from
Rosyth in Scotland. Three more cruisers, Calliope,
Comus, and Blanche with a further three Destroyers
sortied out of the fleet base at Scapa Flow to back
up the Armed Merchant Cruisers of the 10th. Cruiser

      Sister ships owned by the Royal Mail Steamship
Packet Company, Andes (15,620 tons) and Alcantara
(15,831 tons) had joined the Royal Navy in April of
1915, each were fitted with 8 by 6 inch guns, plus 2
pounders, and had a speed of 17 knots, which was
adequate to outrun any freighter or cargo vessel
they were likely to encounter on the high seas.

      At 0845 (8.45 AM) on the last day of February (1916
was a leap year) lookouts in Alcantara reported
smoke on the port beam.

      In both world wars at sea, it was the sighting of
smoke in the distance, that so often alerted an
enemy (on both sides of the conflict) to the
presence of a single ship, or even ships in convoy.
The making of smoke was to be avoided at all costs,
and many a Captain on his bridge of a merchant ship
or a warship, would become most upset at its
appearance from the funnel of his command, and then
vent his wrath on the engine room department in
general and on his chief engineer in particular.

      Andes now reported sighting a black painted ship
with 2 masts and a black funnel. Alcantara was
closer and Captain Thomas Wardle increased speed to
bring his ship between Andes and this suspicious
looking vessel, as he closed Greif, two large
Norwegian flags,and RENA and TONSBERG could be made
out on the ship's side. Greif trurned away to the
north east, Wardle now hoisted the signal to stop
instantly, MN. and fired two blank rounds to
reinforce his order.

      Greif now hove to, and signalled she was sailing out
of Trondheim and was bound for Rio de Janiro and La

      At 0940 (9.40 AM) when the Armed Merchant Cruiser
was preparing to lower a boat to send over a
boarding party, Greif suddenly declared her intent,
dropped the gunhouse around her poop gun, opened
fire, and at a range of only 800 yards, her first
shell striking home on Alcantara's bridge, wrecked
it, and destroyed the engine room telegraph and
communications equipment. (Captain Wardle had made
the fatal mistake of bringing his ship too close,
instead of standing off at a safe distance until
this ship could be properly identified.) Now
unmasking her other guns, the German Raider poured
shells into Alcantara, destroying boats and her
steering gear.

      At last Alcantara came to life, increasing speed,
trying to block Greif from making for the Norwegian
coastline, her port after 6 inch gun with its first
shell scored a bull's eye on Greif's poop gun,
putting it out of action, and killing most of this
gun's crew.

      The sound of this action brought Andes, some 5 miles
away, scurring back to assist her shipmate.

      Opening fire from a range of 3 miles, Andes landed a
direct hit on  Greif's bridge which wrecked her
steering gear.

      Meantime, Greif and Alcantara were engaged in an old
fashioned, close range slug fest, with each ship
gaining repeated hits upon the other ship's

      The Raider's port forward 15cm. gun was knocked out,
her fuel tanks were set alight, and a third shell
penetrated her hull to explode in the engine room.

      Aboard Alcantara, a torpedo from Greif struck
amidships, and a second torpedo passed under her
stern. But Greif was mortally wounded, she was under
fire from both British Armed Merchant Cruisers, and,
she ceased fire at 1018 (10.18 AM) and four minutes
later, boats were seen to be pulling away from the
blazing wreck.

      The German Captain was escaping down a rope ladder
over his ship's port quarter when a fragment from
one of Alcantara's shells decapitated him. Meantime,
Alcantara listing to port, also appeared doomed, and
Captain Wardle ordered his company to abandon ship
at 1045. (10.45 AM)

      By 1102 (11.02 AM) the British ship had slipped
beneath the surface of the ocean and was gone, 72
men being lost. They had paid the price for their
Captain's indescretion of closing too close to an
unknown vessel, before it was really identified.

      This lesson had still not been properly learned in
WW2, the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney, in
November 1941, off the west coast of Western
Australia ran into the German Armed Merchant Ship,
Kormoran, steamed too close, and was mortally
wounded by the German ship. Sydney was last observed
steaming away into the distance, on fire. She was
never seen again, going down somewhere in the Indian
Ocean with her entire company lost. To this day, her
final resting place is still not known. Komoran also
sank, but many of her crew survived to land on
Australia's western coastline, and be rescued. 

      Greif was still afloat, when the Cruiser Comus
arrived on the scene with the Destroyer Munster, and
Comus proceeded to finish off the German ship, and
she finally sank by the stern at 1301 (1.01 PM) with
her German Ensign still flying defiantly. It would
seem that about 187 of Greif's crew perished, whilst
Captain Wardle, his remaining crew, 120 Germans
including 5 of their Officers were rescued from the
sea by Andes and Munster.

      This classic battle between Greif and Alcantara had
indeed resulted in "an eye for an eye" as yet one
more German Raider lived to have but a very short

      Thanks to Patricia Jones for this report from Yeoman
of Signals Frank Coombes, O.N. 205280
      Friday, 21 November 2008

        Dear Sir

        I have been interested to read your correspondence
about the battle between Alcantara and Grief in
the North Sea. My grandfather, Yeoman of Signals
Frank Coombes, O.N. 205280, was mentioned in
despatches as a result of his actions that
day.(see supplement to London Gazette 14 July
1916). He wasn't one of the wounded. I must tell
you the story he told my husband and myself in
1967. My husband (a journalist) took it down in
shorthand as he said it:

          "Alcantara was a Portsmouth-manned ship. She
went into action against the German raider
Grief. Both vessels were sunk ....a great duel
was fought in the North Sea. Alcantara was
formerly a liner of 15,800 tons and was
operating as an auxilliary cruiser. I was a
Yeoman of the Signals on the bridge.  One of the
signalmen spotted her (the Greif).  I looked at
her through the telescope on the bridge. I
didn't know what it was. She was flying the
Norwegian flag and had the Norwegian flag
painted on her side. We made a signal to her to
stop. She replied: I am stopping my engines to
adjust my machinery. She said she had come from
Rio de Janeiro. But she had stopped to adjust
her gunnery. The captain told the officer of the
watch to man a board boat and he was sending a
boarding party aboard. As the boarding party was
being loaded over the side - she was about 300
yards away - she opened her gun ports...guns
came out...7in guns...first salvo hit us and
blew one of our guns over like a shuttlecock.
Alcantara fired back...one of the first salvos
hit the Grief's magazine...she went up but as
she went up she fired three torpedoes and all
three hit the Alcantara.  She went over and
order was given to abandon ship. I was three
hours in the sea - floating ice ahead of me -
bobbing about."

        He was extremely guarded while telling us about
this, as though he might be in trouble for
revealing too much, even though he was in his
mid-eighties. He joined the Navy at 17 - had been
a fishmonger in the Isle of Wight - and served on
about 30 ships. He won the Rumanian Distinguished
Conduct medal and was at the Boxer Rebellion on
HMS Glory, and whenever we took him out in the car
and he spotted a Chinese restaurant he would
mutter "blessied Chinese".

        Hope this might be of interest to you and others.

        Patricia Jones

      Thanks to Chris Cooper for this report from Captain
Wardle, HMS Alcantara:

        Report by Captain Wardle, HMS Alcantara.
        Copied from a file held at the National Archives,
Kew, London.

        1st March 1916


        I have the honour to report that on Tuesday 29th
February, at 9 A.M. I was in approximate position
61 - 45.N. O.58.E, having ordered H.M.S. "Andes"
to rendezvous with me in 61.50.N, 1.O.E, to
transfer secret papers.

        At 8.55.A.M smoke was reported on the port beam,
bearing N.75.W (true), and almost at the same time
a signal was received from "Andes" stating enemy
in sight, steering N.E., 15 knots, - and also
another signal describing her - which I read as
stating she had two funnels.

        I at once increased to full speed and steered for
the smoke.

        At 9.10 A.M. I sighted "Andes", hull down bearing
N. (true), and steering N.E. (true).

        At 9.15 being about 6000 yard off stranger I
hoisted M.N. and fired two rounds of blank.

        The stranger at once stopped and made a signal "I
am stopped"

        She then hoisted her number M.G.VI which was not
in my copy of "Signal letters of ships of all

        The ship's company were at action stations and the
guns were kept on the stranger.

        About this time, 9.20. A.M., a signal was received
from "Andes" "Enemy has altered course to S.E.",
and I saw that "Andes" had also altered to S. E.
and apparently reduced speed. She was thus closing

        When 4,000 off the stranger I altered course to
port to keep this distance off while signalling

        It could then be seen that she was flying
Norwegian colours, and had Norwegian flags painted
on her side with the name "RENA".

        I then signalled to "Andes" by search light "Am
intercepting suspicious vessel, is enemy still in
sight". To this no reply was made.

        In response to my signals the stranger signalled
that she was from Rio de Janeiro to Trondghem.

        These particulars, her size and course, all agreed
with Lloyds confidential list of ships.

        Getting no reply from "Andes", I determined to put
an armed guard on board stranger, who appeared
quite normal, and then to proceed to help "Andes"
with the enemy, as smoke had been sighted S.S.E.

        While getting the guard ready, I reduced to 14
knots, and kept clear of stranger's stern.

        At 9.35, "Andes" signalled "That is the suspicious

        At 9.40, the boat was being swung out, and I was
closing stranger on the port quarter when I
noticed her ensign staff drop over the stern, and
men clearing away a gun on the poop.

        At the same moment stranger fired a shell at our
bridge, which put the tellmotor steering gear,
engine room telegraph, and all telephones on the
bridge out of action, besides killing and wounding

        The flaps with flags on her sides were let down,
and she fought under no flag.

        I at once gave the order full speed, and open
fire. Range 2000 yards.

        A messenger was sent aft to order the after
steering gear to be connected up, and all further
steering was done from the after control.

        The enemy at once went ahead and turned to
starboard, firing high explosive shell, some of
them very short, but several hits were made near
the water line amidships, penetrating the No. 1
stokehold bunkers which were half empty, and the
engine room.

        At 10.2., the enemy fired a torpedo which passed
under our stern, starboard helm being used to
avert it.

        The first round from our after 6" - port, hit the
ammunition of the after gun of enemy and put it
out of action.

        The German prisoners state that our third salvo
all hit the enemy.

        At 10.15 enemy was badly on fire by the bridge,
range 5,500 yards. And she apparently stopped.

        At 10.22 boats were noticed leaving the enemy who
was enveloped in a cloud of smoke.

        I ordered cease firing. H. M. Ship was beginning
to list to starboard, and then suddenly listed to

        The smoke cleared from enemy, and she fired one
more round.

        I then ordered open fire, but at 10.35 H. M. Ship
was listing badly to port and sinking. I therefore
gave the order, Cease firing, boat stations, stop
engines. The order to stop engines never reached,
but they apparently stopped themselves, when the
water rose.

        Every effort was made to get the boats out and
save wounded, but several falls had been shot
through, and men were precipitated into the water.
- H. M. Ship was making about 3 knots through the
water with the helm apparently hard a starboard,
but the ship turning to starboard.

        At 11.2. H. M. Ship sank.

        At least 15 boats and a large raft floated clear.

        H.M.S. "Comus" and "Munster" were rapidly coming
up, "Munster" commenced saving life , while
"Comus" proceeded to "Andes" who all the time had
apparently been about 8,000 yards off, and
reopened fire on the enemy, which was still
burning furiously.

        I am of opinion that enemy was completely
abandoned by 10.30, and that the round fired
afterwards was due to a heated gun. The statements
of prisoners bear this out.

        A wireless message was received from "Comus", but
the decoded message never reached the bridge, and
I was therefore unaware that help was on its way.

        I have the honour to report that the officers and
men of H. M. Ship fought with great gallantry, and
that no one left their stations until ordered to,
and I personally witnessed cases of men assisting
wounded at great risk.

        A full report will be submitted later.

        The exact times will probably require revision
when investigated. Those quoted are given from
memory of the Navigating Lieutenant, who used a
stop watch, but whose note book was lost while in
the water.

        I have the honour to be,
        Your Obedient Servant,


        The Commander-in Chief
        H.M. Ships and Vessels.
        Grand Fleet.

        Best regards.


back to letters index


This site was created as a resource for educational use and the promotion of historical awareness. All rights of publicity of the individuals named herein are expressly reserved, and, should be respected consistent with the reverence in which this memorial site was established.

Copyright© 1984/2014 Mackenzie J. Gregory All rights reserved